Monthly Archives: June 2016

I finally made it to Barcelona!

I realise I’ve only recently bombarded you with pictures from a trip to Lyon and now I’m about to whack you over the head with another rash of snaps, this time of beautiful Barcelona. But before anyone’s staightjacketed inner globetrotter gets their knickers in a funk, I would like to assure you that your travel envy is (sadly!) misplaced: I’ve not left Toledo so far this year. Until those two trips, that is, both of which happened in the very same week. Madness! Lyon was a last-minute jaunt with a good friend who’s about to leave the country, and the reason I went to  Barcelona was to meet up with a dear friend from London. This was, in fact, my first ever visit to Catalonia.

And, if it makes you feel any better, I came back with a stonking cold and a severe case of conjunctivitis. My eyes swelled up so bad, I had to turn off Skype for two days – I was just too afraid my mum would see me in this state!

Barcelona Harbour

Barcelona flower

Barcelona Bubbles

Here are my only two OK-ish pics from inside Sagrada Familia:

Sagrada Familia Windows

Sagrada familia organ

Organ pipes, in case anyone’s wondering

La Sagrada Familia in the distance - surrounded by construction machinery. It's due for completion in 2026. or 2028.

La Sagrada Familia in the distance – surrounded by construction machinery. It’s due for completion in 2026. Or 2028. Or whenever.

A bit more Gaudi, this time from Parque Güell:

Park Güell fence

 

Barcelona harbour:

We took a ride up to Montjuïc in the cable car, an installation that can only be described as an ill-conceived disaster.

It was not a busy day. The queue of people in front of us was deceptively short. Nevertheless, we had to wait nearly an hour to be herded into the lift. There is only one single little lift that accommodates ten people. The outside waiting area is bereft of shade, and even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, we got sweaty and uncomfortable, not to mention a tad cranky. How does this work in the summer at 30+ degrees C, 85% humidity, with lines three or four times as long?! People must be collapsing like dominoes. Is there a fleet of ambulances ready and waiting to cart them off?

Once you get to the top of the tower, there is yet more waiting before they let you get onto the cable car. You might think that the wait would be a prime opportunity to take some great pics, since the platform is encased in glass. But no. The window panes are filthy, every inch covered in greasy finger prints, toddler snot and soft drink splatters. I don’t think they’ve been cleaned, ever, on either side!

The carriage itself holds about 20-30 people, but moving around and enjoying a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city isn’t an option. You’re packed in like pilchards. My friend and I ended up standing on the “bad side”, of course.

The ride is a short one, a mere few minutes, and once you reach the café on top of the hill, you do actually get a breathtaking view of Barcelona. A jug of sangria helps considerably to mellow the experience. Luckily, there’s no need to take the cable car on the return journey – you can walk back down into town very comfortably.

The main problem seems to be this: There are only TWO cable cars. One each way. There should be at least six of the damn things. Who thought this out?! WHO?!? I want that man, I want him tied to his harebrained creation by the balls, and, above all, I want him to re-do his fucking engineering degree in Germany. How can such a great idea turn into an epic fail? End of rant.

The tower of smudge

Dangling sardine can

…of which there are two. Those two.

Where’s the cake?! Well, there was no cake. Yes, you read that right. No Cake. I and my partner in crime went on a daily chocolate binge instead. We are a diligent pair. Barcelona is full of artisan chocolate shops. There’s no pictorial evidence of our collective sins, though, because my camera does not care for chocolate. No matter how handsome the morsel, it ends up looking like a turd in each and every photo.

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Four Annoying Things That Spanish People Do

Talking VERY VERY LOUDLY

When Spanish people socialise, even if it’s just two or three of them meeting up for a coffee, a curious thing happens: They seem to lose any awareness that there are other people around them. I’ve had to raise my voice on many occasions to keep communicating with a friend sitting  a few inches away from me because of a group of diners in another corner of the restaurant. They were not drunk or rowdy, just Spanish.

In the UK or Germany, this kind of behaviour also happens.  Usually, though, the perpetrators of  noise pollution are either hormone-crazed teenagers or legless lager louts. In Spain, well-dressed middle aged ladies have no trouble outhollering a busload of pupils on their annual school trip – after all, they have half a century of practice under their belts and are eager to demonstrate that they are not fettered by the shackles of consideration for others or any such social niceties. The louder the merrier!

Kids everywhere, at all hours

Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – just 1.3 whelps per woman in 2015. Even child-averse Germany’s is higher (1.4).

And yet, you cannot get away from tantruming toddlers. A true paradox.

A visiting UK friend remarked to me once, on seeing a 5-year old being wheeled around in a buggy one late Saturday afternoon, “That child is too old to be in a push chair!” Indeed. What she didn’t know was that the vehicle wasn’t about saving the poor little blighter’s legs, but about saving everyone else’s nerves much, much later on in the day. That buggy, was, in fact, a mobile bed.

The parents were going to be out till the wee hours, enjoying good food and wine. After running around and shouting its little head off, the sweaty, worn-out sprog would eventually collapse into the wheeled sedan chair around 1am. It’s my personal theory that this is why events like concerts start so late here in Spain – everyone has to wait patiently until the kids finally pass out on their own accord before people can get on with the adult stuff.

In Germany or the UK, a young child in a restaurant (or any public place) after 8pm is a rarity. There’d be disapproving looks. The little one needs its sleep. Some would consider dragging a cranky minor around in the evening to be kind of child abuse. Not so in Spain, school night or not.

Incidentally, Spain has the highest rate of “fracaso escolar” (lit. “school failure”) in the European Union. According to Eurostat data released in 2015, 21,9% of Spanish students abandon the education system prematurely without any qualifications, compared to an EU average of 11.1%. Am I the only one wondering whether, perhaps, there may be a possible correlation…?

Finders Keepers

If you happen to lose your bag, your wallet, your favourite pen, etc, you may as well say goodbye to it the second you notice. The chances that anyone will hand it in or, if you’ve left it in a shop or a restaurant, keep it under the counter in case you return, are extremely slim. If you’ve forgotten it at someone’s house it’s perfectly safe, of course, but strangers encountering lost property seem to operate a strict finders keepers policy.

This miserly mindset, you may be surprised to learn, is sanctioned by a saint. Yes. A saint. An Italian one that goes by the name of Saint Rita, aka the patron saint of impossible causes.

There’s a Spanish saying that’s commonly evoked when someone is blessed with some unexpected providence: “Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da, no se quita”. Loosely translated: Saint Rita, Saint Rita, what is given cannot be taken. In other words: finders keepers.

I lost a nice pair of sunglasses once here in Toledo, in either one of three shops that I frequent on a weekly basis. They never surfaced again. I also lost a laptop in Copenhagen, which duly found its way back to me. Thankfully, nobody’s ever heard of bloody Santa Rita in Denmark! I rest my case.

She said you can keep it...

If she says you can keep it… who’s to argue with divine providence?

The smoking

Before moving to Spain, I’ve never really had any close friends who smoked. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided making friends with smokers, but it just so happened that people I connected with didn’t usually smoke.

Smoking prevalence is higher in Spain compared the UK, where I’ve spent most of my adult life – 21.1% of Spaniards smoke compared to 18.4% of Brits. In the US, just 16.3% of the population are smokers and in Canada it’s 15.6%.

Another factor, in my observation, is that in Spain, just about anyone, regardless of social background or level of education, may whip out a cigarette on a balmy evening. In the UK, the US and Germany, by contrast, people who went to university are much less likely to be hooked on tobacco.

Smoking is forbidden in Spain in bars and restaurants, and this is widely observed, but if you’re from North America or Northern Europe, you may be in for a surprise if you get invited to people’s private houses for a meal, a party, or some other type of social gathering. They will light up. Right there at the table. In a closed room. It will fill up with smoke, your eyes may be streaming, your unprepared respiratory system may start to convulse in distress. And nobody will give it a second thought. You have been warned.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Disclaimer (of sorts): I admit, I was scraping the barrel when I wrote this post… the positives of hanging out with Spanish folk far outweigh the negatives. I gather from other blogs that, in many countries, new arrivals, especially those who are longer in their early twenties, tend to find it hard to enter into rewarding friendships with locals. In my experience – and I’m far from being outgoing, personality-wise – this is not a problem here in Spain, where people, on the whole, are welcoming, open-hearted, generous and inclined to strike up a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in them.

As an aside, the old stereotype that Spanish people are notoriously unpunctual, is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. People may, on occasion, be a few minutes late. I may be a few minutes late. Noting out of the ordinary. The bizarre thing is that the Spanish seem to have internalised this belief about their chronic unpunctuality, and are highly apologetic about this perceived shortcoming – particularly those, it seems, who are rarely late themselves. I’m not quite sure what that is about. I’ve heard that poor time keeping is particularly rampant in the south of the country rather than in the central/northern parts, but since I have little experience of southern Spain, I can’t really comment on that.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

Last Minute Lyon

Procrastination is the road to perdition. The original plan was to spend a long weekend in Lisbon, but when it finally came down to booking the trip a mere five days before it was meant to happen, air fares had shot up to stupid levels. Pushed for time, my friend and I plonked for Lyon instead, courtesy of some very reasonably priced EasyJet flights. Neither of us had been to Lyon before, and I was kinda keen (and terrified at the same time) to practice my abysmal French.

I came to regret this snap decision the very next morning. That’s when I heard about the escalation of the strike situation in France. I had been  vaguely aware of some ongoing disputes to do with employees’ rights or something, but I’d not really been on the ball about the ramifications of this national crisis: oil refineries blocked off by burning barricades, a third of petrol stations out of fuel, public transport up the spout, air traffic controllers about to join the fray,  etc.

And into the disaster zone we go!

And off into the disaster zone we go!

**Spoiler alert: I fretted over nothing!**

In the end, we weren’t impacted by the strikes in any way whatsoever. Our trip turned out to have been very fortuitously timed, slotting in between two big bouts of industrial action.

Our only two complaints were the shitty hotel – our floor was stickier than a marshmallow factory – and the copious rain, but it was still a great weekend with lots of laughs and good food (except for a lunch involving gristly dry sausages – probably the only type of French food that a German can authoritatively criticise*).

Lyon is stunningly beautiful – I was agog whenever the curtain of rain parted, and everyone was really friendly and helpful. Even the staff of Marshmallow Towers.

The city stands at the confluence of two rivers and so there’s an infinite number of photogenic bridges:

Lyon Bridge

A shot of me taking the above shot

A shot of me taking the above shot

Lyon Bridge

 

Lyon view

Lyon views

Lyon Town Hall

Grafiti

Hinterhof

Penguins

Lyon has tons of cute cafés…

Lyon Café

Lyon Café

Lyon Café 1

 

Here's one where you can play any conceivable type of board game

No, it’s not a café with slot machines, but one where you can play any conceivable type of board game

Lyon Café

Flashy and with great ambience for sure, but a tad expensive. €23 for sausage and lentils? Forget it! In Spain, you can have that for a fiver. And the sausage will be up to scratch.

Lyon Café

Roses

It also seems to have been moving day in Lyon:

Got a shelf to move but no car? Just pop in on a skateboard!

Got a shelf to move but no car? Just pop in on a skateboard!

Kill two birds with one stone: Use mattress as rain shield

Kill two birds with one stone: Use mattress as a rain shield

Can you guess what's coming?!

Can anyone guess what’s coming up next?!

Yup. Cakes!!! What else?!?

Lyonese praline tart - fancy stuff!

Lyonese praline tart – fancy stuff!

...unfortunately, the one I tried wasn't all that great. Way too sweet and the pastry seemed to be made of bulletproof cardboard

Unfortunately, the one I tried wasn’t all that great. Way too sweet, and the pastry seemed to be made of bulletproof cardboard

Poached pear anyone? Now this one was absolutely delicious :)

Poached pear with gooey chocolate sauce anyone? Now this one was absolutely delicious 🙂

...but sometimes all you need is a crepe and a nice cup of tea :)

…and sometimes all you need is an apple sauce crêpe and a nice cup of tea 🙂

And some nice poppies to finish off :)

And some happy poppies to finish off.

So, did I get to practice my French? Well, yes, a little… with mixed success. I understood virtually all the written information I came across, which would have passed me by a year ago. Also, the mere attempt of communicating in French with wait staff etc was received very well. Some chose to switch to English or Spanish, but they did it in good cheer, since, I guess, we had at least tried to make an effort. I hope to do better next time 🙂

*Find my German sausage post here: Nothing separates a German from their sausage