Wednesday, April 27, 2011

how does one escape being inundated by depleting, torturous thoughts?

Yes, I know... I haven't posted the last bit of commentary on my last days in Barcelona. Truth be told, I just can't do it. I am feeling depleted. Not because my trip is over. Not because I am back at work again. I am deeply affected by the events that seem to be going on everywhere I turn.

People are dying all over the world. I know that this has been going on since the year, Dot. But, it seems to be incredibly excessive to me right now. One could argue that it's affecting me because I'm paying attention more than before. Perhaps. I also think that being physically closer to the events, by being in Europe for six weeks, made me feel it in a stronger way.

Egypt, Japan, Libya, Bahrain, Tunisia, Syria, the Gaza Strip...
Natural disasters in South East Asia, barely mentioned on the news...
More lives lost...

Refugees being treated like criminals in the country of my birth! A Labor government taking the stance of what used to be considered a Liberal one, and still insisting on putting unreasonable restrictions on desperate people striving for a better life in our lucky country.

Still, all we hear from our dear Coalition leader is "Stop the boats" - it truly makes me sick, and ashamed to call myself an Australian.

But, where is it better?

I have to admit something. My recent sojourn in Spain made me realise how fortunate we are in Australia. Spain, not even considered to be a third-world country by any stretch of the imagination, is far worse off than Australia. Our methods here, our channels of support, medical, legal, education... eveything is much better here - the next time I feel like complaining about something, I'll definitely be thinking twice about doing so.

So, what to do? How can someone like me make a difference in this world? The problems are just too big.

Considering what I believe in - that there is no God, that we only have one shot in this world, that there is no afterlife - I find myself debating about the best course of action to take. I am not interested in fame or fortune. I am merely interested in making the lives of others better. Is that a reasonable thing to ask? I am starting to wonder.

I am beginning to think that the best way to start would be to work in my own backyard, so to speak. Our human rights record here in Australia leaves a lot to be desired. Aboriginals are still treated poorly. So are the foreigners seeking refuge in our great country. And don't get me started on how much I hate seeing our natural resources being abused, and sold to the Chinese. All for the sake of the almighty dollar. So much for wanting to do something about climate change.

Part of me thinks that I should take the approach of a lot of people in this world: "Me first. That's the most important." But, this voice in my head is growing more and more distant. After losing my house, my security, in effect, the things that used to matter and be a priority to me, are not so important anymore. I feel free to do something about these problems I witness at every turn. I have no children to take care of. I have no home to pay off and maintain. I have no partner to elevate and administer to his needs before my own. It's just me. Frankly, I don't think I have the right to complain about anything in my life. Not when there are so many suffering in this world.

It's time to look at options and investigate channels...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

la rambla...

A bustling street that stretches for approximately one kilometre in the heart of Barcelona. I arrived here yesterday, and it is just as I remember it, if not busier. I specifically requested a hotel room on La Rambla so I could watch the people with ease.

Day and night on La Rambla is a feast for the senses. There's always something to see, something to smell, something to hear. There are people from all over the world here, tourists and natives alike. However, the native Barcelonians are easy to spot, as they are the most vivacious, eager to please, entertain, and share with others what Barcelona means to them.

When starting the camino on La Rambla, you are immediately greeted by the sights of street performers. People who take the time to fully dress up as the character/personality of their choice, with elaborate make-up, to sit or stand for endless hours, mostly motionless, until one puts a coin in their receptacle - then they come to life.

There are some good ones, some bad, and some, quite pointless. There's a guy with his freakish head protruding from a table, accompanied by two other heads of a similar appearance, which he controls. He squeaks at you when you pass, appealing to you to come closer. He smiles, he leers, trying to flirt with you. When you get close enough, he scares you by lunging forward, or animating the heads of his two accomplices. He squeaks again, and even though no words are ever spoken, you completely understand what he wants... he wants money for his troubles. Some pay. Those who don't are squeaked at harshly and ridiculed in front of his audience. He's very popular... and highly entertaining.

Then, there's the guy in black - he looks like a cross between Rob Zombie, and Gene Simmons, except with more black on his face. Very impressive detail in his costume and make-up. He scares passers-by constantly. If you provide him with money, he'll pose for a photo with you. As his sponsors start to stand next him to prepare to have their photo taken, he grabs them, and turns their head in the way he'd like them to pose, spreads his black, bat wings and makes a monstrous pose, as if he were some vulture capturing his carrion in his talons for sustenance.

Then, there's Robot Man. Another hugely elaborate outfit, silver paint on his face, buttons and flashing lights all over his body. His gestures are robotic, he waves, he dances, he salutes, he shakes your hand, he beeps at you in approval when you drop a coin for him. He also likes to scare passers-by, particularly the females. He flirts too, mechanically so.

There's a dead Cleopatra, in Ancient Egyptian garb, but all in black. She sleeps, eyes closed, her fingers around an asp. Pay her and she'll wake from her coma, smile, caress you, and pose for pictures. When that's all over, she returns to her blissful state.

There's a hilarious baby girl in a pram. She squeaks, and demands money, having tantrums if you ignore her. Gurgling and gargling happily if you pay her. She throws her rattle at you if you pass by and not attend to her. She squeaks too, calling you over, demanding your attention.

So many performers, one could spend hours just watching each one for at least 10 minutes. So, you see, it may stretch for only a kilometre, but it takes a very long time to complete the distance, as there's so much to see and do.

Regular-looking people will surprise you by spontaneously bursting into song or performing a whole circus act, amassing a crowd almost instantaneously. One never knows what to expect on La Rambla. There's food everywhere, flower-sellers, illustrators who'll sketch a characterisation of you if you pose for a short amount of time. Some of the cafes and restuarants will set up chairs and tables along the sides of the street with waiters claiming to have the best sangria in Spain to accompany the best paella. It's a full-on fiesta, 24/7.

Then, there are the beggars and the not-so-well-to-do. Whilst pausing for a drink of water to re-hydrate in the unexpected heat I have been experiencing in Barcelona, I watched a group of black men, of African origin, I suspect, set up their wares. Drop-cloths were laid out on the ground, with rows and rows of sunglasses and handbags of various shapes and sizes. Attached to the corners of these drop-cloths were short ropes, which were carefully wound around the wrists of each vendor.

I couldn't help noticing this, and wondered what these ropes were for. I soon found out. After a few minutes of trying to entice potential buyers, a head would raise, on alert. It reminded me of a deer or a rabbit that suddenly sensed danger approaching. In a flash, the ropes were tugged at, the entire shop-front would disappear in a small bundle, and the vendor would hurriedly walk away before the police arrived.

Ahhh... illegals trying to survive on a few euros here and there. It made me sad to watch this going on. About ten minutes later, after the police had been and gone, the Africans returned, setting up their wares again.

When on the Rambla, you manage to mostly ignore the beggars, as there are so many people around to distract them from targetting you. The smarter ones approach you when you're queueing to enter a popular tourist attraction like a museum. You can't escape them there.

Yesterday morning, I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for a Tourist information booth to open, and a small woman wearing a scarf and slippers approached me. She was hunched over, and held out a plastic cup to beg for a coin. She nodded at me softly, the expression on her face was heart-wrenching. She might have been an extremely good actress, but she gave me the impression that she had absolutely nothing in this world, and that a euro would have made the world of difference to her.

I could help myself. I gave all the coins I had, which amounted to about 4 euros. Her nodding grew more animated, she seemed so grateful for my paltry offering. She grabbed my hand and started to kiss it profusely, thanking me over and over again. This took me aback - I wasn't expecting such a reaction - something that seemed so meagre to me apparently meant the world to her. I stopped her kissing my hand gently, rubbed her consolingly on the arm and said the only thing I knew she would understand. "God bless you." I smiled, nodded as if it was ok, and wished her well. I watched as she wandered off slowly... to where? I have no idea. But that's just it - I don't know what goes on in her world, I can only imagine. What I imagine saddens me deeply and makes me feel so powerless in such a big world.

Here I was, queueing to get some tickets to a Spanish guitar show at the Palau Musica in Barcelona, ready to pay my 40 euros, and there was this slight old woman, immensely grateful for a few euros I had thrown into her plastic cup. It's these times that I pause for more profound thought and examination of my circumstances. Perhaps I should start to document such ponderings. I'm sure that it would greatly exceed one of my brief blog-posts.

I leave for Madrid on Friday, then on to Dubai and Melbourne. Before then, I have so much to see and do. La Sagrada Familia, Salvador Dali's house in Figueres, the Joan Miro and Picasso galleries, Parque Guell, La Pedrera, concerts and more Rambla watching is on the cards. I may post again one last time before leaving, or I may write a final post on the rest of my Barcelona experience when I return home. Time will tell.

Hasta la vista mis amigos!



Friday, April 8, 2011

pinchos... a wonderful way to live...

I have discovered the eating tradition in San Sebastian which I have not seen in any other part of Spain so far. Pinchos. There are taverns everywhere in the Parte Vieja (Old Part) of the city. These open late morning, and stay open until late into the night. Around lunch-time through to early evening, after a hard day of shopping at all the markets and stores to be found throughout the Parte Vieja, you can stop at one of these taverns to have a few pinchos with a cerveza or a copa (cup) of sangria. Ahhh... this is the life...

Anyone who's been out for a meal with me will know that most of the time I am unable to finish my meal, unless I eat really slowly and drink lots to wash it down. I have often complained about the large size of some of the meals in Australia. I will plead with the friend accompanying me to finish my meal for me, as I cannot bear to leave food on the plate when I leave the table.

Now, in San Sebastian, I don't have to do that. Picture this... you walk into a tavern, and you are greeted with plates and plates of little serves of food. You choose what you want to eat, put it on your plate, and pay accordingly. You can eat whilst standing, if you're on the go and just want some sustenance to see you through the day, or can sit at a table and make a small meal of it, and socialise, drink, people-watch.

They are like tapas, but they aren't cooked at the back of the restaurant while you wait with a drink, olives and bread. They could also be compared to hors d'oeuvres, but not that small. A typical pincho I have found available on the bar during the last two days? A slice of French stick-style bread, topped with crab in a white sauce, and garnished with a prawn-tail. Heaven!

Of course, there's more than that to choose from. However, in San Sebastian, because it's on the coast, there are a lot of pinchos with fish, and, of course, the favourite throughout Spain, jamon cerrano (smoked ham). Imagine walking through a city, or better still, having a short lunch break? And being able to stop quickly and have a bite to eat... literally? I have always hesitated to even get lunch during a work day because of lack of time to eat at my pace, as well as the size of the meal I am offered. I have often been known to sit at my desk whilst working, eating a lunch over an hour or so, as half an hour doesn't let me finish my meal in time. Most of the time, I skip lunch for this reason.

Pinchos are particularly a Basque tradition. So, I imagine that these snack offerings are available throughout the north of Spain, as this is the Basque region. I have found San Sebastian even more fascinating for this reason. After weeks of being in this beautiful country, and becoming used to hearing Spanish spoken around me most of the time, I am now hearing people around me speak in Basque... something which I just cannot understand a word of.

Of course, the locals speak both languages... for the tourists and, because they have not managed to claim their independence from Spain, and are still part of it. Hence, the existence of politically-motivated groups such as ETA. To illustrate my point, we were talking to a taxi driver earlier today who told us that he was born in San Sebastian. He also told us that when he was little, he wasn't allowed to speak or write in Basque at school. It was banned. Spain was determined to control these people and turn them into proper Spaniards.

However, today, things are better. Signs everywhere around San Sebastian are in both Basque and Spanish. Most of the shops and taverns in the Parte Vieja of the city have Basque names. It makes it harder for me, as an English speaker, but it's welcomed... I no longer have to rely so much on translations being provided to me by my mother. She doesn't know what the Basque people are saying either. It's liberating, in a weird way.

Before I sign off, there's one thing that has been constant throughout this trip. I have become even more aware of how unimportant and almost irrelevant I am in this world. I am one person of how many? All of use speak different languages, even within our own countries.

I watch the people around me in Spain... each one of them with their own joys, worries, goals, hopes and dreams. And yet, I know nothing of their lives. However, I see a person's face light up when I ask about them, rather than just the regular tourist-type question: where is this? where is that? etc. They seem really pleased when they know that someone they don't know is taking an interest in them personally. From my perspective, I am trying to grab that slice of a culture I am still mostly unfamiliar with. So, it becomes a transaction of mutual advantage - I hope.

This also makes me wonder more and more... with all the problems that are currently going on in the world, and have throughout history, why are we not all taking the time to be more interested in one another? Another culture, another person, another tradition, another history? We seem to talk about these all, mostly meaninglessly... almost like a reportage. Why are most of us not doing more to find out about the other? Some of us are - and those are the people I gravitate towards the most. But for most of us... are we hopelessly distracted by life? The everyday, the responsibilities, the humdrum? If one is able to break free from that, perhaps we can get closer to what we all aspire to attain... true happiness? Or are we ultimately seeking something else? A reason?

Just throwing out some thoughts I have been grappling with during my time in Spain. Along with many others throughout the existence of man.

Tomorrow, Barcelona! I have been really been looking forward to this! I plan to culture myself to death in Barcelona! I hope it's still as vibrant and interesting a city as I remember! Rest, assured that I'll keep you posted.

Hasta la vista mis amigos!



am i crazy? i want to buy a flat in san sebastian...

Well, here I am, visiting San Sebastian for the second time in my life. I am blown away by this place. So much so, I have sent some of my closest friends a picture I took of the harbour with my mobile phone. I can't wait to see my phone bill when I get back.

Google has some wonderful pictures of this magnificent place - perhaps you'll agree with my feelings about its beauty and appeal?

I picture myself here, in a little one-bedroom piso (apartment) opposite the Playa de la Concha, admiring the view of the bay with its little Isla de Santa Clara in the middle. Perhaps, spending my time contemplating and writing in my spare time.

I see a lot of English schools around San Sebastian. Perhaps they'd like an Australian English teacher? My curiosity got the better of me... I decided to pay a visit to an Immobiliaria, a real estate agent. I asked him if it was possible to buy property here without being a Spanish citizen. Oh dear... it's not necessary to be a citizen. I persisted with my questions.

Prices, best locations for breath-taking views, buildings with lifts... Interest rates here? A pro: 1.5% - my jaw dropped. A con: 1 in 5 Spaniards are unemployed at present. Portugal, its neighbour, just asked the EU for a financial bail-out, as it hasn't been able to cope since the world's GFC. There is speculation here that Spain will follow shortly, although Zapatero and the rest of the gobierno has emphatically stated that it'll manage on its own.

I have decided to buy a Tatts ticket, and see what happens. Life could be a dream, as the ads remind me. It can't hurt... buying a quick pick, and seeing if an apartment here is possible.

Another observation I have made here... there are motorcycles and scooters galore! Far less cars... THEY have to avoid the bikes, not the other way around. A paradise for the likes of me.

I have been far more attentive here. I don't get the jist of what is being said as I have in other places in Spain we've visited thus far. The people here speak two languages: Spanish and Basque. Basque is radically different from Spanish - I have not been able to pick up one similarity yet. I found out from a female taxi-driver that "thank-you" is esquerricasko, pronounced "ehs-care-ees-cah-skoh". The same word in Spanish is gracias - very different, don't you agree?

The people here can be confronting at first. They are stern, looking as though you approach them at your peril. But once you work up the courage to do so, they are very friendly, and happily talk about their home and culture proudly. It's worth overcoming the initial fearfulness of possibly bothering them and interrupting their routine. Hotel staff included!

The weather here has been perfect. This is unusual for this time of year, I am told by the locals. The last time I was here was in May, 2005, the beginning of Spain's Summer. The weather, then, was slightly overcast, with a maximum temperature of 24 degrees celcius. The last two days here have been in the early 30s. The skies have been crystal clear, and when we reached the top of Monte Igeldo after a ride on the funicular to look out over the bay and the island, we could see the French border in the distance.

So, prices to live here? Hmmm... let's just say that I still have a few years of working in Australia before I can even consider such a purchase or move. As I wrote earlier... the Tatts tickets are looking mighty appealing. Also, I will gladly take donations of charity to support a worthy cause. ;)

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Monday, April 4, 2011

ahhh... cuenca...

I am in Zaragoza. The car has been returned to the right spot at the airport, and I no longer have to drive through Spain with a passenger who likes to call herself my co-pilot and give me instructions and directions to places in Spanish. Yes, she was as useful as tits on a bull... Pardon my French...

But, that's all over with. I arrived back at our hotel in Zaragoza in one piece. I'm grateful for that. Plus, it's worth noting that as I got more comfortable with the roads and the signs everywhere, I am definitely not averse to revisiting the idea of riding a motorcycle through Europe. It would be a hair-raising and fun experience, I'm sure.

Cuenca was absolutely gorgeous. That's where I've been the last few days. It's about three hours drive from Zaragoza - and the drive was marvellous too. The roads are tight and winding, with red cliffs on either side - very pretty and quite awesome to see.

Cuenca itself, was stunning. We stayed at the Hotel Parador de Turismo. This hotel was an old monastery, it had been converted into a hotel. There were breathtaking views from every room of the hotel - even if you walked down a passageway from your room to the lift, you had views.

Views of what? The old part of Cuenca is built on a little mountain - that's the best way to describe it. I liken it to Mont Saint Michel in France, or Montserrat in the outskirts of Barcelona - if you've been to either of those places, you'll know what I mean.

Cuenca is known for its casas colgadas, its hanging houses. These houses are built on the cliff-face, with their balconies hanging over the rivers that run through Cuenca - the Huecar and the Jucar.

It's unnerving to stand on the balconies of one of these houses. The Museo del Arte Abstracto de Espanol (Abstract Art Museum of Cuenca) is situated in one of these hanging houses, facing the Huecar River. As much as I enjoyed looking at the art work featured here, I couldn't restrain myself from being scared to death by standing on the balconies on each level of the gallery.

You feel like nothing is holding or protecting you when you step out - if you have the courage to look over the rail of the balcony, you see nothing but the river about 100 metres below. (At least, it felt like 100 metres - it was probably about 50... I'm sure I'm exaggerating, as I was positively frozen on the spot, standing there to admire the views.)

Our hotel was opposite these cliffs and the hanging houses. To get back to our hotel, we had to walk down many steep, narrow passages to the Puente San Pablo, a bridge for pedestrians which crossed over the river. This bridge, too, was many metres above the river and ground below. I was forced by sheer fear to hold onto the rail tightly as I walked over it slowly to the other side, our hotel and salvation.

At night, the views from here are also magnificent, as the Cuencans have lit up all the rocks, edifices and old buildings that are still standing and in use around the River Huecar.

Our first night was perfect - the weather was beautiful, the night, crystal clear, and there were a zillion stars in the sky. I had time to sit and admire my surroundings as my mother was looking for the Southern Cross in the night sky. Of course, I refrained from reminding her of our location in the Northern Hemisphere - I thought it best that she find the constellation on her own while I looked around, peacefully.

On the second day in Cuenca, as we were heading to the bridge back to our hotel, I was stopped by a busker with a guitar that insisted on singing flamenco to me. He sang, beautifully, in Spanish... the words: Your eyes are like fire and your lips drive me mad with passion. Wow! What an ego boost! I especially found him endearing as he was missing his front teeth - I could see that singing to passers-by was his bread and butter. His busking turf was perfectly situated - he could grab the tourists as they headed to the puente, making his living by trapping them on their way to the magnificent views that lay ahead.

In Cuenca, I have found out about an intriguing modern Spanish artist that I had not heard of before. Fernando Zobel. He was the artist that made the hanging modern abstract art museum possible. Inside, there were many of his works, along with his note and sketch books showing the inspiration and observations he made for each of the pieces on display. Fascinated, I took copious notes of my own about him, as I'd like to locate a book in English about Zobel - the book they were selling in the museum shop was in Spanish. It was a big, thick, heavy tome which I'm sure would have made my trip back to Australia more difficult. So, finding such a book in English is on my to-do list when I get back home.

So far, I have truly enjoyed looking at the galleries and museums in this country. I have particularly found the modern Spanish artists interesting - they seem to have so much say in their work that I can't help myself reading all the Spanish descriptions and labels around them, despite my lack of understanding - I am always longing to find out more.

Again, I can see why people like Hemingway found this country so intriguing. I am sure that I am missing out on a lot because of the language barrier I have been experiencing here. I have had some entertaining and interesting mini-chats to hotel porters, taxi drivers, even ice-cream sellers, and they seem to have a lot to tell. Perhaps I was hasty earlier when I deduced that the Spanish people I was seeing around me in public places probably weren't as interesting as I initially thought they would be.

However, I have found that the people that interest me most are the everyday Spanish - the workers, the attendants, the people I pass by, engaged in conversation with one another on the street.

Surrounded, in the hotels, by other tourists, or even Spaniards visiting from other cities, I am repelled by their need to assert their own culture or status into their unknown environment and surrounds. It feels as though they're being arrogant - I shudder to think that I may have given this impression to others when I was first trying to get my bearings in this mostly unfamiliar land.

At the time of writing this, I am torn... Even though I would like to see more of the world, I would also appreciate the pleasure of returning to this country, to try and get to know it more intimately. The viviaciousness in these people is appealing - at present, I feel like a complete outsider, looking in on a party from the perimeter, waiting for someone to hand me an invitation to join in the festivities.

Now, to explore Zaragoza... I am impatient though. I have saved the best for last. San Sebastian and Barcelona are waiting. It's hard to think about the city I am currently in - it seems far less interesting than what lies ahead. I hope I am pleasantly surprised.

Although, in its defence, I have met the most amazing porter in our hotel this morning. He assisted me by giving me driving directions to the airport to drop off the car rental. His name is Juan Antonio... if Spaniards have a flavour, he's definitely the epitome of what a Spaniard is. He has the stature of a bull fighter, and has the most seductive je ne sais quoi... indescribable, but definitely there. I cannot take my eyes off him. He's an amazing creature to watch. Jokingly, after his thorough assistance, I told my mother to ask him Spanish to come in the car with us to direct me - I'd pay him 100 Euros if he did. He looked saddened that he couldn't leave his post in front of the hotel to receive the guests arriving and bid farewell to those departing. Ah well... it was not meant to be.

I must remember to take a photo of Juan Antonio before I depart for San Sebastian. He's quite a specimen.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!


Friday, April 1, 2011

monkey, be gone...

Ok, I confess... I just couldn't take it anymore...

We were wandering around the streets of Murcia last night, feeling hungry, looking for the Plaza San Juan, as it was recommended to us as a good place to eat. I still can't get used to having dinner from 8.30pm onwards. The hunger pangs kick in at 6.30pm and continue until the beast is satiated.

The problem last night, was that we over-estimated the time it would take to walk from our hotel, across the river, Segundo, to the plaza. As a result, we were wandering around the surrounding streets of the plaza, an activity which I really enjoy, looking at the people and the shops... even the graffiti. (Btw, I've taken some great shots of some Spanish feminist graffiti in Granada... happy to show them around to anyone interested when I return home and sort through the zillions of pics taken thus far.)

During our meandering, I spotted an store called Belleza Masculina, which was open for business. A beauty store for men... however, in my defence, it also had services for women, but men were the priority.

I have been going mad this last week... spying the re-growth of my eyebrows, one hair at a time. So, in desperation, I entered the store and asked the gay male shop assistant if he could help me eradicate the monkey-like growth on my face. Si, si, claro que si... was the response. Ahhhh... salvation!

When a woman finally attended to my needs, I lay down, ready for the operation. But, what was this? She came at me with tweezers! Before I could protest, she started to painfully pluck at each folicle as she spoke about the weather in Murcia... in Spanish. Not a drop of wax was used... and boy, did I feel it.

I had brought my own tweezers with me... but, I hate tweezing. It's slow, painful and a waste of time - ultimately, it's almost impossible to get every hair to shape a perfect brow. That's why I decided to get a professional's help... I figured that if Penelope Cruz's brows can look that good, I shouldn't have a problem. Little did I know that I would be enduring 10 minutes of torture and get to have the pleasure of leaving this establishment for men with a red forehead.

But, enough of that... I'm sure you're not interested in my woes of vanity...

The change of weather in Murcia is noticeable. On the drive from Granada, which lasted three and a half hours, I could feel the temperature palpably increasing. As the bruja (witch) yanked at my eyebrows, she was explaining how Murcia has two seasons - Summer and Winter. They never get Spring here. Wasn't I lucky? I had arrived in time for the hot weather. It has been bright and sunny, starting at 19 degrees celcius in the morning and working its way up to 30 degrees by the afternoon. This is nothing... in the peak, it gets to 40+ degrees.

I'm looking forward to heading north to San Sebastian. I'm toast when it's too hot. The sun just doesn't work well with all the black. Plus, my fatigue increases in such temperatures.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been too much worthy of note here in Murcia. There are so many churches here (which we're not really keen on seeing), so we have just made our way to the Museo del Bellas Artes, which was an interesting distraction for a few hours.

Tomorrow, I get to drive to Cuenca - there's a lot of contemporary art to be seen there, apparently. I am looking forward to it. I'm sure that there'll be more to write about then.

Hasta pronto, mis amigos...



Wednesday, March 30, 2011

cultural differences... some amusing, some not...

My goodness, where to start?

My first comment... the words customer service don't mean as much in some places, as they generally do to Australians. Or is it that I have just been going to the right places in Australia? Or, is "good customer service" only considered to be good when one is fluent in the language and cultural habits of a country?

Earlier today, I went to have lunch in what has become a favourite destination in the centro of Granada. The Plaza Bib Rambla is a lovely square a few blocks from my hotel, with restaurants around the perimeter and little alleyways of interesting shops leading in every direction from it. The lunch was lovely, as usual. But, something that was more obvious to me on this particular occasion, was the poor customer service. The waiters were more intent on conversing with one another and sharing stories of home life and jokes than getting their clients what they wanted. A cafe con leche took almost thirty minutes to receive. I have often joked in Australia about growing a beard whilst waiting to receive my order. Here, in the Bib Rambla, I almost literally grew one!

Luckily for the cafe, the food was great and thoroughly enjoyable, so I could not complain about the service - ultimately, it was worth the wait.

But, I realised that after weeks of travelling through this beautiful country, I have grown a little weary of not being able to apply a little pressure on waiting staff about the lengthy time taken to receive what I want. After we left the cafe, immediately opposite the front door we stopped. Here was a little shop-front, with a woman serving. My mother asked her if she sold any postage stamps. The woman was looking directly at us, then some of her friends passed by at that very moment. They were calling out to this woman from behind us, and this woman, rather than addressing our need, moved her head towards them, reciprocating their greetings whilst completely ignoring our question. I was amazed. When she finished laughing and answering her friends, she spoke to my mother, saying, finally, that she didn't have any stamps for sale. I stood there, agape.

This was a big contrast to the restaurant we ate in last night. I chose a little place near our hotel, purely for its name, La ermita. The translation? The Hermit. It's also a way of describing a way to contemplate and live out life by one's self. It's more of a concept than a person, if you know what I mean.

This place was more up-market than the cafe I just described in the Bib Rambla. Again, the food was impeccable, although presented in a far better way, which is more appealing to the palate. Of course, with such effort, the cost of a meal is much higher. The waiters were attentive, taking great care to explain anything on the menu we didn't understand. We were treated like queens. This made me ponder how the concept of customer service works... here, as in Australia, money talks. You pay for the service, as well as the food and the good experience, overall.

Sure, the food is mainly great everywhere, so far. But, when I don't pay as much for it, my frustration at the service sets in... leading me to the conclusion that this is a cultural difference, or culture shock on my part. I dislike the fact that I cannot express my disappointment, or insist, in an assertive way, that I should be receiving better service.

Perhaps I have chosen this subject to complain about in this blog post because of the hair-raising morning I had. Today, I had to pick up the car rental I had arranged in Australia for the next leg of our trip. It was easier to get from Granada to Murcia, to Cuenca, then Zaragoza by car, than taking a train back and forth to major cities to get to each place. So, off we went to AVIS to collect the compact Mercedes which was given to me. (The fact that it is a Mercedes ALONE makes me a little nervous about damaging the thing.)

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but the Spanish like to touch-park. They manage to get their compact cars into the tightest little parking spots... and how? Car moves forward, BANG, and stop. Car reverses, BANG, and stop. (BANG = tapping another's car forcefully)

I have been noticing the amount of cars which have scratches and dents all over them, throughout the trip. I'm sure that car insurance is only used here when there is major damage and a panel beater and/or complete overhaul is needed. Australians have coronaries at the slightest dent (unless they own a bomb), and run to the panel beater to fix it immediately.

The last time I was in Europe with a car rental, I totally freaked out when I saw a Frenchie banging my rented Citroen to park his car. I blurted out, in English: "Are you kidding, mate? This is a bloody rented car!", which, of course, was no use to me when the Frenchie didn't speak English.

So, since arriving in Spain, I have watched the drivers here - they're crazy too. They fly through the narrowest of streets. I have found myself hanging on to the Jesus-bar in the back seat of taxis on a few occasions. I remember a taxi driver going on an 80km zone at 120kms per hour. I don't white-knuckle often, but when I do, it's with good reason. This taxi driver needed to be locked up or have his licence revoked, one of the two.

I have also thought about my own car back home, a GIGANTIC Ford Falcon sedan, which would, no doubt, have gotten permanently wedged into a medieval intersection somewhere along the way. You appreciate the space we have in Australia a whole lot more when you're in old, claustrophobic city roads and streets in Spain.

This morning was scary. Keep in mind that I am driving a compact car here. I had to pick up the rental, and drive it on the wrong side of the road continuously. Then, I had to navigate the car down a narrow, narrow alleyway, that is considered to be a main thoroughfare. On either side of this road, scooters and motorcycles were parked, with their tail-ends hanging out on the street, making the space for cars even narrower. I was getting beeped at by motorists behind me, as I was taking things slowly - I didn't want to hit any of the parked bikes. Even though I took the greatest care, I still managed to brush my passenger-side mirror against the padded seat of a Vespa. This made me more nervous. Not the Mercedes! I'll be paying off that damage until I'm fifty!

Of course, it took even longer to get back to the hotel, as all the streets around the central part of Granada go in different directions. Some are one-way, some are not to be entered, some are restricted only to taxis and buses. That'd be fine, but the signs are strange to me - round, red-circled ones with crosses through them - wtf? Ah, of course! No parking allowed! How silly of me! If you're not a local, you'll have more than a little trouble knowing which street you are able to traverse safely and legally.

A scooter rider took pity on me... He spoke to us, telling us that we could follow him, after he asked where we were trying to get to. (See? The ability to speak Spanish helps!) This enormous gordo of a man on a itty-bitty little scooter led us to our hotel's street, and we gratefully gave him some Euros for his troubles, even though he did spit the worst exhaust fumes into our faces most of the way there. If I could have said so, I would have given him the money for his help, with a small comment about getting his scooter serviced and its shocks attended to. I mean, how long did he think the poor little thing would last?

The hotel's porter was amused when I gave him the keys to the Mercedes nervously, begging him to park the car for me under the hotel. I wasn't about to start attempting to park this GIANT compact car in a tiny, underground car park!

So, after that nerve-wracking experience, naturally, I practically ran to the Bib Rambla to calm down and have a nice lunch. It was only after I got there that I realised that I'd be insane to order my usual sangria - I'm driving now! I can't afford to have even the tiniest bit of alcohol in my blood when travelling on Spain's roads! It'll have to wait until the car is returned to AVIS at Zaragoza... six days away...

The question is... will I make it to Zaragoza in one piece? Time will tell...
If none of you ever hear from me again, you'll know what happened.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos... I hope!