Still Alive

31 Dec

Contrary to what my blog may have suggested up until this point, I am, in fact still alive. Life got hectic and Things happened and as a result I had to stop my weekly blogging while I sorted everything out. But I’m back, and so is my blog.

I’ve had a bit of a redesign, as you may have noticed. My blog has moved from a hosted domain to a WordPress domain, and so I changed things up a bit. There’s now a Mission 101 Master List page, which is great, because it means that I don’t have to post the ENTIRE list every month now. I’m not sure why I didn’t do this sooner, to be honest.

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Barcelona: Week 4 – Return of the Stress

13 Oct

This week did not have a good start. After sleeping poorly on Sunday night due to the presence of my new (and really stupid) six-legged roommate, I woke up to discover that yet further wildlife had added itself to my collection. Silverfish may be harmless, but they’re not what you want to see first thing on a Monday morning (and apparently they eat cotten, so my laundry pile is gonna have to move). Even better was my breakfast. After losing two unopened, pre-use-by-date packs of beef and a newly opened pack of chicken to the God of Rotten Meat, I had decided to turn the fridge up, since clearly Setting One of Seven wasn’t doing much, and maybe Setting Five of Seven would. Unfortunately, for my substandard, UHT milk, it was already too late, and whilst soggy cereal is horrible, bone-dry cereal really puts a downer on the morning. So having crunched my way through some vaguely-chocolatey cardboard, I trudged off to my class, were the highlight was debating how best to translate “afternoon tea” into Spanish. And then Downton happened and that was all fun and dramatic and generally depressing.

The next day, my compatriot and I went to be touristy and generally British by going for tea in a tea shop that served every kind of tea under the sun, followed by churros and chocolate. The best bit, though, came next. We’d discovered an English shop a couple of weeks ago, so we decided we’d visit to get any necessities. An unassuming little place, it was a tiny patch of England in a sea of Spain – like Gibraltar, but without the political crap surrounding it. I was very moderate and only bought a jar of curry sauce, in case of emergency depression, and a small jar of mango chutney, but I almost cried seeing all the brands that were so familiar to me. (I also suddenly discovered I really wanted ginger snap cookies. I hate ginger snap cookies.) It was a very well spent afternoon, and I came home on a high, feeling pleasantly refreshed.

This wasn’t to last. Highs are often followed by lows, and, some time in the evening, the Angry Bug bit. Suddenly, I was furious with my home university for sending me here under-prepared, and with the university here for making me feel unwelcome. I was angry that I had to do the Year Abroad at all, and angry that I had to leave everything I loved behind. I wrote a ranty, frustrated blog post, expressing (badly) why I felt that Barcelona wasn’t a great place for a Spanish student to be – and it was badly received. The intention, originally, was to persuade those currently choosing their Year Abroad destination to carefully consider the implications of choosing a place where the main language was not one with which they were familiar. What some people heard was me bad-mouthing Barcelona. Now, I love the city, but to be told my experiences with people being unwelcoming to me were wrong, was more than I could handle in such an emotional state, and suddenly I’d gone from angry to panicked. What if everyone who’d read it now hated me for it, even my friends? What if what I’d written was unfair? I spent the next few days trying to calm down and work out that I hadn’t done anything I was accused of and everything was misinterpreted. Though, I’ve learnt that voicing opinions on the Internet is generally a bad idea, and doing so when angry is even worse.

The rest of the week has been spent settling down with work and my final bit of admin-bureaucracy-crap. This Wednesday I have to apply for permission to be a resident, since I’ll be living here for more than three months (free travel within the EU my bottom; thanks Herman van Rompuy). I’m irrationally terrified that they’ll find out I once stole a Haribo from my sister when I was 7 or something, and they’ll deport me. I highly doubt this, but we’ll have to see.

It’s also nearly been a month since I’ve moved here, so stay tuned for a commemorative post…

Barcelona: Week 3

6 Oct

So after my third week in Barcelona,  life has mostly settled down into a routine of getting up, going to campus if necessary, doing some sort of work (either for the choir tour, for my courses here or in preparation for my YARP), coming back if on campus, zoning out in front of my computer and spending the rest of the day not doing anything particularly constructive. In essence, I’m pretty much settled back into student life.

The last week has also been distinctly less dramatic than last week was, which is a blessed relief, and many of the stresses have been resolved. My bank account is all sorted and, thanks to the arrival of my post box key, I now have my bank card, which means I can, say, pay my rent. Tour organisation has started, which has gotten rid of a fair amount of the anxiety. My Internet, though still substandard, is working, and whilst the VPN connection is flaky and doesn’t always even connect, I now know that the problem was definitely not on my end (with either the VPN or the Internet). I’m now enrolled on all my courses and have replaced the Catalan class with a different class (this is a saga and a half that’ll get a post to itself). The finger has almost entirely returned to its original state. And, last but definitely not least, I’ve continued to successfully ignore my YARP for another week whilst deluding myself into thinking I’ve done something for it by emailing my supervisor asking how I should start.

So all in all, it’s been a good week, and I’m pretty settled into being in Barcelona as well. The result of this, though, was that the realisation of the enormity of this whole adventure has sort of hit and at times I feel unbearably homesick, or baffled by the differences that exist between Barcelona and England. In some ways the Barcelona is so familiar and in others, so alien – how do they live without kettles as a standard electrical item?! I’ve still not managed to procure one either, since the shop was out when I looked, which means having to boil water for tea in a teapot. And fresh milk doesn’t exist here either which means my tea is a shadowy approximation of what it should be. The local mosquito population has finally worked out that I taste nice, too.

On a lighter note, though, I’ve spent the weekend having much more fun. On Friday, I powered through a load of admin bits I had to do and was rewarded by the most tumultuous downpour I’ve ever seen. I’d been standing on my balcony, watching the lightning in the distance as the storm brewed and the sky rumbled ominously, when suddenly, the heavens just opened. Now, this isn’t like in England, where it spits a bit and then gradually gets heavier and then it rains a bit for a while. No, this was much more impressive. Suddenly, from the sky, fell sheets of huge raindrops, and within seconds visibility was reduced to nothing. So, like any sensible Brit, I decided to take a walk in it.

Now, us Brits are nothing if not good about complaining about the weather. It’s too hot, it’s too cold, it’s too windy, whatever. We can never be happy. But when you’re already missing home , the familiarity of those raindrops suddenly becomes the Best Thing EVER. There’s a park-like area across from my accommodation, and as I wandered through it, I reveled in the sensation of the rivers formed from excess groundwater soaking my feet (I was wearing sandals, shorts and a t-shirt, but it was warm Mediterranean rain, so it didn’t matter too much), and whilst the Catalan populus fled the downpour, I wandered happily towards the sea.

The Mediterranean is normally very calm. Those pictures of green-blue water and golden sands in holiday brochures? Yeah, that’s Barcelona. The beaches may be imported, but they’re still beautiful. But during a storm is something completely different. Waves several feet high crashed onto the beach, while lightning flashed far out over the water. This wasn’t just the flickers you see in England, either – these were proper lightning bolts, streaking down into the sea, as the foam angrily poured onto the shore. It was a sight to behold.

Saturday I spend the day indoors, but at night I went on a university-organised tour of the Barri Gotic. This is an area of the city that has a lot of history – we started at the Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, where we learned about Saint Eulalia, a 13-year-old girl who was subjected to thirteen horrific tortures, one for each year of her life, before she was finally decapitated, and all for refusing to renounce her faith. As the tour went along we learned about other legends and stories from Barcelona’s past, including the story of St. George. I was quite surprised by this (after all, St. George is British, right?), but along with Saint Eulalia and Mare de Déu de la Mercè (the Virgin of Grace), he is one of the patron saints of Barcelona.

Here, St. George’s Day (or Sant Jordi, as he is known here) is actually celebrated, though. The legend says that Sant Jordi was born in a small town in Catalunya called Montblanc, where a dragon would kidnap and eat the villagers. One day, the local princess was kidnapped, and Sant Jordi went to her rescue. He slew the dragon, and from his blood there formed a single red rose, which he gave to her. So, it is now a tradition to give a girl a rose on April 23rd in the region. The same day is the International Day of the Book (it being the day that both Cervantes and Shakespeare died), so the girl is traditionally then supposed to give the boy a book in return, though it’s becoming increasingly more common for the girl to receive a book as well.

We learned much more but it’s impossible to write it all in a single post. One day I may actually get some pictures on here too, but Internet and Dropbox coordination is being a pain in my rear. I also went out for sushi today with my new-found Nerd Friend, which has proved a nice end to my weekend (Doctor Who was discussed and sushi was had, and you can’t get much better than that). There are, of course, many more stories still to come, but I’ll finish with this: you know how, in the UK, if you leave your window open in the Autumn after it’s dark with your light on, you’ll get infinite craneflies flocking to your room? Well, apparently in Barcelona, we get dragonflies. Excuse me while I go remove my new roommate.

Barcelona: Week 2

29 Sep

The second week of living as a foreigner has really flown by, and I’ve been enjoying being able to Be A Tourist as much as possible. One of the benefits of having chosen university life over working, either independently or for the British Council, is that having the Erasmus group of the partner university opens up a whole lot more opportunities to Do Stuff.

That said, it’s been an absolutely exhausting week, during which my banking problems on Monday were only the first set of problems. In no particular order, my stresses of this week have included…

  • Trying to open a bank account
  • Panicking about trying to organise a Chamber Choir tour
  • Accidentally not enrolling on any courses
  • Lack of working Internet
  • Inability to connect to the Southampton VPN (the network that allows my to read texts for my YARP and watch Downton Abbey)
  • Cooking my first proper meal of my stay… and burning it
  • Panicking about having to write my YARP (the 6000-word, Year Abroad Research Project in Spanish)
  • My failed attempt to take a beginners Catalan class
  • Not having been given the key to my mailbox (where all my important bank mail is)
  • Cutting a chunk off of my finger

So it’s been a mixed week. Classes have started, and it’s time to settle into the routine of Being A Student again. I did have more to say, but it has pictures to go with it, and given my current Internet issues, that’s going to have to wait for a few days. I will, however, post more detailed updates through the week, so stay tuned :)

Banking Is Fun

25 Sep

If you’ve read the title of today’s post, you probably think I’ve lost it. The good news is that it’s entirely, 100% not-serious. I loathe banking. I am completely financially retarded, too – I don’t really understand how money works, I’m terrible at not spending it, and I sorta just hope it does things I need it too by itself, like paying my rent.

This means that things like, say, setting up a bank account don’t really come naturally to me. I want the money to go into a bank account and for the bank and/or my parents to make all the hard stuff happen for me. Purchasing things, for example, I have no trouble with. On the other hand, if the contract is more than just a quick transaction, I’m in trouble. Particularly if it’s more than, “If I give you coins will you give me this” “Yes” “Thank you”.

However, this last week I’ve found myself in the situation where I’ve had to deal with more than that – not only have I had to set up a mobile phone contract in my own name, which means I actually have to manage my money more than usual, but I’ve also had to set up a bank account (because despite telling me to fill in a form with my bank details while I was in England, apparently they can’t use an English account. Spanish organisation, everyone!). God help me.

So first of all I had to choose a bank. This was, actually, remarkably straightforward. I’ve seen a few different banks around the city, but I decided to go with Santander in the end because 1) I’m already familiar with the bank, the logo, its existence, etc., 2) there’s one on campus, and 3) if it’s rich enough to buy up several banks in England on the bring of collapse, it’s gotta be pretty financially sturdy. Having made that choice, I had to go and talk to the Nice Lady in order to actually get the account set up. This was a prospect that, frankly, terrified me.

Friday morning, then, I rocked up at the bank and queued, like a nice British girl, for a couple of minutes. The Nice Lady behind the desk let me into the cupboard branch and I walked in feeling very awkward. The conversation that followed went something like this: “Habla inglés?” “Si, un poco.” “I want to set up a bank account.” Yeah, I know I’m supposed to be speaking as much Spanish as possible, but I’m not signing any major contracts without discussing them properly in a language that I absolutely know I know.

So I discussed the whole thing with the Nice (very pregnant) Lady, who informed me I’d have to take out insurance with them for the first year as part of the package (so now, if I die, I get money! Every cloud has a silver lining…), and that they’d need to take a whole bunch of details from me, including my name, my address, my email address, my phone number, a photocopy of my passport, my mother’s maiden name, the name of my pet hamster, my birthstone, my favourite cereal brand, the species of tree nearest to my bedroom window and the future name of my firstborn so that, in the event of an overdraft, they can repossess said firstborn.

Having given the Nice Lady all of my information, I was told I’d have to come back on Monday to do the paperwork because they needed time to send my passport and the long list of details that were attached to the Madrid head office (and that, despite my passport being a perfectly valid form of ID in every country in the world, they were reluctant to set up an account using one instead of my special Spanish “I am a foreigner” card. No, I don’t know why either). I went away feeling very proud of myself for having done something so terrifying and Grown Up in a foreign country without my parents’ help.

My return on Monday, however, fulfilled every stereotype about the Spanish I’ve ever had, except for the flamenco dancing. I showed up outside the branch and, an another impressive display of Britishness, I queued. I queued for about 10 minutes. I got to the front of the queue, where the Nice Lady, once again, let me in. I entered, feeling invincible. This time, I was prepared to do Grown Up Things. I was prepared to discuss money in a semi-comfortable mix of mostly English and perhaps a little bit of Spanish only when necessary. I was going to pwn this shit. And then the Nice Lady told me that the paperwork wasn’t ready yet, and I’d have to wait half an hour.

Classic Spain. More than a little miffed, I agreed to come back in half an hour and, to kill the time, decided to wander down and browse the university book-and-stationery shop. Ten minutes later, I was bored. The English and Castilian sections were limited, and I still had another twenty minutes to fill. Thank god for “Where’s My Water?” I played on my phone and, when the time came, returned to the branch to queue. Again. I managed, in this time, to half-muster the feelings of invincibility from before, but I was hungry and needed a cup of tea. The Nice Lady let me in so that, this time, her compatriot could sort me out. The Nice Guy Compatriot poked his head round from his partition and told me I’d have to wait another forty minutes. What.

So, by this point, I’ve already been shown how crap bureaucracy is, how inefficient the Spanish are and how little there is to recommend about banks, but now I’m just irate. “Where’s My Water?” has to the rescue again, but that unmade cup of tea is still calling my name and there aren’t, as far as I’m aware, any cheap drinkeries in the vicinity. By the end of the day, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be downing vodka by the bottle. Forty minutes later, I grumpily trudged up to queue, again, for ten minutes.

The Nice Lady once again let me into the office and, this time, I slumped into one of the chairs in the Nice Guy’s half of the cupboard. After about ten minutes of sitting in awkward silence as he tried to work his way around some technical difficulty or other (which required help from the Nice Lady), the phone rang, and I waited another 20 minutes whilst something or other was discussed. I don’t know what it was, because by this point, I’d zoned out and was trying my hardest not to club either of the Nice People to death with the phone receiver.

Finally, after hours of waiting, we got down to business with the paperwork, which mostly involved me nodding and signing things. I probably ought to have been more inquisitive about the contracts I was signing, but by this point, I was so fed up that I was mostly relying on EU law to make sure the contracts were fair and transparent. After I’d finally signed my life away, the Nice Guy informed me of what small bits remained of setting up the account, and I was free to go.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so wound up in my life. Banking in every country is different, though banking within the EU is bound by EU law, and so is relatively safe, but there’s definitely a law missing about being nice to your customer. I mean, the Nice People were never unpleasant, and I’m sure they were bound by company policy to deal with bits in a particular order, but all in all, the experience was just crap. Nothing went wrong at all, but if I never had to see a bank again it would be too soon.

I hate being an adult.

Barcelona: Week 1

22 Sep

So I’ve been living in Barcelona for just under a week now (I arrived last Monday, and it’s now Sunday), and I’m beginning to settle down here. I’ve made new friends quickly and with ease, which is an achievement for someone who finds socialising hard work, and I’ve been being a tourist and seeing the sites, as well as getting all the unieersity crap sorted out. It’s all very exciting.

I’ve got so much to say about Barcelona, and today, I’m gonna use a game called, “Am I In Barcelona?” to help me out. It’s a simple ten-step quiz, and if you wanted to know whether you were, in fact, in Barcelona, you should definitely join in. Here we go…

Am I In Barcelona?
1) Do the cars have an E on the numberplate?
2) Is the weather really nice?
3) Do children, apparently, run or walk?
4) Does everyone speak Spanish?
5) Does your place of residence include a kettle?
6) Is the public transport better than in the UK?
7) Is there a lovely, natural, sandy beach?
8) Is there an overabundance of loud birds?
9) Is Gaudí everywhere?
10) Do they have a bank holiday every ten seconds?

Now, check your answers one last time before I give you the real answers!

Ready? Good! Here they are!

1) YES! All the cars, bikes, etc. have the E on their numberplate under the European Union symbol. Catalunya is still a part of Spain, and therefore don’t have a right to a unique country code that EU law would allow them.

2) The weather is sodding amazing. You know how, in late September, the leaves start to go amazing shades of red and then yellow, while the weather turns cooler, rain gets more frequent, and you start to get excited because Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas is just around the corner? Yeah, that doesn’t happen. It’s been a solid 22 Celsius and above the entire time. Apparently, it can get as cold as 3C in the winter, but if it does, nobody goes out because it’s “too cold”. They’d love Britain.

3) Children run, apparently. Those “caution, children” signs that pop up everywhere within a two mile radius of a school are also present here, except that the children appear to be doing the hundred metre sprint on these signs. I guess Mediterranean children are a lot more vigorous than calm British children.

4) If everyone speaks Spanish, you’re clearly in some other part of Spain, because literally nobody speaks Spanish here. They’re all (bar foreigners) perfectly capable of speaking Spanish, and yet, by choice, nobody will. All the signs and information are in Catalan, everyone speaks Catalan automatically. Catalunya is very, very proud of its culture, and language is the most overt way to express this.

5) There are no sodding kettles anywhere. This upsets me.

6) Are you kidding me? The UK public transport system, while imperfect, is bloody fantastic – there’s clear information pretty nearly everywhere, and real-time information (whether a train is delayed and when it will actually arrive, for instance) is almost always perfectly delivered. Here, information is pretty poor. Want to know what zone you’re in on the Metro? Tough luck!

7) Lovely? Yes. Sandy? Yes. Natural? Definitely not. Sand was imported to create the beach and judging by the perfect golden colour, that’s not really surprising – it’s too perfect. There are also a lot of sea defences in place to stop the sand drifting off anywhere. The beach is a definite tourist attraction, and not much more.

8) You know how seagulls make an irritating noise? Try living with some parrot type bird outside your window instead.

9) You cannot escape from Gaudí. There are 10 (I believe) Gaudi pieces around the city, including the formidable Sagrada Familia, Park Guell and La Pedrera, to name a few. Of course, there’s not a monument around every corner, but if you want to do the full tourist experience, visiting them is a must – and I plan to visit them all before I leave.

10) Spain in general is known for having a fair amount of bank holidays and festivals, but Barcelona has more. This makes up for the longer terms and shorter holiday periods. In addition to state-wide holidays, there are also all the national holidays of Catalunya and of Barcelona. This weekend is La Merce, which celebrates one of the two patron saints of the city. This means we get a four-day weekend. I ain’t complaining.

So that’s a little bit about what Barcelona is like. I’ll talk more about what I’ve actually done so far in a future post, but rest assured, I’m settling down, finding a routine and getting used to Spanish Catalan life.

Stay tuned for more soon – and you can subscribe by email and never miss a post!

Thus It Begins.

14 Sep

My whole life has been aiming towards this day. Ever since I started studying Spanish in Year 7, right through GCSEs, A-levels and two years of university, everything has been geared toward the pinnacle of my language learning experience. Even my blog is aimed towards this climatic event.
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