Tag Archive | "Living in barcelona"

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A late August day

Posted on 23 September 2016 by American expat!

1 PM on a late August day.

Walking through the old part of the city on a hot and still day. You can feel it will rain soon, the air has that quiet weight to it and you can smell the rain. It’s hot, but the sun is no longer beating down, the sky has just filled with clouds.

While the city is crowded with visitors, in this part of town the streets are so small and close it feels intimate. You catch snatches of conversations in doorways, rub shoulders with passersby and dogs brush past you. Finally, the heat and Mediterranean humidity give way to rain and soft thunder.

Through the ancient streets will their high, close walls you can hear each raindrop among the sounds of conversations and footsteps and rolling bike tires, squeaking brakes, the ubiquitous sound of rolling luggage through the narrow street. The walls offer balconies every meter or so, just enough cover to duck under when the rain falls faster than the heat can dry your hair.

The old stones let loose their smell of old earth and time as you pass tiny shop doorways and artist studios and micro restaurants. People speak more quietly, move more deliberately, duck into cafes with soft music. You stay out, dampened by the drops of rain that reach you.

And the beauty of the city is more evident in the slowed pace

 

 

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I’m like that foreign exchange student you made fun of

Posted on 17 February 2012 by American expat!

 

Remember that kid in high school? The one whose English you laughed at, not to mention the way she dressed and wore her hair? Maybe you said a few words to her in the lunch room or if her locker was located next to yours, but you usually didn’t bother chatting with her too long because she had trouble understanding you and, let’s face it, you had nothing in common. Now take that same situation and make her a couple decades older, add  couple of degrees and 5 additional countries to her list of places once called home and make the setting not school but work, and you have me. Well, first subtract all of her charm, and then you have me.

I write intensely in English all day and then must communicate and listen in Spanish. Sometimes people speak about what is going on to me and other journalists in languages I don’t understand and sometimes they speak Spanish, but sometimes I am not listening during those Spanish language moments. But if I am, I still have difficulty understanding (*sometimes. Let’s stick with the theme).

This becomes especially troublesome when unspoken rules regarding the particular content I am working on are present. I inevitably discover many of said unspoken rules by making mistakes. In fact, it is the only way I discover many of the rules, secret or not. This method of “training” is fairly standard here in Spain. And while the new kid on the block is floundering through said training, the cool kids are sitting back and rolling their eyes as mistakes pour in.

I am not suffering the cruel tricks that you all played on the exchange student, like helping her out with responses to teacher’s requests with phrases such as “why don’t YOU sit down, woman?”  In fact, the people I work with are nice as well as talented and capable. But  European corporate culture generally has remained old school in that there are no processes defined for how work gets done. Some have emerged organically, but nothing is documented and therefore nothing exists to pass on to any newcomers. Meaning: There is nothing to base any training on, no way to share knowledge or lessons learned nor anything to base required skills and abilities on for a job that opens up. Those jobs are largely defined around the person that previously held the job. Which means when that person goes, so does special job knowledge.

Of course, there are old school water cooler conversations for knowlege sharing that happen…but because of the subtelties of language that I am incapable of picking up on and producing, I don’t attempt to initiate casual conversations about work, that in itself is too much work. And since I’m the weird language exchange kid, I am not included anyway.

I realize this is kind of a big bitch-fest, but in a roundabout way it is also praise for the US corporate model. Not something you would generally consider when you think of the word ‘homesick’, but for me it ranks big. Like the exchange kid, my best friends, confidants and family are in my country of origen. If I have a bad day or feel lonely, I don’t have a community at work to fall back on, at least not yet anyway. (As it happens, I am feeling particularly lonely after a fantastic time with my best friends in the US.  To top it off, one of my only two good friends here is leaving in July.)

So I don’t know what the exchange student did when she felt isolated. Probably nothing. Just waited to go home. Or maybe she called her mom. Me, I am just going to keep at it, there isn’t much I can do about the corporate culture and I don’t care if they think I am a crazy American. I am unmotivated to improve my Spanish because I am too tired, I am working hard. We will see this year if the trade off is worth it. If not, this exchange kid might just be heading back to her friends and family in her country of origin. (!!)

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Eight reasons I live in Spain.

Posted on 03 January 2012 by American expat!

 

In no particular order, here are some things I am appreciating at the moment about living in Spain.

1-Cursing.

There is plenty of cursing in everyday speech here in Spain, from classrooms to courthouses. It is part of the daily vernacular of the Spanish to punctuate sentences with curse words. Natives generally speak pretty loudly in the first place, so if you are already yelling, what better way is there to indicate some emphasis than to curse? Personally, I find it amusing and even delightful. You gotta love a place that runs commercials for cold medicine that begin with a woman coughing and saying: “joder, estoy resfriada” which translates to “fuck, I have a cold”.

2-Flexible hours, in every meaning of the phrase. 

OK, I’ll admit – sometimes it sucks when it’s 4:45pm and you are still waiting outside the shop or bank that was supposed to re-open after siesta at 4:30. You might answer ahora to the person who shows up to wait along side you outside the shop when they ask what time the place re-opens. But ahora doesn’t necessarily mean now. On the other hand, when you show up late to an appointment, work, a meeting or dinner, lateness is almost always (if not actually always) overlooked. And for me, who is very rarely not late, it’s an acceptable trade off. In fact, if you make plans with friends to meet at 10:00pm, and you show up at 10:30pm, you are right about on time. You may even be the first to show.

3-Speaking of siesta, living here means that between 2 and 4:30 there’s no point in trying to get anything done.

This is generally lunchtime and everything but the restaurants and cafes close until 4, 4:30 or 5pm. The reopening hour depends on the shop. Usually the hours are posted, but like I said, those hours tend to be flexible. This might seem to be a pain in the ass at first, but because these places are closed for a few hours during the day, it means everything stays open late. When you get off work at 6 or 8 or whenever, shops, the post office and even some banks are open until at least 9, with some open until 10pm and the streets are full of people, sidewalk cafes and bars busy serving drinks and tapas (but certainly not dinner, anything before 9:30 is far too early) and the day continues until dinner, and then the night begins which is generally not for sleeping but for socializing.

4-Willingness to take risks for the sake of tradition – and a good time.

There might be some festivities here considered dangerous by American standards, but people take responsibility for their actions should they decide to participate. For example, the Catalan tradition of people climbing onto each others shoulders to heights up to 7-9 people stacked atop each other, then sending a 5 year old to scale the tower and slide down the other side (called Casteller teams). Or the Falles in Valencia, where millions of firecrackers are set off in the streets during a weekend, and after parading through the town, giant wooden statues are then torched in public while people stand very, very close. Or the Catalan tradition of Correfoc, where people dressed as devils shoot fireworks into the crowds while drummers lead a local float, usually a dragon or demon, or sometimes just a donkey (the symbol of Catalunya) that also spits fire while people, children included, run through the sparks. I think the Spanish like the feeling that they are alive. I can appreciate that.

la merce barcelona correfoc

5-Honesty in public places.

People generally don’t form lines here, except maybe in the supermarket where you need a chance to stack all your stuff. Otherwise, when you enter a bank or bakery, it’s standard practice to ask the people standing or sitting around “Quien es la ultima?” (Who is the last). Whomever indicates they are servidor, meaning “I am” but literally translating to “your faithful servant”. Then you know who you are behind, and you become the servidor or servidora. Another display the honesty system is in bars and cafes. When you order, you don’t give your credit card to keep a tab open and don’t pay as you are served. You order, enjoy your food and drinks, then when you decide to leave, you tell the bartender or cashier exactly what you ordered and they ring you up. The cashier won’t keep track of what you consumed, he is likely busy serving up drinks or delivering food. He expects you to remind him what you had. And remarkably there is very little exploitation of this.

6-Bargaining for rent prices.

Just because an ad specifies one price, it doesn’t always mean the owner or agency expect to get it. It’s like car sales, you can bargain for extras or bargain down the price. If you want a different contract term, a different rent price, utilities thrown in, or to furnish an unfurnished place, you can request it. Most agencies and owners are more than willing to work with you to get the place rented.

7-Public displays of affection.

People kiss each other on both cheeks in greeting, touch each other when speaking, hug each other, slap shoulders, touch each others dogs and children without fear of offending, and kiss and hold hands in public. This goes for straight, gay and platonic couples. Although a Catholic country, there is no stigma or scorn towards gay couples and gay marriage is legal. I see gay couples walking hand in hand daily here, everywhere. No one tuts disapprovingly, and that is refreshing.

8-Cheap booze.

A good bottle of wine can be found for around 3€, and in smaller pueblos that sell local wines, you can find totally acceptable, in fact quite often delicious, wines for under 1€. But there are thousands of places in every city to grab a beer or a glass of wine- you can go to a bar, a café, a bodega or a cevercería- there is one on every corner, and if the cost for a glass of beer or wine is over 2.50€ that is considered expensive. And while very there are plenty of British taking advantage of the cheap drink prices, very few of the Spanish exploit this to a negative effect. Though you will see the Spanish regularly drinking a beer at lunchtime then going back to work. And it is not unusual to see the waitress adding some brandy to morning coffees, especially at cafes frequented by blue collar workers. Because, as we all know, there’s nothing like a drink or two before work to help with your productivity.

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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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My neighborhood music

Posted on 14 July 2010 by American expat!

 

On any given day in the summer, I am treated to a cacophony of street sounds.

I live directly above a narrow passageway (it’s actually a street, and small cars do go down it, but not often. The street was built centuries ago so it’s quite narrow and twisty in places). My building is 6 stories and each floor has two apartments, except the top floor, which is part roof terrace for the whole building.

Sounds from the neighbors echo against the buildings as do noises from the park just around the corner, which is more like a dirt plaza surrounded by apartment buildings hundreds of years old. Some of the more common sounds I enjoy (or not) daily are as follows:

Toothless crazy lady

TCL lives across the street and up a few doors, one floor lower than mine, standing at her balcony squawking obscenities at the Pakistani owners of the corner shop and all who go in and out.  Her rude, grating voice carries as if it were amplified –  she yells from her diaphragm yet still is able to project the volume through her nasal passages.  This begins at 11am, will break for a few hours around siesta and dinner time, and continues on until 2 or 3am. Nightly.

Firecrackers at all hours of the day and night.

They are enjoyed and set off by tiny children to adults. The number and frequency increase depending on which of the hundreds of festivals are in effect, or how FC Barcelona is doing in a futbol match. If FC Barça are doing particularly well, firecrackers are not only set off en mass in the streets and plazas, they are throw out of windows at passers by.

Note: if a Futbol match is indeed in progress, The neighbor man across the street punctuates the plays with a stings of praise or criticism at the top of his voice. If Barca scores a goal, he will run out onto his balcony (occasionally in his underwear if it is hot) and jump up and down with arms raised high.

Children play heated matches of futbol in the park weekday mornings (which is why it is a dirt plaza. No watering system means no grass.) It’s not as bad as it sounds, I think the kids are a bit older so there isn’t the usual shrieking that accompanies young children getting excited and/or upset. The layered shouts and calls of the match echo off the walls and drift over to my open bedroom doors. This, with the rising heat of the day, makes for a pleasant waking in the summertime.

The guy next door neighbor singing loudly in English. Fortunately, his voice isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, the songs are usually horrible 80s pop tunes. This usually happens late night for my evening entertainment.

Parades

Any given parade could be happening at any time, on any day of the week. For example, the other Thursday evening, around 5pm, GP and I were returning from a bike jaunt in the mountains in his van. (He keeps his van across town in a narrow parking garage under an apartment building my friend lives in – but that is another story). The main road to my place was closed because there was a pirate parade (Yes. As in the “Arrrrrr” kind of pirates).

Another ridiculous example: I heard a drum-line heading down the street a random Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago. As joined the other neighbors looking off their balconies to watch, several Gigantes (giant paper-mache people) appeared in my street. Shortly, two Gigantes were positioned to face each other while people milled around and the drums continued. Then a couple of men popped out from under the robes of the giants and milled around as well. Finally, the men climbed back under their giant’s big skirts, hoisted them onto their shoulders (presumably), and left the street while my neighbors looked confusedly at each other.

Giants are under my balcony!

And lastly, bands playing in front of the Santa Caterina Mercat, 3 mins from my place. Outdoor are stages set up in any given plaza, park, or square in Barcelona for free, public music performances. These continue until late into the night, 1am during the week and until 3am on weekends.

Let me epilogue this post with this: I love that I can walk down my building’s stairs and instantly be in the middle of everything – the old and new mix together in a wonderful sensory experience that is difficult to capture in words, but I am attempting to capture some of it here, little by little. Where I live sounds like a noisy place, and it is. But it is full of life and excitement and new discoveries every day.

And if it gets too noisy, I can close the hundred year old wooden and shuttered glass doors to my brick and mortar flat and the outside world fades away.

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