Monthly Archives: January 2012

Is modern technology killing living abroad?

This week for my guest blogging slot I’m wondering about the poisoned chalice of constant connectivity for people living abroad.

“Barcelona, spring 2011. Reply to texts from parents, answer emails from friends, update Facebook status to something approaching accurate, phone my gran back on her mobile, speak to my sister on Skype, catch up with ex-colleagues on Linkedin and, for the love of god, write something fresh for my blog. Is it just me, or do you ever wonder if all this accessibility is ruining your living abroad ambience?”

Continue reading at Metropolitan

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Homecoming kings, and caballos

The first three weeks of January could have been better.

Barely back in Barcelona, I learned that Scotland’s Storm Scrotum, or whatever they’re calling it, had left my garden minus its fence and my shed showing its entrails. In the second week I came home to find that the Barcelona boiler had been leaking water directly into a surge protector, leaving the flat with no power and me without hot water for a week. And last week, not to be outdone, brought me a bout of egregious gastroenteritis.

So all in all, I was up for some light relief. And luckily, at a time of year I usually associate with being depressed and skint, Barcelona hasn’t been short of an uplifting street parade or two.

Four-legged fiestas

The Day of the Kings is celebrated all over Spain on the 6th of January (the Epiphany in the religious calendar). I’d heard about it over the years as the day when Spaniards traditionally exchange gifts, but I’d assumed it was something similar to Christmas Day in the UK, when people shut themselves up at home and eat too much. The streets were indeed strangely hushed that Friday, but what I hadn’t expected was the scale of the operation the night before.

To celebrate the coming of the Magi, who bring gifts for the kids, there’s a huge parade right through the city, with the jolly kings themselves accompanied by what seemed like hundreds of carnival floats. Here’s a photo of a passing giraffe to give you an idea.

Large giraffe float - Els Tres Tombs.

A passing giraffe.

The parade goes on for hours, with participants following the Catalan tradition of chucking hard-boiled sweets at the spectators lining the side of the streets (warning: the competition to retrieve them off the ground is vicious). A lot of kids are there, of course, with their letters written out to the three wise men, stressing how good they’ve been and what presents they deserve in return. They seemed genuinely enthralled at the procession, although the last float contained a motley crew of Captain Jack-like characters singing the ‘carbón’ song – threatening any kids who’d been bad throughout the year with a present of coal. A bit harsh, I thought.

You can bring your dog

I wasn’t quite sure how you top stilt-walking camels playing stage to belly dancers and a toddler practising yoga, but this weekend’s Els Tres Tombs parade pretty much managed it. My main reason for wanting to see this spectacle was that I’d heard there would be horses, and loads of them. I miss horses. You don’t often see them in the city, other than the odd desultory pair pulling a tourist cart up the Ramblas.

Parade of horses at Els Tres Tombs.

Oh god, the trombones have started now.

The other draw, which was one of those things you have to see to believe, was the blessing of the animals. This traditional dousing of the beasties is held in honour of Saint Anthony Abad, who’s usually depicted with a wild boar nuzzling his ankles. I’d heard tell of this a few months back and imagined the guy was having me on. “No, really, people bring their pets to be blessed by the priests!” Somewhat sceptically, I pictured orderly queues of owners patiently waiting their turns. “Those with gills to the left, rodents to the right!”

Of course, this being Spain, what actually ensued was a menagerie of mayhem.

Cat squealing beside Els Tres Tombs procession

"Only a fool would mistake this for excitement."

Dogs, some on leads but most squirming in their owners’ arms, cats (not in carriers, obviously) wailing and eyeing everything with a caustic stare, bemused-looking rabbits on the side-lines and even a woman proffering a tortoise all took their places in the maelstrom, jostling for strategic position under the holy water. Meanwhile an Irish setter, let’s call him Wolfgang, had taken exception to the cat on his left and, thwarted out of the attempt to reach it, cocked his leg over a bystander’s calf in revenge. (Leg, that is, not baby cow. Although both were entirely possible.) Seeing me empty-handed, an old woman urged me earnestly to go and get my own pet. “They’re Java sparrows”, I smiled. “Well go get them!” she persisted, “there’s still time!”

Priests blessing pets at Els Tres Tombs.

Women, children and dashschunds first...

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, the mounted brass band struck up, prompting not-unjustified howls and hisses from the mammalian onlookers. I found it hard to keep a straight face amidst all of this, and completely gave up the attempt at solemnity when the inevitable rain of hard-boiled sweets started pelting down on our heads. It was at this point that, in a surreal final twist, the pairs of pretty prancing horses were replaced by a solitary sheep. Obviously not wanting to miss out on its 15 minutes of holy water either.

Sheep trailing behind procession at Els Tres Tombs

Last but not least.

The weirdest thing of all, I thought to myself as I walked home, was the silent clash of cultures that went completely unnoticed at the whole event. Locals had given me the odd glance, no doubt wondering at the presence of a guiri in January in the middle of a tight-knit Catalan neighbourhood, but couldn’t have imagined that I thought anything other than them: I really need to thrust my guinea pig forward here, no matter how stressed it seems, so that it has a long and prosperous life. And I suddenly felt guilty at my duplicity, and unearned onlooker’s privileges.

Still, that sheep fair cheered me up.

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Ever tried seseando?

For my second guest blogging post at Metropolitan, I wonder about the urban myth of the Castilian lisp…and how bloody hard it is to spit out.

Why can’t I sesear?

“In the spirit of the new year, I’m setting out to try something completely novel every week. Walking on stilts, mental arithmetic, cooking with salt.

To ease myself in I decided to join our sibilant South American cousins and drop the ‘th’ sound with which I was taught to pepper my Spanish sentences. Brilliant, I thought – why haven’t I tried this before? No longer will I have to take time out in meetings to mentally practise pronouncing ‘organithathiones’ before composing the sentence. My life will be simpler in one fell swoop.

Just one morning of seseando and I realise that it’s not so much a tongue twister as a mind bender. So what’s the background to this quirky phonetic phenomenon?”

Read full piece on Metropolitan’s site

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Guest blogging posts at Metropolitan

I’m going to be writing a series of guest blogging posts over at Metropolitan this month, on sundry stuff.

Here’s an excerpt from my first article.

Cheers to the new year

“I come from a country that, like it or not, has a reputation for being able to drink any other nationality under the table. Our most famous export is whisky, for crying out loud. And it’s a badge we wear with pride. “Go on then, ya lightweights!” (And that’s just the women.)

Cut to Catalunya, and the pride and prestige in knowing that I’m made of sterner girders begin to look somewhat ridiculous. To be honest, I feel like a lush. Steaming to their abstemious.”

Visit Metropolitan to read the full piece

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