Matt Pucci - This is Barcelona

An Exercise In Perception

All, Barcelona, Sitting, Words, Writing

The first thing I saw this morning as I walked out of my hostel was a guy on a bike, riding up the middle of the street on one wheel. Just a kid, sitting back with a big grin on his face, front wheel high in the air. And not just for a second, either. I stood and watched as he rode all the way down the street like that. Brilliant. What a way to start the day.

This is Barcelona.

Four days now, I’ve been back here. The first day I just walked. Alone. Trudged the streets in the baking heat, from the Raval to El Born. Down to the port, where the seagulls are as big as eagles, and dirty as the water by which they strut. Like me, they seemed to be searching for something… Halfway up to Barceloneta, I stopped and sat on a bench and watched a skater in tight black jeans and no shirt doing tricks, while his girlfriend rode behind him on a bike, filming it all on her phone. I didn’t go any further after that. I went back, wandered ’round the Raval for a bit, but called it quits at around two, beaten by the heat and the weight of memory.

Today is different. Today I feel better. I’m back into the swing of things—back into the groove of this city. After watching the guy wheelie all the way down Calle Hospital, I put on my sunglasses, turned left, turned left again, walked a couple of blocks, and there—on the corner—was a café I’d never seen before. A perfect little place, with wooden booths, and sunshine streaming in through the window…

This feeling I have right now, it comes from another place. A place that I seem to be able to access far more easily when I’m here. Here, in this place, I feel more open—more susceptible to the beauty of it all. And it seems to me that by perceiving the beauty of it all, of our surroundings, and of the possibilities they present… well, one can’t help but marvel at it all. The light, the colours—even the little things, like this bowl of sugar before me. Sugar so brown and rich in its brownness I want to pick up the little wooden spoon and eat it straight from the bowl. I don’t do that, though. Instead, I look to my right and there above the bar, above the shelves of jars containing teas and other infusions, is an array of wooden blocks, each one with a letter on the front, and each letter has been fashioned in a different way. Carved into the wood, or stencilled on, the letters spell out the name of the café.

It looks kind of like this:

C o c t v 0.

The people who come into the café, they all say hello. It’s a general hello to everyone—even me. I don’t respond at first, but then I do. “Bon dia…” Do people do this in England? I can’t help but think that the reaction would be less receptive… “Why are you saying hello to me? I don’t fuckin’ know you…”

I want to tell you about what happened the other night. Walking back from the restaurant, cutting across Calle de les Floristes de la Rambla, and two guys passed me. They weren’t running, but they were out of breath, like they had been. Running, I mean. They were talking, muttering to each other in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Anyway, a minute later (less?) I round the corner, into the plaza that backs onto the mercat, and I see a man in construction gear, standing with his neck craned, looking past me. Behind him, a couple—tourists, clearly—and they look distressed. The woman is crying, panting, struggling for breath. Immediately, I understand: they’ve been robbed. I stop. Shit. The two guys that passed me, a matter of seconds before. Surely. The construction worker, he’s trying to help, seeing if he can spot the culprits. What can I do? They’re long gone. I didn’t even see which direction they went. I start to walk over to the couple, but they are already retreating. The woman is literally howling. I hope the guy will hold her, comfort and reassure her.

Today is a new day, though. A good day. Today is all about the light, as it comes through the leaves and branches of the trees. Leaves and branches that make shadows on the stone, and the shadows shift with the breeze, gentle and pleasant. The light here is so bright, that even under the shade of the trees—these giant chestnut trees—sunglasses are a necessity. I’m in Gràcia, now, sitting on a bench in a square. On my way over I saw a notice. Hand-written, stuck on the side of a building on C/ Verdi: “Apartment for sale: a duplex, with three rooms and two bathrooms, 180 square metres. 450,000 Euros.” Cripes. People cross the plaza before me. A family of tourists. A hippie lady with three dogs. One of them cannot walk properly—it has wheels attached to its hind legs, and it scoots along, behind the others. My eyes roam over to the tables outside the café in the corner of the square. There’s a man, watching me. I know he’s watching me, even though he’s wearing sunglasses. In fact, that’s how I know he’s watching me. That’s why anyone wears sunglasses: to watch you as you sit and write about them. Of course it is. This guy who’s watching me, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the name of a band. The band is Flipper. I know Flipper, but I wonder: would anyone have heard of Flipper if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain? I doubt it. So what, though? That’s okay. No-one cares. Not here! This is Barcelona…

I’m now sitting in the exact spot where the guy in the Flipper shirt was sitting. The place is called La Cafetera. On the table in front of me is a bottle of Voll Damm—the double malt beer that comes from the same brewery as Estrella, which the Brits pronounce: “estrella”. As opposed to “es-tray-ah”… which would also be wrong, the way I pronounce it. I prefer Moritz, anyway. Whatever. It’s not important. On the bench where I was sitting a few minutes before, there are two old guys. They’re Spanish (as opposed to Catalan) and one of them strums a guitar with his thumb, singing a song that sounds like that one by the Gypsy Kings. His hair is grey, his teeth almost all gone, and he has a voice that crackles from too many cigarettes. I think maybe he’s Andalucian. His compadre is tall, dressed in a smart shirt and old, ill-fitting blue jeans. He sits and rolls a joint, discarding the cigarettes from which he has just pinched the tobacco, chucking them on the ground. A few yards away, sitting on the stoop of a store with its shutter pulled down, is another guy, smoking a cigarette and glancing across, kinda shiftily. The tall guy starts bawling at him, his voice as throaty and hackneyed as his guitar-strumming amigo. The guitarist cackles: they are taking the piss out of the stoop guy. The stoop guy tells them to fuck off, basically. They laugh. These men remind me of the men on the cover of that copy of Hemingway’s ‘Men Without Women’ that sits on my bedside table back at home. Where do they live, these men? Maybe they live in that duplex. The one that costs half a million euros. What? You don’t know.

You know nothing, Jon Snow…

This is true. Here I know less than nothing. It feels good, though—like being given a clean slate. I can feel my insignificance increasing every day, and with it goes my fear. My worries, my regrets… Oh, but this is a wonderful spot! The buildings, with their tall, rectangular windows and faded green shutters, and the balconies enclosed by iron spears, black as an oil slick. They’re barely wide enough to stand on, those balconies, but still. To live in one of those apartments… fabulous! Luxury beyond luxury. One day, baby. You and me. I watch the guitarist stand up and stretch and smoke his joint, before picking up his guitar and slowly sauntering off. Kinda bow-legged. He nods at a woman eating from a carton of stir-fry, bids her bon profit. She nods in acknowledgement and carries on, hoisting noodles and fried egg and spring onions into her mouth with chopsticks. Mm. I’m hungry.

It’s time to move on…”

Underneath The Orange Trees

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Sitting

“Underneath the orange trees I sit, in the grounds of the biblioteca. Shielded from the midday sun, by the branches of the trees—branches teeming with fruit. Bunches of three or four, clustered together, their bright orange peel mottled brown like the skin of a leopard. No way these oranges would make it onto the shelves of a British supermarket. No way! I’m not even sure they’re oranges. Perhaps they’re tangerines. Satsumas, or clementines, or something else entirely. Perhaps they’re apples. Why not? You can’t be too sure these days. You can’t be too sure of anything.

Underneath the orange trees I sit. I sit alone, but there are other people here. There’s a man, to my left, old and bald, in socks and sandals, with earphones in—the white ones you get with Apple products. I wonder what he’s listening to. Mozart? Or Megadeth? Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, perhaps, translated into Spanish. Over to my right there’s a woman, in a white blouse embroidered with flowers of pink and blue, leafing through papers in a plastic yellow file. Her face is hidden behind the trunk of one of the trees. I wonder what she looks like. I don’t want to know, though. I just want to imagine.

What’s this now? A small child—a toddler—escaped from her parents’ clutches, stands and stares at the fountain a few yards away. She points and smiles, the water dancing and twinkling in the sunlight. More people wander over, take photos on their phones. This toddler, in her pink shorts and little pink sunhat, she’s shown them. She has shown us all. Look, she says—and now I cannot stop. I sit and watch the fountain, spurting and splashing unendingly, the water overflowing and trickling down the sides of the stone bowl. I watch the sparrows come to drink. Dip their heads and tilt them back, and then fly off, chirping. A sign at the base of the fountain says that the water is not for drinking, nor swimming in, and one should not place fish or turtles in the fountain. It seems unlikely that anyone would do that, but I suppose they have to make sure.

It’s peaceful here, underneath the orange trees, like a pocket of tranquillity inside the chaos of the citadel. A place where people can sit and read, or sit and listen, or just sit. Everyone respects the norms here. The unwritten rules. Every so often, though, the peace is broken. Someone enters the grounds from behind me, comes bounding past, whooping and hollering. A guy with a mane of long black hair; his dog—unleashed—jumps into the fountain, and the man yells at the dog but carries on walking and the dog eventually follows him and then they’re gone. Out the other side. There’s always someone wants to disrupt things, bring attention to themselves. That’s okay, though. Perhaps one day I’ll be the crazy guy. Or the old man in the socks and the sandals. Or even the dog. Unleashed. Unbound. Free to roam, and jump into fountains, and chase the sparrows. Go up to strange women and lick their hands…

How long have I been here? Underneath the orange trees. The days go by so slow, and yet this trip will be over before I know it. Soon it’ll be time for me to go… though there’s nowhere I need to be. Just sit a little longer. Why not? This ain’t reality, but it’ll do for now.

Primavera Sound Festival 2015

All, Barcelona, Influences, Music, Words, Writing

Let’s get the ranting out of the way first, shall we?

Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe humanity is getting worse. Maybe both. I don’t know, but this year—more than any other—I’m finding my levels of irritation at the people who spend the whole time taking photos of the band—rather than actually watching and listening to the band—have reached an all-time high. Take this girl who rocks up during Mineral’s set on Thursday evening, stands right in front of me, and takes at least twenty shots of a band she’s probably never even heard of. And then just leaves. I mean, seriously. Why bother?

Another thing that really grinds my gears is how much people talk during the sets. Mostly Europeans, it has to be said, with Italians being the worst culprits. Yes, you speak a beautiful language and usually it’s a pleasure to listen to you parlare. And no, I’m not one for standing in complete silence for the entire performance, but if you don’t have any interest in what’s going on up there onstage, please: piss off and have your conversation elsewhere. By the bar, perhaps, or in that massive, empty expanse of land between the stages—anywhere, in fact, but right next to me, because I’m trying to dig on this guy’s music. This guy, who’s tearing it up like the bastard son of Chuck Berry and Jimmy Page, his name is Benjamin Booker: a Virginia-born rock ‘n’ roll wunderkind, whose attempts to get a round going during ‘L’il Liza Jane’ may fall disappointingly flat—“you guys can’t be cool all the time”—but whom nevertheless confirms his place on my list of this year’s essential acts.

 

But wait. Let’s back it up a sec. We’re at Primavera Sound. It’s a music festival, held in a huge, purpose-built leisure park just above the seafront in Barcelona. It is good. From the moment you pass through the turnstiles and saunter over toward the Ray-Ban stage, casting your eyes out over the horizon, where one impossible shade of blue meets another, you get a sense of being part of something special. This year marks the fifteenth edition of the event, and my fifth time attending. By the time it’s all over, I’ll be bordering on ecstatic. Why? Well, because for a start I’ll have seen Patti Smith. Twice. Once, performing her 1975 debut, Horses, in full, out on the main stage, and then again, inside the Auditori Rockdelux, where she will forget the lyrics to ‘A Perfect Day’ by Lou Reed, but deliver a set of such raw beauty and righteous fury I won’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ll have seen everyone from Sleater-Kinney to Sleaford Mods, Spiritualized, and Swans. I’ll have danced like a loon to Run The Jewels, stared in awe at Earthless’ guitar god, Isaiah Mitchell, and had my eardrums perforated by Sunn O))). I’ll have shed tears during José González’s set, and declared Fucked Up the best band I’ve ever seen… only to change my mind after Einstürzende Neubauten’s set an hour and a half later. I’ll have survived on a diet of Heineken, veggie burgers, coffee and Tex-Mex, and decided that The Strokes, The Black Keys and Interpol are all massively overrated. I’ll have missed the one band I really wanted to see—Battles—due to their performing on some stupid “hidden stage” for which you needed to purchase separate tickets. I’ll have soon forgotten about that though, along with a bunch of other, great moments… and so, before it all escapes into the mists of time, here are just a few of my highlights of Primavera Sound 2015…

1. José Gonzalez

“Well, it’s one thing to fall in love/ But it’s another to make it last…

Put your hand on your heart and tell me, it’s all over…”

So sings José González, on ‘Hand On Your Heart’. Well, José, as cheesy as it sounds, I can put my hand on my heart and say yours was a truly wonderful performance (Friday, Auditori Rockdelux). Your unmistakeable, haunting voice—fragile yet full-bodied—echoed all the way to the back where I was seated, bathing us all in the warmth of your wisdom as well as the pain of your suffering. I enjoyed every second of your sixty-minute set, which included a spine-tingling cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ and—of course—your version of ‘Heartbeats’, by The Knife. It was your own material, however, that induced an unexpected spillage of eye-juice from this otherwise cynical hack: on ‘Walking Lightly’, you manage to turn a simple refrain into a profoundly moving mantra with guitar notes that shimmer like drops of summer rain. Excellent work.

https://instagram.com/p/3ROq3oKFdc/

2. Swans

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for taking children to festivals and exposing them to live music from a young age, but I’m not sure about making them sit through a set by Swans (Saturday, Auditori Rockdelux). And yet, lo and behold, as I settle into my seat down at the front, a quick glance to my right and there’s a woman sitting with a girl of about nine. A little boy, too. Woah! I mean, imagine trying to prepare them for it: “Well, sweetheart, you know those scary dreams you get—the ones you come into mummy and daddy’s room to escape, only to find us making strange noises from under the covers? Yes, well, it’ll be a bit like that. But louder. A lot louder. There’ll also be a guy with no shirt on playing the trombone and a huge gong—oh, and did I mention it’ll go on for over two hours?”

Of course, there’s every chance that little girl was Michael Gira’s own daughter, who sang on the band’s 2010 album… in which case I shall shut my mouth. Either way, heavy music doesn’t get much better than this. My God. There are many words to describe how you feel after leaving a Swans show: purged… liberated… cleansed… deaf. Most of all, however, you feel grateful—grateful that Michael Gira exists and is still making music of such bone-rattling power and savage emotion. Utterly astonishing.

https://instagram.com/p/36-rt0KFfC/

3. Death From Above 1979

The big sexy beast that is Sebastien Grainger—singer and tub-thumper extraordinaire for Death From Above 1979—is dressed in a pair of white dungarees y nada más, by the looks of it. “We’re here to destroy your stages,” he announces, three songs into their set down on the Ray-Ban Stage (Friday). “I hope that’s okay…” The remarkably sizeable crowd indicates that that is very much okay by going a dozen different strains of doolally to the Canadian duo’s dirty bass riffs. It’s quite a sight to behold. Mind you, material from last year’s The Physical World still doesn’t sound a patch on the colossal cuts from You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine—especially ‘Romantic Rights’, which as an absolute choon.

https://instagram.com/p/34hcErqFfW/

4. The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger

One of the unwritten rules of Primavera Sound is that when a girl asks if you want to go with her and watch The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, you say yes. Even if you’ve no idea who they are, or what they sound like, or if you think their name is slightly preposterous. You just go. You go, and you watch and you get a bit drunk and you have a good time, because it turns out TGOASTT is Sean Lennon’s band (I think his dad was famous back in Sixties or something) and because the dude can shred, and because their swirling, psychedelic pop makes perfect sense in the baking sunshine on a Saturday evening in Barcelona.

https://instagram.com/p/3UTK7iKFRg/

5. Fucked Up

Did Fucked Up play this festival last year, or the one before? Were there always so many people in the band? Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Father Damian’s mic isn’t working? And how can a song whose chorus consists of a cry of “dying on the inside” sound so uplifting? These are just some of the questions that go though my head as I catch the last twenty minutes of the hardcore-progsters’ slot on the Pitchfork stage on Saturday evening. The answer to all the above is, of course, a massive “Who cares?” Especially after seeing Damian squat-walk across the stage with his shirt over his head, or hear him declare that he’s lost “like a hundred and twenty pounds over the last year” solely by smoking weed.

https://instagram.com/p/3Yv57WqFdh/

6. Einstürzende Neubauten

Einstürzende Neubauten not only have a name very few people can pronounce properly, they are, surely, the only group who’ve brought along a metal trough, filled it with strips of metal and suspended it above the back of the stage. Famed for creating and building their own instruments, and making use of all manner of industrial materials, Neubauten deliver, hands down, the most captivating set of the weekend—even the group of Italians next to me is silenced. Fifty-something frontman, Blixa Bargeld—resplendent in a three-piece suit of charcoal grey and no shoes—is a model of German stoicism and creepy, gothic attitude, veering between dark, softly-spoken monologues, and screams so high-pitched they almost defy belief; bassist Alex Hacke, meanwhile, is a dead ringer for forgotten Steve Coogan character, Tony Ferrino.

https://instagram.com/p/3RvnI0qFfv/

7. Earthless

Earthless’ From The Ages, released back in 2013, is an album that’s never too far from my CD player: four tracks of mind-melting psych-jamming led by Isaiah Mitchell’s Hendrixian guitar shreddage, with a rhythm section that features Mike Eginton (Electric Nazarene) and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, OFF!). When first I take my place for the San Diegan trio’s midnight set on the adidas Originals stage, the audience comprises just a few savvy punters. By the time first track, ‘Uluru Rock’, is finished, the crowd has quadrupled in size—Mr Mitchell clearly being a modern day Pied Piper of Hamelin, drawing children from all corners of the park. The fact that some band called The Strokes is shambling through their headline slot at the other end may have something to do with it, but whatever led them to arrive here, no-one leaves Earthless feeling anything less than exultant.

https://instagram.com/p/3Vwp4dKFSI/

And finally…

I finish this year’s festival by treating myself to a taxi back into the city and walking up La Rambla back to my hostel. It’s three o’clock on Sunday morning, and this is when everything you’ve ever heard about Barcelona is happening, all at once. Police vans and handcuffed street thieves, Pakistanis selling cans of beer for one euro, leathered tourists from Russia, Spain and England, and hookers of all shapes and sizes, plying their wares on the corners of every carrer. Drunk, tired and elated, the dazzling light from the street-lamps that line the entire stretch rendering the whole scene a little more surreal, I smile, drinking it all in, feeling cool and invisible—right up until the moment someone makes a grab for my phone (or possibly my crotch) after which point, naturally, I pick up the pace slightly…

Buenas noches, Primavera! Until next time…

 

That Time I Met Kory Clarke

All, Barcelona

November 1st 2012. The day after Hallowe’en. I’m on my way to the Sala Razzmatazz—a gig venue located near the Poblenou district of Barcelona. The streets round here are big and wide and completely deserted. With the clocks going back last weekend, it’s already dark, and in spite of the ample street-lighting, there’s an eeriness in the air that lead me to quicken my pace. I cross one… two… three roads, and then make a right and head towards Pepe’s—the pre-gig bar of choice, situated opposite the Sala’s side entrance. As I enter the bar, I can’t help notice that it’s empty. Hm. Bit weird. Then again, this is Spain, and it is only 7PM. Most people have only just finished lunch. The second thing I notice is the chemical-sweet smell of an electrical air-freshener—an odour that’s totally at odds with the classic, rock-bar décor of signed posters and wall-mounted guitars. The barman is the only other person here, dressed in a black t-shirt and black jeans, his long hair tied back in a ponytail. “Di me,” he says. I order a beer, sit down at one of the tables, and wait.

Twenty minutes later and people are finally starting to arrive, gathering on the street outside to smoke and chat. I decide to join them. They are all—with one or two exceptions—old-school rockers of the denim-and-leather variety. Ponytails and receding hairlines. Big grey beards. But the vibe has changed, and the eeriness I felt earlier has been replaced with a sense of jovial camaraderie, and I want to be part of it. I contemplate trying to break into one of the conversations, but just then—who’s this, striding towards me from across the street? Long, curly locks cascading down from under a beret, perched at a jaunty angle above a handsome if slightly weathered-looking face…? It is!

Kory fuckin’ Clarke: artist, flag-burner and frontman par excellence of Warrior Soul. The greatest rock n’ roll band you’ve never heard of. The very band I’m here to see.

Feel free to skip this bit, but for those who are interested, here’s a brief, potted history of Warrior Soul. Signed to Geffen in the late 80s, the band released a series of critically-acclaimed-but-commercially-disappointing records before being dropped in 1994. Not that it stopped Kory Clarke, for whom the term “rock n’ roll lifer” was surely invented. I only discovered them in 2000, with the release of their aptly-titled ‘Classics’ LP. I identified with their blend of intelligence and bad-assery, and their raw, politically-charged tunes packed a punch without being preachy. They’re also the inspiration for one of my favourite quotes ever: “It doesn’t matter how good your band is, they’ll never be as good as Warrior Soul.” (Kerrang! magazine)

Fast forward twelve years and here I am watching Kory stroll right past me, straight up to the group of Catalans standing outside Pepe’s. He greets them with a cordiality that suggests that this is more of a family get-together than a meet-and-greet with the fans. One guy introduces Kory to his father, and then his aunt; Kory expresses his honour at meeting them both. As I continue to eavesdrop on the conversation, I’m reminded of the fact Kory Clarke has a voice like no other. It’s a voice delivered with a rasping, throaty, and unmistakeably American cadence: imagine you’d smoked Marlboro Reds, every day of your life. For a hundred years. Put simply, it’s the voice of someone who has lived life—and lived it hard—and it captures the attention of all who hear it. From what I catch, Kory comes across as witty, charming and totally at ease with these folk—two of whom, it later transpires, are part of his band for this leg of the tour—and after sharing a couple of amusing tour-bus anecdotes, he turns to head back into the Razzmatazz. Just as he’s about to cross the road, I seize my chance to say a quick hello.

“Excuse me, Kory…”

“Hey.”

“Sorry to bother you, just wanted to say hello.”

“Hello. (Shakes my hand.) Oh, so you’re English?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault…”

(Nervous laugh.) “Yeah, well I live here now—”

“Lucky you!”

“— but I’ve actually seen you a few times before, in the UK.”

“Wow, well thanks for coming out. Are you on the guest-list?”

“Whut? Oh, no I was just gonna get a ticket on the door.”

“Lemme see if I can sort that out.”

“Really? ‘Cos I don’t mind paying…”

“Well, I’ll ask the guy anyway. What’s your name?”

And that was that. Less than an hour later, I’m inside the tiny Sala “Tres”, front row centre with another beer in my hand. Despite professing to having had very little sleep the night before, Kory is on sparkling form, kicking and swinging and delivering each track with what can only be described as… well, a warrior’s soul. Me, I’m in seventh heaven, roaring along to the likes of ‘Love Destruction’, ‘Punk & Belligerent’, ‘Love Is The Drug’, and ‘A Drink For All My Friends’ (the latter taken from latest LP Stiff Middle Finger). Nah, you don’t know these songs because—like I said—you’ve never heard of Warrior Soul. That’s not your fault (blame Geffen, or Axl Rose, or the fact that they weren’t from Seattle) but it does make you less of a person. Sorry, but that’s the cold, hard truth. Are these songs old and unfashionable? Yes. Are they out of date and irrelevant? Absolutely not. On the contrary: these are still some of the most resonant, rousing and downright rockin’ tunes ever recorded, with lyrics that are, by turns, acerbic, bold and celebratory, and they sound every bit as vital tonight as they do every time I watch this incredible band.

By the time Kory introduces closing number ‘Fuck the Pigs’—a song about his own personal experience with Florida’s finest at Orlando airport—I am nothing short of euphoric. And very, very drunk. I will later struggle with the memory of how I got home… but I’m guessing that’s exactly the way Kory would have wanted it.

My Five Fave Food Places in Barcelona

All, Barcelona, Food

Food is awesome, and I try to eat as much of it as possible, every day. Barcelona has some great places to do this—though it must be said, my diet is mostly comprised of the eight or nine varieties of Rana brand ravioli (as my friend Alejandro says, “You can’t go wrong with Rana!”). This should give you an idea of the sort of budget I’m on; ergo, the places listed beneath are not all haute cuisine… but you do get a good meal.

  1. Burgers are big in Barcelona—if not size-wise, necessarily, then certainly in terms of popularity—especially the so-called “gourmet” kind, and it seems as if there’s a new place popping up every week, staking its claim as the home of the best beef-patty in town. Pim-Pam, Kiosko and Santos—all in the Born district—always attract a steady stream of carnivorous customers, but for me, Makamaka, located at the top of Passeig de Joan Borbó on the edge of Barceloneta, is the pick of the bunch. Not least because of the superbly-named Maradona burger. Oh, and the French fries—or as we Brits call them, “chips”—which are the bomb-shizzle. The restaurant itself has an Aussie surf-shack vibe, and the waitresses—of which there are approximately twenty working at any given time—are all kinda moody and bad-ass, but the food itself seldom disappoints.
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  3. Brunch is pretty much my favourite word in the English language. I know for many readers it conjures up images of bearded hipsters in pork-pie hats and sunglasses, hunched over their Mac Airs while they pick at an egg-white and kale omelette (and nowhere is this truer than in Barcelona) but since I tend to eat at least five times a day, where to take this meal is a key consideration. Milk, in the Gothic Quarter, and its sister restaurant, Marmalade, in the Raval, are both worth a visit, and like most of these joints they serve alcohol, so you can also grab a casual mojito to go with your eggs, should you feel the need. Federal Café, in the Eixample, is also pretty good, but my personal recommendation is Picnic, on the corner of Carrer del Comerç. It’s a tad pricey, and the portions aren’t huge, but the quinoa croquettes, the fried green tomatoes and the pancakes—oh, the pancakes!—are all magnifique… *Pinches forefinger and thumb together and kisses them dramatically*.
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  5. On a street named Carrer del Rec Comtal in the Born, you’ll find Elsa Y Fred. Not the old couple from the movie of the same name, but the cute little Gastrobar named after said film. Aside from calling itself a Gastrobar, which I admit is a bit wanky, this is a great place to go in the afternoon as they do a great selection of homemade cakes and ‘cocas’—a Catalan open sandwich, one of which comes loaded with slices of roast beef, onion chutney and, um, Fred’s “special sauce”. Dee-lish. It’s also next door to a mighty fine sushi restaurant named Nakashita. And I love sushi.
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  7. Ale & Hop is not a place to go for food, exactly, and actually, I don’t even like it all that much after the time I waited nearly twenty minutes for the weasely-looking bar-tender, who was doing FUCK ALL ELSE, aside from chatting to his mates, wiping down the bar, and completely ignoring me while I stood right in front of him waving a crisp twenty Euro note… Anyway, it’s a micro-brewery that also does good veggie food, apparently.
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  9. Whilst you never have to go too far for tapas in this town, the beachside barrio of Barceloneta, which, back in the day, was home to the local fishing community, is definitely worth a wander if you want to taste the best. For me, it’s always a toss-up between Jaica (pronounced “Hy-kah”) and La Bombeta—the latter of which carries a notice inside that roughly translates as: “We don’t speak English, but we do fucking good food”—but both are always rammed with both locals and clued-up tourists, so queuing is usual. The wait is worth it though, whether you want fried calamari drenched in lemon juice, or grilled sardines, or those shrivelled green peppers covered in huge white crystals of sea salt, or bunyols de bacala, or sliced octopus Galician style…  well, it’s all good. Wash it down with a couple of cervezas grandes and you’ll start to think you might just have to move here…
  10.  

  11. Okay, so I’m sort of cheating by adding a sixth place to this list, but seeing as number four didn’t really count, there’s definitely room for one more here. Cupcakes are almost as big as burgers in Barcelona, and though I’m with Charlie Brooker on the whole issue, I have to admit, I’m a huge fan of a place in the Gothic Quarter called Sweet Dreams—though the main reason is the homemade bagel selection they offer. Seriously. They are to die for. Dayana, who runs this little place with her partner Arturo, serves them open-faced, loaded with the finest ingredients, including smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill. Moreover, both Arturo and Dayana are among the nicest, most patient people you could ever hope to meet—even after two years of answering the same inane questions from unenlightened tourists. And in a city where the service is often depressingly impersonal and mind-bendingly slow, that means a lot.

 

 

Sounds of the Old Town

All, Barcelona

The seasons are changing. The sycamores along Passeig de Picasso are shedding their seeds, the temperature is dropping—particularly at night—and, slowly but surely, the number of tourists wandering the streets is finally dwindling. Ironically—or perhaps serendipitously—these changes arrive at a time when, for one reason or another, I’m leaving the old town. It’s a sad time in many ways. But it’s a relief, too. I mean, I’m not saying I won’t miss the clack-clack-clack of high heels, the drunken “singing”, or the old man hacking up a lung at five o’clock in the morning, it’s just… um… I don’t know how to finish that sentence.

The Thrill of Creative Effort

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Reading, Words, Writing

Tourist season in Barcelona brings with it an abundance of slogan-bearing t-shirts at which to stare as you stroll down La Rambla. The majority of these messages are banal at best, but you’ll always see a few that are truly baffling for their complete lack of logic. I’m not just talking about the badly translated, or grammatically incorrect; sometimes it’s the incongruity between the statement slapped across the wearer’s chest and the age, appearance or attitude of the wearer. Remember the kid on the cover of Fatboy Slim’s album? Mind you, I prefer the ones worn without that knowing irony. The other day, for example, I passed a sweet old lady of around 80 years of age. She was rocking an over-sized, lemon-yellow number telling me: “You were born an original, don’t die a copy.” It made me smile… unlike the “facefuck” one I saw a teenage boy wearing, which made me want to cry.

Every so often however, I see one that stops me in my tracks, because it carries a catchphrase of genuine inventiveness. Admittedly, it doesn’t happen too often, and no doubt I look like a bit of a crackpot as I stare after the owner of said garment, but I always try to make a mental note these little nuggets of inspiration. The last one that made me do a double-take like this was a Japanese kid in a white t-shirt with black lettering that read “The joy of achievement” across the top, and “The thrill of creative effort” across the bottom. I thought it was cool, not because achievement does give joy, and creative effort is thrilling, but because the former is almost always preceded by the latter, so it, like, totally made sense…

Right now I’m chest-deep in the thrills of creative effort. Without giving too much away, or jinxing it in any way—not that I’m superstitious like that—I have a project going on at the moment that started off as one thing, but is slowly becoming something else entirely. I think. I don’t know—nor do I care, particularly. All I can be sure of is that I’m doing it and I’m loving it. To quote the German conceptual artist, Wolfgang Laib, “That is always what is exciting about art: being something that is not yet there. That is not graspable, not yet achieved, that has an open end.” (Try convincing H&M to put that on a t-shirt.)

Of course, it doesn’t always come easy—it requires effort, in the same way as any job does, to get up every morning, to open your notebook and handwrite that next scene, that one you’ve not even got set out in your head, let alone found the words with which to lucidly render it on the page—but with the aid of a strong cup of coffee and a smidgen of self-belief, it starts to come. And damn, it’s a good feeling. Thrilling, even. And who knows? Maybe I’m getting closer to the joy to which that t-shirt’s axiom also alluded… but for the time being this’ll do nicely.

A Writer’s Shame

All, Barcelona, Book stores, Books, Bookshops, Reading, Writing

La Central bookshop in the Raval district of Barcelona is fast becoming my hang-out spot of choice. Not only is it air-conditioned and quiet—making it a safe-haven from the brocationers, flashpackers and multigens that descend upon this city in droves during these unbearably sticky summer months—it also houses a wonderfully diverse selection of reading material, which includes a pretty decent English language section. Here you’ll find everyone from Paul Auster to Zadie Smith; Vladimir Nabakov to Chuck Palahniuk; Jane Austen to William H. Gass… whatever your tastes, be they classic, contemporary or cult, this place has something for you.

Before I start sounding too much like a company representative, it’s worth pointing out that, for me, browsing the shelves of a well-stocked bookshop triggers a whole bunch of emotions—and not all of them positive. On the one hand, it’s great; I love it, being surrounded by so many inspirational works of literature, and indulging in fantasies of one day seeing my name up there as well… on the other, I hate it, because I get what I call writer’s shame. That realisation that there is a serious number of key works of literature I still haven’t read. And many of them, I really should have read by now, shouldn’t I? Books that every writer worth his salt has read. When I look up at the numerous titles by the likes of J.G. Ballard, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe, I hear a voice inside my head—and for the record, it’s not my voice, or any one particular person’s, but rather a composite of all my better-read friends and family members—asking that horrible, rhetorical question; “What, you’ve never read [insert title/name of immeasurably important novel/author]? And you call yourself a writer?” My response to this tends to be something along the lines of: “Hey, I’ve been busy. Working… Eating… Reading other books—books you haven’t read and probably should have, so shut up, yeah?” And then I get all pissed off and walk out, deliberately knocking over the display of Paul Coelho novels on my way.

Then I calm down and remind myself that I’ve actually read a shit-load of books, from a whole range of genres, and that they were all important, because I came to read each one of them for a reason, and each one has helped me on my journey as a writer in terms of finding my own ideas, my own style, and my own voice. And yes, there’s a shit-load more to read, and it’s good to stretch yourself, to diversify, but goddammit, there are only so many hours in the day. So, I select just one of those Terribly Important Works of Literature, or one of those books that someone has recommended—or even one that I’ve never even heard of but just like the colour of the dust jacket—and I take it to the counter and pay for it. And then I head back out into the sunshine and promise myself that next time—next time—I’ll buy Empire of the Sun… or As I Lay Dying… or Beloved… or The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test…