Barcelona bits

27 Feb


As our time in Barcelona winds down, I want to make a few observations and to present bits of cultural information that we have learned since being here. We will just skip the part about our unfortunate interaction with gypsy thieves (see our earlier post on warnings and lessons learned from that experience!) and focus on more amiable and/or thought-provoking episodes.


The photo above shows us at a feast of calçots, a particularly Catalan kind of green onion grilled on an open fire, wrapped in newspaper and then served with romesco sauce. One then peels off the burnt parts and eats as I am doing here. Catalonians are known to eat hundreds of them at a sitting! Extremely messy and lots of fun!  Tasty, too! We are so grateful to Annie Graul and her husband Eduardo and son Oscar for inviting us to their beautiful house IMG_20160220_165504.jpgin beautiful Premio de Dalt outside of Barcelona to experience such a treat! After the trauma of our theft, this was the nicest gift they could give us. (Along with Eduardo’s
gift of that cool Repsol jacket! Who ever saw a nearly 70-year-old American woman wearing a Honda Motorbike pit crew jacket of bright orange? I’m thrilled!)






Barcelonan TV–and, I suspect, all Spanish TV–is by and large horrible. I have found about 2 channels that show some documentaries and/or educational programs in a variety of languages. Other than that, there are a few channels with game shows, an entire channel for Barcelona Football Club, some soap-opera and sitcom stations in Spanish and/or Catalan, and one station that shows endless episodes of ”The Mentalist,” sometimes in English, sometimes dubbed into Spanish–oh, and one channel that airs ”Inspector Rex” episodes in Italian!  For me, the most fascinating part:  at least 4 stations at the end of the channel run that are Psychic Call-in stations!  One person, usually an older woman but there are also male psychics, sits there, with props like a crystal ball and cosmic paraphernalia in the back ground, and reads tarot cards or stones for people who call in with their problems. People must have their favorites, since there are IMG_20160227_120937.jpgat least 4 stations with different ”helpers” assisting their clients. The woman on this channel is reading ROCKS of some kind while giving specific advice to a woman who has called in about trouble at work.

That being said, we have found splendid classical radio stations on the cable TV service that we have in our apartment. A real mix of international and local music that has been very enlightening. We have been quite intrigued to hear of Renaissance and Baroque composers from Spain that we had never heard of before.


We have been surprised that so many people in Barcelona, including those in shops and in service positions such as at banks or the train stations, do not speak English AT ALL. Even younger people often have trouble. I do not want to sound like one of those Americans who can’t possibly imagine that English won’t be spoken everywhere, but after Lisbon, where EVERYONE spoke a little English and most young people spoke American English fluently, we were surprised by this lack here. There seem to be a few reasons for this difference: first of all, in Barcelona, people already have to be fluent in two languages, Catalan and Castilian Spanish, so a third may be just too much to ask. Then, as we learned in our reading, in the Franco years, English was not taught in the schools, so older people will have had no exposure to it at all. Finally, and most importantly, in Portugal, all TV programs, taken directly from American TV, were shown in the original English with Portuguese subtitles; in Spain, everything is dubbed, on TV and at the movies. Apparently this makes a huge difference in how people learn English. Everyone we talked to in Portugal said they learned English because of TV, and Spaniards acknowledge that having everything dubbed into Spanish means they never hear English spoken in the media.



Postcards from the beginning of the contemporary Catalan Nationalist movement, 1890s. In the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya.

Speaking of the Catalan language leads, of course, to a consideration of the current drive by some to bring about Catalan independence from Spain. As a microcosm of the arguments and to gauge the impassioned feelings this question  arouses, the Barcelonan cab drivers seem as good a place to sample attitudes as any. The cab driver who brought us from the airport (and ripped us off, as we later realized) DID speak some English (he learned from SIRIUS radio talk shows!) and when we asked him if the nationalists now pushing for independence were going to succeed, he was appalled by their actions, said it would ruin the economy, and that it was a ridiculous idea. But in another cab, the driver, who was thrilled that I would try to speak a few words of Catalan (”adéu” for goodbye, ”gràcies” for thank you, ”si us plau” for please), launched into a hugely loquacious defense of the need for Catalan independence (this was carried out in Castilian Spanish, which they are willing to speak to  foreigners who are feebly trying to speak something other than English, but apparently are often less amiable about it when Spaniards speak to them). He really wanted to find out what side Americans were on in this fight for freedom, as he saw it. It is all  about emotion, identity, and not being oppressed by Madrid.

As our new-found friend Annie and her (Spanish, not Catalonian) husband describe it more pragmatically, the Catalan nationalists who are trying to push independence through only won 50% of the vote, but are determined to implement what most people see as a disastrous economic step for a romanticized “victory.” The EU has already stated that if Catalunya implements independence, the Union will not automatically recognize its status as a sovereign nation, and Barcelona would have to go through the whole process of admission again. Since Spain is  in pretty awful economic shape–some 25% unemployment over all , and as high as 55% for young people–such a disruption would be even more unsettling and possibly catastrophic.  The logistics alone would be daunting, and such practical concerns as army, taxes, etc., seem to be lost on the most rabid of the nationalists. While having a longer, more impassioned history, these sentiments seem comparable to Texans declaring that they want to be a separate country. We will watch this process with interest.

We do find it very positive, nonetheless, to hear Catalan spoken so readily. What a fascinating thing language can be!


For a people as fiercely proud of their heritage and as adamant that they are a separate nation from Spain, the Catalan acknowledgment of the horrors of the Civil War of the 1930s and the oppression under Franco is bafflingly muted. In The Ghosts of Spain (2006), the author Giles Tremlett addresses this ”pact of forgetting” which has led most Spaniards, including Barcelonans, to ignore as much as possible the tragedies of the past. We were intrigued to see how the Civil War was handled in the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya, the best place to learn about the history of this region. The museum really gives an excellent survey, through artifacts and descriptions, of the entire chronological development of Catalonia, from prehistoric times to the present, displayed in state-of-the-art exhibitions.  As we turned the corners leading up to the period of the Civil War, we grew increasingly intrigued to see what they would say about this awful time.

The presentation was, as the photos above show, rather subdued. One wall of photos and one wall of posters, a bit about the battles in Catalonia, and some artifacts that would be hard to understand if one didn’t already know something about the time. (The one brochure in the photo  above is in commemoration of LLuis Companys, the leader of the Spanish Republic, turned over by the Nazis to Franco, at which time he was executed. As the Wikipedia entry points out, ”Companys is the only incumbent democratically elected president in European history to have been executed.”)  If you read the wall label, it is clear that in present-day Spain, 40 years after Franco’s death, one still needs to be a bit careful in how one presents this story.

And here’s what really intrigued me:  the place was filled with school groups being given tours of the museum. They had stopped at all the sites about the Crusades, about the origin of the Catalan flag, but when it came to the 20th century, they stopped at a display of a 1930s kitchen–then walked straight through the Civil War section to focus on the differences in a 1970s kitchen! This is where we then found them playing Crusaders and Inquisitors–a Barcelonan version of Cowboys and Indians?



These four cats are the ONLY cats we have seen in Barcelona! The black one was on a leash attached to a homeless person’s bicycle in a park–he was not at all happy that we took a photo of his animal! The white one was in a gallery in El Born, and the last two belong to Annie Graul, in her lovely house outside Barcelona. We haven’t even seen any feral cats where one would expect them, around the docks or in the vacant lots. All we can figure out is that the city has done a good job of eliminating ferals, and that all pet cats are kept inside.

LOTS of dogs, though, of all sorts. In our neighborhood, pugs and French bulldogs seem to be most favored, but we have seen all types, from mutts to greyhounds to Afghans and Jack Russells. I would describe Barcelona as a City of Dogs.


FOOD!  It  may just be impossible to get a bad meal in Barcelona. The Spaniards take their food very seriously, to our great pleasure. We did have a couple of mediocre meals, which were really the fault of our choice of venues.  Don’t eat at the cafeteria in Corte Ingles, for example: a gorgeous view of the city, and we thought since so many Barcelonans were eating there, it would be like eating at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, with the blue-rinse ladies. But it wasn’t. Just mediocre.

Since we are 1) poor, and 2) old Americans, we didn’t eat out that often, but cooked at home. And alas, we just could not adjust to the Spanish custom of eating so late. We managed to get used to eating lunch at 2 or so, but the dinner after 9 just escaped us. Consequently, we ate our big meal at lunch time, and never went out for dinner! We have now realized that Spaniards actually eat all the time–something quick and sweet with a coffee first thing in the morning, then a little sandwich or something about 10,  a big lunch that can last for hours at 2 or 3, then perhaps some sweets with coffee in the late afternoon, and then a smaller dinner VERY late. Sorry, folks, but we’re in bed by 11!

And Spanish coffee! I have written elsewhere that it may actually be better than Viennese coffee! And you all know what a claim that is coming from me.  I could drink ten cortados a day.

Alas, we can’t give you reports on wine. George has been drinking the local cheap reds and finds them perfectly passable as vin ordinaire, but a connoisseur he is not. And my wine ship sailed some 20 years ago (in fact, I got a 20-year medallion from a Barcelona AA meeting just last week!). We have heard from Annie Graul that the Freixenet cavasfreixenet

are well worth the visit!

More practical advice to follow!

2 Responses to “Barcelona bits”

  1. Annie February 27, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

    Wonderful post! I’m so pleased that your opinion of Barcelona wasn’t totally tainted by that unfortunate experience with the gypsies. It’s a fascinating city and you have really delved into the heart of it, and captured its essence. We loved playing a small part in your time here. Wishing you many more memorable experiences throughout the rest of your European travels. We’ll be watching for updates. Hasta la vista, Erika and George!

    • esauboeck February 27, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

      You guys were wonderful! Are wonderful! I hope that we can see each other next week before we leave. We really have loved your city!

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