Cerveza In Catalonia

Ian Scott

© Copyright 2004 by Ian Scott

The only way to start off your evening in Barcelona is to sit outside a café in Plaza Real, a beer in hand, enjoying the last rays of sun and watching the day wind down, and this is exactly where I was with my girlfriend. Children gaily ran around the square whacking footballs as hard as they could towards waiters loaded up with drinks, or sending curling free kicks towards the sun ripened noses of arthritic pensioners. Somewhere, just out of sight, someone was continuously setting off fireworks. These, however, are not the fireworks we use to celebrate the burning of Mr Fawkes. No, these are industrial fireworks used for mining in impenetrable rock, or destroying small buildings. Every time one exploded I watched the whole square rattle like the set on Star Trek when they’re being attacked by Klingons. At that time, in Spain, there was a spate of car bombs being set off by ETA. I’m surprised anyone bloody noticed.

This was the first night of our holiday. Two weeks touring Spain started here in this warm dusty metropolis. Thoughts and worries of work were slowly leaving my brain and I could feel my body relaxing. With the daytime heat slowly cooling off it was the perfect temperature to be sat outside pondering whether to indulge in tapas or not. We’d arrived in Barcelona that afternoon and I instantly fell in love with the city. A beautiful city to behold, all ochres and dark reds set at a pace of life I could get used to; Idling. Just as the taxi was dropping us off at our hotel I noticed there was a bar at the end of the road. Nothing special about that you may think, however this was a bar on the end of the road. Shutters were open directly onto the street where passers-by could order a beer while strolling past. Perfect for impulse shopping by trainee alcoholics like myself.

We’d reserved the hotel about 2 months previous and even then struggled to find anywhere. Barcelona, it seems, is booked up 3 months in advance. Let that be a warning to you. I did have some doubts about the place we’d decided on. Our intention was to spend the first nights in Barcelona in relative luxury, as later on in the trip we’d be camping. Unfortunately after we’d decided this we started to look for some affordable classy accommodation and found it hard to come by. What I did end up booking looked quite good on the Internet (but so do eastern European brides-to-order) but boasted that it was a hotel used to dealing with school trips. I’ve been on school trips, and I’ve stayed in nice hotels, and they are not the same ballpark. To paraphrase someone, they’re not even the same game. Luckily for us Hotel Principal turned out to be better than I expected. Not the small doorway next a kebab shop I was dreading, instead, a proper hotel reception. I drew a big sigh of relief as I made my through the door and over to the desk. After checking in with a big hassled looking man, who wasn’t sure if he spoke English, we carefully threw our rucksacks on the bed and headed out to Plaza Real for pre-dinner aperitifs.

We spent a couple of highly enjoyable hours watching Barcelona go about its business outside the café then strolled the short way back out onto Las Ramblas, the central strip for bars and restaurants, for dinner. After much pondering we found a place to our liking; I don’t know why it took us quite so long as one paella shop is pretty much like another here on the main tourist drag. We sat down and ordered the obligatory Sangria & Paella. Out in the street endless streams of entertainers pitch themselves in front of each café. They do their little show, take a bow, take money off you and the next act takes their place. It can get expensive due to the constant flow of performances and you soon learn not to give them all money. It’s easy to decide which ones not to pay; the crap ones. And there are some crap ones, for example the man who pretends to be drunk then balances precariously on a bottle. It’s not even much of a party trick, and the third time you see it is no better than the first.

About half way through my paella, just as I was munching on a mussel, the entertainer in front of us pulled me out of the diners to assist him. I walked over to him and he bid me to climb up his leg and stand on his shoulders; a dangerous feat when I’ve been sinking San Miguels all evening but I managed to make my way up his torso somehow. From up there I had a fine view up and down Las Ramblas, from Christopher Columbus’s column at the foot, up to Plaza Catalunya at the top. It was also a moment of personal achievement. I’ve longed to stand on top of a Spaniard ever since, as a child, a Spanish boy came up to me one holiday and took my stick off me. Then started hitting me with it, my own stick for God’s sake.

I jumped down and gave a small wave of appreciation to the baying masses screaming for more, or was it a slow handclap emanating mainly from Deb? Sat back down, with my nerve-steadying sangria, the acrobat came and had a chat. He told us he’d been to London, doing this act, in Covent Garden following the Queen Mother’s death. Most country’s response was to send messages of condolences for our national loss; I find it odd that the Spanish sent us acrobats to help us mourn.

Deb and I finished off our food and talked passionately about people we’d like to stand on, then sauntered up Las Ramblas to sit at another bar. The problem here was we’d overtaken many of the street entertainers we’d only just seen, and now we were having to put up with their caterwauling, prancing and drunken balancing all over again, and pay for the privilege. We sat through the performances and had a couple more beers. Only a couple though, the one’s they brought us here were the size of small aquariums. You could probably drown an otter in one. I made a decision to find out the Spanish for small, or perhaps medium, as soon as possible.

Eventually our stomachs and bladders could take no more cerveza and we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel. Just as we got within site of the hotel a Spanish youth came over to us and attempted to start a conversation about the world cup (which was on-going at the time). It basically entailed saying "Raul" a lot and mimicking him weaving down the left wing. I stood watching him feeling it was definitely losing something in the translation. After his demonstration of Raul’s prowess he came over and put his arm around my shoulder. While still blabbing on about his footballing hero he started to jokingly try and trip me up. I must admit I was at a loss. I’ve no idea what the social etiquette is when strangers start with the old royster doystering. Unfortunately it soon became apparent, after I’d pulled his clammy hand out of my pocket, that this was an attempted robbery. I pushed him away and told him to "F**k off". In return he machine gunned off a barrage of Catalan abuse while scurrying back to his mate. So, to put him in his place and learn him a lesson he’ll not forget, I shouted back something along the lines of “Ha, your lot can’t even beat South Korea". Admittedly not the wittiest or most hurtful retort known to man, and I doubt he understood a word I said, but I was drunk, slightly flustered and had a head full of Spanish footballers.

You should always look for the positive in situations like this, and the good thing I learnt here is that he couldn’t have made it more obvious what he was up to if he had a sign round his neck and was ringing a bell. I had always assumed that pickpockets would be masters of deceit, and that by holding their left hand above their head and clicking their fingers they’d have you in a trance gawping at this wondrous feat of finger thumb interaction. Simultaneously their right hand would be rifling your socks, pockets and intimate crevices. By the time the clicking show had ended you’d have lost your money, watch, credit cards and underpants; and the thief would have vanished in a cloud of purple smoke. This episode left me in no doubt that you know when you’re being pick-pocketed, and you don’t get a nasty surprise the next time you visit the toilet to find some blighter’s had it away with your underwear.

The remaining two-minute walk to the hotel was peaceful, the bar on the end of the road was closed for the night, and the rest of our fortnight travels around this beautiful country were devoid of all signs of crime. Barcelona is a mesmerising place to visit; such things as this happen in every city all over the world and happen more often than here. I’d implore anyone to visit, and when you do you’ll find the Catalonians welcoming, charming and, most importantly, sturdy when stood upon.

My name's Ian Scott and I now live in Windsor (near the Queen). At the time of my trip to Spain however I was living in central London. I had to move out as I'm getting too old for the hustle and bustle. The story relives a night in Barcelona, with my girlfriend, a couple of years ago. It was the first night of a two week tour around Spain that covered everywhere from the mountains in the north down to the beaches in the south. It was quite an eventful night, full of fireworks, acrobats and theivery. For a living I actually make toothpaste in a factory near where I live, so as you can imagine I'm minty fresh!

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