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Thursday, September 30, 2004


X-Prize Won

Looks like the X-Prize, a $10M purse for the first privately-built and -operated vessel to fly outside the limits of the atmosphere (space travel, basically), has been won. Hat tip: Samizdata

Some people saw it coming a long time ago. If you're interested at all in this topic, or even if you aren't, do yourself a favour and click here to check out Victor Koman's great novel Kings of the High Frontier, a magnificent and moving story whose vision of privately-funded space travel is starting to be realised.


Cachaca Fodder

Rio works a little like this. From Centro, you go uptown to Lapa/ Cinelandia, then Botafogo (apparently the gay district), then Urca (just under Sugarloaf Mountain), then you go through a tunnel to Copacabana, then Ipanema, then Leblon. In my time in Rio I stayed in both Copacabana and Ipanema. Ipanema is upscale, the rich neighbourhood. Copacabana has a definitely downtown feel to it. Nossa Senhora, the main drag, is a Manhattan-style canyon.

Lapa is an area of bars near to the old aqueduct. Bars is not strictly accurate. There are a couple of traditional-style bars, which charge about BRL5 for entry. (BTW BRL5 = USD 1.7 = GBP 1, more or less). However, most of the places at Lapa are more like sandwich places that serve beer and caipirinhas. They have plastic chairs and tables out on the street, and music blaring out of boom boxes. There are street vendors who will sell you drinks, or sausages on sticks, or hippy tchotchkes. There are also some more informal street vendors who come down from the favela and sell you... other stuff. (Every so often the police will drive through Lapa in a convoy with their weapons pointing out of the windows of their cars. It doesn't seem to bother the drug dealers, and anyone who happens to have a joint in his mouth carries on as before. Hey, this is the Brazilian police force we're talking about. They were probably coming to get their cut). All in all, Lapa has a great vibe to it, a little like Long Street in Cape Town.

I went there a few times when I was in Rio, but the most memorable evening was the one before I went hang-gliding.

I got up to Lapa around 10pm and there were a bunch of people in a circle, some playing drums and one or two dancing in the middle of the circle. For a moment I thought it was some kind of candomble ceremony, but as far as I can work out it was just a bunch of people who fancied a bit of a boogie. Very African, at any rate. A Swedish girl I'd met the previous week came up to me and said hello. She told me how a few kids had tried to jack her the previous day, on the road up to the favela. She said I must never use the road, because it was dangerous; I must use the stairs instead. (The whole time I was in Brazil I never felt unsafe, unless you count the sphincter-twitching fifteen seconds of hang-glider launch. But those stairs to the favela are quite a sight: they lead up to a shanty town but they are tiled). Just then the Swedish girl's boyfriend showed up so I went up to the back street where I got a beer from one of the street bars and sat at a table outside. There was a girl a couple of tables away, kinda cute. She made eye contact with me, held it. Well, it would be rude not to. I went over and asked "Fala ingles?" She did speak English. Quite well. Game on. I'll call her Surfchick.

Surfchick was, frankly, a crazed party reptile. She was knocking back the beer and the cachaca shots (the cachaca shots in Lapa come wrapped in transparent plastic, like 80-proof ice poles) and later on she pulled out a spliff and passed it round.

So we talked. She was fascinated by my blond hair: I think there are no blond Brazilian men. When I told her my name, Richard, she went "Oh, like Leo de Caprio in the movie!" [The Beach] So I told her how I had been to Thailand and we talked about travelling for a while. She told me her dream was to go to LA and I told her that was my dream as well, although I suspect we were attracted by different things (she: surfing; xj: actresses). For some reason I mentioned that I speak German (up to a point) and we agreed that she would teach me to surf and I would teach her to speak German. She had been to Berlin once, and she liked it. (She told me that she had shot up heroin, once, when she was there. "Of course you did," I told her. "You were in Berlin...")

This was no more than an hour into the conversation and she was making this confession to me. I've noticed that Brazilians are quite open and, how can I put this, quite fast. She told me, not long after this, that she wanted to fuck me. The only problem was the Other Guy. He had been sitting with us the whole time, saying nothing in English (which he did not speak, at all) and very little in Portuguese. I'm not sure whether he was Surfchick's boyfriend or her date for the evening, and Surfchick did not seem exactly sure herself, but she did make it clear that he was a coworker. So she wasn't prepared to go off with me that evening: it would have trashed her reputation. (Actually, there was one moment where she said she would come with me to a motel and the hell with the OG, but I told her "let's share another beer and then go". I thought it would be better not to seem needy. Fuckup #1).

A few times, she dragged me into the toilets to make out. (Her idea. I knew it wouldn't work. This was Lapa, so the toilets were not exactly sanitary. Plus, there was one toilet for the entire bar, so we didn't get much beyond first base before people started kicking the door). She kissed like a vampire, sucking my lips into her mouth and biting them. Quite hard. And she bit me on the shoulder once or twice. God knows what she would have been like if I'd actually fucked her.

Eventually she and the OG went off to Circo do Voador. (This is a live music venue a few streets away. I went there on my last night in Rio. It's okay if you like concerts). She asked me to give her my email and kept promising to mail me the next day. Like a fool I believed her and didn't ask her for her email (Fuckup #2, and there is no excuse for this one because I know better. Anyway, I didn't have a pen or paper with me. Moron. "Failing to plan is planning to fail", like the man said). She didn't email me, of course. I was so distraught that I threw myself off a cliff (see previous post).

Big deal, you may say: xj misses out on an ONS with a drunk slut. Well, I live in London, so I know drunk sluts when I see them, and Surfchick was better than that. She had a great personality; there was a light that got into her eyes when she spoke about surfing that was glorious to see. And she had taste (she was into me, which is pretty much the definition of taste). Surfchick was great for my morale in many ways. It's too bad we never got it on, but if you're reading this, Surfchick querida, just remember: Cachaca foda!

Friday, September 24, 2004


Well, I lived...

Oh, did I ever. I´m so glad I did this.

Launching a hang-glider is similar to walking the plank, only faster. You run at high speeds down a very short ramp ending in a thousand-foot vertical drop, which is easily one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. The worst thing is, of course, not knowing. When I dive I know whether, eg, the cylinder has oxygen in it, because I have checked it myself. I know jack about gliders. The thing could have been a death trap for all I knew. And of course there is the usual unhelpful internal dialog, along the lines of i´m gonna crash, i´m gonna die...

Luckily, the process of launching the glider is extremely quick. There are perhaps three seconds of utter frigid dread and then you are off the ramp and in mid-air and the updraught hits you... Feels good. Feels better than good.

The view is more or less the view you get from a high mountain, except that you are actually looking straight down on the houses, cars and beach, which is pretty cool. And you literally feel the wind in your hair.

(The pilot pointed out a car wreck to me. "Dangerous activity, driving" I said).

Interestingly, at no time during the flight itself did I feel the slightest fear, not even when my feet were released from their straps so we could land. (Although this was uncomfortable, since it meant the strap around my waist had to support all my weight). The landing was almost effortless.

Yes, what with hang-gliding and my night at Lapa, this must be the most fun I´ve had in.... too long.

Don´t know if I´ll be able to blog until I get back to London, since the weekend will be pretty full.


xj's Last Post?

I flew back to Rio on Wednesday (or quarta-feira as they say in portugues: it means "fourth day of the week". Wednesday is the _third_ day of the week, of course, but hey, who's counting)? After a week of lousy weather, the sun is now blazing down and I have the burns to prove it. I didn't put enough barrier cream around my lips with the result that I now have a kind of sunburn goatee. Muito elegante. Although sunburns have their uses: dark-skinned girls find them fascinating and exotic.

Last night I went up to Lapa (a bar/ streetparty area near the financial district with a great vibe) and I had a most interesting evening. I'll blog about it later... if I'm spared.

Yes folks, in two hours xj is going to throw himself off a cliff. I'm going hang gliding.

Now, I have never in my life been hang gliding (regular gliding, yes, I did it for a while at university. But gliding involves four hours of standing around for every ten minutes in the air, plus it was pretty expensive for a penniless student. I dropped out after a few weeks). They say that Rio is the place to do it, and certainly this city is beautiful enough from the ground; I can't imagine what it will look like from the air. I was sitting around the other day trying to picture myself dong this and the thought of it absolutely scared the shit out of me. So I knew I had to do it.

I'm sure it's quite safe. These are tandem flights - you ride in a pouch behind the pilot, who's been doing this for decades and never crashed yet. (Yet). I confidently expect to be blogging this evening.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Was: Unortgemaesse Betrachtungen

The original title of this blog was Unortgemaesse Betrachtungen.

Now, giving a blog this name was clever rather than smart. Here´s the back story:

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote a book attacking the sacred cows of 19th century Germany. Because he believed (accurately) that his ideas would be more or less ignored in his lifetime, he gave his book a title which is quite hard to translate into English: I´ve seen it rendered as Expeditions of an Untimely Man; Untimely Meditations; and Thoughts Out of Season. (I like the last one best). At any rate, the title in German is Unzeitgemaesse Betrachtungen.

The German word Zeit means "time" and the German word Ort means "place", so unortgemaesse Betrachtungen would be Thoughts out of Place or perhaps the thoughts of a man who is in the wrong place. Which is what I have been for most of my life: in the wrong place, in a place that is wrong for me. Readers of my blog will know my contempt for Europe. London itself might be bearable, weather or no weather, if not for two unforgivable defects: the women are bug-ugly and everything closes too early.

So UB was an expressive title for my blog, but the problem was that few people could pronounce it, fewer still could understand it and probably nobody would ever get it. Clever. Not smart.

Therefore, the new name of this blog is Chasing Waterfalls.

The title honors the magnificent Iguacu Falls, and it´s also a better expression of who I am.


The Iguacu Falls

I´d heard that the world´s biggest waterfall was the Iguacu Falls, but that´s not strictly accurate.

It turns out that the world´s biggest waterfall is one of the Iguacu Falls. On the border between Argentina and Brazil, the river Iguacu (or Iguazu if you´re in Argentina) hits a series of cliffs and produces some waterfalls.

About two hundred and seventy waterfalls, in fact. (Not all of them are very big waterfalls, it´s true, but still - two hundred and seventy)!

Argentina got most of the waterfalls, and seems to have named most of them after its generals (one got named after General Belgrano, which is a name that springs to mind when you think of churning water...). Brazil got a nice view of Argentina´s waterfalls. And they both got to share the biggest one: the Devil´s Throat.

I have one word for the Devil´s Throat: awesome. And I mean it in the classic, not the mallrat sense. To see, to hear the Iguacu Falls is to be struck by awe. The sheer volume of the waterfall is amazing: it throws up a cloud of vapor that you can see for a mile, hanging like woodsmoke over the fall. There´s the incredible roar of the water, there´s the spray hitting you in the face, but what I remember best is the swifts. Hundred of these little birds wheel above the falls, and every so often one of them breaks out of the flock and dives into the spray like a Stuka, to pluck a bug out of the air. There is the rest of the park, with the other 269 waterfalls (on the Brazilian side you get the panoramas, on the Argentinian side you get up close and personal). And on the Argentinian side, there are speedboats that will take you under some of the smaller waterfalls. (They´re not kidding about that either. Wear cheap shoes and bring a change of clothes. But you´ll be glad you stuck around for the ride)...

The parks themselves are so-so; Iguacu is sub-tropical and, frankly, not as impressive as the interior of Phuket as far as jungle goes. But hey, you´re not there for the jungle, are you? You´re there for the waterfalls. And they´re worth the trip: certainly the trip from Rio, and possibly the trip from England.

And, partly in honor of this magnificent sight, I have decided to rename my blog-


Foz do Iguacu

Foz do Iguacu is a town close to the joint borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, and has precisely two reasons to exist. (That´s two more than many places, but still). The first reason is the world´s biggest hydroelectric dam, Itaipu, which is a few miles up the road this way. The second reason is the Iguacu Falls, of which more later.

As for Foz the town itself, it is flyover, doubled, redoubled, in trumps, and vulnerable. It´s like the prototype of the town in Mississippi where Bad Things happen to Good People in Cheap Movies, with a bunch of skyscrapers thrown in to remind you that you are in Brazil, where they build big.

(Oh boy, do they build big. To get here I flew via Sao Paolo - it is apparently a Brazilian law that every flight that crosses Brazilian airspace has to stop at Sao Paolo. From the air, Sao Paolo is simply monstrous. It is a huge, sprawling, gray ogre of a city. As far as the eye can see in every direction are buildings, endless buildings, with a few narrow roads and the occasion tree crying because it is all alone in the world. Sao Paolo reminds me of the city in the sci-fi classic The Shadow of the Torturer, which the characters took half of an entire book just to walk across).

Foz has little to recommend it. The nightlife I can only describe as Barcelona plus a double espresso: nothing is going on, but it is going on a little more energetically than in Barcelona. There appears to be only one place in town that can actually cook food (the churrascaria place on Quintino Bocaiuva, if you´re interested); everywhere else will fob you off with doughy pizzas and overcooked, garlic-drowned meats (again, like Barcelona - how can a town that´s ten minutes drive away from Argentina be so lousy at cooking steak)?

As for the townspeople, it seems most of them go to church on Sunday night and the ones who don´t appear to be Moslems. (I´ve seen a bunch of girls in hijabs here, which you absolutely do not see in Rio, ever. Hard to believe it´s the same country...) I guess that tells you all you need to know about the people of Foz, and about xj´s chances for a little action in this dump.

But there is one thing about Foz that more than makes up for all these horrors, and that is the subject of my next post...

Saturday, September 18, 2004


Buzios Follies

Everyone told me that I must see Buzios, a little resort up the coast from Rio. So I got up up Thursday and headed off for the bus station. I decided to go by mass transit rather than a taxi. Now, this in theory would involve:

1. Bus to subway station
2. Subway to nearest stop to bus station, which is not particularly near
3. Walk or get another bus to the bus station
4. Get yet another bus to Buzios.

Steps 1-2 worked fine. Step 3, however, ran into problems when the bus I was on drove past the bus station and onto, first the motorway, and then an vast industrial zone containing absolutely nothing except endless rows of automobile components stores. I mean, literally nothing else. In its way, it's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen. You'd think there would be the occasional cafe or drugstore, but nooo. Anyway, the bus did not stop until near to the city zoo, which is nowhere near the bus station, and by this time it was almost noon, so I decided to give up on Buzios for Thursday and instead booked myself on a tour for Friday.

Not the best decision I've ever made.

This bus tour, which was advertised in both the hotels I've stayed at, works a little like this:

Get up at some god-awful hour of the morning and sit on a coach for four hours, shivering in the over-eager air conditioning and looking out the window at the squalid houses and undistinguished landscape of northern Rio state. Many pleasant views of the industrial zona norte on the early part of the trip. When you get to Buzios you can sit for one hour on an unremarkable beach attached to a two-bit country club, which to be fair will bring you overpriced caipirinhas if you ask often enough, and where you will have an unmemorable lunch. You will then be driven to the shore where you will go for a brief sail on a motor vehicle to look at the coast of Buzios. (The coast of Buzios is pleasant rather than beautiful, and not worth the trip). Then you get to wander round Buzios town for an hour, and then you go home. The trip is supposed to last ten hours; in fact it lasts twelve, so you will get back around 20:00, which is not especially late for Rio.

What I have just described is the best possible scenario for this trip, and even that would be a waste of time. What actually happened was that it was cold and overcast all morning. (Because of the location of Buzios they get more or less the same Antarctic currents that make swimming off the coast of Cape Town such a bad idea. The water off Buzios is maybe warmer than off Cape Town, but choosing between them is like setting the precedence between a louse and a flea). And then, during the boat ride, it started to rain. Oh boy, did it start to rain. It was about the worst rain I've ever experienced, and cold, too. And it rained the whole time I was in Buzios, and most of the way back. (Did I mention the over-eager air conditioning on the bus? Just what you need when you are sitting around in wet clothes).

As for Buzios town, it is full of shops selling tourist tchotchkes, and expensive restaurants. The town reminded me a little of the Hermanus/ Gaansbai area of the Western Cape: partly the weather, and partly the sheer sprawling Lebensraum of the place. (Buzios is, like Hermanus, a center for whale groupies). There are also a shit-load of dive shops. From what I saw the vis in the water is not especially good, although I imagine there are some interesting reefs. Still, diving in water as cold as Buzios's is not my idea of fun. I tried it at Cape Town, and never again.

Buzios is supposed to be a major party town, and I suspect it genuinely is. The streets in daytime have a forlorn and neglected feeling to them, which reminded me of Patong Beach on Fire Sermon Day, when all the bars were closed. There's nothing quite as dispriting as a party town when there isn't a party going on.

Buzios? Maybe it's a good place, if you go in summer, and if you stay a couple nights, and if you aren't dumb enough to go there on a stupid tour. As for me, this trip was one of the biggest wastes of time in my entire life. You have been warned, people.

xj. He screws up, so you don't have to.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


The Curse of xj

Weather's overcast today so the beach is no fun. So I came into the internet cafe* to rewrite some of my Orgulous Business School Project and read a couple blogs.

And what do I find? Belle de Jour is shutting down her blog. It's amazing. No sooner do I set up this blog with a link to Steve den Beste than he shuts down his blog, and now Belle is shutting hers down too... Come to think of it, back in 2000 I set up a link on my website (as it was then) to Anarchista of blessed memory, and within a couple of weeks she shut her site down...

Now the Curse of xj has claimed another victim. Maybe I'd better delete my entire roll before I take down the entire Blogsphere...

*Internet cafes in Rio do not serve coffee. Go figure.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


xj Returns to Stone Age

One thing I have noticed about the Brazilians is that they really, really don't do internet.

I wasted the best part of a day trying to book a flight to the Iguacu Falls online, before giving up in disgust. Varig inisted on a ridiculous notice period of several days before flying, one of their two competitors doesn't do etickets and the other competitor had a functional website and did do online tickets but refused to accept that there are actually people in the world that don't have a Brazilian social security number. In the end I spent most of another day trying to find the travel agents listed in the Lonely Planet guide, none of whom actually exist.

You'll be pleased to hear that in the end, I found myself a nice package and I am going to the falls next Sunday. I even get to cross over into Argentina where I'm told the view is even better. (Slowly but surely, I'm colouring that map red...)

Anyway, what with that and having a life, I haven't blogged since Saturday. There's also the fact that Rio has not very many internet cafes and they all seem to close at ten in the evening. Therefore, expect blogging to be pretty light until I get back to London, which will be September 28th.

(And when I do get back I will have about twenty-four hours to rewrite my proposal for my Orgulous Business School Project. My supervisor just emailed me to say he is throwing out about half the proposal. Nao legal* as we say in Rio....)

*"Not nice"

Update: I, xj, am running on Rio, ie Atlantic, time. This blog is running on London, ie GMT+1hr, time. Hence the time of 1 am on the post where I complained that no internet cafes were open later than 10pm. Just so we're clear...

Saturday, September 11, 2004


It's the country of the future... and it always will be.

Now, I love being in foreign countries. But the sheer awfulness of travelling to foreign countries always amazes me.

There is the getting to the airport, which involves spending forty minutes and paying fifteen pounds to travel two miles. (I'm convinced that getting from the city centre to the airport is harder in London than in Bangkok, which at least has some proper roads, unlike London which has narrow, windy little alleys that were designed for seventeenth century sedan chairs and weren't big enough even then).

Then there is the flight, which varies from unpleasant to Abu Ghraib. This time I made the mistake of flying with Varig, so the flight was Abu Ghraib, although in Abu Ghraib the prisoners at least got something to put over their eyes, which is more than the prisone^H^H^H^H^H^H^H passengers on Varig get. The sole in flight entertainment was some chickflick dubbed into Spanish with Portuguese subtitles. Too, I'm pretty sure the seats on their plane were smaller than usual. I felt like I was playing Twister in some medieval Cell of Little Ease. Oh, and there was the small detail that my flight was supposed to be direct to Rio, but the pilot decided it would be more fun to go via Sao Paolo. (Sao Paolo BTW is several hundred miles further than Rio). To be fair, the flight from Sao Paolo to Rio was fine. It seems that Varig's longhaul service is a disgrace to mankind but their domestic business is shit hot (the exact reverse of BA).

One interesting feature of Rio international airport is that many of the ATMs appear to be dummies. I had to walk to a completely different terminal to find one that would accept any of my cards. I suppose it never occurred to anyone that people in international arrivals might not have Brazilian bank cards. To get cash out of an ATM in Brazil (assuming it will give you any), you have to go through a ridiculous pantomime which involves:

1. Put your card in.
2. Take your card out.
3. Press the button to withdraw the maxmium amount of cash.
4. Put your card in.
5. Take your card out.
6. Do the hokey cokey and turn around.
7. Finally you put in your PIN #.
8. And you get your cash
9. And you realize it is worth about twelve pounds
10. Repeat Until (pigs fly over frozen landscape of hell)

The journey into Rio from the airport is interesting. The airport is on the north side, which is heavily industrial and smells like it, and is full of low-grade concrete buildings. After driving through this until you are quite sick of it, you go through a tunnel and suddenly come out into the Rio of your dreams: tropical, palm trees, sun kissed. (Well, today it's pretty cloudy. But metaphorically sunkist. It's full of girls in bikinis anyway, which is close enough). It's quite a contrast to the north.

One thing I did notice on the drive was the political posters. These are physically quite similar to the pictures of Saddam Hussein that used to be plastered all over Iraq, although the Rio posters are for rival political candidates, and they are everywhere. I think it is a seriously bad sign when the political advertising crowds out the commercial advertising, which seems to be happening here.

I'm baked from sleep deprivation so I guess I will hit the hotel room for a couple hours then go explore properly.

Saturday, September 04, 2004


xj Learns a New Word


Says it all.

(Tip of the hat to Vodkapundit's commentator Sofia for expanding my vocabulary).

Thursday, September 02, 2004


No Settling the Precedence Between a Louse and a Flea

This is a blog, and there's an election coming up, so naturally I'm going to discuss politics, right?


Not that I'm against it in principle. It's just that the choice on offer is, frankly, kinda repulsive.

The incumbent[1] is a sleazy warmonger with drunken children[2] who has presided over a recession[3], eroded civil liberties[4] and generally embarrassed his fellow citizens. He has murky ties to dubious business interests[5] and has abused the power of the government to help out the steel industry[6]. Under his administration, the intelligence services have apparently lied the country into war[7]. His economic policy consists of spend, spend, spend and leave office before the bills come due[8].

Meanwhile, the challenger[9] is a corrupt opportunist who will evidently say anything to anyone in the hopes of gaining an increasingly unlikely victory. His flip-flopping position on defence policy[10] has revolted even his nominal supporters, except for the hard core of "impeach the incumbent" wingnuts[11]. Some time ago he was associated with a controversial, extreme position[12] and as a result, is passionately hated by some, despised by many and liked by virtually nobody. To the extent that anyone actually supports him, it is only because he is seen as the man most likely to defeat the incumbent in an election. If he fails to do so, his party will drop him like a hot brick and he will never be heard from again[13].

As you can see from this analysis, British politics is a depressing subject, and I do not intend to blog on it. At least in America, Bush cut taxes...

[1]Tony Blair.
[2]His son Euan Blair was found passed out near Leicester Square after a night out drinking.
[3]A major slowdown in the productive economy has been masked by increased government spending on button-counters. There are now more administrators than nurses in the NHS, apparently.
[4]The Terrorism Act, the proposal to limit trial by jury... pretty much every press release out of Downing Street.
[5]eg Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One. More than one Blairite minister has been accused of taking bribes.
[6]Lakshmi Mittal.
[7]"British intelligence" was cited by George W Bush as a justification of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
[8]Blair, or rather his monkey Gordon Brown, has spent fantastic amounts on hiring deputy-sub-under-administrators.
[9]Michael Howard.
[10]Now opposes the Iraq war, even though he voted for it at the time. Most natural Howard supporters have denounced this policy.
[11]eg The Spectator.
[12]As Home Secretary in the early 1990s, he forced through a Criminal Justice Bill that was seen as amazingly repressive. It was a very big deal when I was a student. Among other things, it eroded the right to remain silent in court.
[13]Which is what the Tory party do to all of their failed leaders.


Homage to Catalunya, or not

Serves me right for boasting about the weather. On Sunday night there was a colossal thunderstorm. Actually, the rain wasn't so heavy, quite refreshing really, and the lightning was quite a sight.

During the day, also, a weird thing happened: a girl came up to me in the street and tried to sell me a signet ring. Not that she was a street vendor, you understand. No, she was just a girl who had got hold of a man's signet ring, don't ask how, and decided to fence it to me. I didn't buy it, of course. Signet rings don't go with my image.

As for the nightlife, it was no better, though it wasn't any worse. I did find a decent bar in the old city, with an African theme. It called Thiousan and had incense and soft reggae and would have been a great chill-out/ tongue-down venue if not for the extremely hard wooden chairs. (African carved wood, of course). The rest of the night was a total washout. I found the world's only empty Irish pub and I wondered how such a thing might be possible. Then I took a sip of their beer. Mystery solved. (The standard beer in Barcelona is called Estrella Damm, and damn is what you will say when you try to drink it. I know how hard this is to believe, but Estrella is genuinely worse than Scottish lager. I'm serious). Other than this, the only remotely interesting thing that happened all night was the drunk local guy who insisted on buying me a drink and rambling at me in Catalan for half an hour, ignoring my frequent "!No hablo espanol!"s. So much for travelling, meeting the locals and getting to know the culture - the only locals who gave me the time of day were a hooker, a thief and a drunk. I'd like to think local culture has more to offer than this, although you couldn't prove it from me.

And everywhere the most awful kind of tourists. English hospital deputy-sub-under-administrators who communicate entirely in Bureaucrat. Swiss from deservedly obscure cantons build on vaults of Nazi gold. Scousers who insist on engaging you in a debate about the role of religious prejudice in the Glasgow football scene. (It's ironic that in Amsterdam and Prague, which are famously the two sleaziest cities in Europe, I met a better quality of tourists than in Barcelona).

Travelling back on Monday, it hit me. Barcelona is the provincial capital of Catalunya. As in, provincial. As in, flyover country. (That's why there are no available women: because there aren't, in the flyover). Barcelona is flyover. It has flyover vibe and flyover businesses and flyover locals sitting around flyover bars and flyover cafes having staid, flyover conversations and never, ever, laughing or waving their hands or, you know, having actual fun the way people do in proper cities. Barcelona is not a proper city and never will be a proper city, any more than Birmingham will ever be a proper city however many schlemazls get crammed into the god-forsaken hellhole, because it is a place where there is no reason to be.

(Unless you have a thing for Gaudi, in which case you probably deserve to end up in Barcelona. Gaudi was a demented hack with a tile fetish. He was Frank Lloyd Wrong. What kind of fuck-up spends twenty years on one lousy church and still doesn't get it finished)?

And what is worse, Barcelona is not merely flyover, it is European flyover. The best thing about the city is the subway: huge wide air-conditioned trains and timers that count down the next train to the second (and are never reset, unlike the timers on the Tube) - the Barcelona metro has now displaced the Bangkok Skytrain as my transport of delight. The very worst thing about the city is the waiters. I've found a new respect for Manuel from Fawlty Towers: at least he moved. The laziest, most half-hearted glue-sniffing bagboy in the most two-bit grocery store in London is a positive demon of productive efficiency compared to a Barcelona waiter. And they have serious difficulty with the idea of credit cards. I tried to buy a shirt using mine and they insisted on seeing my passport before they would accept the card. (I told this story to my friend Michela, who's Italian and therefore used to dysfunctional financial systems. She burst out laughing. Nowhere she has ever been, not in Kenya nor in the Maldives, are they that primitive. Not even in Italy). Barcelona is Euro-socialism in action: public wealth and private squalor.

Well, let's be fair. There are a couple of good things about the city. I like that the bars don't shut just after teatime, the way they do in England. I like the South Asian men that stand around on street corners selling cans of beer, if you can't be bothered going into the bars. I like the fact that you can buy cheap, good quality clothes (if you remembered to bring your passport. And nothing else in the city is much cheaper than London. Drinks are about the same price, or a little less. Food and taxis and hotels the same). If I ever find myself in this city again, I won't throw a hissy fit: it's a semi-pleasant, and in some ways a quite civilized place. (Most flyover is). But still, Barcelona is flyover, and in future I hope to fly over it. Still, I wouldn't say this vacation has been entirely wasted. This city is unique in one respect: it is the only city that has ever made me glad to be going back to London.

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