Outsider In an easy(ish) ride with Italian car hire

I step up to the Budget car hire desk in Turin airport in trepidation, tensed in expectation of the Inevitable Issue.  Just next to me, a group of young British men have already encountered theirs: despite having paid for their luxury class automatic drive Audi, the named driver needs not one, but two, credit cards to cover their worst-case-scenario-deposit.  They can sum up two credit cards between them but nothing can be done; it was written in the small print.

With slight stomach butterflies and sweaty palms I hand car hire voucher, driver’s licence, passport and (one) credit card over the counter.  The first question I’m asked is whether or not we have much luggage.  Well, we do a bit, I think, slightly perplexed: skis, snowboard, three cabin bags and a sizeable suitcase. That’s why I’d opted one up from the “mini” class of cars when booking.  After much deliberation, I’d reckoned that we could jam all our gear into a Ford Fiesta ‘or equivalent’ and so splashed out on an “economy” range of car, a whole £20 more than the dinky Fiat Panda (or equivalent…) that I’d otherwise been considering.

“Because a Panda is very small, eh?” the Budget car hire lady continues.

Erm… what?  Oh, ok, so it appears we have found my car hire issue…

Despite the hours (and hours, very literally) researching, comparing, reading reviews, recommendations, dos and don’ts, and tying myself in knots – what insurance do I take?, should I go for snow tyres (double the cost!)? or just make do with snow chains (gah – will it snow or no?!)?, and which brother-fudging car will fit all our gear?! – it seems that I have still missed a trick on my first go at being responsible for hiring a car abroad!

Grrr…

Oh well, I have nevertheless learned some general points always to be considered and, for my own future reference more than anything, I’ve included them here:

  • Go for the most basic insurance that the car hire company offers you (always included in the price) because you’ll pay an arm and a leg for full coverage with them.  BUT
  • Choose car hire where you pick up and return the car with a full tank.  Everywhere says to do this, so I see no reason not to comply!
  • For sure go through a comparison site to find your car hire deal cheaper but do be aware!  Autoeurope.co.uk offered far more categories of car than existed for the individual hire companies, e.g. seven, as opposed to Budget’s three.  In my case, I’d opted for a slightly bigger car at a more expensive hire cost to only find myself with the too small car that I was trying to avoid but could have paid less for at the outset, and all my crucial, mental car packing completely come undone!  (I’m still waiting to see what Autoeurope have to say about that!).  Double check on the company’s site to not get caught out!
  • Paper counterparts to your driver’s licence are becoming obsolete, so you may need to get a code from DVLA to give to the car hire company which shares the extra information not included on your driving license card.  Super easy and quick to do here.
  • Finally, expect the unexpected.  If you’ve covered all the above, then you shouldn’t have too many nasty surprises other than a different car from the one you booked… the more unexpected bit, however, was that, although car hire companies have a reputation for giving you an unpleasant sting somewhere along the line, that doesn’t mean the employees behind the desk have to: our Budget car hire lady saved the day by throwing in a ski rack for free (!), taking pity on our too much luggage for a Fiat Panda situation.

Remaining calm, polite and even friendly probably helps matters, I think, as I walk away from the desk, leaving my compatriots with their credit card mishap still wrangling with a now slightly angry Italian car hire man.

I am relieved.  I was expecting worse and, although we still have to play Tetris with our luggage, it should now all fit.  My relief is but momentary, though.  Slight stomach butterflies and sweaty palms rise again as my thoughts turn to the next, probably even more stressful step ahead: car picked up, I now have to actually drive in Italy.

Advertisements

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…

Outsider In Barcelona: An exciting arrival

Almost three years ago to the day, I wrote about my first experiences in Barcelona – a city unknown to me at the time that I had decided to start a new life in.  As this is where my 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 wrote this first entry on the day that I had finally become ‘official’ in Spain.  This ‘officialdom’ had come in the form of an unimpressive flimsy piece of credit card sized paper, laminated ON ONE SIDE ONLY, costing a meagre 10.30€ but an awful lot more in hours of my life wasted, bearing the golden digits that allowed me to work legally in the country.  Yes, this much sought after ‘document’ is THE NIE (nee-ay aka national insurance, social security card/number). 

But that is a whole other story in itself… (for up to date information on how to go through the painful process, which appears to have become even more bureaucratic since my own joyful experience, have look here:).

Well before that, though, my first escapade started almost literally upon touching down in the country.  Waiting for a train to take me from the airport to the completely unknown, soon to be my home city of Barcelona, I was accosted in an amicable manner by a local who had apparently decided to befriend me.  Said local was a man and, as a solo, decidedly non-local female, I was obviously a little wary. 

However, after much chat and upon discovering that I just so happened to have stumbled into Barcelona on one of the biggest saints’ day fiestas in the year (La Mercè, anyone? I could’ve been more clued-in had I done a bit of googling…), I found myself jettisoning all usual caution: my desire for what could turn out to be an instant friend in my new vida, along with the potential of a pretty culturally exciting first evening, had me agreeing to meet up with him later that night to cavort on the streets of the city with thousands of other party goers! Worst case ‘creepy-man’ scenario, I could run away and get lost in the crowds…

Still all before I’d managed to arrive in Barcelona itself, though, I realised I’d lost my phone – somewhere between the airport baggage carousel and getting on the train.  At that time (and as is pretty much still the case now) I couldn’t possibly boast to be the owner of any real technology worth stealing, least of all my £5 Nokia.  Even so, it was a vital part of the new life puzzle I was attempting to put together and so I needed it back rapido! 

My New-Catalan-Friend came to the rescue and I abused our 20-minute old friendship, borrowing his mobile to conduct expensive and relatively incomprehensible calls with the policeman who’d found my phone at the airport. Eventually, New-Catalan-Friend took over and established where and how I could go and pick up my mobile, so my arrival in Barcelona was followed by a swift departure: back to the airport I go lugging my 20 kilo case with one broken wheel behind me.  And, by the way, it is hot and muggy. 

I get to the airport police station to claim my treasure which the policeman asks me to describe before handing it over.  “Muy basico” covers it.  He laughs at me and my phone but I get it back – first near crisis of my adventure averted!

Later on that evening, New-Catalan-Friend and I hit the busy streets of Barça to watch and, eventually participate in, a street spectacle that health and safety in the UK would have absolute kittens over.  Hundreds of ‘fire diablos’ and bands of drummers march and dance down the streets whirring sticks over their heads bursting with enormous sparklers and fire crackers sending streams of sparks flying off in every direction.  The job of anyone else who wants to get involved is to try to dance with the devils or stop them going on their way (the devils also push around massive animals on wheels, running at the blockades of people, bursting with sparks in every direction! 

All of this is called a correfoc – fire run – and mini-versions happily take place at fiestas throughout the year.  So, in we went – the closer you get to the devils the fewer sparks you get showered with. I was pretty scared on the first attempt but got taken under the fire-retardant cape of a rather yummy-looking devil and so all was good, bouncing and hopping around to drums in the sparks with people chanting and singing all around!  With all this incredible atmosphere, I am instantly totally in love with Barcelona (and also rather taken with my cape swishing devil!)!

A lot more dancing and running around in fireworks later, sweaty as anything, pretty choked up from the fumes, singed hair and with burn holes in my clothes (all that careful packing straight out the window…) it’s time for my first eats in Barcelona – oh yes! 

Thrift and a somewhat traveller’s mentality ever wielding the power of decision making, and I’m up for grabbing some cheap and yummy tapas or Barcelona-style street food.  I’m somewhat surprised, then, to find myself in a rather fancy and expensive looking restaurant for the occasion.  My protestations fall on deaf ears and at this point it dawns on me that I have accidentally stumbled into a first date.  On my first night in Barcelona.  New-Catalan-Friend appears to want to be More-Than-Just-New-Catalan-Friend.  Oh dear…

That issue aside, the food was amazing – good tapas is REALLY good here! (Although Barcelona is not particularly famed for its cuisine in Spain – apparently Asturias is where it’s at – and my only memory now of the meal is wine, asparagus and my first ever Romesco sauce). 

With our intentions somewhat differing, I nevertheless decided that we hadn’t actually arrived in ‘creepy-man’ territory, so off we continued with our evening to visit the Sagrada Familia by night where there was a light display as part of the saints’ day festivities.  In fact, we missed the light show by mere seconds but I still got given a guided tour of the outside of Gaudi’s basilica – incredible (and even better on the inside, I would later discover) – and collected a flashing light bug as a souvenir – hurrah!

Cocktails were proposed as a continuation of our evening but I decided it was definitely time to call it a night and chip off back to my hostel before wires could become any further crossed…

Later on, lying on my top-bunk with a gently snoring American bunk-mate below, trying not to move for the mugginess (is it going to be like this all the time?!) and I have time to take in my first night in Barcelona; done – and in quite surreal and spectacular style!  Although I know that every day won’t be like this (I still have a job and flat to find, a life to create… and a bloody NIE to get) for sure I am already in Love Love Love…- with the city, NOT with New-Catalan-Friend!