Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happy Saint John

Tomorrow is Sant Joan in Catalunya and San Juan in the rest of Spain.  A national holiday it marks the start of the summer season and tonight the streets will be full of people partying and migrating to the beach in celebration.  Along the way kids will be trowing firecrackers and impromtu bonfires will be blazing in intersentions, while groups of men and women will be running around with sparklers and setting fire to piles of wood.  It's truly amazing the city doesn't burn down, but I guess that's what come from centuries of practice.  If going out, I recommend wearing long sleeve shirts and pants with shoes and not flip-flops to avoid and stray sparks from leaving a nasty mark.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

¡Go to the Shit!

In honor of a Spanish bar near Valencia that's come up with an innovative way to help survive the economic crisis by offering free drinks to people who come up with the best insult, here are my favorite Spanish curses.

Me cago en la leche - I shit in the milk.  You can also shit on your whore of a mother (tu puta madre), the communion wafer (la ostia) or if you're particularly angry god (dios).

Vete a la mierda - Go to the shit.  Vete a tomar por culo - Go and take it by ass.  Que te den por culo - They give it to you by ass.  All great ways to get rid of someone.

Coño/joder - Cunt/fuck.  Used as standard punctuation.

Cojones - Bullshit.

Ostia puta - Communion Wafer Whore.

Por mis santos cajones - for the balls of my saints, which means no matter what.  For example, voy a la playa por mis santos cajones.  I'm going to the each no matter what

The thing is: you can't put your own twist on these expressions like we did back in the day with "mother jokes" and say, for example, me cago en los cereales que comes por la mañana. (I shit in your breakfast cereal) or vete a la mierda y bañarte (go to the shit and swim) because if you do, the Spanish will say: Estas como una cabra (You're like a goat) which means you're crazy.

Move Abroad and Get Creative

A recent article in the Economist cited a study that found people who live in foreign countries tend to be more creative and do better when it comes to difficult negotiations.  Is this true?  Blogger Oye Rubia thinks so and chalks it up to having to speak a foreign language.  But is it merely a question of linguistics, or is there more to it?

From my personal experience, I'd say this creativity has more to do with the freedom of thought that comes with moving to a foreign land.  Basic assumptions about life are challenged by new experiences, showing us that there is more than one way to do things. Suddenly the simplest task can become a completely different experience, triggering a whole new thought process as we compare our new life to the one we left, and learn that there is no better or worse - only different.  While without the comfortable surroundings of our past, we are forced to get out and experience life, rather than settle into a daily routine of letting it pass us by.  So by the end of even the most unadventurous day, our minds are full of sights, sounds and smells that they wouldn't have been otherwise, stimulating our thoughts and changing our perceptions, which in turn opens up all new ways of looking at things and thus inspiring creativity.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What should we call it?

Picking the name for your baby is one of the first big decisions for expecting parents.  After all, what you call your child will play a key role in your progeny's personal development.  One only needs to listen to the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Called Sue" to know that.  And, while coming to an agreement is never easy, having parents from different countries who speak different languages presents new set of interesting complications. 

For example in Spain, there's the tradition of naming your child after religious figures or situations.  In fact kids here not only celebrate their birthday, but also the day of the saint or religious holiday that they're named after.  So, other than the various Virgins who serve as inspiration for such girls' names as Macarena (yes, like the song) or Mercedes (like the car), there is also the option of: Concepción Inmaculada (the Immaculate Conception), Ascensión/Asunción (the ascension) and Dolores (pains as in the Friday of Pain), while boys' names often combine biblical personalities such as Jose Maria (Joseph Mary) or Juan Miguel (John Michael) or Juan Jose (John Joseph), which are in turn shortened and pronounced Josema (Hose-emma), Juanmi (Who-an-me), and Juanjo (Who-an-hoe) respectively.  All of which is perfectly normal in a country where it's also not unusual to use the same name for your child that you and your father or mother have, but imagine if your kid spent any time in either the states or the U.K. 

Of course, if you decide to give your offspring an English name, you can expect Spaniards to quickly find their equivalent, making it moot.  In other words George becomes Jorge (Whore-hey), Josephine-Josefina (Hose-effeena) and  James-Jaime (High-may) whether you like it or not.  And if you elect a shortened version of a traditional name like say Joe, then you run the risk of Spanish kids calling him "Fuck" like in "Joé que calor" (fuck it's hot).  Which isn't to say there aren't Spanish kids with English names like Jenifer, Jonatan, Kevin, the problem is that they carry with them the stereotype similar to being from the Valley in L.A. or Essex in the U.K. if you know what I mean.

Then, there's the whole question of pronunciation.  Any English name with a "J" will give Spanish people fits because it doesn't exist so you can forget names like Jeffrey or Josh for a boy or Jane for a girl, while the English desire to combine vowel sounds make Spanish names like Mireia or Iago a nightmare for those relatives not from Spain.

So with seemingly eighty percent of Spanish and English names eliminated, you're left with a smaller pool to argue over with your partner.  But be careful: because even when you finally decide on a name, you have to make sure that it passes with the Spanish bureaucracy who have been known to refuse Sam and Katie due to them being shortened versions of Samuel and Katherine, and thus not allowed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shopping in Spain

Coming from the states, one of the most difficult adjustments was going from the land of twenty-four hour convenience to a country where shops and stores pretty much open when they feel like it, or as they say in Spanish cuando les da la gana.  The whole concept of Spanish service is a bit of an oxymoron, because unlike in America where everything is catered to the consumer and you can buy anything at anytime, here it's basically - if you need it that bad, you'll find to time to get it.  And, if you have a problem with that: tough, it is what it is. 

I remember getting really frustrated by this attitude my first year here.  I couldn't believe everything closed at the one time I was free during the week (lunch), or that come two o'clock on a Saturday most businesses were shut for the weekend, not to mention not being unable to go to the supermarket on a Sunday for some milk and bread when the only establishments open were the bars and churches.  How on earth did they expect a person to buy anything and keep their economy going? I thought as only an American could.

But over time I realized: whereas in the states I went to massive stores like Staples for stationary, Home Depot for hardware and Costco for my shopping, where the employees worked in shifts to provide maximum service; in Spain it was the small family run papeleria two doors down for pens and notebooks, the ferretería a block away for a hammer or screwdriver and the el mercado down the street for my groceries.  Most of them were run by a couple with maybe their kids pitching in, which made two in the afternoon time for a family lunch and the weekends a necessary break from their jobs.

Besides, the whole concept of shopping here was different to what I had previously know.  Back in Los Angeles, I'd hop in the car, drive a few kilometers, fight to find a place to park, and wander through places that were more warehouses than shops with ceiling high shelves of prepackaged, super-sized products sold in bulk at discount rates.  Then, when my cart was stacked high, I'd wait at the check-out counter where a clerk would mindlessly scan all that I had bought, before loading up the trunk of my car and returning home with enough food to feed an African village - much of it going to waste as the expiration date passed before I got a chance to eat or drink it.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, shopping began in the morning with the smell of baked pastries and bread in the air.  Taking carrito with me, I'd step outside and start the day with a coffee at a local bar before heading to the panadería for my freshly baked bread and croissants.  Next I'd walk to the local market that was full of stands that specialized in different foods.  There were multiple carnicerías for different cuts of meat, charcuterías for the many Spanish hams and cheeses, fruterías for fresh fruits and vegetables and pescaderías for just caught fish and seafood.  Each person shopping seemed to have their favorite one, as did I, and when my number was called, I'd step to the counter and receive a warm hello that would lead to a conversation about our families and the weather as the couple working tended to my needs, knowing what I liked and didn't like.  Then when the carrito was full with enough food to get me through the next few days, I'd head to the market bar for a small beer and a sandwich before returning home.

Even the fact that everything closed on Saturday afternoon had become a positive, because by forcing me to do all my shopping in the morning and not putting it off until the last minute like I did in the states, I now had the rest of the weekend free to enjoy: whether it be going to the beach in the summer or laying on the couch and watching TV in the winter.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Spanish Siestas

Ask someone to say one word when they think of Spain, and chances are it'll be "Siesta."  In fact every time I go back to the states, friends and family always ask me if the Spanish really take a snooze for lunch, and the look of disappointment on their faces when I tell them - "No" - betrays how ingrained of a myth it is.  The thought of escaping work for a quick shut-eye appeals to our romantic vision of Spain as a place where people take life at a more relaxing pace than they do in the states, and in many ways they do.  But, the truth of the matter is: Spaniards work on average 14% more than the rest of Europe so they don't have time to nap; although, given their production is the lowest, the more hours doesn't mean they necessarily work well.

The siesta is far from dead, however. "The mentality of it" (as I heard a Spanish expert describe it once) is still very much alive and  part of the country's psyche.  Originally born as a way to escape the blistering afternoon sun, it is more now about finding the time during a busy week to rest, relax and recharge.  It usually takes place on the weekends during the sobremesa (the time immediately after another Spanish tradition, a long, three-course weekend lunch) when all of your blood rushes to your stuffed belly and your head goes drowsy.  Eying the couch, all the programs on the television are documentaries about the ocean or bad B-movies, and it's easy to drift to sleep as you lay down, settle in and close your heavy eyes.

It doesn't need to be a long nap.  A shot of coffee with milk called a cortado before will ensure waking up thirty minutes later when the caffeine kicks in.  But if it's been a particularly draining week, then just let your brain and body shut down and start back up when it's ready, whether it's one or two hours later. With all the shops and stores closed during the late afternoon - you're not missing anything, and by the time you wake up, you'll feel refreshed and energized and ready for the night.  But even during the week, the siesta is never far from the Spaniards' thoughts, and it's not uncommon for a conversation to revolve around its benefits, while taking one of two thirty minute coffee breaks, showing that you don't need to sleep to apply the mentality behind it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tips for Learning Spanish from a Bad Student

I'm probably not the best person to offer advice about foreign languages. In high school it was the one class I always skipped and I've got a terrible ear, which explains why after nearly seven years living in Barcelona, my Spanish is good enough to communicate, explain my opinions and curse out drivers who run red lights - it's not nearly as proficient as it probably should be.  With that in mind, I'll tell you what I wish people had told me before coming to Barcelona, so after a few years living of here, people will speak in amazement about your español and not be shocked at how bad it is.

It's Spanish, not English.  I know this sounds obvious, but I can't tell you how many people I've met, who say: "But in English, we'd say..."  Things may sound strange to you and it might not be how we say it, but that's what a foreign language is all about.  Otherwise, it'd be English with Spanish words.   An example would be to call back, which is basically to return to call (volver a llamar).  If you were to translate it literally, it'd be: volver detras, which to a Spaniard sounds like you're calling them "behind," as in look out behind you!  Another example is to be hot, which in Spanish is literally to have heat (tener calor).  If you directly translate I'm hot in Spanish (Estoy caliente) it means you're horny.

Skip the grammar books and buy one just with Spanish verbs.  At least compared to English, Spanish is a real verb intensive.  Like with most Latin based languages, you have to conjugate all persons and the most common verbs tend to be irregular.  Unfortunately, the only way to really learn the verbs is to study them.  Trust me, I've tried not to, but there really isn't any alternative. That said: by mastering the different forms and conjugations of these TEN following verbs, you'll be well on your way to speaking Spanish more fluently than most guiris who live here. These verbs are tener (to have), poner (to put), hacer (to make/do), coger (to get) ir (to go), dar (to give) saber/conocer (to know). venir (to come), volver (to come/get/go back) and ser/estar (to be).

Forget the continuous.  In English, we spend most of our time saying: I'm doing something or she's going somewhere or They're calling about.  In Spanish: it's I do or she goes or they call.  The continuous is rarely used, and you're better off forgetting it even exists for the first few months. Same goes for other words we're so fond of using like actually, really, honestly and I wonder.  The Spanish don't have the need to qualify that - what they are saying is truly what they are saying - if you know what I mean, nor do they tend the announce the fact that they're thinking about something.  An example would be: I wonder if John is actually coming?  or I wonder who's calling. In Spanish it'd be: Will John come? (¿Vendrá Juan?) or Who will call? (¿Quien llamará?)

Be direct, but not rude.  Again our English politeness often has us starting a question with: Would you mind...? or Could you...? or Do you think that you could...?  or May I...? Just cut to the chase in Spanish.  So instead of saying: Would you mind pouring me a beer, please?  Say: Pour me a beer, please  (Ponme una cerveza, por favor).  Also remember this goes the other way around: Spanish will speak to you just as directly, so don't get offended.  It's not personal.

Open you're mouth, and say it loud and proud.  I remember as a child, my parents always stressed the need to be soft spoken and not shout.  If you take this approach in Spain, you'll find yourself waiting for service and ignored.  Of course this doesn't mean to yell, but it does mean to project your voice like you were giving a speech.

Accept the fact that the same letters have different sounds.  The most obvious example is the "Z," which in Spanish is closer to the "TH."  The same pronunciation applies for the "C."  Meanwhile the "V" is the same as the "B" and the double "L" like a cross between a "Y" and a "J" with the "J" like a hacking "H."  Did you get all that?

More than anything, take it easy.  Don't stress and feel like you have to be fluent in two months.  As the saying goes - "Rome wasn't built in one day" and neither is learning a foreign language.  You're going to make mistakes and a fool of yourself, but you probably do in your native tongue - at least I do.  Don't worry, the Spanish like it when people try and will often help.  Sure you'll probably run into the occasional one who is a jerk and if you do ask them to say "How will he hit the wicket?" for a good laugh.

Last but not least, don't be lazy - watch Spanish TV.  Personally, I found dubbed programs the least helpful because it's not how everyday people speak and I was translating too much.  The gossip shows and the news on the other hand were great and gave me an insight into the Spanish culture.  Be prepared to not understand anything at first, but if you stick with it, by the end of month three you'll be surprised.

New Barcelona English Magazine

Yesterday was the launch of a new English Magazine here called Barcelona INK.  It features interviews from Colm Toibin and Richard Gwyn, some interesting poetry and a short story from yours truly.  Buy a copy and tell them to put my name on the cover next time --Ah the ego!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Las Playas de Catalunya

The arrival of June has already seen the temperatures rise and the humidy start.  With air-conditioning in short supply here, the best way to escape the heat is to pack the sunscreen and towel and head to the beach.

In Barcelona there are three main places to layout and bake before hitting a chiringuito.  Starting with Barceloneta near the port, you can walk north to la playa Icaria by the Hotel Arts and Manfre buildings.  Just beyond it is la playa Marbella, where you'll find the only nudist beach in the city.  Not natural beaches, they were created as part of the Olympic games to offer those staying in the city easy access to the water, and on summer days they are often packed to capacity, so get there early.  Also remember to be careful with your belongings.

If you're looking for something more relaxing, thirty minutes north are las playas de Maresme.  You can get there by train from Plaça Catalunya and the fares aren't that expensive.  In fact up to Montgat Nord, you can use a standard metro pass.  They'll still be crowded on a hot summer's day, but less so than the ones in the city, and you can be a little less paranoid about your belongings.  Of these I particularly enjoy Cabrera de Mar and Caldes d'Estrac for a quick day trip, while Santa Susanna is a quaint little beach town that's perfect for a weekend out of the city.

Further north is La Costa Brava.  To get to there, you'll need to catch the bus from the Arc de Triomf metro station, and it'll run you about an hour or two, depending on where you're heading.   The first of these beaches are Lloret and Tossa del Mar, which are particularly popular with the British so be warned, while further north are Palafruguell, L'Estartit and Roses.  As you can see, the water is crystal blue and the settings awe-inspiring, but there is little in the way of space to sunbath due to the rocky nature of the coast.  Still, it's well-worth a visit and a great place to snorkel or scuba-dive, especially las Islas Medas.

South of Barcelona also offers some fantastic places to layout and enjoy the sun.  Different than the rocky coast of la Costa Brava, they tend to offer lots of space and sand.  The most famous of these is Sitges, which is just under two hours away.  A typical Spanish beach town with white houses and tiny streets, its wide sandy beachs and the shallow water are perfect for those of you with small children.  Further south are las Playas of Tarragona, with the most popular being Salou, which personally reminds me of Benidorm.  To get to either of these, you'll again catch the train, while all along the coast are more natural and wild beaches such as La Playa Waikiki or Altafulla that'll require renting a car.

To stay in any of the aforementioned places, you can either stay in a hotel, rent a flat or semi-rough it at a camping ground.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Living in Barcelona - Surviving the First Year Blues

As most of us who have up and moved to Barcelona can attest, the life of an expat is full of ups and downs, especially during the first year.  There were days that seemed to validate our decision to come here, and other times that probably had us contemplating either moving back or trying some place new. Yet, we didn't, and as the time passed, we found ourselves more settled and at home with more good days than bad.

I remember the first few months as full of excitement - everything was so new and  fresh.  The life, the people, the energy were unlike anything back home.  Two in the morning no longer signaled the end of evening and best of all I didn't have to drive.  Conversations no longer started with "What do you do?" but rather "Where are you from?" My days no longer consisted of the same old routine, but
instead offered a new adventure as I explored some new nook of the Barcelona that I had discovered accidentally.  It had been a long time since I felt so energized.

But, just like nothing in life lasts forever, same goes for the rush of living in a new city, and around my sixth month the sheen wore off. Feelings of loneliness to crept in. Living alone in a foreign land with a strange tongue made basic communication seem like mission impossible some times. Even if I used the right word, my pronunciation would have people grimacing as I butchered their language, and there were many times I ended up buying something I didn't need or want just to get out of a store before facing further embarrassment. After situations like this, I thought about the life I had left: my family, my friends and my ability to communicate freely and confidently. But as my old boss once told me: "What you miss no longer exists," and he was right – Life was fluid and not static, and all it took was a call home to reconfirm this. Of course, knowing this didn't make it any easier.  So, what did?

For me: It was getting out and reminding myself of why I had chosen to move to Barcelona. I'd wander the streets and get lost in its beauty, ending the day with a beer outside and some people watching. I also found particular solace in the two medieval churches: the Santa Maria del Mar and the Gothic Cathedral back when it was free.  Far from a religious man, I was nevertheless happy when the holy water didn't burn, and sitting in such magnificent buildings brought a certain serenity and peace to my confused mind.

I also broke my promise to avoid all things expat or English, and completely immerse myself in Spanish culture. Enough nights going out and not catching a single word made the need to sit and have a chat a priority. It was at the English pubs where I befriended not only expats, who had decided to make Barcelona home, but also Spaniards and Catalans, who were interested in improving their English and helping me with my Spanish. And, by the end of my first year, the foundation of building a life in a foreign country had been accomplished - some favorite spots to collect your thoughts, a network of friends to help and support you through the ups and downs, and a basic grasp of the language to lessen the moments of embarrassment. 

Monday, June 1, 2009

Holidays in Spain

No work today, but only in Barcelona, such is the holiday system in Spain.   Basically, you have national days like Christmas, New Year's, the Spanish National Day (October 12th), May Day etc.  Then you have regional ones that depend on the autonomy's history or a saint that is related to the region. An example of this is September 11th, which is the National Day of Catalunya and La Merce (also in September) who is the Virgin for the region  Finally, you have municipal ones that are only applied to the city.  For example today is la segunda pasqua (the second Easter). But if you job requires you to work outside the city in one of the many industrial parks, then you have to work today.  Confusing isn't it?