Friday, 26 March 2010

I always knew my mortal enemy was out there, waiting for the moment to emerge as my nemesis. And now I have met him: he works in the internet/photocopying place on Carrer dels Canvis Vells.  

Like any city where there are lots of tourists, Barcelona has a lot of rip-off merchants. Go into the Carrefour supermarket on La Rambla and you’re likely to see a bloke carrying as many frozen pizzas as he can carry: dine in a restaurant on the same street, and you can eat one of those pizzas for €12 or more.

The man in the internet shop is a thieving scoundrel of a different order, a black-hearted scumbag of pure evil. His racket involves writing his prices on a tiny sign at knee level, at the back of the shop where you can’t see it, then being on the phone when you try to talk to him.
Oh, he’ll cheerfully print your document, but then, like Satan, he’ll ask his terrible price: THIRTY-FIVE CENTS A PAGE. Is it printed on sheets of platinum, you may ask, or the canvases of Renaissance paintings? Is the ink distilled from the venom of some rare desert spider? “Printed already,” he said, unable or unwilling to engage me in Spanish, “good paper. Printed. You pay, eight forty.”

Unlike the poor diners of La Rambla, I was not content to munch upon my supermarket pizza. I refused to pay more than twenty-five cents a sheet (and even that, I informed him, was daylight robbery). The miscreant’s reaction was to issue a threat: “Okay. You will not pay it now,” he snarled, “but you will pay for it. Later in life, you will pay.”

And so it begins. The carefree days of my youth are behind me, and my life is now a mortal battle between me and the man from the photocopying shop. Each time I walk down a dark alley, I will sniff the air warily for the whiff of copying toner, and my nights will be sleepless for the imagined rustle of Post-its. I will not dare to enter a branch of Rymans unarmed. How long before I am wounded in a stapling ‘accident’, before I lose a thumb to a dangerous biro? If anything should happen to me, at least my readers will know: it was him. It was the bloke in RJA & Sons Telecom.

 Leave anything lying around in Barcelona, someone'll paint something on it

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't read Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind and you don't want to know what happens, DO NOT read this blog entry. 

One of the nice things about living in Spain is reading books that are set here, as it's exciting when you recognise the streets and the landmarks described; it makes the book feel more personal somehow. Before coming to Barcelona, my friend, Fiona, lent me The Shadow of the Wind, an epic page-turner set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War. Will and I drove into the city on 26 September last year, and while he sweated over the terrifying traffic, I was gazing up at Mount Tibidabo which I instantly recognised from Zafon's descriptions.

A couple of months into our stay here, Will had started reading the novel and one evening, we decided to walk over to the church on Carrer de Santa Ana which the book's protagonist, Daniel Sempere, lives next to.

"Oh, that's the streetlight where Daniel sees the man with the burnt face," Will observed as we headed back towards Portal de l'Angel.

"Yes, Julian Carax!", I blurted.

Oops. Will hadn't got to the bit of the story where the man's identity had been revealed, so I'd ruined the entire novel for him which he won't let me forget in a hurry. Will is now reading another book I've already read: The Woman in White (just to clarify, it's set in England not in Spain), so I'm currently living in fear that I'll reveal all whether it be in my sleep or after a vodka drinking binge.

So yes, it's lovely reading books about Spain but only if you don't have a loose-lipped girlfriend who tells you what happens at the end.

Caterpillar plant, Parc del Garraf

Friday, 19 March 2010

Week 25

A significant feature in my daily routine here in Barcelona is the Mercat St Josep, or La Boqueria. I know we’ve mentioned this market a few times before, but it’s where we get most of our food, and when you move abroad it’s important to go on about how wonderful it is buying fresh ingredients from a market stall, and how sorry you feel for all the idiots trudging around supermarkets back home, so that you can forget about how you haven’t got any money or friends or central heating and there isn’t a proper pub within a thousand miles.
        La Boqueria is also a big tourist destination, and while most people want a picture of the great stacks of fruit and veg or the weird and wonderful creatures on sale at the fish stalls, the offal stalls are also a draw. Here, there’s a wide variety of animals’ bits on sale: hearts, lungs, kidneys, heads, cakes of pressed blood and whole livers, surprisingly massive, hanging from shiny hooks and drawing horrified gasps from some (typically American and British) onlookers.
    It’s a classic case of ‘one man’s meat’ – there are things are eaten by these very people that would turn the stomach of a Spanish butcher. Chicken nuggets, for example, which are made from the eyes, brains, reproductive organs, skin, feathers and faeces of chickens, beefed up with maltodextrin and water (and beef extract, for flavour). By the time the mashed skin and faeces have been salted and fried, they taste okay – like something that has been salted and fried. They are even shaped to look like chicken wings or drumsticks, giving you a strange, rubbery, boneless imitation of what was once normal human food, at a fraction of the cost (to the manufacturer, that is: if you can get people to pay you to eat turds, you’re hardly going to pass the saving on to your customers). But if you find meat and offal to be disgusting, what else are you going to do? You can either inure yourself to the icky meat, or you can be a vegetarian, or you can eat chicken nuggets – which, as I may have mentioned, are made out of shit.
    On the other hand, it could be that the Spanish butchers are a little too relaxed about plunging their gloveless hands into piles of carnage: normally when paying at the carniceria, I get my change handed back with an added smearing of meaty goodness. If I’ve been buying mince, any bank note the butcher hands me will have a few little chunks stuck to it. I then have to try to remember which hand is covered with meat-germs, and try not to let it enter a pocket (or, worse still, a nostril) until I get home. Usually I forget, and end up affectionately stroking Christina’s hair while thinking oops, that’s the beefy hand, but it still beats going to Tesco.

Montgat, a town 15km up the coast from Barcelona, where quite a number of cats live on the beach in some sort of cat hippy community

I have always harboured notions of being an air hostess. I like the idea of being perfectly made-up, smiling a lot and offering beverages and perfumes to holiday-makers. The only thing holding me back is that I'm absolutely petrified of flying. As I write this, I'm 40,000 feet in the air and my pen keeps slipping out of my sweaty hand.

I'd never set foot on a plane until I was 18 and until that point, I thought flying was a very glamorous mode of transport. These suspicions were only confirmed many years ago when one of my siblings - who had gone with dad to collect mum from Stansted - reported seeing Pat Butcher at the airport. Pat Butcher! Off Eastenders! Off the telly! A place of glamour, indeed.

But it seems the more I fly, the more terrified I become. As I board the plane, I sniff the air for signs of burning engines and I try to get a good look at the pilot and co-pilot. Are they drunk? Have they had enough sleep? Do they look capable of getting us to our destination safely? As the plane taxis towards the runway for take-off, my stomach lurches. Is it too late to get off the plane now? Yes, it's probably too late. Here I must sit for two hours with my entire body tensed like a Christmas cracker waiting to be pulled. Can't we just stay on the ground? The plane has wheels, we can just drive there. Why has no one thought of this before? I'm not sure what we'll do when we get to the English Channel, but we'll sort something out. Have the cabin crew closed the doors properly? What if they haven't closed them properly and we all fall out of the sky? Oh God!

It's because of this reasoning that Will drove us to Barcelona. We pretend that it's because we wanted the adventure of driving through France, but we both know the real reason: flying reduces both of us to a pale-faced, jibbering mess.

Anyway, I have to stop writing now. The plane has jolted slightly and we're probably all doomed. I'd rather be anywhere other than here right now. Even if Pat Butcher was sitting next to me.   

Friday, 12 March 2010

Week 24

Some pleasures in life are best enjoyed alone: listening to a Richard Marx album, for example. Similarly, I've developed a Dunkin' Donut addiction which I've been hiding from Will. From Monday to Thursday evenings, I babysit four Spanish children and on my way there, I often steal into the Las Ramblas branch of Dunkin', select their most fattening, chocolatey offering, squirrel it into Liceu Metro station, where I sit at the platform, often letting a train go by so I can snaffle away in peace.

I've been furtive about this because Will and I are trying to be healthy since we've become one of those couples who've moved in together and developed portly eating habits such as eating a whole wedge of cheese after dinner. I also realise I should probably be buying dried apricots and pulses from the market instead of giving money to fast food giants like Dunkin' and McDonalds. 

Aah, McDonalds. On New Year's Day, I had a raging hangover and nothing else would do but a Bic Mac with all the trimmings. I found myself alone in the flat as Will and our guests had gone for a walk. It was the perfect opportunity to sneak down to Portal D'Angel's branch and bring my meal back to the flat for an undisturbed meat-fest. I had just bitten into the first delicious chip when the doorbell went. I sighed, put down my chip and answered the door. To three vegetarians. Had they been sent by the Locally-Produced-Organic-Additive-Free-Foods-Watchdog to lecture me on the evils of Ronald McDonalds' stinking beef empire? Thankfully no, it was just my friends who were staying in hotel down the road. That said, there are many ways to enjoy a Bic Mac meal but under the watchful gaze of three veggies is not one of them.

Still, at almost 7 Euro for a Big Mac meal over here, it's not exactly cheap dining. You're better off going for one of Barcelona's menus del dia (menus of the day); they're a real bargain and you can get a decent, three-course lunch with a drink, sometimes for as little as 7.50 Euro. I think I'll keep my doughnut habit though, you've got to have some vices.

A pocket for poo-bags gives this coat an extra touch of chic

We returned, a couple of weeks ago, from a day out in the Catalan countryside to find that the only free parking space remaining in Barcelona had turned from white (the colour of free parking) to green (the colour of envy, and parking fines). An hour later, we pulled into a desolate-looking patch of ground overlooking Mar Bella beach, to the north of the city centre.
“Is this fine? I don’t know if this is fine.”

“It should be alright. None of these other people have parking tickets.”

"Maybe they live here. Is that rusty lamp-post going to fall onto the car? It's probably fine."

And there it has stayed. I feel a strong sense of guilt about my car, parked some 4 miles from our flat. This is the workhorse that carried Christina and I around France on our way here, moved us into our flat, and has taken us on a number of nice trips since then. It has put up with Christina’s use of the side door pocket as a rubbish bin, her refusal to admit that the sat-nav is better with a map than she is, and her incessant complaining and messing about with the radio. Every time Christina, who cannot drive, has said “Will, those traffic lights are red, you’d better stop”, the car has held its tongue, and every time she has waited until we are just a fraction of a second past the turn-off before saying “that one!”, it has patiently waited for the next turn-off before turning around. The car is a trooper.

In fact, I was just thinking about how reliable the Vauxhall Astra is the other day, as I was jogging along the beach, on my way to check up on it and run the engine for a bit. Which is probably why the bastard wouldn’t start. Still, at least it’s got a sea view.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Week 23

Firstly, an apology to anyone who was taken the time to look at our blog recently and been disappointed: we’ve dropped the ball lately. I promise to resume normal service as of this Friday.

Regular readers will be pleased to hear that I am not a racist any more. I have been listening to a lot of Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, and Hitler absolutely wouldn’t have liked them, so I’m back in the multicultural game. As an immigrant myself, I was never going to be all that successful with the politics of the far right.

That having been said, I wonder what Hitler would have made of my recent purchase of a copy of the Sunday Express. Much like the F├╝hrer, both the mid-market papers in the UK (that’s the Daily Express and the Daily Mail) are strongly critical of immigration, regularly portraying migrants from Eastern Europe as a threat to the British way of life. Interestingly, however, these two papers are also the only British papers printed in Spain, as they have a market in the large British communities on the Mediterranean coast. Of course, Brits over here are ‘ex-patriots’, not ‘immigrants’, and they have done nothing wrong moving to a new country to enjoy a better quality of life and cushy free health care (the last WHO ranking, in 2000, placed Spain’s health system at 7th in the world, and Britain’s at 18th).

Politics aside, my furtive leafing through the papers at the tabac has uncovered only one with a cryptic crossword – the Sunday Express. At €1.90, it’s also a lot cheaper than the broadsheets, which cost around €4. Before you begin spitting with rage at your screen at the thought of my giving money to the noted pornographer Richard Desmond, who owns the Express along with TV channels like Red Hot Only 18 and Erotika, let’s take a look at that crossword:

Charming foreigner holds object (6). P---T-

A Pole, a charming foreigner? Can it be that the Express’s crossword setter is sneaking cleverly coded liberal messages into that conservative organ? 

Spectators at the marathon on Sunday

I had been intending to write all about how spring has sprung in Barcelona, how the blossom is on the trees, how the days are getting longer, warmer and sunnier - all of which was true until the temperature plummeted and it began snowing heavily earlier today. Will and I have just ventured outside, thinking it would be all magical and festive but the reality is, it's bone-chillingly cold, Christmas was months ago and the ground is like a slushy bathroom floor after someone's had a shower and not closed the shower curtain properly. 

However, this latest meteorological development allows me to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes: discussing the weather. It doesn't matter how much tapas I eat or how good I get at rolling my 'Rs', because I will always have that innate British ability to twitter on about how sunny/windy/hot/cold/muggy/foggy/snowy it is. I check the daily forecast with the kind of anticipation that other people might reserve for checking their lottery numbers and I love to deliver a weather report to Will every morning, whether he likes it or not.

Last Sunday was beautiful, so Will and I took the car out to the Parc Natural del Garraf, a great chunk of wild-looking, mountainous countryside which lies 30km south-west of Barcelona and feels a million miles away from the bustle of the city. It offers sweeping views of the coastline and there are plenty of walking opportunities; on our two-hour hike, we saw nobody else but a couple having a picnic and we heard nothing but the far-off hum of a tractor.

It's times like these when the difference between mine and Will's childhoods becomes apparent: he's a country boy who can identify herbs and trees, while and I'm a suburban type who's better at identifying the best London Underground route from Woodford to Brixton. When Will suggested we forget about the path, cross over some fields and go off the beaten track, I was aghast. But we'll get eaten by cows or shot at by a farmer! I thought in a panic. Luckily, I was saved by a sign telling us that the fields were private property. Ha, country boy! We're sticking to the nice, official path for right-thinking people and there's nothing you can do about it.

 Sunny Barcelona. How we laughed