13 things I would change about Spain

If you’re reading this from the UK, I can imagine what you’re thinking right now.

Churlish bint.

She gets to live a life of sun, sea, sand, sandals and sangría – what has she got to complain about?

In contrast, what I’m thinking is – how can I shrink my myriad gripes and grievances, accumulated over more than two years in Spain, into a palatable baker’s dozen?

te-amo-Barcelona

Claro que te amo  – now can you just work on these points?

So – in a very particular order – here we go.

1. Machista men

Every single day, Spanish men stare at me, make sexual gestures at me, make sexual comments to me, and generally make me feel like a piece of walking prey. On more than one occasion they have followed me, called me a whore, and even snuck into the lift of my building to molest me.

It’s a constant barrage of sexist crap, and for me it is the singularly worst aspect of living in Spain. Machista men, you’re not impressing anyone.

2. Sunday opening for shops and supermarkets

As a Brit, I admit I’ve been spoiled by our 24-hour, tat-on-tap culture. In Edinburgh I celebrated the fact that my local supermarket was open 24 hours, so that if I needed paracetamol at 3am, or whatever, there it was.

I also took for granted that after working full-time all week, I had two (two!) full days at the weekend to get all my shopping done, whether for groceries or anything else.

Not so in Spain. Unless you live in Madrid, where restrictions on Sunday opening were lifted a year ago, you can forget about buying anything on the Sabbath. Most visitors to Spain assume this is because of the country’s religious bent, but in fact, this doesn’t really come into it.

The thinking goes that if large stores and supermarkets were allowed to trade on Sundays, this would disadvantage smaller retailers who can’t afford the staff.

Hmm. These are the same smaller retailers, often family-run, who gaily shut up shop in August and award themselves a month-long holiday?

3. The autónomo (self-employed/sole trader) laws

Next up in my major grievances category are the laws surrounding any poor sod who thinks, in a mad moment of entrepreneurial inspiration – I know, I’ll go freelance.

In the UK, I understand the logic and agree with the sentiment. Set yourself up as a sole trader and you will pay income tax and national insurance as a fixed percentage of the profits you make.

Hacienda tax office

The annual tax return

In Spain, however, individuals working as sole traders are required to pay currently 256€ per month towards social security. Regardless of how much they’ve actually made in that month. Even if they’ve made nothing at all.

This fact is mind-blowing to most foreigners who arrive to settle in Spain. (It’s fair to say it’s not loved by the locals, either.)

In practice, what this means is that most autónomos refuse to register as such, and either invoice illegally or else get a friend within a big company to do it for them. Thus doing the Spanish tax office out of much needed VAT.

Rather than reform the situation for the better, the Spanish government is currently talking about upping the fixed monthly social security contribution.

4. Customer service (atención al cliente)

It’s diabolical. Don’t even start me.

5. Bank holidays that fall on random weekdays

Spain, like several other European countries, sticks rigidly to its national holidays on the actual designated dates. (So if you go for a job and they say you’ll get 32 holidays a year, bear in mind that if one of the bank holidays fall on the weekend, you ‘lose’ that day. Not like in the UK, when you get the following Monday off in lieu.)

In December 2011, two bank holidays fell within the same week. It just so happened that the 6th was a Tuesday and the 8th a Thursday. 

In faintly ludicrous fashion, we all went to work Monday, stayed home Tuesday, went to work Wednesday, stayed home Thursday, before heading back to the office on Friday. Genius.

I believe there’s talk of moving certain bank holidays to Mondays, but, you know, let’s not rush things.

6. Failure to accept responsibility

In what I’m well aware is a sweeping generalisation, my impression is that Spaniards are convinced they are never wrong. It’s never their fault. Forget humility – you better start searching your own soul to see how you screwed things up.

Neglected to read the small print and were mis-sold a mortgage? Bank’s fault.

Still living with your parents at 38? Society’s fault.

Could this phenomenon be the result of Spanish society surviving for years under dictatorship? Where individual citizens are lumped into one big lumpen mass, collectively tarred with the same brush, and subject always to the whim of a higher authority?

Blame the system, blame the politicians, blame your next-door neighbour, but don’t expect anyone to hold their hands up and admit to any personal shortcoming any time soon.

7. Attitude to dogs

Dogs in SpainSpain, unlike the UK, is not a nation of dog lovers. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona has plenty of dogs (most of which seem to be French Bulldogs named Elvis, inexplicably).

And yet…they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms.

You can’t take your dog on the metro, on the buses, or on the funicular trains (up to Montjuïc or Tibidabo, for example – exactly the spots that are ideal for a walk). Nor can you venture down to the seaside without fear of a hefty fine.

So to go anywhere with your dog, it’s taxis a plenty (if you can get one to stop when they spy the canine, that is).

8. The all-encompassing Castilian compulsion

As an amante of all things Hispanic, even I have to balk on occasion at the unrelenting supremacy of the Spanish language here.

Spain is a composite nation, made up of 17 ‘autonomous communities’, several of which have their own languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Valencian, Asturian). A Spanish friend of mine, who speaks three of these languages herself, made a brilliant point in conversation the other day.

Why don’t residents of Spain have ready access to all of these languages on TV?

Here in Barcelona, TV channels are beamed out in Catalan and Castilian, but that’s it. Having exposure to all of Spain’s languages in this way would be a really positive step in encouraging a bit of cross-regional understanding.

9. Risible inability to cope with rain

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the metro, it would seem.

sawsust Barcelona metroFair enough, we Brits don’t exactly cover ourselves in glory any time we’re hit with adverse weather conditions.

But Barcelona seems particulaly ill-equipped to cope whenever one of its almighty downpours grips the city.

Sawdust strewn on the floor to tackle puddles – truly a 21st-century solution.

10. Mad motorists

I’m thinking of taking driving lessons here later on this year so include this point in the vague hope that the entire nation of drivers sorts itself out before I hit the road.

Red lights here are like red rags to a Spanish bull. They exist to be jumped. Hapless pedestrians attempting to cross the road are met with conspicuously ramped-up revs and the realisation that they’re risking their lives on a daily basis.

Road rage is such a part of life here that it puts most foreign drivers off ever getting behind the wheel. Which is a real pity, given that so much of the Costa Brava is accessible only by car.

11. Dubious dairy products

Why doesn’t Spain do cheddar? Why is it impossible to buy proper cream? Why does Manchego cheese taste consistently of cardboard? Why is ‘nun’s tit’ cheese so highly prized?

12. Refusing to pay for a round

To be fair, this may well be a Barcelona rather than Spain-wide issue.

Back in Scotland, if you’re out in a bar with a group of friends or workmates, it’s the done thing to ask everyone what they want to drink. You get your round in. Some people may leave the group before reciprocating, but no-one really cares. You assume they will return the favour at some point in the future (if you even think about it all).

Here, they’re having none of it. Whether you go for lunch or for a few drinks after work, the procedure is identical: everyone queues up afterwards to scrutinise the bill and then duly hand over their part – and not one cent more. For a Scot, this is a staggering display, and one I complain about vociferously as much as possible.

13. Dirty cutlery

Spanish restaurants, at least in Barcelona, expect you to use the same set of cutlery for your main course as you did for your starter. I know this is no earth-shattering issue, and yet it irks me regularly.

Even after two years I still automatically offer back my starter plate with fork and knife included, only to be rebuked or glared at and handed back the same manky set of cutlery ready for round two. I can’t quite fathom where this custom comes from – surely it can’t be to save on Fairy Liquid costs? Anyone out there who can shed any light, adelante.

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5 best Barcelona apps

The much-vaunted Mobile World Congress rolled into Barcelona a few months back. All across the self-proclaimed smart city, posters hung from lamp-posts (even the Gaudí-designed ones), radio adverts talked it up and, most annoyingly, taxis which normally battle it out for business (seriously, I saw the drivers almost come to blows on more than one occasion) were suddenly packed with passengers.

As the 80,000-strong tribe of suited and booted delegates debated the future of mobile technology – in, of all places, Hospitalet – it occurred to me that now might be a good time to mention the apps I find most useful, living in Barcelona.

(Then I promptly got mugged, and it was adiós smart phone, apps and article.)

So here we have attempt number two. I sincerely hope I’m not tempting fate.

In such a switched-on city, you would think it would be hard to pick only five apps. It wasn’t. There is a plethora of dross out there. Battling through the banal and bloody-difficult-to-use, here are the five best Barcelona apps I actually make use of on a regular basis.

1.     Transport – myTaxi

One of my biggest bugbears about living in Barcelona is the “no of course you can’t pay by credit card, stupid young wench” mentality, which seems to abound anywhere and everywhere across the city. I’m not exactly a fan of stoating about laden with cash, given Barcelona’s rep as carterista central (not to mention the fact I’ve been pickpocketed and mugged twice) so anywhere offering the ability to pay by credit card has my vote.

Enter myTaxi. Just plug in your destination and desired method of payment (cash, card or even pay over your mobile), the app does its thing and a couple of seconds later you’re greeted with “we’ve found you a driver!” Lo and behold, his (or her) mug shot pops up and you can see who’s on their way to get you.

MyTaxi Barcelona

The first time I used myTaxi, I was slightly sceptical. The Mobile World Congress or other massive trade fair aside, cabs across the city are generally ten-a-penny, and I imagined the app would be yet another short-lived denizen of my dashboard.

However, a middle-aged gent rolled up at my doorway, and positively beamed enthusiasm and courtesy throughout the whole journey. Dropping me, my wayward Spaniel puppy and her massive metal crate off in a decidedly dodgy part of the Raval, he waited outside, unprompted, after I’d left the cab, and even rushed back to help me when he saw me struggling to get inside the building. I was impressed.

Passengers are encouraged to rate their driver after each journey, and you can store your ‘favourites’ for future trips. Needless to say, the monopolistic taxi companies of Barcelona, like those of the other European cities where myTaxi has launched, haven’t taken too kindly to the new pretender on the block. Until they get their act together and move into the 21st century, I’m sticking with the app.

Best bit: being able to pay by credit/debit card/through the app itself.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: available on both iOS and Android.

2.     Exploring the city conventionally – TimeOut Barcelona

Interior of the Sagrada Familia“The app savvy travellers have been waiting for”. This is how TimeOut markets its series of city-licking apps. Pushing the ‘local’ aspect (“expert local knowledge in your pocket”), TimeOut points out that its content is put together by on-the-ground experts, which can never be bad.

This is a fairly full and fancy overview of what’s going on across the city. The ‘what’s nearby’ section lets you home in on stuff a stone’s throw away, while the ‘top 10’ and ‘editor’s picks’ within each category mean you can quickly compile your Barcelona bucket list.

Although I’ve seen most of Barcelona’s sights and attractions after two years of living in the city, I do find myself going back to this app pretty regularly. Its comprehensive coverage is especially handy for discovering different districts, especially if you’re at a loose end and need some inspiration.

Best bit: “inspire me”. Plus it’s really easy to navigate.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: iOS only.

3. Exploring the city unconventionally – BCN Paisatge

This one’s a real favourite of mine. Much less mainstream than the info you’ll find in TimeOut, for example, this one serves up the city’s secrets, letting you really get under its skin.

Sant Feli Neri square

Hit ‘landscapes’ and you’re confronted with a list of unique urban features, such as the shrapnel marks pitting the walls in the plaza of Sant Felip Neri, or, even more eerily, the hole in the wall where destitute parents passed their babies through to the orphanage on the other side (Carrer de les Ramalleres).

The ‘shops’ section name drops the weird and wonderful of Barcelona’s businesses, from where to go for authentic artesan bread to your options for Modernista pharmacies.

Best bit: the ‘near me’ section. Great if you’re bored and want to see something quirky that, given this is Barcelona, is likely just around the corner.

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: iOS only.

4. Shopping – decompring

With my Luddite-like tendencies, it took me a while to get my head around this one, but I’m now a firm fan.

Basically,picture of decompring app the app gives you rewards for shopping. Not a bad concept.

These rewards come in the form of ‘compris’, virtual money, which you build up as you look at the offers available from the listed shops or actually go to the shops to scan the barcodes of the products on offer.

There’s quite a range of shops that take part in decompring, such as supermarket chains like Condis, shoe shops like Zapaterías Tino González or bookstores like the mighty La Casa del Llibre. (You can use the filter to find the specific type of product you’re interested in – food, sports, petrol, clothes, etc.)

Once you’ve built up your ‘compris’ you redeem the virtual money for gift vouchers or for actual cash, which will eventually make its way to your bank account.

Best bit: you can do the honourable thing and donate the money to an NGO instead of cashing it in (although sadly, for the moment the list of charities is somewhat limited.)

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: both iOS and Android.

5. Running – Barcelona Corre

Developed by the ajuntament, Barcelona’s city council, this is a nifty wee app that only appeared a couple of months back. My early experiences attempting to go out for a run in Barcelona were less than successful (accompanied by constant catcalls and smutty gestures from the local males), but recently I’ve been adopting a ‘sod the lot of them’ mentality. Frankly, if I paid attention to the moronic male population here I would never leave the house.

Barcelona women's 10K runThe first screen you see is slightly intimidating, featuring a fit chick sprinting along Barcelona’s promenade, while the app immediately cuts to the chase (sorry) and demands your age, weight and height before we proceed. (It’s even more intimidating when it’s asking for the info in the metric form. No frigging idea.)

That hurdle over, you’re presented with 23 possible running routes grouped into three sections – different city districts, arranged thematically (parks and gardens, chilly days) and more challenging runs. There’s also a section dedicated to the most popular races that take place frequently across the city.

As an incentive, complete one of the 23 routes and you’re awarded a virtual medal stored in the app. Ideal for acquisitive souls.

Best bit: despite being developed by Barcelona’s Catalan-speaking city council, the app does offer the option of changing the text into either Spanish or English. (This isn’t as self-evident as it sounds, believe me.)

Cost of app: free.

Platforms: both iOS and Android.

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Horse heaven in the Catalan hinterland

Palomino horse in horse boxThe first thing I should say is, this isn’t a sponsored post. No-one has paid me, given me a reciprocal link  – or, sadly, bought me a horse – in exchange for me bumping my gums to the world. (I should also say that I am open to the option of someone buying me a horse, however. I am particularly fond of palominos.)

Barcelona’s uncanny ability to land me in unforeseen situations that, on occasion, gift lifelong memories, surprised me again this weekend. Living here feels like being interred inside one of those folded paper fortune tellers, that, depending on your dexterity, yield up four different corners of fate on a regular basis. Whatever else it is, life here is never predictable.

In the lap of the gods

Sitting due north of the coastal town of Masnou, about 20km away from Barcelona, the Club Hípico Vallromanes is a riding school, livery yard, and hotel resort, complete with pool, gardens and the most amazing views you can imagine. I had been invited by the owner, Antonio, to come check out the facilities and see the flamenco horse show that takes place each week.

It had been a while since I’d been out of the city, and the first thing I noticed on stepping out the car was that even the air smelt different. The kind that makes you want to inhale deeply. Set in the midst of a national park, the whole area seems to have been carved out of the hillside, and Antonio tells me proudly that he planted many of the trees as saplings himself.

The next thing I noticed was that I couldn’t stop smiling. The sort of smiling I haven’t done since I wielded a blowtorch at some unsuspecting crema catalana in a Barcelona cooking class. In a sort of helpless, hapless, demented way. “¿Te gustan los caballos entonces?” asked Antonio, receiving an ear-to-ear grin in return.

views over Masnou

Making old friends

Given my palpable enthusiasm for all things equestrian, Antonio obviously decided I was harmless enough to let loose around the yard. The show itself wasn’t due to kick off for another couple of hours, and Antonio seemed a bit concerned that I might be bored hanging around. When he clocked the fact that within the first three minutes I had actively taken photos of each horse in its box (there are around 70) and was starting to memorise their names, he quite wisely left me to it.

Flamenco rider getting ready

Limbering up Seville-style

“You’re one of the family now” said Antonio gamely. And, true enough, my guides were Antonio’s granddaughters, aged from four to 12, who were the most polite, cheerful and knowledgeable kids I have met in Spain ever. Little Aitana, aged four, eagerly appropriated her role as profe, teaching me the essential Spanish vocab and doing a great job of disguising her disdain at my ignorance.

“Sudadero” for saddle-pad. “Tijerillas” for martingale. The sort of words that don’t appear in Word Reference, and which sizzle on your tongue as you savour them. “Crin” for mane, and I start remembering some poem or other of Lorca’s, and Córdoba, distant and alone, with the olives in the saddle-bag. A whole world of associations with Spain that always bring me back to horses, poetry, and even Saint John of the Cross.

The flamenco horse show

Anyway, I diverge. My point is, the whole day was almost otherworldly.

The show itself, in the massive competition arena, would have been impressive enough, as riders from all over the world took turns at showcasing their talents. Classic dressage moves combined with displays of gaucho daring, but the common denominator that I could see was the riders’ attitude to their horses.

I had hung out beforehand in the practice arena, watching the warm-up exercises agape, struck by the respect with which the riders treated their mounts. Many ‘horsey’ people in the UK are out-and-out swines, in my experience, so to see the genuine relationship between horse and rider was a revelation.

Spanish-horses

Ying and Yang

My favourite was the plucky little Argentinean, of course.

Argentinean rider giving salute

Going gaucho

Learning to improvise

Given the setting, sunshine and equestrian derring-do, the day was already complete for me, but throw in some glasses of vino and a live salsa band in the gardens and we’re talking a whole other level.

Salsa oozed softly around us as Antonio’s granddaughters (there now seemed to be even more of them) combed through my handbag and looted my makeup. “What does this do?” they quizzed me, brandishing mascara wands into the afternoon sunshine as horses nearby failed to bat an eyelid.

Makeup perfectly pulchered, we followed the sound of the band, who seemed to segue effortlessly from one Latin standard to the next. A young woman, shoogling in her seat herself, thrust  forward her one-year-old baby, who mimicked a few steps on the table. Seamlessly, the band entered on cue: “Un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’lante María, un, dos, tres, un pasito pa’tras”.

I laughed, sat back, and counted my blessings.

Dancing in the garden

Riding facilities

If you’re a rider, you will adore this place. There are two outdoor schools, both big and set against a cliff, a massive indoor arena, and an even larger outdoor show ground. The tack rooms are replete with every conceivable kind of kit, while the stalls, stables and yard are immaculate. Given the setting, as you might imagine, the club offers hacks as well as formal lessons.

Colt in outdoor school

Coltish in contemplation

Faith healing

Massaging a horse

While everyone was still tucking in to the barcebue, shouting out requests to the salsa band and generally having a great time, I snuck away, beckoned by a whispering Aitana in the corner of the garden.

She wanted to show me her moves. Aged four, armed with a riding hat, protective waistcoat and the fearlessness you only have at four years old, she showed off her agility, guided by her older sister on the lunge. “What do you want to do now?” asked older sis. “¡Galope!” was the unequivocal reply.

And not for the first time that day, I was transported back to a different time, remembering other ponies and other places, and Ayrshire skies of a more leaden nature.

What the smell of bales of hay can do.

Huge thanks to Antonio and his family for an amazing day:)

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Two years in – how Barcelona has changed me

A colleague of mine took the day off work recently. This wouldn’t have been noteworthy in itself, except that it was a random Wednesday, we were in the middle of a big project, and he was uncharacteristically cagey about the occasion.

After some gentle probing the next day, it turned out that Wednesday had been his one-year anniversary living in Barcelona.  He had wanted to mark the day with self-reflection. The females in the office cooed sweet things at him on hearing this. The men, meanwhile, rolled their eyes.

I smiled wryly at the sentiment, remembering my own one-year anniversary last April, and fast forwarding mentally to the second.

With mixed feelings.

A recent run of seriously dodgy incidents in Barcelona has put my commitment to the city to the test. After being attacked both in the street and inside the lift of my apartment building, it’s easy – and tempting – to write the place off as a ne’er-do-well destination. (Morten was right. These are scoundrel days.)

View from Barcelona observatory

Sure, from up here it’s shiny…

But hell, no-one said moving abroad alone was ever going to be easy, did they?

The Spanish me

Pours olive oil over everything. Mayonnaise, when it does put in an appearance, is reified in the form of ajo-laced allioli. If it can’t walk on its own, it doesn’t count.

Has a vague idea of what’s going on in the League. (Vague, mind.)

Automatically looks to the left first before crossing the road.

Tenses up instinctively whenever she hears footsteps quicken or someone breaks into a run.

Never wears a watch. Has the feeling that doesn’t matter.

Touches and hugs people constantly, even strangers she meets for the first time.

Unconsciously veers to the right on escalator queues.

Never watches TV.

Always clutches her handbag firmly to her lap in bars, restaurants, metro journeys, parties.

Scales at Barcelona Maritime Museum

Weighing up the options at Barcelona’s Maritime Museum

Has an irritating tendency to exclaim “Uff, qué frío!” whenever the mercury dips below 15 degrees. Centigrade.

Frequently finds herself questioning what day of the week it actually is.

Can not remember the last time she saw the iron.

Has seriously considered buying one of those little pull-along trolley things for the supermarket.

Has no qualms about using exclamation marks and effusive emoticons liberally in email communication.

Is inured to the chronic reek of dope on the breeze.

Never goes shopping for clothes.

Is no longer afraid of speaking Spanish on the phone.

Has packed away the microwave. Gluten-free frozen ready meals simply do not exist in Spain.

Is losing her grasp on the English language at a rate of knots.

Finds herself, for the first time in her life, questioning how to spell certain words. Responsible responsable? Cemetery cementery? Hostel hostal? Japanese Japonese?

Has discovered that it is physically impossible to eat lunch alone (some apparently deep sensibility of Spanish colleagues and friends prohibits it.)

Never saves any money. Ever.

Is genuinely starting to consider the possibility that chilly temperatures in and of themselves may cause the common cold. Despite undisputed science that says it’s a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

Will never get used to the sight of people scrabbling in wheelie bins looking for food.

Isn’t fazed by working with colleagues from every conceivable corner of the world.

Rainbow over Barcelona beach

Is, most of the time, on reflection, glad to live here.

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