Archive | Daily Life

Summer in the city

Posted on 29 August 2011 by American expat!

 

August in Barcelona feels like it’s three months long

Muggy, still days with the sun burning into the evening hours, until it finally relents and turns into the most gorgeous evening light you have ever seen. A glimmering soft pink that is a photographers dream, hanging in the air for far longer than should possible, making you check your watch over and over to see if time has actually slowed.

Laundry takes ages to dry in the humidity, unless you are lucky enough to live high enough that your clothes hanging off your balcony get a few hours of direct sunlight. Each day is much like the next, hot and as slow as the street cleaners shuffling off to a bit of shade for a siesta. I work in the mornings, then later take dips in the buoyant Mediterranean, too salty to hold in your mouth but far more easy to float on than the Pacific Ocean, to periodically cool off while slowly broiling on the beach. Or I find some shade in the park and swat at the bugs while I read. It’s far too hot to bike ride, other than to get somewhere to cool off, until the sun is close to setting, which seemingly takes hours for it to do.

I feel like the fact that I even go to work makes me strange. My friends have weeks and weeks of time off. Half the businesses are closed for nearly the whole month, and shorter work hours are in place for those businesses that remain open, if it wasn’t for the hoards of tourists week to week, the city would feel empty.  This is when all the Spaniards leave the city and go spend the month at their small cabins on the Costa Brava and the expats residents, like me, go home for a  visit.  Which is what I want to do, should be doing – but work prevents me from taking enough time off to make the expensive and extremely long flight worthwhile.

Closed for August

So this summer I walked through the streets, studying the “closed for August” signs and wondering where these people might spend each August, and where I might spend mine next year.

 

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Too Close for Comfort

Posted on 16 June 2011 by American expat!

 

I live in a very dense urban environment.

My windowed balcony doors look across the narrow street into the neighbors same doors. I don’t need much imagination to see how my neighbors live. The street is so narrow between the buildings that  I can step out onto my balcony and have a conversation with people living on the other side of the street.

I probably should check  if I am decent when I walk out into my living room in the morning, but I rarely do. I don’t really care what the gay couple, whose vantage point looks across and down into my flat, sees me doing. I’m sure they are less than thrilled to watch me make coffee and slouch over a computer in my underwear. It’s possible they are entertained when I struggle through my front door, sweating and swearing after hauling a mountain bike up three flights of extremely narrow stairs. Or perhaps it interests them how often I do dishes, or compulsively clean the wood floors that are constantly dusty from the crumbling brick wall that comprises the entire eastern wall of my place. I, in turn, can see them trimming each others hair, dining, or relaxing on a luxurious looking sofa in their beautifully furnished and much larger flat.

The place just below the gay couple is more exposed from my vantage point. I can see their messy dining table all covered in papers, computers, an iron, phones, snacks… I see what they eat for lunch and dinner at that table. I can watch them sitting on their couch in the living room, reading in the chair, petting the cat who’s litter box is on the balcony and is so close I can sometimes smell it. I see all this, just as they see all my activities, though of course we attempt to appear not to notice. This is how you live in such close proximity. Pretend not to be looking, unless both of you are on the balcony. Then you can make eye contact and visit.

Occasionally a neighbor will have a dinner party, and I’ll get to hear all their chatter and music until the wee hours. Or the old guy a few floors up and across from me will enthusiastically watch a football match, running out onto his tiny balcony in his underwear, jumping and hooting, sometimes singing. All of this is fine, I can tune it out, even be entertained by it, even with my balcony doors open. But recently, a new family has moved in, and my relaxed attitude toward urban living and it’s various and sundry music has changed.

This is a Pakistani family with at least five children, two of whom are very young twin boys. Maybe 3 years old. I think they have a special language that twins sometimes develop, you know the one I’m talking about? Yeah, that, except their particular special language is made entirely of screams, angry whining and crying. Lots and lots of crying. Seriously, I don’t know what is wrong with them, I don’t even think they talk, but they constantly squeal and  scream while standing on their balcony, or from just inside the doors of their balcony which are alway open, echoing the noise through these narrow streets and bouncing off the stone walls directly through my now constantly closed doors and into my living room. At all hours of every day. For example, it is presently 1:17am and I hear those little fuckers squealing and crying right now.

Three or four times a day I open my doors and command them to be quiet, sometime pointing a finger at them to get back inside their house. If their older sister sees me, she will pull them inside and shut the doors. Any of their brothers will ignore me. Mom will occassionally smile up at me and sheepishly laugh, as if to say “Oh kids these days. What are you going to do?” The neighbors, when one of them throws a particularly piercing temper tantrum is thrown in the middle of the night, are not so nice with their language. They’ll shout “Shut up, Muslims!” using the word Muslim as an insult, or offer a charming “Hey, shut the fuck up!” (Which, for what it’s worth, generally works.)

I think from where I am situated, I get the worst of the reverberating screaming, or maybe the neighbors are more accustomed to living with noise. Either way, I won’t be able to keep my doors shut much longer. Summer is coming and it will be far too hot not to have them open. So unless the squealers shut up (unlikely), I’ll be moving again (likely). I told the owner here that I would stay until September, but I don’t think I can last that long. I hate to say it but those brats have won.

I guess it’s time to get out of my neighbors’ living rooms anyway.

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On Learning Castellano

Posted on 27 April 2011 by American expat!

 

Something happened in Spanish class the other day that got me thinking about languages.

Whenever you mention to Americans that you speak another language, the first question usually asked is “are you fluent?” But really, how do you answer that question? Do they mean: Can you order stuff in a restaurant? Have a conversation in the supermarket? How about on the phone? Argue about politics? Each of those things take a different level of language understanding to which you could truthfully answer Yes to the question of fluency. When I learned German, I got to a point where I was dreaming in the language and forgetting words in English. I was fully immersed in the language, and also a lot younger, which makes a difference. Of course, I immediately forgot all of the language I spent over a year learning upon leaving the country.

When I moved to Spain at the end of 2008, I fully expected to be dreaming in Spanish in six months. Two and a half years later, I am finally reaching a level of proficiency where I no longer avoid certain social situations because I know there would only be Spanish spoken and I will not be able to hold up a conversation. Try that for three or four hours and you’ll understand that more than once a week is too mentally exhausting not to mention humiliating.

So I’ve been diligently attending four hour, five day a week Spanish classes since November (though I cannot make it every week, for example I took a six week break in December/January because I was in the US). I’ve been two three different schools of varying excellence or lack thereof. I also study every day for another hour. This is how much work it takes to learn a new language as an adult. There is no learning by osmosis just because you are surrounded by another language. You will invariably seek out your native language speakers at some point just to feel a connection with with people.

But classes are great, I love going to school. I feel totally at home with the wake up, go to class, study at home, go practice with someone in person over a coffee routine.  (Maybe that’s why I spent 5 years in University and another 2 in graduate school. Or maybe that was just to avoid getting a real job, I don’t know.)

I love the international microcosm that the classes hold.  And I especially love when Japanese students are in the class. Not only because their cultural references are so different from the rest of the Western world (we picked a team name of “The Sharks”, another team chose “Lightening Bolts”, and a third team, who happened to all be Japanese students, chose the very sporting title of “Mountain”), but their fashion sense is awesome. Last year, I had a girl in class who one day wore giant clip on earrings, tube socks with shorts, and big Roy Orbison style black framed glasses with no lenses – just the frames. And that was just one day of many such delightfully fashionable outfits.

So anyway, my story about the other day: We had an exercise to do in class involving creating a name, slogan and advertising points for a fictional business to open in town. My partner (another American) and I chose “Internacional Casa de Pancakes”, our direct ripoff of IHOP, which would probably not be well received in any way by the Spanish since

  1. they do not eat pancakes
  2. they think our coffee is shit (which is true)
  3. their idea of syrup, indeed of anything sweet when it comes to breakfast, is either chocolate or caramel, and only chocolate or caramel
  4. they don’t really eat butter either

So blueberry syrup on a stack of pan fried doughy disks with butter would be triply repulsive. But we persevered nonetheless, and we put blueberry syrup in our list of features to lure in the clientele. Except no one understood the word I was absolutely, positively sure was the word for blueberry.

I said to the teacher over and over: Mirtillo. Mirtillo! I spelled it out. No one recognized the word or what I was trying to describe. Finally the doubt crept in. Maybe those are the red berries, not the blue ones?  The teacher told me arándano. I looked it up: arándano. Where had mirtillo come from?

As you know, there are two official languages in this region, and occasionally, especially with food because I learn the names in the markets but sometimes words to do with household related things, I learn and use the Catalan word for something. Finca instead of edificio for building, pruna instead of ciruela for plum, and I don’t even know I’m using a Catalan word. Here, if you are speaking Spanish and throw in a few Catalan words, it goes unnoticed as everyone does that anyway. So I figured, ah ha, I used the Catalan word and my teacher is from Peru, so she didn’t recognize the word.

But I just looked up the word in Catalan for blueberry. It’s nabiu (nah- BEEu). Mirtillo is Italian. I’m mixing three languages. I sound like my boyfriend when he tries to speak Spanish – it starts out OK then degenerates into a big mess of Italian/Spanish/Catalan. Everyone understands him, so it’s fine, and he doesn’t care in the slightest. But I want fluidity. I want no one to be able to detect where I am from and I want smooth, unhalted conversations on complex topics.

So I may be studying for the rest of my life. If nothing else just to keep what I have already learned in my head. But I like school, so I’m OK with that.

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Spanish TV is Painful.

Posted on 03 April 2011 by American expat!

 

Since I’m on a “Complain about Spain” streak, let me complain about television over here. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I do try to use it to enhance my listening skills and vocabulary. But there are three things I absolutely cannot stand about Spanish television that inevitably will make me turn it off after a few channel rotations:

1. Dubbing television shows and movies here is standard. Now, I cannot stand dubbing in the first place. Give me sub titles any day or make me try to figure out the story on my own by looking at the images.

But the problem is not the dubbing in itself. It is that there are two people (one man, one woman) who do all the language dubbing for programs bought from foreign (American) markets. I am so sick of hearing their voices I want to scream. And not only because they are overused voice “actors” and rarely fit the character on the program. And also not because I know that Brad Pitt does not sound like a 50 year old radio announcer.

It’s because they aren’t actors at all. I swear they don’t even try. They sound like two people reading a bedtime story to some kid, altering their voices to portray different characters and doing a shitty, lazy job of it. Imagine whiny, cranky sounding whimpering when someone on Law and Order is weeping over someone’s death. I’ll wait. OK, got it? It’s worse than that.

2. The music put to news stories never has anything to do with the story. Example. Today a story about a credit card scam was backed by – ready for this bit of production genius? – Huey Lewis and the News, Power of Love. I am serious, and this is not an anomaly. That dumb-ass song has the line “don’t need no credit card to ride this train”. And therefore the professional editors felt it appropriate to use this jaunty tune to enhance a story of thievery.

Another brilliant example is the use of the 1960s song “California Dreamin'” every. single. time. the state of California is mentioned. And as a location too, not the subject of a story. If you must have the word California in a song, there are around 700 other songs to choose from. Does another, more un-newsworthy song exist with the word California in it? No. And how amateur (or lazy?) is it to just use a song about California instead of the theme of the actual story? Where do these media people learn their craft?

3. Did I mention there are only 2 people working in the dubbing department for every single movie, Simpson’s episode and Sex and the City re-run? Because there are. Only two. Ridiculous.

4. Belen Esteban with her bright yellow, home hair-dye job, and her horrible, smoke ravaged, heavily made up face with it’s protruding lips and eyeballs is on the TV constantly. Girl, I have some advice for you: skip the lip collagen and plastic surgery and invest in some Botox, and maybe a facial peel or two. It may also be time to start using some sunblock. (Note: link on her name goes to a Facebook page dedicated to her “old” face, the one before she lost a lot of weight, had a bunch of plastic surgery, and evidently started smoking so much and baking in the sun. Enjoy.)

I think I’ll stick to the news for practicing my listening skills, since the irrelevant music is the least offensive of the three crimes. I’ll just crank up the volume and sing along with Huey next time one of his songs backs a story (which is often) since it’s gonna remain in my head for the next week regardless.

Or at least until California is mentioned in the news again.

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How to get around Barcelona

Posted on 04 February 2011 by American expat!

Transportation in Barcelona

Public transportation in Barcelona is affordable, efficient, safe , well-maintained and used by everyone. It is not uncommon to run into people you know on the Metro – or many places for that matter, Barcelona is pretty small!

There are buses, trains, above ground light rail systems, shared car services and city bicycles, but the trains and Metro are the easiest to immediately understand with signs and prices available in many languages. You don’t need a vehicle in you live within the city limits, or even outside the city limits in most cases.

Driving in Barcelona

In fact, owning a car is a big hassle. Parking is difficult, you have to pay monthly for (small, cramped and shared) garage space, and the rates are high-between 75 adn 150 euros per month just to park. Not to mention short term parking that can run 25 euros a day. Insanely narrow spaces and high traffic congestion means few vehicles escape dings and dents for long. If you live outside the city, parking is easier but within the city limits, you don’t need, or want, the hassle of a car.

Even in surrounding towns/suburbs of Barcelona a car is not essential. It’s possible to walk, bike, or bus around town and to the train for further distances, or even use the new car sharing service to get you where you need to go.

By far the quickest and best way to get around Barcelona is by scooter. I have a 250cc scooter that gets me to work faster than public

the best way to get around Barcelona is by scootertransportation, as my office is just outside the city center. Otherwise I would use public transport, or ride a bike. Scooters can split lanes, pass anywhere, park anywhere and are respected by drivers in cars because nearly all the residents in BCN either have or started with a scooter.

Any stoplight on a major road is a delight with the scooters lined up at the front all take off in a roar just before the light goes green. Pedestrians beware, because when you green walk signal starts flashing red, the scooters hit the gas.

Public Transportation

The majority of Barcelona’s transportation services participate in an integrated tariff system, meaning if you buy one ticket, you can use it for all the services: Metro, Bus, NitBus (Night bus that runs all hours), Tram (above ground light rail system) and regional commuter trains (FGC and RENFE), and if your trip lasts under one hour and 15 minutes you only pay for one ticket.

Single use tickets cost under 2 euros and many options for multiple use tickets exist, plus there are discounted tickets available for people under 25 and for seniors (children under four ride free).

  • A T-10 ticket is good for ten ten trips and is probably the most used ticket. Price is € 8.25 for within the city limits.
  • Monthly passes with unlimited use for thirty days (T-Mes 51 euros in the center up to 145 euros for way outside the city limits) or fifty trips in thirty days (T-50/30, 33.50 to 129 euros, depending on zones).
  • The T-Familiar (family pass) allows multiple people to make a total of seventy trips on one ticket for 30 days.
  • The T-Trimestre is an unlimited use, ninety-day ticket

Metro

The far-reaching and user-friendly Metro is the best way to get around Barcelona upon arrival. Automated ticket machines operate in all major languages, though announcements are made in Spanish and Catalan. Operating hours are Sunday-Thursday (and holidays), 5:00am to midnight, Fridays 5:00am to 2:00am, and 24 hours continuous Saturdays.

Bus

With over 100 routes, the bus system in Barcelona extends even further, and takes you closer to your doorstep, than the Metro. Though understanding how to read the system can take a bit of patience.  The Nitbus (night bus) runs every twenty minutes after 11 pm until 5 am, right when the Metro starts up again so you’ll never be stuck.

Tram

There are six Tram lines that extend to territories further out than those covered by the Metro. Lines T1, T2 and T3 cover some popular neighbourhoods not well-served by the Metro; including Pedrables, Esplugues de Llobregat and Sant Just Desvern. Line T4 runs on the opposite side of Barcelona and has stops close to the beach at Vila Olímpica and Diagonal Mar.

Ferrocarrils Generalitat de Catalunya (FCG) Regional Trains

FGC trains go to regional suburban areas that the Metro also reaches and beyond. It’s a fast way to commute to and from Barcelona and surrounding towns.

RENFE Train

RENFE is the Spanish railway network. RENFE Cercanías are the regional commuter trains in Spain’s major cities and operate similar to the FGC trains, linking surrounding towns to Barcelona.

Taxi

There is an endless supply of Barcelona taxis at any hour of the day or night. They are easy to hail and are found all around town and at taxi stands in the center. Rates are reasonable and should be posted in the cab. Tipping is most definitely NOT required and will probably result in a surprised, happy driver. It is totally reasonable and not an insult to leave the cabbie with .20 to .50 cents extra.
Don’t expect them to speak any English, though they may know a few words. It is better write your address down or a nearby landmark  if you don’t speak Spanish.

Biking in Barcelona

Biking, in my humble opinion, is the one of the best way to get around Barcelona. Bicycle lanes exist on many of Barcelona’s main streets, and the city council is continuously working to make Barcelona more bike-friendly. You can take your bike on the Metro, Trams and FGC depending on the hour-the highest volume hours (7 to 9am and 5 to 7pm) forbid bikes on the Metro though I see people break that rule all the time.Bicing, the second best way to get around barcelona

 

Even better than your own bike is the city bike system Bicing. This is hugely popular (for good reason) sharing service with hundreds of bike stations all over the city for the price of 37 euros per year, with small incremental charges for any one use that goes beyond 30 minutes. If you need to use a bike longer, drop one in a station, have a coffee, then pick one up again ten minutes later. Or just pay the .50 cent fee.

Note: You must be a resident with a bank account and a NIE to use this service.

 

More info on transportation in Barcelona:

Wikipedia Metro and train overview

Avancar in Barcelona news

 

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