Stuck between a Brexit and a Cata(lan)strophe

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Outside my flat the bells of Santa Maria del Mar have just tolled, a helicopter hums above and below there is the din of the square: people’s laughter and cups clanking on the metal tables. The sound of the helicopter has become almost as habitual as the ringing of the bells since not only the Barcelona attacks, but in the lead up to the referendum on 1st October. Last night the bells were drowned out by the sound of pots and pans being banged throughout the city, a ‘cacerolazo’ in support of the referendum and as a gesture of defiance towards the Madrid government.

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September is always a particularly patriotic month for the locals, as it is the month during which Catalans commemorate the fall of Hapsburg-supporting-Barcelona to Bourbon-supporting -Spain on 11th September, 1714; incidentally those same Bourbons who today are still Spain’s royal family. It is also the month where they celebrate ‘La Mercè’, the city’s patron saint. These events provide a platform for the ‘Leave Spain’ voters who turn out in their droves, or rather, in their fluorescent green t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Sí’ translated into ‘oui’, ‘yes’ and ‘ja’ among myriad other languages, to ensure that all understand the message being conveyed. At such events the mood tends to be upbeat, something helped by the numerous ‘Estrella’ beers being downed and food bandied about. One thing common to all Spaniards is their ability to turn any event into a quasi fiesta.

 

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Fear of Flying

 

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We all know the acronym, FEAR, False Expectation (or Evidence) Appearing Real. In order to achieve anything in life we have to be brave. I encounter a lot of fear among the people I take travelling which therefore makes their decision to come on trips braver still. In reality the world is safer now than it has ever been before. However, whilst crime has been declining, our perception of crime has been increasing courtesy of the internet, 24-hour streaming news and social media. As I often point out to the people I take on tour however, the reason something is in the news is because it is something different to the norm and therefore unlikely to happen to them.

The current American election and potential UK exit, the so-called ‘Brexit’, from the European Union have something in common, other than being largely about two men whose egos and ambition are matched only in size with their improbably sized mops of hair; fear. The reason many are dashing for the exit in the UK is fear: fear of being overrun with migrants; fear of being told what to do by the Germans, or god forbid, the French. On the campaign to stay side, the politics of fear are being employed to suggest all kinds of doomsday scenarios should Britain leave. Over the pond Americans are voting for Trump because he plays upon their fears over immigration and worries about future hypothetical terrorist attacks. Never mind that Americans are more likely to die from being shot by each other than in a terrorist attack perpetrated by ‘outsiders’. Never mind that in the UK, migrants constitute a small percentage of the population and largely contribute rather than take out of the system. The false reality is the one we virtually inhabit and given that we spend more and more of our time online it is the one which appears the most real.

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No place like Rome

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‘La Parolaccia’ in Rome, is a restaurant made famous for the fact that its waiters swear at and verbally abuse the clientele. I can’t decide what is more astonishing: the fact that people will pay for this, or the fact that they are able to tell a difference between this and other ‘customer service’ in Rome.

The Romans are a proud people. In fact, to call oneself Roman is to call back on seven generations, many of whom could well still be living above one another in one of the main high rise buildings dotted throughout Rome. However, it is this ‘first’ generation who regularly hurl abuse at each other over the ‘cortile’ whilst all the while the tourists wander by marvelling at the “beautiful courtyards, so peaceful” seemingly immune to the sounds of the blaring televisions and histrionics of daily life. Churches with enforced silences abound whilst outside ambulances scream by.  This is a city of contradictions. The Rome of ‘Roman Holiday’, ‘La Dolce Vita’ and, more recently, ‘La Grande Bellezza’ is the beautiful backdrop. Romans themselves take back their city from the tourists by spraying it with graffiti. Rome has often been described as an open air museum, but this is like the Breakfast club invaded the museum.

Rome, the eternal (ly) noisy city where a conversation is an act in a Shakespearean tragedy, where the audience of passers-by need not cross the street to hear the intricacies of any conversation. ‘All the world’s a stage’ and if the accent makes the language difficult to discern, the players thoughtfully add in subtitles in the form of gestures. Beware the unwitting tourist armed with their ‘lingua de Bocaccio’, the purest form of Italian; Roman dialect is a series of grunts and words more masticated than the victim of an encounter with a lion in the Colosseum. Given the adventurous lives of the ancient Romans (and I refer to their conquering of each other rather than countries) it should hardly come as a surprise that La Parolaccia is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the swearing and abuse. And even here, the earnest Italian scholar may find themselves a little confused when listening to expressions such as ‘mortacci tuoi/tua’ a phrase almost impossible to translate into English, but which basically insults your antecedents; a very Roman way of abusing someone.

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A ‘Crap’ Article

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No, not my being self-deprecating although you may well think it an apt title upon reading, but rather an article about the Catalan obsession with, well, crap or ‘caga’. This comes particularly into mind at this time of year as I am surrounded by ‘caganers’, ie crappers. Visiting the stands at the local Christmas market in front of Barcelona’s cathedral you are greeted by the usual suspects: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, but you will also see stands upon stands of caganers. The most traditional caganer is the one wearing his red cap, however, now you can see anyone from the Pope to Obama caught in a compromising position (and no, not the same one Clinton was caught in). Literally, the figurines are all crapping and a pile of poo behind them is  included on the figurine.

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It could be said that the Catalans have a bit of an obsession with crap. The most famous (or nowadays infamous) avenue in Barcelona, the Ramblas is the riverbed of the Cagallel, literally stream of shit, in reference to the sewer that it once was. And as Robert Hughes mentions in his book on Barcelona, ‘the pleasures of a good crap are considered in Catalunya on a level with those of a good meal; “Menjar be i cagar fort/I no tingues por de la mort”, goes the folk saying: “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death”. Quite.

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Driving (near)Miss Delhi

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As we hurtled the wrong way down the dual carriageway it became clear that whilst in India they do still drive on the Left, they also drive on the Right. In India it is not a case of ‘as the crow flies’, more a case of ‘how an Indian arrives’. In this particular instance the service station was located on the other side of the dual carriageway and rather than have to proceed to the next turn off and then turn around, our driver employed the ‘drive now think later’ attitude in crossing onto the other side, following the maxim that ‘might is right’. Such assumptions of immortality are natural to all drivers on Indian roads and as a consequence bus drivers in India are heading straight for Nirvana. A joke in India tells of a driver and priest arriving at the Pearly Gates. The priest isn’t admitted, but the driver is, with the explanation that whilst the priest was doing his job everyone was sleeping, but whilst the driver was doing his job, everyone was praying.

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On my first visit to India I remember the bus drivers almost permanently driving on the wrong side of the road and with no seat belts; however, the driver did stop at every Hindu shrine along the way to pray. Given the fact we made it, it is hard to argue which is the more compelling case to be made. Insurance policies are largely regarded as unnecessary in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is Hindu, with an accompanying belief in reincarnation. Indians must have found the Bond film title ‘You only live twice’ truly baffling .Why worry about your present life when you could be lucky enough to come back as a cow in India? Cows are considered the sacred mother god and are to be seen scattered across the streets of most of India, including lying in the middle of the traffic as 1.2 billion Indians go about their daily business. One of the most fascinating things to do in India is drive or walk around in order to see every aspect of human practices carried out by the side of the road. From the constant brewing of chai to washing in tubs and defecating in the fields, it is there to be witnessed by all who pass by.

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Neverending story

Neverending Story

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“Is this just a story?’ was a question once posed in a History lesson I was observing. The teacher was flummoxed. The child persisted. “Did any of what you told us actually happen?” He wasn’t being facetious. He just found it hard to determine what the past really was and how to engage with it. I was reminded of this student when I wandered around Verona today ahead of my tour group’s arrival tomorrow. If ever a country owed a lot of its tourism trade to Shakespeare it is Italy and if ever a city did, there can be no more worthy a contender than Verona. All over the town are signs to ‘Juliet’s tomb’ and ‘Juliet’s House’. Upon visiting ‘Juliet’s House’ you can touch her statue (supposedly grabbing her right breast will bring good luck, an idea no doubt put about by an Italian male although I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would have approved). Alternatively you can stand on ‘her balcony’ although the Romeos below mainly comprise American tour groups of girls who saw the film ‘Letters to Juliet’. Going one further is ‘Juliet’s Tomb’ and I was amused to read the top review on Tripadvisor, entitled ‘Empty’ where the reviewer ‘Travellingcuriosity’ wrote ‘I did not like this. All there is is an empty tomb’. Well yes ‘Travellingcuriosity’, this can’t have come as much of a surprise. They continued ‘I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this’.  I think short of Romeo lying strewn across the coffin, this reviewer, who really does have the most apt name, being in my eyes, a real ‘curiosity’, was destined to be disappointed.

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Eyes Wide Shut

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“The final scene in  Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut ‘, was filmed not, as the film suggested, in New York, rather, in Hamley’s toy store on Regent Street”. Sean, our local blue badge guide, continued, “the Apple Store is the most profitable shop in London per square footage”, “Ian Fleming’s Bond was indeed ‘related’ to Sir Michael Bond of Bond Street” and “Queen Anne’s physician’s collection of artefacts formed the British museum”. The fact that Anne suffered 19 pregnancies all of which resulted in the death of her children through various forms, suggests his services were much in demand if not necessarily successful, hence his ability to build such a collection. However, it was the film’s title that struck me the most apt for me, an ex inhabitant of London, in that it sums up how we walk around our ‘own’ cities or countries. Where tourists may swoon at the guard change, or marvel at the Tower of London, most Londoners walk, or rather, dash past, saving their ‘wandering’ for foreign climes.

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Qué?

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It was clear from the massive grins on my entirely male Spanish class, that something was amiss. In Spanish ‘estoy caliente’ means I am feeling amorous, whereas ‘tengo calor’ means I am hot. In my dashing in late, I had confused the two with the consequence that my students , not surprisingly, happily forgave my lateness (in a country in which lateness doesn’t technically exist, I shouldn’t have worried). No wonder they said I was their best teacher. Mistakes in foreign languages can have very amusing consequences and are some of the best ways of learning a language, or rather, remembering what not to say.

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Homage to Catalonia

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Homage to Catalonia

Gaudí should have served as a warning. He was left for dead as an unidentified tramp, due to his clothing. And yet a quick walk around Barcelona, particularly the Barrio Gotico and Barceloneta will take you back to grunge not seen this side of the 1990s. No preppy, jumper over shoulder, slicked back hair Madrileños here.  All about the scruffy jeans, beaten up trainers, messed up hair, ‘Catalan-glasses-wearing librarian-meets-homeless’ look here.

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