Lost in Translation

Online blog of life in Barcelona for a English guy making a life for himself out here and trying desperately to have a good time, become fluent in Spanish, and most of all - not be constantly mistaken for a tourist!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Viva La Duquesa!

I don't know about you lot out there, but with the terrible events in Madrid last week chilling me to the bone, and nothing but talk of the economic crisis to fill the remaining pages of the newspapers, I for one am crying out for a bit of cheering up. So it's at times like these that I like to look to my elders and betters for inspiration, and who's elder, and indeed who's better, than everyone's favourite octogenarian party girl... La Duquesa de Alba!

OK, so she may struggle to be physically able to raise a smile, but she never fails to put one on my face with her antics, that's for sure. Whether it's waving her hanky in appreciation at Franciso Rivera's 1000th bullfight last week, or just gadding about town in her surgical stockings going from select social engagement to select social engagement, all the while persued by a hungry pack of reporters desperate for her to pass comment on her children's ever-present marriage woes (or even the possibility of an upcoming marriage of her own!), the woman is a true marvel and the best advert for the nobility since the Queen Mother downed her final G&T and toddled off to the hospitality tent at the big Derby course in the sky. Chin-chin!!

Here are some of my favourite Duquesa moments to treasure.

First we have the Duquesa giving the press a piece of her mind, telling it straight that they're nothing but a bunch of shits (which we all know they are):

And here she is again, as ever hounded by the press, making it clear who's boss. The way she shouts "Hijo de tal!!!" as she's aided into the car by her helper puts me in mind of a shoplifter who's being taken away in a police car. I almost expect the aid to put her hand on the Duquesa's head (like all good coppers do when putting criminals in the backseat) with a sarcastic "Come on now love... in you go... yes that's right... save your ranting for the Judge why don't you" :-)

So in times of ongoing war and destruction, nothing but misery all around, and the likelihood of a peaceful death in old-age looking so remote it could almost be classed as an acceptable career goal, it's time we all stopped a moment to give thanks for the one, the only, the institution that is.... María del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, duquesa de Alba y de Berwick; de Montoro, de Liria y Jérica, de Arjona, de Híjar, condesa-duquesa de Olivares, marquesa de San Vicente del Barco, de El Carpio, de Coria, de Eliache, de la Mota, de San Leonardo, de Sarria, de Villanueva del Rio, de Tarazona, de Villanueva del Fresno, de Barcarrota, de la Algaba, de Osera, de Moya, de Almenara, de Valdunquillo y de Mirallo, condesa de Lemos, de Lerín, condestable de Navarra, de Monterrey, de Osorno, de Miranda del Castañar, de Palma del Rio, de Aranda, de Salvatierra, de Andrade, de Ayala, de Fuentes de Valdepero, de Gelves de Villalba, de san Esteban de Gormaz, de Fuentidueña, de Casarrubios del Monte, de Galve, de Santa Cruz de la Sierra y Ribadeo , vizcondesa de la Calzada, marquesa de Oraní. Phew!

God bless you ma´am, I for one think you're amazing!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summer holidays

More of a traditional blog entry today rather than a quirky take on some random event or other, which is what I usually aim to write about. Let´s see how I get on when sticking to chronological events!

Well, the summer holiday period has really hit me square between the eyes and I´ve had some great holidays and days out recently. Not content with that, I´ve now got plans for enough new trips in the coming weeks to make Judith Chalmer´s travel diary look like the summer itinerary of an agoraphobiac. I´ve been to Rome and Florence, had days out around the coast of Barcelona, am planning a week in Galicia, and just last night, I got back from my first ever weekend in the Basque country, after spending a couple of days in San Sebastian, and having left with a definite taste to return again in the future.

As I finish work at around 2pm on Fridays, I cunningly took advantage of the opportunity to cause a bit of jealousy amongst my colleagues by arriving that morning with that unmistakable “I’m going on holiday and you’re not” look on my face, fanning myself with my San Sebastian tickets, their faces rubbed further into the dirt by the sound of my trolley bag wheeling nicely behind me. The edge was taken off slightly when I had to admit I would be travelling on the bus, squeezed into a ridiculously small space for the 8 hour journey, but 10p millionaires like me can´t afford to be too choosey, and as I only planned the trip about 3 days before hand, I´d left it a bit late for any flight bargains and apparently slave-powered sedan chairs are outlawed these days who knew?!).

Boarding the bus at Barcelona Sants station was the usual example of confusion that could easily be avoided if only Spanish transport officials wouldn’t been so stingy with presenting simple information. They have numbered laybys for each bus, but refuse to show any information as to which bus is going where, so everyone is trawling up and down the narrow walkway dragging bags behind them that inevitably get in eachother’s way and having to ask each driver where he’s going. The buses have the destination on the front, but this doesn’t really help when you see that there are 3 or 4 buses going to the same destination, but via different routes and with different bus companies. You can’t even identify easily the bus company as they sub-rent buses from other firms to cover busy routes etc. Let’s just say, logic is not in abundance. Why they can’t have a simple screen (or even just a simple blackboard) showing the next departures at each layby, I just don’t understand. They have a departures board at Barcelona Nord station so why not at Sants? Anyway, we eventually found our bus, popped our luggage in the hold and joined the rest of the passengers in the collective hope that the odd looking individuals hovering around the station looking for something to rob, wouldn’t do what would be completely easy in the commotion and just take a suitcase from the bus’s luggage hold and casually wheel it away (presumably hoping to find more than someone’s dirty underwear and a cheap travel iron inside!)

Squeezed into my seat with knees pressed up hard against the seat infront and with the air-conditioning turned to a positively barmy “Arctic”, the next thing to happen was a visit from the Guardia Civil. I misheard him at first and when I saw his official police badge being flapped in my face (he wasn’t in uniform) I thought the bus company were just taking a particularly heavy-handed approach to correct seat allocation, until I realised they actually wanted to see our ID as the bus was going to the Basque Country (presumably the mode of transport of choice for your average separatist terrorist is a chilled sardine can on wheels). I thought he’d take a quick look at my ropey English drivers licence and my “wouldn’t last 5 minutes in Al Qaeda” facial expression and pass it straight back, but he actually collected up everyone’s ID and then left the bus with the lot. Half an hour later (and now way behind the official departure time) we appeared to have been declared terrorist-free as he came back to hand out the cards again in a Paul Daniels “pick a card, any card” kind of way. On seeing my driver’s licence poking out from a fistful of Spanish DNI cards, I felt a bit like the joker in the pack… literally, but I quickly decided that passing myself off as Purificación García Jimenez, or Miquel Angel Lopez Fernando was always going to be a tall order, so I sheepishly slid out the card with the most boring name in the pack and popped it back in my wallet where it had come from.

The journey itself was uneventful, apart from the moment we made a comfort stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere outside Zaragoza and left the fridge on wheels only to be punched in the face by the air temperature outside. The difference was spectacular and was just like the well-used analogy of opening the oven door while holding your face just that bit too close to the blast of air. 25 minutes later, and mildly sun-scorched, we were back on board and underway again.

A trip like this really reminds you just how much wide open space there is in Spain (and the north eastern strip of Spain is reasonably highly populated so goodness knows how much open space there must be in the southern regions like Extremadura for example) as much of the landscape, once outside of Barcelona until you reach the Basque country, is pretty bleak indeed. A mixture of sun-dried mountains and dusty open land, made green in places by the irrigation systems spitting out water over the crops. OK, it’s far from being like Death Valley, and is beautiful in many ways, but the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it certainly ain’t!. However, the change as you cross the mountains and reach the Basque region is spectacular and made the not-very-nice bus trip much more worthwhile. The only way I can describe it is that it’s as if the theatre stage hand has mixed up his ropes during an amateur production of Bonanza and suddenly the wrong cardboard scenery has dropped down. Where there was previously an arid bleak landscape that you would easily associate with inland Spain, there are suddenly beautiful rolling green hills and lush forests as far as the eye can see. This surely can’t be Spain, but remarkably it is and it just seems to go on and on and on. The hills are sparsely dotted with the occasional village (or just a single house in many cases), often with their trademark Basque-style wooden shutters on the windows. If anyone out there is ever lucky enough to have a country summer house in Spain, you could do a lot worse than choose this part of the country. OK, it may rain a lot more here but the results of all that water speak for themselves.

We finally rolled into San Sebastian at about 11pm and were picked up by my friend’s father for the short ride to their house (taking in a bit of a nighttime tour of the city first though). Despite the lateness when we arrived, everyone was up and waiting to greet us… mother, brother, sister-in-law and even the 8 year old Ukrainian girl that my friend’s parents look after for 2 months of each year as part of a program to take sick or at-risk children away from the poisoned area around the Chernobyl site. After kisses were handed out all around, out came the food of course leaving us with full stomachs as we fell into bed.

After having been warned many times about the unpredictability of the Basque weather, I wasn’t expecting miracles, but we certainly got one the next morning as it was a gloriously sunny and pleasantly warm day without being too hot to enjoy it. Four of us went for a walk which, within about 100 yards of the front door found us by the sea front of a stunning natural harbour. “Our” side is called San Pedro, while the neighbours just across the narrow stretch of water live in San Juan, and after a stroll along our side, we took the little boat across. San Juan is prettier with quaint streets and houses backing directly onto the waterfront.

Later in the day we went into the centre of San Sebastian and took a long stroll along the prom. “Prom” is a good way to describe it as it has a definite Victorian English feel about it with its decorated ironwork seafront railings and low-rise buildings which easily conjure up images of the rows of well- kept B&Bs and guest houses that you might see in some of the nicer British seaside resorts. Of course, the presence of a crystal blue sea is something I’ve never seen in the UK but you get the impression. A trip up the funicular railway to take in the view of the entire city, followed by a walk to the edge of the sea wall to see “Los Peines de los Vientos” (metal sculptures jutting out of the rocks) completed our daytime activities and we headed back to the centre of town to grab a bite to eat before going home for a late siesta, an evening meal with all the family, and then drinks in town. Like all good Spaniards, we didn’t even leave the house until well after midnight, but the city was heaving with people. A jazz festival was being held on the beach, but someone had unwisely put two giant stages too close together so the fierce competition to be the loudest ended up spoiling them both. Now, I know jazz is often all about improvisation with whatever number of instruments you have to hand, but this was just too much. I’m not a fan of jazz music anyway so we decided to head away from the beach and have a look around the bars in the city centre. The fact that they were charging ridiculous amounts for drinks on the beach sealed the decision!

San Sebastian is not short of bars, and certainly not short of people to drink in them. And drink they do! I’ve gotten used to the calmer approach to drinking that exists in Barcelona (aside from the foreign tourists who are throwing up on La Rambla by 11pm while most Spaniards are still eating their evening meal) but San Sebastian seems to have a culture of drinking slightly closer to the British system. OK, not as bad, but certainly more so than Barcelona. There was no sign of trouble though and everything was very lively and good-natured. We had a walk around and combined a bit of late night tourism with a few gin and tonics until the early hours before heading home. The next day we had to catch the bus back to Barcelona so it would be a wasted day unfortunately.

Now I’m home again, I’m putting the final touches to my plan for another week away, this time in Galicia and Asturias. I head off there on Sunday morning, and absolutely cannot wait!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bright eyes...!

For quite a while after I arrived in Spain (and still occasionally to this day if heavily provoked) my brain automatically would assume that when dealing with strangers in Spanish, that I must surely be coming across as a “guiri perdido” (in other words, a hopeless pillock of a foreigner). It seems my logic was based purely on “how could it be any other way?”. Afterall, I was putting myself in situations guaranteed to irritate the local population, namely “talking to them”. I was potentially slowing down the queue in the bread shop because I didn´t know the name for the one type of loaf that I wanted out of the approximately 4582 types on offer, annoying the girl in the bank when she had to repeat 3 times how much the commission is on a simple transaction (in case you´re wondering, it falls into the category of "ridiculous"), or just generally peeing-off the entire bus when my ticket had gotten a bit twisted and would no longer be accepted by the onboard validator - this final example being my least favourite of all when I first arrived in Barcelona. The same little harmless looking machine which would emit a playful beep to each of the stream of locals as they pass their tickets through, but which would let out an almighty scream which would chill to the bone when I came along with the misfortune of having a slightly imperfect ticket that had been bending and flexing in my wallet a little too long. It may as well scream out “HEY EVERYBODY, THIS GUY IS TRYING TO GET ON WITHOUT PAYING!!! AND LOOK… HE´S FOREIGN!!!”. I was a lost cause, cruelly condemned to spend my life in eternal damnation by the judgment of nothing more than a ticket machine with a xenophobic streak.

Anyway, after a while things like this stopped bothering me. Partly because I found that my Spanish was improving to the point where I no longer had to visibly concentrate like crazy with a pained expression on my face in order to squeeze out a vaguely understandable sentence, and partly because I was struck with the sudden realisation, that quite simply, no one else really gives a rat´s arse! The guy slowing down the bread queue is just another guy slowing down the bread queue (and is probably going a damn site faster than your average Spanish pensioner, by the way!), the guy in the bank is just another customer to deal with (all of which I suppose are annoying in their own individual ways), and the noise of the screaming ticket machine is just more background racket that gets automatically tuned-out by the locals without even raising their gaze from their free newspapers.

So… with the initial fear-factor now gone, I then started to feel pretty much fine about dealing with all sorts of potentially confusing encounters with Spanish administration/shopping/transport etc, even actually looking forward to some of them on occasion. I´ve opened and closed accounts, given directions in the street to strangers many times, done tax declarations in person, successfully got through job interviews, and most proudly of all…. I´ve walked out of the bread shop with the type of loaf I walked in intending to buy. (Quite an achievement that last one!). I´m not saying that I´m now a vision of lingual perfection, striding about like Cesar, unfazed by any situation, but I am at least not putting myself in the frame of mind of “I-am-an-automatic-failure-before-I-even-open-my-mouth-so-please-don´t-bother-giving-me-the-time-of-day!!”.

The reason I got to thinking about this today was because recently, the same curious little seemingly insignificant thing has happened on a couple of occasions that had never crossed my mind before, and it happened again today in a more obvious way. I´ll explain some examples more clearly later, but basically, while I´ve been thinking that my lanky legs, pasty English skin and fair hair were a physical disability that would mean constantly being treated as a foreigner (and therefore fair game to rip-off or fob-off at any opportunity) they´re actually one of the biggest “door-openers” you can drag around with you, using them to your advantage without even realizing it or being aware that they are having an invisible benefit to you. For it would seem that, when dealing with those tall, pasty-looking, fair-haired northern European types like me who have clearly taken a bit of trouble to learn reasonably good Spanish, your average Spaniard sitting behind a desk or working in a shop (or whatever) will be happy to take more time to look after you, make sure you´ve got what you wanted, and generally be pretty god damn nice to you. I´ve bought fruit and veg on the market and been offered recipe ideas that I lack the culinary capability to carry out, I´ve asked the bloke next to me on the bus for the meaning of a particularly tricky word in my book and then spent the rest of the journey chatting about the book and being given more reading suggestions, asked a question about my tax deductions and suddenly found myself having a highly-paid expert who doesn´t normally deal with Joe Public hauled across the office to personally advise me about how best to frugally juggle my pennies…. the list goes on. Anyway, the “thing” that has now happened a number of times was actually nothing more than a passing comment about eyes. Apparently, if you´ve got the clear-eyed foreigner look and you´re prepared to dabble in the murky waters of speaking Spanish with the locals, you´re already at a massive advantage purely based on the fact that you´re “different” to the millions of those poor old genetically disfigured (stay with me..) Spanish folk with their beautiful dark eyes, stunningly even tanned skin and errrr what else?… hairy backs…? Ok, so that last one isn´t a particularly good example and doesn´t apply to all, but you know what I mean. Let´s face it, I´ve said it before, but the typical “Spanish look” is a pretty good one to have been born with, and it has to be said that Spain has been blessed with more than its fair share of stunners of both sexes.

If I ever get treated exceptionally well by local officialdom, I´ve always put it down purely to the fact that they must just be a nice person who appreciates hearing a bit of Spanish speaking effort in all its badly conjugated glory. But I´ve now had it suggested to me by friends that it´s actually the “look” that´s the deal clincher. A 100%, cast iron, money-back guarantee for good service (it would seem) is purely to be just one thing…. “different from the crowd”. Apparently, nothing brightens the day of that woman on the fruit stall than a prat with a sunburnt nose spluttering out the wrong words for the fruit he´s pointing to, or fills the tax officer with more pride than having to re-do an entire spreadsheet because the poor sap from England has given all his figures in UK pounds instead of Euros.

My friend who suggested this, grew up in a small town during the tail-end of the Franco years, when all things foreign held a certain glamour, so although I haven´t said this to him, I think he´s just bringing along an old hang-up from his youth and applying it to the present day. Afterall, any Spaniard who´s grown-up seeing the influx of foreigners over the last 30 years, with their kiss-me-quick holiday mentality and being sick in the street at barely 11pm on a Saturday night, surely can´t be holding the opinion that Brits (for example) are a glamorous bunch of go-getters blessed with a life that the yokels in Spain can only dream of. This isn´t 1970 and we´re not talking about illiterate villagers from the arse-end of Moldova (sorry to any Moldovians reading this!). Spain has got more capacity to cause an inferiority complex in other nations these days, not suffer from one. But nonetheless after brushing off my friend´s comment, another mildly comical example happened this morning…

We have a staff shop in the company I´m currently subcontracted into (a brewery) and we can buy cheap alcohol etc as there are daily staff special offers. Today´s offer seems to be the result of some over-enthusiastic ordering on the part of a junior in the Marketing Dept, as they were flogging for just over €3, a pack including a beach parasol, a mini surf board and 6 beer glasses, all branded with the company logos etc. After the first guy walked back into the office carrying his pack, there was a stampede of us heading to fill our boots! For the first time there was a phenomenon unheard of in the shop´s history…. a queue! The woman (a middle-aged señora with multi-coloured hair) clearly used to dealing with a slow stream of casual callers suddenly had a “panic buy” situation on her hands! I was watching her from my place in the queue, and she seemed to be getting more and more peed-off with the passing of each customer until, with just a couple of people in front of me (and a whole line behind), she ranted in Spanish with a snarl (I´ll translate the vague meaning!) that “everybody can just bugger right off” before switching to a warm smile to add “except for the tall guy with the nice clear eyes, he can step up to the hatch and place his order with pleasure!” She was obviously having a joke around, but it just reminded me of my friend´s earlier comment about getting “special treatment”… however off the cuff and insignificant it may have been.

So all in all, I´m still inclined to believe that good treatment of foreigners comes from only one thing, namely being pleasant yourself and making an effort to communicate, but I´ve now had my eyes opened to a new possibility.

And not only are they open, they are of course clear! :-)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sore bums and tax returns

Por el amor de Dios, has it been over a YEAR since I last posted on my blog?? Sadly, I do believe it has. Having this blog sat whimpering in the corner like an abandoned pet isn´t good for my catholic guilt (I´m not catholic, but I tend to feel guilty about everything in my life so I may as well get myself some Rosary beads and take up the Habit) so, like a weekend dad on a court supervised access visit, I´m here to show a bit of interest in my digital offspring. I don´t know what I´ll do… probably take it to the zoo or something. Buy it an ice cream and an X-Box perhaps. Maybe even promise to go to MacDonalds on the way home if it behaves itself. Nah, the cheeky little nipper probably won´t appreciate any of that, so I guess I´ll just write a bit about whatever crosses my mind in the next 30 minutes or so and see where I end up. As usual, it could be good or on the other hand it could be a pile of crap. I make no apologies if we go down the latter route, but I will promise to feel guilty about it! :-) Deal?

OK, the first thing that I want to talk about is my arse. (Now there´s a talking point worthy of internet space!) Basically, magnificent though it may be, it bloody hurts! Now, before the marketing whizzes down at Preparation H reach for their phones with lucrative offers of anal sponsorship and product placement opportunities, I should clarify that to my immense relief, the cause isn´t actually a sad decline into a hemorrhoid troubled mid-30´s, but rather the result of my recent seemingly harmless decision to buy myself a bike. Well I saw David Cameron going the wrong way down a one-way street and jumping red lights willy-nilly, and figured it looked like fun. Unfortunately for me, it would appear that the manufacturer of my particular bike has scrimped on the luxuries slightly by fitting what I can only describe as a “splintered chair leg” where the seat should be to cushion my bony bottom from the occasionally uneven tarmac of Barcelona´s streets. On my first venture out, I found that I managed to get more or less to my destination without incident, but was in total agony on the way home again. Presumably the manufacturers know that their cheap seats seem fine when you sit on them for a moment or two in the shop, but once you´ve ridden over a few potholes and attempted to drop down a curb at any speed greater than “stationary” and suffered the inevitable consequences, you´ll hobble back into the shop flapping an open wallet and demanding the softest, smoothest, most expensive replacement seat available. Nothing that hasn´t been invented as a direct result of the NASA space program will do. So I´m now the proud owner of a distinctly mediocre bicycle oddly fitted with a space age, gel padded, sweat proof, go-faster seat cushion. If my bum could talk (and why shouldn´t it?), it would smile broadly and say “thank you”. There you go then… problem rectified (no pun intended!)

My main reason for buying a bike is that last year, I would often go to the beach on hot days, and while it isn´t ridiculously far to walk, it can be time consuming especially if you´re just going for the final couple of hours of warm sunshine after work in the evening. Therefore I would have to go on the Metro, and being pressed up against someone´s sweaty armpit in the middle of summer is not on my list of pleasant pastimes (even though the Metro is air-con´d in the summer), so I figured it would be a more pleasant experience, and just as quick, to make my way there under my own steam. People are generally getting worse on the Metro, and body odor is high on the list of offences (everyone sweats, but there´s no excuse for a terminal case of BO) closely followed of course by those strange people who play tinny, unidentifiable music out loud through their mobiles. Why do they do that? No one can tell what it is, it sounds bloody awful, and it automatically puts the offender in the category of “pillock” without any need for debate. Mind you, as it´s usually someone with a mullet haircut, I suppose it´s pointless trying to find sense in their actions. Anyway, armed with my new two-wheeled friend, I´m now able to avoid all this, save myself a euro or two each time, and even get a bit fitter too. Bargain! I´ve been out loads lately and love to plonk myself on the sand, read my book, or have a kip in the sun. Luckily, Barcelona is fairly flat city for the most part so the gears on my bike, of which I appear to have about 863 judging by the various combinations available, are barely troubled. The city is blessed with wide streets in most areas that have plenty of room for cyclists, and the network of dedicated cycle lanes is pretty extensive and well connected (unlike the UK where a cycle lane will often unexpectedly end in the middle of a busy roundabout). Finally, to put the icing on the cake, I read last week that the City Council is going to remove a traffic lane from Calle Urgell right outside my flat in order to put in a cycle lane the full length on the street from Francesc Maciá all the way down to Parallel. Excellent news, and if it cuts the traffic noise, even better!

In other news recently, we had the San Juan (Sant Joan in Catalunya) holiday just yesterday, and the fact that it fell on a Tuesday meant that it was a lovely 4 day weekend for me and many others. The long weekend also coincided with a sudden heatwave so it made for the perfect opportunity to spend some time flaked-out on the beach. San Juan is celebrated in a kind of Bonfire Night style, with fires on the beach or in street junctions, and the constant sound of bangers all around the clock for days. I went for drinks in the evening with some friends followed by the beach party at about 1am where we found the entire length of the beach absolutely crammed full (and I believe there about 4-5kms of city beaches so that´s a LOT of people). There wasn´t space to swing a cat where we were, and although it was fun, the crowds made it tiresome after a while. The idea is that you dance until dawn and then bathe in the sea in order to bring you good luck, but we bailed out and headed home shortly before the sun came up, so I don´t know how many did this (I presume quite a lot).. The army of cleaners were out in force the next day to clear up the mountains of cans, bottles, broken glass and general rubbish that covered the sand. They do an amazing job, and the beach is soon looking tip-top again ready for the sunbathers to arrive.

It was back to earth with a bump again today though with the midweek return to work. Can´t complain too much though, as a 3 day week is not to be sniffed at. There´s a surefire headache coming on Friday though, as I have my second session with the sadists down at the tax office. I went last week to do my yearly tax declaration (my first in Spain) and was left battered and bruised by the torrent of confusion and general misinformation that the staff seem happy to dole out. It appears that they can´t draw a clean line between my UK tax situation and my Spanish one, so I´ve been told to go away and convert all my 2007 UK income and deductions into Euro´s using the exchange rate at the date of payment, and then come back and the will enter all this into their computer along with the Spanish income they already know about. Then presumably they´ll be some smoke and mirrors, and I´ll be presented with a summary of what I owe or not. I´m hoping for an easier ride this Friday though. If I get the Andalucian girl with the impenetrable accent again, I may as well just give up now and hand her all of my money and call it quits. I pride myself on being more or less able to follow mind-boggling instructions delivered in high-speed Spanish when I´m in work, but throw in a strong accent, along with the commotion from the screams of about 300 other Spanish taxpayers having the thumb-screws applied at the other desks, and it doesn´t exactly make for a clear exercise in comprehension. I´ll be lighting a candle and saying my prayers tonight in hope of an easier time. Now, where did I put that Rosary? I´ve got sins to confess…! :-)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the shower….!!

Back in January, I made a new year resolution to try to get a bit fitter, so I’ve been going to the gym just across the road from my flat at least 3 times a week since then, and everything’s going well except one odd thing…

In a nutshell, we’ve got a freaky weirdo in the gym! I’ve never had any concrete evidence against him, so I’ve not wanted to do anything about it in case I’m putting 2 and 2 together and making 463, but this guy is always in the gym at the weekends. No matter what time of day I go, he’s there. Now, you might think he’s just a fitness freak, in which case, good on him for his dedication, but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. The thing is, he’s only ever in the changing rooms. Not once have I seen him anywhere on the gym floor at any point (and it’s only a small gym so you can see everyone exercising from any point on the gym floor) nor in the swimming pool.

Every time I go down to have a shower, he’s there, walking about naked. Now, again you might just think “naked guy in men’s changing rooms – shock horror!”, and you’d be right of course. But, this guy is naked in there for hours on end. We’re talking entire mornings or afternoons spent down there. He seems to just make his way from the showers to the lockers and back again, all the while doing, well, not a lot it has to be said.

Now, I shouldn’t be cruel to anyone’s physical appearance, but I can’t tell the story fully if I don’t say that this guy is extremely unattractive. He’s probably about 35 years old max, and he’s very overweight with matted patches of hair all over his lumpy body, along with a miss-shaped arse that I don’t even want to think about right now, so I’ll crash on with the story…

The showers in my gym are individual cubicles, so they aren’t completely open. The dividing walls are solid and completely non-transparent, but of course there’s the usual 8 inch gap at the bottom like a toilet cubicle. Whenever I’m in the shower on a weekend, you can bet your bottom dollar that seconds after I enter, someone will enter the one next to me. No big deal there, but it’s odd that I’ve never noticed the water start running, and when I stop my shower running and am almost ready to come out, the person next door instantly leaves the cubicle before I have chance to pick up my toiletries etc and leave the cubicle myself. Then as I’m getting dressed by the lockers, the fat guy will be there, striding about naked again. Process of elimination over a few weeks leads me to believe that it’s this guy who’s in the cubicle next to me, but as I say, I’ve had no real evidence, and at the end of the day, he’s not actually doing me any harm.


This Saturday I went to the gym as usual. I did my exercises and went for a shower. I hadn’t seen our chubby friend at all so far, so it hadn’t actually crossed my mind that he might be about on this particular day. But sure enough, as I went into my shower, a few seconds later I heard someone enter the next door cubicle and no water started running. I could see the edge of a foot from the 8 inch gap at the bottom of the dividing wall, and it wasn’t moving at all, which you would expect it to if someone was showering.

Now, in the dividing walls there is a small hole cut out at the point where it joins the main tiled wall (the wall on which the showers themselves are fixed). These holes are for the pipes to run horizontally across from each cubicle to feed the water through, and they are at about stomach height. The holes are about 3 inches square, and as I say, they are against where the dividers meet the main wall, so you would literally have to squeeze your eyeball into the corner of the cubicle to be able to see through to next door….. yep, you know what’s coming don’t you!

The next thing I realised was that I could see the edge of a nose pressed up against the hole!! I nearly died!! What kind of freak goes to these levels to perv on people? This isn’t a cheeky glance at an opportune moment, this is full-on, 100%, bonafide, freaky perving! I wasn’t going to let this go on, so I did the only thing I could do…. I poked him hard in the face with my finger! I wish now that I’d rammed the end of my shampoo bottle through the hole as it would’ve really hurt him, but I think the finger did the trick.

I instantly came out of my shower and banged on his door, but he refused to come out… total silence! I kept banging, and asking “Qué coño crees que estás haciendo??” (What the f..k do you think you’re doing?) but still no response. I’d more or less finished my shower by the point the nose had appeared, but I just had to rinse my conditioner out, so I quickly stuck my head back under my shower, so I’d be done and ready to confront him fully. As soon as he sensed that I’d gone back in my cubicle… he was off like a whippet! (Albeit a very overweight and ugly whippet!). He ran as fast as he could (ie, not very fast) around the corner, and we clearly made eye contact as I was shouting at him, but he kept on going and went around the corner towards the swimming pool. I regret now that I didn’t just follow him. He was still starkers at this point, whereas I had the advantage of a towel around me, so I could’ve backed him out all the way to the public pool where he couldn’t really have gone any further, but I just started laughing at this point, and another guy who was just drying himself, asked me what was going on, so I suddenly found myself distracted busily explaining to him what had just happened.

Our freaky fat friend couldn’t come back into the main changing rooms and escape that way, because he would’ve had to have passed me, so I just carried on getting dressed and then made my way out. At reception, I explained to the girl on duty what had happened (which pushed my Spanish skills to the limit!) and she was stoney-faced in horror through most of it, although I couldn’t help laughing so she eventually cracked up a bit herself. She took it seriously though, and after my clear description of the “offender” she said “well, there aren’t many fat guys here so leave it with me and I’ll watch for him leaving and have a word”.

I went home at that point. As it was a hot day, I had my balcony doors open back at the flat, and I just happened to glance out about 30 minutes later and saw the fatman waddling sheepishly down the street out of the gym.

I was due to go back this morning, but I overslept so I’ll go tomorrow and if the girl is on duty, I’ll ask her what came of it. I’ve tried to think if I’ve over-reacted at all, but I really don’t think I have (your opinions are welcome in the comments section below! jeje). But to literally have your eye pressed up against the showers to watch someone, is extremely wrong, and the fact that with all the previous weeks evidence, this is clearly something that this guy does on a very regular basis. How many others is he spying on? Have they noticed? I just think it’s all a bit yukky, and I want him to be banned from the gym, and hopefully humiliated a bit in the process.

If only I’d followed him through to the pool, it could’ve been hilarious! It was already like a cross between a Carry On film and Porkies, but that would’ve really sealed his fate! Ah well, you live and learn…

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Knob Wars!

In a galaxy far far away….. or more precisely, in the flat directly below me, there appears to be trouble abrewing in our usual peaceful and tranquil lives. First the background… The flat I'm talking about has been empty for a while, and was bought by a doctor recently who has been completely renovating it from scratch since about January. The new owner knocked on my door way back in the new year and asked to come in. I didn’t have a clue who he was at the time, and the fact that he appeared to have one of his “heavies” with him, kind of put me off inviting them in for a cup of tea and a chat. (I’ve heard all the warnings about letting strangers in. I’ve watched Crimewatch, so I know the score! You think they’re coming to read your meter, and they leave 10 minutes later wheeling a widescreen TV out of the door while you look on helplessly in a pool of blood!) Anyway, after pulling a few strange looks and producing some very fine Spanish on my part including a not very polite “Qué coño quieres?” (What the hell do you want?), I finally got the message about who he was, that the “minder” was actually none other than his architect, and that they were wanting to come in, not to rob me and leave me for dead, but rather to take a quick glance at the positions of my interior walls. Slightly more plausible, maybe?? Certainly better than “Would you like to see my puppies?” that's for sure! Anyway, I figured that there was no way any potential murderers could’ve made it this far as they would’ve had to have passed our Portera lady, and at this time of day, I knew she’d have been on duty (lovely lady, but turns into a rabid rottweiler if crossed!), so I decided to take a chance and let them in. It was a fuss about nothing in the end, and after the quick glance at the walls and a few pleasantries, they were off. I checked the TV and it was still there, and I didn’t have any stab wounds, so we were all alright.

A few days after that, the noise from the works kicked in. Walls coming down directly below us, jackhammers on the go all through the day, it’s been unbelievable at times, and it’s the one reason why I’m thankful I’ve got a job that keeps me out of the house during the day. It seems they’re coming to the end of the worst of it now, as I peeped in the other day when the workmen had left the door open, and it appears that they’re finally making good progress and getting almost to the decorating stage.

Since I originally met the new owner back in January, I’ve bumped into him a few more times in my gym across the road. The first time I saw him, I went over to apologise for being so frosty when we’d first met, and I put it down to my bad Spanish and me not having understood what he wanted. He was very nice about it and laughed it off, and we chatted a while. He asked if the noise was a problem, so I answered honestly that, while it was horrific, it wasn’t so bad for me as for those who are at home all day. He was very apologetic, so it’s hard to be rough on someone when they’re doing their best and you know that the noise is unavoidable. I’ve renovated a house myself (well, I supervised while other’s did the work! Jeje) so I know what a hassle it is for everybody, and you just have to get on with it and shut up moaning. They still haven’t moved in yet, but it can’t be far off, so maybe they’ll throw a party for all the neighbours…. Except for one!!...

…And that brings me to the point of the story. One of our lovely neighbours today decided to stick an anonymous note on the door of the new guy’s flat saying that “this doorknob does not respect the aesthetics of the building!!” plus various other stupid comments that I can’t remember now. OK, the doorknob isn’t as shiny as perhaps most of the others in the building are, but come on, the guy’s just bought the friggin flat. They aren’t cheap in this area so he’s clearly paid a lot of money for it, and it’s obvious that he’s working hard to do it up to an extremely high standard. As if it matters for the moment that his doorknob is a bit tarnished??? I reckon the anonymous complainer is someone who’s tired of the noise and wants to pick on something just to be a Victor Meldrew type neighbour. My flatmate has mentioned a couple of times that the people in this block are either completely adorable, or total shits – there’s no inbetween.

I went back down a floor earlier with my camera to take a pic of the offending note (as it was really quite in-yer-face!) but someone had beat me to it and ripped it off, so I assume the new guy has come round to check on the renovation and has taken it down. When I see him next, I’ll have to ask him what the score is about it. Either that, or I’ll march over, demanding to talk to him about “the lack of shine on his substandard knob”!! jejeje

I must admit, after reading the note though, I took a more than glancing look at the knob on my door! Luckily, it’s pretty shiny so I’m confident we’re not going to be the target for the next hate campaign!!!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Recently, on Falcon's Crest...

It’s been a nice long weekend thanks to the public holiday here today, and I’ve spent much of it being a “good tourist” and visiting a few places that have caught my eye for one reason or another. I just can’t do whistle-stop tourism though, I’ve learnt, and the thought of literally running from one tourist hotspot to another, thankfully isn’t a problem given that I have Barcelona on tap 24/7 whenever I want it. While I was in Madrid recently, I was queuing outside the Reina Sofia art museum and a group of girls in front of me had a cast-iron itinerary that left not one second open to chance. They’d literally split their time into hour-long slots with various sights given an appropriate amount of viewing time before shooting off to the next one. Just the sight of this sheet of paper over their shoulder made me feel a bit sick I have to say. Even though I only had a short time in Madrid myself, I was happy to stroll out of the Museum later and casually drift wherever the breeze took me (which not surprisingly was in the direction of a shady tree in the rather stunning Retiro park nearby with a good book).

I’ve kind of screwed-up my blog I have to admit, and time has ticked by so fast since my last entry that I’ve spent a few weeks thinking about how the hell I can start again without it seeming like a massive jolt caused by nearly 3 spacious months of potential blog entries that never made it into being. Do I frantically write-up everything based on my failing memory, or do I somehow skip the missing chunk of time? The whole point of blogs is that they are published “in the moment” and don’t hang around like some old politician waiting to retire (or die, whichever comes first) so he can suddenly feel free to slag-off in his memoirs everyone he’s ever known. The thought of such a jolt has put me off sitting down and writing something, so the problem has just got worse, and my blog has grown into the proverbial gorilla in the corner of the room that everyone knows is sat there gorping at us, but we’re all desperately trying to ignore. Well, I’ve now decided (again, because yes, I’ve been down this route before) that there’s no point waiting and moaning, so I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to come back from the dead as it were, is to do it in the style that Bobby did in Dallas. Let’s face it, nobody questioned anything in the 80’s, did they? We were all far too busy wearing giant shoulderpads and breakdancing, so I’m hoping the same logic will apply now to my blog. Yep, the last 3 months have all been nothing but a dream and I’ve now reappeared in the shower as if nothing as happened! Pretty nifty, eh? The episodes of “the show” where I had a fab weekend in Valencia for Las Fallas (apologies to TimG for not writing that one up!), and the marvellous time I had in Madrid, along with all the other great things I’ve done in the interim, were all just a figment of Pam’s overactive imagination. Either that, or she’d been drinking some of Sue Ellen’s “special” fruit juice again! If my blog ever slips again in the future (which it surely will), I reckon the next time I’ve got the perfect soap opera based solution to explain things… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ju8YH6ewoqQ

Hello?? Can you put me through to Aaron Spelling, please?? (Like I said, nobody questioned anything in the 80’s!!) jeje.

Anyway, after all that, I feel better now, so it’s back to Barcelona and the here-and-now.

Mid way through last week, I made my mind up that the long weekend would be predominantly spent doing two of my favourite daytime activities – firstly, strolling around Barcelona and secondly, flaking out in the sun with a good book. I’m pleased to say I’ve managed to succeed on both scores.

I’d set my alarm nice and early for 9am Saturday morning (so naturally I didn’t get up until gone 11am, but hey, it’s Saturday). My vague plan to go to the gym for an hour before heading out to “be a tourist” had suddenly (and rather conveniently) become the first casualty of my weekend plan, so I sacked that off and just lazily got ready to head straight out. After seeing the film Perfume at the cinema last year, and recently watching it again on DVD, I wanted to check out one of the locations that they used, as much of the film was shot around Barcelona. The scenes where they are playing hide and seek in the maze and the twins are abducted were filmed at the Laberinto de Horta, which is not too far from here. So, that was my plan for today then - go to the Laberinto with my camera and practice taking some photos. Ah yes, that’s another thing that I’ve been moaning about a lot lately – the quality of my photos. In a word, they’re shit. Having a nice place to experiment seemed like the right way forward, so I set off, camera at the ready.

When I arrived at Horta, I was immediately pleased to see how tranquil and tourist-free it was. Crowds annoy me even at the best of times, so I didn’t want to get frustrated by them and end up heading home earlier than I should. First job – have an ice cream. Mission accomplished there and even had a pleasant chat with the old woman on the kiosk. Over at the actual entrance to the park-proper, I strolled past the security lodge with my MP3 turned on and didn’t hear the man calling me back at first. Turns out that you have to pay to get in! At €2.05 per person though, it’s pretty reasonable. But why the 5 cents? I asked the guy why they’d come up with such an odd price, but he just laughed and said he had no idea, but was sick of having to have stacks of small change for all the people paying with whole Euros.

Inside the park, it was absolutely stunning, so I immediately reached for my camera to take some snaps. Just my luck, my camera snagged and refused to fully open the lens. After fiddling with it for ages and trying to get it to come back to life, I had to give up, and so I continued my tour of the gardens a bit miffed that I couldn’t do the one thing I’d wanted to do originally which was practice taking some pics. I even tried as a last resort to get just a couple of pics with my camera-phone, but for some reason that also decided it wasn’t going to work either! Great.

After a while, I left the park and jumped back on the Metro heading straight through town and out of the other side slightly to the Palau Reial gardens near the University. These gardens are nothing to write home about (although nice enough) but I just wanted somewhere that I knew would be quiet so I could flake out in the sun and read my book. The book I’m currently knee-deep in is actually one written by a friend I know here in Barcelona. He’s a Cuban dissident (already sounds glamorous, eh?) and has basically written a book all about his experiences trying to escape from Cuban back around 1990. Joking aside, it contains lots of insights into Cuban life that fascinate me, so I’m loving reading it. It’s desperately sad in places, and even more so given that I know the person who all this has happened to. There are plenty of obscure Spanish words that I struggle with, so it can be a pain to read it when I’ve not got my computer handy but I know enough to follow it even if I miss the odd intricate part slightly. Ironically enough, the book has only been published in French so far, as my friend escaped from Cuba and ended up living in Belguim for about 13 years before coming to Barcelona. The copy I’ve got is his original Spanish pdf document version, as the book isn’t available in Spain, otherwise I’d be plugging it heavily here.

After here, I headed home to get showered and cleaned up ready to go back to where I’d bought my camera from just 4 months ago, in the hope that they’d replace it there and then. The guy on the service desk was polite enough, but he pissed me right off by taking one look at the extended (and jammed) zoom, and telling me “está torcido!” (it’s twisted) and that I’ve obviously knocked it at some point. One thing I’m sure of though, is that this camera has been well looked after, and there is no way it’s been knocked at any time. He just shrugged and still claimed it was still knocked despite the fact that I made him hold it up and see that there wasn’t a hint of it being off-centre. The upshot though was that it was still broken and the procedure is to take it to a place over near Sagrada Familia for them to fix it under the guarantee. Apparently, with a fair wind, they could have it back to me within a month. A month!!!! Christ tonight!!!

Anyway, I headed home extremely miffed (stopping for dinner on the way – pissed off or not, I still like to eat!). A bit of drama on the way home was that I saw a guy crash his motorbike. It was awful, but luckily he was more or less OK and immediately got on his feet. The bike made one hell of a noise as it slid down the road, and he was lucky that no cars were following directly behind or he’d have been run over for sure.

I got home and went to show my flatmate the camera evidence, and guess what!! It worked perfectly! The lens immediately retracted smoothly and without any problem at all! I couldn’t believe it but was very pleased. So far, it’s continued working fine, so I’m hoping that my luck holds out and it was just perhaps a bit of dust that’s worked its way loose again. I felt like going straight back to the shop and showing the snotty guy just how "torcido" my camera wasn't!! Knowing my luck though, it would've immediately jammed in his presence! jeje

Sunday morning, I managed to actually get up on time, so I went to the gym. This is always an eye-opening experience given the incredible spread of people that are members of this particular gym. We’ve got’em all! The usual musclemen who stand there staring at their own ever-expanding arms after every tiny bit of exercise, along with the skinny and semi-unfit types like me who go because they know they should, but aren’t entirely sure why! There are also some great characters in this particular gym too. My favourites are two old ladies who spend more time exercising their jaws while chatting than any other muscle they might have! There are two machines directly facing eachother – one for working your inside thighs and the other for the outside – and these two old dears spend most of their time on these, barely moving their legs at all and instead just gassing away to eachother! It’s all the funnier because one of them dresses in a J-Lo style terry-toweling tracksuit with giant gold earrings and tons of make-up. If she ever broke a sweat (which is unlikely) her entire face would just slip right off! There’s also a old man who comes to the gym in brogue style shiny leather shoes, socks pulled up to his knees, a pair of tight shorts, and an Air Force type shirt buttoned firmly up to the neck. What is he thinking?? Ah well, it gives me something to giggle at. I’m sure there are plenty of people pointing at me and finding something to laugh at. It all makes the world go around at the end of the day.

After the gym, I went to Horta again, in the hope of getting some pictures this time, and I wasn’t disappointed thankfully. The sun was shining and I had a lovely afternoon. I can’t describe it in words very well, so you’ll have to take a look at my lovely new Flickr webpage photo album that I’ve set up. Check it out here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pepino_esp/sets/72157600304804399/

The park is only relatively small, but I strolled around the park for a couple of hours taking as many pics as possible. I’m happy enough with the results. Much better than my usual standard, that’s for sure!

Well, I better wrap up now as it’s late and if I don’t finish this post tonight, I’ll never finish it!

Be good!