Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone from the states!

I have to admit it's the one major holiday I miss being back home.  Christmas is too pressure-filled with having to buy presents for everyone and a fourth of July barbecue is great summer fun, but more like a casual get-together. Thanksgiving, however, is something special because of its simplicity - a day dedicated to spending time with family and friends, eating and drinking too much and then falling asleep on the couch.  There's no such equivalent here in Spain, unless you count most Sundays.

For those American expats away from home, many of the Irish bars offer some sort of Thanksgiving dinner and usually carry the NFL games. They tend to be a bit on the pricey side, but they're the only places you'll find turkey with all the trimmings, some sort of pumpkin pie and other goodies. There's also an Anglo supermarket called A Taste of Home which has many of the ingredients necessary to make the feast (ie cranberries) if you've got a culinary bent.  Personally, I usually celebrate with a roasted chicken and potatoes and a six back of Bud.

Book Available in US and UK

Just a quick note to say "From Barcelona Vol.1" - stories behind the city is available on Amazon in the U.S. and U.K. and on other sites soon. As for all of you waiting for a free electronic version, sorry for the delay, I'll hopefully be sending it to you this week or next at the latest.

Thanks again for all your support-

From the jacket

One Unique City, Ten Revealing Stories... A contemporary collection of short stories inspired by Barcelona, its history, its legends and its people including:
First Impressions: Exploring the metro, Las Ramblas and the labyrinthine alleys of the Barrio Gotico you go in search of an elusive Spanish beauty in a white dress and meet a gruff book seller who introduces you to the legend behind the city.
Senyor Jordi i el Drac: In this quirky retelling of the classic story of Saint George, an old knight and his squire battle a bat-winged beast, saving a village and a princess, on their way from to the kingdom of Barcelona where their friend, Don Quixote, awaits.
A Book for A Rose: Meet Johnny - a long term American expat who wonders if it will be the first Sant Jordi the sun doesn't shine - and Elena - the Spanish beauty who breaks his heart, giving him something more valuable than romance in the process.
CSI Barcelona: The death of an English man has Dr. Josep Caldet searching for the killer. His investigation uncovers a hidden underworld that lurks beneath the beautiful city as he discovers the price some are willing to pay to live in Barcelona.
Running the Gauntlet: A motley crew of locals and expats decide to take back Barcelona's streets from the pickpockets and thieves. They grab a drink or two along the way, in some of the city's most famous bars, before the night ends with a bang.
The Crypt of Colonia Güell: Barcelona's most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí, is being crushed by his designs for La Sagrada Familia until his benefactor, Eusebio Güell, offers him a commission that challenges their friendship.
Barcelona Gothic: Based on true events, Urquinaona 4 is a mysterious building located in the famed L'Eixample district of the city where its newest tenant, Alex, soon discovers that the cheap rent and great room comes at a terrifying price. ...
From Barcelona offers a fresh and unique literary perspective on this popular Catalan city, while fulfilling the interested visitor's desire for information about places to go and things to see. Described as "City-Lit" by the author, the goal of this book is to entertain, inform and inspire you to live and breathe your own Barcelona adventure.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Monthly Dubstep Club

For those of you interested in boogieing to something different than the usual, there's a monthly dubstep club that's been getting good reviews from people who know. Located at Sala BeGood near the Marina/Glòries Metro or Bogatell metro. The address is c/Sancho de Avila 78. 8€ cover drink included, 5€ before 1.00. The lineup is below

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Golden Witch and the Town of Luck

If you walk into a tobacco shop or anywhere that sells Christmas lottery tickets, you're liable to see a witch riding on a broomstick hanging from the ceiling, or a sign with her picture on it. Called La Bruixa d'Or or La Bruja de Oro or the Golden Witch, she hails from a small town called Sort (luck in Catalan) in Lleida and is famous enough to warrant its own Facebook page.

The brainchild of an enterprising Spaniard, Xavier Gabriel, a lottery ticket vendor in this small rural town about three hours east of Barcelona has transformed itself into the number one place to buy tickets for el gordo (the fat one) the national lottery that takes place on December 22nd with enough pomp to rival the Eurovision final. The lottery itself is famous for going against the grain and spreading the prize money rather than give the whole lump sum to one person and the town of Sort is home to the most winning numbers in Spain. Perhaps, there is something to a name or maybe it's just that more people buying from one location immediately increases the probability or it might even be as Xavier Gabriel says, a golden witch from outer space who sprinkles lucky dust. Who knows. But if you want to partake, here's the link to the official page.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Living in Barcelona - Surviving the First Year Blues

 A repost from a few months ago


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. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Barcelona Streets - Joaquin Costa

One of my favorite streets to go out drinking with friends is Joaquin Costa. On the edge of El Raval near Plaça Universitat, it runs just off Roda Sant Antoni. It used to be a bit on the prostitute ridden side, but it goes through ebbs and flows.

If you start heading down you'll pass a closed movie theater and a little ways past that on the left is the Oddbar. Like it's name implies, it's a strange place inspired by Terry Gilliam's Tideland and decorated appropriately with bright color and bobblehead dolls. They're known for their mojitos and the staff is friendly with a crowd consisting of Barcelona's hipsters and it's got one of the trippiest bathrooms in town.

A little further down is Benidorm on the right. You have to buzz in and then walk down a short set of steps. It reminds me of the LA dive bars I used to frequent back in the day and there's usually good music playing in the background ranging from Lou Reed to hip-hop spun by a Finn to whatever the guest DJ is playing.

On the Corner is Casa Almirall, which is one of the older bars in Barcelona and I imagine how most places were a century or so ago. Inside, the elaborate wood work, high ceilings and wall size mirror gives it a modernist feel reminiscent of the buildings of the L'Eixample while the electronic music tends to be at a volume that requires you to just raise your voice.

Meanwhile, if you need to take a break from the boozing and line you stomach, there's a new burger joint called Betty Ford's, which according to Duncan at Barcelona Life is one of the best in town. For pizza lovers, there's Original Pizza which offers slices.

For other places to eat, Suzanne at Expatica did a nice job of compiling various posts.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cover

Sorry for the endless self promotion. I promise it will stop soon and I'll return to blogging on Barcelona, the Spanish language and other radom subjects. In the meantime, here's the cover and jacket for the upcoming book. I often forget I'm working with a real publisher. Seeing this makes me thankful I am.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Top 20 Spanish Expressions

Like any language, Spanish is rich with expressions and sayings, which if you can use correctly during conversations, immediately boosts your standing in the eyes of the natives. Here are my top twenty.

1. cutre [koo-trey]- this word covers everything from seedy to uncool and I've yet to find an exact match in English. Examples of being cutre include small, authentic Spanish bars with an ever present smell of tobacco and frying oil, carrying your towels and sunscreeen in a plastic bag to the beach, a sweater with holes, a Spanish electrical switch box, etc.

2. un fantasma - The direct translation means " a ghost" but this word is used to describe someone who is not what they appear to be. Usually a person who talks a big game and tends to exaggerate.

3. Como Dios manda - Literally translated, "As God sends," you drop this phrase to demonstrate that you will do something well. For example, cooking dinner tonight? como dios manda, meaning yes and well.

4. mala leche - Bad milk is what a grumpy or surly person has. see: funcionario

5. Más vale malo conocido que bueno por conocer - A Spanish expression that sums up their attitude to risk.  Roughly translated it means: "A known bad is worth more than something good to be known."  I guess it means - stick with something even if it's bad rather than know something better. But it's open to interpretation.

6. tio/tia, macho - similar to dude or mate. ¿Qué pasa, tia? "What's up, girl?"  Mancho. Vamos a hacerlo. "Dude - Let's do it."

7. un cortado - a shot of strong Spanish coffee, closer to espresso, topped with warm milk. Normally drunk after lunch.

8. cul i merda - a Catalan expression that translates as "ass and shit." It's what you say when things or people perfectly compliment each other.

9. montar un pollo - "to mount the chicken," which is what someone does when they cause a scene in public.

10. pajas mentales - "mental wanks" is what you say someone has who you think is delusional or tends to create something out of nothing.It can also be used to describe someone who thinks they are greater than they are.

11. bicho malo nunca muere - A bad bug never dies.

12. tener el mono - you have the monkey when you're craving something.

13. Estar empanado - "To be breaded" is the expression to use when describing someone who's a little on the slow side.

14. el vermut - Not to be confused with the liquor added to gin or vodka  in the states, thus making a martini.  It's twelve o´clock on a Sunday when you drink something and eat berberechos - usually snack food served from a tin like olives, nuts or chips to tide you over until lunch two hours later.

15. culo veo, culo quiero - "Ass I see, ass I want" an expression to use when someone wants something you have.  For example - You hungry? No. Five minutes later you're eating. I want some. Culo veo, culo quiero

16. plantar un pino - "to plant a pine" is another way of saying to do a number two.

17. Por si las moscas - translated literally as "For if the flies," it means just in case.

18. chulo [choo-low]- it means cool, but can also be a person who's too cool for school if you know what I mean.

19. un puente - Literally "a bridge" - it's the day before or after a public holiday depending on if it falls on a Tuesday or Thursday that turns it into a long weekend.

20. bable  - The language people from Asturias in northern Spain speak.

Got any to add?

Working Freelance in Spain

Expatica ran an article at the end of last year on how to become autónomo or freelance in Spain and I couldn't help but start laughing at the line: "The procedure of going freelance is fuss-free as you can be registered as self-employed within one day." Have they actually ever done it? Leaving aside that fuss-free is not generally a term I'd use to describe the Spanish bureaucracy the process of becoming freelance is particularly famous here for what a pain it is to do.

This is the cover for the form known as "Modelo 036." Actually, it's more like a book, spanning nine pages of small print written in Spanish legalese that leaves even native speakers confused and consulting a lawyer. Not only must you fill it out completely and legibly in blue, not black, ink, but you must also go to three different offices which are conveniently located on opposite sides of the city. Considering they all open at nine and close at 14.00 Mon - Fri, completing this task with one fell swoop would require super human speed of the Flash and no lines which is about as likely to happen as snow in August.

As anyone who has had dealings with Spanish civil servants can tell you, dealing with a funcionario as their known, is a test of patience of biblical proportions. Notorious for their mala leche (bad milk or surly mood) and the law of falta uno (one thing missing) your first visit will probably end with you being sent home after waiting in a long line for some reason that makes no sense. The best advice I could give is to think of it as a way to practice zen and take at least two copies of every form you've collected during your stay here, a stuffed coin purse for any unexpected fees or copies, and still plan on coming home at least once during the process with your head shaking in frustration. 

The end result of this process is the social security department deducts either 280 a month or 840 a quarter from your bank account regardless of how much you earn and in return, you get access to the national health care system and some protection in case of a work place accident, but no unemployment benefits or paid vacation and a reduced pension whenever the Spanish government finally decides on a retirement age.

So is it worth it? Given the fact that private medical insurance costs around seventy euros a month, maybe closer to a hundred with dental, objectively and economically speaking, probably not. Not too long ago, the systems that monitored social security taxes (the ones you paid as an autónomo) and the income tax (deducted by the company that hired you) weren't connected, so you could get away with paying the latter while avoiding the former. But you face the risk of one day having the Spanish authorities come after you nowadays, especially since the arrival of the crisis, so it's best to do it despite it not making economic sense.

On the plus side, working freelance generally means you can charge higher hourly rates than what  contracted worker would get. With the help of a good accountant, you can write off some purchases like meals and travel cards as business expenses, getting some money back at tax time. Best of all, you are the boss and have more control of your destiny and time table. One of the common complaints of contracted workers I hear is that they often have to work their specified hours, whether busy or not, and also sometimes more depending on the work load or if their boss feels like going home to screaming kids and a nagging wife or not.

On the negative side, many freelance friends of mine who have small business have commented on the difficulty getting clients to pay for services rendered.  This was always a problem in the best of economic times, but has become particularly noticeable and more frequent with the economic downturn. The judicial process for redress is complex and expensive it seems. Meanwhile, there doesn't aren't many credit agencies that will buy off debt and seek to collect. But I have to admit my knowledge on this subject is tangential so feel free to correct or expand in the comments section.

I recently read in the Spanish press that the government is looking to fix some of the flaws with the autónomo system like offering unemployment benefits. I hope so because more and more people I know are becoming freelance given the current job market. Also, as I mentioned before, it's increasingly how companies are hiring in Barcelona since they avoid paying any of the social security taxes or severance pay.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Favorite Spanish Dish

When most people think of Spanish food, they think of paella or jamon ibereico. My personal favorite dish is huevos fritos con patatas fritas. Normally it's topped with a slice of lightly grilled jamon and there's something about the way the runny yoke softens the fried potato, as the salt tickles the taste buds that makes each bite easy and fulfilling, making it the perfect dish after a heavy night out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dust off the Guillotines

It's been a year now since the great economic crisis hit and not a whole lot has changed here in Spain. Economic forecasts continue to project negative growth and the government's solution is to raise taxes on the middle class, bringing a whole new meaning to spreading the wealth. The other option is the PP, who'd tax the poor too and take their families on vacation. There's been no discussion on taxing the rich and the plan to close the loophole called the beckham rule brought a strike threat from La Liga.  And I wonder, why should a foreign football player pay half the amount a Spanish one does, not to mention the average worker? Isn't the national team the best? How does this law even exist in the first place? Besides, where else is some Brazilian going to play? Manchester?

Locally, a few mayors of the suburbs of Barcelona were arrested on corruption as was the head of  Palau de la Musica - the prestigious modernist music hall meant to represent the best of the Catalan nation. As Tom from thebadrash points out, the allegations against him were first brought to a judge five years ago. Yes, I know this is Spain, things move slow, but so does corruption seem to spread far and deep. All the while the people take advantage of anticrisis tapas menus; the police enforce the end of two for one drink specials. And I wonder, what would happen if this were France?

But I know. The president north of the border is bringing back Versailles, installing his dashing son in high posts, spending money lavishly on luxury in the process and the citizens stay silent because what choice is there. As for the Great Roman Empire now known as Italy, it's being run by Hugh Hefner starring in the Sopranos and the citizens re-elect him. Across the channel change is on the horizon as the Tories are set to assume power for the first time since Thatcher while Labour bails out the banks and the factories close. Across the pond, Obamamania has faded revealing a less hubris face to the nation but the same industries in charge. And like Marvin Gay sang, I wonder what's going on and where's the anger of the sixties, twenties, and 1770's?

But after reading this interview with the President of Goldman Sachs where he equates getting filthy rich at the expense of the people as doing god's work, regardless of the damage he and others like him do, I now wonder what it would be like to have a shotgun.

An Anecdote from Barcelona and a Random Thought about Spanish

So I was hanging out at a friend's flat earlier tonight and he told me about meeting a Finnish girl he fancied yesterday.  He'd been in a bit of a rut with women lately and was excited at the new possibility. He called her. She called back and they agreed to meet at outside a restaurant at a certain time tomorrow. There was no call me after work, or I'll send you a message just to confirm, or let's touch base tomorrow. A time and a date was set and that was the end of communication until they saw each other. It was like back in the day when we were kids and we'd all meet up at that certain spot to get into god knows what. And I thought, How refreshing.

On a completely unrelated note, I find it interesting that the verb for to know and to taste is the same in Spanish (saber) given how important food is here. It's like - you don't really know something until you taste it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book - My Christina & Other Stories

For anyone interested in Catalan literature a good place to start is with My Christina and Other Stories (The Graywolf Short Fiction Series)A female writer who first came to prominence here during the first part of the twentieth century, she fled Barcelona following the civil war and settled in Geneva until the death of Franco. 

The collection is a series of seventeen short stories written predominately in a monologue style that characterizes her work and ranges from slice of life tales to ones that are more surrealist in nature (a witch who turns into a salamander for example), with most containing a wry humor common in these parts. Unlike the more well-know Zafón, they don't so much describe what Barcelona was like aesthetically in those times, but they do provide a glimpse into the life here through rich characters and a keen sense of observation.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Here are some pictures from my neighborhood.

Below you can see the contrast between the old Barcelona and the new.

While here's our local drunk having a chat with the police.

And our local fire station which reminds me of a division three football club stadium

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fear and Loathing Barcelona

So I went into the city center last weekend for the first time since the infamous pickpocketing experience last spring and it's amazing what some photos of prostitutes servicing their johns in public will do - Las Ramblas was actually relatively drug dealer and hooker free at 2:00am!  Of course, there aren't less of them, the recent police sweeps simply forcing them into the alleys that run off the main thoroughfare where they now target those partying in El Raval. But, hey, at least no reporters will be taking pictures, right?

Anyway, the weekend got me thinking. I know Amsterdam has the reputation as the vice capital of Europe, but it does seem Barcelona is giving it a run for the money, perhaps even surpassing it. Walk around El Raval or El Barrio Gotico and look up at the balconies - chances are you'll see pot plants growing in plain sight just waiting to be picked during certain months. Meanwhile, on almost every corner in the city center you'll either be offered drugs or sex and the smell of hashish when strolling through the parks or plazas is not that uncommon.

Some of this has to do with the relatively lax laws as far as drugs and prostitution. It's legal to grow cannabis for personal use and prostitution isn't a crime. Is this bad? Personally, I'm an an unabashed proponent for legalization of all narcotics but as Holland shows, when this is done on a country level said country runs the risk of losing its image and identity as it becomes a haven for drug tourism. Given the fact that Barcelona is already overrun by drunken tourists behaving badly, I fear what would happen if weed and coke were added to the mix. Actually, come to think of it, maybe not herb but you get the idea.

Still, is having street mafias providing the goods any better? The quality of the product is usually crap, cut with god knows what, and the quantity is usually half what you want. The girls of the night are probably here against their will and crime is on the rise. In fact, in all the discussions about the issue, it's rare anyone brings up the human trafficking aspect, which is where the real tragedy lies.

So what to do? Other than the European Union legalizing everything, which has about as much chance of happening as an ice rink in hell, there don't seem to be many good options. I guess Spain could go the route of the US and declare war on drugs and prostitution but we've all seen how that has worked out (crystal meth, an incarceration rate of a third world country, etc.). Any suggestions?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Barcelona in November

The temperatures have really dropped over the last few days which means no more flip-flops, shorts or t-shirts until May. On the positive side, winter here normally sees a steady flow of concerts, exhibitions, and festivals to keep busy until beach season returns and of course, La Liga is in full swing.  Some of the highlights include.

The 41st Annual Festival of International Jazz. It runs until the 6th of December and is taking place in numerous venues throughout the city. Some of the acts are: Belá Fleck & The Flecktones, Chano Domínguez Quiteto Flamenco, and the Omar Sosa Sextet at L’Auditori, the Brad Mehldau Trio, Cassandra Wilson, Chucho Valdés & Concho Buika, Jimmy Cobb’s So What Band, Marcus Miller, Kings of Convenience, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Tortoise at La Palau de la Música, Sole Giménez at Teatre Joventut, and Imelda May at Luz de Gas. If you only have one night and aren't drawn to any group, I'd recommend seeing a show at La Palau de Musica - a modernist masterpiece with brilliant acoustics (pictured). For more information, visit the official page (in Catalan).

For those of you with other musical taste, November seems to be eighties month with such groups as  New Model Army, Marillion, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, and Depeche Mode playing here. If you're looking for something a bit heavier, Germany's Rammstein return, plus Rise Against, Hardcore Superstar, and LA's own Isis. Also coming is Finntroll who are a mix of death metal, black metal, folk metal, and polka. Or at least the Finnish polka called “humppa”. (Thanks Tony for the plug and the info.)  In addition to these groups, Do Make Say Think, Sizzla Kalonji & The Firehouse Crew, Camera Obscura, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Horrors, Juliette Lewis, and Muse with The Horrors being my personal favorite. See for tickets and availability.

Finally, La Liga is particularly close this year with Barça leading Madrid by a sole point. For you football fans out there, there are four opportunities to catch Barça at the Camp Nou (not including el classico) between now and Christmas. .

Upcoming Book About Barcelona

As I've mentioned before, a book of mine, From Barcelona, will be published this month on the city. It's a collection of ten short stories which offers a realistic glimpse at the life here through different characters, genres and locations. And while each story is meant to stand alone, there are certain elements and situations that link them all together providing the collection with a narrative arc.  I'm a music junkie first and foremost so I've basically attempted to write a literary album of the city. Anyway, if anyone's interested in a free pdf copy, please send me an e-mail and I'll pass the book along. The only thing I ask in return is for a positive review on Amazon once the book's released if you like it of course.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Burger King of Barcelona

I remember when I first came here, it was almost impossible to find a burger made of beef outside the Hardrock and MacDonalds. Why? Because the Spanish thought since it was called a hamburger, it must be made of ham, resulting in a paddy of ground pork that tasted like an undercooked sausage with a fried egg, lettuce and mayonnaise on top. And chances are if you go to a normal Spanish restaurant, this is what you will get.

But over the last seven years, there's also been, if not quite a boom, then a substantial increase of places serving a traditional hamburger, some even going so far as to offer authentic and unique twists on the sole meal most Spanish think Americans live on.

Most of the English Pubs offer some version of a beef paddy. They're normally American size (half a pound) and expensive.  There is also Fosters of Hollywood, which is an American theme restaurant that offers free refills on fountain sodas. But beyond these traditional places, there are also a two smaller restaurants that deserve a mention.

Pim Pam Burger in el Borne has a vocal and loyal following. In fact, many say it's the best burger in town, so much so that they are willing to put up with a staff who have adopted the Soup Nazi persona from Seinfeld and will pop a vein in anger if you disagree.  It's relatively cheap and tasty but with a bit too much mayonnaise for my liking.

My personal favorite is the Jazz Bar in Poble Sec where they jazz up (pun intended) their burgers with bean sauces, guacamole and other extras that make them unique to what else you'll find. Again, the cook is surly for even a Spaniard, making me wonder if they've been watching too much classic Saturday Night Live and John Belushi.