Sunday, November 23, 2003

It’s all about hanging out with locals. If you want to get to grips with a foreign town you need locals to show you around. If it wasn’t for them I’d never have found the secret bar overlooking Placa Real in Barcelona earlier this year (It really is secret: it has no name, there are no signs and to get in you have to ring an unmarked bell on an unmarked door down a little side street) and I’d never have found myself in a quirky little bar furnished with dentist’s chairs at 2am last night. Before we got there our Italian friends made a distinct point of telling us that it was left-wing: I think that was their way of warning us not to say anything that may upset the locals, like confessing admiration for Silvio Berlusconi. (One of the guys we were out with last night had a really cool t-shirt: it was red and simply had the words “I didn’t vote for Berlesconi” written in nine or ten different languages. If anybody wants to make such a thing for me for Christmas feel free.)

They needn’t have warned us: it’s only in those smoky socialist bars of lore that drinks come so cheap, people are playing chess at 2am on a Saturday night and the bookshelf is stocked with Marx and Engels. The decor was eclectic: white tiles printed with single courier new letters covered one wall and random artifacts from the 60s – weighting scales, bread bins and an overhead projector playing a bizarre home movie – filled the place. And – even better – they didn’t indulge in that infuriating Italian habit of giving receipts for everything; last week (in Billa, where else?) I was called back to the till to collect my receipt – “don’t forget” said the woman – for two solitary bananas. I hope I can find the bar again.

The conversation was good: he may be a twit but at least Berlusconi inspires mutual reactions – contempt – strong enough to bond people together. Having said that we didn’t quite feel comfortable to ask about the Italain mamma’s boys we’d been discussing earlier: it still amazes us all and I’ve only just learnt to keep a straight face when yet another of my 30-something students tells me he still lives with his parents.

And then – yet again – late-night Italian fast food introduced us one of those lovely little cultural differences that come to define a place. This time: donuts. “Can I get a panzerotto here?” I asked; “no”, said our friends, “only donuts”.

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