Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rule No. 1 to Living in Barcelona - always carry a camera

I can't tell you how many times I've gone out and ended up kicking myself for not having a camera with me. Case in point, today. On the way to the grocery story, we were forced to stop at an intersection. An ambulance raced by sirens blaring, the driver leaning out the window, smoking a cigarette, while the paramedic in the passenger seat struggled with a map. Classic.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Studying Spanish in Barcelona

I've received a few messages lately from people asking about studying Spanish in Barcelona compared to other cities in Spain. In fact, this topic was recently covered in the NY Times where the questioner wondered if Catalan might interfere with her ability to learn.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend Barcelona if you're Spanish level is zero, or low, and your goal is to return home with a strong command of the language. Not because of the Catalan, but for the same reasons I wouldn't recommend LA or New York or even London as places for Spanish speakers to learn English; namely, it's too easy not to speak it and still get by and have a good time.

As I've mentioned before, Barcelona is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city full of people from seemingly every country of the world, many of whom speak English well enough to have a conversation. If you're at the beginning stages of learning Spanish, it might be tough to resist the temptation to switch to English to save yourself the embarrassment of struggling to form a simple sentence. This isn't of course to say you won't learn anything, but probably not as much as you could as say if you went to Salamanca.

For those of you with a mid to advance level of Castellano, Barcelona is still a majority Spanish speaking city, although you can't help but notice the influence of Catalan since you're in Catalunya. Still, it's not so much that it'll inhibit your ability to learn and never have I felt forced to speak it or had problems over it. Most Spaniards and Catalans are just happy you're making an effort to speak a foreign language and some may talk to you in English because they too want to practice. If you already have a strong command of Spanish, I'd recommend making an effort to learn of to speak and understand Catalan because it will give you a more complete view of the city. If you don't, few people here will hold it against you, though.

The advice I always give Spanish speakers who can already defend themselves in English is: don't study the language, instead go and study something in the language. Take a class in a subject that interests you and your fluency will improve ten-fold, I think. There's nothing like community college in the states, but there are private schools offering different courses on say photography or jewelry making that run as much as a language school and in my opinion is money better spent.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

La Cervecita

As I mentioned last summer, there's been a bit of a Catalan renaissance when it comes to beers lately and I'm happy to say there have been some new additions to the market.

Guineu brewed in Sitges offers the traditional three choices; lager, ale and stout.  I only tried the lager and while not as strong as other local beers, it's got a refreshing clean taste.


Agullons is a pale ale I tried on tap and I have to say it was one of the better beers I've had in a long time.  Meanwhile, Almogàvers has one of the coolest labels, I've seen.

In addition to these there are others, but I didn't try them and can't recall their names.

To find out, visit La Cervecita for not only local products but also a wide selection of imports including still my favorite beer, Anchor Steam, although given the price I wonder if it's made from hops from Humboldt county.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The New Religion

I've recently found myself thinking back to my university days when the professor would try to encourage student discussions during one of the numerous poli-sci classes I had to take for my major.  From my freshman to my senior year, whether the subject was about the study of politics as a science or comparative forms of government, the topic of the influence of religion invariably came up at least once or twice a semester.

Religion no longer plays such a prominent roll when it comes to current political debates here in Spain, fortunately. There are a few right-wing, Opus Dei Catholics wanting to ban abortion, but in general, there's none of the heated culture wars like in the states. Gays can get married and I haven't read of anyone trying to teach creationism in biology along with evolution like they did in Texas, thank Jah.

No, here in Spain, it's nationalism, which is essentially a different side of the same ideological coin:  heads, a mythical man; tails, a mythical nation. And like the idea of an all mighty God binds Christians, so does the idea of strong independent state unite nationalists.  After all, no one blindly worships something weak and in both cases, they can cite historical events dating back centuries as the foundation for their beliefs while dismissing or revising parts that conflict with their narrative.
 
But just like religion doesn't hold up to logical scrutiny nor does the concept of a nation make much sense. After all what is it? According to the dictionary, "It's large body of people, associated with a particular territory, which is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own." It sounds a bit flexible to me. At least God gets a less ambiguous definition:  "The one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe." It seems a nation, like a religion, is more an artificial construct of a few men to control the masses rather than a real physical being like a tree or a monkey.

Look at most countries and go back five hundred years; chances are it'll have a different name or be part an ancient kingdom. Once upon a time, there were the Aztecs, the Moors and the Celts. Between then and now a lot has happened: the world was rediscovered to be round, people no longer travel by horse and carriage but by machines that can fly; wars were waged, millions killed and boundaries changed all in the name of a religion or to raise the flag of a nation. The result is the world as it is today nearly half a millennium later. A tragic and a pretty damning indictment of the human species time on earth, I know.

But despite this bloody history, polls show almost all human beings still believe in some form of religion and nationalism, so ingrained is it in our nature. For example, its easier for a Muslim to be elected to the US presidency than  an atheist, just as I imagine a self-anointed Catalan fascist would stand a better chance in local elections than a self-described Spanish socialist.  One reason is human nature; we like to belong and feel a part of something bigger than ourselves and we want our beliefs reflected in our leaders. In most cases, I think, it's a loose loyalty.  People believe in God not because they think he actually created the earth in seven days and made man from his rib, but because faith gives them comfort in a chaotic world.  Likewise, the majority of people support their nation for the camaraderie and pride it gives, rather than seeking to impose it on others through conquest. As with most things in life, done moderately, both religion and nationalism serve a useful purpose.

Within each group, however, there is the passionate minority; I like to call them the foot soldiers for their rulers, the pawns of the kings. Ideologues and evangelicals, they take an absolutist and uncompromising stance and feel the need to spread the word. Like the foundation for their beliefs, they cite historical injustices visited upon the father of the father of the father as the reason for their militancy and insist on fighting past wars instead of facing current problems. They see the world not as it is, but through a lens of persecution and victimization.  Mere mortal men become super villains whose diabolical plans to destroy them must be stopped. Any of us who disagrees with this world view is labeled an extremist, bitter or naive. They are the enlightened ones after all and we are the barbarians who must be converted for our own happiness.

The problem is people who worship mythical ideas don't live in reality. They follow the tenants of their rulers and beliefs unquestionably, while denouncing any dissent as a fantasy or a product of mind control by their perceived enemies. Logic, nuance and perspective don't exist; economic well-being and social harmony must be subservient to the elevation of their ideology above others. It is all about us conforming to their view and the sad truth is the passion of zealots can't be matched which is why, although the minority, they dominate the political discourse by shouting the loudest.  Unfortunately, any cursory study of history will show they're also the reason it's been so bloody. Or as Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel once wrote: 'Ideology offers human beings the illusion of dignity and morals while making it easier to part with them.' "

Monday, February 22, 2010

L'Antic Teatre

Near Palau de la Musica on Carrer Verdaguer i Callis is one of my favorite spots in Barcelona - L'Antic Teatre.  Located in one of the old stone buildings in El Born, it was, as I understand it, originally a squatter community until becoming legitimate and reopening its doors in 2007.

A non-profit collective, their goal nowadays is to provide a space for experimental artists to showcase and promote their wares. To give you an idea of the eclectic mix of productions it offers, a couple of years ago they ran a Cabaret de Feas (roughly translated "Cabaret of the Ugly People") while in November a Belgian clown entertained the crowd and last month a night was dedicated to dub music complete with a movie and deejays.

What initially attracted me to the place was the large courtyard, though. While a small city compared to London, New York or LA, the hustle and bustle of Barcelona can sometimes be overwhelming and claustrophobic. The shade of the trees and chirp of the birds provide a perfect respite when this happens, offering a sense of space and peace amid the buildings and people. Meanwhile, the amphitheater inside is where most of the performances take place and while not the Liceu, it's not a bad place to take in a show.

Because its more than just a bar, in order to drink or eat, you have to become a member. The fee is nominal (€5) and the sign up process isn't too much of a hassle.  Plus, you get a discount on tickets to the various shows while helping the local community.

The operating hours and info are:

Tel: 933152354

Sun - Thurs 16.00 - 23.00 / Fri-Sat 16.00 -  23:30; Shows: Mon-Sat 21.00 / Sun 20.00

Keep in mind this is Spain, so the opening and closing times in the end are controlled more by the whims of the people working than any official schedule.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finding a Place to Live in the BCN

For any of you moving to Barcelona or looking for a new place to live, the process can be time consuming and a challenge. A good first place to start is the website Loquo that offers listings on a daily basis for rooms and flats for rent.  There's also Idealista, and a few others, although they tend to cater to the more Spanish crowd. Normally, a person will post the type of room, the cost (usually rent and one month's deposit), the flatmate requirements (buy, girl, student, etc.) and their contact info (email / telephone).

If you haven't arrived yet, you might want check out what's available on these websites to get an idea of the going price. You can email and see if they're willing to hold it, but that might be tough. Good rooms are a hot commodity and people generally want to rent the room asap. Another option would be to post something about yourself, what you're looking for and see the responses you get to the profile.

In this case, you're more likely to find someone who will hold a room. Of course, you'll be dealing with a complete stranger so any monetary transactions probably wouldn't be a good idea, but as I said in a previous post, most people here aren't shady and pretty transparent so if someone's agreed to hold a room, chances are there'll be one. Likewise do the courtesy of letting the person know if you find somewhere else to live.

If your personal trust isn't that high to take someone at their word, you can do what I did which was rent a room through the TEFL course your taking (if that's the case) or through an agency. Chances are you'll be paying more than the going rate for the month, but there is a price for peace of mind, I think.

Planning on renting your own flat? Be warned: it's not cheap nor easy. The deposits required can range from anywhere from three to six months, plus an agency fee and other add-ons. They'll generally want to see some proof you can pay which will mean a work contract and pay stubs from the previous year. The cost and paper work is the reason why almost everyone I know shares for at least the first five years.
 
Compared to other parts of Spain, Barcelona is expensive but if offers a great selection of different types of flats in which to live depending on the neighborhood. The L'Eixample district tends to have bigger and more spacious flats with higher ceilings and the chance to stay in a beautiful buildings. The flats in Gracia, El Born, El Raval  and Poble Sec are often older and smaller but offer buzzing neighborhoods of hidden squares outside the door. Those of Arc de Triomf and Poblenou are newer but more residential.


Rooms are usually described as exterior, which means a view of a street, or interior, which looks onto the elevator shaft and both are almost always furnished thanks to IKEA. Kitchens veer to the small side and don't always have ovens, while bathrooms can sometimes have a shower, a toilet and a bidet, but no tub.

Of course, equally, if not more important than the room, is the people you live with. Once you've found a place at a price within your budget, you'll then visit the flat and meet your potential living companions. In many ways it's like a job interview and at the end of it, they'll debate whether or not it should be you or one of the many others. It helps to speak Spanish, but there are still plenty of opportunities for those who don't know the language yet.

Like I said, the process can be hectic. Arranging times to meet, running around, going through the interview process is a pain but just remember this is your space, so don't feel rushed to pick a place just because your tired of looking. Choose right and chances are your flatmates will become like family. Choose wrong and you'll be starting the process all over again the next month.

Rant

To anybody who is Spanish or Catalan reading this - please do me a favor and no longer use the word "punky" for punk rock music.

This is Punky as in "Punky Brewster" a nineteen-eighties children's comedy about a precocious, spunky girl who is abandoned by her parents and taken in by a photographer. The star of the show later goes on to become famous for breast reduction surgery.



This is punk rock. A music which rose to prominence during the same time, there's nothing spunky or precocious about it. It is raw and aggressive, sometimes political and not always musical or melodic. To call it "punky" makes it sound like something my kid would listen to.

So out of respect to all the punk pioneers like Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, and H.R., please drop the "y" and start a Facebook page urging others to do that same. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mercado de Santa Caterina

Not as famous as La Boqueria of Las Ramblas, El Mercado de Santa Caterina located off Via Laietana near the Born is actually the oldest covered market in Barcelona. Neglected and forgotten, it had fallen into disrepair by the late nineties until it was refurbished as part of a neighborhood redevelopment project.

The colorful roof was the most prominent addition and can be seen from the surrounding buildings, giving it a fantastical feel of a colorful ocean. Meanwhile, three of the original façades were maintained to honor its long and storied history.

Inside, the market is full of stands selling fruit, vegetables, meat and fish and walking around can provoke a sensory overload from the sights, smells and sounds.  It also has a small grocery store providing all your culinary needs if you live close by. If you're just visiting and feel hunger pangs from all the food, there's a new restaurant Cuines Santa Caterina.

Far from your traditional Spanish or Catalan restaurant, it serves an assortment of dishes using different styles from Japanese to Argentinean in a setting that produces a zen-like feel. The quality of the food is outstanding, although a bit on the pricey side, making it the perfect place to bring visitors who like to pick up the check.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Weekly Bass Party





Start Time:
Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at 11:00pm
End Time:
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 3:00am
Location:
Street:
Balmes 83
City/Town:
 Barcelona, Spain
Global Soundz, Raw Format & Genome Records team up for a new Tuesday night weekly Bass Party!
With Resident DJ's The Northsiderz, Kid Suda, Lady Emz, Junior Wise + weekly guests...

This week with Special RAW FORMAT nite with KID SUDA & SAM SPINACH (UK), plus guests
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Global Soundz, Raw Format & Genome Records se unen para lanzar una Fiesta semanal (cada Martes) con mucho Bass!
Con los DJs residentes The Northsiderz, Kid Suda, Lady Emz, Junior Wise + otros invitados semanales...

Esta semana especial noche RAW FORMAT, con KID SUDA & SAM SPINACH (UK), más otros invitados












Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Chinese New Year

Today marks not only Saint Valentine's but also the start of the Chinese New Year. 2010 is the year of the tiger, and specifically the white or metal one. According to various forecasts, these years are known for their change and unpredictability so we shouldn't expect a dull twelve months. The day itself is marked by a family celebration where the kids are bribed to behave with money and the parents with booze and food. Here's a video to commemorate the occassion.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Spanish Economy

Spain's been receiving a fair amount of coverage in the international press lately because of its economic situation and the growing fears it may not be able to meet its financial obligations. Many international economists such as Paul Krugman feel one of the underlying problems is high wages which makes the cost of Spanish goods and services uncompetitive in the global market place. I dunno. Far be it for me to argue with a Noble prize winner, but when I think of Spanish salaries, "high" wouldn't be the first word to pop into mind. In fact, most people I know find each year a little bit more of a struggle than the one before and when they think back to the time of the peseta, watch their faces light up in shock as they calculate the cost of living now versus what it once was.

Much of the press about Spain's economy has focused on its inability to devalue its currency now that it's in the Euro zone and what "austerity" cuts need to instituted to bring down its deficit. What surprises me is that there seems to be little coverage about Spainish productivity because basic economics says increasing it can help offset the deflationary salary pressure. After all, the Germans and Japanese don't earn less than the Spanish.

So what's the cause of the Spanish worker producing less than a Maltese and slightly more than an Estonian and Greek, despite having a much larger economy? The coverage often brings up Spain's two tiered contract system and rigid labor market that seems to promote "nonperformance incentive pay" and it's tough to argue it's not in need of reform. The question of how to do this and not completely screw the worker is a complicated issue and one which I don't pretend to have the answer. But again, what surprises me isn't what's being discussed but the lack of discussion. In this case, the third tier of the economy - the autonomo or freelance - and one which I do have somewhat of an idea.

Why is this area of the economy important? Well, if you're contemplating moving here armed with a service to offer, whether it be web design, coaching or translation, it's how you'll probably earn a living. As I've mentioned before, the paper work is a pain in the ass and the system itself is inherently regressive, creating the moral hazard not to pay it. Basically, right now, the company deducts the 15% income tax off your invoice and pays it to the tax authorities while you're responsible for a flat amount monthly or quarterly for social security. An easy and doable fix to improve it would be to bracket the income tax percentage based on earnings and deduct a flat percent for the social security. Of course, this would shift the onus onto the employer to file both amounts with the authorities and probably reduce the number of directors who become high-paid consultants, which is probably why no one talks about it.

But, like I said, there's little discussion about this type of reform in any of the national or international  coverage, nor is there much about ways to improve productivity, instead the focus has been on cutting wages and government spending - the last two things the economy needs when still mired in recession. Zapatero's recent suggestion to cure the Spanish economy's problems, meanwhile, was to extend the retirement age as if grandma doesn't have enough to do babysitting the kids while mommy and daddy work. The tragic farce of the accidental president continues and the only thing worse is the opposition.  Of course, Spain is not alone when it comes to this political predicament of dumb and dumber.

A pretty dire place, right? Well, it ain't Silicon Valley of the nineties, that's for sure, but it's not Argentina from the same period either, although I wouldn't put all my money in the banks here.  Still, Barcelona is Barcelona and if your work allows you to choose a location, it's not a bad place to call home. And if your job doesn't afford you that chance, a year long sabbatical from career goals and aspirations isn't always a bad thing if you can afford it or are willing to do jobs you thought you left behind in college. And on a more positive note, it hasn't only been doom and gloom about Spain in the international press. An American magazine recently ran a feature on a local Catalan chicken and shrimp dish.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Espeaking English

One of the interesting changes that comes from living abroad is what happens to your native tongue, especially when it comes to speaking. I recently listened to some tapes from my first month in Barcelona and a few I recently had to do and I sound like a completely different person, which might explain why people ask me where I'm from every time I visit the states or meet a recently transplanted American.

A lot of it has to do, I think, with the natural evolution that comes from living in a foreign country. In order to be understood, your pace slows and your annunciation improves, colloquial vocab is replaced by more generic words, and contractions tend to become complete verbs. For example, whereas before I might have said, "I'm gonna bounce by my buddy's pad to check out the haps tonight." Now, I'll say, "I'm going to a friend's house to see what's happening tonight." In many ways, it's probably a better and more correct English, although judging by the expressions on my friend's faces back home, it's a foreign way to speak.

What's also happened, I found, is a Spanishization of my English. Gone are many of the niceties and the politeness. There's no more "Would you mind..." or "Could you..." before requests and "What?" is a common response when I didn't catch something instead of "Sorry." The influence of Spanish isn't just reflected in the syntax but also in how I speak. For example, I remember on a flight having a bit of a laugh at the Spanish lady who answered the question, "Coffee or tea?" with "I don't like coffee," to which the flight attendant responded, "That wasn't the question." Yet, I probably shouldn't have because I often find myself now offering personal opinions even when not prompted, likewise for being eager to recommend a great location or give unsolicited advice.

In fact, my friends and family back home have commented on this new willingness to eschew diplomacy for directness, which I guess comes from living in a country where it sometimes seems the national pastime is having a loud, opinionated  discussion. This isn't, of course, a bad thing for it's what makes the place lively and animated, but if there's one thing you can't be in Spain: it's meek when you speak.

I've also noticed the longer I've been here the more English I've forgotten and sometimes forming a basic sentence is a struggle.  Meanwhile, bueno, pues, entonces and nada are universally used for stop gap words when I'm searching for something to say, whether I'm speaking to my Spanish wife or my American mom. Most of my cursing is in Spanish with the odd British English expression thrown in and I make the same mistakes as many Spaniards do such as "more easy," " more better," "take a coffee" etc. Truth be told, listening to myself speak English nowadays, it seems more Spanglish than anything my friends and family speak, the only remains of my American roots being the drawn out vowels and the 'a' for the 'o' as in pot.

But, as I mentioned, this is to be expected when you live abroad, I think. It's not just a new language you learn but also new vocabulary and a different way to speak your native tongue that can make compatriots ask where are you from. Before, I used to try and explain that I'd moved from California to Spain. Now, nearly seven and a half years later, it's easier to say, "Barcelona," to which they almost always reply, "You speak excellent English!"

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Neighborhoods - Poblenou

For much of its history, poblenou or new town, had been an afterthought when people thought of Barcelona and for the locals it was known more for its rundown industrial zone and gypsies than as a place to live or go out. Starting in the late nineties, this began to change and nowadays it's a bustling barrio. Luckily, however, it still maintains a village feel and can be a nice respite from the chaos of the center


Ver mapa más grande

The heart of the neighborhood is La Rambla Poblenou which runs from Gran Via down to the beaches; the closer to the water, the more popular it is. Like most of the ramblas found throughout the city, it's a wide, tree lined promenade with enough terraces to sit outside and enjoy a coffee or a beer while watching the people leisurely stroll by. Most of these places offer the traditional Spanish and Catalan fare of tapas, paella and sangria at prices that vary from inexpensive to a little pricey. But if your in the mood for something different, there's a great Lebanese restaurant called Arwad that's also known to have belly dancing on weekend nights.

On the corner of Rambla Poblenou and Carrer del Joncar is Casino de l'Aliança which offers no games where you can win or lose your money, but instead it provides a locale for shows and concerts, including local try outs for Eurovision contestants. It's also supposedly haunted. But before it, on the opposite corner, is Tio Che - a place famous for its ice cream and horchatas, which is a milky, vanilla type drink and popular on hot, summer days. Personally, my favorite ice cream spot is the Italian further down past Doctor Trueta whose name escapes me.

But if you really want to eat and drink well, it's better to venture off the rambla onto the side streets.  Between Carrer del Joncar and Carrer del Taulat is a small square with quite possibly the ugliest church I've ever seen but if you walk past it and cross Maria Aguilo you'll find La Pubilla de Taulat. A small local bar with white walls, the cook whips up whatever tapas he feels like that day, but almost always includes patatas bravas. Next door to it is the bodega run by his brother offering a wide selection of wines, beers and liquors.

For rices and huevos fritos con jamon, a Crema Catalan mousse, there's Vell Poblenou and for a menu del dia, there are a few places along Carrer Llull and Pujades for good quality to price ratio in an authentic Barcelona setting - a dive restaurant with metal stools and colorful ceramics. And every two doors there's either a bakery or a pharmacy just in case you need anything.

Of course, it's Poblenou's close proximity to the beaches that has seen it grow and it has a bit more of a lazier feel than say, Barceloneta. Across the green park and la Ronda Litoral are the Bogatell and Mar Bella playas that are just a little less crowded than the one on the other side of the twin towers.

Interview and Plugs

For anyone interested, I'll be interviewed today at 13.10 on Talk Radio Europe. Listen in and see what I have to say!

Also Expatica is holding its annual expat of the year competition this week, please vote for Jo Parfitt, a wonderful English expat living in the Netherlands.

I'll post something more substantial later.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Ghosts of Barcelona

A big fan of all things supernatural, I've always been a bit surprised at the lack of ghostly legends in Barcelona whenever I ask someone about them given its long and at times violent history. Well, I'm happy to say, there's a new book out that details the various ghouls and specters which have haunted the city.

It's in Catalan and I've got a million things on my plate, so posting about them will be slow going. Still, I just wanted to share the first spooky sighting near the famous fountain on the upper part of Las Ramblas or Font de Canaletes (near the Burger King) where legend has it if you drink from the fountain you are destined to return to the city.

Apparently in the latter half of the nineteen century when the old city wall remained and there was no running water, people reported seeing a specter in a long black cape slowly patrolling the area when the sun went down. One day it spoke to a group of girls who were filling their water jugs, causing them to flee. Tired of this ghostly apparition, the neighbors gathered to confront it, yet it never returned...

If you're interested in purchasing the book, it's available at ETC LLibres in Poblenou.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Kindle Comes To Spain

For Kings Day I bought myself a Kindle from Amazon.  Ordering it from the states was a breeze, it took less than a week to arrive and the amount included all the taxes, duties and so forth so all I had to do was sign for it.

I really enjoy the feel. Not too light, but not too heavy, it made the transition from physical to e-book quite seamless. The screen is soft on the eyes, if just a tad small for my liking, but not so much it interferes with the reading experience; my thumbs are happy that they no longer need to hold pages and a book open while I read in bed. The ability to connect through 3G has been surprisingly reliable and there are only some places around the Marina district where it can't get service. Meanwhile, the battery lasts surprisingly long if you turn off the wi-fi, but like most electronic gadgets we'll see if this is the case in a year or two.

My first day was pretty much spent checking the Kindle store for titles and seeing what was available. The results of my queries tended to be less relevant after the first page. I was also surprised how few books have been converted to an electronic version and the discrepancy between Europe and the US in terms of number of titles. I suppose this lag is to be expected since it only recently hit the local market and there was still plenty to choose from.  In fact, never has buying a book been so easy, literally a touch of a button and voilà - there it is on the screen and ready to be read.

After using it for a month now, I do find myself already wanting improvements, however. Mostly, they're cosmetic. I'd personally like to see the bookmark feature made easier and the option available directly on the tablet rather than click and scroll. Also, it'd be nice if the bookmarks automatically deleted as you read rather than become long lists in the notes section. Finally, moving the previous and next page tabs higher wouldn't be a bad idea. But, as I said, these are small and personal touches. I suppose a lot has to do with the size of your hands and how often you stop and start when you read.

So to Kindle or not to Kindle? That is the question. Well, I haven't used any other e-readers so if anyone could offer their thoughts that'd be great.  The person in charge of e-books at my publisher said her biggest gripe with the Kindle was the fact that it was a proprietary and a locked software and not open source like the Sony e-reader, making it a pain to format, which might explain the latency between the conversion of many books from hard to electronic. All in all, though, I'm happy with the purchase. There's no longer a question of space to store books and best of all no more exorbitant shipping costs!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February Concerts

Classical

Classical music lovers have a wealth of opportunities to get out and enjoy some great performances this month, the highlight of which is probably El Gran Teatre del Liceu’s staging of Wagner’s epic opera “Tristan und Isolde“. Performances are on the 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 16th, 18th, and 20th. For those not wholly familiar with this great work, an information session about the opera will be held in the Foyer 45 minutes before each performance, which is open to all members of the audience. All the details can be found at www.liceubarcelona.cat

The Palau de la Música Catalana also has a busy schedule of concerts, classical and other, including the rather intriguing country night which will see cinema legend Kevin Costner perform with his band Wild West. Other non-classical performers at the Palau this month include Joss Stone, and a concert by Michael Nyman & David McAlmond. In the classical series, the highlights are visits by the Bulgarian State Symphony Orchestra, and a performance by the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Meanwhile, at L’Auditori, another month means another very busy schedule. The Bamburg Symphony Orchestra, Czech Opera of Prague (performing Wagner), Tchaikovsky Violin Concerts, Stravinsky conducted by López Cobos, Camerata Moravia, Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, and a performance by Pat Metheny, are just some of the delights to be enjoyed

Nonclassical

February may be the shortest month, but there’s plenty to see and do crammed into its 28 days this year. Not as many huge headline acts as last month, but there’s plenty of variety, and there should be something for everyone to enjoy over the coming weeks in Barcelona.

In no particular order, the month’s highlights will include visits by Arctic Monkeys, The Gathering, Queen Ifrica, Tony Rebel & The Flames Band, Dinosaur Jr. with Lou Barlow, Gamma Ray, Eros Ramazotti, The Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2007 for the film “Once” which they also starred in), Josh Ritter, the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra, Sunn O))), Backyard Babies, Mesh, Richard Hawley, Talib Kweli featuring Hi-Tek, Biffy Clyro, Hatebreed, The Fiery Furnaces, Jedi Mind Tricks, The Penguins, Fatal Error + Invasions, and Payo Malo + The Gangsters of Love.

I’d like to give a mention to the Reggae for Life Haiti Appeal that will be held in Sala Apolo on Saturday the 13th of this month. The variety of performers offering their services has been phenomenal, and the line-up includes Morodo, Hermano L, Ras Kuto, Utan Bassum, Top Cat, Benjammin’, Novato & Mad Muasel, Prince Osito, Aniki, Green Valley, Hector Banton, and others, with the sounds provided by the inimitable Ranking Soldiers & the Nyahbingi Sound System. It should be a wonderful night, great vibes, great tunes, and a great crowd; so if you like your reggae, dub, dancehall, etc. get yourself over there.

Thanks again to Tony from At-Home Barcelona apartments for the info. Make sure you use them for your short or long term rentals!

Of all the groups mentioned above, if I had to choose, a reunited Dinosaur Jr would be the one to go to. Maybe Lou Barlow will play some Sebadoh. Here are some videos. Enjoy




La Chirigota

The next fiesta I believe is Carnaval sometime this month. Sitges is the popular spot locally, but within the peninsula, the celebration in Cádiz has the reputation as the most colorful and the local gaditanos take great pride in this.  Driven by music, singing, and humor it's based around La Chirigota, a group of singing men in costume. It's definitely well-worth a visit if you have the time. Staying in Cádiz , Cádiz, will be next to impossible, but there are the surrounding cities like Puerto Santa Maria and Jerez. Sevilla is also just two hours away by train. Below is an example. Funny people.

 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Expat Perspective

I often get a kick when I read interviews with expats living in Spain because many cite the climate as one of the factors they enjoy most about the city they live in or the country as a whole. Coming from Southern California where it's in the mid-twenties Celsius and almost always sunny, I tend to find Barcelona a bit on the cold and damp side during the winter and spring, too muggy in the summer, with my favorite season being autumn and in particular October.

What appealed to me about the city wasn't the weather, the beaches or the chance to go skiing driving distance away. I had all that back home. No, what attracted me was its vibrancy and buzzing energy, its beauty and its diversity. I had been to many places in my life before coming here, but none had made such an impact like Barcelona did when I first visited in 2001. And, when two days after returning to the states, I watched the two towers fall, I started wondering what it'd be like to live here as friends of mine started calling for the bombing of all Arabs, labeling anyone who disagreed a traitorous un-American. This, of course, wasn't the sole reason, but let's call it the catalyst and why I immediately crouch into a defensive posture, cover my ears and scream at the first sign of any nationalist hysteria.

During my seven years since, my friends have regained their sanity, while I've done my best to integrate, learn the languages, know the people and listen to their stories. I have a wife whose Catalan father went to Sevilla in the fifties because it was easier to get into med school and married a girl from Cordoba who was one of the first female doctors. My missus considers herself Sevillana-Catalana, but doesn't mind being mistaken for English, and my father-in-law still says arros. We think of our daughter as Spanish-American and named her after a Catalan queen and train station out of respect for the land of her birth and our preferred form of transit. I do my best to speak the languages, although probably not as well as I should because of the amount of time I spend writing in English. Still, I can communicate, understand most TV and tell a joke which ain't bad given my study habits and tin ear.

My perception and attitudes of the city, the politics and its people can't help but be influenced by my background, however. For those who might not know, California has been since its inception a mix of ethnicities, nationalities, and races; the relationship among them has often been volatile and violent, full of exploitation and repression. I can still clearly remember waking up on April 29th, 1992 to the images of my city burning in response to an unjust verdict, an innocent man being beaten with bricks and the six days of rioting that followed, resulting in the marines coming in and fifty-one people dead. Of course, this ethnic unrest wasn't an isolated incident for Los Angeles or the country, nor did it signal the end of the deep and complex causes behind it.

What it did do, though, was change the rhetoric. The local leaders of the various ethnic communities realized, as they observed the charred aftermath, stoking the flames of division to complicated problems led to the same destructive end. Now, is Los Angeles a mecca of racial and ethnic harmony? No, but compared to where it was twenty years ago, it's like a completely different city. You can go out on Venice Beach and Hollywood Boulevard at night now and not worry about getting jumped or shot because of your race or ethnicity. And I guess it's surprising to me that in Europe and in Spain, where the last century it was wars, not riots, people still insist on repeating the same mistakes. As Marx said, "History always repeats itself twice: first time as tragedy, second farce." I often wonder which time it is now.

I think coming from California has clouded my whole concept on who is what, honestly. My  grandmother's Mexican neighbor recently got her U.S. citizenship at age fifty by taking the national exam in Spanish, while my British uncle refuses to become an official American even though he's lived there forty years and has just the slightest hint of his London accent. There are areas where all the signs and conversations are in a foreign language and many of my friends are of different colors and nationalities with US passports who'll bet against the states in international competitions. Whatever tongue you speak is peppered with foreign words and no one corrects. People are free to pick and chose who and what they are. Identity is a personal choice and not a governmental decree.

In many ways, Barcelona, and Spain in general, is a more open and tolerant society than Los Angeles and the U.S.. I've found the Catalan and Spanish people to be less judgmental and more grounded; the ability to live how you want is less inhibited and the sense of community is stronger. The exception, it seems, is when it comes to the decision of personal identity, at which point the local government must step in and clarify the situation followed by a thorough education explaining why you are what you no questions asked, please.

I'm not trying to say Los Angeles and California is the perfect example, but it does offer a real world model because it's a multilingual, national and ethnic society with deep, historical divisions and despite that there is no official language; there is no program of assimilation by imposing one culture on the other or majority-minority language arguments by sensible people. You speak depending on the need whether it be English, Spanish or Chinese and we don't spend hours on the details of the language. There are even pilot programs (here, here) allowing choice at the community level, including the indigenous Navajo, along with traditional standards like French, or the possibility of Mandarin or Cantonese. These are still in the infancy and whether they can withstand the budget crisis remains to be seen, but it's refreshing to see the topic researched and addressed in an inclusive way and not by applying a different language to the previous failed system. I suppose that's what happens when ex-hippies work in education and not political linguistic doctorates.

I guess what saddens me most is that one of the things I loved about Barcelona when I first came was its diversity; yet it's rarely celebrated or embraced publicly.  It's probably why I feel so passionately about it, but I shouldn't since it's not my country and I can always leave. Of course, it's not all that bad, especially if you don't read the news and treat it like religion and politics in the states, quickly changing the subject at first mention. But it's tough sometimes because those topics and languages are what Spanish, Catalans and expats like to talk about. In fact, in Europe as a whole I've found. And why not? They're fascinating subjects. But what invariably happens is because of different backgrounds and perspectives it's sometimes like a conversation between a duck and a rooster even if you're using the same language.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Reviewed!

The book got a great write-up in the Catalunya Cronicle. Page nine for those interested while page eight has a wonderful poem.