Thursday, June 30, 2011

So this is our last goodbye...

I would like to make an unconventional move and start off by thanking people. Thank you to my parents, family, friends and boyfriend for supporting me financially and emotionally for the last ten months. And thank you for reading my blog during this year. Writing a blog has been a wonderful challenge, and having people read it and talk to me about it has been even better.

This will be my last entry. I hope you like it.

As I write this I'm sitting on the couch in my Aunt and Uncle's house, nestled happily in the French Alps after swimming in their pool and being wonderfully and generously fed. Luxury like this I have not known in years, and while I am delighted to be in the company of family in such beautiful surroundings, my holiday in France heralds the end of my Erasmus year in Barcelona.

Since my last blog entry, I have finished my exams, which allows me to reflect on the year in an academic sense. From what I've gathered across my ten months in the UB, the variety and diversity of classes is significantly better than UCC, but the standard of teaching and examination is startlingly lower. Students can end up taking six or seven years over a four-year degree, by virtue of repeating modules over and over again, never being quite sure of when or if they will graduate. Essays will be assigned with anywhere between two and seven days notice, can be handwritten and handed in a few days late without reprimand, are usually given as "oh, around two pages" and will returned within the following week. This came as a huge shock, having come from the rigid UCC protocol of knowing the date weeks or months in advance, having to type and double-space everything, and being severely marked down or even failed if you don't hand it in on time. While their lax attitude is a welcome change, I can't imagine it works well in the long run for permanent students. Overall, the campus is beautiful, the classes are interesting, but I can't help but think that you don't learn quite as much as you should.

I did however learn many more things in the last ten months. The most obvious of these would be how to live with other people. Having spent 21 years living with my parents, older sister and older brother, I was well used to leaving things on the stairs to bring up later (and not actually doing it for days), being given out to time and time again for not putting my dirty plates and cutlery in the dishwasher after eating, and generally treating my home as just that - my home. Living with strangers is not so, especially when the dynamic of the household was as fragile and ever-changing as it was. I lived with six different people in ten months, representing five different nationalities and between the ages of 21 and 40. I have witnessed breakages, breakups and breakdowns, and I firmly believe that if I could survive ten months in Carrer de Santaló, I can survive in any house. This isn't to say it wasn't a happy place to live - on the contrary, it was almost always spotlessly clean, sun-soaked and full of books. I was more than glad to have the company of two friendly and pretty cats for any lonely evenings. And I have very warm memories of flatemate dinners together, movie nights, parties and general banter. But at times it was a hard place to live, and for this reason I feel my tolerance for other people has risen, and my own discipline as regards cleaning and respect along with it.

So I learned to live with other people. But I also learned how to live with myself, from the numerous evenings left alone in my apartment to my final few days in the city. It's an important skill, knowing how to enjoy your own company, and while it's still not something I'm entirely happy or comfortable with, I now know that it's not the worst thing in the world to spend a few hours or a few days by yourself. If I hadn't been by myself on a few occasions during the year, I wouldn't have learned how to repair the toilet in our apartment when its flush was acting up, taught myself how to make pasties from scratch (I was too embarrassed to take up the kitchen for so long when other people were around), taken up the guitar and glockenspiel as often, read as many books or discovered as many beautiful things in the city.

One of things which will stay with me most from my Erasmus year is how much I learned about Spain, Barcelona, Spanish and the Spanish culture and people. By the end of June I felt more in tune with the rhythm and life of the city than I ever believed I could. I now know when things will be closed for siesta, what kind of shops will be open on Sundays, where to go and where to avoid. It only dawned on me in my final week that the reason people couldn't understand me or asked me to repeat myself wasn't due to the standard of my Spanish - it was merely because I wasn't talking loud enough like they do. I could sleep easily despite the smell of cooking coming from the apartment below and the noise of the television from the apartment above, both at 3am. I know what authors to read, what music to listen to, what time How I Met Your Mother (or, as the case may be, Como Conocí A Vuestra Madre) will be on TV and what time all the free papers will be gone from the University foyer in the morning. I have favourite cafés, restaurants, shops and streets, and favourite waiters and assistants who work within them. I have an internal map of the city woven from my own experiences and memories. As I became a part of Barcelona, it became a part of me, a part I hope will never leave.

The only thing that could stay with me more from the year is the people I met. So here's to you, you crazy diverse bunch of crazy diverse people. The faces that will surface when I remember my Erasmus experience will be those of the UCC people who accompanied me, who were not only there to talk about how we missed "proper tea", but also as a real rock in times of trouble, and will remain true friends. Those of my flatmates, in particular a certain tiny American who got me in trouble more than she was worth, but who still always helped me out when I had to behead a chicken, mop up spilled mercury on the bathroom floor or clean chocolate ice-cream out of a white lace cushion, laughing at me all the while. This certain roomie will always be in my heart, along with another English roomie who only stayed for a month but was no less lovely for it. Two more English girls, all of us brought together by crisscross connections, will also always remain lovely to me, and even though they only have three kidneys between them they are still indie in Birmingham. Special thanks to the Spanish boy who brought us to a grunge gig in a church hall in the middle of nowhere. Kudos. I learned that Prague, a city I have a serious grudge against, can wield some wonderfully funny and talkative girls with excellent taste in music. The only other Irish people in the city gave me some good times in museums and parties and with the President. And there was the lovely girls who made French class much more bearable. (There was also Pilar and Carlos and Mullet Man and all the other crazies from lectures, as well as Always-Late, Yak Face, Yak Face's BFF, Scruffiacelli, Meritxel, Smiley Norwegian, Future Husband, Girl Crush and all the other colourful characters whose names we never really knew or cared enough to find out.) It strikes me as amazing that there are so many great people I intend to remain friends were all brought together from all over the planet purely by the freak coincidence of being in Barcelona at the same time. Some of us are staying behind, but all of the people I met over the year will never be in the city all at the same time again. Our friendships were born of the time, I believe they will stand up to time.

This time last year I was so scared. I was petrified of moving away from the comfort and warmth of my own home and the unconditional love of my parents to a strange frightening city where I knew no-one and no-one cared about me. I was excited to be independent, but mortified of failing. I wanted desperately to learn better Spanish, but I was deeply embarrassed that people still wouldn't understand me and I wouldn't understand them. All the positive emotions I had attached to Erasmus and Barcelona were tinged with negatives, but I can safely say now that all trace of negative feeling towards the whole experience have been erased. It's hard to communicate the weight of what circulates in my mind when I think about the last year, but the impression it has made on me is overwhelming. I will remember sun-drenched beaches and shady streets, the sheer level of noise emanating from every corner contrasted with the eerie silence which descends on holidays, the smell of garlic and tomato and saffron and seafood when you pass restaurants in the evening, the taste of San Miguel, Estrella, Moritz, Voll-Damm, Cacaolat, jamón ibérico, patatas bravas, Cosmo's pan con tomate, Champañería's croquetas and butifarras, cupcakes and buñuelos. The sound of the broken pavement tiles on Carrer de Enric Granados as you cycle over them, the combination of seagulls and pigeons, watching the bare trees on my street slowly become a canopy of green to keep the upper-class residents from feeling the oppressive, humid sun beat down on them. I will try so hard to remember everything, but I know that some things will just always stay. It has been a wonderful year, filled with wonderful people and wonderful experiences, and while I am happy to go back to Ireland, I am sad to leave Spain behind. Barcelona, thank you for everything. Te amo con todo mi corazón, y siempre te amaré.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

33 weeks down, 3 to go..

This day three weeks time, with any luck, I envisage myself sitting in an adirondack chair on the deck of a lovely house in the Alps, enjoying the sunset behind the mountains and the company of my family. As appealing as this image is, at the same time it means that I only have a mere 21 days of my Erasmus experience remaining.

It's been a whirl of year in more ways than one, a year of first times and difficult times and sad times and happy times, but there'll be more in the way of reflections after I actually leave Barcelona. For now, inspired by those that occasionally appear on McSweeney's, I wanted to make a few lists.

Things I will miss about Barcelona
  • Lovely friends.
  • Living on my own and making all my own decisions.
  • Cycling everywhere.
  • Speaking, listening to, reading and writing Spanish.
  • The weather.
  • Being so near the sea.
  • Tapas.
  • Sangría.
  • How cheap everything is.
  • How beautiful everything is.
  • How crazy everything is.
Things I will not miss about Barcelona
  • Feeling guilty about speaking English so much.
  • Alien baby who lives downstairs crying all the time.
  • Lady who is always on the phone in nearby apartment and feels the need to shout.
  • People in nearby apartments who watch ridiculously loud TV ridiculously late at night.
  • How backwards everything can be.
  • Crazy apartment.
  • TEFL class.
  • Useless Translation class.
  • Hola guapa, ¿masaje?
  • Beercervezafantacocacolaaguacoldwaterbeer...
  • ¡¡¡Flashflashy blingblingbling!!!
  • ¿Mojito?
  • ¿Samosa?
  • ¿Coconut?
  • Beautifulbeautiful tattoos.....¿marijuana?
Things I am looking forward to about home
  • Lovely friends.
  • Lovely family.
  • Lovely house.
  • The use of a car.
  • The use of English.
  • How straightforward things are.
  • The Franciscan Well - The Bróg - Fast Al's/Hillbilly's evenings.
  • Electric Picnic.
  • Actual picnics.
Things I am not looking forward to about home
  • Final year.
  • The number 8 bus.
  • The number 5 bus.
  • The rain.
  • The wind.
  • How expensive everything is.
  • Lovely friends being on holidays.
  • The recession.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Football; or how to befriend old men and their dogs

This is a story of false starts.

You must know I have a long-suffering boyfriend. While we have mountains in common (a liking of the same music, films and books, not to mention pizza toppings, YouTube videos of cute animals and European beers), two things I thought I'd never understand were his love of taking a walk late at night and his dedication to football. In the evening I'm tired and like to stay in, and I've always found football mind-numbingly dull. This is a story of how I came to fully appreciate both.

Old men dig me. I don't mean in a creepy sexual way, and I don't mean in the dating-a-30-year-old way (aforementioned longsufferer is three months younger than me) - I just mean that for some reason, above all genders and age groups, really old men in particular really dig me. Whether it's my SHARE resident telling me that he would have been mad after me when he was young, or the doddery old Dean giving me a double handshake after Easter mass, there's something between me and old men. Cos I love them right back. I love their suits and their stories and their sayings. This is a story of how I made friends with an old man and his dog.

And now we'll get to the real start. I was in my TEFL class today and I noticed two students wearing Barça jerseys, and thought to ask one if there was an important match on tonight. He answered that yes, Barça were playing Levante and if they drew or won, they would win the Spanish league.

Like I said, I've always found football extremely boring, but since moving to Barcelona I've realised that it's such a hugely popular and successful sport in Spain, I would have to show some interest and try to like it. To be honest, it wasn't all that hard. The enthusiasm they show and the sheer joy it gives Barceloneses is incredible - something which I've only seen rivalled by Irish people's love of rugby in recent years - and when the atmosphere is that positive, you only need to let yourself follow it and it will sweep you along with it. I've watched a few matches in bars, but only ever the big ones, and so I thought that tonight, I would take a walk, and see what the ambience was like around my neighbourhood.

There is a café/bar down my street called Coffeeing, which I've never been into, but I could see through the window a great image - the small bar was full of people in their mid-thirties, not talking, and all staring in the same direction - at the match on tv. Cue the thought in my mind "dang. I should've brought my camera, that would've made a lovely photo". Oh well. Carry on.

There is another café/bar further down my street, this one called Bar Mateo. From the outside, it's very unremarkable, and local Yuppies more than likely sniff at it, favouring their more upmarket bars with low lighting, candles and cocktails. To me, Bar Mateo is a gem. It has these really tacky neon fairy lights surrounding the sign. It is about the size of a postage stamp, which is why it has an open window and three stools outside. And on this night, it completely surpassed what I had seen through the window of Coffeeing. The bar was completely full of men in their forties and fifties, with the tv on in the corner, and every single one of them facing it - including the moustachioed barman. They had a sign outside advertising that they were showing the match, with a big loveheart next to "CAMPEONES DE LA LIGA". Cue the thought in my mind "...I really have to go home and get my camera".

I ran up my street. Like a flipping lunatic. I can't imagine what the Yuppies thought of this mad Irish girl pegging it up the street with the excited face - oh, look, her shoe fell off, what on earth could she be doing? Has she stolen something? Or is she just totally loopers?

By the time I got back down to Bar Mateo (walking calmly down the other side of the street), the scene had changed slightly - there were people sitting outside now, so the sign was partially blocked, and this meant that I couldn't take a photo completely unnoticed. And there was also a dog. A dog, watching the Barça match. I stood across the road and tried to get a good photo, but didn't really succeed. The lighting was bad, and I was slightly too far away, and a guy had noticed me and probably thought I was mad, like the rest of the street was probably thinking.

I gave up and went inside, ordered a Nestea and stood just outside to watch the final 10 minutes of the match. Barça were drawing with Levante 1-1, which meant that if they could keep the ball away from their opponents they would win. I soon befriended the dog, who was called Jumbo (pronounced Yumbo) and who was being petted and talked to in Catalan by his elderly male owner. The barman occasionally reached through the window to give the old man bits of ham to give to Jumbo to placate him, as between watching the match and barking a bit, I think he was a little bored. He gave me a curious sniff, and jumped up, putting his warm paws on me while I stroked his head and ears and gave him a gentle little push to sit down. I was one of two women in the whole bar, and the only person not drinking the local Estrella beer. Everything about the scene completely fascinated me. The match drew to a close, with the score remaining 1-1, so this meant that Barça were indeed campeones of the 2010-2011 Liga, and made everyone aware by singing campeones, campeones, olé olé olé (which they absolutely stole from the Irish). The men in the bar stood up and applauded, and as each filed out they gave Jumbo a rub on the head, some calling him by his name, others just calling him guapo. A barman came out of the bar across the street with a little party horn (the type that you have at kids' parties) and gave it a celebratory toot, in tune with the cars that were now speeding down the Avinguda Diagonal honking their car horns.

I walked down towards Diagonal to the sound of more car horns, and some motorbike horns, and even a girl joining in with her bicycle bell. Two lads in Barça jerseys sped past me on their motos honking like crazy. I walked back towards home, past all the bars and restaurants and closed shops, past the people who cared and the people who didn't care. Whether you did or not, this joy was now part of the city, the aural evidence now mixing with the sounds of traffic in the warm, dusty night air. The motto of FC Barcelona is més que un club - more than a club - and this is never more true than on the nights of victory, when it seems that the whole city is buzzing - in this case honking - with delight.

I turned towards home, enlightened by the knowledge that a) a nighttime walk can lead to wonderful experiences and b) football is more than just a sport for hooligans (like it very often seems to be in England). It unites people, if only for 90 minutes, and it's an inextricable and important part of the fabric of Barcelona. While walking up my street, I once more encountered Jumbo and his master. We exchanged big smiles.

And that's what it's all about. That's how you enjoy football, and that's how you befriend old men and their dogs.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Awakening

Spring has well and truly sprung in Barcelona, seemingly overnight (or at least over one weekend which I spend in Dublin, enjoying the daffodils and tulips that have sprung themselves in the Botanic Gardens). I had a wonderful visit from one of my oldest and best friends, and I'm anticipating another from my lovely little Mum. The sun is shining that little bit more, the sky is that little bit bluer, and the lecturers are piling on that little bit more work. Make that a lottle bit more work - I spent four hours on a Linguistics assignment today. I've spring cleaned my room - Life Laundry as my older sister calls it - and some things are springing in my brain.

It's struck me that when you move abroad and have to live your day-to-day life through a different language, you really learn the importance of communication. Small things like buying food or asking where something pave the way for the big things like reaching out to people or listening in class. The whole point of going on Erasmus is to improve your language skills, which I feel I have in leaps and bounds - I used to be extremely shy about speaking Spanish in class, and I must admit I didn't make much effort for homework exercises or things like that, whereas now I know I have to put in the time to do things properly, and I have to try to communicate as best I can, which has made me happier and more confident about speaking Spanish.

The whole idea of communication is paramount in our translation classes, where Angels (teacher of Translation I) tells us "mmm we wouldn't say that, how can we express this better?" and Johnjoe (teacher of Translation II; actual name Juanjo) tells us that the message is the most important thing to convey. These translation classes are hugely helpful for learning Spanish, from bits and pieces of vocabulary to methods of analysing translation before starting the process, but sometimes it's almost overwhelmingly difficult to communicate the overall message.

One thing that is definitely not difficult about communicating while on Erasmus is talking to people at home. Say what you will about the constant contact people have with each other, and let the critics rage and rave about texting, Facebook, Skype and Twitter - means of communication are often what keeps me sane when I'm feeling sad, lonely or simply out of touch with home.

A lot of people highlight their opinion that the whole point of being away for a year is to cut yourself off from the familiar and throw yourself into the unknown with wild abandon. I agree with the latter, but definitely not the former. By all means, cut yourself away from the familiar as regards food and habits and things like that, but keeping in touch with friends and family has been an unbelievably huge support to me in the last six months. Last night I spent a total of over two and a half hours on Skype to four of the people closest to me - nothing of huge importance was discussed, but what made us stay talking (to two people in particular for over an hour each) was just the pleasure of being able to chat. About nothing. Last year in the study month my friend Laura and I gave each other the nicknames of Talky McChat and Banter McNatter, because we were doing a bit too much chinwagging and not enough studying. This year my friend Carina and I were forcefully separated in French class for engaging too much in the old bavarde. It's a given that there's a time and a place, but very little can top a good chat.

So let me chat just for a while. Last week I met the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, who is a lovely woman. She is smiley and pleasant and friendly and involved, and she made an admirable effort to speak Catalan to boot. But this very pleasant instance (which involved free cava and cakes with the Irish flag on them) collided interestingly with two others.

One of these was an assignment for my class on teaching methods, whereby I had to find a video on the subject of gender inequality. The video I chose was a TED speech by Chilean author Isabel Allende, who spoke wonderfully about passionate, strong women. Never having been interested in my teenage years, I've lately felt the vague presence of feminism tapping at the door of my consciousness, and slowly that door has been creeping open. Last week, Isabel Allende blew it right off its hinges.

This had particular resonance for me as the other instance occurred a few nights previously, when I was on my way home from the gym. It was dark. It was raining. It was about 10pm. I was walking to get a Bici from the station nearest the gym (which is still in the back arse of nowhere in Barcelona terms), and I noticed an alarming frequency of girls. Girls standing in the rain. Young black girls my age, standing in the rain with hot pants and umbrellas. Not even someone with as innocent a mind as my own can be naïve to the incongruence of their attire, their half-attempts to seduce despite the adverse weather conditions and the lack of passersby. I saw a girl sitting in a car with a man. I've seen this sort of thing late at night, off the Ramblas, but never so obvious, so clichéd, so upsetting. It's one of the images of Barcelona I'll keep with me. And I can tell you it's not going to be stored in the same mental storage box as the Happy Lobster, the colour of the sky behind the purple trees in full primavera bloom, or the warmth of the sun on your face as you cycle down Carrer de Enric Granados in the early morning, while the shopkeepers and baristas clackityclack open their shutters.

All these things came together in one week and became lodged in my brain. I realise there's little I can do on my own to change anything right now, but with a degree in Spanish and Politics behind me and the inspiration of women I come across on my travels through life, Isabel Allende and Mary McAleese being the most recent, maybe there will be in the future. Not only is Erasmus about learning a spoken language, for me it's also about learning the language of life in a different country, and my experience living in a big, bustling, wonderful, electric city like Barcelona has opened my eyes to a huge amount, an extent to which I hope Cork will never close again. And maybe it's important to communicate these sort of thoughts, even though they're not the sort you have during chats over tea and Milka chocolate.

When giving a speech at a conferring ceremony in UCC last September, the author Theo Dorgan said in regard to those who were planning on emigrating, "send us your thoughts and your visions constantly, it's what the technology is for." I couldn't agree more. Then again, if I disagreed I wouldn't be writing a blog.

I've said enough for now, but here's a picture of the Happy Lobster to lighten the mood:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

I'm quite a friend-orientated person. I worry about them when they're sad or troubled, I miss them when they're not around, and I enjoy spending time with them. I like making new friends, but as I have an unfortunate propensity to be quite shy sometimes, I always feel most comfortable with my old friends. But something which has really struck me lately is the capacity for strangers to act like friends.

One example was last week, when I was introduced to Antonio. He had just retired and was hoping to spend a few months in Cork with his wife, starting in May. A mutual friend thought it would be good if we could meet and I could tell him a few things about Cork, and I wasn't going to decline because practicing Spanish is always a good thing, even if it does mean hanging out with a man in his sixties instead of people my own age. I hadn't met Antonio more than five seconds when he presented me with a gift to thank me for my time, a kind of teach yourself Spanish kit with a phrasebook and a cd. I thought this really was generosity which was pure of heart - I was teaching him about my home, so he wanted to help me learn about his - and I found myself genuinely lost for words.

But what hit me even more had happened a week previous. When Donnacha was visiting recently, we borrowed my flatmate's Bicing card so the two of us could cycle around Barcelona. It worked out in our favour almost all of the time, as we saved a lot on metro tickets as well as enjoying pedalling around with each other, something we had never done before. I adore Bicing, the scheme whereby you flash your card at a scanner at station, it tells you which bike to take, you take it, cycle where you need to go, and drop it off elsewhere. It means I don't have to buy a bike, or pay for huge locks to keep it safe, or replace it when it ultimately gets stolen, as it would in Barcelona. It also means that when I cycle somewhere and it's sunny, and when I'm ready to go home it's raining, I don't have to brave through the elements to get home if I don't want to. But for all its good points, it still means that whatever bike you use isn't yours, and as such people mistreat them. I've got bikes with broken gears, upside-down bells, stuck seat adjustments, punctured tires and a missing pedal, but unfortunately Donnacha was the one who got one with a slipped chain. Not having a huge amount of experience with cycling, he didn't know what to do with it, but luckily (depending on what way you view it I suppose) I have a bike at home that hates me, and slips its chain at every available opportunity. So I got down on all fours and rotated the pedal and hooked the chain back on, fixing the bike but covering my paws in oil in the process. As we were on our way to lunch I thought no problem, I'll just wash my hands in the restaurant, but then I remembered that en route there are a few public fountains, so I decided to give one of them a try. I scrubbed my hands under the freezing cold jet of water to no avail, but then all of a sudden a man came up to me and presented me with a small bar of pink soap wrapped up in a plastic bag. The previous week on my way to college I had seen a homeless man washing himself in the early hours of the morning with soap under one of these public water fountains, and I realised this man was probably in a similar position. It looked as though all his possessions were stacked up on his bike, and he seemed shabby but happy. And I was completely overwhelmed that this man who had so little would be willing to share it. And his soap got all the oil off my hands in one fell swoop.

It can be uplifting to know that the world is full of these random acts of kindness, but unfortunately you have to be aware that it goes both ways. A random act of meanness befell me and my friends on the beach at Sitges last Sunday night, when all of Cataluña was celebrating Carnaval in Spain's gay capital. The parade had finished and we had an hour before the bus was due to take us back to Barcelona, so we thought we'd head down to the beach to chill out under the stars with the rest of the partied-out partiers who weren't on the streets anymore. We were having a nice time talking when a group of six teenagers came over to us and started hassling one of the boys in our group. They started spouting in Spanish about how they were the Francoist police, shoving an identity badge in his face while they tormented him, asking did he have any drugs on him and why he had a Catalán flag on him. They yelled their fascist dogma at us for about five minutes before ripping the flag off him and trying to set it alight. When the flag didn't catch, they cast it into the sea. And they still wouldn't leave us alone. It took one of our number, a native Spanish speaker, to tell us to get the police for them to take fright and run away like the cowards they are. And so the circle is complete, where people can warm your heart with the kindest of gestures one day, others can erase all of that and replace it with anger as they invade your privacy and wreck and ridicule your belongings.

Given the tragedies that mark our planet as it spins on oblivious - from the economy collapsing and so many people tumbling into poverty to earthquakes destroying Japan and New Zealand - I think we could all use a little more kindness from family, from friends, from strangers.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The descent of the blues, and how they blew away

Anyone who knows me is aware that overall, I'm a pretty positive person. Nothing really bothers me too much, I'm quite calm and mostly I take things as they come with a good attitude. For some reason, last week, all that changed, for the crappiest few days that I've had in a long time.

I don't know what brought it on, nor when it started. But it was Monday when I noticed it. This huge bout of despondency and apathy had come a-knocking to my door, let itself in, and plonked itself on the couch, without so much as a shall I put the kettle on from me. For the whole week, all I wanted to do was stay in bed. All day. Nothing interested me - not class, not fencing, not anything. Only negative thoughts inhabited my brain - all I could do with myself was make unfavourable comparisons to other people. She's on Erasmus and has more friends than me, he's more dedicated to learning the language than me, they've got better social lives than me, and so on and so forth. The only thing I can say is that if Last Week's Livi had met 13 Year Old Livi, they would have been fantastic companions for one another in total lack of self-esteem. Except Last Week's Livi didn't just have that to worry about - I also was concerned about money and budgeting, something I'm not used to at all, and my bank balance is screaming out for me to manage it better. An extension of that is getting a part-time job here to ease the pressure a bit, and a summer job in Ireland or elsewhere to give me something to do for the summer (as well as finance my fun for the summer). Add to that all the expectations that I was heaping on myself as regards college work and making the most of my ever-shortening time here in Barcelona, and the result is not pretty in the slightest.

Still, I trucked on. I went to all of my classes, did all of my homework, went to the gym, did my laundry, cooked my food, all pretty normal and standard stuff, but it taxed me much more than usual and I didn't get the normal amount of enjoyment out of it. And then something happened to lift me out of all of this.

It was Friday, and I had toyed with the idea of going to a concert all week. The plus side was that it wasn't expensive, and it was only a five-minute walk from my house, and it was Fran Healy - the lead singer of Travis, my favourite band when I was 11/12, and thus a huge player in the formation of my musical interests throughout my teenage years and right up to now. The drawback was that I had to go alone, and that made it unappealing given my already disaffected outlook on everything. But I pushed myself. I made a plan to buy my ticket on the way to the gym, and despite everything in the world telling me not to buy that ticket (bad weather, the guy in Fnac first mistaking the name of the venue and then not accepting my voucher or my card, the ATM in Fnac rejecting both of my cards, the invisible ATM in El Corte Inglés, having to trek all around the shopping centre to find a working ATM, the lack of Fran Healy's actual CD in Fnac for me to prepare for the gig), I bought the damn ticket. I gave the two fingers to the universe and told it I had had enough, and that my depression was to get the hell off my couch and out of my house.

So that night I strolled on down to Sala BeCool, and slid past a security guard that wasn't even the slightest bit interested in the fact that I had a DSLR in my bag and I would be taking photos all night (in Razzmatazz they're not cool with that, neither are they in Palau Sant Jordi). The support act was good, a young American guy in bare feet and a wifebeater singing about how his girlfriend didn't want him to cry, she didn't want a man, she wanted a stone. And then Fran Healy came on. And instantly, the second he started to sing and tell jokes and stories about the background of his songs, songs that had meant so much to me when I was younger and still mean so much to me today, everything lifted. He was singing all his new songs from his solo album mixed in with old songs that reminded me of being in primary school and the girls in my class making fun of me for liking Travis and not Westlife, of getting their third album The Invisible Band for my 12th birthday, of burning their next album from my best friend when I was fifteen, of welling up when listening to certain tracks from my favourite of their albums, of being seventeen and my first and only time seeing the band perform and how we interrupted their soundcheck, of the burning disappointment of their latest album, and of earlier that day, cycling down Avinguda Diagonal and listening to their back catalogue on shuffle. This was the band I grew up to, and I realised that as long as this guy with the stupid hat and the grey stubble and the Scottish accent was still making music, I would still be listening to it, and I would still be growing up. All those stupid worries from the last week vanished as I took photos of my childhood hero and sang along to songs that he had written when he was my age.

I have a bit of a reputation for being a total groupie at the best of times, and true to form I stuck around after the show to see if I could meet Mr Healy. In the past I've waited upwards of an hour and a half to meet a musician, sometimes in the freezing cold (Franz Ferdinand), sometimes in the rain (KT Tunstall), sometimes in the back room of Cyprus Avenue for two hours and they don't show up (Fight Like Apes). After two hours of playing onstage, Fran Healy didn't give himself a break at all, and didn't even put down his guitar before he started signing tickets and taking photos and shaking hands and making small talk. Still, I waited about twenty minutes. I told him how Sing was probably the first single I ever bought, and how I had been feeling low lately but that night had really cheered me up, he signed my ticket, I shook his hand, we took a photo together, and I went home.

On Sunday I went to the gym. When I cycle down Diagonal on a Sunday morning, the cycle path is jammers with families on bikes and scooters and rollerblades and skateboards - apparently you're nobody if you don't have three adorable children on wheels trailing after you. When I was cycling home, I stopped at the Law Department of the UB, where I used to take my politics classes, and I took my earphones out. Nothing. All the kids and the parents had gone home. There was no traffic on a six-lane road incorporating two tram lines that cuts through L'Eixample diagonally from the motorway out of Barcelona right down to the sea. The sun had come out after a drizzly morning. After I dropped back my bici, I had a think about the week I had. By any standards it was mediocre - nobody had died, I hadn't failed anything, I hadn't had any arguments with friends or boyfriend or family, I had a roof over my head and food in the house and a bit of money in my pocket, yet something had made that week different and important to me. And as I walked through the deserted streets of Sant Gervasi, with the afternoon sun shining dusty on the balconies of the apartments and the red bricks of the Mercat Galvany, and glinting off the lizard atop its weathervane, I realised that there is always going to be people to compare myself to, but that doesn't mean I should do it. Yes there are people who are also on Erasmus who might have mastered the language more than me, or made more friends than I have, but I couldn't help but feel that I wasn't wasting my time. I am content with my wanderings and my wonderings, my rambles and my ramblings.

I went home.

There was nobody on the couch.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There's a first time for everything

Today was definitely a day of firsts, and what more apt day than the first of a month and a season?

After a week of cloud and rain and thunder and cold, Barcelona finally cheered up on the first day of February and the first day of spring and decided to be sunny. As I cycled to the gym (more on that later), I remembered what it is that's so wonderful about Barcelona in the sunshine. The sky is incredibly blue, and all the buildings seem to look even more grand and imposing with blazing sun shining on them. Not only was this the first sunny day in a long time, it was also the first day the sun was actually hot, which was a really welcome change.

So, to the gym. Today was my first day at the University of Barcelona gym. And it was awesome. Not only is seriously cheap, it's also got great facilities and everyone there is unbelievably helpful and friendly. Every security guard, receptionist and instructor we met seemed to genuinely want to help us - whether it was helping us sign up, or telling us how to get through a door or turnstile (that one happened a little too often), or giving us a hand with equipment, every member of staff was amazingly nice. My first day at the gym also marked my first time ever going to a gym class. Now, I had my eye on yoga and tai chi, but we arrived too late for yoga and a friend wanted some moral support for another class. So instead of my nice relaxing afternoon, I ended up at Body Pump. This was an hour of lifting weights to target different muscles in your body, and man did I feel it afterwards. I was quaking in my boots beforehand at the prospect of weightlifting, but I actually found myself pleasantly surprised by how it was quite easygoing and meticulously organised. I don't think I'll be returning, but kudos to Body Pump nonetheless!

Which brings me to fencing. I had been telling myself and anyone who asked for the last five months that I fully intended to join the UB fencing club, but this was something I was genuinely scared to do. My own fencing club at home is such a welcoming, eccentric place that I thought I had just got lucky, and that I could never get that lucky elsewhere, let alone through either a language I had a relatively good grasp of or a language I don't understand at all. So I pushed myself. Tonight I sat on the tram to the gym and steeled myself for the worst - that they would tell me they weren't accepting newcomers, that they would only speak in Catalán, that they would laugh at me because I'm a foilist in an epée club - the list was endless. Needless to say, I was delighted to discover that the eccentricity and welcoming atmosphere of a fencing club extended all the way to Barcelona. I was one of three newcomers that night, and I think they got a bit of a novelty factor out of my being a) foreign, b) a foilist and c) a girl (seriously, it was all dudes, except one other girl newcomer). The moral of the story is that I had a brilliant time, I'm learning a new weapon, I'm meeting new people, I'm improving my Spanish, I'm getting out of the house in the evening, I'm getting some exercise, and it's all just from fencing. It's remarkable what one thing can do for you if you let it.

(There were more firsts today, involving my first time cleaning up dog puke from a white couch, but you don't want to hear about that)

My classes this term don't start until this Monday, the 7th. Whereas last term I was doing quite airy-fairy things like Political Theory and Contemporary Spanish Theatre, this term I'll be studying Translation, Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Linguistics. If I'm honest it'll actually be my first foray into the world of more practical language-learning, seeing as in my last two and a half years (where does the time go?) of university, I've mostly covered things like Art and Literature in Golden Age Spain and Cinema and Identity in the Spanish-Speaking World. I'm looking forward to something a bit different and I'm hoping it'll expand my academic horizons a bit and give me some insight into what I would like to study after UCC. Currently looking at my academic future is like looking around when you're drunk - you can make out vague things that you're interested in, but you're not sure can you reach them, or even if you want to, and the rest is just a haze!

I think I've made good use of my time off after exams, not only in light of my million first times today, but also because I went to Madrid to visit a friend from school who's on Erasmus in Alcalá de Henares (about 40 minutes by commuter train from Madrid, a medieval university city and the home of Miguel de Cervantes, Spain's most celebrated author in its history) (oh and there were storks everywhere. Mad). Madrid is a city I've loved ever since I went on a school trip there with my Spanish class when I was in fifth year. It was my first time there and my first time in Spain, and we had a brilliant few days. The next time I went to Madrid was a year and a half later when I was inter-railing, which was a different experience but still awesome. This time was different again, but I still know a few areas of the city and I still really like it. The Museo Nacional del Arte de Reina Sofía remains one of my all-time favourite
museums, ranking just behind the Tate Modern. All the other great things Madrid has to offer, like the Museo del Prado and the Parque del Retiro, are all still great. What was best about the trip was seeing my friend, with whom I haven't been able to spend much time since August, so obviously the three days were completely jam-packed full of catching up. It was also interesting to see Erasmus through her eyes - in a big town near a capital city, instead of just in a huge city, and it seemed like a great position to be in. Everybody knows everybody in Alcalá, but then Madrid is less than an hour away. We drank cava, we ate the best pizza in Madrid, we got cupcakes from an American shop, we saw Guernica and Las Meninas - what can I say, it was a very memorable and fun few days!

Just to touch on something else, I saw the King's Speech the other night - it was really brilliant. Everything from the acting to the costumes to the really beautiful cinematography really caught me, and it definitely deserves one of the many Oscars it's nominated for.

The next few weeks hold a lot of exciting prospects - new classes, a little tripín to Dublin, a visit from the boy - all sorts of fun things. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention - today being the start of February means that it's my halfway point. I've been here five months and I'll only be here five more months. I could see it that my time is ticking down until I go home from here on in, but instead I choose to see that the weather will soon get consistently hot and sunny, and I still have plenty to discover in Barcelona, Cataluña, Spain and Europe and plenty of time in which to do it. I remain, as ever, positive of enjoying my time here :)