Thursday, April 30, 2009

La Máquina de Pasapalabra

For over a month, the machine-like ability of José Manuel Lúcia to win Spain's most popular game-show called Pasapalabra (Pass the word) has captivated Spanish audiences and provided a much needed distraction to the constant bad news of the economic crisis and now the Swine Flu.

Based on The Alphabet Game and hosted by Spain's equivalent of Ryan Seacrest (Christian Galvez), two contestants are joined by local celebrities to form two teams of three, who must then match wits against each other through a series of word puzzles and tests in order to earn seconds for the grand finale called: El Rosco - at which time - with the letters of the alphabet encircling their faces on the TV screen, and starting with A and ending with Z; they must guess the word that starts with, or in some cases contains, the specified letter based on a quickly spoken clue as the seconds tick downAnd, if they don't know the word, the say: pasapalabra, and move on to the next letter of the circle, until they come back around to it again, time permitting.  It is by no means easy.

For 36 straight shows, José Manuel Lúcia from Asturias won the competition, but when it came to El Rosco, he'd fall painfully one or two letters short of completing the alphabet.  Sometimes, he'd run off ten letters in a row only to trip up on the eleventh; other times, it was a word he simply did not know.  The look of degection on his opponents' faces was a story in-and-of itself, as some of them would've been champion had they not run into the Asturian phenomenon.  Then, finally, at the end of his 37th appearance, he did it.  And, not only did he do it, but he went from A to Y without missing a beat, before passing la palabra and sighing.  His shocked competition got to C and passed.  He closed it out with time to spare, bringing his magnificient and record earning 396,000-euro run to an end, and an explosion of congratulations from throughout Spain at a truly remarkable accomplishment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bars - Poble Sec

Of all the barrios of Barcelona, Poble Sec has always been my favorite place to hit the town. Not as trendy as el Borne or as packed with tourists as el Barrio Gotico, its eclectic mix of bars and vibrant streets is where's you'll find the city's more bohemian and artistic crowd heading out; along with an interesting mix of local characters such as Pepe the gypsy artist whose knowledge of English consists of porn dialog, and Steve - a transplanted Liverpudlian with an encyclopedic knowledge of beer an a quick wit.

Ver mapa más grande

Most of the action takes place between the Poble Sec and Parallel metro stations.  On the south side of the Avenue is Barcelona's theater district, and behind it - the start of Calle Blai.  A terrific little street filled with terraces and bars that serve food, it's the perfect place to grab a drink and a snack if you're out during the late afternoon or early evening when most of Barcelona's other places are closed.  Two of my particular favorites are Bar Zodiac on the corner of Calle Margarit and Bar Ramon a little further down.  Both offer a limited menu of non typical Spanish dishes with the latter specializing in tapas from the Canary Islands, and a selection of draft beers that aren't Estrella or San Miguel.

If you're there at night around ten, walk up Margarit a few blocks to number 43 and the Jazz Bar for a selection of German and local brews to wash down some of the best sandwiches and burgers in town, or head to Bar Rouge on Poeta Cabanas for a comfy seat on a plush sofa and take in some memorable tunes or an impromptu show, while sipping on a potent cocktail.  It's also now the place where a Spanish and English poets group meets, if that's your thing.  And, if those aren't enough: there's always La Tinta Roja!

But that's just the Montjuic side of Poble Sec, cross Parallel to Ronda Pau and you'll literally find one cool bar right after the other, starting with La Confiteria - a renovated bakery from the end of the nineteenth century - and ending with Ultramarinos where you're likely to watch a fish documentary while a DJ spins anything from soul to house.

And, if at three in the morning, you're still standing with energy to burn, cross back over to the Apollo night club or Discoteca Plataforma on Nou de la Rambla, 145 if you feel like booging to a mix of cheesy rock tunes.

On a cautionary note: Poble Sec is safer than el Raval and el Barrio Gotic, but it's still best to be mindful of your wallets and not get blinding drunk.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Tragic Case of Marta Castillo - Update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the case of a missing, and presumed dead, seventeen year-old girl named Marta del Castillo, and the psychological suffering of her parents at the hands of her suspected murder had been the dominant news story in Spain during the first part of the year. 

The lack of a body and the relative silence of the accused Miguel Carcaño, coupled the deteriorating state of the Spanish economy, has seen the story fade from the headlines to the back pages.  And, as of today (over three months since she first disappeared) there has still been no major new developments in the case; although, sources close to the investigation have expressed optimism this week at the recent unearthing of newspapers which correspond to the time of her murder, allowing them to scale down the search area of the city dump. 

Meanwhile, the parents of Marta expressed fresh outrage when city attorneys asked the state for 100,000-euros to pay the girlfriend of the accused murderer for damages suffered after appearing on a television program, where she lied about the innocence of her boyfriend, who she now confessed did in fact admit to killing Marta.  The fact that her parents signed a waver and the family collected money has not deterred the city attorneys from also suing the television station for 30,000-euros. Calling it - "Blood money," the father of Marta questioned why it was going to a liar and not the men searching for his daughter.

I can't help but wonder why this country is so ass-backwards sometimes.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Working in Spain Part 1 - Earning a Living

As I mentioned in a previous post, anyone looking to move to Barcelona without an already established job will probably be looking for employment in one of the following areas: teaching English, restaurant work, on the boats, or in a call-center until they can get their Spanish up to snuff and network enough to meet the right people who can further their career ambitions; whatever they might be.

Of the four, teaching English is probably the most common.  Don't worry if you've never taught before, I can think of few people who had prior to coming to Barcelona and, while a TEFL certificate is useful, it is not a must.  That said - I found enrolling in a class when I first moved here helpful as far as getting your feet wet and meeting other people in similar situations. In regards to the work itself, as with any job, it has it's pluses and minuses.  On the positive side: you generally have a lot of free time to explore the city or pursue your hobby/passion; the pay is higher than most professions and you don't need Spanish; you're out and about and not confined to an office; and you get to meet a lot of interesting people with your work sometimes consisting of simply having a chat.   Negatively: it's feast of famine with periods of a lot of work (Feb- June, Oct  and Nov) months of little work (Jan and Dec) and times of no work (Christmas, summer and Easter), so you have to be financially prudent during the good times and save for the lean ones; only to have to repeat and start again from zero the next year when your savings are gone.  Also, there is little interaction with other teachers, so you will spend most of your time alone with either children or older adults, making it not the best way to meet people in the mid-twenties to forty range. Finally, you don't learn much Spanish speaking English all the time.

Working in a restaurant or bar is in many ways the opposite of teaching. The hours are long and nocturnal, and the pay is just decent, but it's steady, dynamic and you get to practice Spanish, while meeting people from many different places through your colleagues and the interesting characters who come in to drink.  I don't know the exact number, but there must be at least a hundred theme bars in the city, so there are plenty of spots to apply to.  Generally, some experience is a help, but like most places in the world - charm, looks and luck can get you in the door.

For those who have seafaring blood, there's work on the many yachts and sailboats that populate the Barcelona marina.  Your best bet upon arriving is to head to the Fastnet in Barceloneta, where you'll find everyone from the grunts who clean and prepare the boats to the ships' captains in charge of gathering a crew to sail the aqua-blue waters of the Mediterranean.  Buy them a pint, and I'm sure they'll be happy to explain the intricacies of landing a job far better than I can.

And, if neither of these appeal to you, there are also a few European call-centers run by such multinationals as Citibank and SAP, which I imagine are a lot like the call-centers where you live, but located in Barcelona with a wage less than your home country, but think of it as the price to live here.  Plus the salary's enough to get by and enjoy the city, so it might be just the thing if you don't mind that kind of work.

Those are the main areas people work in upon arriving in Barcelona.  Of course, there are other options, depending on your qualifications, languages and aspirations, so if anyone has any questions or something to add, feel free to drop me an e-mail or write a comment.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Houses for the Recently Seperated

From the Barcelona Reporter.
The latest idea to try to re-activate the property market in Spain comes from the Ternum real estate group, which has been joined by some 30 other businesses in a project called ‘Seperado Sin Casa’ (Seperate and without a House)...
Their plan?
...A webpage has been established for the scheme, and anyone interested has to register there and show that he or she is separated. Then access is granted to the properties currently in the new scheme. Currently there are homes in Madrid, Toledo, Guadalajara and Málaga, although it’s hoped to extend the scheme nationally shortly.
At least someone's trying, right?

Barcelona Doors - Verdaguer

The other day while out and about I came across the following door near on Passeig de San Joan near the Verdaguer metro station in the Eixample district.  It belongs to a typical apartment building that you'll find in the area, but what caught my attention was the simple theme the architect chose.

Like with many seemingly normal buildings in Barcelona, the door is only the first thing you notice and, as your eyes move to the first floor, you discover more details to make your mind wonder.

 Here's a little closer view.

Who do you think they are?

Weekly Recap: April 18th - 25th

The week began with the Spanish media still buzzing at the comments of French President Nicholas Sarkozy calling into question President Jose Luis Zapatero's intelligence. In response to the insult, Zapatero stayed silent, leaving his defense to a member of the opposition PP, Luis Herrero, who retorted, "And what about you dwarf?" Meanwhile, in more positive French -Spanish news, a joint security operation led to the arrest of a high-level ETA operative and eight others.

On the business front, in an attempt to boost the ailing economy, the government unveiled a new 3-billion euro credit-line for small and medium sized businesses who will now have to fight the bureaucracy to see any of it, and 100-million to
Volkswagen to build the new Audi here. The German company agreed that for that amount - they wouldn't rule it out - so expect the price tag to rise at a time of plunging car sales and projections of increasing deficits.

Regionally, an member of the CiU and European deputy stated his fears that region was moving towards a fascist state where dissent and moderation regarding linguistic issues were equated to treason and being a anti-Catalan, likening the current environment to the Spanish inquisition. To which, the current leader of the CiU Artur Mas said: "I don't feel bad for having fired the guy. He is a man who has ended his career within the party." While in Barcelona, 13 members of Los Ángeles de Infierno biker club were arrested as part of a nationwide effort to crack down the Neo-Nazi leaning group for alleged extorsion, in addition to drug and weapons trafficking.

In sports, Barcelona continued its impressive run, advancing to the semi-finals of the Champions League to face Chelsea and trashing Sevilla in La Liga, and the start of the NBA play-offs started with Pau Gasol and the Lakers winning the first two at home against the Utah Jazz, before dropping the third away.

Wrapping up the news for the week, the King and Queen's youngest daughter is leaving Barcelona for Washington D.C. with her family; and in an effort to combat smoking, the Spanish government plans to use grotesque pictures on cigarette packs. Finally, a week after word leaked of his French counterpart's insults, President Zapatero responded by saying that he was convinced the comments made by Sarkozy were positive because he would never question his intelligence.

He'd be the only one

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sant Jordi

Today is St. George day - the patron saint of the Catalunya.  Famous for slaying the dragon, it's celebrated with the simple gift exchange of a rose for her and a book from him.  Surprisingly, it's not a public holiday, but if you're out and about it seems like it is based on the crowds strolling the streets and looking at the flower and book stands.  And what is truly amazing is that it can rain the day before and it can rain the day after, but no one remembers it raining on Sant Jordi.  In fact in the six years I've been here April 23rd has always been a bright and sunny.  So if you're in town, make sure to take in the sights and sounds of one of the more special days here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

More Gloom and Doom

An article in today's New York Times takes a look at Spain's depressing economic state of rising unemployment and falling consumer prices as it relates to the global market.  The whole article is well-worth a read, but these two paragraphs in particular, I think, catch the current situation and what lies ahead for the future.
The trends have unnerved even well-established businesses. “There is such a huge lack of confidence in the politicians, in the European Union and in the banks,” said Arturo Virosque, 79, president of Valencia’s chamber of commerce and the owner of a local logistics company. Ticking off crises going back to the Spanish Civil War in his youth, he said, “this is different. It’s like an illness.”
After price cuts by competitors, Mr. Virosque’s company reduced charges for storage and transportation, and slashed its work force to about 170, from 250. “The worst thing is that we have to cut the young people,” he said, because higher severance makes it too expensive to fire older workers.
And the cure?
When Spain had its own currency, the peseta, the central bank could have simply devalued it, or cut interest rates to zero. But that is not an option in the era of the euro, when monetary policy is controlled from the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt, said Santiago Carbó, a professor of economics at the University of Granada.“If we enter into a deflationary period, we won’t have the monetary tools to sort it out,” Mr. Carbó said.

Very depressing stuff indeed, and it makes me wonder how longer before there's the beginning of a movement to re-examine the Maastricht Treaty and why there hasn't been more public outrage at the state of economy.

You Know You've Lived in Spain When...

1) When asked do do something, your first answer is - mañana

2) Coming home at three in the morning is early, six the norm - even at age forty, or fifty.

3) You aren't just surprised that the plumber/decorator/electrician/carpenter has turned up on time, you're surprised he turned up at all.

4) You know a fifty year old man whose mother still does his laundry, and another who still picks his nose.

5) You think it's fine to comment on everyone's appearance.

6) Life is broken down into possible and impossible.

7) You plan your weekends around the siesta.

8) All your answers are prefaced with - Yes, but...

9) You know the time after lunch has its own word - sobremesa.

10) You no longer wait for the waiter to clean the table before sitting down.

11) The imperative is used to ask for things, and please and thank said sparingly.

12) Nothing is ever your fault anymore.

14) There's a neighbor who likes drilling and hammering, but only between eight and ten on a Saturday morning.

15) You're known as the guiri.

16) Every sentence you speak, even in your native language, contains at least one of these words: 'bueno,' 'coño,' 'vale,' 'venga,' 'pues nada'...

17) The question "How are you?" is a chance to complain about your day.

18) A beer or two with lunch during the week isn't anything out of the ordinary.

19) Free time is more important than money.

20) You eat lunch after 2pm and would never even think of having your evening meal before 9.

21) Breakfast is a coffee and a small sandwich or a croissant.

22) You know what a Catalan is...

Thanks to Izzie for the idea

Monday, April 20, 2009

Avoiding the Pickpockets

As I mentioned in my previous post, the dealings between thieves, the bars, and the police is a scandal ripe to be unearthed by some enterprising journalist looking to expose the odious symbiotic relationship between the three.  But, until that happens and we start claiming the streets back from the scum who prey on the innocent people visiting our city, you need to know how to avoid them.  My friends at At Home: Barcelona have some useful advice, but I also want to take a minute to offer some suggestions on how not to get robbed, while also seeing some parts of the city and its surroundings that you probably wouldn't have otherwise.

The thing to remember about thieves is that they go to where the tourists and crowds are.  This means - if you wanna go for a swim - don't go to Barceloneta and Port Olimpic, unless you have someone watching your things at ALL times.  However, if you hop on the train at Plaza Catalunya and take it north for half an hour to las playas del Maresme, you can find wider and more spacious beaches like Cabrera del Mar where the pickpockets generally don't go but the locals do, so you can enjoy and relax in the sun and cleaner water, while eating and drinking at the cheaper chiringuitos.

If the city-center is your thing, walk above Plaza Catalunya and the scam artists to Rambla Catalunya, escaping the heat and the thieves while you stroll under the shade of the green trees and see some of Barcelona's more impressive buildings, and if you're feeling tired there are plenty of restuarants and bars with terraces to stop and grab a drink or something to eat - just don't leave your belongings on the tables.  Finally, if you're coming from the Sagrada Familia or Parc Guell, walk into the city - it's down hill and Barcelona's not a big place, and you'll avoid the metro.

The Plague of Pickpockets - Part 1

Pickpocketing is, unfortunately, all too common here in Barcelona.  And, for a city that prides itself as a top tourist destination, it's a real travesty that there isn't more done to control it.  In fact after this weekend, I'm beginning to suspect that there might be something more sinister - perhaps even possible collusion between the police, the bar owners and the thieves themselves.  How can I say this?

On Friday night at around three in the morning, some friends and I were in the city-center on our way to a popular late-night drinking spot known as the Kentucky Bar just off Las Ramblas.  Taking a right on  Carrer de l'Arc del Teatre, we readied ourselves for the worst when the lamps illuminating our way suddenly cut, leaving the small street in complete darkeness.  A burst of flickering lighters lit up the black sky and the barks of many men rang out, looking to confuse and disorient us as we ran the pickpocket gauntlet on our way to the bar.  Their hands reaching in our pockets and snatching at our jackets, timely thrown elbows and fists made sure that they got nothing.  But, given that there were at least fifty people on the street, they didn't come away empty handed, and the shouts of their victims cut through the air as we came to the closed metal shutter of the bar and a bouncer telling us to wait.  Then ten minutes later, the lamps came back on and the thieves disappeared back into the shadows, leaving the brightly lit street as it had been - seemingly safe and harmless - and the bar shutter opened for business. Was this an isolate incident?  That I do not know, but if anyone else has had a similar experience: Please get in touch because I suspect that it wasn't.

Even if it was: I'd still like to know who turned off the lights, how did the thieves know it was going to happen, and why was there not one police officer there either before or after?  The lamps are run by the city.  Was this a scheduled maintenance?   Leaving aside that nothing gets turned off-and-on in ten minutes in Spain, who would have scheduled such a thing at the busiest time of the night when the Las Ramblas is teaming with people coming out of the closing bars? And, why pick a street famous for its late-night watering holes like the Kentucky and Moog?  Then again - if it wasn't the city - who was it?  Do the thieves now have access to switch-boxes for certain streets, or is it that the owners are willing to give them ten minutes in some type of agreement?  Which begs the question: Why have the police done nothing to stop this?

Like I said at the beginning: These are just suspicions.  But something smells fishy about this, and it's scandalous that tourists are being sacrificed to the lowest life-forms of the city as the police and bar owners do nothing, or worse - are seemingly complicit in it.  And, while it is undoubtedly important to learn how to avoid being pickpocketed, I think it's also time to start learning why it is allowed to happen and what can be done to stop it.  So again, if anyone has something to add, let me know and let's see what we can do.
Pantalla completa

Monday, April 13, 2009


Having a friend visit from the states this week, so probably no new posts.  Back soon with pictures.  In the meantime, if anyone has questions or suggestions, feel free to write.

Friday, April 10, 2009

English Pubs

Tell someone you're going to the English or Irish pubs in Barcelona, and expect a look of disapproval.  But, you're in Spain! They'll cry.  And, in many ways, they're right - In a city as rich as this one, you're doing yourself a real disservice if you spend all your days and nights hidden away in the numerous dark themed pubs found throughout the city. Still, there's a reason that over the last few years Barcelona has seen an explosion in such places.  Part of it is the tourism, but a large part also has to do with the growing numbers of Europeans living here who find foreign bars more lively and hospitable than the Spanish ones, so with that in mind, here are a few more of my favorite places like the George and Dragon, and the ones you're better off avoiding.

The George Payne (Plaza Urquinaona).   Six years ago it was a porn theater, now it's the largest Irish bar in Barcelona. Run by a young, international staff, it has quickly become popular with students and locals alike, thanks to the weekday drink and event specials - the most famous of which are Sunday karaoke and Monday open-mic night.  A full menu with a kitchen open until 11.00, it has large smoke-free area that's perfect to escape the more cloudy bars of the city, while checking out football, rugby, or the NFL on one of the many TV screens.

The Shamrock (El Raval).  A friend said that it reminded him of the bar from Star Wars because of the  interesting characters it attracts.  Owned by a Madrileño who speaks English with a slight Gordie accent and popular with expat and Catalan locals, it's a good place to rest after strolling the music shops of Carrer Tallers or to catch a match.

The Black Horse (EL Borne).  One of the few English pubs with a terrace, you can sit outside and watch the entertaining street life unfold before your eyes along a lively street that's often dotted with small stands or busy with community performances.  Inside, the many rooms all have televisions, and the Sunday pub quiz is a hit with the locals. There's no food, but plenty of pizza joints nearby if you need to take a break from drinking and eat.

Sugar (El Gotico).  Not a theme bar in the traditional sense as you can't watch sports or drink Guiness; it's still a cool little spot off Plaza Real with an English speaking staff and a great place to grab a drink before hitting the clubs. It's small and crowds quickly so get there early if you want to see Aragorn taking a break from saving Middle Earth to make a mojito.

Along Calle Ferran there's Molly's and the Temple Bar, which are famous for their Stag and Hen parties, and drink prices that make the other themed bars seem reasonable. Personally, I've never been to either and avoid them, but if meat markets are your thing - they're your spots.

Finally, remember that by going to a themed pub, you're paying more than you would at a Spanish bar, so don't complain, and think of it as the price of going out and speaking English.

Spanish Funerals

I had my first Spanish funeral this week.  It wasn't anyone close.  I had actually never met the woman who passed away from old age.  My attendance necessitated by my relationship with the deceased's niece, I went to see how the Spanish approach death.  Macabre, I know.  But I've, unfortunately, attended my fair share of funerals, and watching how people mourn now intrigues me.

The best funeral, if there is such a thing, was my grandfather's.  He said: "Cremate me and throw a party," which we did at my aunt's.  Relatives, both long-lost and close-to-home, came to celebrate his life and offer support to my grandmother.  It must be the Irish blood because in my family we like to drink and tell stories about the dead.  That was the only one like that - the others usually began with a few days of waiting for people to gather for the viewing; followed by a religious service, a few words of admiration from certain relatives about the deceased, the burial, and then a meeting at someone's house after to drink and remember.  When I tell this to my Spanish friends and relatives they look at me aghast and disgusted.

Here: the deceased is to be in the ground within three days of passing.  To honor their memory, a solomn meeting is held the day before the funeral.  Everyone clad in black, there are no stories, only weeping, and the loss of the person is told by the number of tears streaming down the cheeks.  The next day a mass takes place with a few verses read by a priest as the body is laid to rest inside the stone cemetery walls located far away from the city, and then every one returns to their seperate homes.  For the Spanish, there is nothing to celebrate, only saddness, and its best to get it over and done with.

Weekly Recap: April 4th - 10th

The major news this week was the devastating earthquake in Italy that has left at least 260 people dead and an estimated 10,000 buildings destroyed. In response to the deadliest natural disaster there in 30 years, President Silvio Berlusconi caused an international stir when he suggested the recently displaced think of their tent cities as campgrounds or head to the beach, while the scientist who warned of the quake was called an imbecile. 

In Spain, the start of Semana Santa and the first long weekend of the year saw the Spanish anxious to escape for a little R 'n R.  Here, in Barcelona, an estimated 350,000 cars are expected to be on the roads, so plan for major congestion and long drives in the rain.  Meanwhile, in the wake of a gloomy economic forecast from the Bank of España, President Zapatero shook up his economic team by putting in charge a loyal minister with little economic experience, stroking fears of a more centralized response to the crisis from the major Catalan party, while the opposition Popular Party offered an increase in tax-deductions to spur housing purchases at a time when the average price of a flat is twelve times that of the median salary.

Sports this week was highlighted by the return of the Champion's League, and Barca's destruction of Bayern Munich, proving in football size sometimes doesn't matter, while Pau Gasol and the Lakers continue to battle the Cleveland Caviliers for the top spot in the NBA.

Finally, in a story that'll make you think the next time you see them on the metro - According to the Barcelona Reporter, a Romanian gypsy (currently in the hospital expecting her second child) offered to sell her first as a begging prop.  The price: 2,000-euros.  And, on a lighter note, stoners everywhere can rejoice at the news that one half of the famous Harold and Kumar duo is heading to the White House.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spanish Irony

In Spanish there's irónico, which doesn't mean ironic in English, but more like sarcastic, even if the dictionary tells you otherwise. The Spanish have no sense of irony as we think of it. How can I say this so confidently? How else can you explain putting the Arc de Triomf at the end of Carrer Trafalgar?

Ver mapa más grande

Favorite Barcelona Door

Ask a hundred people what they like best about Barcelona, and you'll probably get a hundred different answers.  Personally, I find myself attracted to the doors.  Don't ask me why.  But maybe a picture now and then will help explain my strange puerta fetish.  So today, I present one of my favorite entrances.

Reaches right out and grabs you, doesn't it?


To see it in person, go to Plaza Urquinaona 4, next to the largest Irish pub in the city.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

¿Dónde está la rabia?

Every day the news gets worse in Spain.   The twin pillars of the Spanish economy real estate and tourism that combine for an obscene 40% of the country's GDP are taking a beating from the global crisis (see: here and here for examples); while the third (banking) has needed state intervention. And, what has the socialist government's response been? It has offered to pay the social security taxes of the foreign multinationals at a time when rising unemployment is putting a greater strain on state services, and to pursue labor reforms that will move more people to part-time contacts.  As for those still working full-time: you can be happy to know that you're earning 34% less than the average European.

Anyone who has lived in Spain over the years knows: these are just the latest developments and the consequence of policies that stretch back decades, covering administrations from both parties, and involving national and regional governments from across the political spectrum.  In fact a recent article in the Spanish News estimates the amount of debt owed by local city halls at 32,030-billion euros, which begs the question: Where has all the money gone?   The answer, of course, is right before our eyes.

For those of us who live in Barcelona,  it's the Diagonal Mar and its glistening luxury hotels and apartment buildings that overlook the sea and, with a 600,000-euro price-tag, far exceed the salary of the average person living here. Even the symbol of "the New Barcelona," the 140-million Forum  is a shiny example of the incestuous relationship between the local government, construction companies and banks, and the censorship of an outspoken critic evidence of its depth.  I mean: are the second 14.5-million euro cable car for Montjuic or the W Barcelona hotel by the port really necessary?  Every time I look around Barcelona and see what is being built, and then listen to a nationalist politician demand more local control of the autonomy's finances, I wonder - is for the betterment of Catalunyna or his pocket?  A recent trip to New York by the leader of the nationalist party here at a total cost of 80,940-euros, I think, answers that question.

Maybe, it was marching in the street only to see their government go against the wishes of the people and support the Iraq invasion.  Perhaps, it was seeing the local party with the most votes blocked from power through the collusion of three minority parties twice (A practice that has even united the two, opposing, major national parties in the Basque coutry).  But, aside from some isolated protests back in December, people mostly just complain about the fleecing of their country and the steady deterioration of their economic well-being, ending the conversation with the Spanish phrase: Es lo que hay (It is what it is).  To which I ask:  Dónde está la rabia?  And they simply shrug, sip on their beer and smoke a cigarette before changing the topic to an upcoming vacation.

But, just like the crisis doesn't solely reside in Spain, nor does this passive acceptance of the current situation only occur here.  As a recent article in Salon, shows - the change in administraion across the Atlantic hasn't meant a change in the policies that brought the word "crisis" to all our lips.  So, to the American people I also ask: Where is the outrage?

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Crisis in Spain: A Human Face

The A.P. has a story on a recently laid-off construction worker named Antonio Montoya. An interesting read that really encapsulates the economic problems Spain is facing.

La Liga

Locally, Barcelona scraped to 1-0 win thanks to a a late first half goal from Samuel Etoo, and maintains its position as league leaders; while Espanyol won 3-1 and is slowly inching away from reglulation.  An American expat, my knowledge of football is rather limited; although, I have to say I'd rather watch it than the NFL nowadays, as sacrilegious as that will sound to my American friends.  Anyway, for more on La Liga and its many rich personalities, I recommend reading Sid Lowe from the Guadrian or Guillem Balague from Sky Sports.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Exploring Eixample

Not as famous as the Barrio Gotico with its labyrinth of tiny alleys and Gothic Cathedral - but for my money - no neighborhood is better to get lost in than Eixample to fully appreciate the beauty of Barcelona. 

The largest of the city's many distinct barrios, its wide streets are lined with buildings that seem more works of art than places to live or work.  The most famous of these are the ones built by Gaudi located on Passeig de Gracia, but take a moment to wander off the main streets and escape the crowds, and you'll enter a world of carved stone trees and a couple tenderly looking into each other's eyes.

Note: A residential neighborhood, its also probably the only place in Barcelona without a bar or restaurant every second door, so make sure to eat before hand.

Montjuic Mountain and the Castle

Called the Jewish mountain in Catalan and rising 100-meters above the Mediterranean sea, Montjuïc's history is in may ways that of Barcelona.  Artifacts discovered date the first settlement to the second century and the ruins of the Jewish cemetery on the south side hearken back to a different time: when areas such as Barrio Gotico were known as as Calls and were teaming Jewish centers.  Reaching 15% of the population by the time the Lateran Council in Rome ordered non-Christians to wear a special dress (in Catalunya it was gold and yellow, now the colors of the national flag), the Attack of Calls in 1391 saw their population decimated and their tombs used as building materials, while even the converted were expelled with the arrival of Queen Isabel and King Fernando in 1492.

The International Exposition in 1929 transformed Montjuic and Barcelona.  Wild gardens donated by a rich benefactor 20 years earlier became places to lazily wander on hot summer's days with the addition of stairs and paths that all linked to an open-air theater, El Grec, which still hosts many music and dance concerts in the summer months.  The Olympic games in 1992 brought the Olimpic Stadium, the public swimming pools with a city view and the strange looking communication antenna, introducing the second great transformation of its historic slopes.

Because of its strategic location, Montjuic has always had some type of fortification with the current occupant built in 1640.  Used to bombard Barcelona during the Spanish War of Succession it fell from Spanish into Austrian hands for nearly ten years and was overtaken by Napoleon in 1808. In the latter part of the 19th century it was converted into a prison, where the military courts known as Montjuic Process were infamous for the torture handed out to the convicted anarchists and successionists; and it remained in that capacity until the 1960's when Franco ordered it closed and turned into a military museum.  Today, you can find many in Barcelona flocking to its historic grounds in the summer months when the castle becomes a place to meet friends and have a picnic as a movie projects onto its walls or a stand showcases a local band.  Get there early because it's limited capacity.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Neighborhoods - Poble Sec

Stretching from Plaza Espanya to the Port, with Avinguda Parallel on one side and Montjuic mountain on the other, Poble Sec (Dry Town) is one of Barcelona's smaller and, in all honesty, least attractive neighborhoods.  Still, while it may lack in the beauty department, it more than makes up for it with a lively nightlife, great restaurants and the largest park in Barcelona.

Originally a shanty town that rested outside the city's walls, it grew into an industrial area at the beginning of the twentieth century, and is now a diverse and multicultural neighborhood, which is both walking distance (30 mins) to the city-center and the beach.

Start your day at Plaza Espanya and ride the escalator up to the impressive buildings that house the National Catalan Museum of Art in addition to roving art  and cultural exhibitions, before taking the time to explore the mountain and its many gardens.  If you've never been to Spain, definitely check out Poble Espanyol to get a taste of this rich and diverse country, and if you're an art aficionado there's the Joan Miro Museum.  The further you walk up the gradual but windy slope, the better the view of Barcelona, with the best coming  from the castle that sits ominously on its top.

Coming down will bring you to the tight, narrow, busy streets, and gray buildings of Poble Sec.  Hungry after all that walking?  There's a Kebab on every corner for if you're running low on funds and have a strong stomach, a local Spanish bar every two doors with tapas, menus and sandwiches for a mid-price meal, and one of Barcelona's better Italian restaurants if you feel like a bit of luxury. After, if you're there in the summer, sit outside at on of the hundred of terraces that line the sidewalks and small squares, relax and people-watch.  One of the better streets is Calle Blai with its crazy French Poodle and hip local bars, restaurants and Vermut spots.

At the bottom of Avinguda Parallel is Barcelona's theatre district and El Molino, which was known as Barcelona's "Tiny Moulin Rouge" during the early part of the twentieth century before closing its doors and falling into disrepair by the mid-ninties.  In a win for cultural heritage, there are plans of re-opening it soon. Just remember - You're in Spain, so the shows aren't in English even if their titles are. Still, there are plenty of great bars like la Tinta Roja to grab a drink and recap the day, and after there's the Apollo night club for a little dancing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Weekly Recap: March 28th - April 3rd

The news has been much like the weather: cold and gloomy with sporadic moments of sunshine.

The week began with a visit from Obama and the G-20 summit in London, where he gave the Queen an iPod, and it finished with the world's leaders pledging to end an era of unbridled global capitalism - Plus, another billion dollars for the economy. The Spanish press, meanwhile, reported that President Jose Luis Zapatero came out of a meeting feeling a real chemistry. I wonder if Tim Geithner was there too, because soon after Zapatero announced further interventions in Spanish banks. I guess that's where the new money's going.

Nationally, a gloomy forecast for businesses saw unemployment reach an all time high, with the reports forecasting 20-22% by 2010. Here in Catalaunya one regional politician made waves by calling for 50% of films shown to be in Catalan, and Dutch architect was selected to design a new neighborhood for Barcelona. As for other parts of Spain: in Benidorm, local authorities seemingly have it in for expat businesses, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was asked to intercede on behalf of British citizens regarding property and land abuses by the certain regional governments

In sports: no Liga this week, but the national team won its two world-cup qualification games against Turkey, coming back in dramatic fashion to claim the second leg away, while the Lakers dropped two in a row, but had a successful road trip thanks to an impressive run by Pau Gasol.

Finally, in a story so strange it can only be true: His girlfriend unable to bear children, Ruben Noé Coronado Jiménez stopped his transformation into a man, leaving his uterus scarred but functioning. After sending 150 e-mails, he found a fertility clinic in Barcelona, and is now nine weeks pregnant with twins.

Friday of Pain

Viernes de Dolores marks the start of Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Spain. A deeply rooted tradition that dates back centuries, it commemorates the suffering of the Virgin Mary as her son is led to his crucifixion. Unfortunately, Barcelona celebrates this time less than any other region with a single procession on Good Friday. I'm not sure why.

However, if you're in Andalucia and especially in Sevilla, you're in for a real spectacle. And no - the marchers aren't from the Klu Klux Klan.

Barcelona Nightlife - Bars

While Barcelona might not have the club scene of other major cities, it isn't lacking in bars. Every neighborhood offers a distinct flavor and unique places to meet friends and grab a drink before hitting the dance floor. Here are the ones I always take friends to when they come to visit:

Bar Manchester in the Raval. Looking for a cool spot and some good music? As the name suggests, this dark little bar pays homage to the English independent music scene, so don't be surprised to hear Joy Division, the Stone Roses or Radiohead playing. Beers aren't cheap by Barcelona standards at 2.50 a piece, but they make a mean mojito, and the staff is good about accomodating song requests.

Ask me to name one bar that defines Barcelona, and I would have to say the Tinta Roja in Poble Sec. Walk through the glass and wooden door to something from an Almodovar movie with a bizarre mix of styles, combining old European vaudeville, Argentinian tango, and what I call erotic kitsch. At the far back is a stage for live events where you might catch a local band, belly-dancers, or fire jugglers. Not the place to spend the night on a tight budget, but a must-see.

If you're out wandering during the day, you'll enevitably end up on Portal de L'Angel, which is the promenade lined with shops just north of Las Ramblas, heading towards the Gothic Cathedral. If so, and you feel like stopping and resting your sore feet, I suggest paying Casa de Extremadura a visit. Located on the left-hand side, across from El Corte Ingles, walk up the stone steps into a converted flat that pays tribute to the Spanish Autonomy for which it's named and smell the tapas cooking. Continue through to the large patio and take a seat at one of the plastic tables, and suddenly it seems like you're not in the congested city anymore and you feel your body relax. The beers and limited tapas menu are cheap for Barcelona, so take advantage and fill your stomach - just don't expect service with a smile - It's Spanish afterall.

There's a big football match on and need a place to go? The George and Dragon English pub off Passeig de Gracia is the place. With the biggest screen in Barcelona, it's beer selection of draught German Pilsners and English Ales is what separates it from the other theme bars. That, and the owner, Simon, a friendly Brit whose knowledge of Barcelona is second to none and a great resource if you need some advice on a place to eat or visit.

Barcelona Nightlife - Clubs

As far as a mind blowing club scene, don't come to Barcelona expecting New York or London. Perhaps it's the close proximity to Ibiza, but I can't recall any place that left me awed, which isn't to say that there aren't some great venues to shake it from two in the morning (when the night just starts hopping) to the wee hours and the sun rise, and a few of my personal favorites are:

La Paloma in the Raval. A renovated ballroom draped in red velvet with tall ceilings and hanging chandeliers, I recommend going around midnight as the senior citizen salsa party winds down, staying as the young crowd and go-go dancers stroll in and the music changes -Then count how many old foogies stick around; the number will surprise you.

Razzmatazz in the Marina. Located in an old industrial zone, don't get spooked by the quiet streets and dark abandoned buildings: It's relatively safe. Often the venue groups and deejays use on their world tours, its multiple rooms bump everything from techo to hip-hop-to-indy.

Sala Apollo at the bottom of Parallel in Poble Sec is another great place to catch music and dance the night away. In Barcelona on a Monday night and think there's nothing to do? Check out Anti-Karaoke and you might see a six foot six tall blond in a Geisha dress and a black whig, screaming: "I love rock and roll," and thrashing a whip. Just watch your wallets outside.

Danzatoria and Mirablau offer spectaular views of Barcelona and sit on Tibidabo Mountain. Danzatoria in particular is an immpressive renovated mansion with its floors now playing chill out, house and Rn'B in a relaxing garden. Go to there if you're interested in seeing how Barcelona's 91210 crowd lives - Just make sure you're dressed to impress.

There are more, but those are the four that immediately popped to mind. Don't get out like I used to.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sightseeing Barcelona

I want to take a moment to plug the Barcelona Guide Bureau. They offer some great guided walking tours of both common tourist destinations as well as some hidden gems that only locals knew about before. In fact I'm already regretting writing this.

In all seriousness, I know that many people would rather buy a book and wander a city and I appreciate the serendipity of getting lost in a strange place, but there is something to be said about having someone explain what that old building you're looking at is really all about and helping you navigate the maze of small alleys that leave most people confused and going: "Didn't we pass that building already?"

So, if you're visiting for the first time or coming back, check out BGB's many tours and spend a day learning something that's not in the Lonely Plant. My only question is: Where's the haunted tour and the ghosts?

The Tragic Case of Marta de Castillo

Receiving heavy news coverage here in Spain, but not in the rest of Europe, is the disappearance of a seventeen year old girl from Sevilla named Marta del Castillo Casanueva. The facts are as follows:

On the 24th of January 2009 at five o'clock in the afternoon, she left her house to meet a friend and never returned. Her parents, worried sick, called the police and a search commenced, leading to the arrest of her twenty-year old ex-boyfriend known as Miguel C.D and his friend Samuel on February 14th. Four hours later he confessed to murdering her with an ashtray during a heated argument at his apartment. End of story, right? Not quite.

The lack of a body made proving the murder charges more problematic, so based on Miguel's testimony (now in prison without bail) the search moved from the crime scene (where the suspect said he loaded the dead body onto his mother's wheelchair before putting her on the back of a scooter) to the Guadalquivir river.

The case quickly became a national obsession, as it brought to light Spain's rather lenient sentencing that currently have no such thing as life in prison. In response, the leaders of the two political parties took to the airwaves and met with the distraught victim's parents, promising to study the law and amend the constitution. Meanwhile, as the days turned into weeks, an anxious Spanish public and the victim's distraught parents watched divers fruitlessly scour the muddy river bed for Marta's remains.

The arrest of two other boys – one the older brother of the accused (Javier D.M.) and a minor also called Javier, but known as El Cuco (The Cukoo) – revealed discrepancies in the original story. Confronted with this, Miguel, citing police pressure for lying, offered a new theory - Namely, that he and his friends had wrapped Marta's body in a rug and loaded it into a car to be taken to the river as his brother cleaned up the apartment.

The river search a month old, new bombshell hit the airwaves on March 17th, and the case took another twist. Miguel had again changed his story, along with his lawyer, and now says that El Cuco was in fact the murderer and the body was in a trash container; and the search moved to the city dump. The parents, outraged at the waste of time and effort, pleaded for the killer of their daughter to stop lying and come clean. They offered him forgiveness, if only he would tell them where she was. A day later, he said: he had only raped her, but not killed her, and his second lawyer resigned.

The disappearance of Marta now two-months, the accused decided to attempt suicide with his shoelaces as a third lawyer took up his defense and promised collaboration. All the while, the parents of the Marta still don't know where their little girl is or what truly happened to her. And so, the case continues.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fools!

Actually, here in Spain and, I believe, in South America it isn't. The equivalent: el Día de los Santos Inocentes (The day of the innocent/naive saints) falls on December 28th, when you pull a joke and shout: "¡Inocente, inocente!" According to Gerald's spanish blog:

In its origins, the day is a sort of gallows humor. The Day of the Innocents observes the day when, according to the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, King Herod ordered the baby boys under 2 years old in Bethlehem to be killed because he was afraid that the baby Jesus born there would become a rival. As it turned out, though, the baby Jesus had been taken away to Egypt by Mary and Joseph. So the "joke" was on Herod, and thus followed the tradition of tricking friends on that day. (This is a sad story to be sure, but according to tradition the babies murdered in Jesus' stead went to heaven as the first Christian martyrs.)

Little bit of trivia for ya

So you wanna live in Spain, huh?

Many people have asked me what it takes to live in Spain. And, while it has been the best decision I have made, I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. This, I have found is especially true of Americans.

As an American, the first thing you have to accept is that in Spain and the rest of Europe, you are the same as the African, Moroccan, and South American -- Namely, you are an illegal immigrant, and it makes little difference if you're from the greatest country in the world. That does not mean you can't find work, but it does mean you have no rights and that it will be more difficult with less pay -- at first.

Secondly, asked yourself: "What do you hope to accomplish?" Do you plan to stay for a year or two to learn the language? Why are you moving, and what is important to you? Is it a professional career or to live in a foreign land?

Regarding the language issue: Come to Spain and learn Spanish, right? Well, it depends. Many students come to Barcelona and complain because Spanish isn't the official language -- Catalan is. Of course it is, you're in Catalunya and the Catalans are proud of their language and culture. They don't mind speaking to you in Castillano, but it's not their mother tongue, so to expect them to is a little like going to East L.A. and hoping to improve your English.

The second point is probably the most important. As an American, I understand how important your job and career is to who you are -- In many respects it defines you. I'll leave whether or not I think this is a positive or not for another time, but I will say: to come to a foreign country and expect the same position and salary that you had in the states is delusional, and talking about how much you earned in the past will only lead to depression. Again, it is possible to climb the corporate ladder or have a career, but even when English is required, you will need to be able to speak Spanish or Catalan. Also, like in the states, networking is the key, this is especially true in Spain, Greece, and Eastern Europe, where many jobs go to people with connections and not the most qualified.

So what does that mean? It means: until you can gain a decent level in the native language and build up a network of connections, you will have to work in either a bar/restaurant, as an English teacher, or in a call center to live. If you're willing to do that, hustle, and go out and make a life for yourself -- then chances are your move will be a success. If either of these jobs is beneath you, feels like a step back, or doesn't match what you believe your self-worth is -- then save yourself the time and the trouble and come for a vacation, but not to live. That way you won't return home six or nine months later to the smug looks on people's faces saying: "I knew you'd be back."