Outsider In an interview at a famous Baker Street address

In my continued hunt for perfect happiness in my working life(!), I am currently testing the route of ‘portfolio career’, that is juggling several jobs at once.  It seems to suit my inability to commit to any one career path (prospective employers, please read “adaptable, multi-skilled and open-minded”).  More appropriately, perhaps, it offers the variety oh so sought after by me.

This quest leads me, this morning, to an unexpected happy ten minutes in a greasy spoon, thanks to beans on toast and a cuppa for an insignificant £2.90! Opposite Marylebone station, in this ‘proper caff’ – run by Italians but as London as it comes – service is fast and friendly, the clientele pleasingly varied, and the food astonishingly cheap.

But my trip to North West London wasn’t just to watch the world go by from Gino’s Coffee Bar.  I was waiting to go to an interview at “the world’s most famous address” – 221b Baker Street, of course.  Not that this is a real address just as its late 19th and early 20th century tenants, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson were, I regret to reveal, entirely fictional.

Nevertheless, there is a deerstalker shaped space in my heart that he snugly fits into and I had thought, upon stumbling across an advert for positions at the one and only Sherlock Holmes Museum set at the made-up address, that it would perfectly break up the monotony of my primary sitting-at-computer activity.  What could be more antithetical than dressing up in a Victorian maid’s outfit and helping shuffle excited tourists around a teensy terraced house, ram-packed with old artefacts and make-believe?  Nothing!, I hear you cry.  Well then, that’s exactly why I’m here.

I could also – just about – kid myself that this could be filed under ‘arts, heritage and education’ in the career world, and so it sort of fits somehow into what my brain and pride can just about justify as ‘worth doing’, rather than merely ‘a bit of a laugh’ or, even, ‘laughable’…

When I make the move from my new favourite caff to Baker Street it is no hard feat finding the museum, thanks to the already large queue of people outside.  At the front is a young spotty man dressed in a Victorian policeman’s outfit (obviously) and he points me past the gift shop to another small shop-front looking entrance.  I step straight into it to find myself in someone else’s interview: arriving early has backfired as there’s nowhere to wait so I’m ushered straight back out.

Two false starts later and a solid blonde German woman is telling me about the job and asking if I have the required skills.  I patiently give her a verbal run through of my CV, as, curiously, she must have missed the fact that I PATENTLY do from the written version she’s obviously never read.  I think her main concern though is how much of my valuable time I’m willing to give over: the requisite three days I tell her.  All good.  But, I add, no two days back to back due to other work commitments…

Uh oh, wrong thing to say, as I find myself suddenly at the ‘do I have any questions’ for her stage of the interview, and calculating that we can’t be even ten minutes in.  I can almost feel a big fat X hanging over me.  Still I reckon I can erase it and win her over on charm, chat and the common ground of our fondness for the consulting detective…

.. or maybe not.  I am exiting the weird Baker Street shop-front office in the knowledge that I’m unlikely to receive even a cursory phone call or email from them: no news equals no job.  Turns out our solid blonde is not that chatty, nor that big of a Sherlock fan.  Well, I actually am, so I take advantage of her offer to visit the museum gratis (doubtful I’d ever part with £15 to get inside). Recompense for my wasted time, I think, queue-hopping and passing the Victorian policeman again.

My overriding memories of the museum are the narrowness of the staircases, slightly stale rooms stuffed to the garters with era appropriate furnishings and curios, the odd creepy wax work, and a small queue of visitors wishing to briefly warm the chamber-pot with their bottoms.  A lengthy video from the museum website shows you pretty much all of it without needing to visit.

I have a brief chat with a sniffly maid who is ushering visitors into different rooms.  Like 90% of the employees there, she is an actor, making ends meet whilst waiting for auditions and other jobs to come along.  Though she is generally positive about the people, flexibility and pay, I can’t help but find it all a little dispiriting, any enthusiasm I previously had now probably wallowing at the bottom of the aforementioned chamber pot.

I consign this experience to the dustbin and feel the wood and the trees closing in once more.  I read an article* recently to inspire those in a rut or transitional stage in their working lives, which persuasively argued that one should answer the inevitable ‘what do you do?’ question with what you aspire to do. My answer, therefore, is that I am an anthropologically grounded social impact arts, education and sustainable development activist, world travelling, multi-lingual writer and documentary maker.  Who says that can’t be a job?  No?

Bugger it, maybe I’ll just apply for the Foreign Office.  At least civil servant, with its sibilance, slithers off the tongue.

So, conclusion in all of this?  I’m sure finding a career shouldn’t be this complicated.  Plus, cheap baked beans and a good cup of tea – that’s one thing I’d go back to Baker Street for.

*annoyingly I can’t find the article now but it came from these guys.

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Outsider In Somerset House: Experiencing co-working at Exchange

My first day

I am already excited as I approach Somerset House.  I enter through one of the west wing doors, past a restaurant that evokes continental terrace dining with some tables set in an indoors-imitating-outdoors passage, and out again into the impressive establishment’s equally impressive courtyard.  I  make my way to Seamen’s Hall, the reception in the south wing, one of my only sure points of reference in this vast estate.

As I wait to be taken to security for my pass – my official Somerset House Exchange co-working space aka this is where I work and will now be a member of the community pass! – I scan the exhibitions currently on: these I will be able to take in on a break, or pre- or post-work.  What a privilege, I think, to be able to treat this magnificent Central London arts and cultural centre as an office.

Pass now in hand, I make my way to the uppermost floor of the House’s south wing and into one of the spaces available for co-working.  I am in a peaceful, forest green room, high-ceilinged and dotted with modern sofas, armchairs, and large wooden tables.  Immense windows flank the room up to which one a small set of steps leads and allows a privileged Thames view.  I experience a small frisson of pleasure.

Before I get down to work I need to locate some necessary facilities and, on my way along a corridor I pass several bags stuffed full of what look like cushions covered in African print fabric.  The bags are labelled for the MOBO awards – Music of Black Origin.  Already I feel I am in a place I want to be.

A Wonderland

The second time I choose to work at Somerset House, I decide against the grand courtyard approach (dancing fountains and ice rink sadly absent at this time of year) in favour of taking a route up the west wing, varying the commute to my new favourite forest green ‘office’.

I enter again from the north-west-ish corner and take a right past Spring the inviting continental-feel restaurant .  Down a long corridor I trot, lined with meeting rooms, or some such, and a second fancy restaurant, Pennethorne’s Café.  Savoury smells waft around me but this is not the moment to test out the extent of my Exchange pass benefits in the eateries of the building; I am taking this variant course to see what new I can discover.  I feel I will not be disappointed as I see a woman further ahead taking photos of a sight elusively out of my eye line.

I reach her spot to find myself facing an installation: sculpted trees from delicate wood and cardboard grow and erupt into chairs, waterwheel paddles, ships and bugs, coloured and lit up in pale aquas.  A uniformed security guard sits, incongruous, beneath the shadows cast.  A sign informs me that the installation, Ulmus Londinium, celebrates “the elm’s relationship with London’s historic built environment, crafts and biodiversity”.  The pleasing associated website reveals the significance of the elm to, and where to find them now in, London.

But I am then quite quickly distracted by an exhibition in the room opposite and I peek in to find exposed pianos, lying on their sides!  I plan to re-investigate all later when sitting in front of my laptop starts wearing thin.  My mission now, though, is to find my way in this unfolding Wonderland maze to my third floor spot with giant windows.

I try my access pass on the first set of doors I come across and – success! – I am through.  I assume I will find my way eventually by trial and error: that my my blippy pass will dictate my path and lead me to my desired destination.  This method proves workable but not entirely efficient as I climb floor after floor to only discover that I am cut off again and again by a series of stubbornly firmly shut doors.

Even so, my frustrating ascent of the grand, Napolean staircase is not without its silver lining as I am accompanied by the sounds of a beautifully-played stringed instrument.  I am enticed, like Alice after the smoke rings of the caterpillar, to the innocuous door number 61 from behind which the music emanates.

I linger awhile, enchanted by the proximity in which I am brought to a whole different world of aural beauty.  A modest laminated sign by the door reads Benjamin Hebbert. Consultant for fine violins, violas, cellos and bows.  Captivated, I imagine, behind the door, days spent floating in the lofty and ethereal sphere of exquisite instruments and sounds; above the mundane, frivolous, bottom-feeding antics of the rest of us where callings are less clear and the meaning of it all blurred, buried or lost to sights, sounds, anxieties and constraints… 

I pull myself away.  I’ve enjoyed my diversions and circuitous meander but I am, unfortunately, here to achieve some kind of job-work.

Down down down in to the labyrinthine more industrial-like bowels of the building I go.  A few turns, dead ends and accessible doors later and I’m sure I’m abso-bloody-lutely lost until I come across a lift claiming to give me access to the upper levels of the south wing.  And sure enough I have the sesame to open up the way (erm, i.e. my pass works to operate the lift) and, sure enough, I find my way again to the peaceful forest green room…

Adventures over for now, I regretfully burrow down into my hole of work, where time unfortunately means money rather than an anxious fantastical white rabbit, late for a date.

A palatable perk

Third day working at Somerset House and I am pleased as bloody punch.  Hunger having overcome me, and my normal working from home routine leaving me unaccustomed to sorting out a packed lunch, I have gathered together my things to head off with no destination in mind but an empty tummy to fill.

Should I cross over the river to grab something on Southbank?  Or wander in a little more centrally?  I only make it a few floors, however, as I’m drawn into the little cafe, Tom’s Deli, on the ground floor of Somerset House’s south wing.

I poke my head in to find an agreeable selection of salads, sarnies, cakes and biscuits.  A friendly server approaches me and it turns out that he will be dishing up my meal and, joy oh joy, he confirms when I wave my pass in front of him that I am entitled to a discount!  It doesn’t just open doors – or refuse entry – it gets me up to 20% off virtually every eatery, drinkery and, I’m hoping, shops, exhibitions and events too.

It’s only a few days in, so I’m sure the novelty will wear thin, but I’m truly enjoying my time as a member of Somerset House and all the perks that I’ll get to test out.  For a different type of co-working environment, look no further.

Outsider In a Guardian Masterclass seminar: How to create a successful blog

I am inside the Guardian offices in Kings Place, Kings Cross, picking my way over the free tea and biscuits laid on as a perk of the Masterclass (six choices of tea-type beverage!).  I cannily deduce that I am in the Guardian’s canteen and take my (first round of) refreshments to a seat where I enjoy a pleasant canal view, boats of all colours, sizes and conditions berthed along the water’s edge.  Not a bad spot.  Away from the tea, biscuits and view, I allow a tiny moment of wonder at being in the offices of the journalistic powerhouse that is the Guardian newspaper

My fellow Masterclassees begin to arrive, the first appearing to be at least 20 years my senior.  I am pleasantly surprised, half having expected many a young, vlogger type, and as the influx of people increases, so do the variety of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and shapes and sizes, with an even spread across the sexes.

The mood is friendly.  I suspect that part of creating a successful blog starts with networking and generally being agreeable.  This in mind, and also wishing to exchange stories with people in similar-ish boats, I strike up conversation.

Around me I discover: a charming Catalan cooking blog, with recipes that take me back to my time living in Barcelona; an ‘old granny’ (her words) taking a, so far short, journey back into the past; a consulting site looking partly to help out tech un-savvy buggers like me; and a German expat about to embark on a new life in, and blog on, the South of France.

So all here to learn the secrets behind ‘how to create a successful blog’, we are nonetheless at very varied stages in our blogging lives.  My fledgling Outsider In flaps around somewhere in the middle.

When called for the Masterclass to begin, we file with our tea, biscuits and chatter, into a seminar room where the 50 or so of us take seat facing a small stage, powerpoint already projected.  Pens and notebooks poised, we are ready to take in how our blogs could take off like those of the two professional bloggers here to speak today.

Three hours and another tea session later, my head is awhirl from a friendly and extremely useful barrage of information on how you can make your blog your livelihood.  Whilst all still fresh in the mind, and before I am surely to be ejected from the Guardian HQ glass fortress, I gather myself into a garish vaguely lip-shaped chair in the foyer and put pen to paper…

Professional bloggers and their tips

Our first speaker, Niamh, creator of Eat like a Girl was buoyant with passion and a love of her blog themes.  Sharing her story of miserable employee in the science sector to professional food and travel blogger, she was encouraging and entertaining and impressed upon us the importance of remaining ethical when making mulah from your blog.

Three things that stood out:

  • Humans are storytellers.  And bloggers are just storytellers in an internet age.  Ergo, blogging is not just self-aggrandising, arrogant and egocentric, it’s actually just normal human behaviour.  So there.  (I’m sticking to that.)
  • Be friendly, community-minded and social – even if this takes place primarily in the virtual world.  Reading other blogs, liking, commenting, linking, collaborating, promoting, sharing, responding and USING SOCIAL MEDIA, all get your blog to readers and readers to your blog.
  • Do not compromise content to generate income, and be transparent.  By having sponsored posts that don’t fit your usual style or content, you are not remaining true to you or your blog and you alienate your readers.

Our second speaker, Julie, is an American expat based in London and creator of the travel and lifestyle blog A Lady in London.  Banking professional turned blogging professional, with a seriously dedicated can-do attitude, she gave step by step building block advice crucial to laying the foundations of any successful blog.

Three important bits:

  • Time and consistency.  It may be no surprise but to maintain a blog takes time and it needs to be regular!  Julie used to get up half an hour early each morning before work to fit in blogging, and she now makes sure she blogs on the same two days each week.  Blimey, I better get a shifty on.
  • In the blogging world, 300+ word posts are considered long reads!!  And paragraphs are best kept to 3-4 lines.  Possibly need to work on my editing then…
  • Give your readers somewhere to go: at the end of a post, make commenting or sharing easy; suggest another post to read; have social media buttons for further connecting; have a search box for readers to find content etc.  Oh, how woefully inadequate my blog still is on these fronts!

Finally, two things they both emphasised to never EVER forget if you want to be a successful blogger:

  • Content reigns supreme!  Above and beyond anything else.  Substance over style (social media wizardry and search engine optimisation) every time.
  • Once you’ve got that down, though, Google and social media will be your constant companions, love or loathe ’em.  Bum.

Should I follow these pearls then Outsider In will be a showcase in transformation over the next months – although professional blogging was never the initial intention when I started.  What lead me to this point was an idle moment over the Christmas holidays, and an email alert from Guardian Masterclass, informing me of a discount on their vast array of career-, life- or creativity-boosting seminars.  A few clicks and £37.24 later and here I am.

If, however, I don’t decide that ‘monetising’ my blog is the way for me, then at least I have found myself in an attractive spot in London, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime with an open mind and a fresh experience under my belt.  I’ll have walked away with two (!) free papers and the ability to forever picture where the Guardian comes together.  Oh, and I also have this blog post, which may actually now be read by one or two of my fellow amateur bloggers!

Conclusions?  Impressed by the calibre of the Guardian Masterclass, I’d definitely sign up for another.  Professional blogging itself?  Watch this space.  Literally.

Outsider Investigating co-working: Exchange at Somerset House

My current means of making ends meet sees me sat in front of a laptop, wherever there be a decent internet connection, mobile phone by my side.  For various reasons, I’m looking for a change.  These posts outline my attempts at trying to make that all happen and here I’m finding out about co-working in Somerset House…

I was pretty excited about Somerset House.  A beautiful and historic building on the northern bank of the Thames, off Waterloo Bridge, it is easily admired on three sides.  Most Londoners would likely know Somerset House by sight, and probably name, but its purpose, what exactly goes on there, is – or was for me – vaguely shrouded in mystery, broadly covered by the brushstroke description of an ‘arts and cultural centre’.

I knew Somerset House mostly by the Courtauld Gallery, occupying one corner of the building, and claimed by my dad to have “one of the best collections of impressionist paintings in the world”*.  A few pleasant afternoons have thus been wiled away there and in the accompanying tea room.  I’ve also wandered a couple of the free exhibitions on the river side and glanced at the odd installation in the courtyard.

Today, I’m going to see about the possibility of Somerset House becoming one of my regular work haunts.  Full of arts stuff, history, and in attractive settings, I reckon it could be a tad more inspiring than your average desk-in-a-cubicle, sofa-in-a-cafe or, even, super charged contemporary-tastic specifically designed co-working espaces.

To virtually prove my hunch, on my way to meet with Aniela, the Tenant Liaison Manager in charge of the Exchange co-working space in Somerset House, I get a chance to listen to some free acoustic music in the courtyard as part of their live music programme.  Brilliant – off to a good start!

I was expecting to be mostly explaining, even justifying, what it is little me would be getting up to here.  Not having an arts and culture-related job (yet) makes me superficially seem like an odd fit.  Instead of asking my own set of questions, however, I am surprised to be started off with a little history lesson on the place, followed by the announcement that I was to have a tour (Shit!  Might be late for my next co-working space meeting – Somerset House is bloody huge!).

I think I was already sold on the place before my visit, so I am eager beaver-like, in case this does turn out to be some kind of informal interview, as we walk, talk and marvel at the ‘estate’.  With her comprehensive but succinct chat on all things Somerset House, I realise that Aniela is very proud to be a part, and that is entirely infectious; I want part too!

By the end of our tour of the best part of an hour, my head is stuffed full of facts and figures, past history and future plans and I’ve negotiated a labyrinth of lifts, halls and offices, cafes, corridors and courtyards, staircases and studios, meeting rooms, receptions and restaurants, galleries and foyers.  Without my guide, I shall surely never find my way again!  And all that knowledge imparted will positively, slowly dissolve from my mind…

So, purely from my flimsy memory, here are some things that I learnt about Somerset House:

  • A lot of Somerset House used to be occupied by the Inland Revenue until they were persuaded, after the financial crash, that the space could be better used in tough economic times, and that they should move out.  Hooray for the creatives and small businesses, who could now take over some of the vacated offices, and renovations could take place to create more flexible and interesting spaces that could be dedicated to arts.
  • Somerset House is a charity.  Maybe not a massive surprise but now you know if you didn’t before.
  • Over the course of 2016, Somerset house is going to be used as an exhibition and arts space that any of its community members can have a part in.  Members even include those that hot desk in the co-working spaces (so could be me!) and ideas put forward for installations have every possibility of being realised!

So… I’m excited, convinced, and sure I want to become a member of this community!

For now, though, I’m late – late to get to my next appointment to see another, rather different, co-working space just a short hop, skip and jump away in Bedford Square…

*My dad says all things with authority and conviction, and spent the chief part of his career as a graphic designer after having studied at the London School of Printing back in the seventies. I therefore swallow, hook, line and sinker, everything he has to say on art (to despise everything pre-impressionist) not having enough of my own knowledge to rebut his views!

Outsider Investigating co-working: What is this co-working nonsense?!

My current means of making ends meet sees me sat in front of a laptop, wherever there be a decent internet connection, mobile phone by my side.  This could be in bed, at a kitchen or cafe table, or in a beach hut in Bali (as yet untested).  Those are the perks.  The negatives are my lack of passion for the job, lack of variety and challenge, loneliness, and too much screen and sitting on bum time.  So I’m looking for a change: a child of the “everything is possible generation” I still refuse to admit defeat on finding work that ticks as many of the boxes as possible.  These posts outline my attempts at trying to make that all happen…

When I first heard of the term co-working, it came from the mouth of my short-term flatmate, occupying the rotating-flatmate other room of our two bed poisonous wonderful shit-hole of dwelling in London Fields. It was poisonous to both body and soul; damp, mouldy and rotting, it crumbled all around us, as our lives and minds went with it… but that’s another story.

Stuck as we were, the three of us (my boyfriend and I were occupying the larger zone of the botched together living arrangement), mostly working from home, my flatmate often described our set-up as “like being in a co-working space”.  Although easily deducible from the composite elements of the term, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this alien concept, co-working-space.

I suppose, thinking back now, my lack of willingness to understand, or even have my curiosity slightly piqued, came from the association of co-working with other nomenclatures such as ‘start up’, ‘tech’ and ‘coding’, which also tumbled from her mouth.  “I don’t understand these things”, I would say, technology wise born into the wrong era.  And, to myself, “I don’t think I want to understand these things”.

So that was it; it was clear that these nonsensical concepts had no place in my life, and I essentially closed my ears and mind to them.

What a complete IGNORAMUS I was!, as I find myself, almost exactly one year on getting jolly well excited about a whole new chapter in my life that completely intends to make co-working a central part of it, making it the saviour and salvation, the key to ending all my working woes (you can see how the bottom might fall out before it’s even begun)!

So, I have started the trawl of the co-working spaces.  Naively, I thought that it would be easy to find and identify three or four different spaces that I might like to work in.  It turns out, however, that there be near to 200 (and mushrooming) co-working spaces in London, with no area left neglected, from Putney to Farringdon, Brixton to Islington.

Unsurprisingly, the east has the highest concentration of spaces set up for freelancers, entrepreneurs, creatives, start-ups, innovators and any combination of those.  That would explain to me then, from my brief spell of living east, what the inhabitants were all up to.  As I would sit in one of the many cafes that put up with poor leachers like me, spending hours warming our seats and eking one cold tea out longer than ever previously thought possible, I really did wonder what the hell all my fellow hanger-outers or passers-by were actually doing, 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, say…  Well, they were all obviously freelancers, entrepreneurs, creatives, start-up geneii, innovators and blah blah blah, on the way to or taking a break from their super flexible hip and cool work spaces.  And that is now going to be me!  No more lonely days and hours spent confined within the same four walls!

After hours on tinternet and having my eyes assaulted by websites filled with images of various exciting, modern, urban, vintage, reclaimed timber and steel, and hanging plant decorated spaces, I’m starting to feel a little sick.  And wary.  A short conversation with ex-flatmate later and I’m pointed onto the right track of places worth giving a visit and those worth steering clear of.  My suspicions were confirmed that, for many a money grabbing business type, traditionally rentable office spaces are now being rebranded as co-working zones thanks to a splash of colour (and/or modern, urban, vintage, reclaimed timber… etc etc).  Essentially desk space for travelling city-types but sold in a different exciting-feeling on trend package.  Nah, not for me.

Having finally narrowed it down to a few spaces, my research officially starts tomorrow as I’ve booked in to have a look around a few… reviews to come.

 

Outsider In Barcelona: Bon Nadal or Merry Christmas!

Three years ago, I wrote about my first experiences in Barcelona – a city previously unknown to me that I had decided to start a new life in.  As this is where the first ideas for this blog came from, I thought it fitting to document my exploits here.  These posts started out life as emails to my friends and family during my time there.

A Christmas message from me to wish everyone a happy festive period and to share just a few bits and pieces that I’ve found particularly amusing in the run up to the holidays in Barcelona.

I think I officially started off my Christmas eating yesterday by going for a three course lunch for only 17€ (with wine, water and bread – hallelujah menú del día!)!  Not that I was paying as this was on the account of the first ever Catalan friend I made in Barcelona a mere half hour after touch down (full account in the first Barcelona blog piece).  My Christmas eating continued in the evening with another three course meal, this time on the account of one of the schools I teach at.  Working at three schools means three celebratory Christmas meals; permanent Christmas food baby, here I come!

Part of one of my meals yesterday included a typical dish of canelones – yes, that well known Catalan foodstuff..?  Well, obviously it’s Italian but somewhere along the line Catalonia decided to take pasta eating from the Italians and make it theirs, as they also have a special pasta soup that they eat on Christmas day, which is so important and traditional that, of course, GIANT pasta shells need to be scattered across the city in decoration!  I suppose they look quite nice and, if I was a kid, I would definitely be crawling around inside them.  I would actually do that as an adult too as I could fit in them easily but I think I’d probably break them and get dirty looks from the pasta-loving Catalans.

You also know that it’s Christmas in Spain thanks to all the giant legs of cured, slightly mouldy looking ham, jamónor “jam”, as my mispronouncing students often like to tell me – hanging around all over the place; you literally bump into them in shops!  They cost a blooming fortune and, traditionally, businesses would give them out to their employees as Christmas gifts but, what with the economic ‘crisis’ and cutbacks, people are barely even receiving turrón from their bosses these days – tablets of anything sweet, more or less, made of nuts, honey, nougat, marzipan, chocolate… basically if it’s sweet and can somehow be formed into a rectangular block of sticky yumminess then it’s a turrón!

Other clues that it’s Christmas (because the weather sure ain’t one of them, seeing how it’s gone back up to about 16 degrees again) are the beautiful fairy lights all over the city.  They spent ages putting them up but not turning them on until one night when I was walking home from work, minding my own business, and came across thousands of people in the streets.  Only then did I twig that the lights were on and people must be out in celebration.  I didn’t know the half of it, though: these people were not really out for the lights but out for the big street party that had set itself up on the fanciest, most bourgeois Avenue in town – Passeig de Gracia – where all the shops you could never afford to shop in can be found. 

Apparently, the general consensus was to flip two fingers up at the economic crisis and pretend, for one night only, that you were of the ilk that schmooze around drinking champagne, shop in Prada and wear sunglasses at night time… I am, of course, talking about late night Christmas shopping until about 3 o’clock in the morning which accompanies the illumination of the city’s Christmas lights, and on Passeig de Gracia, it happens in a big way. 

It was quite fascinating as there were mini-catwalk shows taking place, pop up VIP bars all down the middle of the avenue, mostly selling gin mixers (THE drink of the moment over here) full of people being just faaaabulous daaaahling, and shops with DJs mixing in the windows with competing sound systems.  It was all a bit of a ‘look at me’ event and I was actually quite happy to be looking at the look-at-me characters who’d made a big effort to be looked at by the slightly dazed onlookers like me!

By the way, Merry Christmas – Feliz Navidad in Castillian – is actually Bon Nadal in Catalan.  When I learnt this I realised that meant that Spain’s top tennis player is technically called Rafael Christmas!  And, of course, that made me smile 🙂

Finally, I will leave you with my most absolute favourite discovery about Christmas in Catalonia, which still makes me burst into fits of giggles when I think about it and I couldn’t not share it.

Children in Catalonia don’t generally celebrate with stockings and Father Christmas, no.  They have something entirely different: they have a tió – known to all the rest of us as a log.  Now, Christmas logs aren’t that unusual but the ritual performed with a log in this part of the world verges on the perverse and absolutely tickles me! 

Tió gets painted with a face, given a Christmas hat and, if it’s particularly cold, it gets wrapped in a scarf too.  In the run up to Christmas, Tió sits in the house and the children faithfully feed it with oranges, cakes – whatever logs generally like to eat – and give it water every day.  It’s important to fatten up Tió as much as possible, the reason for which will now become clear.  When it comes to Christmas day, the tradition can vary slightly depending on the family but the basics of it are this:  the children get a stick and sing a song whilst HITTING TIO SO THAT IT SHITS OUT THEIR CHRISTMAS PRESENTS!!!!!!!

Ah…

And with that thought, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy holiday period in general!

x

Outsider In Barcelona: First observations

Three years ago, I wrote about my first experiences in Barcelona – a city previously unknown to me that I had decided to start a new life in.  As this is where the first ideas for this blog came from, I thought it fitting to document my exploits here.  These blog posts started out life as emails to my friends and family during my time there.

I’ve been here about six weeks now, and I suppose I’m settling into some sort of routine.  I at least have a flat, some Catalan flatmates, three jobs and a few Spanish and Catalan words under my belt. Barcelona being a wonderfully human-sized city, I’ve cultivated a slight obsession with going everywhere by foot, to the extent that I’ve started to resent hopping on a metro or bus for even 10 minutes.  Not that public transport is bad here – far from it.  So, as an alien in a new world, assaulted from all sides and through all senses by my new surroundings, I share with you some of my first observations, and why not start with the most thrilling?… public transport!

The Metro

Stairs – flipping loads of them in the metro!  As there are about six different entrances to most metro stations, which can seemingly be spread across four blocks, should you make the mistake of entering into the wrong one for your line or direction, be prepared to go up and down stupid numbers of times before reaching your required platform.  This was all kinds of fun when I first arrived with my overweight, limping suitcase and no chivalrous help at hand (New-Catalan-Friend was no longer with me at that point because of the lost telephone at airport debacle – previous post).

Changing lines – DON’T DO IT!  You may be mistaken in thinking that because lines converge or cross at one station that you can hop off one and onto another.  Nuh-uh.  Be prepared for the aforementioned stair obstacle course as well as crossing half of Barcelona in a muggy, 70s-ugly tunnel. Best to walk that bit further in the pleasant outside world to a different station and just take the one line a few stops (just choose the right street entrance…).

One amazingly fantastic super duper thing, however, is that the metro runs ALL NIGHT on a Saturday!  Brilliant!  So I guess that makes up for all the stairs.

More things about Barcelona, though:

People

There are lots of nose rings.  Various types.  Every second person seems to have one.  Or dreads, or a mullet.  It’s like being back at college again (except for the mullets).

People call you guapa and cariña all over the place.  I know this is the equivalent to being called love or darling in the market or at the pub but I unapologetically rather like it.

The economic ‘crisis’ that we’ve all been going through is evident.  My fully qualified architect flatmate is fully unemployed, along with the majority of those in her profession in Spain.  Quite a few people beg on the street with cardboard signs declaring the number of children they have to support, the lack of food…  Then there are those who sell packets of tissues, lighters or chewing gum on street corners to make a bit of change.

The self-employed bin men are also a common sight, which is a bit shocking to see in a European country*.  Like modern day rag and bone men, they seem to collect just about anything which could have even the smallest amount of second-hand worth.  They are found rummaging through the many vast recycling containers, dotted on almost every street corner, accompanied by a shopping trolley and maybe a hammer, packing in as much as they can, from cardboard boxes to old clothes and shoes, electrical goods (and bads) and metal items.  Where on earth these then get distributed to after, I have no idea. But someone must have worked out that it was worth a little something because there sure are a lot of people doing it.

*it certainly was in 2012 but is potentially a less shocking sight nowadays with persisting economic difficulties, and immigration and refugees in Southern European countries

Football

Futbal Club Barcelona is NOT just a football team.  ‘More than just a club’, it is, I’ve learned, religion and politics combined: fans more like fanatics, it is a symbol for how Catalonia could stand independently of the rest of Spain.  And any match between Barcelona and Madrid is a grudge match to end all grudge matches.  Catalans would rather sell their nans than have Madrid beat Barça!

There is even a whole TV channel dedicated to the team: if you wish, you could spend hours watching montages set to music of the best Barça goals of this season, last season, 20 seasons ago… or you can watch tiny little Barça players being coached into future Messis or Iniestas.

Buzz

Not a week goes by without a protest, fiesta or strike.  I don’t think people in Barcelona know how to manage without some mass gathering and noise-making.  I must admit, I find it all quite fun and have been tempted to grab my saucepan and wooden spoon and join in on the banging and marching, but I’m not sure I’d manage the chanting, let alone the meaning behind it all.

Apart from the protests, fiestas or strikes, there is always something going on.  And, because Barcelona is pretty small, it means you can actually participate in much of the fun – the idea of a ‘trek’ across town is, in reality, a maximum 20 min train or bus ride, even taking the stairs into account (imagine that London!)!

Buildings

The beautiful buildings – ahh.  There really are some fantastic, interesting, curious, different, crazy and beautiful buildings all over the city which can just make your day that bit brighter.  There are ugly ones too but so many that I pass only seem to get better the more I look at them, as I notice more details, more colours, more shapes.  And, be it right or wrong to accredit him entirely with the glorious architecture of the city, I say thank you to Gaudi for his part in the daily feast for both eyes and soul that I enjoy.

Weather

Finally, I couldn’t possibly end my observations without comment on the most talked about topic on the isle from which I hail… and, do you know what, it actually rains quite a lot in Barcelona.  I know, I was surprised too! Don’t get me wrong, there were still days into late October when I could careen around in a dress and cardigan and not be feeling the cold but there has been a surprising amount of water falling from the sky too.

Most memorably when I was with a friend watching a fantastic light show being projected on to one of the more notable Gaudi buildings, Casa Batlló, with hundreds of other people all crammed in the street to watch.  Not five minutes of the show had passed when an absolute torrential downpour started, resulting in almost flash-flooding of the street we were on. Masses of people rammed together and desperate to keep from getting wet only resulted in hundreds of mini umbrella waterfalls, so it was rather like having a cold, temperamental shower attacking you from various angles!  When the lights from the show went off because a thunder erupted, everyone screamed and decided that was the time to panic-scramble, with umbrellas now as weapons to barge through the crowds…!

So for everyone suffering from a bit of SAD back in the UK, or just the usual shit-weather grumbles, be comforted that the grass is not always greener on the other side (or that the sun doesn’t always shine in Spain), and that we sure are a lot more stoic about rainfall; for when the skies open here, the city closes: never is it emptier on the streets than when it’s wet outside.  I’m starting to suspect that Barcelona’s residents share a certain attitude towards water with Oz’s most villainous inhabitant…