Saturday, 19 November 2011


By the time my alarm sounded at 8am there was already a chorus of washing machines outside my window. Window in the vaguest sense of the word, for it looks out not over the rooftops of Barcelona, but onto a dank inner well that runs from the ground floor flat right up to the attic flat, 2 floors above me. These inner wells contain little balconies for washing machines, mops and junk and are usually covered in a film of grease and dust. Amazingly people still use the space to hang out their washing. I open my window for approximately 4 seconds twice a day, just to raise and lower the blind.

The metro was quiet, and I arrived at school just as the caretaker was unlocking the door. The two receptionists looked pale and mumbled a weak "Hola" when I stretched across the counter to pick up the class register. I don't usually work Saturdays, but agreed to substitute for a colleague who's worked weekends for 2 years straight. She'd told me the students were easy and friendly, which was largely true, but 3 hours is a long time to keep even the most motivated person interested. Rain fell steadily outside and muffled the sounds of roadworks...the endless roadworks which follow me around this city.

After class I meet two friends for lunch in a tiny family-run Japanese restaurant. As we sit in there watching the windows slowly steaming up, we marvel at the food, at the waiter's excellent Spanish, and at a love story gone wrong. When we emerge the sky is brighter. We head in separate directions. I stop at the fruit shop and buy some vegetables, including a beautifully bright purple stripy aubergine. A Latino couple run the shop, the only shop on the street open on a Saturday afternoon at 4pm. Their baby daughter lies asleep in her cot in one corner, oblivious to the music pounding out of the radio on the counter.

Up the street and home...

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


While taking washing off the line, I hear my neighbour (who until today I'd only heard shouting at her sons) singing a few lines from an old song rather beautifully. I pause, trying to keep as quiet as possible, and wait until she finishes. I don't manage to record her but I find the words later - they were originally sung by Carlos Gardel.

El día que me quieras
La rosa que engalana, se vestirá de fiesta con su mejor color

On the day that you love me
The pretty rose will dress in its best colour in celebration

Monday, 5 September 2011

Ode to iced coffee

Ode to a café con hielo, a cooling pick-me-up on a hot day. So simple: just pour a freshly made cortado (espresso topped up with milk) over a couple of ice cubes sitting at the bottom of another glass, and stir. The ice cubes make a gentle cracking noise as the hot coffee is poured over them, which gives way to tinkling once they've melted a bit and are free to bob around in the glass. It's very hard to drink it slowly.

Monday, 29 August 2011

What the locals say

What do the locals do to keep cool in this heat? Some stay in their apartments in their underclothes and emerge occasionally to lean on the balcony and look down onto the street. Many go to the beach. There are several stretches of beach heading north along the city's coast. Yesterday I left home early and was at the Marina end of Barceloneta beach by 9am. It's one of the nicest times to be there as it's practically deserted, save a few leathery abuelos out for a swim and some gentle stretching. I'd been there for about an hour when two regulars arrived and settled down a few feet away from me. They were both women in their late 60s and they seemed to know lots of other people on the beach. They talked constantly, to each other and to the people around them. I tried to concentrate on the book I was reading but eventually closed it and rolled over. The women had started to talk (very loudly) about immigration and their opinions about some of the newcomers in their neighbourhood. The Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis, they agreed, were hardworking ,decent people. Various (flimsy) anecdotes to support this opinion were shared. They also had nice things to say about some Venezuelans living on their block. Peruvians, however, and Africans, oh, they were totally different. I'd rather not repeat what the women said, but it was not complimentary. Some of what was said did not surprise me, given the women’s generation and the fact that there is still a lot of suspicion and ignorance around immigrants here, despite optimistic campaigns by local government to encourage harmonious living. Time will tell how Barcelona's increasingly diverse population gels together, or not.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Destination: BCN

The long queues for the tour bus started in early March this year, and the number of visitors exploded in June turning certain streets in the city into places to avoid if you're in any kind of hurry. Suddenly there are endless coaches trailing up and down the hills and pinkish, confused looking people moving at a snail's pace along the pavements. I write this with no contempt for them - as a fairly pink and occasionally confused looking person I am often assumed to be a tourist, when I’m in the centre of town anyway. Tourism is the main industry here, and thousands of people depend on the income it generates. However, I can see the volume of visitors starting to change the feel of parts of the old town. Family run specialist shops tucked down alleyways are slowly being replaced by frozen yoghurt cafes and shops renting scooters. Whole apartment blocks in formerly residential areas are being acquired by developers to be turned into boutique hotels. I've heard people talking about the Barcelona 'brand'- marketing based, among other things, on the city's creativity, history, ability to reinvent itself. The word 'brand' here makes me uneasy, not least because sooner or later it might leave residents feeling like they're living in a theme park. If the visitors are sold a certain image of the place, they'll expect to find it, and aspects of the culture that don't fit into that globalised image could be neglected.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Tableau of the week...

A few lunchtimes back I popped into a mini market round the corner from my flat. As I turned into an aisle I almost collided with two nuns in full habits standing side by side, puzzling over a tin.

One was in her 60s and very slight. The other was a head taller than me and built a little bit like a rubgy player. The taller one waved over the guy at the checkout, who until then had been perched on a stool looking glazed.

The three of them eventually tracked down the product the nuns had been looking for. When the nuns approached the check out, a woman with a laden shopping trolley (who had been queueing quietly) stood aside to let them pass. They nodded at her and went straight up to pay. It was all quite Almodovaresque.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

More beautiful things

1. Gin and tonic with a thick slice of lime on a warm evening.

2. Sitting on the balcony, gin and tonic in hand, looking down at the street below. The trees are in full bloom now which obscures some of the view, but from my spot I could see lots of sky, birds wheeling around, and several other people on their balonies.

3. I could also see the comings and goings at the little bar directly below us. It's run by a Chinese couple whose children (a girl and boy aged about 8 and 6) spend quite a lot of time playing outside the bar. This evening the girl was poised over a small rectangular table which looked like it had been specially set up for her. Pens and coloured pencils scattered around her, she was putting all her concentration into a drawing, totally absorbed in her work.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Feel the passion?

All over the city car horns are tooting and people are yelling. A scooter hurtles down the streets towards the centre of town, overloaded with three people, plus a Catalan flag. One of the passengers clutches onto the flapping flag as the scooter darts through lines of traffic, another waves a scarf. People hang out of car windows and bellow in time to the tooting. I pause, waiting for a red light to turn green so I can cross the street, and feel totally removed from the euphoria going on around me. It makes me feel very foreign indeed.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


I paint a metalic-almondy shade of varnish onto my fingernails in the hope that by the time my friend's wedding day arrives, they will have grown a bit - if they look pretty I tend to leave them alone.

In El Corte Inglés I find a big box of Yorkshire Tea. As I open it for the first time I enjoy inhaling its refreshing scent, and smile as I remember the conversation I had with the dentist the other day about the amount of tea English people do or don't drink, and whether tea stains more than coffee (inconclusive).

Finding a CD collection in the library called Thai Pop Spectacular. It's an album of Thai music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Some tracks are unbelievably awful but some are catchy and though I don't understand a thing I love the track titles, which include "Papaya Salad Merchant", "Uncle D is a drunk", "Monthly wife" and "You should die by bullets".

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Close quarters

Living so close to other people can be tough sometimes. In all the flats I've lived in here, the sound insulation has been poor which has meant I've had the pleasure of hearing each little detail of my neighbours' lives, from morning 'til night. I know that the little boy who lives directly above us has a cough at the moment, that the lady a floor down and across from us had a load of visitors over for lunch yesterday, that the man above to the right can't make it through the night without a trip to the loo and that the people next door triple lock their front door. Too much information? Yes, sometimes. But as well as the occasionally invasive noise, comes the opportunity to people watch. After I've hung out all my washing sometimes I stay on the balcony and on a bright day there are usually several neighbours out. There's the young couple who have a ground floor garden flat opposite my building, who often play with their dog and sometimes play fight each other. The man who tends to his plants on sunny mornings. The woman who has a balcony directly below ours, who pegs and unpegs washing so quickly and quietly. I could get some tips from her, I bet she never lets any of her clothes drop to the floor below. My sock mortality rate is increasing.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Happy New Year, smoke-free Spain

After the gasp-inducing cold of Britain, I appreciate the mild winter days of early 2011 in Barcelona. Our flat doesn't get the sun in the morning, but standing on the tiny balcony I can see warm light hitting the hills in the distance. I'm looking forward to sitting out in the evenings later in the year.

This is certainly a beautiful thing - to walk into a bar, cafe or restaurant and to be able to breathe in deeply without taking in a lungful of stale smoke. I've seen opinion polls in newspapers asking "Is the new anti-tobacco law a mistake?" but generally proprietors seem to be going with it.

Not so beautiful...while buttering toast, I stop and examine a foreign body caught in the bread. I shudder as I prize out what seems to be a cigarette butt. I think about taking a photo, putting the evidence in a bag and marching down to the bakery, but in the end just toss the slice into the bin. Let's hope the anti-smoking law extends to smoking at work!