So I'm in Rome...

It's such a happy way to greet someone, 'hola'. And I love being able to say 'adios' for goodbye. I think I've got this European language thing sorted. In Italy, adding vowels to the end of every second or third word did the trick. Our first lesson in Spanish came from our cab driver on the way from the airport to our apartment. He pronounced it 'apartament'. So random vowels inserted in the middle of occasional words might be the go here. And of course the letter 'c' is pronounced as 'th', unless it starts a word. I'll see how all that works.
My first attempt at local communication didn't go swimmingly, I have to admit. I had to go out and buy some dish washing liquid and some soap. Around the corner from where we are staying was a little convenience store run, as they are the world over, by an Indian bloke. I looked on the shelves, but couldn't find the dish washing stuff, so I had to mime the act of washing dishes for him. I reckon I did a pretty good job and I suspect he made me draw it out and do a few times because he was enjoying my performance. Miming soap was easy, I just had to pretend I was in the shower. Another customer joined in on helping solve that one. It occurred to me as I was wrapping up the performance that I was a lot more entertaining than that Charlie Chaplin busker in Venice - and I left the slumped Mexican in Rome for dead. The store owner then made me say three times the Spanish for dish washing stuff and soap. He corrected my pronunciation each time and was very encouraging. Of course, he might have been teaching me to say 'I am a knobhead' and I wouldn't know.
Our apartment is fantastic. It's on the third floor of a four storey apartment building that would be well over 100 years old. It comes with the expected idiosyncrasies of a 100 year old building. We're lucky it has four bedrooms, because the ceiling in the smaller bedroom is coming down bit by bit from a water leak above. I've emailed the owner and suggested she might want to have a look at it. It has an entrance foyer, high ceilings, tiled floors (some of which have a distinct slope), the whole 19th century shebang.
The place is also huge - at least 250 square meters (plus a terrace). But the elevator is tiny. Just as well Spanish people are pretty compact. A hundred years ago, they must have been even more compact. I reckon the elevator is about 900mm x 800mm with manual doors that open inward. There is enough space for two compact people - or one with shopping. The owner of this place brought up three children here and then they moved out of town. There would have been no way to get a stroller into that lift, so she would have done those stairs a few times with heavy loads. What a fantastic place to live, though.
The apartment next door is having renovations done. It's comforting to be all this way from home and hear the sound of power tools. I can identify them by the sound they make. This morning, they had the circular saw, jigsaw and electric plane going, so they're doing some joinery work. I'd like to see what what they're up to. It's a long walk up the stairs for those tradies with their tools and timber.
We're in a district called Gracia. It's an old part of town full of old grand apartment buildings, and around the corner is a food market like I have never seen before. We've got a couple of decent local delis back at home, but this market has at least 20 stalls all better than any of them. And there are also fruit stalls, butchers, half a dozen fish sellers and two blokes selling eggs. Just eggs. Chicken eggs. Nothing exotic. How boring would it be, in the midst of all that fabulous stuff, to be the bloke selling just eggs. I've been to the market most mornings so far to get things for breakfast. I have a coffee at the stall that fuels the market workers, then I buy bread, croissants, and this morning, pickled sardines on crusty bread to bring home. The girls weren't all that keen on the sardines. My dad would have loved the food here. He would have just stayed at the market.
We've ticked off a bunch of the usual tourist stuff in Barcelona - we manage to tick off about three per day. First was that crazy apartment building that Gaudi built - La Pedrera. It's amazing, given he built it over 100 years ago, that there have been so many dreary buildings built since then - the fault of cowardly clients, more than lousy architects. We did the 'hop-on, hop-off' bus tour, which was great - always good to do in a city you're unfamiliar with. Saw en route some more protesters on a street corner, but they seemed more good humoured than the ones in Venice. They looked like uni students. A few were blowing whistles and one of them had a tambourine that she was shaking. Two were hitting saucepans with big spoons - they would have got into strife from their mums that night.
One of the things we did today was the Christmas Market that we had read about. It was rubbish. I suspect the traditional markets in most big cities these days are probably a bit of a disappointment. This one should be renamed the 'nativity scene markets'. Nativity scenes are a big thing over here. You know, the little model of the manger scene with Mary and Joseph and assorted hangers on. Nine out of ten stalls in the market were devoted to nativity scenes. Some sold entire tableaux ready to take home and bung on a sideboard. Others sold just the stable structure and then you could buy the figures and props and make your own display - a bit like making something for a model railway. That gives people a bit of latitude to bulk out their scene with extra characters or leave some out if they're economising or if they have a disliking for one of the wisemen or something. Mimi was keen on getting a nativity scene, so Lisa bargained a guy down to ten euros on a small one because Joseph's staff was busted - a tooth pick should do the trick there.
But one thing I have never heard about was that in this part of Spain - Cataluna - there is another figure they add to their nativity scenes: a Catalan man, with his pants around his ankles, doing a ****. No, really, it's so odd. He's called Caganer. He's been in nativity scenes here for over 200 years - that's way before South Park. I know exactly how it would have started. There would have been two blokes (it's always blokes, with poo jokes) and they would have been sitting around like Garry and I used to when we worked together in advertising agencies. The Garry bloke would have said, 'Hey, you know that nativity scene brief we've got?' I would have looked up hopefully from the the newspaper. He would have gone on, 'Let's put a bloke in the corner doing a **** and see if anybody notices.' I would have put down the paper and said, 'Brilliant. Can we go to lunch now?' And that's how it would have happened. It would have been a joke. The blokes who came up with it would have been a bit disappointed that people weren't offended and embraced it. And now, over 200 years later, it's still going. That poo joke has lasted since before white people lobbed in Australia, and it's still going strong. Every stall in the lame Christmas markets had rows of figures you could choose from for your nativity scene. There were Marys and Josephs and any number of wise men. The were donkeys and other animals. And there were blokes with their pants around their ankles doing a ****.
There were a couple of stalls where they had dispensed with the religious stuff altogether and just had row upon row of blokes doing a ****. And they had strayed a long way from the traditional figure. There was Bob Marley, Darth Vader, The Beatles (all except for Ringo, strangely), Prince William and Kate, all of the Simpsons, Sponge Bob Square Pants (he does yellow poos), Santa Claus, political figures, sporting figures. I was transfixed. Elvis was there, sort of fitting given I think he died on the toilet. There was an Obama figure straining away and printed on the stand around his figure was: 'Yes we can'. It should have said, 'Yes I can.' There was even a Pope (unidentifiable) and a nun. But no Jesus. I definitely would have bought a pooing Jesus. But I bought a pooing anonymous Catalonian man anyway. I had to. You were hoping I did. I carefully selected one that was not an identifiable figure - I wanted to go traditional. With most of them, for stability, the poo reaches from the ground to their bum - like a tripod. I've attached a couple of photos for you. There are also peeing men - little figures with their hands clasped in front of them, hips thrust forward, and a piece of thick fishing line simulating a stream of ****. Imagine what the blokes in those factories in china must think when they churn out that stuff for the civilised world.
But there's more. The people here also have a thing called Caga Tio. That literally means 'poo log'. It's a small log with a smiley face on one end and a traditional hat on top. They cover its back with a blanket to keep it warm and happy. And every night from December 8 kids give the log turron - a Spanish nougat. I suppose they just put it in front of the log and then their parents eat it. Then on Christmas Eve, kids sit astride the log and whack it with a stick singing a ditty than translates as:

Caga Tio hazelnuts and Turron.
If you don't want to poo,
We will hit you with a stick.

And from the rear of the log comes sweets and small toys. I'm a bit lost for words.

But maybe, just maybe, right now as I write this there is a Spanish bloke in Sydney writing that in Australia, on Christmas Eve, people leave out carrots for Santa's reindeer.


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Keep in mind most people in Barcelona are not speaking Spanish, or like being referred to as Spanish. The referendum for independence will be next year (just decided this month)
Yes, I know. I've been reading about it. But the rest of the world sees Spain as one place. I was talking to a guy in the markets this morning about it. His English is very good, so he's my 'go to man' for smelly cheese and cured meats. He was a Catalan an said something that made me laugh. His take on the quest for an independent state was, 'What's the point? They make two broke states out of one broke country.'

I have tears running down my face, from laughing.

I have been to Spain so many times (my sister has a house there - I have photos in the gallery of the Gauci copied houses near her house) but never have I seen it through your eyes...keep the tales coming. I am definitely asking my sister to get me the poo man ...

I have been to the food markets and agree they are fantastic.

Have a great Barcelona Christmas

Can we make this post a "sticky" (pardon the pun). It would have to be the funniest SS post I have ever read.

If they had these available on the web, they would sell like "hot cakes" (pardon the pun). I know each of my family members at home would be getting one for christmas. :D

If they had these available on the web, they would sell like "hot cakes" (pardon the pun). I know each of my family members at home would be getting one for christmas. :D


Imagine sneaking them onto family and friends Nativity scene's, be funny when they eventually discover him
From the eschatology of Rome

To the scatology of Barcelona.

(Eschatology is a field in theology, the study of the last days. Scatology is just a crappy study).
We ticked off a big one the other day - the Guggenheim in Bilbao. We flew there from Barcelona for an overnight stay, sort of a holiday within a holiday. Lisa has always wanted to go there and will be able to use the photos she took of the place in her lectures (and the associated receipts in her 2014 tax return).
We arrived mid afternoon and took a taxi to our flash hotel. It was around the corner from, but out of sight of, the Guggenheim. It was tantalisingly close for Lisa, but we held off. We hung around the hotel for a while and then went out for dinner. The route I took us on skirted the Guggenheim. Lisa got to see glimpses of it down side streets, and then we pulled away. Sunday morning, we got really close - walked right up to it - then at the last minute we veered away and headed to the markets in the old part of town. Then it was time. No more teasing. We rushed back in a cab, plunged down the stairs to the opening, and we were in.
It was okay. I think I liked the outside - the promise - more than the inside. There were some great internal vistas, though. I am going to go out on a limb and say that MONA in Hobart is a better experience. And a cheaper trip. And I like the story behind it. I suspect the Guggenheim in Bilbao has done for that town what MONA did for Hobart, which is great. Bilbao was a steel town and died in the 70s when the steel industry closed down. It started to sort of get back on its feet, and then they built a Guggenheim there and it took off.
It's a nice town. Well laid out with wide streets lined by low rise 19th century apartment buildings and commercial buildings. Lots of the stores sell expensive homewares. It seems prosperous. We were out on Saturday night and the streets were chockers with people. In Sydney, if you walk down a street at night and there is a huge crowd on the footpath outside a bar, you cross the road. Or get a taxi home. It's always going to be a bunch of youngsters trying to get pissed, or a group of 30 something blokes getting beered up and hoping somebody jostles them going past. But here, that crowd on the footpath will be a group of well dressed people my age having a drink and a talk. It's really different. No beer bellies, either. They all seem really trim. I was asked directions when we were out last night so I clearly look Spanish and similarly trim.
They eat lots of what Don at work calls 'sometimes food' - cheese, cured meats and bread. Lots of them eat 'sometimes food' for breakfast. I saw one bloke the other morning dipping a croissant into thick liquid chocolate - if I had a phone, I would have called an ambulance. A lot of the Italians we saw also looked pretty trim, and to the mix of cheese and cured meat they add pasta and pizza. I thought at first in the case of the Italians, the way they wave their hands around - their conversation calisthenics - might keep them looking fit. But I've worked it out. On tables in lots of eating places, where Americans (and increasingly Aussies) would have a bottle of tomato sauce, they have a bottle of olive oil. The hotel we stayed in had little bottles of olive oil available for people to use with breakfast. So Steve, my American friend, that could be the answer for America - olive oil instead of ketchup. Give it a go next time you have people over and see if you can get it to catch on.

Lulu, the eleven year old, has taken to asking me when we are out and about what percentage of the journey we have completed. Before we set off on a walk, she will ask how the distance compares to a walk from our home in Sydney. If it's a walk similar in length to the walk to school (not that she ever does that) it's a long one. Then when we're on our way, she asks what percentage of the walk we have completed. She sometimes asks in galleries how far we have to go.
Our kids have no idea how many great galleries they have seen. They're pretty good in them - hardly surprising given they have been going into galleries since before they could walk. Video art interests them the most because it's like watching telly. I suspect they watch half in hope someone is going to change the channel and something better is going to come on. The other day, we went to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. The girls set a cracking pace through the place and I realised they were counting paintings. They were up to 249 and were a bit disconsolate as they tried to work out what percentage 249 was of 4,279. They had read in the gallery blurb that the collection it held numbered 4,279. I didn't tell them that only a fraction of that total would be on display at any one time. It was a good museum because it traced Picasso from his earliest days as a 15 year old painter up to his later stuff. I was showing Lulu how his painting progressed and said, 'See, he started painting stuff that looked like real life, then it wasn't as real' She said, 'Surreal, Dad. That's the word you mean.' I was glad then that I let them think they had another 3,030 paintings to go.
They were pretty enthusiastic when we planned a visit to the Chocolate Museum in Barcelona. It was like one of those museums you see in a country town, the sort of well meaning place that comes together when the local Rotary club, the CWA and the town's Historical Society put away their differences and all pitch in. There was a bit on the history of chocolate. The Mayans kicked things off 2,000 years ago and the beans were so prized they were treated like a currency. Ten beans could buy you either a rabbit or a women of ill repute - you wouldn't get to eat or keep the later, though. A hundred beans would get you a slave. So for a price equivalent to ten rabbits, you get a person to keep. You could probably then send them out to catch rabbits for you.
Most of the museum was devoted to things made out of chocolate and many of them were in big sealed glass cases. The first one I noticed was a torso and head of a gorilla almost life size. It was made of white chocolate. Why wouldn't they have used dark chocolate, I wondered. There was a Komodo dragon that was pretty good. And there was an impossibly intricate scene of a young boy and a girl sitting on a garden seat under a trellis with vines on it. All made of chocolate. From a couple of metres away, it looked like plastic. I thought they could have made it from plastic and nobody would have known. I got closer and saw that whoever had made it had even put chocolate sprinkles at their feet to look like dirt. Then I realised the sprinkles were dead bugs. I looked closer and saw that the girl's head was riddled with little borer holes. So was the seat. And there were a few dead moths I could see. I went back and had a closer look at the dragon and saw, sure enough, that it had a fair few holes, too. And there were patches of lighter coloured chocolate - you know how chocolate goes sometimes when it's been exposed to the air for too long and there have been some temperature changes. A bit further along I found a glass case that had half a dozen moths flying around in it. It was a gladiator scene, so the scale of the moths compared to the gladiators made them look a bit like birds. Things got a bit weirder then and it looked like the museum had more chocolate sculptures than it knew what to do with. They were bunged in a side room and they had dispensed with the glass cases, so I'm guessing at night the moths would have had a great time. Somebody had made a scale replica of an elaborate street light out of chocolate. And a huge iPhone - not much skill in that one given it's shaped like a block of chocolate to start with. One of the funniest ones was a koala eating bamboo. It was definitely a koala, the girls noticed that, so somebody slipped up there. There was also a chocolate version of The Pieta, perhaps Michelangelo's second most known sculpture. It's the one where the body of Jesus lies across the lap of his mother, Mary. It's in St Peter's in Rome, but when we went there that alcove of St. Peter's was closed for maintenance and the girls didn't get to see it. So I had to get Mimi to look at the chocolate version, and imagine the real thing was about ten times the size, and white, not brown, and a better likeness, and without worm holes in Jesus. From the look she gave me, I'm not sure I succeeded.
The was also a Bambi scene made from chocolate, Gandolf from Lord of the Rings, Chicken Little, strangely, and then one of the Smurfs - one of those blue, animated figures. That tipped me over the edge. Some knucklehead would have thought long and hard about that. He would have sat down and said to himself, 'Okay, I'm about to devote hundreds and hundred of hours to making something significant out of chocolate. I'm continuing a tradition (albeit a hokey one) and working with a material that has been around and almost worshipped for 2,000 years. I know, I'll make a Smurf.'
If I was going to make something for that place, I would pick a subject that was significant and historical. Something from the region. I would do a sculpture where the colour of chocolate made sense, and where I could show-off the way it flows. Yep, I would make a poo man.

Here's our nativity scene. You can see the t-Rex has been misbehaving.


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Adios Barcelona

So it's 'adios, Barcelona.' I'll miss saying 'adios'. I never stretched it to 'adios, amigos,' because I'm pretty sure that's Mexican, and anyway it implies a level of familiarity I never quite got to with anybody in Barcelona - except perhaps the bloke who sold me 'sometimes food' everyday in the nearby market. I never got used to the way they pronounced the letter 'c' as 'th'. When they said 'Barthelona' or 'grathias', it made me smile. When I said it, it made me wince.
I bought some eggs one morning from the egg guy in the market to see what was so special about them. Just as I was about pay for them it occurred to me that perhaps he sold chook eggs and ducks. Maybe that was his thing. Being a seasoned performer I pointed to the eggs I had in my hand and made a duck sound, and then a chook sound. He got it straight away and clucked back to me. Then I went round to the guy who cooked food in the middle of the market to see what he was cooking up. He had a fantastic looking meat and potato dish. I pointed at it and said 'Baaaaa?' He nodded. Lisa and I had that for lunch. Next challenge was flour to use in the gravy for Christmas dinner (Lulu's request) and perhaps pancakes. Even a performer with my skills was going to struggle with flour, so I was lucky a customer in the bakery I went to (supermarkets didn't sell it) was able to work out what I meant.
We're on the plane heading from Barcelona to Vienna, now. They let people carry cats and small dogs on this airline - Vueling. It's a Spanish carrier. I was sitting in my seat just then and there was a queue of people right beside me heading to their seats further down the plane and in my right ear, very close, I heard a cat mewing. I looked right and there beside me, looking right into my eyes was a cat in a soft mesh bag. He didn't look unhappy, but he wasn't entirely settled. This is our fourth flight with Vueling and there have been small animals on each one, but this time, unbeknownst to everyone except us and I suspect that cat, there is also a t-Rex on board.
One of the security guys certainly knows there is a t-Rex in the vicinity. When we put our hand luggage through the x-Ray and I walked through the metal detector, I 'beeped'. A bloke patted me down and pointed to my jacket pocket. I said, 'Dinosaur. T-Rex. Might not be a good idea to let him out in the airport'. I felt safe in the knowledge that not a lot of people in Barcelona speak much English. When I pulled him out of my pocket, we looked at eachother knowingly - but perhaps knowing different things. He let me through - probably glad the t-Rex was leaving the country before he caused any mayhem in Barcelona.
Our last few days in Barcelona were a flurry of ticking off sights. I reckon, on a first visit, Barcelona is probably a two week city. It would take a good two weeks to be satisfied that you had seen enough of the place. We only had ten days. Rome is a two week city, too, but we had been there before a few times. Sydney I reckon is a ten day city in the summer, and maybe seven in the winter. Melbourne could be stretched to perhaps five days any season. Adelaide could probably be knocked over in a leisurely afternoon.
We of course paid a visit to Sagrada Familia one day. It's that amazing cathedral mostly built by Gaudi. Every tourist who visits Barcelona goes in there, and there were a fair few the day we went. It's the only place I have seen Asian tourists the whole trip. In summer, the wait to enter can be 3 hours. We only had a wait of about 15 minutes. There is no point trying to describe the interior, you'll have to google it. I might attach a photo. If I was teetering on the edge of turning religious, that place would have tipped me over the edge. Might do the same for people teetering on the edge of deciding whether to become an architect. It leaves St Peter's and St. Paul's in London for dead. Those places were built to intimidate people. Sagrada familia was built to embrace them. Gaudi was given the job in 1883 when he was only 31. Somebody else had built the basement but must have been sacked, so they came to Gaudi to get him to do everything above ground. Architects hate taking over somebody else's job, but when the commission is a cathedral, they probably pull their heads in and take the job. He plugged away at till 1926 when he died - run over by a tram. The interior is impossibly complicated and beautiful. An American tourist standing next to me (no doubt seeing my trim figure and assuming I was a Spanish bloke) said to his mate in that loud voice Americans reserve for travel, 'This is neat'. I looked at him and said 'Mate, I reckon it's a bit more than neat. Have another go.'
One of the things I liked best about the place was that they are still building the exterior. Imagine that, it's 2013 and we are able to see people building the best cathedral in the world. Goodness knows when they will finish the outside - they have a fair few spires to put up, including the big main one. Imagine what Michelangelo could have done if he had cranes. I do wonder what the bloke who made the chocolate model of the cathedral in the chocolate museum thinks about the place being a work in progress. He probably should have picked a subject that wasn't going to change - maybe that's what the Smurf guy was thinking.
On another one of the last days, we went to the Dali museum in Figueres. It was a couple of hours on the train, but it was interesting to see the outskirts of Barcelona and some of the countryside. I had read about Spain's terrible unemployment problems and I reckon I know where they all live - out on the edges of the city. In Australia, cities and towns dribble away with housing developments. In Barcelona and some of the smaller towns we went through, on the outskirts there are a lot of high rise - a bit like an exclamation mark at the end of the city. Street upon bleak street of ugly ten storey buildings - the architects who designed those places never stuck their heads inside Sagrada Familia.
Figueres was an unremarkable, but pleasant town. They got lucky when Dali decided on the town as the spot for his museum - he was born nearby and I think had his first exhibition in part of that building. We got off the train and followed the crowd - everyone on that train would have been heading to the same place. As is the way, though, we lagged behind and amazingly lost the crowd. I asked an old bloke walking a dog where the Dali museum was - the was no way of miming that question. No dice. I said, 'Dali Museum?' And then mixed things up and said, 'Museum Dali?' Thee was no 'c' sound in those words and not enough space to bung in an extra vowel so I was stumped. We both shrugged our shoulders and moved on. Wouldn't you think, if you had grown up in the town made famous by the Dali Museum, a town that hundreds and hundreds of people visit everyday just to see the place, you would recognise the word 'Dali' in every accent? It's not a complicated word.
On our last day, we went to Montserrat. It's about an hour out of town by train and then, excitingly, by cable car. It's a monastery perched on the side of a mountain, a really rugged mountain - more cliff face than mountain, so get out of your head images of rolling green hills. There is the monastery up there, a shrine, one of those impossibly ornate European churches, a small boarding school that provides young boys to the church (for their choir, of course), a small hotel, a decent museum, and a big cafe. There were lots of people up there and in the summer it would be packed. It all kicked off 1,000 years ago. A couple of shepherds came down from the mountain after their cold spell up there and said to their mates, 'Hey guys, you'll never what we saw up there last night. The Virgin Mary. And that she was black.' And their mates, God love them, must have thought that sounded perfectly reasonable so they would have set to work building some sort of shrine and now 1,000 years later Spain has a huge money spinner.
I think a bigger miracle than seeing a black Virgin Mary up there is how on earth those sheep got up there.
Now that we are safely out of Barcelona, it's time to explode a few travel myths.
Shoes are not really all that much better or cheaper in Barcelona, but there are sure are a lot of shoes stores. Mimi and I have stood outside dozens of them waiting for Lisa and Lulu to emerge empty handed. I reckon if we were to divide the cost of the trip - flights, accommodation etc - across waking hours, it means every waking hour for the family was worth about $60. Way too valuable to spend in shoe shops. And right now, I bet there are a couple of people from Spain wandering around the outlet stores at Birkenhead Point in Sydney marvelling at the shoes on offer.
The other myth is about how dangerous Barcelona is. When we told people we going to Barcelona, lots of them said, 'It's great. You'll love it. Watch out for the thieves.' Some just said, 'Watch out for the thieves.' We didn't have one problem. Maybe because it was winter and even thieves sometimes must have holidays. Or because we weren't out late at night in dodgy parts of the city. Or because I look Spanish. Who knows, but we didn't have one hairy moment.
We're more than 80% through the trip now. I'll have to tell Lulu. Just Vienna to go. You'll notice the t-Rex has managed to acquire a boarding pass.


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