missive the second, 2/5/3, barcelona, spain

okay, i feel better now. i think i.ve finally accustomed myself to the schedule here in spain. it.s much different from what i.m used to, even having quit my day job and being able to set my own schedule.

let me explain. for example, it.s 7:45 pm and i.m beginning to get hungry, but dinner isn.t until 11 this evening.

i get up at about 10 in the morning. you may consider this inexcusably lazy, but it actually makes good sense. even the garbagemen don.t come around until the afternoon. only the kids in school and some shopkeepers actually do things in the early morning. and the bar across the street, but they open at 7:30 with an entirely different staff than those who close at 3:30 the following morning. in fact, i woke briefly this morning at 6 am, and there was absolutely no movement on the street outside. and since i.m in the front room, on the second floor, movement on the narrow little street outside cannot be wasted on me.

so, i.m up at 10. i have a cup of tea and a pastry (have i described the pastry yet? the “creme” filling we.re used to in america would make people sick here. they use real actual whipped cream inside their light and fluffy pastries, and they.re a joy to eat. that creme stuff is so fake the manufacturers are forced to spell it wrong. this should give anyone pause.)

after my wakeup caffeine i get to work. i.ve got several paintings taped to the wall and spread out over the tables so that i can work on whatever inspires me at the moment. there.s a koi painting on one wall, taking up a space larger than 3.×4., the other wall is hosting a 2.×4. canvas of this old cathedral with palm trees in the courtyard; i.ve got another version of the local flower market on a 16×20 oil pad the table, along with one of a twisty-turny narrow little street that also has a palm tree in the middle of it; there.s a painting of the inside of the bar across the street that i.m also working on in the corner, and i.ve just decided to do up the art-deco exterior of this very bar as a silk scarf painting, so i.m going to have to clear some room in the corner to stretch the silk.

so i have plenty to do. i.m also involved in writing the first draft of my best-selling demotivational handbook, “lazy is good – quit your day job”, which i am doing here at this internet cafe, since i find i can think much better with my hands on a keyboard (despite my tendency to want to scribble it out in longhand, i find my voice much different, and plus i can.t read my own writing when i.m inspired, anyway).

so, i work for a few hours, drinking endless cups of tea and eating these wonderful cookies – sponge cake cookies with a touch of orange marmalade on top,and covered with chocolate – simply delicious, and probably very fattening. i think i.m gaining weight, but can.t really tell. there.s no central heating in any of the places i.ve been staying, and so i don.t get much of a chance to parade around naked. there are very few mirrors, also. but why bother? when i can.t fasten my pants i.ll know i.ve gotten too fat on all this wonderful food.

when i.m in need of distraction, i go out and cruise around the streets of barcelona. barcelona was built millions of years ago. the original city was walled, like all medieval european cities. it started out a roman city or something, with a wall, and every time the city got too big, they built another wall and used the existing walls for something else (francis tells of this little pakistani bar that has an original section of roman wall in it). the original city was full of these little twisty turny streets no wider than a handcart, and hundreds of years ago they were all clustered in these torturous paths for a definite reason. some streets were where the flower markets were, some had fruit or vegetable markets along them. some street stank of meat, and had runnels down the middle of them to allow the byproducts of meat preparation to ooze off from under the shoes of passers by. i won.t get more graphic. i could. there are still places in the market where chickens and cows and lambs etc etc etc are prepared just the same way. some streets had schools in them, some had convents and churches, and government buildings, and palaces, and all these things influenced the width and direction and straightness of the places. and even tho these buildings were all pulled down over the centuries and rebuilt into towering blocks of apartments and offices which are still hundreds of years old, the streets remain the same narrow dark streets they always were.

if you look up, you.ll see floor upon floor, balcony upon balcony, most with plants spilling out, many with the wash drying on the railings, and almost never does the sun reach the surface of the street. which perhaps is unfortunate for photo taking and the winter coolness, but in the hot summer i can see every reason to have dark narrow streets. the narrowness is conducive to the breeze, and the darkness is a blessing when it.s 187 degrees in the sun.

about 1 in the afternoon, the shops begin to close. this is because everyone is about to go home and have lunch, and then retire for a few hours to have a siesta. it.s still a normal thing in spain, and a wonderful invention. there.s nothing like having a little lunch and then having a little lie-down.

we don.t do it in the states, and there are some of you who will look with a certain contempt at the practice, maybe judging it as lazy and wasteful, maybe feeling that it should be outlawed and these people forced to work as hard as you are forced to work.

but resist this feeling. it comes from that awful work-ethic thing that has us feeling it.s normal to work 60 hour weeks. see my best-selling demotivational handbook (soon to be published) for more persuasive arguments.

i eat lunch, and then i get tired. perhaps this is why so many office workers skip lunch entirely, or eat at their desks, figuring they shouldn.t be tired, and that it.ll pass if they have some more coffee. it.s actually natural to feel tired after you eat. and it.s also natural to want to take a nap.

so here in spain, people do just that. things shut, stores close, shutters come down. and stay that way until 4 or 5 o.clock in the evening, when things open back up and people come out to do the rest of their day.s business. the shops actually stay open until an hour we.d recognize – everything.s open until 10 at night, and restaurants for much later.

i get up around 6 from my nap. it.s just beginning to get dusky in the east, i can see people in the house opposite (almost close enough to touch because the streets are so narrow) doing whatever they do. at this point, people are beginning to close their shutters, so i have no idea how they pass their evenings.

i.m starting on my evening work, and drinking endless cups of tea, and working my way thru the house.s collection of talking books, which i.ve never really indulged in before, but it.s actually interesting to listen to someone talk if i don.t have to break my concentration to answer them.

i routinely meet my friends for dinner at 11 pm, and we have a drink first and then wander back to a table for a meal at around midnight. by this time i.m starting to fade, simply because i.m still not entirely used to staying up that late.

so sometimes i excuse myself and go upstairs to bed after the meal, but sometimes i hang with them at the bar and drink various local drinks. my friends are all english speakers, mainly because i can.t speak any spanish (i.ve got “me gusta” now (i like it), and several numbers), but also because i.m in with an expatriate crowd, as happens everywhere i go. this collection of friends is irish, english, new zealand, and american, and together we mangle the spanish language and have cute little misunderstandings between ourselves whenever we discuss something.

misunderstandings like i simply cannot understand what francis is saying when he mumbles, and nick cannot understand me when i use american slang, and i completely miss whatever hillary is saying because she speaks so rapidly.

It’s feb ’03 – we.ve been dealing with the space shuttle disaster in our own fashions. everyone.s appalled at the loss of life, but everyone has their own reaction to the coverage as well (i just can.t abide being forced to watch it again and again, and wish they.d just decide to go to a black screen instead of focusing in on all that horrible destruction), and the local bartender has a very outspoken opinion on the space program and what the money and effort could be better used for, which sparks off a lively discussion among us about what exactly the space program has done to benefit humanity when so many are starving (velcro, teflon, tang, satellite tv and cellphones).

the tv is always on in the local bar/restaurant we all convene in. it.s usually some talk show or news program, sometimes it.s a dubbed american movie.

i got to watch the last half hour of “the truman show” the other night, in spanish. like some dubbed martial arts movie we see lampooned in america, there.s jim carey moving his lips, and some completely other voice not doing a very good job of matching his words or making sense of his speeches. but how is anyone to know who isn.t bilingual? which all my friends are, so i get to hear a translation of the translation, and find it very amusing on the whole.

on friday i got a real lesson in the difference between american and european society. after 12 there came on a program called “friday night porn”, which wasn.t at all like what would pass as racy in the american market. This was pay channel stuff, video store stuff. one moment we were watching this weird little talk show that starred a portly transvestite babbling and laughing, and the next moment we were exposed to two nameless and voiceless people in various postures and states of undress going at it like there was no tomorrow. wow.

i turned away, since it.s not really my choice to sit and watch porn in a crowded bar. I watched the customers watching at the tv.

there were various reactions in the bar as a whole. the local guys just sat there watching it, as they.d sit there watching a sports show, or for that matter as they.d sat there watching the transvestite interviewing some guy who.d had a penile extension operation and was going around telling everyone he was actually royalty and for that reason should be famous.

hillary and i both turned away when it cut to the hard stuff, but the rest of my friends just shrugged and continued talking, hardly watching. the bartender noticed us, bless his soul, and turned the channel, and this lasted for a few moments until the locals talked him into turning it back again, and this time we got to see three of them doing interesting things on or near a bed. and then he changed the channel back again. and again, and again.

and finally i.d had enough, and left to go home. it partly seemed to be that the guys were amused, not by the porn itself, but by the reactions of this poor little halfwitted fellow who worked down at the fish market (they call him “pesca” and make fun of him not so much because he is a halfwit, but because he smells of fish), and who was jumping up and down in his excitement.

the guys seemed to be more amused by him than the tv. it seemed that they didn.t really care about the porn, any more than they did about the transvestite, and that it was just something to watch. they certainly show much more interest whenever there.s a soccer game on.

i asked an american i met on sunday about this. she had an interesting point of view. it seems that when franco was in power, he was backed by the catholic church. for those of us old enough to remember franco, his reign, from the spanish civil war in the ‘30s until the late ‘70s (when chevy chase would announce every saturday that generallisimo fransisco franco was still dead), was the most repressive era in spanish history since the inquisition. there were soldiers with guns on every street corner, nobody was allowed to say what they felt, people could be arrested and taken away for anything not approved of. it was very faschistic, and very much hated by the local populace.

when franco.s era was over, so the american woman told me, the people turned against the church, all its teachings, and all its social rules. the porn show was a direct reflection of a general abandonment of censorship. so in that way it.s more a statement of personal and societal freedom than a wish to get it on in front of strangers. but i still don.t much like it, and wish people in general had more taste. but who am i to say?

on sunday francis and i went into the country, about an hour.s train ride from barcelona. barcelona is a city of many millions of people, and they live right on top of each other. after the walled medieval city, sometime in the early 1800s, the city planners developed a grid system, and so for miles, to the very neck of the mountains, block after block after block is built on a grid, different from every other block only in the details. but the details are wonderful.

peoples balconies, their plants, drying clothes, stuff they put in their windows. if you.re paying attention, you won.t get lost. i wander around with my head in the clouds at the best of times, and get lost in the street i.m living in, so i don.t actually like to go outside the old city.

we took a train; i watched from the window as we went up into the hills surrounding barcelona and off into the interior a ways. the countryside appeared, at first, as little allotment gardens lining the train tracks, and then in great swathes as we came over the first mountain range and onto a plain between that and the next range. rolling hills, bare because of the winter, carefully tended nonetheless, with row upon row of grapevine, black and twisted and standing each plant on its own, in contrast to vines i.ve seen in the states, which are strung out along wires and posts. every now and then there was a farmhouse, incredibly old, with a red tile roof, but mainly it was rolling hills and vineyards. very beautiful even in the winter. i got a few pictures.

we came across little towns every now and then, very old, very little, very crowded, jammed up against mountain sides in order to spare most of the ground for farming. i got a few pictures. and then we were there.

vilafranca de penedes, home of such household names as freixenet champagne, which turns out is a word in catalan, the local language. so it.s pronounced freshenet, with a t. if it were french, there would be no ending t, but as it was catalan, that.s another brand of eroded latin entirely from both french and spanish. i was excited, simply because i.ve learned another useless bit of trivia.

the plan was to stop and have a drink at a cafe, and then hop a taxi for the 15 km ride out to another even smaller little city for dinner with these friends of francis. so we went to the central square and parked ourselves under an umbrella at a table.

it being sunday morning (so called; it was after 1 pm, but see the paragraph on spanish time, above), everyone was out to have a drink before lunch. vilafranca turns out to be very rich, with everyone making their money producing wine for the export market.

and you could tell. in barcelona, there aren.t a lot of rich people walking around the walking streets. what you do see is people who don.t spend their disposable income on clothing, and people who don.t wear the latest fashion. in barcelona you see people dressed in the latest young people fashions, which can easily be things straight out of the 60s or straight out of the trash bin.

in vilafranca, there were women who had their hair done every day, dripping with leather and gold, their men the same, and their kids riding around on obviously expensive rollerblades and tricycles. they were right next to us, and all around us, and it was a lovely sunday morning.

it.s the first time since i.ve been here that the temperature has been anything like normal for this part of spain in february. it was 62 degrees and francis was already too hot and insisted on sitting in the shade. i sat smack dab in the sun and soaked it up. i was finishing off some fried dough pastry thing, called xurros (pronounced churros), that we.d stopped to get, a local delicacy. long sticks of dough fried and greasy as can be, with granulated sugar dumped all over them, stuck into a brown paper cone and costing 2 euros for more than we could eat (a euro is about a dollar). they were heavenly, so don.t talk to me about too much fat. when we got our drinks (francis is irish; we tend to have gin and tonics a lot), we also got some marinated cockles as a little something to eat.

cockles are some variety of shelfish. they look quite genital in general, and have these little feet that stick out like little horns. very strange, but they were marinated in some hot sauce and served to us with a whole tree.s worth of toothpicks, and we skewered and ate them until there were no more.

that.s one of the things i like about eating in spain. there.s always food. everything is served up with a side dish of some food or other. and it.s always delicious.

when we were done with our drink and our people watching, we tried to get a taxi, but it turns out that there were none to be had. francis tried to call one from inside the bar, but the phone just rang and rang. the friendly barkeeper told him to go up to city hall and they.d help us there, but it being sunday, city hall was closed. i suspect the barman knew this, as the bar is in fact owned by the city hall, but that.s okay because it got us out of his hair.

a sign on the door of city hall said to go around to the local police station if we needed help, so after asking several people along the way, we found the police station, where the helpful policewoman rang the same number francis had called, and got no answer either. at that point she told us that we were most likely to get a taxi if we went to the train station, so we wended our way back there eventually, and found a taxi. however, it was empty, so francis stood in the street bellowing “taxi” for a couple of minutes, and then ducked into the train station and found the man at the bar.

so, after about an hour of walking and standing around, we were on our way. another few miles of little towns and cute farms, i got a few more pictures, and we were dropped off in this cute little square. i got some more pictures.

the house we were looking for was an old mill, and the people we were looking for were foreign: an american woman and an irish man, but not strangers there or looked sideways at by the locals for any reason – the guy, paddy, was actually the postman and the unofficial wine expert and tourist-organizer for the region.

okay. it used to be that foreigners were shunned, especially in these little towns where all the men sit in the bars all day and all the women are dowdy and dressed in black and never smile. things have changed in this part of europe, apparently.

anyway, we were there to sample the local springtime delicacy (spring starts on the first of february over here, cool, eh?), something called calcots. these are spring onions, but onions pulled up in the fall when they.re the size we expect of green onions, and planted again in the winter.

when they.re pulled up for this feast, they.re twice the size of the spring onions we know. they take a load of these green onions and roast them in a fire on a spare roof tile – you know, those curvy red ceramic roof tiles featured in spanish type houses.

when they’re roasted they roll them up in newspaper and let them steam, then take them to the table. there you grasp the burnt outer layer of the stalk and pull it off, then dip the whole onion in a sort of tahini/garlic sauce – romescu – and slosh it into your mouth.

yes it was truly delicious. this was washed down with plenty of the local wine from a spout thing that challenged your level of drunkenness.

then paddy went out to start the next course, while the women sat around the table talking and drinking more wine. i went out to take a few pictures, and found paddy crouched over a little wood fire in a vacant lot, cooking lamb, beef, and chicken on a grill made of interlaced vine twigs, which worked very well.

after awhile, and a few pictures of the little town from halfway up the nearest hill outside it, i came back in and we had a huge meal of salad, grilled artichokes and garlic, the meat, and loads of garlic mayonnaise, called aioli, which i.ve always loved.

and okay it was a dinner, but a dinner in the country, with wonderfully fresh air and lovely local scenery, and in this ancient mill turned into a rambling country town house full of capering kids and dogs, with an enormous table crammed full of food and wine, with conversations in several different languages and dialects, and i got my knowledge of local customs, history, and religion updated on several fronts and by several sources.

after dinner we repaired to the local bar for carajillo de anise (espresso topped off with anisette, one of my favorite drinks), and to watch the local soccer game, a big deal since they.re getting to the playoffs and perhaps barcelona or madrid will go to the world cup this year.

at about 10 we left for the station, paddy driving us in his little car, careening around roads i might have wanted to go slower on if i hadn.t had plenty of wine. we pretty much slept on the train back, tho i watched the lights go by and wondered how easy it would be to lose my way entirely if i hadn’t been with francis.

we got home in time for dinner, which francis. flatmate estaban (from argentina) cooked. he cooks in exchange for his part of the rent, and cooks wonderfully. did you know that a spanish omelet is nothing like what we understand as such? it.s actually a whole mess of potatos sliced very thin, mixed with onions and peppers and spiced with parsely, and then loads of raw eggs are beaten up and mixed with this, the whole thing is loaded into a pan, and cooked up. it turns out to be about 3 inches thick, golden brown on the outside, topped with nice olive oil, and served in slices like a pie. spanish omelet, a wonderful concoction, and one i.ll work on when i get back.

all this talk of food has made me hungry again, but dinner isn.t for another few hours. i.ve made myself a big pot of beans and rice for when i get hungry during the day, since nobody seems to eat anything much until 3 in the afternoon.

however, the boys have already demolished it, so i was forced to start a big pot of onion soup this afternoon. no doubt they.ll eat that up, as well, and after that it looks like esteban and i will be vying for cook.

the large market is right around the corner. i.m going to treat them to apple pie tomorrow, if i can figure out how to ask esteban to get all the things i need (pride of place insists that he do the shopping. i can’t even tag along) and how to get francis, from ireland, to translate what he thinks i mean into what esteban can manage to find at the market. what.s the spanish for “granny smith”?

i would never stop at the mcdonald.s or the kfc or the burger king up the hill on the way home to francis. house, but i may well stop for a dose of xurros, because even tho they.re as greasy as they can get, they.re also wonderful when they.re hot. kind of like krispy kremes.

so, another missive when i feel like it, sometime later in the week, perhaps. it hasn.t rained yet in weeks, tho it.s been raining constantly in france, over the pyrenees. perhaps i.ll have the weather to talk about next time. maybe not.


love jeanne


  1. […] missive the second – 2/5/3, barcelona, spain. […]


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