Sunday, January 31, 2010

For Rab & Tom

This seems like an appropriate way to end the week. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Favorite Books & Writers

All this talk about languages and writing has got me thinking about books and writers so with that in mind here are some of my favorites.

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker. I just bought his entire collection for the kindle and reread it for the umpteenth time which felt like the first.
  2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Enrich Maria Remarque. One of the most powerful novels about war, I think, showing life in the trenches. A close second would be Catch-22 by by Joesph Heller which highlights the absurity.
  3. Wind up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  My introduction into contemporary Japanese literature, a perfect blending of the real and surreal. For those interested in China, Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian paints a vivid and unique picture.
  4. Population 1280 by Jim Thompson.  For me he's the best crime writer of the twentieth century and any of his stories is a must read. This one, though, is my personal favorite.
  5. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. A funny and tender story written by one of America's literary masters. It's a good idea to read Cannery Road first since this is its sequel.
  6. Mysteries by Knut Hamsun. Many people cite Hunger as his best book, but I prefer the main character in this one because of his eccentricity.
  7. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński. Not for the faint of heart, but no book better captures both the savagery of humans and the strength of our spirit.
  8. Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge. The perfect American road trip novel - 59 Cadillac, police chase, drugs and crazy preachers in search of the meaning of rock 'n roll.
  9. Tooth and the Claw by T.C. Boyle. A great and diverse collection of short stories from one of my favorite current authors. Dogology in particular shows his gifts.
  10. Ghost Story by Peter Straub.  The perfect horror story because of its suspense and use of story-telling rather than gore and shock. 
I could go on, but I like round numbers and have to run

Friday, January 29, 2010

Language is a Fickle Bitch

Catalan company, Spanish packaging.  Advertised today on Canal Vuit during Arucitys as "typical Spanish rice from Catalunya." Love the contact info.

Dirección y contactoDirección y contacto
Gran Capità, 34
Localidad: Amposta
Código postal: 43870
Región: Catalunya
País: España
Teléfono: 977702954

Catalunya or Catalonia

Once in a while I'll get someone asking me why I use Catalunya instead of Catalonia and I guess it's because it was how I first got to know the place and it's not difficult to pronounce, so in my mind I've always lived in Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain and not Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. But I think the point of the question is why use the Catalan word when there's an English equivalent.

The beauty of the English language, I think, is that it's truly organic. There's no governing body like the royal academy in Madrid or the French institute in Paris where a bunch of old men sit around and decide what's a word and what's not. I often wondered what it'd be like to attend one, though. How they decide on the gender of an object or which of the three conjugations a verb falls into must be a fascinating discussion. I guess there's Cambridge and Oxford, but since most English speakers live far away from the UK, their opinions don't carry much weight. Thinking about it, English really is a populist language influenced more by the street than kings as it has been for much of it's history. Three cheers for English!

Perhaps, living in Los Angeles, where my last address was La Cañada Drive which was down the street from Los Feliz Avenue (Yup, we use incorrect Spanish too)  made my brain more receptive to incorporating non-English words for locations and addresses, making it a So Cal, spanglish, thang, but that would suggest we, angelenos, are unique. One just needs to listen to the news and hear names followed by  formerly known know that's not the case. Not to mention the many instances where a foreign word is commonly used and accepted despite there being an English equivalent: siesta for nap, cilantro for coriander (which I just had to look up), carte blanche for free reign, coups d' état for military overthrow. And if you're a Catalan reading this, this is a good thing, right? To see your land known in your language as Catalunya world wide. It's better than Cataluña, no? You are Catalans not Catalonians, are you not?

This debate of course is not unique to the English language. I listen to friends of mine here discuss if it's pijo to use an English word when there's an equivalent like slides for diapositivas or tomar un break for descansar, although lately it seems most new words approved by the royal academy are English with an accent somewhere and designated male gender or they just stick an -ing at the end. Honestly, how they can call themselves learned men of language and allow words like footing or trekking to become officially Spanish is beyond me. If they really appreciated language, they wouldn't completely bastardized the meaning and think of something different or at least use the correct word. Okay, so jogging (hoagging)  might be tough for a Spaniard to say, but running is better than footing and all it takes is a concise English-Spanish dictionary and reading the definition of a foot to see that. I mean, pieando?

Maybe, during these distressed economic times, when deficits are forcing the government to cut services, the first thing to go should be the royal academy, followed by every other linguistic governing board in every single autonomy. As the evidence shows they obviously haven't a clue about the subject on which they're supposed to be experts and the best way to watch a language grow is to throw off the shackles of the tyrannical linguistic agencies! Just imagine how much time, money and energy would be saved and what a more peaceful place it would be. Ah, just imagine that remotest of remote possibilities...



After some back and forth with Tom from the Badrash in the comments section, there's a poll for you - the reader - to voice your opinions on this. Let the people speak!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Best and Worst Thing About Barcelona

As I've probably mentioned before, one of the great aspects of Barcelona is the cosmopolitan nature of the city and the people it seems to attract. During my seven years here, I've met and befriend people from seemingly every country in the world, working in everything from the underground economy to the government, and old stereotypes I might have had were quickly vanquished after a few drinks and conversations.
Especially the first few years, these expat friendships helped me gain my bearings and find my feet in the city. There's a bond, I think, that comes from the shared experiences of living in a foreign land. It truly seems to speed up the process of going from acquaintance to friend and I know without the support of the people I'd met the move would have been more difficult and possibly shorter.

Sadly, when I think of these friends now, almost all have long since gone, called away from Barcelona in search of better jobs, or because of love, or due to a sickness in the family. For all its beauty and allure, Barcelona is also a transient city and people come and go, usually sticking around for two years before moving on.

And I have to admit each time a person comes into my life and then leaves, I find it harder to go out and make new friends. But eventually I do because I believe the richest experiences in life don't last forever; if they did then they'd lose that special quality and become routine, normal. Also, one of the benefits is I now have plenty of places to stay and a local guide when I travel.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Three Cheers For The Elderly!

As some of the recent comments on "the drinking and smoking..." post show, one of the more pleasant surprises newcomers to Spain have is how active the elderly population is here. You can see them shuffling around, pushing their carritos from fruit stand to supermarket as they do their own shopping. On sunny days they gather on benches under trees with their friends, their lap dogs sitting close by and chat, punctuating their sentences with laughs. During the evening, you'll find them at the local bar sitting around a table talking loudly and animated about their family and friends while stroking the fur on their pet Yorkshire terrier that sits on their lap. In fact, if you were to judge a country solely on the how active the people are in relationship to their age, Spain would be near the top I imagine. So with that in mind here are some of my five favorite characteristics of la tercera edad.

1. They never sweat. It can be the middle of August. The sun is blazing and the humidity sticks to the skin, yet there they are, dressed in skirts and blouses, stockings and shoes, their madeup faces free of one bead of sweat as they cool themselves by waving a fan just under the chin.

2.  They dress with dignity.  Compared to the rest of Spain, I think Barcelona is a bit more on the casual side fashion-wise but you'll never find an elderly person here going out in sweats. From their dyed hair to the wrinkle free clothes they wear, everything is immaculate and well-put together with an understated class.

3. They provide a glimpse into Spain's past. This holds true for most senior citizens I find no matter where they live (not for Spain, but the country they're from), but there's nothing more interesting that sitting down and having a chat with an elderly neighbor. They'll be more than happy to share for a few moments company and it's amazing what you'll discover. 

4. They're out and about. A friend of mine's father likes getting up at the crack of dawn and going out to get each of the free newspapers before they're gone so he'll have something to read. Every week day this is his ritual while at five o´clock rain or shine I know I'll see the elderly couple from across the hall walking the neighborhood's streets arm-in-arm for their daily paseito. Like I said, they just seem more active.

5. They're friendlier. Whenever I go shopping at the market, I can usually count on one senior citizen offering me suggestions as to the best cut of meat or a new cheese to try. Nowadays, it often corresponds with what I planned on buying anyway, but it's always nice to hear some friendly advice. And I remember when I first came here and didn't speak any Spanish getting a real hoot from the old guy trying to explain what the shop keeper said to me by shouting different words but using the same language and speed as if the problem was my hearing. It was all very surreal.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Food Club - The Dancing Glass

Last night was the first Dancing Glass dinner date of the year and it was a great time all around. Melissa, Luke and Christian not only know their food and how to cook, but are gracious and welcoming hosts. My head's a little foggy from all the wine, so I'll be light on specifics, but the dishes were exceptional, starting with a twist on the traditional garzpacho that used spinach instead of tomatoes through the main course of chicken in a sauce with a hint of chocolate to the dessert which was the Spanish staple, la tarta santiago.

The company was equally as rich and diverse with people hailing from Germany, Italy, England the states and Spain, leading to conversations ranging from places to hike to Spanish music to life in Barcelona. Nights like that are a reminded why it's such a special city. So for anyone looking to meet people while trying delicious food, definitely try to go to the next meeting. Seating is limited to eightish, but it looks like there'll be two in February. For more info, visit their website.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Anyone Work In Real Estate?

If anyone reading this blog works in real estate, either selling or renting, and would like some free, European-wide, publicity, please get in touch.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jamón, Jamón

A while ago someone asked me the difference between Jamón Ibérico and Jamón Serrano and I guess the most obvious answer is the price with the former being substantially more expensive than the latter. Why? Well, I have to admit I'm far from a ham connoisseur or expert so I sought the advice of someone whose knowledge on the subject is much greater than mine - my Sevillana wife. Her response was "It's like the difference between Don Simon and Rioja. Now be quiet, you're making me hungry." Helpful, right? Anyway, in search for the differences and to quell her appetite we went to the local market and bought a few grams of each to do a jamón taste test.

The first difference is the appearance. Jamón Ibérico tends to be glossier and less meaty looking with more streaks of the white fat or as my missus says, "the good cholesterol," while Jamón Serrano is a darker red and tougher looking. And in this case, appearances aren't deceiving when it comes to taste with Jamón Ibérico requiring much less jaw pressure to chew. Both are salty, but whereas eating Jamón Serrano has you reaching for any liquid, the flavor of Ibérico evokes the desire for a cold beer or a glass of a good wine, which serves as a perfect compliment, rather than just a way to quench your thirst.

There's also a difference in how you eat them with serrano often used at the meat for a bocadillo while if you eat Ibérico with bread in front of a Spaniard be prepared for a look similar to the expression of a Scot if you add coke to a twelve year old whiskey. This isn't to say you can't but it's advisable to do it when alone or with fellow guiris unless your ready for the question, "Do you put catchup on Paella too?" As for cooking either, that's a definite no-no, especially with Jamón Ibérico. I actually did it once and I have to say it was the best bacon ever; it's also the reason my mother-in-law hides it every time I come to visit.

So if both are cured hams why such a difference in taste, texture and appearance? The acorn or la bellota which is the primary feed for the pigs whose legs go on to be cut into thin slices that are then served on a plate; the food for the ones whose meat is used in sandwiches are given a mix of cereals. It's amazing how a nut can have such an effect, isn't it?

Of course, like with many things in Spain, the superiority of Jamóm Ibérico isn't clear cut. I know a few people who say it's a waste of money. Also, if you decide to eat at a restaurant along Las Ramblas, stick with the serrano, because if you order the Ibérico, that's what you'll be getting anyway but with a dash of oil for the glossy look at five times the price.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Final Thoughts On Catalan Independence

One of my new year's resolutions was to avoid posting on any issue related to Catalunya vis-a-vis Spain and the politics of the relationship, but a recent article in the Economist and some comments from a local author about my book made me decide to rant one last time before resuming the resolution for the Chinese new year.

First of all, a little perspective. It is only in Barcelona and Catalunya that anyone really cares. In a lot of ways, it's like the entertainment industry in LA, political gossip in DC; it's a topic that you'll only ever discuss if you live here because of the disproportionate importance given to it by the media compared to what truly concerns most people (jobs, economy, environment etc). Of course, there is a difference. In Los Angeles, it's about which director is about to get the next blockbuster and in DC it's about which politician is a drunk, while here it's about the tricky and emotional question of national identity.

In fact, many of the aforementioned author's objections to the stories were in regards to how I dealt with this issue and whether Spanish or Catalan was the appropriate adjective to use to describe the people from Barcelona.  According to him, there was a consensus reached in the the mid-nineties that anyone born in Catalunya was Catalan first, unless they said otherwise and regardless of the language spoken at home. They could be just Catalan, or Catalan plus something, but first and foremost Catalan. That very well may be the case, but international consensus and law, for many decades, has used the country on the passport or ID card to describe somebody's nationality, thus making the people from Barcelona, Spanish, in the eyes of most of the world and the intended audience of the book. That's the reality of the situation.Besides, on a practical level, how the hell can you tell if someone was born in Barcelona and not in Zaragoza or decide if that group at the table is Spanish and Catalan, simply Catalan or just Spanish? Should one just assume everyone walking the was born here and thus Catalan? That's a bit disrespectful to the millions of Spaniards who live and work in the city, isn't it?

As a fiction writer, the question of Catalan or Spanish often comes down to how best to describe a character and has little to do with local semantic arguments about what constitutes a nationality. For example, the quintessential Spanish beauty, what do you imagine after reading that? A dark haired, dark eyed, brown skin girl, right?  If I were to write the quintessential Catalan beauty, I'd have to use different adjectives: paler skin, larger eyes, blonder hair. I suppose I could replace Spanish with Catalan for the sake of being politically correct (there are many local women who have dark traits), but I would have to remove the word quintessential and add her beauty was due to her Spanish blood or something along that line. It really does seem a petty point to critique but that's the state of the debate of identity politics here it appears.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, my mind and opinions were blank and open when it came to this issue. Politically, socially, economically, I lean left and fully support people's right to self-determination and governance. After seven years of living here, having had literally thousands of conversations with hundreds of people about this topic almost to the point of ad nauseum, I have little sympathy for the nationalist cause or the people who state Catalunya is an occupied territory. Truth-be-told, I find such statements and the arguments in favor of independence lacking in any basis of reality and sometimes tinged with an element of racism.

What do I mean? The vast majority of Catalans I've met, whether their family has been here for generations or their parents came from somewhere else in Spain during the forties and fifties, have little problem speaking Spanish or feeling part of the country. They support the national team, talk fondly about their last trip somewhere in Spain and complain about the ineptness of the national government. They feel both Catalan and Spanish and see no contradiction being both nor do they see one as better than the other. Unfortunately, while the majority, they aren't the ones driving the debate.

From my experience, it seems many of the most vocal and ardent nationalists are people who were born here but with Spanish parents. Claiming to be Catalan and only Catalan, they will renounce all things Spain, sometimes going so far to say they hate the country, while speaking of Catalunya's superiority in terms of culture, demeanor and work habits. I suppose this overcompensation is normal and a psychologist would attribute it to a deep seated insecurity of said people to fit in. Still, coming from the states where citizens celebrate their Irish connection 300 years after their ancestors arrived, I have a hard time fathoming how someone can speak so poorly about the land of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. As a father of a baby girl, I wonder what they're teaching in the schools to make people feel such a way towards their ancestry and if I want my daughter to attend classes here.

True, this is only a small element of the people arguing for separation with most proponents using economics to push for the cause. Some will say, if only we were a republic like the United States to which I reply, you have no clue what you're talking about. The largest state in terms of economy is California. If it were a stand alone country, it would, I think, be the seventh or eighth biggest economy in the world, larger than Spain and perhaps Italy. Yet, the state is an absolute mess financially, on par with Greece, and it receives little of the federal income tax revenue it generates which would help the situation; the money used to run state services raised through local taxes which are the highest in the nation. And what about the millions of federal tax dollars the state contributes? It's managed by a senator in charge of the appropriations committee from a much less populous state who uses it to fund a bridge to nowhere for his constituents, thereby ensuring his re-election. In political jargon it's called "pork" and as a person who has lived both in Spain and in the states, I'm telling you - you've got less of it and more financial control as an autonomy than you would as a state so don't wish for a political system you don't understand.

The most common number cited, however, is 25/15; the amount the region gives to the national economy compared to the percentage it receives back. How unfair, people will scream, neglecting to point out that Spain, and yes Catalunya, has received a far greater amount of revenue from the European Union (namely France and Germany) than they've put in. How one economic model is fine on a European level but not on national one strikes me as a hypocritical, but leaving that alone, I do have a question - What did the regional government do with this money from Europe? Did they use it to reform some of the systematic problems which was the implied agreement? Did they use it to build a different economic model truly separating Catalunya from Spain? No, like the national government, they used it to fund the construction boom that saw the price of housing skyrocket while salaries for the citizens stagnated, resulting in the current mess we're in. And you want these men to run your country?

If you read the comments to the Economist article, you'll see many pro-independence voices claiming the region would be better off without Spain, although they offer no statistics, numbers or even logical conclusions to back up their assertions, only blanket statements. But is it true? Well, they'd gain complete control of tax revenue and end the net ten percent loss of the current system, but they'd also face higher expenditures and pay €937-€1024 more per capita into the EU budget than it would receive (see comments below). Assuming complete responsibility for  ALL services (unemployment, pensions, health, transport, police, etc) isn't cheap, not when there's an aging population, low fertility rates and high unemployment like here. Add GDP shrinking at a slightly higher percentage than Spain as a whole and a growing current account deficit to the equation, and I don't think it's far fetched to predict a wash at best, maybe even a net loss.

The economic problems facing the region (such as the need to lower wages to reduce the costs of goods produced here, but being unable to devalue the currency due to being in the Euro zone) wouldn't go away as a result of separation. After all, I assume an independent Catalan state would use the euro and not introduce its own currency. In other words, even if it were a stand alone country right now, it's economy would be just like Spain's, unless the politicians could convince the citizens to work for less in exchange for independence and that ain't happening. Thinking about it, I'm not sure an independent Catalan state as it stands now would be granted admittance to Europe considering how little appetite the EU probably has to include one more member in the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) block that might need a bailout, especially since the area doesn't offer cheap labor to German factories like Eastern European nations nor is it an exporter of highly-sought after goods. I take that back; there's cava.

But what of those local tax revenues generated which would be used to justify inclusion in the EU and Catalunya's independent status? When I look around the city I don't see an explosion of local, Catalan, businesses. Like the rest of Spain, I see a place beholden to foreign companies, construction and tourism for much of its employment. And just out of curiosity, where do people think a multinational would put its headquarters for the Iberian peninsula if Catalunya became an independent country with its own language? Would some CEO sitting in New York, London or Paris be willing to pay additional expenses to have all communication first done in Catalan and also in Spanish? Just look at how Portugal fits into the Iberian corporate model of many multinationals to find the answers to those questions. Basically, what I'm saying is - there's no guarantee the region could sustain its current income level as an independent state but there is a possibility it could see a decline and that doesn't even take into account the probable brain drain as Spaniards (i.e. those not from Catalunya) decide perhaps Madrid or Valencia is a better option since they can feel free to speak their native tongue there. Ditto for the thousands of Latin and South American immigrants living here.

I don't mean to come across as anti-Catalan or against the right for someone to identify themselves as such. I think previous posts will show I have a tremendous amount of affinity and respect for the people here. You can feel anyway you want and I appreciate that. I personally don't feel very American having lived most of my life outside the US, but it doesn't change the fact that's what I am in the eyes of everyone who meets me, just as it doesn't change the fact that you are Spanish even if you were born in Barcelona to most of the world.  Now you can get angry and tell me how wrong I am with that statement but it's the truth and to say otherwise is to deny reality. Of course, the healthy thing to do is not waste time debating if you're a nation or not but fix the systematic problems of the region, laying the groundwork for a free Catalunya, making the point moot, but that requires doing something other than pontificating and blaming Madrid. It means serious, objective analysis and hard choices. Also, as the saying goes and the evidence shows - be careful what you wish for; it probably won't be the elixir you expect.

Anyway, I've said my peace and I promise to leave it at that.  If you have any problems with the points I've made, feel free to say so and if you want to counter them fine, but show me you've thought about it and explain why I'm wrong; don't just tell me or spout some party line. It really is a tiresome issue and one that I think prevents the Spanish people, whether they were born in Barcelona or Oviedo, from uniting to right this country by exaggerating the few differences while downplaying the many more similarities, which is why the next post will be on something almost all Spaniards agree on: namely, the deliciousness of jamon iberico.

Monday, January 18, 2010


For anyone interested, I was interviewed by Marta who runs the blog English in Barna. Ten questions about the city, movie, music, books.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Panic Grips Andalucia After The Latest Storms


El pánico se apodera de Andalucía tras las últimas lluvias!!

Learning The Languages

Often times when I talk to someone who's leaving Barcelona, they'll mention the work situation and the fact Spanish or Catalan is required for many positions as the reasons they're leaving and I'll wonder if they know how that sounds. I mean, what did you expect?  True, Barcelona presents unique challenges to learning Spanish if you haven't studied it before and there's the separate question of Catalan, but come on - it's a foreign country, so as my grandmother says, shame on you if you haven't learned enough of the local language to order a beer and ask for change correctly after a year. 

Like I said, Barcelona isn't the easiest place to learn Spanish despite the fact it's in Spain. The large expat population of native English speakers, not to mentioned other Europeans, makes it entirely possible to have an international circle of friends where English is the common language. I know many people who have been here for years living like this, speaking little to no Spanish; yet they still thoroughly enjoy the city and are in many ways its biggest fans.

Another obstacle to learning Spanish is the local people. I don't think it's particularly controversial to say Catalans tend to be more reserved and insular compared to the rest of Spaniards, preferring to go home rather than grab drinks with colleagues after work. One of my first students told me I made a mistake coming here instead of Madrid for this very reason and I have to admit it took some getting used to the closed nature of the people. Still, while not as jovial as Andalucians, they aren't statues and often all it requires is for you to initiate the conversation, but in order to do this it helps to know the language. You don't expect them to speak to you in English, do you?

If you can't speak Spanish, then you are limiting your work options to basically teaching for a school or company, bar-tending in an Irish pub or answering phones in a call center. Compared the wages a Spaniard would get for doing the same things, you're doing okay in terms of money, but perhaps they're not for everybody or if you want to live here full time.  For those with an entrepreneurial drive, I think there are a lot of opportunities but you'll need to eventually deal with the infamous Spanish bureaucracy or suppliers which means you'll need to learn the language.

For those looking for a more stable and secure environment like office work, even if it's a multinational and English is the official language, you're nevertheless in Spain. Still, being a native English speaker is like having a second degree, having work experience in the states or the UK is a real feather in the cap, so if you can speak Spanish too, you definitely have an advantage, even in these depressed times. In fact, in every company I've taught at over the years there's always been one or two highly valued guiris working there.

You don't even have to speak it fluently, just competently, such are the low expectations people have that foreigners will speak their language. And, while maybe Barcelona isn't the optimum location, you're still in Spain with Spanish television, neighbors, and bars where you can easily practice if you're willing to make even a minimal effort. As for the question of Catalan, if you've chosen to make Barcelona home, despite what you might think of the politics, it's a respect thing and learning it will open even more doors.

This isn't to say learning Spanish or Catalan will guarantee your move to Barcelona will be a success, but I think it's safe to say that it will greatly improve your chances and overall experience.  So please, don't ever blame the need to speak the local language as a reason for leaving because it reveals more about you than the city and not in a positive way.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Calling all Foodies in Barcelona

Anyone have a penchant for good food and pleasant conversation? There's a monthly food club called the Dancing Glass in el Barrio Gotico. As described on its website:
The six course menu, complete with signature house cocktails and a healthy amount of Spanish wine, is set to the sound of conversation between friends and strangers, travelers and locals, as well as the murmurings of an old record player.
This month's meeting takes place on the 23rd and the theme is All Things Spain with dishes, tapas and wine from various regions throughout Spain.  For information about how to attend, visit the website.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spain Goes Nonsmoking!

The big news at the end of last year was that Spain like France, Italy, Ireland, England etc. was going to ban smoking in all public places. Bars and restaurants were up in arms and catering services were threatening strikes. Three weeks into the new year, you can still pretty much everywhere, so what gives?

A quick search on google brings up links related to changes a few years ago when most of the countries mentioned above went completely nonsmoking, Spain left it up to the establishments, especially the smaller ones, to decided. I imagine the feeling at the time was to make it a gradual change because as the protests against the anti-botellón law show, Spaniards can face mass unemployment and an inept government, but there'll be little public outrage; however, if you mess with their right to drink and smoke in public, you've got a riot on your hands.

Anyway, type in 2010 after the google query and you'll discover that Spain does in fact plan to ban smoking in public places this year, although a date hasn't been decided yet. Anyone want to start a pool betting when it will take effect? My money is on December 31st.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Keeping fit and trim while smoking and drinking excessively

One of the biggest differences between Spanish and Americans is their attitude towards health and fitness. In most U.S cities, there are plenty gourmet supermarkets offering organic meats, fruit and vegetables. Gyms are open 24 hours to burn off calories. Smoking is banned even outdoors in many places and no body drinks alcohol at lunch anymore. Based on appearances, it would seem Americans are the healthiest people in the world, yet when I visit home I see nothing but girth.

In Spain, there's the odd specialty market, but I have yet to see the word organic used as a marketing term, and there are gyms open for certain hours but you have to look for them. In many ways it's like living in the eighties again; smoking is still prevalent and a glass of beer or wine at lunch is not that uncommon. In general, however, Spanish people seem to be healthier at physically. When I look around the streets of Barcelona, I see less round men and women wheezing for breath than I do back home, despite the fact everyone seems to have a cigarette. 

Much of the current obesity in the states, I think, has to do with a lack of any consistent physical activity when it comes to everyday living. You drive from home to work, to buy the groceries, to meet friends, and even, sometimes, the two blocks to go to the park. Most of the day is sedentary. Lunch is spent at the desk with a sandwich and an energy drink; since no one smokes, there's no reason to ever get up except to visit the toilet. Maybe after work, you pound a few cocktails during happy hour to unwind before jumping in the car, going home and ordering food for delivery.

Anyone who has been to Barcelona can attest, you do walk a lot here. Despite the noise and congestion of a major city, it's quite compact and small, making the distance between places walkable. The price of gas, parking and maintenance makes the car a luxury, but even if you take the metro, you'll probably be climbing stairs. People smoke and drink, but it's usually spread throughout the day, at lunch, maybe after work over tapas and then at home with dinner. It's all very civilized.

The lifestyle difference go beyond just walking versus driving, chugging versus sipping. The American dream is to own a house and spend the next years making it the perfect place to sit and do nothing. Home entertainment systems are almost as common as microwaves and couches are as soft as beds. All this comfort and money means, of course, you're planning on spending the majority of time at home flipping through the hundreds of satellite T.V stations, enjoying the surround sound as your waist line grows.

The Spanish dream is not dissimilar to the American one; the biggest difference is to own a flat instead of a house. Still, unlike in the states, home is not the center of life in Spain. Cable TV is from ubiquitous and flat screens are just now becoming affordable. The street with its restaurants for the seniors, terraces for the parents and squares for the children is still the hub of activity, so instead of going home and watching the T.V fir three hours, you pop down the street to your favorite bar with friends for a drink and a chat before heading back home again.  Like I said, you walk a lot and thinking about it, over the course of the day you probably burn more calories just going from place to place than you would at the gym.

Then of course, there's the diet. Despite what my Spanish friends tell me, Americans don't only eat hamburgers and pizza. The food choices in a U.S. city are seemingly endless, offering something for everybody at a reasonable price.  It's the portions that could feed an African village, the love of sauces and free refills that pack on the pounds.

In fact, I think the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet is a bit of myth. Much of the food is fried, meats are eaten with abundance, along with carbohydrates like rice, bread and potatoes. They do eat more fish here and the amount on the plates is small, allowing the stomach to quickly digest the quantities. Plus the whole approach to eating is different, the meal to be savored here while I remember in the states it was to devoured to keep the energy up.

There is, also, a difference in the quality of the food. Visit the fruit and vegetable section of a U.S. market, even an organic one, and you'll be amazed at the bright colors and size of the produce. Judging from looks alone, you'd think the apples, oranges and carrots had been picked in the garden of Eden.  Try one and you'll find them as flavorful as a wax Hollywood prop. Same goes for those thick t-bone steaks and chickens the size of turkeys on display in the meats section. When I bite into a small, lumpy orange here, I can taste the citrus and nutrients; the steaks are succulent and the vegetables fresh.

I have to admit, though, that I don't have any statistics comparing the general health of Americans versus Spanish, just what my eyes tell me, and I think it isn't so much the diet than makes the latter healthier, but the lifestyle of getting out and walking and food removed of preservatives.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Probably the don of us guiri writers living here in Barcelona is Matthew Tree. Hailing from London England, he came to the city many years ago to escape Thatcher, where he taught himself Catalan and wrote a book. Since then he's published twelve more works in his adoptive language and contributed to many others. He mostly deals with the local politics, offering a refreshing take on what can seem like stale discussions and he can sometimes be seen on the regional television station teaching old Catalans to sing AC/DC.  For more about him, check out his website.

Another local expat author is Rosie Reay who resides about a half and hour south near the city of Tarragona. She writes a series of contemporary children's books inspired by a trip to California. Set in the unconventional location of a golf course, the local critters banter and discuss names and places. For more about Rosie and her works, visit her website.

Some additions to the Barcelona blogging scene include BarceloMIA, a European citizen who's planning on accomplishing her dream of moving to the city. She offers tips and columns about fashion and art with an infectious enthusiasm that moving to Barcelona inspires. Lost in Sant Cugat offers humorous thoughts and musings about working and living in Spain from an ex ex pat.

Finally, if anyone has anything in need or promotion or is aware of something new and exciting happening in the city, feel free to drop me a line and I'll be happy to assist however possible.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Year, New Events

The New Year starts with a bang in Barcelona, with some top artists coming to play at a wide selection of venues across the city. The list includes DMC of Run DMC, The New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, Arizona Baby, Eli Paperboy and the True Loves, HIM, Stryper, Stratovarius, Elliot Murphy, The Leisure Society, Dominique A, Vargas Blues Band, The Dropkick Murphys, Europe, Giant Sand, Billy Talent and No Way Out, Mayumana, the Crank County Daredevils, Melendi, and Band of Skulls.

    For those who prefer their music a little more refined, el Gran Teatre del Liceu offers the chance to enjoy Richard Wagner’s operatic epic Tristan und Isolde, as well as a special concert entitled La gran noche de la música española. There are also performances of La Petita Flauta Màgica, Mozart’s Magic Flute adapted for children, and a recital by Joyce DiDonato.
    At La Palau de la Música you can still catch the Strauss Festival Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as concerts by Estrella Morente, Nacho Vegas, Michael Bolton, Manuel Carrasco, Mónica Naranjo, and Love of Lesbian.

    At L’Auditori there are performances by the Choir, Ballet, & Orchestra of the Russian Army of St. Petersburg, a show entitled Motown – The Show, recitals by Frank Peter Zimmerman playing works by Bartók, The Love Waltzes of Brahms, and a recital by Diana Navarro.

    Thanks again Tony for the post. Interested in short-term apartment rentals, At Home Barcelona has a great selection.

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    Sevilla vs Barcelona - The Tale of the Tape

    One of the beauties of Spain is the richness and diversity of its cities. Madrid, San Sebastian, Santander, Oviedo, Granada, I could go on; there are so many places to visit and see. No two are alike and each has its own unique charm that truly makes Spain different from the rest of the countries I've visited in Europe and traveling the Iberian peninsula is well-worth your while. For example, take the capital of Andalucia, Sevilla, and the capital of Catalunya, Barcelona.

    When speaking about European cities, a good first place to start I think is with the cathedral since its has historically served as the heart of the city and as such a spectacular building architecturally speaking.

    The one with trees is the Gothic Cathedral. The tall spires and the lightness of the façade are a relatively recent addition (19th century) masking the short and squat style typical of medieval Catalan Gothic (Think Santa Maria del Pi and thanks CalderEagle for pointing that out).

    The one with clouds is located in Sevilla, the tower at the back known as la giralda. One of the largest cathedrals in Europe, it ranks right up there with the more famous ones in Paris, Cologne and Salisbury in my opinion. La giralda was considered so beautiful in fact, los reconquistadores left it intact, razing the mosque that once stood there and replacing it with a cathedral no singular picture could do justice to. Plus, it's got real live bats for that truly Gothic feel.

    Around the cathedral tends to be old district of European cities and the main arteries of life. Both Sevilla and Barcelona's centers are full of narrow, twisting, confusing alleys with the principle difference being the color of the walls: white in the south, gray or tan in the north. I also had the impression there were less balconies and drug dealers on the corners down there. Wandering around both, though, and you'll find shops, bars and signs on walls that make you stop and take a picture.

    Drinking in Sevilla still maintains an authentic Spanishness. Kids clapping, singing and olé-ing can be heard in plazas and locals mix with expats and tourists at tiny bodegas and bars, the crowds spilling out on the street day or night. Barcelona's bar scene veer to the trendy, hip side, the drinkers a reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of the city who prefer to hit the town only at night.

    In fact, one of the things that impressed me most down there was how well the expats spoke Spanish and seemed integrated with the locals. Many not only had the accent, but also the slight shrug and bat of the eyes that makes Andaluz so expressive and could have passed for natives had they not come from India, Ireland and China.

    That's a rare thing in Barcelona. You can tell most people's country of origin from the accent they speak Spanish with, no matter how grammatically correct. There's the odd guiri who speaks Catalan. The shear size of the expat population no doubt plays a part, but there also seems to be an invisible divided between the locals and foreigners living here, but that's a post for another day.

    Other differences include the trees. What I've been told are sycamores, but also known as planes, are the dominant ones found shading Barcelona's streets while in Sevilla its the orange tree that gives the city its sweet smell and whose fruit make English marmalade.

    As for food, there's the toasted, yet soft, bun and the filling montadito to the crunchy, mostly bread bocadillo. Pescaito frito or butifarra? Both in small quantities, but I'd side more with the former if only for the adobo which is a battered white fish marinated in vinegar. Meanwhile, patatas bravas was starting to appear on tapas menus in Sevilla and I wondered how long it'd take for papa alioli makes an appearance here. For breakfast, Catalan pastries rival or surpass their more illustrious French neighbors while in Andalucia, they're more like bread. You're in Spain, so you're bound to eat and drink well with some scenic buildings and lively streets.

    If you're visiting for the first time and don't know when you'll be back or on a short term experience, both cities are a must-visit. If you live in Spain and haven't been to either, you're an idiot. Depending on the budget, the high speed train known as the AVE is the most comfortable option. It's a little pricier but takes the same time door-to-door, offers leg and elbow room and a chance to see the Spanish countryside while reducing your carbon footprint. More pics on Facebook