The Rain in Spain: David and Dan in Tarragona

* Cats everywhere… No cats in Barcelona. Conspiracy theories? *

Well that is certainly an interesting way to start to an account of my exploration of Cataluña. The above comment is a note I left myself some time ago – when I originally intended to write an entry on my visit to Tarragona – to ensure that I did not forget to mention the cats. The all-important cats, of all things! Take into account my previous tale of a mischievous dog and the mention of a cat absentee conspiracy, and this all starts to point toward one seriously misplaced set of priorities on my part. I do wish to make some assurances; I am not obsessed with cats. Promise. Why did I not just delete the original comment and save myself this protracted explanation? Well, I say, the people need to know the truth. They both want it and – I believe – can handle it. The very simple fact of the matter is that there were a lot of cats around in Tarragona on this particular occasion. Right, is that understood? I do hope so.

OK then, that is the cat situation covered. Consider yourselves updated. On to the real subject of today’s entry, then: my expedition to Tarragona. Prior to this trip, I had had ample opportunity to get to know the Autonomous Region of Cataluña a bit better and yet, up until that weekend with my Spanish compadre, David, I had just about fully neglected that option. However, that’s not to say that I hadn’t been enjoying myself here. I developed a fascination with kettles when I first arrived, lest we forget. So then, there we were late one Saturday afternoon, the intrepid adventurers, described as such regardless of David’s mum hailing herself from Tarragona and him having spent much time there for that very reason. Quite frankly, for David, this trip was about as much of a novelty as it would be for me if I were to pop over to Essex to visit my family in Southend. Nonetheless, he seemed excited and hopped on a train that ran along the seafront – a pleasant route – although not before I took my chance to mess something up. In a moment of pure absentmindedness and outright foolishness, I managed to first turn up at the wrong station, waiting there, shifting about anxiously as David somehow failed to appear before me outside, as we had agreed. Predictably, he had gone to the correct station and was, therefore, the one waiting for me. He can be so irresponsible like that sometimes…

With David reprimanded for his failure to remind me to go to the correct train station and then having the cheek to not even turn up at the wrong place, we were on our way to Tarragona. We sat and chatted, as friends tend to do, catching up and discussing David’s careless antics until I was served up with my first real sighting of one of Spain’s many wonders; the Spanish answer to the UK’s beloved ‘chav’: the cani. Canis, my dear friends, are quite simply incredible. Prior to my first experience of them sat on a train in Cataluña, David had on numerous occasions told me tales of their legend, showing me YouTube videos such as this:

The cani really is a sight to behold, and a social phenomenon that really lives up to the stereotype. During our journey and after pulling up at a station about halfway to our destination, our attention was quickly caught by a group of youths stepping onto the train, who – and I never normally use this expression – stank to high heaven of certain memorabilia. The carriage was instantaneously filled with thick fumes of a herbal variety and soon I could see the eyes of fellow passengers beginning to glaze over. Elderly onlookers were not best pleased, mind, visibly huffing and puffing at this outrage, crossing their chests in the fashion of a crucifix, evidently looking to have a word with the Lord Almighty to both pardon and prevent the misbehaviours of these rapscallions. As for myself, I sat in my seat in amazement as these kids of surely no more than 15, in some cases, periodically began to fulfil each and every one of the ‘Cani Criteria©’.

It was amazing. Firstly, each of them, without fail, was dressed in the appropriate attire, the sportswear so characteristic of the canis (please consult above video documentary). All of them spoke in a near incomprehensible, slang-ridden manner that had me struggling to understand a single word and had even my Spanish companion straining rather more than usual to grasp the meaning of the animated chatter. Yet another stereotype dedicatedly adhered to: their choice of listening material, projected from mobile phone speakers for added quality and enjoyment. The ‘music’ they played can quite accurately be described as some of the worst known to man. It was brilliantly awful, delightfully terrible. ‘ElectroPop EuroGarage’, you might call it, but you’d most likely be wrong. You simply had to sit back and smile at the thought of their musical taste. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they were all clearly high as kites!

Onlookers sat back, passively inhaling the haze, looking disgruntled and yet, somehow coming eventually to feel decidedly more comfortable in the company of their younger peers. The heavily observed group of youngers was not aware of its majesty, of course, but these guys and girls were proving to not only provide me with my first experience of their legendary urban myth of a kind, but also an education. They were fascinating to observe. David Attenborough, as I have it according to my most reliable of sources, has recently spent considerable time in Spain pursuing footage for a new BBC documentary based unquestionably on the cani. They deserved all the screen time available to mankind ever. I really can’t recommend highly enough taking some time out in your busy lives to travel to Spain with the specific task in mind of observing this mysterious bunch. It is quite the experience.

Most disappointingly and altogether too quickly, our time with the canis did eventually draw to a close, with both David and I utterly enchanted. He seemed to have enjoyed the encounter nearly as much as I did. Not quite, though. Mere moments after bidding farewell to our social unicorns, with the both of us still reeling with delight at our recent sighting, we were in Tarragona. There, we were met by some blustery winds and the mission of finding our hostel for the evening. Leaving the station in our wake, we strolled off into the night. Now, I must highlight at this point that I regard myself as something of a rookie when it comes to staying in hostels. I have yet to dabble in a touch of inter-railing or something equally cool and so my experience with hostel stays is limited, at best. Thus, as David and I stood at a turning that led down a dark and narrow alley, along which he insisted our room for the night was to be found, I was sceptical and wary. The scene was quite frankly sinister. There was great potential for us, along this alleyway, to be assaulted, molested, robbed or killed, and probably even all of the above. We decided to tread with caution.

Now, I invite you to consider that I have watched and enjoyed many of the films of the Wrong Turn franchise. Typically in these ridiculously written ‘slasher’ films, the cast ensemble consists of a group of less than 10 and, by and large, there is only one lone survivor who remains at the end. The critical juncture in the case of each and every Wrong Turn film is, predictably, a crossroads or a fork in the road, one route leading to the guarantee of safety, and the other, to inbred cannibalistic hillbillies with a thirst for 20-something-year-old blood. Guess which route is always picked. So, with our party consisting of two on this dark and windy night in Tarragona, I ranked both David’s survival chances and mine as unfavourable, based on my viewings of Wrong Turns 1-5. Yet, as the naïve cast members always do, we ventured down this poorly lit path full of bad omens and suspense. The mood was not improved much as we reached what appeared to be an abandoned reception at the end of the alley. We opened the door and rang the bell. No response. We rang again. Nothing. I knew then that the time had come for my untimely demise via some poorly executed hacking of an axe from a bloodthirsty lunatic. I stepped outside to see if anyone was around – a rookie error by all accounts in such horror flicks. We had split up. As I waited in the courtyard, my eye was caught by what turned out to be a group of black kittens, the four of them huddled around something that seemed tasty as they all crouched together, gnawing away at an unknown object. It was probably David’s little finger by now, given that we had been apart for all of a minute and, if I was still alive, then surely the same could not be said of him at that point. Unnerved by the tiny felines, I stepped back inside.

Our prospects for the evening

Our prospects for the evening

As it turns out, we were not to be cast members of a gritty horror that night, as we did indeed survive without so much as an ordeal. David was alive and unharmed and a normal-looking man soon came and greeted us at the reception desk, handing us our room key and wishing us a pleasant stay. I did for a moment though, I must admit, make eye contact with the man in question to check for signs of depravity or murderous tendencies. Thankfully, there were none. Nothing doing. So with that, we dropped off our stuff and headed out for an evening of heavy drinking at, among others, a bar furnished inexplicably with furniture on the ceiling; a dinner of pinchos; and the company of a gay, naturalised Spanish Ukrainian man, his Argentine-Italian boyfriend and girlfriends of theirs who looked impossibly old in spite of their ages of 18 and 15(!) respectively. It was a fun night, indeed. We returned to the hostel, caring decidedly less about the sinister feel to the place, and agreed to set up with the sightseeing in the morning.

Early afternoon came. With our eyes bleary and heads aching somewhat, we stepped out into the light of day and slight drizzle of rain, found ourselves a restaurant and proceeded to enjoy a [candle-lit (lacking in candles, I just wanted to emphasise the ‘bromance’)] three-course lunch. I say enjoy, when really I mean endure. The fallen soldiers were suffering slightly from the night before. But that did not dampen our spirits. We were determined to the see the sights of Tarragona and nothing would stop us in our quest to do so. Nothing, that is, apart from the weather, which had taken something of a turn for the worst. It was bucketing it down with rain. Yet, dear readers, did this prompt us to call it a day before it had even begun? Did I lead us to thoughts of ‘oh well’ or ‘better luck next time’? No it did not. Bravely, we stepped out in to the falling water – the most dangerous of substances – and began our day of damp sightseeing.

Were it not for the rain, it would have been an excellent day. As it was, it was an amusingly different one. The streets emptied as the rain continued to pour, leaving David and I the town to ourselves. Onwards we walked, refusing to admit defeat at the hands of some precipitation. As it just so happens, Tarragona is a really nice little town; very picturesque and very Roman. David, being the well-read individual that he is, proved an excellent tour guide as we passed Tarragona’s port – which, according to David, often has moored one of the many yachts in the fleet of one Roman Abramovich – the amphitheatre and the cathedral basilica, all of which were simply charming. After all of this, we were absolutely soaked through. Dryness soon became a distant and abstract concept, illustrated as follows:

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Indeed, there would have been glasses of water dryer than us on this rainy Sunday afternoon! Yet, on we went, still refusing to give in to the conditions until finally, David asked me if I wanted to get a churro, to which I replied that I most certainly did. Sat dripping in a café, and by that I mean dripping, as small puddles formed around the arms of our coats, we ended up ordering chocolate waffles and generally loving life for being out of the rain. Thankfully, as we made our way back to the train station, it subsided slightly and we were able to begin the drying-off process that would prove to take some days to be completed. The funny thing is that I’m not even exaggerating slightly when I say that. Nevertheless, as we sat speeding towards Barcelona, cold, tired and oh so very wet, we sat and laughed at what had been a great trip in Cataluña. So now we know, readers, the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plane. Rather, it falls mainly in a small Catalan town named Tarragona.

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Castelles – a statue of Catalan tradition

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Freight ships sailing out from the Tarragona port. Still no sight of Abramovich – updates to come.

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The Exclusive Account of a Fish Monger-Turned-Contraband Smuggler Pt. I

Dearest friends, I have a tale to tell. A tale relating to my stay in Switzerland this weekend gone. A tale of crime; a tale of intrigue; a tale… of seafood.

Allow me, if you will, to set the scene: Switzerland is a country with which I have become increasingly familiar over the past few months given that Basel is the city – a Swiss city, at that – in which my father resides and a place which I have visited various times for that reason. That, and I do quite like it there, just as I predicted I might prior to my first trip. The Swiss, as a people, seem to trundle along quite nicely in their lives, without even so much as a sniff of political scandal, for example, or a national crisis thrown in for good measure. MPs making trivial expenses claims at the cost of the honest tax-payers? Government officials accused of scandalous behaviours or corruption? The banking sector plunging the nation into dire economic straits? No, none of that, thank you. I mean, come on, this is Switzerland after all. They just all seem to be OK and they’re OK with that (obviously). But – as in all places, there is a ‘but’ – one shortcoming which my dear, old Dad has been quick to pick up on with regard to his new home is a distinct lack of supply in a particularly important area. You readers may, as well-read and learned individuals, have the thought occur to you upon reading this that, perhaps, Switzerland lacks oil reserves. Perhaps gas might be the issue, since, as we all know, these are the fuels which make the world go round. These, and of course, smiles… But no bother. The Swiss are quite fortcoming with their supply of the latter and the fuels are imported without too much trouble. So, what then, might be the commodity which they are lacking so badly? Well, as the title suggests, as does the fact that Switzerland is a landlocked country, it just so happens to be fish.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that one can purchase a fish in Switzerland. I actually have it on good authority (read as: my dad) that it can be done. In fact, coming to think of it, I have even seen somebody with my own eyes do it in a supermarket (a sight to behold if there ever was one). However, the problem for fans of fish such as my dad is that it is most difficult to get your hands on a nice, fresh bit of fishy produce. Most unfortunately, fresh fish is just not readily available in Swiss lands. I have said the word ‘fish’ quite a bit in this paragraph. Anyway, with his beloved and only son residing in Barcelona, as I do for the time being, Dad requested that I bring him some fresh bluefin tuna over from La Boquería. Importantly, he reminded me, I would need to ask for said tuna to be vacuum-packed so as not to ruin the rest of my luggage with the tuna-ish(??) odours. If anything, the vacuum-packing of the tuna was almost a more vital aspect of the transaction than the tuna itself. With that in mind, what happened when it came down to me standing across a counter in Barcelona’s most famous of markets, pointing at the tuna steaks which I so desired, can hardly come as a surprise.

That’s right, I failed. I bought my tuna steaks – all 2 kilograms of them, served to me in 2 slabs – only to ask after the euros had exchanged hands that they vacuum pack my produce for me. Some would say a rookie error, others, desperately unlucky. I count myself as a member of the school of the latter; it just so happened that, of all the fish stalls in La Boquería – of which there are many – the one from which I bought the tuna was one of an overwhelming minority which was unequipped with the appropriate machine to be able to carry out the vacuum-packing… My heart sank. Well, maybe not to Titanic levels of sinking but, using the sinking boat analogy, it would definitely have resembled a small dinghy which had taken on a fair bit of water. So, there I was, stood in the depths of the famous Barcelona market with a green plastic bag in hand, filled to the brim with two hefty fillets of tuna, hatching my next plan of action. I wondered around numerous stalls like a lost schoolboy looking for his mummy, with blind hope in my eyes. Hope that someone, somewhere might find it out of the kindness of their heart to vacuum-pack my fish. Off I went to start my strange conversations with the various vendors behind the counters of their stalls, which, by and large, went a little something like this:

Vacuum-pack my fish?” “No.”

This was a brief and blunt dialogue which took place all too often for my liking and soon prompted me to call it a night. I was on my own. I, the fish monger with a grand total of zero fish-mongering experience, would have to devise a way for the chunky slabs of tuna to be packed and shipped over to Switzerland in an appropriate fashion. This, I knew, would be no easy task. Imagine the loss at which I found myself as I walked along La Rambla, wondering what on earth I was going to do with my non-vacuum-packed fish.

Imagine two of these bad boys, each bigger than this

Imagine two of these bad boys, each bigger than this, sat on my kitchen table, presenting me problems

Fumbling with my keys as I stood at my front door, I knew that I would have to find a knife in the flat, sharp enough to slice up these sturdy steaks. I was, at that point, not optimistic. But, my heart – the same heart that had sunk moderately at the fish stall in La Boquería – leapt for joy as I found a triumphant looking utensil which, until this very moment, I had never before seen in my kitchen which would be perfect for the job. With the tuna steaks sprawled across the kitchen table, juices messing up the place and smells permeating the entire flat, my career as a fish monger began in earnest. I got to the chopping and practically doused the surfaces of the kitchen, as well as my body, with tuna juice. At first, I must admit, it was a struggle. I was out of my depth but, as time passed and I honed my skills, the process became increasingly simple and remained consistently fishy throughout. An interesting experience, indeed. My evening was spent entirely by chopping up tuna and employing copious volumes of cling film but, finally, I had amended my earlier failures and had now become an amateur/semi-professional fish monger. Now all I had to do was get my newly wrapped tuna to Switzerland…

Dan Becomes a Learned Fellow

Hola amigos! It’s been a while. Have you lost weight?

Before I get this entry up and running, allow me to address the elephant in the room which is my outright lack of words posted to the blog in recent times. I appreciate, firstly and most likely, that many of you don’t care all that much and, secondly, that your lives do not revolve around what is written in an unimportant account of one student’s life in Barcelona. However, knowing some of you as I do, I can only hazard the guess that, since you have not heard from me in many weeks via my bloggy musings, you must have assumed that I am, a) M.I.A. or, b) dead (probably the latter, let’s be honest). However, I can happily report that I am very much alive and that my excuse to you all for my recent lack of ramblings is that I have actually dedicated myself wholeheartedly (perhaps 3/4-heartedly) to my job of late.

Indeed, over the past month or so, I have knuckled down and become nothing less than a scholar in the field of American healthcare. I may be throwing the term ‘scholar’ around quite freely there… Notwithstanding, for all those of you out there who are genuinely fascinated by the U.S. health care system – its shortcomings (in abundance) or its surprisingly promising initiatives (which do exist) – and are yet baffled, frustratingly so, by the colossal complication that is the entire system: please, look no further. For I, Dan, the one who once so whimsically claimed to not have the slightest idea of what he was doing at work, have learned things. I have grasped a basic and, dare I say it, decent understanding of just exactly what is going on in health care administration on the other side of the pond. Now, with terms such as ‘Integrated Patient Units’, ‘scope-of-practice laws’ and ‘bundled payments’ to be boasted in my arsenal, I possess a long [scholarly] list to reel off to any passers-by who will kindly spare me the time of day.

The problem, as I have always known and fully appreciated, is this: who really cares about any of the things that I have learnt? Needless to say, I applaud each and every effort, wherever it might be made, to improve health care, a subject which I have now read about extensively. But I will be the first to raise my hands and admit that my newfound subject of expertise is hardly a great one for capturing the imagination. Nevertheless, I do have a great idea for an advertisement to get your pulses absolutely racing, which goes as follows: “Are you troubled by your lack of understanding of a health care system which has little to no effect on your daily life? Do you desperately need to learn more? Are you convinced that your only feasible option to better yourself is to ingest truckloads of information about American healthcare? If so then, boy, do I have the guy for you: Daniel Watson!”

In all honesty, I do my work an injustice by writing so snidely about it (‘snide’ being the tone which I have found, worryingly, to come most naturally to me). It is meaningful work I am doing here and I am very much enjoying myself doing it, despite my best efforts to make you believe otherwise. I have been dubbed, affectionately so, as ‘El Consentido’ by my colleagues which roughly translates to ‘The Spoilt One’ and I have even taken a step closer to fame during my time at IGS:

A number of weeks ago, I was given the responsibility of narrating an introductory Institute video into English. Hailing from the blustery shores of the UK, as I do, I have become something of a prized asset in the office, given my superior handle of the English language amongst all of us (groundbreaking news, I know). With my impressive skill just about mastered over the years, I was quickly entrusted with this narrative task and subsequently met with the appropriate powers that be to get the production of my narration underway. Feeling like an artist who recently had signed a multimillion pound contract to a world-renowned record label as I was led through the doors of a fancy studio, I sat down, put on my headphones and let the magic commence.

No sooner had I finished up the recording than my colleague informed me that my predecessor in this very studio had been something of a celebrity. In this room full of expensive equipment and the expectation of the masses lay the echoes of the stars who had generously graced it with their presence, my own now to be included to the illustrious ensemble. He who sat in the chair (read as: throne) before myself, I was told, was kind of a big deal. This was no ordinary man. This was a man whose legend needed no introduction for it was none other than Pepe Mediavilla. The one, the only, Mediavilla; Spanish voice actor responsible for the dubbing of many works of one Morgan Freeman and the not insignificant roles of Mr. Spock from Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings’ very own loveable wizard, Gandalf. I was preceded by the Spanish voice of Gandalf, bitches! I know you’re all thinking it, but I’ll say it anyway: I had reached the big time.

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My predecessor, Mediavilla

Here’s the great man at work with the classic line, “You shall not pass!” (No puedes pasar!):

So Pepe Mediavilla, eh…? His were the standards which I was expected to live up to. Thankfully, following my day’s work in the studio, I was informed by the very same, very likeable colleague who had told me about Mediavilla in the first place, that not only did I have a very ‘commercial’ voice but also that, with this commercial voice of mine, I could very well pass for a German(?!). I have no idea how that second compliment – if I can even describe it as such – ties in to what we were trying to achieve, but suffice it to say that, prior to that moment, I had been blissfully unaware of any notion that my voice could somehow resemble that of a German… You live and learn, I suppose. And with that old adage in mind, what I can report to have learnt from this experience is that I am but a few steps away from becoming the German answer to the popular and bearded wizard from Middle Earth, despite having no prior knowledge of magic and a fairly unwavering certainty that I am, in no way, a German person… Seems legit.

Further to my pursuit of fame and scholarly development, I am also becoming quite the well-travelled fellow. My struggles with the concept of flying remain forever strong, yet surmountable, as I have learnt with ongoing practice. Next weekend, I once again make my way to Basel, Switzerland to catch up with the old man and, but a few short weeks ago, I was spending a very pleasant weekend in Bristol with Abby to celebrate her 21st birthday. She seemed pleased to see me when I arrived, which is always an encouragement, and I remain fond of her myself. Upon my arrival in Bristol, and with me revelling in my new circumstances of once again being on land, we drove off into the night to have ourselves a ball of a time for a few short days. I returned to Spain all too soon, but I was grateful for the time spent with Abby and catching up with friends in Bristol who were doing their best to forget about me. Back in Spain, I was more than happy to be in a more Mediterranean (read as: acceptable) climate. My God, it is cold in Bristol (something which I had quickly forgotten)! Furthermore, on the day of my return, I had the great excitement of the match to be played between Manchester City and Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium to look forward to, a daunting game for Chelsea fans worldwide. Deliciously, Mourinho masterminded a great win for Chelsea, I screamed like a little girl to my heart’s content and the boys in blue have been going strong ever since.

And so here I am now, sat at my desk with my thoughts fixed firmly upon the day in which I have a grand library built into my home, filled with leatherbound books and stylish refinement throughout. Maybe I’ll buy myself a tiger, just like Mike Tyson did. Maybe I’ll keep my tiger in my library. So many possibilities… I think I’m letting this learned, well-travelled and famous idea run ahead of me, or maybe I’m not letting it run far enough. What I do know is this: I have learnt a thing or two since I first arrived in Spain, I enjoy every minute of it and I am determined to get back on to the righteous path of blogging. Looks like I have work to do yet… Hasta luego, people.

A Broken Promise: Dan Returns to Switzerland

Yes, good readers, I am making my grand return to the least aligned of all places in the known world, and indeed, human history. Switzerland shall be welcoming me once again with open arms tomorrow evening. Herein lies my broken promise: a matter of a few short weeks ago, I was experiencing Basel, the tranquil Swiss city in which my padre resides, for the first time. During my stay, I drank beers aplenty with him and my boy, Phil, who had flown over from London. Phillis, the name by which many know him, including myself, took quite nicely to Switzerland, as I felt I did too. On a side note, he is fully aware that ‘Phyllis’ is, in fact, the correct spelling of his chosen name technically, but equally feels the need to distance himself from association with the stereotypical old lady who goes by the same moniker, sat at home in a poorly upholstered armchair, sipping her Earl Grey tea from a china mug, surrounded by her 28 cats who provide her with her sole company. By the end of our trip to Basel, Phillis (spelt with an ‘i’) and I made the promise to each other to never again return to the nation of Switzerland, for reasons that shall soon be made known to you. Phil, all I can say is that I’m deeply sorry for what I am about to do: I am about to break that promise. I am about to go back to Switzerland…

My friend, who is not and never will be a cat lady (he hopes), and I, as a duo shared the purpose of the trip to Swiss lands; to venture to Sankt Jakob-Park, the home ground of FC Basel to watch the home side take on the mighty Chelsea, that team in blue which remains forever closest to our hearts, in the Champions League. Of course, my primary goal in Switzerland as a lone traveller and son, was to visit my daddy-kins. A goal which I accomplished with aplomb, might I add. Funnily enough, the language employed between myself and my taxi driver upon my arrival in Basel airport was Spanish given that my knowledge of the German language stands at the impressive total of ‘fuck all’! Thankfully, this helpful fellow, hailing originally from Algeria, boasted a passable level of Spanish in his arsenal, occasionally confused with Italian, which I ever so generously overlooked as I was truly glad of his ability to determine my destination in this unknown city. Of course, I would have simply pointed to a written address on a smartphone screen if I had simply had said address documented somewhere that day, which, as you have probably ascertained by now, I did not. Technology, namely texting services, failed me on this cold evening. I digress… I shall, however, be mentioning the cold again shortly.

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The time spent with mein vater (check that out, I wrote something in German!) was short and sweet, for he had to jet off to Nottingham for work a few days after my arrival in Basel. We shared glasses of port and juice (on separate occasions), the latter of course blended by our fair hands, he showed me his technologically kitted-up flat, around the city, what to do, what to see, and by the time Phil was due to arrive, I felt that my dad’s Basel orientation class had served me well. At the city train station I picked up my trusty companion who had inexplicably decided against travelling to Switzerland without a coat (a truly foolish decision). After a dinner of pints of lager and pretzels and a night of spooning Phil on a sofa bed in my dad’s living room, not out of choice I hasten to add, he and I were left to our own devices in Basel. We scarcely ventured outside, due to the subzero temperatures on offer in the great outdoors, other than to frequent local bars and, on one snowy evening, for Phil to happen upon a water fountain into which he wisely opted to dunk his face and, moments later, a nipple (don’t ask). Strolling tipsy through the quiet streets of Basel proved quite enjoyable, as it is an attractive place to visit, despite the bitter cold which plagues the city at this time of year. For example, views of the Rhine are rather nice at night:

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A word on this cold: it is really is freezing. Literally. Below freezing, in fact. And without any of the sweet nectar we commonly know as lip balm at hand during my stay, my face did suffer severely. With temperatures reaching lows of -4ºC on the night of this European football match, I cannot remember a time when I have been colder, other than perhaps atop an almost 20,000ft mountain in Africa – that was just obscenely frosty – but at least then I had the appropriate attire to combat such conditions. I hold it on good authority, too, that these kind of winter temperatures are typically considered as mild. MILD! Winter has apparently yet to truly arrive… Interesting, to say the least. Sat freezing my nuts off, so to speak, I would have surely perished had I spent much longer in FC Basel’s stadium, which to the befuddlement of myself and my friend seemed to be a shopping center that, perhaps by chance, happened to contain a football pitch within. Exaggerating, I am not. Pop in for a bit of Christmas shopping in this neighbourhood of Basel, buy yourself a nice wooly scarf and ‘Hey, while you’re at it, why not come and watch this match, happening right here, right now?!’ It’s quite fun, really. That is, apart from this spiteful cold which did seem to actively want to damage me so.

By this point of my thrilling tale of Basel, you must be wondering why Phil and I would decide to make the extreme commitment to never return to Switzerland. Before you begin to frantically ponder what atrocities we could have been subjected to that would provoke this reaction, let me assure you that this was a decision made purely for footballing reasons. For indeed, Chelsea lost. The loss we can reluctantly accept through gritted teeth, but it is the manner in which Chelsea lost which troubled us. On this bitterly cold evening (I think I have conveyed that it was cold, right?), Chelsea could not muster a single chance on goal. They did not shoot once! For much of the game, Chelsea played on the back foot, with Basel enjoying a home advantage boosted by admittedly excellent home support; these people do like their time over there.

In what turned out to be a fairly uneventful game, we had a fantastic view of the pitch sat practically next to the pitch, opposite the centre circle, thanks to the ample generosity of my dear father (Danke schön, vater – look, I’m at it again!). Bravely, we sat amongst the passionate and vocal Basel fans, and to our utter delight, Chelsea posed absolutely no threat to the Basel defence! Oh well, at least we had the consolation of seeing Chelsea qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament and, far more importantly, making our first TV appearance on Sky Sports (woop!), according to friends sat watching the game at home, looking cold and most likely disgruntled due to the evening’s proceedings. As minutes of play passed, Phil and I began to notice that not only did Chelsea look unlikely to score on this particular occasion, but they looked unlikely even to create chances. Not just chances, at that. Chances to shoot. And so comes half-time. No shots registered. No worries, we’ll surely step up the tempo in the second half. The game proceeds. Said stepping up of said tempo does not materialise. 75 minutes pass of minimal attacking threat from the boys in blue and it quickly dawns on the two of us that Chelsea are simply not destined to score tonight. We begin to hope for a shot on goal. Just a shot, one teency shot, anything on target. Sod it! Off target will do. Just something. Please. Clearly, this was too much to ask as Chelsea responded to our wishes for an attack on goal by conceding one of their own, clocked at the 87th minute, which was successfully converted by Basel’s Egyptian winger, Mohamed Salah (a very good player), as he dinked the ball over the Chelsea keepr, Petr Cech. Good! They lost the game and with that, so too did Phil and I lose the opportunity to see a Chelsea player kick the ball on target, between the posts of the Basel goal. 

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Another brave Chelsea comrade sat in front

 

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Great home support

Strolling home in the freezing cold (I’m sure I must have mentioned that it was cold at some point!), we began to theorise that maybe the reason for Chelsea’s failure to shoot was that the manager, Mourinho, had actually instructed his players not to, as shots on target could result in goals, and goals could result in wins. And Chelsea would not want that. Either that or it was simply someone’s fault. We needed a scapegoat. Naturally, we soon landed on Switzerland. Of course! It was all Switzerland’s fault. Thus, we completely rationally and fairly agreed that if Chelsea had lost because of Switzerland, as clearly they had, then we simply had to boycott this country forever… On my part, this boycott has lasted all of a few weeks (sorry, Phil) as I recently booked another flight to visit my dad again this weekend, to be accompanied by my sister and for the three of us to celebrate Christmas together early. Phil’s efforts against the most neutral of nations remain successful. It goes without saying that for me to return to Basel, this once again means flying, which I am slowing coming to accept is quite a safe way to get around. Quite safe. I am yet to be fully convinced. My good friend, irrationality, reminds me that I am probably still doomed. Thanks buddy!

So, with my betrayal of Phil executed and my promise to him lying in tatters, onwards I march to Christmas in Basel.

Dan Faces Imminent Doom

As the title suggests, I am doomed. Why? Because I’m going to Basel on Friday. Now, before you begin to wonder what I could possibly have against the city or, indeed, against the nation of Switzerland, that could prompt me to fearfully anticipate my impending doom, let me announce that I have no qualms with the most neutral country of all time. I have never been to Switzerland before, and I imagine it’s quite nice over there. I should be able to let you know what I think of the city of Basel when I arrive. So how exactly is it that I’m experiencing this sense of impending doom? I’ll tell you how: by knowing that, on Friday, I will be boarding an aeroplane and, soon after that, said vessel shall be flying. And that is why I am doomed.

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Dan thinks about flying

As we have established in the past, I do not much care for flying. I would go as far as to say that I actively dislike it. It frightens me. Yet, as scared as I am, I know and fully appreciate just how irrational my fear is, but that changes nothing. When the subject of the fear of flying comes up in any context, people are quick to cite statistics which show that driving is far more dangerous than flying, and that people rarely worry about getting in their cars. This argument makes complete sense to me, I invariably agree with what they are saying. I know that cars are more dangerous vehicles than planes. But does that change the way I think when I set foot in an airport? Not one jot. Statistics mean nothing when faced with such irrationality as being afraid of flying. I will forever be one those desperately unlucky individuals who happen to be on that plane that, some day, somewhere, has a problem. I am convinced of this every time I fly, this Friday included. Yet, well aware of my irrational thoughts and just how improbable it is that they become a reality (namely that the plane will crash), I know that I will arrive in Switzerland on Friday unscathed… Me and my contradictory thoughts. Oh brain of mine, why do you do this to me?

Anyway, I am off to Basel this weekend primarily to visit my Dad, who recently moved over to Switzerland for his new job. He seems to get along fairly well there so I imagine I will very much like it myself. Joining us in Switzerland shall be my dear friend, Phil, which also happens to be my Dad’s name. Crazy, right? He will also be flying out (safely at that) to Switzerland because this coming week is when the group stages of the UEFA Champions League reconvene. Phil and I are both Chelsea fans, his family, my second family, have blue blood, and this year Chelsea were drawn in the same group as FC Basel in the Champions League. Next Tuesday, Chelsea are playing Basel away, at the Swiss team’s home ground, St Jakob Park. Conveniently, Phil and I will be in Basel, so we thought it best that we go to the game. What a coincidence! In fact what really happened is that out of the kindness of his heart, my Daddy-kins ever so generously bought two tickets for the game in Switzerland and thus my trip to visit him was planned around this important match. Cue Phil flying out from London to go to the game with yours truly… Chelsea had better not ruin our whole trip by losing, as they annoyingly did in the return leg, at Stamford Bridge of all places. A Chelsea side losing at home under Jose Mourinho? I see a pig flying past my window.

So here I am, sat in the living room of my flat in Barcelona, writing and thinking dark thoughts about the doom which is surely upon me and, simultaneously, about just how ridiculous I am for being nervous about my flight on Friday. How ironic it would be if there actually were an incident on Friday. Better not to even entertain such ridiculous thoughts, as they are unfounded and will only multiply in my mind until, on the day, I am left, curled in the foetal position in the corner of a Spanish airport, whispering ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home’ frantically to myself. I imagine I will be just fine. But until that time that the plane lands securely on Swiss soil, I will know for sure that I am irrevocably doomed.

Turning to the Dark Side: A Weekend in Madrid

Three weeks ago, I turned to the Dark Side.

Despite standing in good stead on the noble path of the Jedi (read as: Catalans) in Barcelona, I did the unthinkable last month and embarked on a journey not dissimilar to that of Anakin Skywalker (a.k.a. Darth Vader), towards becoming a Sith Lord… Darth Daniel… Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, but I’ve started this post with a good number of Star Wars references, so I’ll continue as such for the time being. ‘How exactly did you turn to the Dark Side?’, you may ask. More likely the case that the title of this post has completely given that away, as indeed, I did go to Madrid a while ago to spend a weekend with my Dad and my sister. Assuming, as I am for the purposes of this blog entry, that the Catalans represent the Jedi in this Star Wars setting and the madrileños, (i.e. citizens of Madrid) the Sith, then I did just about the worst thing that I possibly could, venturing to Madrid, towards the Dark Side. A cardinal sin; the one big no-no that the Jedi are meant to avoid at all costs. From the Catalan point of view, Madrid is bad. From the Jedi point of view, the Sith are bad. I suppose it works, more or less.

The convenient and albeit biased comparison to be made between citizens of Cataluña and Madrid was part of the reason for me mentioning Star Wars today, but my real inspiration originates from my initial journey from Barcelona to Madrid: I had a train to catch and I missed it. Did I not leave myself enough time? Was I running late? Was I even vaguely concerned about the prospect of missing my train? No, no and no again. On a sunny Friday afternoon, upon reaching Sants Estació and a queue therein that, as an Englishman, caused me to despair (it was a full circle, snaking round the entire waiting area, with the end of the line starting where the front finished, at the ticket desks), I was feeling relaxed in spite of this flagrant lack of queuing prowess. With a good 25 minutes to spare before the train was due to leave, I hadn’t a care in the world. 20 minutes passed. No movement. Slightly more concerned, but soon thankfully passengers began to be let through to board the train.

But here began my strife. No sooner had I arrived at the ticket desk than I was turned away on the grounds that I had bought a young persons’ ticket (which allegedly I was not entitled to purchase) and needed to pay the difference between the price of this ticket and that of a standard fare… Most infuriatingly, having bought them online, I had seen on numerous occasion during my purchase that there was NO difference between the price of these tickets. Did I make this point repeatedly to the station’s staff? Absolutely. Did that fly with them at all? Of course it bloody didn’t. My complaints were met with blank expressions and resolute stubbornness in their refusal to accept that what I was saying was true. In sum, they made me miss my train and didn’t seem to care too much about it.

This incident, my friends, provided me with the inspiration to loosely base this post on my trip to Madrid on the iconic Star Wars franchise. Cast your minds back to the classic 1977 film, ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’, to one of the first demonstrations of The Force at work, and all shall become clear. On the planet Tatoine, Jedi Master Ben Kenobi, accompanied by one Luke Skywalker and his two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, is held up by some meddling Stormtroopers. At this juncture, Master Kenobi uses the Force to subject them to mind control, allowing himself and the crew to pass freely. Oh how badly I needed his skills in Barcelona on this particular afternoon, confronted with this uncooperative staff! This is the fancy mind trick from Obi Wan which I’m referring to (3:00-3:45):

A quick wave of the hand and the utterance of a few words to be repeated by my subjects were exactly what I yearned for in face of this adversity. Manipulating the mind of one outrageously unhelpful man, the staff supervisor, would have provided me with much satisfaction after he all but offered me a giant ‘F you!’ as he ushered me out of the queue, helpfully reminding me on the way that if I didn’t get a move on I’d miss the train, which I subsequently did… Hijo de puta. His sarcastic comment of ‘Better luck next time!’ twisted the lightsaber in an already fresh and open wound, and stirred much hatred within me. Yoda would surely become deeply disturbed upon learning this.

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Perturbed

Alas, I have yet to master the ways of the Force and his mind was left unaltered. My time will come, of that I’m sure… Two hours of waiting around in the train station followed but, after a surprisingly pleasant train journey, I finally made it to Madrid to pursue my new life as a Sith, to the despair of my fellow Catalan Jedi I was leaving behind.

Much venting occurred when I first met up with Dad and Emm, as I was one stressed guy upon my arrival. I’m normally a fairly relaxed person and so this new Dan, effing and blinding til the cows came home, both surprised and amused the other two, who didn’t quite know what to make of all my new-found stress! We marched over to El Mercado de San Antón, a cool multi-storey food market, where Dad promptly ordered beers for the three of us (or rather, Emm did, as she speaks her fair bit of Spanish too, dontcha know) as we sat down on a quaint roof terrace, full to the brim with socialite-looking folk, and where I began to calm down a bit. I had arrived 2 hours late, but the important thing was that I had indeed arrived. We enjoyed a late dinner, during which time Dad attempted to enlist my services to flirt with the clearly gay restaurant host to ensure that we received quick service from the waiting staff. A father trying to pimp out his one and only son… I didn’t oblige his request but we did enjoy a very nice meal together regardless (good service and all). After that, it was back to the Hotel Preciados for some well earned rest.

The following morning, at breakfast in a nearby cafe, I was formerly dubbed by my dad as the “Navigabado” (using his Spanglish to the best of his knowledge) for the weekend. Essentially, as I had been to Madrid before and spoke Spanish, I was the best equipped of the three of us to play the role of guide since the other two had never stepped foot in the Spanish capital. I did make the point that I had myself only been here once before, for just a weekend at that, but my protest fell on deaf ears. I was the Navigabado and that was final. I guess if I never make it as a Jedi Master, or rather, a Sith Lord, in light of my recent betrayal against my Catalan comrades, then I’ll at least have this as a consolation. And so my role of guide began…

Tourists through and through, we made our way around the famous sites of Madrid: La Plaza Mayor, El Palacio Real, La Catedral Almudena… I took a few pictures as we went:

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View of el Palacio Real

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Generic street – skilled photographer…

Furthermore, as is customary in the presence of my dear sis, we had to fit in some shopping during the weekend. Such a competent shopper is she, that when my dad entrusted us with his credit card for the afternoon, I feared for the health of his bank account. I say that, but I capitalised on the generosity of my padre just as much as she did and bought myself a new jacket. I left her to it after a while to go and watch Chelsea beat Cardiff 4-1, a result which pleased me. Hours later, Emm returned with not too much to show for her time spent shopping. She actively seems to enjoy it even if it doesn’t necessarily entail buying too much. A modern mystery. Soon after that, we were out the door again, heading to another food market called El Mercado San Miguel, next to La Plaza Mayor, which we all enjoyed greatly, ordering small plates of chipirones and croquetas, and glasses of dry sherry. Very nice indeed. After dinner we went in search of the mojitos served in the bar of the hotel where I had previously stayed during my first visit to Madrid with Abby, which was coincidentally across the road from our hotel. Predictably, the mojitos were delicious and we left feeling highly satisfied.

The following day was to be something of a cultural awakening for yours truly. For all intents and purposes, I am a cultural heathen when it comes to the appreciation of art. By and large, art doesn’t do much for me. Yet, in the city which is home to one of the most impressive and important art galleries in Europe, el Museo de Prado, I thought it best for the sake of my artistic sibling that we go. So off we went, first stopping off at the nearby Puerta de Alcalá:

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Strolling around countless exhibition rooms, such is the size of the gallery, Dad and I held our hands behind our back, sporting inquistive facial expressions in order to blend in with sophisticated art lovers. I quietly appreciated paintings from extremely famous artists whose names did not ring many bells for me, but not to any great extent. And then it happened… I came across one particular painting depicting a Roman naval battle being spectated in the background by a large audience housed in a Colosseum. The artist’s name escapes me (much to my annoyance) but, more importantly, this piece of work caused me to actively stop in my tracks and to have an emotional reaction. How did I respond to this unfamiliar feeling?:

So I guess I’m an art enthusiast now. An art enthusiast and a Sith, just from being in Madrid for a few days. Not bad. I’m even getting to grips with my use of the Force too… After saying my goodbyes to Dad and Emm on Sunday afternoon, I headed to the train station to see what troubles awaited me this time. To my pleasant surprise, I found no such troubles in passing security and hopped on to one of those moving walkways – the ones you typically get in train stations and airports – in good spirits. Until, that was, those in front of me abruptly began backing up for unknown reasons. It then soon became apparent that an elderly lady had run into considerable problems up ahead, as there she was, lying flat on her back and being carried along by the conveyor, at the end of which she got completely and hopelessly stuck. Being carried towards her myself by the conveyor, a collision between my feet and her head seemed inevitable. At the precise moment that I was practically stood over this poor woman, I was forced to hurdle her to avoid such a trampling whilst simultaneously grabbing frantically at another senior woman beside me who was in the process of losing her balance and about to fall directly on top of her prone companion. It was a slapstick moment and crisis was averted as I successfully caught hold of the falling woman whilst narrowly avoiding her friend on the floor, all the while using the Force, of course. This woman in question who had first fallen and had consequently sent luggage flying in the process was thankfully unharmed. A bit shaken up as she was helped up by concerned passengers, but alright… thanks in no small part to my mastery of the Force. We all safely made it on to the train and I spent the majority of the journey home, funnily enough sat next to a Catalan priest (read as: Jedi Master), thinking of all my excuses to get back into the good graces of those dear old Catalan Jedi.

‘Twas a good weekend.

Look how much fun I had

Look how much fun I had!

The Day Spain Gave Dan a Fine…

Today was a good day.

I started work early this morning only to find, to my surprise, that one of my former colleagues from my previous work experience in Barcelona had hopped ship to the International University of Catalonia (UIC) where I too am destined to spend my year working. I rejoiced (she is really nice lady).

Yet, prior to this pleasantly surprising moment at the university, I was feeling glum. ‘Why?’, you may ask. Because, my friends… today was the first day that Spain was mean to me. Call it a minor falling out, remedied only by a friendly Catalan lady with whom I had previously worked…. Today, Spain fined me, resulting from a train journey, no less! After dedicating practically an entire blog entry to gushing relentlessly about Barcelona’s fantastic public transport networks; the thanks I get! From here onwards, you might think that the love affair between myself and Barcelona’s metro service ends, but then you would be grossly underestimating how much I love it! Moving on quickly before I go down that road again…

I was fined €50(!!!) by the great city of Barcelona this morning. Imagine my face headed in to work this morning, eagerly anticipating this year’s exciting work ahead. In fact, why settle for just imagining it? This fairly accurately reflects my mood prior to the dreaded incident (see picture below):

Feeling good before work!

Feeling good before work!

Whilst the anticipation of going to work was some way short of killing me, so to speak, I was legitimately excited about the day ahead. I should probably have seen the writing on the wall when I missed the train I had originally intended to catch whilst standing not 5 metres away from its doors. Waiting at the platform, so polite was I to allow all the Spanish commuters to pass me by (thus impeding me from myself accessing the train) as they departed the train that I was to board, that I failed to actually do so before the train left the station. Mildly frustrated, I waited for the next train and summarily dismissed the incident in my mind. Nothing was to get me feeling down this morning.

Now completely ignore the final sentence of the previous paragraph! Even though I knew, my flatmate knew, and had previously told me that UIC was in a different zone to our own, I for some strange reason completely neglected to purchase a ticket which would allow me to travel through 2 zones. Instead, I more than happily travelled to work assuming, subconsciously, that my single-zone ticket would somehow work wonders and allow me through the barriers without problem. Once I arrived at the station and realised my hapless error, I was not quick to panic. I headed to a ticket machine on the platform presuming that I would simply be able to buy a ticket and go about my day. The ticket machine orders me to cough up €50… Compare the picture above with another accurate depiction of my expression, upon reading such an order:

Realisation kicks in...

Realisation kicks in…

50 euros paid, walking to work from the station, I was decidedly less chirpy than I had been not 5 minutes beforehand. Luckily for me, everyone at work cheered me up no end as they were all friendly, significantly more helpful than this one ticket machine I came across once in northern Barcelona, and seemingly very happy to have me on board. Seeing my old colleague again was also genuinely lovely and I am very much looking forward to getting started with the new team.

A day full of new places, new faces and new opportunities, I shouldn’t complain excessively about one little fine. Spain was mean once but on countless occasions she has been very nice to me, so I shall not hold a grudge. It was very much an enjoyable first day at work and I look forward to many more like it!

My friend and I play catch up

A few days in, my old pal Spain is already quickly teaching me some valuable lessons – albeit some which I have learned in the past and simply forgotten – and some which are completely new to me:

  1. Public transport in London is insanely expensive.
  2. I am not very good at Spanish.
  3. I have missed Barcelona greatly since being here last.
  4. El Corte Ingles holds the key to all of life’s problems.

Firstly, the metro: accompanying my dear flatmate to her place of work this morning, I looked back with fondness on all of my previous experiences of Barcelona’s bustling underground as we strolled towards our nearest station. So much of the fun I had here during some work experience of summers past, I associated and continue to associate with the metro.

Accustomed to the inhospitable and generally unfriendly London underground, I am more than happy to jump onto a London tube, mind my own business and keep my head down throughout my journey, just as the overwhelming majority of Londoners do. It goes without saying that the dreaded scenario goes as follows: that I may on the off chance make prolonged eye contact with a fellow commuter, with the logical progression of course being that unbearable awkwardness shall ensue immediately subsequent to said exchange of glances.

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Making friends with the metro

Whilst I am reluctant to say that nothing could be further from the truth in Barcelona (it is not a wild party from the minute you set foot below street level) during summers’ evenings it was astoundingly easy to meet and chat with people as we all more than likely headed to Las Ramblas, such a novelty to me that it has stuck with me. Yet most importantly, why I hold the Barcelona metro in such high esteem is because, compared to London, it is unbelievably reasonably priced.

Conversely, it is that the London underground is ridiculously expensive, which I know is the most accurate of the two! Whilst I have appreciated this for a long time, never have I done so as much as when today I bought a ticket for 10 journeys for 9,80€. With each journey costing me less than 1 euro, it caused me to despair at the soaring prices of the London tube which I pay without so much as batting an eyelid on any given day.

Take into account that Barcelona tubes are also air-conditioned, and that leads me to appreciate the Barcelona public transport more so than I do that of London. I do have to thank my good friend Spain for reminding me that the metro in Barcelona is a part of the city which I very much enjoy!

I realise that this post has descended slightly into me waxing lyrical about a tube service, hardly the most exciting of topics, but I feel the need to confess to the world that I think the Barcelona metro is really quite good!

Lessons 2), 3) and 4) shall be dealt with imminently… In sum, I just love tubes. And that’s ok.