Sunday, 26 September 2010
This is what Diesel's appallingly written advertising campaign urges Spaniards to do every time they walk past the shop on Passeig de Gracia (one of Barcelona's most important streets, home to two of Gaudi's architectural masterpieces and a whole lot of sandwich shops). Personally, I was not aware that "to stupid" was a verb in the English language, unless it has become one in the three weeks I've been away, in which case Britain really has gone downhill since I left (still, at least Ed Balls didn't get the Labour leadership-can you imagine having to tell all and sundry that your prime minister's name is Mr Balls? We'd be the laughing stock of Europe, or at least, moreso than usual). In a roundabout way though, what I'm trying to do here is justify my degree-the world needs good linguists to avoid such translation abominations as this, and I'm afraid this is what you get when you put an mediocre Spanish graduate in English in a room full of excitable marketing types who all have compact dictionaries in front of them and lock the door. It was very satisfying to hear an Argentinian say the other night that "I've never met an Englishman who can speak so many languages", although this does also make me worry about how people from other countries perceive Britain and the English-speaking world. It concerns me that people no longer expect others to learn their language, in much the same way that some Brits abroad expect everyone to have learned perfect English. Still, rant over, and back to what's been happening over the last however long it's been since I last wrote on this blog. I'm now (finally) living in the room I actually pay to rent. This is a definitely positive development, I can now dump all of my stuff in wardrobes, drawers and on the floor without the fear of having to pack it all up and move in a few days. It looks much as I remember it looking when I looked around, and the floor is definitely big enough to accommodate a guest (I've even been given a single mattress so that people don't have to sleep on the carpet), so come on over people, just let me know in plenty of time. I've had two full weeks of uni classes now, but it can hardly be described as plain sailing: because of a mix-up in the office and the ridiculous complexity of one of my modules, I was forced on Wednesday afternoon to change two of my classes. This really isn't as easy as it sounds, especially when you're slightly confused about what your home university expects of you academically, how all of the stuff written in Catalan can be effectively translated into something comprehensible and how you're going to avoid having to get up for 8.30 lectures two days a week. Mercifully, I found two that could be done as a straight swap, that is to say that my timetabled hours haven't changed at all, just the classes I attend (Literary translation of French into Spanish proved rather too challenging for me, I'm afraid). As I see it, I now have a comparatively easy 12 credits in German (the level of German being taught here, even though I signed up to the most advanced classes, is roughly equivalent to first year German, added to which, half of both classes are taught in Spanish anyway), a couple of challenging French modules for another 12 credits (one taught entirely in French because the teacher doesn't seem to speak any Spanish at all) and a lecture course on Spanish grammar for another 6. This results in a rather lopsided timetable which gives me two heavy days a week, two very light days a week and Fridays off (RESULT!). Speaking of time off, the last few days have been the celebration of the birth of the patron saint of Barcelona/Catalunya (nobody is quite sure which). This has essentially been a fabulous excuse for the Spanish workforce to do even less work than usual by shutting all the shops on Friday and staging massive concerts all over the city. It has also allowed all the bars (there's literally thousands of them, generally long, thin affairs with a Tapas bar and a couple of beer pumps in what used to be someone's front room) to increase what they charge for alcohol of any description from their already rather inflated prices (you recall the moan I had a couple of posts ago about €4 beers in clubs? It took a lot of walking to find somewhere on Thursday night that sold beer for less than that, and I mean A LOT of walking). In Britain, booze is comparatively cheap, both in supermarkets and, certainly in comparison to continental Europe, in pubs and clubs. Here in Spain, booze is ridiculously cheap in supermarkets (and the drinking laws are rather more relaxed: for example, I wouldn't dream of walking through the streets of London in the afternoon carrying a can of lager, but here, everyone seems to do it), but what costs you €0.58 in the little corner shop suddenly goes up to €2.50 when you take a seat in someone else's nicotine-stained drinking establishment. This is my other pet peeve (I keep it in a little cage under my desk and feed it sunflower seeds twice a day. I had it spayed though, so there'll be no little pet peeves) about Spain-there are smokers everywhere. Some are considerate, most are not. I am having to wash so much of my stuff so frequently to get rid of the smell of cigarette smoke that even my whites are starting to lose their colour. It really does ruin a night out, and all I can say is I miss the English smoking ban. However, as usual, I digress. Thursday night gave me yet another opportunity to be a shoulder to cry on for "tired and emotional" foreigners I've only just met. Before the Swedish guy makes the move across the landing to join me in this flat, there is the small matter of the Italian philosophy graduate presently occupying his room. In a less than sober state, we ventured out on Thursday night to go and see what all the noise was about. He told me that one of his girlfriend's exes was playing in one of the bands at one of the many venues dotted around downtown Barcelona, and that we should try and avoid it if we possibly could. We managed this for a good two hours (most of which were spent trying to find an open offie to buy some booze from-the music that the band in the main square was playing required a certain level of intoxication to make any sense at all, and an even higher level to even begin considering dancing to it, although a lot of the Spaniards seemed to manage fine. They will dance to ANYTHING). Alcohol purchased, we wandered around the back streets, stopping at bars, until we came upon a massive gathering of people in a square down by the Faculty of Philosophy in Ciutat Vella. You'll never guess whose band was onstage though-that's right, the girlfriend's ex's band, and much to the irritation of the Italian, people seemed to be enjoying it (the Spanish are the first people I've encountered who dance worse than me). I can understand his irritation, the music really wasn't that complicated, just two alternating bass notes and a whole lot of screaming. We found another friend of his girlfriend in the crowd, and joined her and her rather haughty Austrian friend (who talked to me at length about how much she hated Germans. In German) in the bouncing melée in front of the stage, where we somehow managed to waste an hour. Finally, "El Gaucho" finished ruining my faith in music and left the stage, and so we left to find somewhere else to go and something else to do. It was at this point (about ten past 2 in the morning) that the poor guy's girlfriend rang him, angrily demanding why he hadn't rung her. This evolved into a half-hour phone-rant, and I could tell when he'd finished that here was a man in desperate need of a beer. On our return home, we dropped into The Shamrock Sports Bar (I know, Irish bars are dreadful places and all over Europe like a rash, but desperate times called for desperate measures, plus it was about the only place still open at quarter to three) and encountered a very drunk man from Blackpool, who demanded that the Italian prove just how Italian he was. He was somehow unconvinced by the driving licence and ID card he was provided, and kept asking the Italian to order a beer in Italian. I had grown too tired to remember much else by this point, but all I know is we finally got home at about quarter past three. This one night has effectively ruined my sleep pattern for the entire weekend. I then spent a most interesting afternoon on Friday at the "Human Pyramid Building Competition" (impressively, the Spanish have condensed this into one word: "Castellers"), apparently part of Catalunya's rich cultural heritage. Essentially, teams from all parts of Barcelona and the surrounding area assemble massive teams of people to try and construct the tallest human tower in the fastest time without it collapsing on itself (as one did, and I was glad to see that I wasn't the only one who laughed slightly-it was ok, nobody was hurt). It was a remarkably well-attended event, and every available square inch of space in the square was filled with people, plus many of the rooves and balconies overlooking it. There was a palpable sense of anticipation when the big chunky blokes who were to form the bottom got into position, supported by scores of hands from all angles, and the tension increased along with the height of the tower. I really wish I could post the video I took onto this blog, and when I can be bothered I may put it on YouTube for you folks to see, but there must be plenty of better quality videos out there, not to mention ones where the cameraman isn't getting constantly elbowed by a huge Spanish woman searching in her bag for her cigarettes and lighter. I shall leave you instead with a selection of the many photographs I took that afternoon, and challenge you to a game of "Spot the Obvious Health and Safety Hazard".
Friday, 17 September 2010
Well, the eagle-eyed among you may well have noticed that this blog hasn't been updated for the quite some time. The pedantic among you will notice that it is a week and two days. There is, or at least I would like to think that there is, a perfectly good explanation for this: in order to stop this blog from turning into a long list of whinges which nobody will want to take the time to read, I'm trying to keep this as upbeat and positive as possible. It has just been a case of saving up enough little victories over the course of the week to keep this post from reading like the depressed ramblings of a washed-up comedian. This week's major development is, I suppose, finding somewhere permanent to live. I am now guaranteed not to be living in a cardboard box in a shop doorway until February, which makes me incredibly happy. After a week of hostelling (hostelling is still an experience I would recommend to absolutely everyone, but it's hardly a permanent housing solution), it feels so nice not to have to lock your belongings away every time you go to the loo, not to be kept up by French girls singing in the shower at gone 1 in the morning and not to get woken up a couple of hours later by a slightly stoned Australian girl coming back from a party. I will of course miss the experience that hostelling has given me, but this is far outweighed by having a double bed all to myself and the space to spread my stuff out everywhere. Only problem is that, technically, I'm not living in the room I'm paying to rent at the moment; I move into that (only into the other flat across the landing, thankfully, so I don't have to lug all my stuff up and down stairs again) on Thursday, and then I shall enter a mystical land of working hot water. Seriously, every shower I have had in this place (I've only been man enough to have three so far) has been in FREEZING COLD water. In true British style, I tried to grin and bear it until this afternoon, until I could take no more of coming out feeling colder and somehow less clean than when I went in. It really is amazing how filthy your feet can get walking to lectures and back, and I only live 5 minutes away from my university. Complaint made, and following a phonecall which lasted the entire duration of my nice, warm shower in the flat that will be home from next Thursday and several minutes more, I returned from Lidl (perfect opportunity to practice my German while I'm here in Spain, given that most of the Spanish translations make very little sense) to a strong smell of gas and to find my temporary landlord sticking matches into the gas boiler. I was only a little bit scared for my life. Apparently it works now, but I've yet to be convinced, in light of the decidedly tepid water that came through the bathroom tap when I finally got round to having the shave I promised myself a week ago. Anyway, on to other matters. After a good 10 days of faffing about, I am also a card-carrying member of UB's Facultat de Filosofia. For those whose knowledge of Spanish is about as good as mine, this pretty much translates as the "Department of Letters" or, essentially, the Modern Languages department, mixed with Classics and Spanish. I'm always amazed when people ask me what I study over here, and I tell them "Filologia" just how much respect people have for the course. Back home, being stuck as we are in arguably two of the University of Birmingham's worst buildings, languages aren't much of a priority, but here, Filologia has the grandest and most imposing building in the University, occupying most of one side of the Plaça Universitat, and shared with Maths and Science. It was especially nice to see that Philosophy, Geography and History students have to travel even further to get to their campus in one of Barcelona's scabbier neighbourhoods (Ciutat Vella/The Old City probably doesn't deserve to be labelled as scabby, but the combination of tall buildings, narrow streets and ridiculous amounts of mindless graffiti don't exactly endear the place to me, although I did look at flats down there). Ha, serves you self-righteous humanities types right. Again, however, I digress (can anyone spot the stylistic theme that will probably characterise this blog for months to come?). Choosing classes was Monday's first priority, but the process was not helped by two things: one, the massive list of classes available (literally everything available in every department, in every semester and on every day of the week) and two, the fact that said massive list had absolutely no details of where any of these classes were to be held. First day of classes was therefore written off, and since I was still living in the hostel out by the Sagrada Familia (which, in spite of what certain guidebooks tell you, is nothing like in the centre of Barcelona. It's five stops away from the centre of Barcelona on the sweatiest and most strangely-timed Metro system the world has ever seen), I decided to go shopping. As a tall, thin male with relatively large and wide feet, clothes shopping of any description in Britain, the nation of fat lager-swilling dwarves with medium-sized feet is nigh on impossible. Here, I am regarded as a normal size-I actually found waist and leg sizes smaller than mine, and size 10½/EU 45 shoes (I have found three pairs of shoes in Britain in this size in as many years) are a perfectly normal size for European men's feet to be. Taking full advantage of my new-found ability to buy shoes that don't look like they were made in a Soviet factory 20 years ago, I bought several pairs. What I didn't reckon on was how uncomfortable wearing them with no socks would be. One day of wearing just shoes and no socks has left my feet held together with surgical tape, although it is worth pointing out that wearing flip-flops achieved the same thing, and had the added disadvantage of showing off my feet to everyone. And yea, one part of this post title is explained. As to the second part, I will have to return to the present. I am presently sharing this flat with a Swedish Erasmus student who attends a different university in a different area of the city to me, and we are occasionally visited by our Italian landlord who comes in, makes a salad, reads the newspaper, calls some people and then leaves. We have never actually managed to figure out where it is that he sleeps, but we're fairly sure that it's not here. Oh, and two creepy Dutch guys (in fairness, is there any other kind of middle-aged Dutch guy? One of them had the little round spectacles and everything, it was rather hard not to laugh) who we saw once last night, and by the absence of stuff in their rooms, must have left early-ish this morning. Between the two of us (me and the Swedish guy), we've managed to get through an insane amount of beer in two days (like freshers-style amounts of beer) and eaten some pretty damn good home-cooked food. Tonight's spaghetti bolognese was a veritable tour de force, and it's not just the wine that's saying that. And, since this post is ridiculously long already, I shall leave you with the information that tomorrow will have to be spent retaking all the photos I took on my phone using my actual camera so that they are of sufficiently high quality to share with people (that's assuming that this thunderstorm stops some time soon, it must be nearly 5 hours now). Adieu.
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
These first few days in Barcelona have been something of a baptism of fire. They have also taught me several valuable lessons, which wil stay with me for the rest of my life. Firstly, NEVER try to outdrink an Australian, and NEVER EVER try to outdrink two Australians. The €2 vodka shots bar, where everything comes with a slight taste of lighter fluid because they like setting things on fire and chucking cinnamon into the flames over here, taught me this lesson the hard way last night. With 500 different flavours to choose from, we were rather spoilt for choice. We opted for such classic shots as the "Bin Laden", the "Golum" and the "Teletubbie" (which resulted in one of the Aussies yelling "I went to Barcelona and I did a Teletubbie!" at random points during the night), and then made the mistake of asking the bartender to "surprise us". I dread to think what was actually in that shot glass, but from what I could make out, it was whisky, tequila and the tears of a thousand orphans. Still, with the drinks prices in the next bar as high as they were (€5 for a beer? A terrible, Budweiser-in-a-tiny-bottle beer? I think not), we were glad to be able to save some money in there. It seems that Spanish DJs have some deep-rooted objection to putting one song on and leaving it to play all the way through. So, about 30 seconds into Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (we were busting some serious moves to this as well), we went, less than seamlessly, into some Pendulum. We grew tired of elbowing fat Brazilians in the ribcage (Barcelona is apparently the European city most like Brazil, so the Brazilian presence here is massive) and stumbled back around the corner to the hostel. My second life lesson is te one which has caused me perhaps the most problems when trying to get my uni registration and accommodation sorted out: Barcelona shuts at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. No official buildings are open, most of the shops are closed (although some do reopen at 5, for all of two hours) and you find yourself wondering what the people of Barcelona (and indeed Spain in general, this is by no means a local phenomenon) need three hours every afternoon for? If people actually worked for these three hours, maybe Spain's economy wouldn't be in quite as much of a state as it is. Apparently though, doing very little all morning (I was in a faculty office this morning, where instead of helping students, staff were sat staring at monitors for computers that weren't even turned on) is so tiring that they need a rest in the afternoon. Aww, bless. In practical terms, this means that one is obliged to get up ridiculously early (not easy in a hostel where you can't get to sleep until gone midnight), do everything you need to do in the morning (again, difficult when you have to walk across the city, stand in a queue, only to be told you're in the wrong queue in the wrong department, and that the department you want is back where you just came from) and then be bored out of your mind for the afternoon. I have taken to just wandering aimlessly around the streets in the afternoons, working on the theory that the infamous Barcelona pickpockets will have exhausted themselves by picking one person's pocket in the morning that they feel they need the afternoon off to recover, ahead of another hard morning's pickpocketing the next day, thus allowing me to get totally lost without having to worry about mysteriously losing the contents of my pocket at the same time. I have yet to see most of Barcelona's more famous sites, however I am now very well acquainted with the port area (absolutely nothing of interest here, but I took plenty of photos of that nothingness just to make sure). I plan to rectify this by doing one landmark for every month that I'm here, in order to spread things out a little bit and keep it interesting. Either that, or I'll do some of the paid ones when people come out to visit (for they WILL visit), and we can go and see stuff together-these things are much more fun with other people, much like drinking and pretty much everything else under the sun. Incidentally, the sun has made a welcome return to the sky today, after the horrendous thunderstorms which came along while I was busily buying beer and bread (I can tell that these two things will be my staple diet). Running from doorway to doorway in soaking wet clothes, carrying a bag that was more full of water than shopping, all while wearing slippery flip-flops and lamenting not even having packed an umbrella is not an experience I would recommend. And there is life lesson number three: no matter what the guidebooks say about its consistently good weather, Spain is like the rest of the world-it can absolutely heave it down with no forewarning whatsoever, and it will always happen when you are least well equipped for it. And I shall leave you with that deep and meaningful insight.
Monday, 6 September 2010
So, I've finally moved into the late 90's and started a blog. As mentioned, the idea is to sort of splurge everything I experience on my year abroad onto this blog, and then you good folk can read it or ignore it. It would of course have made sense to start this before I left, to chronicle my mounting sense of dread and impending doom, but I'd never manage such a feat of forward planning. As it was, it was very hard to leave, especially knowing that I only had 5 days' worth of accommodation at the other end, not to mention that I wouldn't be seeing my girlfriend for 3 months. Still, I got here eventually (plane delayed for the best part of an hour for no discernable reason whatsoever). I came out of the pleasantly air-conditioned airport to be greeted by the most stifling heat I've felt in years-compared to the rain I left behind in the UK, 27 degrees was positively tropical. By some amazing stroke of luck, I happened to choose the exact bus stop I needed from the dozen on offer, and for a modest fee, I was whisked into the centre of Barcelona. Here, my sense of direction and my reading skills failed me, and I did two full circuits of the Plaza de Catalunya looking for a street that doesn't exist. Reading the paperwork again, I managed to stagger (up a street that did exist) in the direction of the hostel, which was much more of a walk than I was expecting, although I couldn't say why. Hostel found, bags dropped and shower had (taking at least two showers a day is apparently quite normal here), I took a short walk around the corner (amazing how much easier things are to find when you have a map) to a burger bar. It took an eternity to get seated, and then several more to get served. I wouldn't care, but they were hardly rushed off their feet in there, 20 covers max. I couldn't help but feel like I stood out, just for eating alone. Having had enough of my own company, I went back and started to get ready for the night of dreadful karaoke, expensive drinks and weird live club music (I never knew you could buy electric steel drums, but you learn something new every day) ahead, which I'd been persuaded into by two of the others in my dorm at the hostel. In this case, I'm glad I went, as it afforded me the chance to break out all the slurred and drunken German I've not had the chance to use since Berlin at Easter (dorm-mate turned out to be from Hamburg). In fact, up until the Orange shop this morning, I'd probably spoken more German than Spanish. After that late night, and in light of the fact that my phone decided to die on me just after I got out of the airport, I was expecting to wake up at some point in the afternoon with a splitting headache. Thankfully, I was wrong on both counts, and managed to have bought breakfast, eaten breakfast and showered before 11. Because I was still labouring under the illusion that I'd forgotten my phone charger (it turned up a couple of hours ago in a pocket in my rucksack I hadn't ever seen before), I had to wait in the stupidly long queue at the Orange shop, watching spotty teenagers and sweaty middle-aged taxi drivers buying iPhones. My turn came around (after at least 45 minutes of standing around), and I was immediately confronted with a hail of unintelligible babbling which I'm told they call "Spanish" in these parts. It took the salesman a surprisingly long time to cotton on to the fact that I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. I didn't realise until it came to paying for my new phone (irritatingly, it's a better handset than my UK one) that you still have to sign for card transactions in Spain. I thought the UK got the whole Chip'n'Pin thing from continental Europe? I then set out to try and find my University department. True to form, instead of being with the main university buildings in the conveniently labelled Plaza de l'Universitat, the faculty I needed happens to be across town. By the time I got there, having had to look up the address several times, I arrived to find the office shut and all the lights off. Typical. Mentally drained, I returned to the hostel for the second shower of the day. First though, I needed some food to create the greatest culinary feat since beans on toast-chorizo on pasta. This I accomplished for the princely sum of €2,48. And I still have some chorizo left. Last night is catching up with me now, so I shall post this before I fall asleep on the keyboard.