An analog life

Still partying like it's 1999


From the other side of the world

We're now on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and Spain seems like another life away. In the course of a week I was in Barcelona, Oxford, London, Toronto, Kingston and then Maui. It was the longest week of my life somehow, and I still feel a little bit disorientated. We're settling into island life pretty quickly, and as we've been here several times before, we're enjoying just being, rather than running around to pack in all the sights and activities. Also, we're a bit burnt out.

I haven't yet gotten nostalgic for Spain, or England, or Europe in general, though that's probably because I feel like I'm just home for the holidays, and haven't quite grasped that I won't be returning in January. We spent all of our Spain time in Catalonia, so we've got a good handle on that part of the country (though not, sadly, the language). The rest of Spain I hope to explore on another adventure. Catalonia, though, is a really interesting place - lots of history, lots of cultural distinctions from the rest of Spain, and even a separatist movement. One great Catalan tradition is human tower - or castell - building. (Wikipedia link here.) It's incredible to watch - though nerve-wracking! There are teams throughout Catalonia - every town or even neighbourhood has one - and they compete at big tournaments that get televised. Sometimes on weekends, a few teams will meet up for a sort of friendly 'tower-off'. There is always a marching band that plays them into the square where they build the towers (and plays as the higher levels of the tower are built), and the crowds cheer them on.

Team members are all ages and genders, and they wear uniforms of loose white trousers, a waist sash, a shirt in their team colour and often a bandanna. There are always tiny children, who scramble like monkeys up the bodies of their larger teammates to the very top. Apparently they only just recently started wearing the helmets after a child was killed. Sometimes a child will lose his or her nerve while halfway up the tower, and it's heartbreaking to see them struggle with themselves, deciding whether they can do it or not while their quickly tiring teammates desperately urge them on. It reminds me of an ill-fated high-diving-board attempt I made once when I was a kid. Only I wasn't then responsible for the success or failure of a fifty-strong team.

We went to watch a tower meet in Gracia, a neigbourhood in the north part of Barcelona. Jeff knew one of the participants. He told us that it's rare for anyone to get an injury that takes longer than a week to heal. Yikes. The patience, strength and steadiness that this activity requires, not to mention the nimbleness of the small folk at the top, is remarkable to witness. Because the people at the bottom get shakier and shakier the longer the tower is up, the process of building it is swift and methodical, and the people climb up and then back down with incredible speed. There are lots of different kinds of towers - ones built with circles of four people grasping arms, standing on the shoulders of the circle under them, ones with only two people on each tier, and, most incredibly, the ones where just one person stands on the shoulders of the person below. Here are a few photos from the meet we went to.
Here you can see the hands of the people making up the base of the tower. They support the climbers and also catch people who fall. They are at three storeys now, and the people who will make up the higher stories wait in a row to climb the shoulders of their teammates as the tower gets higher (note the decreasing sizes).

Here you can see the little kid who is going all the way up to the top start climbing up - she's wearing the helmet.

The top child just needs to get up to the top and hold up one arm - she doesn't need to let go with both hands and stand upright. I missed snapping the big moment as I was mesmerized - but in this photo she's nearly there.

I might work through a bit more of a Spain backlog in the next few weeks. Around lying on the beach, snorkeling and drinking pina coladas, that is.


Random observations of a tourist pretending to be a local

I have noticed lots of facial piercings on the youthful folks here. You would be forgiven for thinking it's 1993.

Yesterday as I was approaching our building from the opposite direction I saw a grocery delivery person park his van a whole block away (there's no good street parking), wheel a big cart full of grocery bins over the uneven and sometimes missing paving stones to the door of our building, struggle through the door and, leaving the cart at the bottom, make the first of several trips up the five flights of stairs to our downstairs neighbours. As those particular neighbours are neither elderly nor infirm, I thought it cruel of them. I can't imagine how grocery delivery works in the old parts of town where the streets are too narrow for cars. Well, I can imagine, and I hope they get good tips.

Butane sellers roll carts stacked with tanks of gas around the streets, banging on them loudly with a piece of metal pipe to get peoples' attention. People lean out of windows to call them to stop, then run down to buy a tank.

The stairwell of our building is decrepit: the paint is peeling, the lighting is intermittent, the floor tiles are broken and chunks are missing, an entire pane of glass is missing - as well as the corresponding part of the frame - from the window on our floor, leaving the window hanging slightly ajar. Despite all this, someone comes to wash the floors and windows in the stairwell every few weeks.

Women of a certain age wear these kind of house apron things when at home. They roll up the outside blinds of their flat every morning one at a time. Then they energetically scrub windows and shake carpets, hang out the washing, have conversations from one balcony to another even if it's across a street or an alleyway, and generally exhaust me with their boundless activity. They are also no slouch at climbing hills and stairs, no matter how pinching and uncomfortable their shoes may look.

Apparently, for the locals, winter has arrived. Jeff and I are the only people in our entire block still sitting out on the terrace in the morning over breakfast - granted we wear sweaters now. (Occasionally this one guy comes out for a cigarette, stares across at us balefully while he smokes it, then disappears back inside his flat. He used to sit outside of an evening, having loud conversations on his mobile phone.)

Milk isn't a big thing here. Some grocery stores don't even keep any refrigerated milk in stock - you can only buy tetra-packed milk, which is kind of gross. We also noticed this when we were travelling in Croatia. I like discovering what things I've taken for granted based on my background that are actually far from standard. Doesn't this make you wonder about the Canada Food Guide? Probably nothing but propaganda for the dairy farmers and beef farmers, and possibly the wheat farmers too.

On a related note, I have never seen skimmed milk in any stores, yet when I request it at Starbucks they cheerfully comply. Or do they? Where can they be getting that milk? Or do they think I couldn't tell the difference? Wait, could I tell the difference?

I am too tall, too wide of waist, too large of foot, wrist and hand, for the clothing or jewelry sold here. Today I was in a store that organized rings by size and had to nearly dislocate my own finger, smiling innocently through the pain, in order to get a size XL ring off.

Approximately half the apartments in our building are empty. We wondered about that (it's kind of freaky), so Jeff asked around at work and apparently it's the same across the city. Several years ago there was a loophole where you could hide your money in property (so as not to pay taxes, presumably), but the loophole closed leaving people with apartments they couldn't sell without making that money visible again. And owners don't want to rent because if a renter decides to stay you can't ever get them out - there's no law to back you up. A few weeks ago the apartment across the hall was opened and people were taking photos of it - I peeked inside and the flooring, walls and wiring looked like it had last been occupied in 1979. I gather that there is - perhaps in part a consequence - a bit of a housing shortage here and many people are being priced out of the central areas of the city.

When there is a loud party in continental Europe and you can hear obnoxious drunk guys smashing beer bottles and yelling along to music, the music is more likely to be something like The Cure than, say, Kid Rock. (I saw a whole balcony full of boorish guys dancing along to 'Friday I'm in Love' last weekend.)

There are brightly coloured feral parakeets in the parks here. And people like to keep birds in cages on their balconies so you always hear birdsong. Though someone on our block has a tone-deaf bird that sounds more like a goose.

I love cities where you can walk and walk and walk and keep coming to new neighborhoods with different atmospheres and people. Barcelona is a great city for walking. I'm going to miss that quite a bit - I feel like I've only scratched the surface.


A welcome dose of the girly stuff

I just had a friend visit from Oxford and we browsed Sephora, lounged with expensive cocktails on cushion-covered beds at a beach bar, ordered ridiculously rich chocolatey desserts at restaurants, bought magazines and enjoyed being spectators at the fashion parade that is Barcelona. Fun stuff! We also discovered a store that is in close contention with Liberty for my favorite store ever. It's called Vinçon, it's in an opulent turn-of-the-century apartment building, and it's a dream.
I've seen lots of fantastic shoes, though always on people's feet rather than in a shop. Not that I have luggage space for more shoes (despite having sent several pairs home I have somehow still ended up with six pairs here in Spain), but I'm inspired. I've also noticed that women in particular wear really bright and groovy specs. If a person is wearing bright red and purple glasses - especially if they are also wearing sort of bohemian-rocker attire - then they are almost certainly local. If they are wearing comfortable sandals and any sort of backpack, especially on their front, they're tourists of course. I don't wear a backpack across my chest, but I will never emulate the effortless cool of Europeans. At least looking a bit like a tourist makes people more understanding when I am butchering their language.


Now of semi-fixed address but apparently unable to receive mail

We're living it up in Barcelona now. For me it feels like an extension of our travels as I can't get beyond feeling like a tourist, except every now and then I do some freelance work or clean the flat, which adds a pinch of normalcy. I expect, given that Jeff has an hour commute to the office each day, he feels more like the holiday is over.
We have a flat in the Eixample, which has turned out to be better than we expected in many ways. It has a lovely back terrace off the bedroom, on which we eat breakfast every morning while enjoying the multi-channel soap opera that the neighbouring terraces provide. The flat also has doors opening onto precarious balconies over the noisy boulevard out front, and you can see the mountains from there. It has high ceilings, wood floors and lots of space. It has a washing machine and dishwasher (SCORE!). However, this being an old building, there are quirks too. Every room has a door that must be closed at all times or drafts slam them shut - and I'm too nervy to handle being startled several times a day. There is no lift in the building and we're at the top, six high-ceilinged floors up. Some of the rooms look out onto really narrow little light wells, so as to have a window of sorts, and sound from other flats carries up in strange and at times alarming ways. The shower oscillates at whim between scalding and freezing. We are not entitled to access the mailbox for our flat, and as we have trouble communicating with the agent (we are trying to pick up Spanish but my linguistically challenged brain keeps defaulting to French) we haven't bothered to ask about it.
In any event, we (or rather Jeff) did really well for having chosen a flat over the internet, sight unseen, and the location is as good as I could have hoped - walking distance to just about anywhere central including the beach. I managed to overcome a formidable language barrier to join a gym, and now face a bit of a cultural barrier given that I don't see too many other women working out in old gym shorts and baggy t-shirts. Neither do they appear to sweat - a faint glow is as good as it gets, and I seem to be a foot taller than everyone including most of the men. However, I have never in my life made working out look glamorous or effortless, so nothing new there.
So I really like the city, and I'm really glad to be here for a bit, but I do miss having friends about. And perhaps, very VERY occasionally, I miss having a real job - or at least the financial security. We are on very limited bandwidth (long story), but I'll try to post some more photos soon both from our blissful month of travel and from BCN. Boy, all it takes to get me blogging again is a work deadline ... procrastinate, procrastinate ...
Here's Jeff having a leisurely Sunday breakfast on our terrace, reading the international edition of the Saturday Guardian (sadly it doesn't come with the magazine part and costs a small fortune).


Currently of no fixed address

I'm sitting in the middle of piles of half-packed suitcases and boxes, looking at that last batch of stuff - you know, the odds and ends you put aside to decide whether to keep them or toss them. As it is we have a rather embarrassingly large collection of stuff to get home - and honestly I think it will be physically beyond us to manage it all. I think perhaps we tried too hard to replicate our lifestyle back home in terms of having some good kitchen gadgets and a reasonable-sized wardrobe and library and in my case lots of shoes. These are the sorts of things you'd normally do without when living abroad for a short time, but we never knew how long we'd be here, and it's been over two and a half years. Sigh. And that's quite apart from all the cleaning. However, one way or another, tomorrow morning we will be leaving for the airport. A holiday could not be more welcome at this point!


Well thank goodness for that.

The weekly ASBO report in the Oxford Journal, where various panhandlers and attention-deprived adolescents are written up like hardened criminals. Unintentionally amusing stuff. (Definition of ASBO here.)


The music issue (semi-annual)

So many things I've meant to write about, and, much like the English summer, it's been a bit of a washout over the past few months. One of the things I planned on posting about was the Cornbury Festival back in early July. We decided we couldn't leave this green isle without experiencing the tradition that is the British summer music festival. However, as we are now old, we selected the one we thought would have the cleanest porta-potties and then bought a single-day pass so we would have the Sunday to recover from the uncharacteristic excitement. (All our camping gear is in Canada, anyway.) We rented a car and drove out to the Cotswolds to the grounds of a stately home, where the festival is held. After the most ridiculous goose chase to find it (hippies aren't exactly great with signage and organization) we parked in a field torn asunder by the Land Rovers of the wealthy.

We followed other people streaming in on a roundabout path through a woods, down a hill and over a bridge, where we were met by a man who said that, in spite of the complete absence of signs to this effect, we were meant to have exchanged our tickets for wristbands back at the car park. (Like I said, hippies are lovely folk but not terribly organised.) Swallowing our spleen as we didn't want to harsh out the peace and love vibe, we went back over the bridge and up the hill and through the woods, claimed our wristbands, and finally, finally, crested the final hill into the event. We were just in time to hear (3 of the original 4) Bangles perform 'Manic Monday'. They weren't bad, and have certainly been doing their pilates - you'd never guess they've been around so long. After that show, we wandered around the patchouli-scented stalls and snickered at the Pimm's Bus (staple of the summer festival) and the huge lineup at the Tea Tent (ahh, Britain). There were lots of families, which was fun for people-watching. The boys did their thing - large inflatable weapons were quite popular.

And the girls did their thing. Tutus and fairy wings were in abundance.

Near the second stage was the stately home itself, where a real live English Lord lives. Lord Rotherwick, in fact. I know this because, back when we were taking part in the project to locate England's ancient trees, he wrote us a very snooty letter about why we were Most Certainly Not welcome to wander off the trails in His Forest in search of venerable arboreal specimens. So I was quite pleased to see they had situated the porta-potties right outside his front door.

On the second stage we saw Mick Jones, formerly of The Clash, play with his new band called something like Carbon Silicon. Or Silicon Carbon? They were obviously rather forgettable, but further confirmed the vintage of person at whom this festival was aimed (and we are not far off that age). Before long it was time for the fabulous Toots and the Maytals, whose sunny reggae was accompanied by a drizzling rain.

After this we sussed out the various multi-ethnic food options (another reason to choose a festival for the middle-aged - decent food). As I have been dearly missing the Caribbean Roti Palace in Toronto, where I used to eat at least three times a week, I made a beeline for a stall that set my heart racing with those four blessed letters. We waited in line, only to be told that they were out of the wraps to make roti. Blinking away tears of disappointment, I made do with curry and rice. The sky grew menacing, and as I ate my meal a gust of wind quite literally upended the flimsy paper plate all over my lap and the ground. Some people next to me laughed until another gust knocked over their margaritas. Then it really started raining, and it was still two hours before Paul Simon went onstage. So we walked all the way back to the car and sat inside for an hour and a half watching the rain lash against the windows and listening to the live broadcast of the festival on Radio 1. When the radio announced that Paul's cortege of dark grey Mercedes Benzes had arrived at the festival (guess he is no longer bohemian enough to hang out and eat veggie sausages with the festival-goers - or he just decided the weather was too shite), we hauled on sweaters, waterproofs and wellies and set out in the blustery, rainy and now darkening night, reminding ourselves that it was the weekend and we were Having Fun. When Paul Simon went onstage, I had trouble spotting him. I had heard he was short, but really he is truly tiny. All I could see above the heads in front of me was his hat so I contented myself with watching his taller bandmates and occasionally holding my camera up to snap photos of what I was missing.

It was a great show. He played almost everything you'd want to hear - Simon and Garfunkel songs like The Only Living Boy in New York (one of our faves) as well as songs from Graceland. I had an unlikely moment of bliss as I danced around in a cold, wet and muddy field in July, in a resolutely cheerful crowd too similarly uncool to care that I actually can't dance, all of us wearing ridiculous head-to-toe raingear configurations, and I know I sometimes complain about this country but it was a moment of pure Englishness and why I love the place so much. On the way back to the car I turned to look back through the raindrops on my glasses (all the better to see tiny Paul Simons with) at the mass exodus behind me. Lit up by strings of lanterns on poles, umbrellas of all the colours of the rainbow flowed down the hill, across the bridge over the estate ponds and back up the hill to where I had momentarily stopped. It was breathtakingly beautiful. (Then Paul Simon's Mercedes Benzes nearly ran us down as they beat a hasty retreat.) As we hiked back up to the parking lot past all the forlorn, sodden tents of those who were staying the whole weekend, on our way to a nice dry car and ultimately a nice dry bed, I felt an enormous sense of well-being.

We haven't had much other musical activity this summer, besides a winning a capella performance (and I NEVER thought I'd find an a capella performance winning) by Out of the Blue, a troupe of utterly charming Oxford students who perform the loveliest version of a a great old Hunters and Collectors song:
Throw Your Arms Around Me
I really suggest you watch that video clip. Everything, including the 'drums', is done with voices (you can see the guy on the right beat-boxing). And aren't they just the cutest things? I want to pinch their rosy cheeks and ruffle their tousled hair and take them home as pets. If I were seventeen I'd have been completely head-over-heels in love.

Two nights ago we hung out with the 21-year-old hipsters at an MGMT show, which will be our last live music event in Oxford. I really like the old Oxford Zodiac, now the Carling Academy, and we've seen some great shows there. MGMT was pretty fun, though with only one album the repertoire was a bit limited and there were moments of endless prog-rock guitar noodling that might have sounded cool if you were really stoned but otherwise approached Spinal Tap proportions. However, you can't deny that Time to Pretend has been one of the year's anthems here. Even Noel Gallagher likes it. (I also like the song Kids. Yes, they have odd videos.)

So there you have a belated update of sorts. I've been so lax about writing lately, and haven't even been putting photos on Flickr though I've taken loads. The next week won't be great for writing either as it's going to be a crazy (and emotional) last week in Oxford. Then we have a one-way ticket to Dubrovnik next Sunday. We'll work our way up through Croatia and Slovenia, then around and across Italy, and be back in Oxford for two days at the end of September. Then we move to Barcelona for two months. Sounds like we'll be back in Canada for Christmas, possibly to stay for a while. Things feel very strange now, and I'm going to miss this place and these people so very very very much, and it's late and now I've made myself melancholy and sentimental. Time to go eat ice cream and listen to my happy song.
Five Years Time by Noah and the Whale