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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Italians take over a bar in the Eixample

So I’m sitting at the bar in a place called Café Paris drinking my first coffee for the day. It’s the standard layout: huge plasma television above mounted on the wall to broadcast football games, aluminum bar, an array of tapas, everybody still smoking …

A group of Italians walk in. The guys are older, about forty to fifty, and have the aura of porn directors. Or maybe it’s just their cheesy Italian style. Soft leather boots, tight brand name jeans, greased back hair – basically the macho ibérico look but slightly more stylish. In tow are their girlfriends, easily half their ages, pretty like so many Italian women, yet somehow incongruous to their male counterparts. I wonder, how do these guys do it?

They order cappuccinos in a mix of Italian and English. The barmaid, a sour-looking woman with a stained, once-white smock, shakes her head and says she can’t do it. She can’t make a proper cappuccino she says. The Italians are adamant. They must have cappuccinos even if they're in the Café Paris in Barcelona. One of the Italian girls says - in Spanglish - that she works in a bar in Italy. This give her a certain aura of credibility. Like anything Italian designed is stylish, an Italian who works in the food industry is automatically a gourmand. She walks to the other side of the counter and proceeds to make four cappuccinos, the Italian way.

Which is not what I was taught when I worked in a bar here. It is not just espresso powder on top of a small coffee with milk, with lots of foam. The trick is, I observe, before pouring the foam, to add the espresso powder and then pour the foam on that. So she draws a heart shape with the powder and pours the foam on top of that. When the foam is poured there is a kind of bas-relief heart in the middle of it. It's slightly hortera, but since she's Italian she must be right.

§

Later, after finishing the paper, I asked the barmaid why she let the Italian take over the espresso machine. She said it was because she never went to cappuccino school. Really. She was supposed to, but she never attended, so when real Italians come in she refuses to make cappuccinos. She's had numerous complaints from them. She was merely preempting a barrage of "porca miserias"!

Travelers and tourists and some random thoughts

Paraphrasing Manuel Vázquez Montalbán who in turn was paraphrasing Paul Bowles: the difference between travelers and tourists is that tourists visit faraway places, and therefore know when their visit begins and ends. Travelers, he said, only know when their voyage begins. They can feel at home in faraway places.

In this sense I'm a traveler, although I've been in Spain for almost seven years now. I have my residence permit, I can work and pay taxes, but I'm still a traveler. I will never consider myself Spanish or Catalan because I will never be allowed to consider myself Spanish or Catalan. I give my utmost respect to the mix of cultures and languages on the Iberian peninsula, but I'm not fooling myself - I will never be one of them. As anywhere else, the culture is defined by centuries of slowly changing demographics, by tradition, by language, by frontiers and by generations with strong attachments to the land. If you are born here you have a right to claim it as your homeland. If you come from outside the most you can hope for is a pat on the back for trying to speak their language. You will get tacit acceptance, but you will always be referred to as the Americano, for example.

To a certain extent I've also experienced this in the States; we also tend to search for our roots back in Europe or elsewhere. Because we need to differentiate ourselves we search and create myths about our roots. But since most of us are displaced, mixed, and essentially rootless, there is a common feeling of being American. People that go there to live, that weren't born there, will eventually call themselves American. It doesn't take generations, like it does here.

This has both its positive and negative aspects. I think in the end more positive. To try to arrest the flux of people and natural migratory tendencies smacks of essentialism. Can we really arrest our natural impulses, and will this make things any better? Are people really able to engineer the perfect society? Is the perfect society this perfect homogeneous group like the Nazis wanted to make, or is it heterogeneous like the United States? Would that make the United States a form of utopia (that is, of course, if you don't agree with the Nazis)? Post modernists hate the thought of that. That's why they don't believe in anything anymore. I don't go around waving a flag, or feeling ashamed of where I come from. I just try to keep my ear to the ground, that's all.

Paul Bowles is, incidentally, the man who inspired me to ditch everything I had in the States and become a traveler (at the time, I would have gone to India even ... I just wanted to get out). The year was 1999 and I had been working seven days a week, holding two different jobs, for almost a year. By summer of 1999 I had ten thousand dollars saved up and a one-way ticket to Spain, via Amsterdam. I gave away everything I owned, bought a North Face backpack and a couple good books to take along with me (one of them was Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, the other was Water Music by T.C. Boyle which is highly recommended, and coincidentally another traveler-themed book).

On my itinerary was Morocco, partly because I knew Paul Bowles was living in Tangier. Despite rumors of his rudeness to visitors, I wanted to pay him a visit. Unfortunately he died in between the time when I bought my ticket and my arrival in Europe. I went to Tangier anyway, and it was a a huge disappointment - a far cry from the intriguing international city found in Bowles' fiction. It was filthy and downright repulsive. To this day, in fact, I would have to say it's the absolute worst place I've ever been too. There isn't even anything romantically sordid about the place. It's just a filthy hole on the doorstep of Europe.

Bowles lived in Tangier for the last fifty years of his life. I have a feeling he did so because he knew he would be left alone there. Further south there are beautiful cities like Essaouira and Marrakesh, there's the Gorges of Toudra, and even Chefchaouen, which is renowned for the quality hash which can be bought there (Bowles toked, that's for sure, as can be surmised from some of his surreal, labyrinthine short stories). So, why would anyone take up permanent residence in a hole like Tangier? One thing's for sure, you will be left alone there.

But getting back to Montalbán, who started this whole rumination by paraphrasing Bowles ...

In my opinion he was a better writer than Bowles, and I feel really fortunate that I can read him in Spanish. They were both travelers and both wrote about it, but if I had to compare them I would say Montalbán achieved two things that Bowles never fully achieved in all the books I've read by him: humor and a sense of humanity. Also, Montalbán's writing is clear, whereas Bowles' writing sometimes has a strangulated feel to it.

I'm on my second book by Montalbán, Milenio Carvalho, which is his swan song. Pepe Carvalho, -the detective/protagonist of many of his novels - has been implicated in a murder while he's on his self-proclaimed last trip around the world, accompanied by his sidekick Biscúter. They eat and philosophize most of the time, in between bursts of intrigue - in Genoa, in Athens, Alexandria, Ramallah, Jerusalem, the Bosporus straight ... I'm still reading it so I can't say where they'll end up.

Philo/political observations and eating easily take up half the space of the book. Whereas most fictional characters seem to have a superhuman ability to survive without eating, Carvalho is obsessed with filling his fat Iberian tummy. That's the great thing about Montalbán's Carvalho versus Hammett's Continental OP, Chandler's Marlowe, or Spillane's Hammer - more than a detective he's a pioneer of the palate, something we can relate to more than the archetypal badass found in most detective fiction. Carvalho is a traveler and a bon vivant above all else.

Both Bowles and Montalbán were travelers in real life (Montalbán lived out his remaining days in Bangkok), and they both injected their experiences into their fiction. The underlying idea is this: travelers uproot themselves and make the world their home. I can't say I regret anything about my decision to leave the States. Attachment to land, to a supposed identity, is illusory. Once you get out there you realize people have pretty much the same motives everywhere you go. Architecture changes, eating habits get better or worse, but people are always the same. At least from my limited experience so far.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Random pics around town

"Go Spain" or "Hit Spain"?

From La Rousse's Gran diccionario del Argot
caña - a glass of beer
2. dar caña - to hit, to scold or tell off
4. to put pressure on, to obligate, to force


This is graffiti you can find all over Barcelona, usually in bathroom stalls in the Raval and Gracia. Caña or its Catalan variant canya both mean the same thing, in all their various definitions (at least the ones I've heard). To da caña to something means to push it to its limits (driving a car real fast, putting pressure on an opposing team, for example). What's interesting about this graffiti is that because it's written in Catalan it has clearly negative connotations. It would mean something like like Hit/nail Spain (as bad as that sounds). On the other hand, if it were written in Spanish it would most likely mean something like Go Spain. I prefer the drinkable variety of the word.

Still smokin'

In 2006 the no smoking ordnance was passed. It hasn't been very effective.

Vertigo-inducing stairwell

I love these rickety little stairwells. Who need gyms when you have to climb these? And it would be the perfect location for a noir film shoot out. I should look into this.

Pornographic coffee device


Nationalist bread. Very good, actually.


A really long and depressing wait in the metro


If they don't give us bike lanes we'll make our own


No service if football is on. Una canya si us plau!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Rain is good

It forces me to blog and destroys the temptation to sit on a sun-bathed terrace and eat chocos and pulpitos and drink ice cold Moritz.

Here's a couple anecdotes:

Jetas

From Real Academia Española

jeta

1. Protuberant mouth due to its configuration, or because of having big lips.

5. colloquial. Shamelessness. "You've got a lot of shamelessness."

8. colloquial. A shameless person.


This is a story of a jeta. There is no good English equivalent to this fantastic Spanish word.

Brits would probably say “cheeky bastard” and Americans would probably say “prick” or “jerkoff”. Admittedly, though, neither of these do the word justice. “Prick” and "jerkoff" are too harsh, and "cheeky bastard” is too light.

When someone says, “Tú tienes mucha jeta,” what they’re implying is that you act shamelessly.

My portero, or doorman, told me a story the other day which perfectly illustrates what a jeta is. It is a story of latin loving and double crossing; a story of blind lust and betrayal. It is also the story of the previous tenant who lived in our apartment. A fellow who left us with unpaid gas and water bills that we had to pay for, under threat of having both utilities cut off*.

That’s not the only thing. Before I get into the story I should explain the state the guy left the apartment in.

I think the reason we got the apartment was because it took a lot of imagination to see the potential in it. It was a wreck. And that probably cut in half the number of people who even considered it. It was painted in fluorescent green (no exaggeration), and had what looked like a DIY parquet job in the “lounge” area. Let’s just say the boards, which we can’t afford to replace right now, aren’t very straight. Our little 5 sq meter terrace was used for trash and discarded furniture, and the whole apartment had a kind of stressful, psychotic feel about it. I mean, fluorescent fucking green!

We always laughed about what this guy must have been like. Without ever seeing or hearing him, we had this vague ghostlike image of him. We called him a cutre**, as they say here. Just an all around louse. Every lousy bad-taste-having person I’ve ever known rolled into one.

So I was talking to the portero the other day and he told me about the guy that used to live in our apartment. He was a jeta, he said, while shaking a limp right hand, which is Spanish body language for implying that this guy was an extreme jeta.

What happened was this: about ten years ago a couple moved into what is now our apartment. The couple was a Cuban man and a Spanish woman. According to the portero everything was in the Spanish woman’s name. The apartment, in reality was entirely hers. All he said about her was, “No era muy agraciada pero eso no quita que fuera buena persona.” Translated that basically means she was not the most attractive person, but she was good natured. He said she was from a small town outside of Barcelona, and that she worked as a professor.

The Cuban didn’t do anything apparently, besides latin loving.

The portero shook his head at this point and told me what happened next. A mere two months after moving in, la no muy agraciada came home and found the Cuban “hasiendo” el amor in their apartment with another woman. That is, she caught him and another woman in flagrante. The poor girl left, shattered, and never returned. The portero has no idea what happened to her.

Ten years later the Cuban was still living in the apartment which was technically in her name. She never returned. He had, after conquering her heart, conquered for himself a nice little apartment in the Eixample.

“Es que el tío tiene mucha jeta,” said the portero.

This guy is really the best definition for this great Spanish word. We’ve all had experiences with jetas. Charmers in the guise of men or women who know how to talk themselves into advantageous positions.

_

* As incredible as it sounds, you can do that here. With complete impunity you can leave unpaid bills in a certain domicile, and be sure that the next unfortunate tenant will have to pay for them. Of course, you can have the gas or water company cancel the service and then activate it again in your name, but that costs a lot of money, and in this case, it was more than what this jeta owed. So I ended up paying for three months of his gas and water. I have no idea if this can happen in the States. I never had to deal with anything like it.

** cutre – another one of those cross-dressing adjectives which occasionally moonlights as a noun. It means shabby and tacky, and when you call someone a cutre it means that they’re a tasteless person. It’s one of those great inner-circle words you can use among friends, and, without really saying anything, mean a whole lot. That movie is cutre; that guy is cutre; my job is cutre … it’s not anything specific. Cutre is a way of life. For some people. Stay away from them.

Crime in Sant Pere & The Sick Obsession for Ordnung

A friend of mine from Berlin came to Barcelona a couple weeks ago. He’s free thinker, and is never bogged down by the usual preconceptions I find in so many people. That’s why I liked hearing his observations, brief as they were, about Barcelona.

One was about a visit he paid to my old neighborhood in Sant Pere. While walking down Via Laietana, the main artery which divides the Gòtic and Sant Pere, he heard a woman screaming.

When he told me this, I already knew what was coming next …

He turned around and about a hundred meters away there was a guy trying to yank a purse from a young woman who was on the ground screaming, yet still clutching her purse. According to my German friend she was dragged some meters before releasing her purse.

The snatcher then ran off, cutting across Laietana and into Sant Pere Mes Baix. At this point in the story I was guessing from there the snatcher ran down Verdaguer i Callís, then turned on San Pere Mitja. After two short blocks - past the Pakistani market and Cervantes elementary school - i imagined him ducking into a building right above the Halal butcher. Thing is, I’ve seen these guys many times from my window, taking this same route. But, of course, this is just past experience which in no way means this guy was part of the same group. In fact, my guess was probably wrong because this is what my friend said next:

He described the bag snatcher as “very sporty looking” (with a heavy enunciation on the “t” due to his German accent) - wearing a Nike track suit, or something like it, and “spor-tee” shoes. He was also “very blonde”. This certainly threw a new element into the equation. It’s been a nearly nine months since I left Sant Pere, so things might have changed. “Blonde” bag snatchers. Interesting. Of course, that could mean any number of things, from a guy dying his hair blonde, to a desperate guiri-gone-bad as my friend Kovaks would no doubt say.

Add this to the annals of Guirilandia.

My Berliner friend also told me he was surprised at how “popular” bikes seemed here. He astutely observed the fashionable element in all this. There’s definitely a bike riding trend, but the number of serious riders is probably less then it would appear. He noted how many of those collapsible bikes he saw, for one. Which is telling, because one only has to sit on a bench on Diagonal - that avenue that cuts across the Eixample - and watch how ridiculous people on those collapsible bikes look. Because of their tiny wheels one is obliged to pedal like a maniac in order to achieve anything like a reasonable speed. Now, anyone who's had experience with them will have to admit that these collapsible bikes might look neat and cute, but they are the most unwieldy and arguably dangerous of all types of bikes.

Yes, I digress! So my friend goes on:

He said he could understand, in a way, that some people were pissed at bike riders for not following “the rules”. There are a lot more bike riders in the city, that’s true. But he also said that breaking the rules is difficult to avoid in Barcelona; there just aren’t that many bike lanes, and where there aren’t bike lanes there’s the bus and taxi lane – but, sometimes, especially at rush hour, riding in a lane with psychotic, stressed-out taxi drivers and two ton buses isn’t exactly appealing.

He read my story about the bike vigilante in my neighborhood who viciously stabbed my tire (he struck again, actually, but I didn’t write about it the second time because I didn’t want to be a douchebag about it). He said the guy reminded him of the Ordnungsamt, which are a form of citizen’s police force in Germany. The Ordnungsamt are a truly despicable cross section of humanity.

The Ordnungsamt patrol the streets and have the power to stop you if they see you committing an infraction (jaywalking, for example). They can also fine you, on the spot. The Ordnungsamt stopped my friend for crossing a red light on his bike even though there were no cars or people around. The Ordnungsamt, incredibly enough, was staking out the intersection in order to catch law breaking citizens.

Of course, everybody’s heard the urban legend about Germans not crossing the street when the light is red, even if it’s three in the morning, the streets are empty, and there is not one car in sight (I’m talking about people on foot, or on a bike – not driving).

It’s not an urban legend.

People just don’t do it, and it’s largely due to the sick obsession of people like the Ordnungsamt. They fined my friend 15 euros for committing the grievous offense of crossing a red light – through an empty intersection - on a bike. A few months after this he and a friend were fined again for riding on the sidewalk (he said the road was obstructed, forcing him to ride on the sidewalk).

Menos mal, I thought, that I live in Spain, where hysterical ordnung maniacs will never become the norm. They’re out there, but they seem to be a radical minority.