Thursday, October 15, 2009

I Am Total Pro

I am a total pro at this train thing now. That's all I'm saying. If I were a tony hawk combo in the space museum, I'd be about 2500000 points. I wouldn't be four million. I'm not sayin' I'm sick or anything like that. But I am total pro now. No more Am hour for me.

[editors note: dear Matty – we should have played Tony Hawk more, and I look back on those three days as some of the most fantastic of the house. But sadly we were a man down. Luckily he was there for the greatest of all moments: C.N. Tower? C.N. Tower! How I miss you both. Now back to the story.]

Fifteen hour train ride? Not a problem for this guy! He'll jump in his seat, and curl up and fall right asleep. Well, he will after reading two chapters of his book, probably annoying everyone else who wanted to sleep by keeping his above seat light on. Fantastic! But then I curled up and slept. I missed most of the French countryside, which is o.k. because it was dark. And when the sun came up, I knew immediately I was in Spain.

As the morning rays illuminated the countryside, everything had changed. Everything. The plants were different, the landscape radically altered, the small villages were made of tiny white houses, with uniform red roofs. This was the Europe I had been looking for. This was the subtle sense of otherness that proved I was not just around the corner in some long forgotten district of The City.

This was what I thought I had wanted.

And then I got out at my train station, where I had to catch the connecting train. Let me tell you – my limited amount of French? It was inconceivably helpful to me. You don't realize how important your baby-talk foreign ramblings are until you can't speak a word of the local language. And when they can speak a word of yours – let me tell you how much fun that can be! So there was much pointing, and much head wabbeling, and a little bit of frustrated tapping. Through all of this, I decided that I would simply wait for more people to show up, and check their train number to see if it matched mine. And if so, I would follow them.

And why couldn't I just check the screens showing departing train times and numbers? Oh because they were all broken. Of course they were. Now I mean this in a loving way to both countries – but Spain, it is the Mexico of Europe. It is beautiful, the weather is great, nothing seems to work, and the people won't try to kill you – as much as take your stuff before you notice it. Maybe they'll kill you if you notice? But that might be out of a hurt professional pride more than anything else. More on this to come! (I'm just calling it as I'm seeing it people. I don't make stuff up. I don't need to. There's too much crazy every day for me to know where I should begin fabricating.)

So I jumped on the train that other people seemed to think was the right one. But none of us were sure. I asked a lady on the train if it was the right train number. This – was a mistake. She didn't speak English. Why had I thought saying train number and pointing to the number on my ticket would work?

She stood up, arguing that she was in the right seat. I said, I know – I know – mine is beside you across the aisle – I want to know about the train number. She looked at my ticket, looked where she was sitting, sighed, and got up collecting her belongings. No! NO! I tried to protest, she was in the right seat. I just needed the train number. After a few minutes the British couple, behind, no doubt enjoying our performance spoke up, sat the lady back down, and then told me that, indeed, I was on the right train. Goody. Thanks you snide Brits, with your dry humour. I probably would have done the same.

Two travellers from Quebec couldn't wait to get to their hotel room. Apparently they felt they were alone on the train. They were not. There were many of us. Well, you must admire their youthful spirit.

At the train station I tried to buy a ticket to Madrid. Seriosuly, does no one speak English here? It's more difficult that Pairs. Eventually I discovered there was an English line across the station – sure, that's a good place for it. Not beside, but across. Getting there you wouldn't know it was the English line, except for the fact that you had to take a ticket. And you didn't know about that either, except for the man that said “speak english? Here. ticket.” And then you waited for your number to be called. There are more make work programs here than in a Wal-Mart! Mexico of Europe, I say it again.

So there I was finally called up, ready to buy my tickets (I would have used the machine to do it myself – but, of course, it was Spanish only. Of course it was! No tourists would come to Barcelona. It's not like it hosted the Olympics within living memory.)

And when I got up asking for a ticket to Madrid, in the english line, did I receive it? NO! He didn't speak English. How silly of me to think that he would have. Was this the English line? Yes, I was told it was. I was told through head nodding and smiling. Very well. More nodding, smiling, tapping, and drawing finally left me with the ticket I required. I had to pay before I could see the price. And this is probably for the best, otherwise I'm not sure Madrid would have been in my future. I cried a little inside, reminded myself why I cut Lisbon from my plans – because they hate travellers near the west coast – and the managed to take the subway to my hostel. This part was easy. The hostel is centrally located on the main strip. Which is fantastic – because it means I can explore the high life from my room's window – or by taking a quick pop outside, not having to weasel through sketchy areas. Of which there are a good number here, I am told.

So, checked in, and ready to go I just tried to connect to the free wifi. The less said about this the better. I finagled the encryption key to the staff wifi and tried to use it. This too was down. Very good. They had four free internet computers here – and they always work perfectly, I'm told. And thus far, they have, so no harm no foul.

The scrawls of “Fuck this hostel” and “worst hostel ever” written inside my room were not the most welcoming. Perhaps time will prove them correct. But it's cheap – free breakfast – free internet access – nice rooms – and a bath. Not to mention, perfect location. What people want, I'm not sure.

The only real downside about the city is this: lots and lots of pickpocketing. Two people I met in the hostel told me their tales. I had only met two. This is a 100% PPP right now. That's pickpocket percentage for those scratching their heads.

The first had his phone taken from his pocket, without ever noticing it was gone. Until later. When he went to use it. A local friend told him that theft was the national sport here. They really are proud of their techniques, and their game plans.

The other lady, I asked her if it was safe in this area. She said yes – yes – of course. Then when she heard the other guy talk about pickpocketing, she said that, oh of course, that happened to her as well. Yes – why would she think of that when I asked if it was safe? Clearly theft is no safety hazard.

She went to buy a one dollar flower. When she opened her wallet, the seller grabbed one thousand euro out of it, without her seeing. When she went to buy a ferry ticket, she saw it was gone. Went back, and screamed at the thief. Most was returned to her, “you must have dropped it,” she was told.

So, do not carry things in pockets, do not buy flowers. Very good. I plan on doing neither of these. But I will try to be more alert.

I think I've figured out one game – and it seems very good. A large number of locals stand around, all shifty line, leaning against walls and such, with the cell phones out. Every now and then they will snap a picture. I imagine this picture of a foolish tourist (read: myself) is then forwarded to another person, as a potential target who is set up just down the road. I haven't seen any follow up on this, but the locals can not be so into photography that you see this in a number of locations. I'm not sure of the end game, but this is how it begins. So be warned. Barcelona? A good place to get ripped off. Once more – the Mexico of Europe. Though I hear it's not nearly as bad as South America. There they'll just kill you and take your stuff.

Tales from travellers are oh so much fun!

But enough of that, full of fear and dread, I headed out. Step one was to find a grocery store. Which was an unknown term to the guy who worked in the hostel. Oh god. I'm doomed. A food store. A super market.

He sent me to a sandwich shop down the street: they sell everything!

Fine, whatever, I'll find it myself. It was just a block past the sandwich shop, and on the way to where I was headed. In I went, bought a liter of reasonably priced juice, downed it all, and left. But not before feeling a sense of relief that I was out of Paris, where in the time it took to check out one person, a line of five or six was dealt with. These are intrepid grocers. I tell you – give a check out clerk a seat to sit in, and it goes all to hell. Did we learn nothing from Seinfeld?

And then I saw the Arc de Triumph. What? No this isn't an accidental copy and paste from the Paris blog. This is what I saw. This is what it's called. Look if Tokyo and Paris can have statue of liberties, and there can be Cleopatra's needles all over the world, then just accept that nothing is sacred, nothing is unique, and that there is an Arch de Triumph here. In a much more tropical setting as well.

Walking under it I was taken through a lovely park, past the zoo, and to the beach. The beach! And it was full of people. My god, what a beautiful sight. Blue waters, golden sand, warm sun making it all glow. Ahh – it was magical. I looked at my map: The Olympic Stadium... that was the only other thing I wanted to see in this city. I will head their early tomorrow, check it out, and then secure my spot on the beach. And stay there until it's time to go to Madrid. I will have my book, my sun glasses, and my hat. What more could one ask for?

It seems I'll actually get the downtime I so desperately need! Provided nothing goes wrong, or pops up in the mean time. These things, of course, happen.

Now let me tell you about the beach. It's divided into sections. First you walk past the tourists, all dressed to kill showing off for each other, and having a grand old time. Then you reach the locals – you can tell, because they wear shirts, and other things that let you know they're cold. Because I guess it is cold to them. It's like Florida in December – only us foolish Canadians wear shorts.

And then you reach the section where a girl or two is topless. And normally with a sixty year old man, who resembles myself if my life took a treacherous downward spiral, and my beard migrated to my back. And I wasn't from North America, where we wear bathing shorts. No – it would have to be like the episode of the Simpson's where one, two, three speedos were put on – but nothing helps. Nothing covers the shame. Still, I don't judge. Salt of the earth characters, I'm sure. Every last one of them.

And then you reach the section where no people have cameras out. Because no one wants a picture. Because most people will spend the rest of their lives trying to forget the things they saw in this section. This is the naked old man section. And they're not just naked. No. They're standing there, hands on hips, on display. Daring – daring you – to take a picture, which you will never, ever, do. Because no one wants to remember.

But then you pass and you're in the surf section, which is fantastic – as surfing is a pure delight to watch. And there are bars here – four euro cocktails every day until seven! What a deal (really?! Where? Where is this a deal?) And there are people making sandcastles for tips. And they're good. As if to emphasize my point, one was of Homer lounging on a couch.

And that's that. That's the beach. And it's wonderful, and it's fantasic, and I will not ever venture from from it I think.

And then back to the hostel where travelocity may or may not have screwed me. Time will tell.


  1. When I was there a person in the hostel got stabbed 3 times and robbed in the old city. A week before that there were two other stabbings and a mugging at gunpoint.

    Watch out at night in the alleys of the old city east of La Rambla, a lot of them wind up in dead ends and believe me, there sometimes are people just waiting for someone to come.

  2. Man!! Am I glad that I didn't read this before I let my son head off to Spain on his own. It was his first time out of the country and without someone with him. I was nervous enough. However, he didn't have any problems. Loved Barcelona hated Madrid. Some very unique architecture there I am told.

    BE Safe...

  3. i haven't run into problems either. and i'm quite liking Barcelona - though I'm staying away from the night life. But there are tourists bumbling around during the day, maps held wildly in front of them. It just becomes some what of an issue at night, from what I'm told. And on La Rambala (the main strip) that's where big pickpocketing happens.


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