On being in Paris

The smell of roasting rubber from the metro is a mere tickle compared to the hammering aromas of fresh bread, seafood and cheese. Looking up to the grey sky, you don’t feel so bad as you would on a similar day across the Channel.

You’re in Paris.

What can be whittled from this majestic stick of French that hasn’t been said before? The streets are wide, the food is delicious and the people are French. Walking the streets, you feel as if you were in one colossal museum – there are monuments, ancient buildings, lively artist corners and sophisticated types strolling in all directions. Like in England, the hangover of lost colonial power is apparent in France, but it’s done with so much style; you can forgive them their pride and lose yourself in a imperial reverie of wine and fragrant butter sauces.

Far from being snobbish, the people are warm and only too happy to help you with barking corrections if you give their language a go. Every day I witnessed tourists slobbering orders in English to stunned service workers. In a bakery  I saw a man demand a baguette in Englis,h and attempted to indicate the width of the loaf he desired by flapping his arms like an irate seagull. The teenager behind the counter was either too offended or too amused to react. Just before things hit melting point, a woman standing in line translated, the zombie got his bread and retreated.  If a French person did something similar in Australia they would be immediately sent to a detention facility and deported the following decade.

So determined to play by the rules, I stammered out what remained of my French language skills and surprisingly, I got by relatively well. Some were flattered that I’d taken the time as an Anglophone to even open a French grammar book (which is a bit of a polite exaggeration, but  a nice compliment nonetheless). The folk selling trinkets beneath the Eiffel Tower and those trying to scam money weren’t so appreciative when I told them to ‘fuck off’.

In the areas where tourists tend to congregate, you can guarantee that someone will approach you to ask you for money at least once every fifteen minutes. I learned to ignore pleas of ‘Do you speak English?’, but there was one trick I’d never seen: someone pretends to pick up something from the ground in front of you, a ring or a coin, and then presents it to you as if you had dropped it. Insisting that you take the trinket, they congratulate you, then proceed to ask you for money to compensate them for having brought such good fortune upon your package holiday.

“Va te faire!”

On being in Amsterdam as a tourist

Ahh, Amsterdam – the watery princess of the North! Exuding chaos and beauty through your sinewy canals, home to a thousand bicycles and iron hooks from which you can dangle furniture, and a magnet for people of all persuasions – particularly young continentals looking to get stoned.

The novelty of Amsterdam takes a few visits to wear down because you’re hardly on the plane on the way back from wherever you came and you’re planning your next weekend to the city. This of course is due to your still altered state of consciousness whereby you hold the unwavering belief that you could subsist on joints, hot chips and cake for the rest of your terrestrial existence. Reality often kicks in when you are asked to communicate with someone born of the prevailing system and all you can manage is a string of warbling nonsense surrounded by pauses long enough in which to pour a pint of Guinness.

However Amsterdam is more than this: you will notice, if you are a male, or care to frequent the male toilets, that they paint tiny flies on the urinals. The idea is that you will instinctively aim at the fly when you piss and not on the floor, or presumably on the person standing next to you. This can only mean that people in the Netherlands either take great delight in urinating on insects or on the floor, but not both at the same time.

You can also see the world’s largest collection of working bikes near Centraal Station, crammed into a split-level parking lot on the canal. It is a marvel to witness how this modern city functions without reliance on the car, unlike so many other western metropolises. The prevalence of the bike has led to some astonishingly innovative two-wheeled contraptions such as the bike/trailer combination; the “bike for the whole family” bike, with a seat for mum and dad and two kids; and the reclining bike, which is the only personal displacement vehicle in which you can rest, smoke a doobie and exercise at the same time. The unicycle is notably absent.

Impressions of Romania

What types of agricultural goods does your country export?” is not a typical ice breaker you’d use in conversation. But in rural Romania, where every square metre of land has been tilled for some purpose, it’s a serious question.

And they expect an answer.

The relationship between people and land is more evident in Romania than any European country I’ve visited. Transylvanian roads are dotted with locals selling essentials such as eggs, turnips, faggots (bundles of sticks), homemade wines and cheeses, baskets and a products from every exploitable environmental resource. The land is their livelihood, their playground and (sadly) their rubbish tip. While conservative with their consumption, Romanians seemed liberal with their wastage and indeed, the entire countryside has a neglected air about it: along the roadside, fields are littered with enough plastic bags and bottles to choke an industrial waste incinerator; rusted pipes snake through forests towards giant cooling towers and even the buildings appear exhausted as they queue beside abandoned factories, apparently waiting to collapse in order to make way for the next generation. Spurts of EU funding are already visible:  the centre of Bucharest, the capital, has a certain nouveau sheen about it, with clean and useful signage and roads; dual carriageways even connect major centres, although, it is still common to share them with donkey-drawn carts carrying manure.

By European standards, Romania is insanely cheap. You can feast on a local dish of grilled chicken with ham and garlic potatoes, polenta and mountains of fresh bread, a few litres of Ursu (the local beer, whose name means ‘bear’) for around 9€ or 30 RON (Lei). Yet for the locals, it’s a different matter —the average Romanian wage for a worker in a city company we were told is somewhere in the vicinity of 500 Euros. The rest of the country receives a lot less. They can survive because of low inflation and the affordable housing. Just how long this will last as the country modernises, nobody knows. People are already nervous about the shift to the Euro which they say will drive up prices “like it did everywhere else”.

The meagre wages explain why Romania is so jammed with domestic tourists:  it’s just too expensive to travel elsewhere. The castle of Bran where the Royal family once lived and, allegedly, the blood-sucking Vlad Dracul, teems with Romanian travellers and their families, with the odd Spanish or French and even Australian (!) making up the minority of gawking, photo-carrying pilgrims. Yet, locals or foreigners, it doesn’t seem to bother the rows of market owners, who push their tacky t-shirts and vampire teeth onto everyone that passes by.

Doing business in Romania is an informal affair—something which may come as a surprise to unsuspecting westerners, who expect contracts, offices or even business names. In Romania, such commercial excesses are optional. The rental car dealer from which we hired our 4WDs (one of which wasn’t a 4WD) consisted of two gentlemen clad in full denim, sporting the classic Joe Dirt mullet. They were loitering in the car park as we exited the airport terminal and, if they hadn’t been holding cardboard signs with our names scribbled on them, we would have avoided them altogether. The hostel in Bucharest, which we found by luck since there were no street signs, numbers or driveways, was a converted nunnery with three rooms. Space was so scant that even the girl working at reception was forced to sleep behind the desk. I wished her a good night before heading to my mixed dormitory.

“Hopefully tonight I’ll be able to get some sleep”, she replied, before proceeding to lay bed sheets on a banana chair.

Our attempts at speaking the local language were met with good humour. In Brasov, our linguistic repertoire was tested on numerous occasions—our local corner store consisted of a half-metre square hole in the wall, run by a friendly lady in a grey apron. The fact that we couldn’t see what we wanted to buy thwarted our usual method of pointing and thrusting money, however our pronunciation of lapte (milk) and pâinea (bread) must have been half close as both products were handed to us with remarkable efficiency.At a remote petrol station, a taxi driver (who thought it would be a riot to hear four foreigners stammering instructions in Romanian for quarter of an hour before revealing he understood English), assured us that half the country spoke English to some degree. He’d learned by watching McLeod’s Daughters—an Australian drama set on a cattle station. His lack of ‘Aussie twang’ made me suspicious at first, but to his credit, his command of English was excellent. I tried watching Romanian television but failed to experience this osmotic effect myself; with the exception of learning that the word ‘crap’ means ‘carp’, and that fried crap is an infinitely entertaining item to read on a menu.

Speaking of local fauna, Romania is also known to have the largest population of wild bears in Europe. While we did our best to track one down, none crossed our path. Only after did we realise that they were, like us, probably too busy avoiding the hoards of stray dogs that roam the towns and cities. Our guidebook reported that there are 200,000 stray dogs in the country—a figure which seemed, by our estimates, a little conservative. There are dogs rummaging through bins for food, sleeping dogs, dogs just sitting in a field, and dogs in marauding packs. There are dogs of all breeds and sizes (although mostly of the mongrel variety) and most of them looked well fed and content with their existence; some even seemed to be doing better than many of the humans we encountered.

I’d go back to Romania in a second. The people were pleasant and fun and constantly went out of their way to show us a good time; even the policemen, who pulled us over for going 70 mph in a 30 zone (though we were driving at the same speed as the lorry filled with turnips in front of us) and gave us a only warning, despite our licences not being valid. And the countryside, when one ventures beyond the rubbish, is in some areas untouched and pure. What really impressed me though is the air of optimism:  it’s a country that has shrugged off its ‘impoverished Eastern block country’ label and is growing fast. The recent entry into the EU has sparked something… what it is, no one yet knows. But you can’t help but get the feeling that Romanians have realised they’ve become part of something bigger: something that, for so long, was passing them by.

On Brixton

SwirlyBrixton is where I chose to hang my hat in London. This reveals nothing special until I tell you that my image of England before coming here for the first time was one in which people were a bit uptight but generally good-humoured with a wonderful comprehension of satire, wearing brown corduroy and emanating that air of sophistication that used to be revered back in the colonies. It was further coloured by the fantasy of a fine pub-loving culture and fresh rain on ancient streets where the expectation that the Goodies could leap out at you from any corner dressed as nuns or amuse you with some comparable hilarity was a reasonable one to entertain.

These illusions subsided the moment I met my new suburb. Subsided is putting it rather mildly: they in fact scattered like cowardly rats, only to be collected up again and squeezed into a large, glass jar, swirled about with violence and vigour of a paint mixer, set alight and then, while still in flame, poured out into the gutter.

The most overused adjective to describe Brixton is edgy : a word often utilised by people who don’t live there. What this is supposed to mean I’m not sure. If by edgy they mean that there are opportunities to score cocaine, get stabbed and grab a chicken burger in the same five square metres of concrete, then they’d be close. They would also be warm if they meant that at any time you may be accosted by someone either trying to scam money from you, sell your soul to Jesus or shower you with a tirade of unintelligible sentences. I suspect that the first person to describe Brixton as edgy was a white, middle-class male working in media who one day attended a concert at the Academy with his university friends and had the misfortune to feel slightly nervous during the five minute walk from the tube station. But I would have understood: away from the white bread fancies of the inner north and west it is true that, if you’re not used to the animation and noise, you do feel a little on edge.

Brixton has the largest population of Caribbean people outside the Caribbean and there is a growing number of South Americans, most notably Peruvians and Brazilians. Throw in a growing middle-class of city workers, students and retirees and you have an indescribable mix. There are stereotypes yes, you’ll see the typical gangster rapper – a large African with enough bling to sink the QEII, speaking a form of English totally devoid of consonants – and even Euro kiddies with their campers and backpacks, but each day a curious diversity will look you in the face and force you back into your store of prejudices to retrieve another. Such is the diversity of the streets of Brixton that on some days you will be the only (white) person apparently speaking English. I in fact like this feeling as it liberates me from the pressure to act cool and talk, both of which are impossible when you’re surrounded by people who excel at the former and don’t really want to do much of the latter, not with you anyway.

There is a common reaction in people when you tell them you live in Brixton. Their heads cock to one side (presumably that is the preferred English position for when one is about to unfurl a string of unfounded twaddle) and they simply say say, “Oh, how lovely, do you like it?” when you know what they are really thinking is, “Why in the shallow pile of shite did you even consider moving there? It’s so far off the Monopoly board that you have to pay $200 just to get to jail.”

This attitude is, of course, deeply flawed but entirely understandable – just like the overuse of adverbs.

It is true, I admit, that Brixton has the unfortunate reputation of being a violent place. There were race-related riots in 1981 and 1985 and you are regularly approached by people trying to sell you drugs, or what you presume to be drugs as the vocabulary of illicit substances has changed somewhat since my day. You will hear calls to purchase skunk and blow – both comprehensible – whizz, fat, chalk, charlie and cake sound rather dubious in origin however. So if you’re not a heaving crack head, it can be tedious day after day passing these gentlemen who, to any passerby, appear to consider themselves rather tough and cool. And perhaps they are, but most of the time they’re just annoying. Like swimming with sharks: the more you are in their presence, the more comfortable you become. Now when trudging by I let out a sigh and exclaim “No! If I wanted something I’d have asked you!” and the thought that I could be knifed a few metres down the street doesn’t enter my mind. Besides, I’d be paranoid to think such a thing, wouldn’t I?

Still, there are things that Brixton offers that other suburbs do not. The Brixton markets are some of the best and cheapest in London for all types of food and general goods. There are dozens of butchers, fish mongers, fruit and vegetable stalls, and shops, the descriptive title of which I’ve not yet worked out that resell assorted shampoos and dish washing liquids for a discount. People jam into the backstreets of Brixton all weekend to do their bargain shopping. I see South American families querying the butcher on the quality of beef for 30 mins before buying ten kilos of pork belly and a dozen sausages. The butcher told me they buy the same thing each time but really just like to talk. I don’t. Give me two sausages and make it snappy since I’m also next in the line to buy some socks.

Yes, there are crowds, but that is inescapable in London. The difference is that you’re not struggling on your way home from the tube or lining up at the ATM for money, but investing time in filling your stomach – a pastime that is infinitely more captivating and worth the odd push and shove. On my first outing to the markets the level of my excitement increased in proportion to the weight of food that I was carrying. I just could not buy enough. My arms, suffering for the pleasure of my stomach, laden with two kilos of fresh goat meat, rainbow trout, bunches of basil, eggs, coconut milk, peppers, celery, a lifetime supply of spices, yoghurt and basically anything that was edible and had caught my attention. For 15 pounds it was a bargain. By the time I was thrust out the end of Electric Avenue, (yes, like the song) I was carrying enough food to feed a bus-full of sumo wrestlers and their former sumo-wrestling coaches, but it felt good to be eating well in a country where inedible is a relative term.

It was here in 1999 on Electric Avenue, just outside the supermarket, that a neo-nazi set off a nail bomb that injured around 50 people. Today the servants of God sit on this corner and wail out warnings of eternal damnation (but add as a convenient side note that God’s love is eternal), while tired workers file out of the supermarket doors laden with their cheap meats and bottles of red wine.

While I won’t be here forever, being a short tube ride from central London suits me for now. It’s the common experience of living in a big city that keeps most people sedated – you become totally self-centred at the same time you are aware of the trials that all ordinary people have to endure. I know that Brixton will be good to me, just like her parent London has been, but there’ll come a time when I’ll probably discover what all this edginess is about and fall right off.

On a short trip to New York

On my left, a 40-inch television with 600 cable channels has been drilled into the wall. On my right, the cold remains of a sandwich, with still enough sliced meat stuffed in it to open a deli. Outside in the heat, traffic snakes and shoots through walls of sunlight, sounding their horns and  shouting out to the world: “I’m alive! I’m alive in New York!”

If Paris is a city for walking, then the Big Apple is one for skipping: mainly because you get around faster and, at the same time, you can display that air of optimism (while hiding deep-seeded depression) that you can only pull off in the USA.

Fortunately you don’t have to skip everywhere. Thanks to the subway and grid system of Manhattan streets, getting around New York is piece of a generous serving of your favourite cake (which, by the way, you can get on every corner along with a bucket of watery coffee). The only hassle is trying to not get sidetracked by the mayhem: there are traffic cops screaming at cars, cars tooting at other cars, blinking signs, crazy people in bare feet, diners brandishing “All day burritos and jugs of beer”, flocks of garbage trucks and of course, the thousands of residents and tourists from everywhere and, judging by the mixture of fashion, every when.

New York could be described as London pushed into a tube and stood upright, sprayed with essence of extrovert. But it’s best not to make comparisons. This city is exciting in its own skin and I’m just about to walk out the door of my west mid-town apartment right into the thick of it.

How to get your NIE in Barcelona (for EU nationals)

The Número de Identidad / Identificación de Extranjero (NIE) is a necessity in all fiscal or legal matters in Spain and pretty much anything else. It’s not difficult to get, if you know what you’re doing.

Unfortunately I didn’t.

But after listening to many variations on the correct procedure, shipping myself around the city in a sweat of panic and waiting in impossibly long queues, I finally cracked it. Now I pass this information on to you, oh brave traveller. For those who are interested, this is how I got my NIE in Barcelona – the quick way*.

Firstly, I will try to address some of the bullshit I had heard before successfully applying. All of this you can freely ignore but it’s handy to know so that you might be able to separate it from fact. I didn’t, and it cost me time and sanity.

It takes six weeks for the authorities to issue you with a NIE

Verdict: BULLSHIT

You are issued with the number on the spot. It takes some officious administrative ghoul less than three minutes.

You can apply for a NIE at the police station

Verdict: BULLSHIT

Yes you have to see the police, but that will come later.

You need to get your empadronamiento (register your address in Spain) from the town hall before you apply for your NIE

Verdict: BULLSHIT

You’ll have to do this to get Spanish residency and there are benefits in relation to health care, but at this stage, it’s just a pain in the arse so don’t bother unless you really have to.

You can get a social security number without a NIE

Verdict: This is just so wrong that I can’t express it. I was told this by at least five intelligent Spanish people that it was possible. Maybe for them, but Spanish people don’t need NIEs so it’s no wonder they haven’t a clue about what it is or how to get one. This is not to say that you shouldn’t trust the advice of locals, but on this matter, all the good intentions on the European continent won’t make you feel better if you listen to them. Listen to the officials, yes, they have it half right, but not local laypeople. Sorry guys.

As of April 1, 2007 you must apply for your NIE at the Oficina de Extranjeros (Foreigners’ Office) at Avenida Marques de l’Argentera 2. It opens at 9am and reaches capacity well before then so go early. What you need to bring:

  • Your passport
  • One photocopy of this passport
  • An Ex 14 application form (filled out). It won’t hurt to photocopy it but I didn’t need a copy
  • Plenty of patience

WARNING: as of the time of writing this, all the Ex 14 forms available to download on the internet are out of date. All of them. There are several available, one from 2001 and one from 2004 etcetera but you need the one from 2007.

Some things that you might need (I didn’t):

  • A few passport sized photos
  • It also wouldn’t hurt to bring an official letter from your employer, bank, university or school to show that you are here for a reason.
  • A photocopy of your pre-filled application form (assuming you can get your hands on the latest before you go)

I didn’t need any of these items, but it’s better to be prepared than despondent, to rework an old cliché.

It’s not unusual to see people queuing up at 7am to get in. These folks are not crazy; they are very clever people because they know that if you waltz up at the official opening time, like I did twice, you will be joining an impossibly long queue of sometimes 300 people, and you can be assured that you will be turned away. Like all Spanish government departments and banks, the Foreigners’ Office closes at 2pm and can only handle a mysterious yet evidently well-defined number of people before they close the doors.

If you’re unlucky enough to be refused entry, but lucky enough to be at the front in the line of rejects you may receive a number that will allow you to enter the following day. Even for this you will need to queue early. So assuming you’re somewhere towards the front (100 or so people back), expect to wait outside the building for about one to two hours. You will notice Barcelona waking up around you and will have a bucket of time to appreciate the architecture of the building before you. It is a very large stone edifice that would probably seem very beautiful if it wasn’t for the horror that lay within.

That first moment when you cross the threshold brings an unsurpassed level of elation. You pass through security and enter a well-lit court yard where some kind soul has placed rows of pews for you to rest your tired body. It doesn’t matter that sitting on them increases your chances of developing a debilitating case of piles by 500 per cent – you have earned this luxury and can now relax and pour scorn on the poor fools who are still waiting outside, probably on the verge of being told to return tomorrow.

Once inside a man in a clear plastic box gives you a ticket. Depending on what you’re there for, you’ll receive a different ticket. NIEs begin with the letter C. I don’t know what the other numbers and letters mean. At this stage you should ask for the latest Ex 14 form if you don’t already have it. Expect no-one except your fellow applicants to speak any English, although some of the staff do and may help you depending on their mood. The general mood on my day was grim.

There was a young woman behind me who, like everyone else, had been lining up for a few hours. I saw her ticket; the number was B221. It takes hours for your number to be called and the waiting can be mind-numbing. So you could have forgiven her for nipping outside to smoke a cigarette. Unfortunately for her, by some unusual spasm of efficiency, the numbers between B218 and B220 were all dealt with in 15 minutes and so B221 flashed on the screen twice and was then gone minutes before she returned.

B222.

B223.

She looked up in shock. First at the electronic board and then at the emotionless administrator standing at the door, barring her entry. First came the rejection. Then the bewilderment followed by pleading and then crying. When she realised that the stout man in the blue uniform was not going to allow her through because she had missed her turn, she flipped: “Joder! ” (“Fuck!”) she screamed and stomped away emitting curses that, although I didn’t understand them at the time, most certainly would have involved inviting the bureaucrats to fornicate with various members of their own family and possibly placing uncomfortable objects up their anuses. The uninitiated would describe this behaviour as erratic; off the handle perhaps, or overly emotive and irrational. Yet, when you know what it’s like to deal with the waiting, the impossibly strict bureaucracy and bizarre operating hours it seems appropriately justified. Who knows how many hours she had invested in the exercise. I personally thought she could have sworn a touch more and thrown in a bout of aggressive spitting too.

Ok, back to us. So you have your ticket. Don’t lose it! This ticket, apart from your passport and internal organs, is now the most important possession you have. It allows you to freely exit and re-enter the building while you wait for your number to be called. Prepare to wait three to five hours. You can risk exiting the building for a coffee or a cigarette (there is no smoking in the courtyard) or you could bring water and a sandwich or anything else you might need to survive an entire day. Want to end up like B221? No? Then hang around. C179!!! That’s me! Order your body to get up and climb the stairs to the desk. You will see a peturbed individual wearing tight brown clothes. He or she will look at your documents, photocopy your passport (on top of the photocopy that you must bring yourself) and type a few things on a computer that looks like it has the processing power of a mousetrap. Three minutes later, you will have your NIE. It is written on the form that you filled, which is stamped and returned to you. This the form you will be taking to the police. It shouldn’t need to be said now, but you guard this form with your life!!! You guard it well. Brown boy will also give you a form to take to a bank to pay the tax (6.70 euros) and a stamped paper to present to the police after you have paid this tax. All this done, you are ready to register as a foreigner living in Spain. Best thing to do is to turn up at the bank at 8:30 the following morning. Pay that damn tax and then head directly to the police station at Passeig de Joan de Borbó, 11. You’ll need:

  • the proof of payment (blue and yellow forms stamped by the bank)
  • your passport
  • your stamped NIE application and a photocopy of your passport for good measure, although they’ll probably let that one slide if it’s Friday, the day before a public holiday or they’ve had wild and satisfying sex the night before.

They’ll then type and stamp a few things and then issue your official NIE: a lovely blue document that states your name, nationality, address and that special, special number. Congratulations. Life can nearly resume.

Now you can skip off to the Department of Social Security, fill in your form, throw a photocopy of your passport and NIE document at them (showing them the originals) and they will hand over a Social Security Number immediately. Opening a bank account will also be a cinch (same documents required but with no photocopies this time). La Caixa requires that you open an account at a branch near your house. A few friends had recommended this bank to me and I found them very good. There is literally a cash machine on every corner in Barcelona and the service is reasonable. They come in two flavours: red (Catalan branches) and blue (not sure how to describe them, but I guess they are more neutral in their views regarding the independence movement in Catalunya). Anyway, unlike Neo in the Matrix, you should go for the blue pill – at least you’ll be assured that they will speak Castellano to you and, if you’re lucky, they may give you a mint to suck on while they photocopy your passport.

I hope this has been helpful to somebody. I’m sorry it doesn’t cater for non-EU nationals but I didn’t have to venture down that route. I can only imagine the horror of trying to do this without citizenship of an EU country.

Obligatory foreigner’s disclaimer lest he be hounded out of the country by proud natives

Let me say now that I do not describe this experience with the intention to whine about Spain or the Spanish people in general. I like and respect them both, very much. It’s just the experience of an Australian in a foreign country attempting to deal with a new system, language and culture. Please don’t sue, stalk or assault me. Come to Australia: I can show you many weird, beautiful and highly annoying spectacles.

*This guide is current as of April, 2007. I won’t be updating it so apologies in advance to future readers if the information is incorrect due to any changes in the procedure, place names or documents.

Renting in Barcelona

A real travel diarist would take notes, remark on small details, meticulously noted. I’m afraid that I have accepted my limitations and am not one of these. Paul Theroux, another implausible over-achiever can write his way to hell for all I care.  What I give you are floury descriptions and pointless padding, whereby if you grasp an iota of what I’m describing, I will feel that I have done my duty. However I will attempt to make an exception in this case because it would be a shame not to document such an interesting experience as searching for rental accommodation in Barcelona.

“No students!” said Olga as I walked into the door of her fifth floor apartment, a few streets up from La Sagrada Famila. Olga was from Russia and being tall, blond and serious, she looked the part. If she had told me that she was a former officer in the Russian army but occasionally sat on the bench for the former Soviet Republic’s women’s basketball team I wouldn’t have quivered a nostril. She gracefully swept me around her neat two bedroom unit as if she were demonstrating the inner workings of a nuclear power plant.

“This is the living room. This is where we watch TV, talk and drink tea.”

The tile floors were clean and the whole place smelled like a combination of pot pourri and pine-o-clean.

“And the kitchen. We keep it clean. There are cockroaches in summer.”

“Big ones?” I ask.

“I like potatoes,” she replied with a straight face.

I felt oppressed just being in the place so I thanked Olga and said my goodbyes. We both knew we’d never be living together unless forced to at gun point. As I exited I passed two Japanese women who’d come to see Olga’s lair. I thought that maybe it would have been interesting to stick around to witness yet another cultural collision but thought better of it – I had another appointment.

This time with Tere, in the same area, who had responded to my advertisement the minute I’d posted it. In any other situation this would have made me apprehensive, and I was to an extent, but it was Saturday afternoon and I had less than 24 hours to find a central place to live otherwise I was heading out to Sant Cugat, 30 mins away by train, to the company flat. Free rent: yes. Kind offer: of course. Perfect chance to save some money: why not? Lightyears away from the action and where I wanted to be: that was the clincher.

Judging by the facade, Tere’s building seemed nice enough. The streets were clean and there were quiet cafes and shops. The illusion was brought to an abrupt halt when she opened the door. The flat had potential – it was small and modern, but all had been squandered by the greasy-haired woman who stood before me. There were boxes stacked against the walls filled with books and clothes. There were more clothes lying over the floor, and the kitchen (I only presume it was a kitchen as it was the greasiest room in the flat) reminded me of a forest cave. Her protruding teeth spat out Spanish like a fascist machine gun firing down upon hapless African immigrants.

“Lo siento, todavia no hablo mucho espanol,” I said.

“No problems, I can teach you. I don’t speak much English, so you’ll learn.”

Great, I’ll learn how to talk to fisherman and hookers.

“Ok, this is the room, the living room, the bathroom… blah blah blah… 350 euros”

“What’s that scratching noise I hear?”

“Oh that is my cat, Bonita. You like cats, yes? He is playing with my son Gonzalo. You like children, no?”

Ok, walk slowly away. Keep eye contact and don’t panic.

Next was Paolo an Italian fashion designer who, with his tight shirt wrapped around a tight body, a shaved head and undeniably radiant tan, definitely looked the part. He also looked the part of the lead dancer in the ABBA stage show, but he was a gentleman and presented his flat with professionalism.

Paolo’s place was no haven of IKEA goods: there were designer lamp shades, low and long coffee tables made of dark woods from extinct Indonesian trees, shag rugs and wooden blinds. Hanging on the walls were framed abstract paintings. The room was huge; pricey, but amazing. One double bed and a sofa, a large desk, a chair, a single cushioned chair for reading in the sunlight that was streaming through the large window. It was the perfect inner city Eurpoean bachelor pad. Paolo knew it, so did I. Our eyes met and before I could ask the question of price, which I expected to be 400 plus, he stabbed at me with his Italian accent:

“I work many hours so I don’t like de noise at night. And you cannot bring de people home. You play guitar? I don’t like de noise.”

Ok, what about breathing? Can I do that or does it have to be under my bed covers? Do you have a toilet inside or is there a vacuum chute to which I have to hermatically seal to my arse so that I may shit outside?

Shame, but goodbye.

There were others not really worth mentioning in great detail. For instance, Hussien: a Pakistani gentlemen who informed me in polite Spanglish that the three Bolivians who were currently occupying the room were soon to vacate and that for a mere 350 euros a month the urine-smelling shoe box and stained mattress could be mine. I wanted to inquire whether I had to pay for my own cockroaches or the ones that I noticed scuttling away from the room were free. Hussein was clearly in no mood to bargain however. It seemed as if he had had plenty of experience ripping off foreigners and I didn’t want to shatter his illusions of Australians. I left without saying goodbye, content in the knowledge that even such a trivial display of humanity would have been wasted on that jerk.

Bu in the end, a softly-spoken Catalan homosexual was my saviour. I took a risk going to see Jordi’s* place as time was short – it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, hungry and ready to pack my bags and head up to Sant Cugat. But what the hey, I thought. So I followed the map into the centre of the city, climbed the four flights of stairs and knocked on the door.

“We wear earplugs to go to sleep,” he said. There was no humour in his voice.

“People are out on the street until five in the morning every night in summer. We’re on the top floor so it’s boiling in summer and there are eight Columbians living across the hall.” His eyes were sunken like two pits of molten tar.

“I’ll take it,” I said and slapped down a 100 euro deposit.

Life it seemed had given me one more roll of the dice and this time it came up sevens. I finally found my “auberge espanol” moment – something rare and perfect. A room right in the centre of the city, at a low price with cool international people my age, who all had jobs! Sure it was like sleeping in the middle of a university orgy every night, but I got used to it and became one of the revellers on most evenings.

Finding a place to live was what I might euphemistically label as ‘fun and interesting’, yet after a few drinks I would probably reveal the truth: it was tiring and frightening. Deciphering the advertisements (anuncios) I guess, in any big city, requires some local knowledge, or more importantly, an awareness of how far people can tip the scales of bullshit. My advice is to see as many places as you can, talk to people you think you can trust, and be aware of idiots looking to exploit foreigners.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy however just about everyone with testicles in Catalunya is named Jordi or Xavi.