Friday, 30 April 2010

Week 31

I have always had a pretty low opinion of coach drivers. They are the losers of the HGV fraternity: not man enough to drive a lorry, not free-spirited enough to take to the open road as a trucker. But now, they have gone too far.

As we approached the car park, it was immediately clear that we would not be spending Sunday at the beach. Where once the Astra had stood alone, surveying the sea like a green sage, row upon row of coaches waited, their fat, sweaty pilots staring dumbly into the middle distance. The car was gone – but, thankfully, not far. It had been towed, along with all the other cars in the car park, to a scrap of waste ground on the other side of the road. Like every other car that had been relocated to make way for the vehicles of men who lack the social skills to drive a bus, it had been broken into.

Calm yourselves – calm. I know you want to find a coach driver, to physically slap him, to shout at his incomprehending face “why couldn’t you have parked your big stupid fridge of a vehicle over there, you fat berk? What was the point of moving everyone else's cars to an unlit car park, just so you could all park together?”, but it would be the futile. You would be Ahab, the tragic hero lambasting the great white whale, for nothing. No – we must rebuild.

Happily, this should be fairly straightforward. For one thing, the thieves broke the smallest pane of glass in the car, the quarter glass. Having found a more suitable parking spot, I spent Monday afternoon fashioning a new window for the Astra, from a piece of wood. This morning, I took delivery of a second-hand replacement pane that I ordered from Rotherham, which is about as close as I plan to get to ever going to Rotherham, so I have been spared the terrifying expense of visiting a mechanic as a foreigner.

Best of all, the thieves only escaped with one thing – my sat-nav. This device has been known to lead me up to sixty miles in the wrong direction, and was once unable to find the city of Leeds. They won’t get far.

"Ooh, you have a wooden window? I've been saving up for one of those for my Porsche."

Following on from Will's rant last week against Barcelona's alternative types, we found ourselves in a swarm of them on Saturday afternoon when we happened upon La Fira de la Tierra (the Earth Fair) in Barcelona's Parc de la Ciutadella.

There was a pop-up north African cafe where we enjoyed some mint tea in the sunshine, there were drums being beaten with a passion, digeridoos being played, colourful trousers billowing in the breeze, stalls selling organic beer and wheat-free cupcakes, a meditation tent - you get the idea. We passed an area where people were lying on the ground, being massaged by barefooted masseurs.

"Ooh, that looks really nice," I said, contemplating getting in the queue. 

"It looks bloody disgusting," Will spat. "I can't think of anything worse than being pummelled by some man's hairy foot." 

We pressed on. I was enjoying the laidback, happy, hippy atmosphere until we came to a stall promoting an all-natural, eco-friendly birthing method. At least, I think that's what it was. I can't be sure because I was too horrified by the promotional photographs, depicting a woman in the throes of having a baby, with everything on show, the husband weeping with joy (fear?) in the background. Why, oh why, would you let anyone take pictures of you in this state, let alone allow them to be displayed at a public festival? Far from making me think "okay, I'll pop one out without the help of drugs" this has only served to put me off having children indefinitely. So I'm sorry mum, but there'll be no grandchildren from me. 

P.S. You may have noticed we're running a General Election to see who'll be Prime Minister of our flat. I was enjoying a comfortable lead earlier this week, with five votes to Will's three. Someone has since changed their vote from me to Will. I will find out who you are. It shouldn't be too difficult considering a total of eight people have voted and most of them are probably members of my family.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Week 30

This week I had my first taste of pintxos, snacks on cocktail sticks which originate from the Basque region of northern Spain ('pintxo' means 'spike' in Euskara, the language of the Basque people). They usually come in the form of slices of bread topped with chorizo, ham or cheese, and the one I had was like an exotic sausage roll, if you can imagine such a thing. Pintxos are usually left on platters at the bar, you ask for a plate and then help yourself - a bit like a wedding buffet except you don't have to dance to Come on Eileen after stuffing yourself silly with chicken drumsticks.

The buffet concept is ideal for someone like me, someone who can't leave food alone if it's there. Will has started referring to me as a 'snaffler' because sharing a packet of Doritos turns into an extreme eating contest to see who can hoover up the most orangey crisps. But in my defence, I come from a big family. As fun as dinner times are when there's seven people around the table, there's always the underlying fear that if you take your eye off the potato for just a second, someone else will have it. Usually Dad. So eating takes on a competitive element and if you can leave the table having eaten everything on your plate - and ideally off someone else's - you're a winner.

This attitude is something that Will and I have always bonded over. Neither of us really likes sharing food which is handy when you're living in a country renowned for sociable dining. Whenever I've been for tapas here or at home, I pretend to enjoy the laid-back free-for-all but in reality, I'm compiling a mental spreadsheet of who's had what and if I don't get my fair share of patatas bravas then dinner is, quite frankly, ruined.

The grand hall of the Museu Nacional de Arte Catalan

I love Barcelona’s large population of alternative types. I enjoy the unusual haircuts, massive trousers and multiple piercings of this distinctive tribe. But while non-conformism is generally a positive thing, you can go too far, and that point comes when you start eating rice cakes.

Rice cakes, for those of you who don’t know, are circles of expanded polystyrene foam which have been impregnated with farts. When you crack one in half, the farts escape, and everyone in your home or office looks about and says “eurr, have you let one go? Who’s done a fart? Who’s – ohh, false alarm. It's Jenny, she’s having a rice cake.”

I observed a horrendous example in a bar the other night, while idly watching a couple over Christina’s shoulder. The man, if you could call him that, was a particularly strong example of someone who has gone too alternative. Not content with having bought some alternative-looking shoes, he had them up on the chair, in that self-conscious way that people lounge when they want to let everyone know that they’re alternative lounging types, and he was munching on some rice cakes he’d brought from home, presumably because the bar didn’t serve anything alternative enough. Even in a smoky Spanish bar, the farty whiff of rice cake was all too detectable. The two of them were just sitting around, talking – not drinking, like proper people – while their beers sat, half-empty and ignored, on the table. In half an hour, I never saw either of them take so much as a sip. For them, the bar was nothing more than a public place in which to consume rice cakes. 

Worse was to come. When the lady went off to the loo, the bloke started industriously picking his nose, rolling the bogeys up and dropping them on the sofa and the floor. Now, I’m not above a pick, we all do it. But on a public chair? Why don’t you just smear one on my arm, you disgusting beast?
          Then came the real nightmare: when his missus returned, the hand – the minging bogey hand – returned to the bag of rice cakes. He even offered her one – mmm! a snotty fart-cake! Yes please! Shaking with disgust, I could not help but watch as she munched away on her boyfriend’s nasal detritus. “We’re leaving,” I announced to Christina, the hot tears stinging my eyes as I choked back a throatful of vomit.

We returned to the same bar last night, but my apprehension was dispelled when I discovered that the Alternatives had moved on. They were replaced by a brown labrador in a neckerchief, with whom I spent a good part of the evening.

A bag of rice cakes can cost over a pound, but contains barely a few pennies' worth of rice. If you eat rice cakes, your breath will smell of farts.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Week 29

This week, a warning: cyber criminals are everywhere. Give them a chance, and they’ll gain access to your computer and invade your privacy. I found out the hard way when, this week, it happened to me.
            When you think of a cyber criminal you probably imagine a lone male, a geek turned to the dark side, surrounded by screens in a darkened room. You never suspect the enemy could be nearby, perhaps even in your own home.
           The warning signs were there all along. Every now and then, my ‘recent items’ would contain files I couldn’t remember opening. I’d leave my computer unattended for a while, and return to find subtle changes – things arranged differently, windows open or closed. In real life, I can sometimes leave a few clothes lying around, but in the digital realm I keep everything carefully arranged, and I can tell when someone’s been rooting around in there.
              Then, this week, the miscreant was unmasked. Returning from a trip to the bakery, I saw Christina exiting the spare room where I work. Her normal confident stride was replaced by the sort of guilty scuffle that a naughty spaniel adopts when it has been interrupted helping itself to some unattended leftovers. Glancing through the door, I noticed that my screen was on, indicating that it had been used within the last two minutes, and that my webmail was open.
“I haven’t been reading your email,” blurted Christina, “I haven’t, and anyway, if I had, then that’s completely normal and everyone does it. But I wasn’t.”

Clearly, any attempt at interrogation would have been pointless – I was dealing with a master criminal.

“I haven’t done it before,” she protested. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you? Please don’t tell anyone! You can’t prove anything!”
“No,” I sighed, “I can’t prove a thing. Your secret’s safe with me.”

Castellers – builders of human towers known as castells – on the Portal de l'Angel this morning
Celebrity spot of the week: Dev from Coronation Street on the Barcelona Metro! Don't worry, you haven't accidentally stumbled across Heat magazine; this is, indeed, Will y Christina Barcelona.

For those of you wondering who on earth I'm talking about, Dev is a character in a popular British TV programme who runs a corner shop and who looks like he's deposited an entire tub of hair gel onto his head.

Yet for some reason, I find him strangely attractive. In fact, Dev is just one in a long line of unlikely celebrity crushes I've had over the years. There's been David Brent, the excruciating, tie-fiddling boss in The Office, and smug football pundit Alan Handsome. I mean, Hansen.

One celebrity it is perfectly acceptable to fancy is Dominic West from The Wire, a show which Will and I have become unhealthily addicted to. While Will appreciates The Wire for the script-writing, the drama and the other brilliant characters, I'm in it for lusting after Jimmy McNulty, West's flawed but loveable cop.

At first, I didn't have a bloody clue what was going on. This wasn't helped by the fact that I'd fall asleep as soon as the opening credits had ended. I have mentioned before how I'm not really suited to late nights and TV has a soporific effect on me, anyway. We'd usually start watching an episode at midnight, so it was game over for me after the first 10 minutes. It also takes a while to get to grips with the dialogue but once you understand what a 're-up stash'* and a 'shit bird'** are, you're fine.

We have finished watching the first two seasons and this weekend my sister, Catherine, was supposed to be visiting and bringing us season three. However, that's been scuppered by the volcanic ash fiasco. Never mind the British couples who stare forlornly from the pages of the Daily Mail because they were supposed to be tying the knot in Barbados, I want my Dominic West fix!

* According to the Urban Dictionary, this is when drug dealers are running low and they replenish their supply.
** An annoying person.   

The people on the castell get smaller and lighter as they go up, with the very top person (known as the 'exaneta') being small child – in this case a girl of about five or six years old. The castell is a success when the exaneta holds up a hand with the fingers spread, and returns safely to the ground

Friday, 9 April 2010

Week 28

"Camping can be a real pleasure if you bring all the right stuff," Will told me a couple of weeks ago during a camping trip in which we brought a camping stove that had run out of gas (my fault, apparently) and a punctured inflatable mattress that was too big for our tent. The Baden-Powells - founders of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements - would have been disgusted.  

Our destination was Siurana which is about a three-hour drive south-west of Barcelona. Getting to the village and campsite involves driving up steep, twisting roads and you're rewarded at the top with stunning views of green valleys and sheer cliffs. The area is very popular with rock climbers - in fact, Will and I were the only people at the campsite who weren't wearing technical clothing (actually, my leopard-print top could well be moisture-wicking but I can't be sure).

Everything was going quite smoothly until it was time to cook dinner on the first evening. Will lit the stove and it sneezed a trickle of gas. It had run out. Will threw the lighter to the ground in a rage and we had to abandon sausage and lentils for dinner at the campsite cafe.

Bedtime brought more kerfuffle. To compensate for its inevitable deflation during the night, we over-pumped the punctured mattress. This meant that it took up most of the tent and I felt as claustrophobic as I would on a packed underground train. I needn't have worried. By morning, we were lying on flaccid plastic, our bones chilled by the cold, hard ground. Next, it was time to trudge from tent to the communal bathrooms. This is another thing that troubles me about camping: people - strangers - can see you first thing in the morning. It's bad enough that Will has to witness my morning mouth crust and unkempt hair but I hate that other campers can see this, too.    

But enough of my whingeing: Siurana is a beautiful, idyllic place, it's great if you like walking and the local wines and olive oil are highly recommended. Just make sure you bring the right camping equipment for added enjoyment.     

This is where you have to sit when you forget the camping gas

This week has been Cinema Week. Christina and I went to see Shutter Island on Monday, which I would recommend, although it's not as good as the other, amazing, Scorcese/DiCaprio film, The Departed. The film's confusing psycho-drama was added to by the Cinema Verdi's popcorn, which contains an hallucinogenic quantity of salt, and the fact that we turned up after it had started  – the films at the Verdi start at the time on the poster, not after 45 minutes of adverts, so we missed a couple of minutes. What happened in those minutes? Crucial plot developments? Or just a long shot from a helicopter flying over the sea? No idea.

On Tuesday, I went to a film club in a bar in El Raval. Here I met a bloke who was from Barcelona, but had moved to Swindon for a while a few years ago. Why anyone would move to Swindon from anywhere, let alone Barcelona, is beyond imagining, but he told me he moved because he'd been offered a sweet job in the events centre of a big hotel. In Swindon.
          "It was crazy," he told me, "just absolutely crazy." I bet it was.

The film on Tuesday was Mediterraneo, which is a film of the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but released two years before the book was published... about the same time it was being written, in fact. Still, it was funny and enjoyable, unlike Harry Brown, which Christina and I watched last night.
    Bleak is hardly the word for Harry Brown, a film in which sweet old men are murdered by drug-peddling rapist hoodies (and vice versa) on a massive council estate. It may have been well acted and beautifully shot, but I couldn't tell, because I was so depressed I could barely see. Films like that should come with a warning label, and a complimentary copy of Kung Foo Panda to watch afterwards.

Shutter Island: Good film, followed by salt-induced renal failure and a discussion about what the hell was going on. 4/5.
Mediterraneo: Decent Italian pacifist comedy, confusing thoughts of Swindon throughout. 2/5. 
Harry Brown: So depressing I cried myself into a dehydrated husk, like a big, sad pork scratching. 0/5.
Kung Foo Panda: Superb. 5/5.

A train of caterpillars walking nose-to-tail