Barcelona (a Retrospective)

For the last couple of years, I made my home in the city of Barcelona, Catalunya. All the time I was there I never wrote about the city, even though it is a beautiful and inspiring place in many ways. Now that I’ve moved again to another exciting city, but again with few friends and little money, beginning again, I can’t help but be reminded of those early days in Barcelona and what they felt like. Then as now, I moved in the winter, making a new beginning in a new year. With no job and just a couple of friends, I didn’t know how long I would stick it out. And just after a few months it felt like I was really on the edge, ready to go home with my tail between my legs. I had been living at home for about a year, depressed and apathetic for the first part of the year, reeling from an unpleasant break with my relationship and life in UK. After a while I picked myself up, worked, saved and rediscovered restlessness and lust for life. When I moved I hadn’t all that much though, and as it started to run out I began to sink again as the possibility of having to go home crept closer and closer. There was a period of extreme thrift, where I would go on nocturnal forages to scavenge food thrown out by supermarkets and sandwich shops. Luckily my nights of chewing pride and stale bread weren’t to last, and not only did I find steady work but also a room in the house in which I’ve lived the longest (apart from my family home) and, little by little, true friends whom I came to love.

The homes we make for ourselves can mark us for life, lingering in our memories, tugging on the strings of nostalgia like lost lovers. The daily sensory cacophony of sights, smells, sounds and sensations that confuses and excites the traveller with its novelty becomes familiar and intelligible. Through the chaos and disharmony a song becomes discernable, a song which tells a story that reveals more and more of itself the deeper your personal involvement grows with the days. A city’s personality is a heady mix of the organic, the material and the memetic, one can fall in love with a place. But the familiarity and security that comes with putting down roots can also feel restrictive, and I wasn’t ready to settle down before I had had a taste of other options.

Even though I don’t live there anymore, I have enough ties that will keep me connected to Barcelona and hopefully keep me visiting on a regular basis. I feel bad I never got round to writing much about my time there, so hopefully alongside posts about more recent happenings the gentle reader will be finding a few articles appear on here about my experiences in Barcelona. Before we get into anything too in-depth though, I just wanted to make a few general observations that you might not find in your standard visitor information.

Multicultural tension
Barcelona had a fair few things going for it that remind me of Gibraltar, i.e. it’s a multi-lingual town by the sea near a mountain, with a strained relationship with Madrid (to put it mildly). I’m always drawn to places where people of differing cultural backgrounds and identities mix and Barcelona has a lot going on in that regard. It is the capital of Catalunya, with Catalan displayed on all corners alongside Castellano as the official languages. Catalans are definitely there as a strong and dominant presence but there are large populations of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, assorted Northern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Asians and South Americans. It’s not so much a Spanish city or even a Catalan one, rather the overall impression is that of pan-European city. Madrid may be bigger and the seat of the central government, but Barcelona is better connected to the rest of Europe and the world. Out and about, it’s not uncommon to find oneself in a room where people are speaking anywhere between 2 and 6 languages in a large group. And it’s great. The main tension between Catalunya and the central government isn’t one that spills over into much conflict between residents, and many Catalans have close relations from other Spanish regions. There is an undercurrent of hostility towards tourists and visiting pleasure-seekers from some locals although not much more that might be expected from a tourist trap town. The high immigrant population does result in some unexpected phenomenon for the visitor (for example, nearly every typical tapas/bocadillo bar is run by a chinese family). The multiplicity of identities and subcultures means that the traveller will always find his or her niche to start with and branch out from there.

Pa amb tomàquet
Gibraltarian and Andalusian friends all warned me about the reputation of the Catalan people: that they were serious, cold and unfriendly compared the garrulous people if the South. If I’m honest, this always sounds like to me like an iteration of the broad stereotype applied to North vs South Europe in general. In most European countries I’ve been to the people speaking of Northerners as industrious, serious and grim, and Southerners as sensual, idle and possibly effete. Maybe there’s something to it though. While not every Northerner is a Stark from Game of Thrones , it’s true that I found the locals somewhat chillier. A lot of Catalans in places I went to kept to themselves and their groups of 4 or 5 longtime friends. When I did get to know one, it was typical to be approached by a friend of theirs, and rather than being introduced, to have them talk as if I wasn’t there! In many was this is understandable though. Locals in a trendy tourist hotspot are going to be used to people coming and going and not likely looking to make connections with visiting foreigners. Immigrants who arrive with few contacts have much more incentive to approach new people and sympathise with their situation. Add to that that the typical tourist in Barcelona tends to be pretty ignorant of Catalan identity and culture. My tastes led to many places which were mainly local dominated, and although it took a while I won many friends over, especially once they realised that I was sticking around for a while. And despite the initial chilly front, once I got to know them I found my Catalan friends to be exceptionally warm, caring and affectionate. I’ve heard a fair few expats in Barcelona complain about the locals, but the truth is that with some patience and respect anyone can have good Catalan friends. And they’re certainly worth having.

Modernos, modernos everywhere
I’m not sure whether Barcelona or Madrid is the hipster capital of Spain but the competition must be fierce. Barcelona is by and large very faddish and new trends sweep over periodically to dominate the landscape for a while before settling down. When I arrived Rockabilly had the city in a stranglehold and bars abounded with a tatted-and-pierced version of the cast from Grease. This was swept under by a wave of dubstep and jungle the year . after. None of this was anything new. In fact Barcelona always struck me as more of a trend-embracer than a trendsetter. Flannel, trucker hats, nerd glasses, skinny jeans, nose rings, bicycles, sailor tattoos and regurgitated retro-fetishism abound, as do beardy types basking in the light of their macbook screens in the city’s many Starbucks (NB. Just by the way, Madrid has a Starbucks infestation way worse than Barcelona’s. Seriously out of control, nearly every street corner). I’m not going to rag on the hipsters too much because the internet already does that pretty well, and because as a pierced, tattooed, arty-farty type it might have a whiff of the lady doth protest too much in it. As someone who is very skeptical about aspirations to authenticity, I’ve got no points to score off them. Besides, they’re not so bad, it beats hanging out with pijos. Where to find them? Gracia (or any Starbucks) by day, Manchester, Apolo, Sidecar or Razzmatazz by night.

La Puta Crisis
Everyone’s favourite topic of conversation. Spain is one of the countries worst affected by the financial recession and shit is pretty grim. Unless you move in extraordinarily privileged circles, you’ll see beggars, homeless sleeping on the streets, scavengers, closed-down small businesses, etc. every day. A huge amount of young people are out of work, staying with their families all through their 20s, usually without the funds to emigrate, and it’s some depressing shit. Despite the crisis, bars and cafes and still busy and people do their best to enjoy life in their limited means. In the world of work, austerity is used to justify screwing over the majority of workers and artists. At least people can bond over their misery. While working in Spain I was shocked at how many of my fellow foreign workers dismissed the complaints of local workers as being typical of Spanish idleness. We all need solidarity more than ever, and given a massively corrupt government and its brutal treatment of protest, Spanish citizens have a lot to be pissed off about. Which brings us to:

Jo també soc un indignat!
Los indignados are the outraged, and for a time a big presence in Barcelona, camping out in Plaça Catalunya (making it immeasurably more interesting) as the frontliners for the more widespread anger against the Government that exists all over Spain. Every time this has happened occupiers (though this predates the Occupy movement going viral) were brutally evicted by armed police. Protestors are often dismissed by national press as ‘perroflautas’, a pejorative term referring to crusty hippy types and their ubiquitous canine companions. While some protestors do fit the stereotype (and what of it? They have as much of a right to a voice as anyone) many are ordinary workers and citizens who are justifiably fed up with a corrupt and ineffective government which so readily resorts to violence against it’s citizens. Strikes, marches and other temporary protests are common events in Barcelona, and some of them (like public transport strikes) can be a huge inconvenience. But with an awareness of the backdrop they occur against, very understandable.

Barcelona es un Pueblo
The city of Barcelona is really small when you consider it’s international fame and appeal. You can walk across it in just over an hour. One of the reasons why I left was that I ended up always doing the rounds between the same places. It’s also a reason why genuinely underground music and art coming from Barcelona often has to move out to find it’s audience. Despite being a cool and culturally active place, there’s not usually a very big audience for niche interests. There’s a definitely advantage to having everything close together though. You can get around town quickly on foot or bicycle if you don’t fancy using the underground. You can stay out late and get home easily when the most convenient public transport options have closed. You can get a lot done in a day without spending a lot of time in transport. It’s perhaps not as exciting as living in a metropolis with a seemingly infinite amount of districts and areas to explore but the intimacy means you can discover your favourite spots pretty quickly and find yourself recognising people on the street as you go about your day, making you feel less anonymous and more connected with the people around you.

Fiesta por la Calle
La Rambla, El Raval and Barri Gotic are the centres of nightlife in Barcelona, with streets seemingly entirely made of bars, off-licences, clubs and fast food. The party spills over in the streets where the punters of types (tourists, hipsters, hippies, punks, rockers etc) stand around smoking, drinking eating, flirting and puking, while illegal street vendors hawk food, beer and drugs. La Rambla itself is largely devoid of anything interesting but the various side-streets that connect to it are a wealth of dives. Of particular note as a node of the street life is Plaça Tripi (druggy square), aka called Plaça George Orwell and boasting a weird sculpture based on the virus that killed the revered writer.

Cerveza/Beer?
Speaking of street vendors, get used to hearing this a lot. How much you welcome the sound will depend largely on your opinions of Estrella beer and or/level of intoxication. Squads of pakistani men patrol La Rambla and other parts of the city centre, offering you 1euro cans of Estrella (nasty but cheap swill, favoured by the poor, indifferent, or simply those with no tastebuds), sandwiches and samosas (I love samosas, but would definitely not recommend from this source), and, if you linger, various drugs and whores. I can imagine that the complete deluxe package involves a sandwich stuffed with speed and hash served from the butthole of an unfortunate hooker, washed down with liberal lashings of Estrella. All of this is illegal but impossible to effectively police, so don’t expect any relief from the constant presence of hawkers. ‘Cerveza/beers?’ will easily be the most common thing you hear in Barcelona. The second most common being ‘Oye tio, tienes fuego?’ (I would get this every few streets passed, despite never being seen smoking). A secondary annoyance are the many promoters handing out flyers to clubs and bar crawls. Ultimately all people trying to earn a living in hard times, and something you just have to learn to filter out if you’re going to stay for long.

The beautiful and the glamorous?
The most obvious tourists in Barcelona by night are the glamour set-wealthy American and Northern Europeans. Typically young, white, wealthy, hedonistic and clueless, little ladies in designer dresses and identikit bros boogie to RnB in the fancier and pricier clubs like Opium Mar. It’s definitely there if you want it, but I don’t have much experience with this scene since it the couple of times I’ve found myself in the middle of it, the temptation to run back to the nearest squat party or hipster haunt is overwhelming. I’d take pretentiousness over vapidity anytime.

Ravalistan
The colloqial name given, perhaps unkindly so, to the old neighbourhood of El Raval. Raval, like Gotic, is a dive network but with a distinctly ethnic flavour, with kebab shops, turkish and pakistani food all around. It is also rife with prostitutes from the evening on. Never been a customer of these working girls but I do wonder about their backgrounds. They are overwhelmingly African or Asian looking, and I would guess their pimps are related in some way to the cerveza/beer hawkers and dealers in a wider mafia. Take care as occasionally they can get aggressive and hands-on in their sales pitch, maybe in an attempt lift something out of your pocket. Amusingly enough, contrary to the popular image of hookers, the working girls are usually sensibly dressed for the weather, in sharp contrast to many posh party girls on the same streets. The real treasure of El Raval is its grocery shops though. I really struggled in Barcelona to find any good spices and indgrediants for curries until I lived near El Raval, where I found more than I know what to do with. In one of its street corners there are two alcoves opposite each other. One holds a reflief of the Madonna. The other of Ganesha. All the gods bless El Raval!

Skateboarding is not a crime
In fact it’s practically mandatory. Popular spots are Plaça Universitat and MACBA but you’ll see it everywhere. Most skaters will be in their 20s or 30s, weirdly, I never saw that many younger ones out but skating culture is so big in Barcelona that I would recommend it to all my skater friends, particularly to the ones that might feel they are getting on a bit. Rollerblading isn’t so popular but you still get large gatherings of skaters of all types about once a week to parade through the city at night. It’s been quite a few years since I hung up my skates for good, but I can see the appeal, not just of skating itself but continuing to be playful and practicing your sport out in city rather than confined to a gym or fitness complex.

Have a gay old time
Barcelona is not a place for the homophobic. I lived for a while in Eixample area, a famous gay district (aka gayxiample hurr durr) and it’s common to see same sex couples openly displaying their affections on the street. A refreshing change from the more catholic and often repressive South. Anybody looking to go gay bashing is going to have a hard time, since a typical couple of the area are big, macho dudes with biceps as big as your head, holding their hands in a tender but no doubt steely grip as they walk their doberman down the street. A few times at night a car has pulled up on the street near me on my way home, asking if I need a ride. No thanks, but good luck.

Barceloneta sucks
Seriously. It’s the most easily accessible beach and might seem very tempting but it’s always overcrowded, fithly, full of hawkers and theives and to top it all off the water in the immediate vicinity is noticably contaminated with gasoil. At times Barceloneta theives seem to be operating more out of spite than anything else. One time I was there with my girlfriend and she had her bag, shoes and towel taken from her. I lost…one sandal. They left the other one there, and it’s hard to think that it wasn’t done deliberately just to add insult to injury. Walking through town in swimwear with no shoes or money to buy any is pretty nasty. Fuck Barceloneta. There are lots of great beaches nearby though. Poble Nou is further from the hub but much nicer, and if you can afford the train, a trip to Sitges and the beaches there is well worth it. Much more tranquilo, less crowded and much cleaner water.

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~ by theserpentscircle on February 28, 2013.

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