Sunday, August 17, 2008

Caracoles - or ¡Oh, Barcelona!

Barcelona is a wonderful city - and better visited when it's not so hot and when half the shops are not shut because of holidays! The architecture, not just that of Gaudi, is stunning, and the people are lovely.

In particular:
  • It has a division into the old town, and 'new town' much like Vilnius. In the old town the buildings of five floors or so are so close together that I am sure that many flats will never get any sunlight. Two people holding hands could touch the walls on either side of the street. The new town has many broad avenues and rather irritating diamond-shaped street crossings which give pedestrians slight detours at every crossing. Never mind.
  • The railways are great! The little Ferrocarril de Catalunya ran always on time and had climatised carriages - a boon when I was melting everywhere else, including my flat. On my last day, taking three short trains to the airport, I was wondering about the kind of people who leave things on trains. How can they do that, I asked myself. Only to find, having left the second train, that I had left my backpack with my computer on it....rushed to the customer service area, asked about it thinking I would never find it again....They phoned the end station, I decided to go there (thankfully I had enough time!), and retrieved my backpack. Brilliant or what?
  • My Spanish, after studying it since November, is now good enough to read newspapers and books - useful, given the Georgia situation. Sadly most books are translated from other languages - there seem to be relatively few Spanish authors. So I read a Donna Leon, a book about a child soldier, and have a book by Bernard Atxaga (a Basque author) translated from Basque. I'm not really into classics like the inevitable Don Quixote.
  • There was some problem with my language course - we had only two students, and the other student, a German, had just finished school and did not even speak English - so had no experience in speaking other languages. The school, to their credit, divided us and gave us individual lessons, but only for half the time I had booked for (but probably still at a loss to them). So my son found a private teacher through the internet and I went off to see her in the afternoon - the combination of both made a huge difference to my speaking of Spanish!
  • Spanish has a lot of 'false friends' - words which sound the same as in another language, eg French, English or Italian, but mean something completely different. My strategy often was to use French words, turn them into something approaching Spanish - and often I landed in Catalan! (That's not so difficult - I read 'Time Out' in Catalan; once you know that 'amb' = 'y' = 'and' you are already a long way ahead). Catalan must be closer to French.
  • With menus, I liked to get them in Spanish and order things - often experimentally. So there were the caracoles, which, since they involved the word 'col' (cabbage), I thought were something vegetarian. They were (or had been) - they were snails! And little ones at that! Nice to eat, but lots of hard work. Another time I ordered the chef's recommendation, only to be faced by a structureless, white, fishy thing - I think it may have been squid.....
  • Tapas are expensive - smallish portions at 4 Euros plus each. As is ice cream in the centre - one ball for 3 Euros?
  • The Spanish, as I learnt in the language course, and by observation, tend to eat at around 9 to 10 in the evening. Obviously I did not want to be seen as 'the tourist', and strangely, it was very easy to fall into this pattern. When I told my language teacher that people in Lithuania dine at around 6 - 7 pm (I mean, what do I know, really?), she was shocked and asked ' what do they do after that?' Not sure how it works with work, though. Many businesses close for a few hours in the afternoon - do people commute home and return to work? That might be easier if they did not have to commute. Concerts, incidentally, start at around 10 pm.
  • One day spotted a man walking along the road totally naked. People did not seem to bother. He had a nice body (and was circumcised). I wish I had a body like his! But I would never get as good a tan....
  • The tourists seemed to be concentrated into places like La Rambla (famous for having 1 pickpocket for every five tourists, though I did not see anyone who looked like one), the Sagrada Familia (the unfinished church by Gaudi, with long queues - I'll wait till it is finished), and the Parc Güell which is full of Gaudi architecture and not bad musicians. I avoided them - the places and the tourists.
  • Went to see a couple of films, one of which may have been among the worst films ever - 'Hedwig and the angry inch' (sharing my late grandmother's name) is about a transsexual (male-to-female) who becomes a band musician. Described as a musical the music is atrocious! The dialogues contain some of the usual mtf jokes, but the film is one that better remains buried. It was shown as part of a huge gay/lesbian festival in Barcelona. I could not go to the festival (it might have been interesting) because the events were divided into men's and women's events, and at the moment that's a slightly difficult topic for me. The other film was 'Prometeme' ('Promise me'?), by Kusturica of ('Black cat, white cat') fame. Totally manic, and crazy, well over the top even for Kusturica, but probably has more than a grain of truth about life in Serbia.
  • Immigrants (of the visible variety) in Barcelona, at least, seemed to come mostly from South America. There were also some Africans, many of which I suspect could be described as 'sin papeles' (without papers) who were selling things in the street, like fake handbags and pirate videos (including 'Mamma Mia' which had only come out in Spain last week or so).
  • On my last day the week-long Festa de Gracia started. A community festival in the neighbourhood of Gracia (a bit like Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin) where streets take it on themselves to put up a massive themed display (see pictures) - eg this year had aztec streets, snowy streets, Hawaiian streets - with most of the decorations made of recycled materials. I can't begin to imagine how much hard work it is to cut up plastic bottles into flowers or leaves, and what the risk of injury is in doing this! In one street some 50 or 60 pensioners, including a man, were busy doing very detailed lacework while the crowd was watching, awestruck. On another plaza a dancing lesson took place, further plazas had displays of dancing - and there was much drumming and many fireworks! Huge crowds poured through Gracia on the day, and it was impossible to find somewhere to eat. (Note that the event opened with a poster saying something like 'Tourists go home. This is not Lloret' - sounds familiar to my readers in Berlin?).
It was a great fortnight!