Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A Second-hand Experience

Who doesn't love rifling through other people's discarded stuff, diving onto dubious-looking sofas, picking up random objects such as busts of a pair of buttocks and making crass jokes about having a cracking pair of cheeks? (I defy you not to groan or tut at that horrifically obvious pun.) What is it about the second-hand world that instantly endows any object, tat or treasure, with a glowing aura of irresistible attractiveness? Rhetorical pondering aside, when you need something, more often than not you will find that thing in a second-hand place, and where better to rummage than the magnificently diverse city of Barcelona?

I spent my weekend there with one of my best friends who decided she needed a set of drawers to stash all the papers for her business. With the promise of 'just looking', I agreed to accompany her to a shop that was lurking in the area five or six streets away. It wasn't far, then, so off we toddled.

Inside was a treasure trove of books and paintings, an Aladdin's cave of mattresses, a pirate's wet dream of shiny glittery jewellery, and an impoverished 2011 Londinian rioter's paradise of flat-screen TVs...There was even a hulking big glass display counter; you know, the type of thing to shamelessly exhibit pies and pastries, withering for hours under the ghoulish light. How they got that in and out would have made an interesting story. And it was quite sad to see the empty cabinet; the metal naked and no longer polished. No more pies for you.

Looking around, we examined some nice wooden drawers, my friend asking for my (evidently valued) opinion, before deciding on a set that was in fairly good nick. Whereupon she purchased aforementioned drawers and begged me to help her carry them back. Duped! Tricked! Fooled! Oh, how could I have fallen for it.... But I did, and what could I do? It wasn't that far, was it?

It was. Jerkily walking down the street a few metres impressed upon us the gravity of the situation. Our backs were twisted in a sideways position, obliging us to walk like drunken crabs, and the height difference between us merely added pain to my stooping back and bandied legs. I half expected pedestrians to either recoil in fear and disgust or round up the troops and chase us with cries of 'Burn the witches!' Every so often we had to stop and de-twist our knotted spines, simultaneously swearing at the putos calaixos de merda!, an art form at which I'm becoming rather adept in Catalan. And nobody, not one person, not a single human being offered to help two young beautiful girls struggling with a heavy wooden object. Instead, they all looked at us with the face of pompous irritation that said: 'Feckin' get out of the way; you're taking up the entire pavement!' Chivalry is not only dead but rotted in festering shrouds of distaste for other pedestrians merely trying to take their putos calaixos home.

When we eventually arrived, after much sweat and many expletives (not necessarily in that order), we still had four flights of stairs to shove the damn things up.

We really could have done with a third hand.

Monday, 12 March 2012

An Inspector Calls (from Madrid)

On Friday, I had a rather interesting, if infuriating, experience. I was subjected to some uncouth official from Madrid on the phone treating me as though I was incompetent. That fact in itself is probably hardly surprising to most of you, but permit me to explain: the reason why I was so rudely spoken to was that I had answered the phone - may my eyes bleed and tongue be ripped from its root for this heinous crime - in Catalan.

Many Catalans have had to put up with a lot worse; I shouldn't complain. But it illustrates the point rather deftly that one doesn't even have to be Catalan to be discriminated against from those in central government; one has to merely speak the language and you are treated like filth, animals, or a mindless buffoon.....
I am now going to write up the transcript of the phone conversation as it happened on Friday 9th March 2012, and you judge for yourselves:

Me:            Hola, 'Speak and Spell'?
Official:      Cristina Canamases?
Me:            No hi és ara mateix però vindrà cap a les 5 si vol tornar a trucar... 
                 [Catalan for 'She isn't here at the moment but she'll be here at about 5 if you want to call back...']

Official:      No le entiendo.
                  [Spanish for 'I don't understand you.']

- short pause -

Me:           Cristina no está aquí ahora....
- interrupting -
Official:     Do you-ah speak Espanish?

- pause -

Me:           Sí. 
Official:     Vale, coja usted un papel y un bolígrafo y apunta unos números. Sabe usted els números en español? 
                 [Spanish - 'Ok, get some paper and a pen and take down these numbers. Do you know the numbers in Spanish?]

- pause -

Me:          Sí.
Official:    Tiene el boli y papel? 
                  [Do you have the pen and paper?]
Me:          Sí, sí que los tengo.  
                 [Yes, I've got them.]
Official:    Apúnte:  noventa i uno-nueve once-zero zero-doce. Repítemelo.
                 [Write: 919 110 012. Repeat that back to me.]
Me:         Nueve-uno-nueve uno-uno-zero zero-uno-dos. [919 110 012]

Official:   Es muy urgente que Cristina me llame en cuanto posible; hoy, me entiende usted? Muy  urgente! 
               [It's very important Cristina calls me as soon as possible; today, do you understand? Urgent!]

Me:        Sí, se lo diré.     
               [Yes, I'll tell her.]
Official:   Bién. Hasta luego.
               [Good. Bye.]

What you don't get in this transcript is the tone of dripping sarcasm and utter contempt, simply because my Spanish is a little rusty (especially when I'm not prepared to use it). Why he feels that I would be inferior to him is beyond me: I can count in three different languages, I'll have him know! If only I'd had the quickness of mind to say that to him; if only I'd had the audacity to say from the very beginning that I didn't speak Spanish and only knew Catalan..... but, I confess, I'm not good with confrontation. I do wish I'd told him where to shove the pen, though.

I also hope you'll notice the complete lack of manners and 'thank-yous' in that conversation. Obviously, I had no reason to be affable or give any thanks to him but the other way round, I think yes. Interrupting me? Treating me like an idiot who can't count? Making me repeat numbers back to him?! I hope one day he's savaged by a stack of paper-clips and staplers or strangled by the telephone wire...

In all seriousness, though, if this is how central government or, indeed, other people from Madrid treat the Catalans, then no wonder they want independence! No wonder they dislike those obnoxious, narrow-minded, culture-trouncing prats! What else can they expect when they immediately raise themselves (in their own estimation) above the Catalans?
I have to say I do love the Spanish language, and I know they all can't be tarred with the same brush. But that madrileño has thoroughly pissed me off.  

Visca Catalunya!

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Parrots, sausages, and beans.

When one goes to a market simply to mooch around and paw at the various things on display, one doesn't often realise or appreciate the hard labour and gruelling starts the vendors have suffered to make (usually) a pittance. Before Sunday the 4th of March 2012, I was one of these people who fell into this category. Not any more.

My friend spent weeks preparing for this one day, slogging at a full-time job, then coming home to knit boots and brooches as Top Gear flickered in the background, or designing pieces of delicate silver jewellery which she then gave to her boyfriend to polish. After two weeks of very little sleep, and an offer of help from yours truly, the night before the big day arrived. We squashed everything into the car: stock, the stall, chairs, overnight bags, and there was just enough room for three of us to breathe. Our lodgings that night was a friend of my friend; I had never had the pleasure of meeting her, but we were acquainted very quickly, as she had to perch on my lap to show us where to go to park. It was a pleasant evening of wine and pizza and making paper bags - even confessing one is an 'arts and crafts retard' does not exempt one from work.

Sunday morning in Sant Llorenç de la Muga dawned chilly and without caffeine. (Two sharp intakes of breath - Sundays have mornings? No caffeine?!) 6 a.m. is never a good time, and without coffee the pangs of fatigue rapidly evolve from some sort of hideous mould into snarling beasts of grumpiness. Our toes were frozen to the point of pain. Add onto that setting up a stall which took about 2 hours in the end, and I was feeling slightly murderous, so it was fortunate that a bar was 30 seconds away...
After a while, however, the caffeine kicked in and the sun slowly crept over the horizon, chasing away the long shadows and draping itself softly onto the cheese stall opposite. More people began to arrive, knocking together bits of wood and lengths of metal. The occasional hearty bellow of laughter from a baker or one of the organizers smothered the relative quiet like a fat kid sat on a cat. As the morning waned into noon the customers started to amble into the main square. I have no idea when the things my friend sold were sold because I decided to abandon her and get to know the town.
Sant Llorenç is a beautiful place situated near Figueres in northern Catalunya. The streets and houses in the centre are of a light stone, and old-style lamps cling onto the walls to light the way. One of its unique features is that it seems to have a parrot able to wander freely, calling out a welcome of 'Hola' to enchanted passers by. A waterwheel and a wine-press lounge in a children's play area; while I was taking pictures some young girls were sketching the wheel - who knows, they could be the next Picassos!
Beer o'clock rolled around, as did the hour to lunch. It so happened to be the festival of mongetes or beans, and for 5 euros one could sample botifarra i mongetes (sausage and beans) and a glass of wine. I cannot emphasize enough the need for a well-organized queuing system here: my friends and I were first in line (after a whole palava of running out of botifarres) and were pretty much the last to be served. My suspicions are that we are simply too British for our own good in these situations, as all the Catalan people were served before us! Even tutting and glaring silently had no effect on the somewhat belligerent cook.
 The way to get attention, it seems, is shout and cry and huff noisily for all you're worth, possibly even throwing in a bit of dramatic ticket-waving. This may call for a Queue Appreciation Society.

At five p.m., in honour of the beans, there was a bean-spitting contest. To cite my friend: "I love the Catalans; they'll celebrate anything!" The aim was to hit a target by spitting out one bean; unfortunately, I was behind the stall at this point (making myself useful) and have gathered no photographic evidence.
It clouded over at this point and people started to scoot off in search of shelter and a cosy warmth. Yet we stayed firm, stretching the tarpaulin over the stall and eating our Nutella crepes.

Twelve hours we were there, from 7 till 7; twelve hours of chatting, knitting, writing, exploring, joking, selling, watching people go about their business.... All in all, it was a good day, but I truly take my hat off to those who tend their stalls as a main business. I would not have the patience or the willpower to battle the elements and the tough economic climate in which we are now stagnating. It's something I can now tick off my list though: 'got over being an arts and crafts retard'.