Thursday, March 15, 2012

A little excursion

It is another sunny morning here in Barcelona. I am sitting in the lounge next to a big wooden carving of a stick figure who is folded onto himself with his elbows on his knees and his oversized head in his hands, with huge bulging eyes looking out from underneath a bowler hat. Opposite me there are a pair of narrow french doors letting the sun in onto a painted wooden rocking horse that sits beneath them. While I suppose these are both potentially quite creepy, they really made the place for me when we first walked in  (as maybe future friends or guardians, I'm not sure which). I also immediately loved the concrete walls painted various shades of orange and yellow, which at the time just seemed suitably "Spanish" but which, I have since learned, can also seem to create light and warmth.

Our own room has a window that looks out onto a ring of buildings surrounding a wide expanse of roof that sits a few floors below us. We are one of many windows, washing lines, lives that all look out onto one another. The roof below is a hangout spot for pigeons which are chased by seagulls which in turn are dwarfed by another type of gull that likes to stalk around the place. They seem to be quite content with the three multi-coloured cats that wander around and sun themselves, maybe because the big gulls can match them in size (as you can see my bird-naming is somewhat lacking). Anyway, they all keep us and the surrounding flats company with their hawking and meowing and wailing day and night. Again, something that might be considered awful but that (maybe just for us, maybe just for now) often provokes a smile.

Last weekend we had a chance to get out of the city though, which as wonderful as it is, is nonetheless quite dirty despite the constant street cleaners rolling up and down the roads and footpaths leaving them wet with puddles. It was a relief to be "in the moutains" (by our standards it was more like being "in the hills") 20 minutes by train in Les Planes. We went with the language school to "la fiesta de la calçotada" in honour of "calçots". These are a Catalan delicacy - a type of large spring onion that is cooked on a barbeque until it is completely black and sooty, then peeled (by holding the stem and pulling upwards), dipped in a tomato based sauce and eaten with relish. I say with relish because it's held high in the air above upturned faces and then lowered into mouths that are wide open and smiling at the same time. Calçots are only in season for one or two months a year I'm told, and so apparently Catalonians take every chance they get to enjoy them.

So about 30 of us made our way to Plaça Catalunya and then onto the train with bags and bags of onions in tow. When we arrived, we were faced with a huge barbeque area - a long line of pits for cooking behind a big collection of green picnic tables filled with bottles of wine (later to be mixed with coca cola to make a "calimocho" or with lemonade to make what we dubbed "poor man's sangria" - delicious), "alioli" and various other essentials. The cooking was already in progress and of course, one of our chefs just happened to be a Kiwi - Peter from Kerikeri, who naturally did an excellent job. The menu was to include everything from potatoes wrapped in tin foil to whole grilled artichokes, sausages, steaks, sardines ... It was a feast, turned into a fiesta by the sunshine, the number of strangers sharing one space and of course the calimocho. It was basically really awesome.

(At first when my teacher told us about it she said the calçots were cooked in fire ... "so we go to the mountain". At first I didn't understand how these two relate to one another (bonfire maybe??) but I have since learned that barbeque-ing in Barcelona itself is illegal, which I guess is one of the reasons that places like Les Planes exist and are used with such enthusiasm). 

We also got to meet some new people, students from the school and staff members and other random strangers. It has not ceased to amaze me all the different reasons people come to Barcelona (we have in fact meet very few "Barcelonans", even our flatmate is from Galicia, in the north). It seems to be a great place to come if you are living in Europe and are having a mid/quarter/late life crisis or are just a bit stuck (provided you have funds/work here). Actually, we also met an Australian man in his 60s who had sold up everything at home and arrived here a few weeks ago, so I guess there are no geographical limitations...

With love, as always, hasta luego!

Friday, March 9, 2012

A little big city

Here we are in Barcelona. This sentence reminds me of my dad's voice at the beginning of all those videos shot in various towns around Europe when my brother and I were kids chattering and singing and bickering in the car until we got to "here we are".  I also think of my father now on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning when I walk down La Rambla and up Carrer de Ferran to my language class in Carrer d'Avinyo. I remember all his walks through Budapest on his way to learn Hungarian and the accompanying fascination, and I feel another small repetition of histories.

It's nearly a month since our first day here when we discovered these streets, wandering and wondering at the alleyways and boulevards. The famous La Rambla, with its huge trees that have seen so many years and changes. Of course, it is a complete tourist trap now but the street is nonetheless very helpful to me because it marks the middle of the centre of Barcelona, a place I can always seem to find my way back to through the myriad of winding cobblestones either side of it. Placa Reial, ringed with arches and restaurants and palm trees and centered on a fountain. And then, of course, Columbus (a huge statute pointing towards his discovery), the waterfront and the cafe/bar where we first ate tapas and where, a week later, a friend took us (one of those wonderful fateful coincidences).

Our first three days were spent in a similar enchanted state while we continued walking around the city and coming "home" to our shared apartment/hostel and our tiny sloping balcony with one euro bottles of wine and chorizo and gouda cheese. During this time we found the Catedral (google tells me it's officially "Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia"). Having earlier walked around outside Sagrada Familia, full of construction and hordes of people, this smaller work of Gaudi's blew us away with its eaves and inner courtyard, surrounded by buskers. The city is full of Gaudi, which for the most part seems to be a tourist gimmick, but we began to understand why when we visited Park Guell this week. This huge park (scene of a moment of seduction in the Spanish Apartment, for anyone who's seen it) is a landscape gardening masterpiece full of trees, bushes, cacti, colourful tile roofs, seats, walls, the lizard (one of his most famous pieces) and stone structures that look like messy collections of rocks but on closer inspection are intricate and patterned. The whole place offers fantastic views onto the city and, weirdly, (given that is it on a hill quite far above sea level) is sandy and dusty. In short, it's amazing.

(Actually, I have thought of the Spanish Apartment several times during the last few weeks and had my very own Spanish Apartment moment while we were riding the cable car and the same Chopin waltz as is played in the film was tinkling in the background. "Living the dream" has taken on a whole new meaning.)

"It's a small world after all" proved true again that first week when we met up with two Italian girls living in Barca who M had met in New York years ago. They took us to some bars where the "Spanish" (or, in this case, Italians) go, where the wine or vermouth is homemade and the place full. A few days later, we found a flat just around the corner from them. It's in El Raval, the "dangerous" (read: less touristy) part of town, where I am writing from now. To be completely honest, M found it while I was having a siesta one day, a practice which, we discovered after a while, is not actually practiced in Barcelona, although the smaller, owner-operated places do shut down for a few hours and reopen until late at night. We have found that after about 5pm is when the city comes alive and the streets and shops and restaurants fill with people, the football starts playing on the bar tv screens (with cries of "gol-ol-ol-ol-ooooool!!" from the commentators now and then, more regularly if Messi's playing) and the cops seems to multiply in numbers around town.

We have also found our own collection of bars where we have started to become regulars. Bar Muy Bueno, not far from where we live, where we get served a huge three course meal plus drink and coffee for 8.50 euros, if we make it there before 4pm (and, to our triumph, no English is spoken). Les Tapes, run by a Spanish husband and English wife, full of knick-knacks, a book exchange, and the most delicious tapas. Eating there is like going to the fridge at home for some leftovers where mum and dad make everything (including things you normally don't like, in my case eggplant) taste heavenly. And of course there is always football playing and the bar's very own collection of eclectic regulars also provide entertainment. (We were also treated to one of the owner's card tricks the other night, which I think probably officially marks our status as "regulars".) Among others ...

Our time here has been full of the excitement of being in a new city mixed with the ordinariness of "living" somewhere - walking up four flights of stairs with the supermarket shopping, hanging out the washing on a clotheshorse by the window, waiting for water to boil on the stovetop for the Nescafe ... (although, at this stage without having to go to work, a luxury as long as it is temporary). Doing the Stuff daily quiz, still ploughing through (savouring?) Janet Frame's Living in the Maniototo. I have rediscovered my (Hungarian?) passion for aqua con gas (ásványvíz or soda water) which M is gradually beginning to partake in, the empty bottles of which are currently full of flowers purchased on La Rambla one evening for the probably exorbitant sum of four euros (worth every cent despite the fact it would have bought me a pack of Lucky Azuls (Blues)). Old things turned new. Is it when these things become old again that we have "lived" somewhere or is that just a decision we make?

At any rate, we are currently very happy in our very own Spanish apartment and sending lots of love to everybody at home...hasta luego!