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Thursday, September 02, 2004


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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