I’m like that foreign exchange student you made fun of

Remember that kid in high school? The one whose English you laughed at, not to mention the way she dressed and wore her hair? Maybe you said a few words to her in the lunch room or if her locker was located next to yours, but you usually didn’t bother chatting with her too long because she had trouble understanding you and, let’s face it, you had nothing in common. Now take that same situation and make her a couple decades older, add  couple of degrees and 5 additional countries to her list of places once called home and make the setting not school but work, and you have me. Well, first subtract all of her charm, and then you have me.

I write intensely in English all day and then must communicate and listen in Spanish. Sometimes people speak about what is going on to me and other journalists in languages I don’t understand and sometimes they speak Spanish, but sometimes I am not listening during those Spanish language moments. But if I am, I still have difficulty understanding (*sometimes. Let’s stick with the theme).

This becomes especially troublesome when unspoken rules regarding the particular content I am working on are present. I inevitably discover many of said unspoken rules by making mistakes. In fact, it is the only way I discover many of the rules, secret or not. This method of “training” is fairly standard here in Spain. And while the new kid on the block is floundering through said training, the cool kids are sitting back and rolling their eyes as mistakes pour in.

I am not suffering the cruel tricks that you all played on the exchange student, like helping her out with responses to teacher’s requests with phrases such as “why don’t YOU sit down, woman?”  In fact, the people I work with are nice as well as talented and capable. But  European corporate culture generally has remained old school in that there are no processes defined for how work gets done. Some have emerged organically, but nothing is documented and therefore nothing exists to pass on to any newcomers.  Meaning: There is nothing to base any training on, no way to share knowledge or lessons learned nor anything to base required skills and abilities on for a job that opens up. Those jobs are largely defined around the person that previously held the job. Which means when that person goes, so does special job knowledge.

Of course, there are old school water cooler conversations for knowlege sharing that happen…but because of the subtelties of language that I am incapable of picking up on and producing, I don’t attempt to initiate casual conversations about work, that in itself is too much work. And since I’m the weird language exchange kid, I am not included anyway.

I realize this is kind of a big bitch-fest, but in a roundabout way it is also praise for the US corporate model. Not something you would generally consider when you think of the word ‘homesick’, but for me it ranks big. Like the exchange kid, my best friends, confidants and family are in my country of origen. If I have a bad day or feel lonely, I don’t have a community at work to fall back on, at least not yet anyway. (As it happens, I am feeling particularly lonely after a fantastic time with my best friends in the US.  To top it off, one of my only two good friends here is leaving in July.)

So I don’t know what the exchange student did when she felt isolated. Probably nothing. Just waited to go home. Or maybe she called her mom. Me, I am just going to keep at it, there isn’t much I can do about the corporate culture and I don’t care if they think I am a crazy American. I am unmotivated to improve my Spanish because I am too tired, I am working hard. We will see this year if the trade off is worth it. If not, this exchange kid might just be heading back to her friends and family in her country of origin. (!!)

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Silence at last. And amor.

Oh goodness, it has been over a month since I’ve posted anything. But I swear I have a good reason, I really do!

You see, besides being extremely busy with work, including some very strange and loooong hours, I finally moved! It felt like nearly a lifetime of waiting considering the relentless noise I had to deal with the past few months at my old place, that, coupled with how akin to WC Fields I have become with regard to children (and boy are they particularly loud here) made the summer hellacious in the pursuit of quiet. You never realize how much you need it until you don’t have it.

The new place is quiet, with plenty of light and views and no buildings facing either of my TWO giant balconies! So while my double set of sliding glass doors are on display to the world, I have more privacy than ever. In fact, if the closest building, which is taller than mine, ever entices one of it’s residents out onto their tiny balconies, and if I see they might be looking this way (they are far enough it is hard to tell) I catch myself thinking “hey, mind your own business, this is my space and I’ll paint these chairs in my bathrobe and towel-turbaned head while singing Journey if I want to!” and I go inside in a huff. Quite the turnaround from could-not-care-less snacking naked in my kitchen while the gay couple pretended not to notice from before.

So when I am not working I am doing all of the many things one must do when moving into a (rare) brand new building here. I had to buy an entire household of furniture, which, as fun as that sounds, is quite an ordeal. If I never see the inside of another IKEA, it will be too soon. Ikea here is like Walmart in the US, full of out of control shrieking children and throngs of people shuffling around, albeit through much narrower isles and non regard for personal space – you just shove through grandma and her clan strolling 7 wide through the 4 foot wide aisle, go ahead! They don’t care. They don’t say sorry when they elbow you in the ribs getting by as you are pinned against the LJUSÅS YSBY lamps and NYVOLL dressing tables and you don’t have to either.

I also have been busy setting  up gas, electricity and water, getting the water heater lit, let’s not forget decorating the flat which I have done very tastefully (including a very zen fountain to go with the new silence. My clothes are still in piles on the floor, but I have a little fountain, damnit.) and finally, the challenging task of establishing a connection to that thing they call the internet, which, by the way, I still don not have – I am tethered to my iphone to connect. This is because Internet companies are fucking ridiculously incompetent. I’ve been waiting a month for the installation people just to call to set up an installation, which of course doesn’t mean they will get it right or even do it the first time. So on that front, yay Spain.

The neighborhood has welcomed me with lots of love, manifesting in graffiti of the same theme, which I share with you here.

Old factory wall that remains in the empty lot beside my building, soon to become a park. The wall is staying.

North side of the building next to me, will be one entrance to the park.

Same artist, a few blocks away

Letter slot on a storefront after hours.

This tag was up so high I couldn’t get a good photo of it. It’s much cooler in person.

I’ll post more Love as I find it around the ‘hood!

Too Close for Comfort

I live in a very dense urban environment. My windowed balcony doors look across the narrow street into the neighbors same doors. I don’t need much imagination to see how my neighbors live. The street is so narrow between the buildings that  I can step out onto my balcony and have a conversation with people living on the other side of the street.

I probably should check  if I am decent when I walk out into my living room in the morning, but I rarely do. I don’t really care what the gay couple, whose vantage point looks across and down into my flat, sees me doing. I’m sure they are less than thrilled to watch me make coffee and slouch over a computer in my underwear. It’s possible they are entertained when I struggle through my front door, sweating and swearing after hauling a mountain bike up three flights of extremely narrow stairs. Or perhaps it interests them how often I do dishes, or compulsively clean the wood floors that are constantly dusty from the crumbling brick wall that comprises the entire eastern wall of my place. I in turn can see them trimming each others hair, dining, or relaxing on a luxurious looking sofa in their beautifully furnished and much larger flat.

The place just below the gay couple is more exposed from my vantage point. I can see their messy dining table all covered in papers, computers, an iron, phones, snacks… I see what they eat for lunch and dinner at that table. I can watch them sitting on their couch in the living room, reading in the chair, petting the cat who’s litter box is on the balcony and is so close I can sometimes smell it. I see all this, just as they see all my activities, though of course we attempt to appear not to notice. This is how you live in such close proximity. Pretend not to be looking, unless both of you are on the balcony. Then you can make eye contact and visit.

Occasionally a neighbor will have a dinner party, and I’ll get to hear all their chatter and music until the wee hours. Or the old guy a few floors up and across from me will enthusiastically watch a football match, running out onto his tiny balcony in his underwear, jumping and hooting, sometimes singing. All of this is fine, I can tune it out, even be entertained by it, even with my balcony doors open. But recently, a new family has moved in, and my relaxed attitude toward urban living and it’s various and sundry music has changed.

This is a Pakistani family with at least five children, two of whom are very young twin boys. Maybe 3 years old. I think they have a special language that twins sometimes develop, you know the one I’m talking about? Yeah, that, except their particular special language is made entirely of screams, angry whining and crying. Lots and lots of crying. Seriously, I don’t know what is wrong with them, I don’t even think they talk, but they constantly squeal and  scream while standing on their balcony, or from just inside the doors of their balcony which are alway open, echoing the noise through these narrow streets and bouncing off the stone walls directly through my now constantly closed doors and into my living room. At all hours of every day. For example, it is presently 1:17am and I hear those little fuckers squealing and crying right now.

Three or four times a day I open my doors and command them to be quiet, sometime pointing a finger at them to get back inside their house. If their older sister sees me, she will pull them inside and shut the doors. Any of their brothers will ignore me. Mom will occassionally smile up at me and sheepishly laugh, as if to say “Oh kids these days. What are you going to do?” The neighbors, when one of them throws a particularly piercing temper tantrum is thrown in the middle of the night, are not so nice with their language. They’ll shout “Shut up, Muslims!” using the word Muslim as an insult, or offer a charming “Hey, Pakistanis, shut the fuck up!” (Which, for what it’s worth, generally works.)

I think from where I am situated, I get the worst of the reverberating screaming, or maybe the neighbors are more accustomed to living with noise. Either way, I won’t be able to keep my doors shut much longer. Summer is coming and it will be far too hot not to have them open. So unless the squealers shut up (unlikely), I’ll be moving again (likely). I told the owner here that I would stay until September, but I don’t think I can last that long. I hate to say it but those brats have won.

I guess it’s time to get out of my neighbors’ living rooms anyway.

My neighborhood music

On any given day in the summer, I am treated to a cacophony of street sounds. I live directly above a narrow passageway (it’s actually a street, and small cars do go down it, but not often. The street was built centuries ago so it’s quite narrow and twisty in places). My building is 6 stories and each floor has two apartments, except the top floor, which is part roof terrace for the whole building.

Sounds from the neighbors echo against the buildings as do noises from the park just around the corner, which is more like a dirt plaza surrounded by apartment buildings hundreds of years old. Some of the more common sounds I enjoy (or not) daily are as follows:

Toothless crazy lady who lives across the street and up a few doors, one floor lower than mine, standing at her balcony squawking obscenities at the Pakistani owners of the corner shop and all who go in and out.  Her rude, grating voice carries as if it were amplified –  she yells from her diaphragm yet still is able to project the volume through her nasal passages.  This begins at 11am, will break for a few hours around siesta and dinner time, and continues on until 2 or 3am. Nightly.

Firecrackers at all hours of the day and night. They are enjoyed and set off by tiny children to adults. The number and frequency increase depending on which of the hundreds of festivals are in effect, or how FC Barcelona is doing in a futbol match. If FC Barça are doing particularly well, firecrackers are not only set off en mass in the streets and plazas, they are throw out of windows at passers by. Note: if a Futbol match is indeed in progress, The neighbor man across the street punctuates the plays with a stings of praise or criticism at the top of his voice. If Barca scores a goal, he will run out onto his balcony (occasionally in his underwear if it is hot) and jump up and down with arms raised high.

Children played heated matches of futbol in the park weekday mornings (which is why it is a dirt plaza. No watering system means no grass.) It’s not as bad as it sounds, I think the kids are a bit older so there isn’t the usual shrieking that accompanies young children getting excited and/or upset. The layered shouts and calls of the match echo off the walls and drift over to my open bedroom doors. This, with the rising heat of the day, makes for a pleasant waking in the summertime.

The guy next door neighbor singing loudly in English. Fortunately, his voice isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, the songs are usually horrible 80s pop tunes. This usually happens late night for my evening entertainment.

Parades. Any given parade could be happening at any time, on any day of the week. For example, the other Thursday evening, around 5pm, GP and I were returning from a bike jaunt in the mountains in his van. (He keeps his van across town in a narrow parking garage under an apartment building my friend lives in – but that is another story). The main road to my place was closed because there was a pirate parade (Yes. As in the “Arrrrrr” kind of pirates).  Here is another ridiculous example: I heard a drum-line heading down the street a random Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago. As joined the other neighbors looking off their balconies to watch, several Gigantes (giant paper-mache people) appeared in my street. Shortly, two Gigantes were positioned to face each other while people milled around and the drums continued. Then a couple of men popped out from under the robes of the giants and milled around as well. Finally, the men climbed back under their giant’s big skirts, hoisted them onto their shoulders (presumably), and left the street while my neighbors looked confusedly at each other.

Giants are under my balcony!

And lastly, bands playing in front of the Santa Caterina Mercat, 3 mins from my place. Outdoor are stages set up in any given plaza, park, or square in Barcelona for free, public music performances. These continue until late into the night, 1am during the week and until 3am on weekends.

Let me epilogue this post with this: I love that I can walk down my building’s stairs and instantly be in the middle of everything – the old and new mix together in a wonderful sensory experience that is difficult to capture in words, but I am attempting to capture some of it here, little by little. Where I live sounds like a noisy place, and it is. But it is full of life and excitement and new discoveries every day.

And if it gets too noisy, I can close the hundred year old wooden and shuttered glass doors to my brick and mortar flat and the outside world fades away.

A Tip for Your Next Move

Should you find yourself moving across town, here is a helpful tip:

Try to hire a car that is NOT the smallest in the world. Say, one that fits more than a bag and a pair of sneakers in it.

This will save much driving back and forth between residences and avoid the multiple frustrations of one way streets and incomprehensible traffic signs that flow traffic in ever tighter circles around your destination, but that never lead to your destination.

It will also save 100 bicycle trips across town for the person who does not fit in the car.

Ah, Barcelona.

Barcelona, I really hate that you insist upon construction work dragging on every day until what most people consider to be nighttime. For example, it is now 8:30pm and there is some ridiculously loud drilling going on in the flat above mine. I suppose the hammering will follow next, as it did last night until after 9pm. Did I mention I work at night, from home?

But I am not going to turn this into a criticism session. Because for all your faults, there are so many things I really love about you.

First, let me tell you how much I appreciate your Greater Middle East area of Raval. You’re hosting some damn fine Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Iranian and Armenian restaurants and bakeries. Fort super cheap, I might add.

I love the unexpected art I come across every day. I found these little gems when I walked out on a jetty to greet a fat puppy sniffing  around at the cats who live in the jetties.

Speaking of the beach, now that Spring is here, the Chiringuitos are all out on the sand, playing music and serving up drinks. Love. Them.

And though I may not be able to find cottage cheese anywhere within your city walls (except for Carrefour Express on La Ramble, but it’s horrible UK cottage cheese), anything resembling real Mexican food, or convenient food like pre-shredded chicken in bags that I am accustomed to preparing for myself like a good American, I do love the entertaining variety of foods I can find in the larger supermarkets.

Yes, those cookies are called “Nun Nipples” and that’s an awfully hoochie looking nun pictured on the box. And you being Catholic no less.

Which brings me to the naked people. God how I love seeing your naked citizens walking around, riding bikes, or otherwise remaining undisturbed in their nudity. I especially love seeing the British tourist and their children stop in their tracks to stare open mouthed, while your Catalunyan grandmothers pass by arm in arm without a break in their conversations.

But the thing I probably appreciate the most is your lack of airport security. I know, I know, I’ve said it before. But that fact that you don’t make me take off my sweatshirt, shoes or earrings and that you don’t blink when I put this in my carry on and pass it through security X-ray:

It just makes my life so much easier.

Oh and also when I misspell my own name on my boarding pass. Thanks for letting that slide, too.

Love,

Me

Moving around

Dudes, I have to move again.  No, I’m not moving to Italy again, I’m just moving house.

I am leaving a great place, right next to the Parc de la Cuitadella, 5 minutes walk to the beach and 5 minutes on a bicycle to the center. It also has the best views in Barcelona (as I mention in an earlier post), being on the top floor (or Sobre Atico, which means like top penthouse). I share it with three other people but have my own bathroom – very rare – and very appreciated since two flatmates are boys.

This room was sublet to me, and now my friend who owns the lease on the flat has moved back to Spain. It was his room I rented, so I have to go – that was the deal. (Though we never thought he would be back this soon).  He is now staying in the living room, waiting for me to leave. I kind of want to make him live in the living room for as long as possible – months even – for kicking me out. But his crap is all over the place and I have to walk through it to get to the kitchen (which, while working, is often) or leave the house (sadly, not as often work is very busy and intense lately and I must feed my brain plenty of sugar, coffee, tea, crackers and yogurts to keep it happy).

Here are the grand views I have had for 5 months:

Sunset from my terrace

My terrace

View around the rterrace corner

View from my bedroom

My flatmates have an even more amazing view from their terrace:

Parc de la Cuitadella

You cannot appreciate views like this until you have seen (and especially if you’ve lived in) one of the dark, sometimes windowless (or interior windowed, meaning your windows open into the staircase, elevator shaft or onto a dark airshaft) flats of which there are many. It’s too bad- I only had this place for the fall and winter, and it’s a VERY cold room in the winter. There is no central heating in any of these old buildings, no insulation, no seals on the windows…so you buy an electric heater and sit in front of it to stay warm. Having a shower is a pretty cold affair, especially since sometimes the hot water only lasts for 4 minutes. (I have been showering at the gym all winter, where it is warm).

But I am not complaining at all, this was a great place to live and with great flatmates for the most part. Oh there is always the trash and dishes that pile up and the usual annoyances that come with living with other people. And the occasional”who used the last of my milk?!”  But mostly it has been fun and interesting.

So out I go. I have a new place lined up and I will take ya’ll on a tour when I move in April 1.