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Barcelona Blog: Calling time on Barcelona’s nightlife?

No smoking signThere’s a killer on the loose in Barcelona and its name is the smoking ban. It’s coming for the city’s nightlife.

Barcelona has long had a problem with noise pollution. In the narrow cobbled streets of the Barri Gòtic, where thousands live above bars and clubs, angry residents – desperate for a good night’s sleep – bombard noisy weekend revellers with water bombs, eggs and worse. Now thanks to the smoking ban, neighbours no longer have to wait for closing time or Saturday nights to get in some target practice.

Smokers have nowhere to go but the street for a nicotine fix since the smoking ban came into force on January 2nd. All well and good you may say, if it means you can see your hand in front of your face while you enjoy a drink and your clothes don’t smell like you’ve wiped the ashtrays with them, but are the neighbours quite so happy?

In a country where a reported 29% of the population light up, groups of law-abiding smokers are now going outside for a cigarette. Walk down any street in the city and you’ll see them, puffing away and putting the world to rights while they do it, and therein lies the problem. The sociable Catalans don’t smoke in silence.

In chilly January when windows are firmly closed to keep in the heat, local residents don’t have too much to gripe about. But come the spring, when temperatures start to rise and balcony doors are flung open, the streets are likely to become a battleground between fractious egg-throwing grandmothers in their nighties and the puffing hordes below.

So what will the town hall do about it? In the past they’ve caved in to residents’ demands and closed down bars and clubs that make too much noise – the Raval’s historic dancehall La Paloma being just one example.

Long-suffering bar owners – many of whom are still out of pocket from installing air conditioning and no-smoking areas when legislation was changed in 2005 – can hardly be punished for sending smokers out to the street. But punished they will be if noise complaints close them down or if the Catalans, like the English, decide to stay at home and drink. As has been seen in the UK, bars without customers don’t stay open for long.

From the bohemian hangouts of Gràcia to the modernista masterpieces of the Eixample, where hams hang above the old men sneaking a drop of rum into their early morning coffee, Barcelona boasts a quirky bar on practically every corner. If they are lost, the city council marketing department will have a hard time promoting Barcelona as one of the nightlife capitals of Europe.

My prediction for 2011? A ban on smoking may prove to be more dangerous to the city’s health than the evil weed itself.


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Barcelona Blog: Barcelona, can you fix it? Yes we can!

Clothes repaired here, Barcelona

I’m the sort of person that doesn’t function too well of a morning. Ideally in my world, there should be sort of central locking device on all hot, sharp or dangerous household objects that doesn’t spring open until I’ve had at least three cups of strong coffee.

Last week I attempted to iron a delicate shirt before work and failed to notice in my befuddled state that I had the iron on the linen setting and that the shirt was literally melting before my very eyes.

Back in England I would have had a slight tantrum and thrown it in the bin. In an age of £5 supermarket toasters and clothes that cost less than a cappuccino, nobody bothers to get anything fixed, darned or fiddled about with anymore but here in Barcelona, the city is full of tiny hidden shops that do just that.

A few years ago the strap on my leather bag broke and after chatting to a helpful pensioner in the street in Gràcia, I was directed to a secret doorway I’d walked past a million times before and never noticed. From a handwritten sign on the door I learnt that it was open for a grand total of 2 hours a day (closed all day on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, throughout August and on national holidays) and even then they only opened if they really felt like it.

Once I’d squeezed myself past an army of old ladies buying buttons and oddments, I found a dusty old shop that looked as if it hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. Ikea it was not. From behind a long wooden counter, the staff delved about in row upon row of drawers, filled with buckles, fasteners and other bits and bobs. For the old-fashioned price of €2.50, my bag was returned to its former glory by a man who must have been getting on a bit when the Spanish Civil War kicked off. It was a delight.

Sant Pere, Barcelona

With this in mind, last week I scoured my new neighbourhood for someone who could resurrect my shirt. I found Teresa, a plump lady with a wicked smile who works out of the back of a dishevelled shop in Sant Pere. Without so much as a raised eyebrow at my ironing capabilities, she produced pins from a little pin cushion worn on a Velcro strap around her wrist, devised a couple of clever tucks and promised to have it back to me the next day in exchange for €3. True to her word, there it was the following day, good as new. Clearly having deduced that I was a woman prone to pre-noon calamities, she gave me a wink and told me to pop in whenever I needed her.

Call me old-fashioned but I love these quirky little shops that lurk in Barcelona’s backstreets. I like a good counter and parcels tied with string. I feel exotic wandering past the tobacconists with a bread stick tucked under my arm. I think more men should wear aprons. And if you’re interesting in learning a language, there’s really nothing better than a good morning’s haggle at the market.

We sell hats, but only for uniforms mind

Thanks to rent control, Barcelona’s property developers will have a long wait to get rid of some these antiquated old ‘ma and pa’ stores. Primark may have opened its first shop here but for now the Catalans seem quite content with fixing what they already have rather than getting their hands on mountains more stuff. Happy as I am to have somewhere to buy cheap socks, I hope Teresa and those like her stay in business for many years to come. I fear I may need them.


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Barcelona Blog: Bad hair in Barcelona

 My hair doesn’t like Barcelona. It never has. I spend a fortune getting it cut. In England it looks like a million dollars. After 5 minutes of being outside in Barcelona I look like I’ve just been locked in a cupboard for the night with a victorious rugby squad. In less humid, sweaty climes with better water, I straighten my hair and it stays straight all day. Here, the humidity turns it into a wavy mop that birds could live in. Even as I write, I’m sporting a flick with undulating side bits worthy of a photo in a hairdressing salon window cerca 1977. It gets even worse at the beach.

Oh darn it, it’s easier with pictures. So here’s how it should look on the left:

Barcelona blog: good hair day

And this is it in the middle in Barcelona. Check out my waves:

Barcelona blog: bad hair

I once yearbooked myself  for a laugh and several Catalan friends believed I really looked like this back in the day. I hung my head and semi-curly locks in shame (the perm is not real folks):

I quite clearly have English hair. It’s not suited to hot humid weather. It wants to feel the wind in it. It has the texture of baby bird feathers. I don’t think it wants to behave badly; it was just given too easy a start in life in cloudy England and is having trouble adapting.

Still. It’s not all bad. My feet are very happy to be back in flip-flops and a diet consisting entirely of bread and olives rather than Dairy Milk and Chicken Tikka Massala is doing wonders for my figure. Until the winter I shall just have to wear hats, look on enviously at others’ thick glossy locks and pray for rain.


For more thoughts on Barcelona hair (mullets to be precise), go here, although you’ll need to be patient, it’s an old-fashioned cut out and keep scan.

If you’re a hairdresser who can help with free product samples, sponsorship or tea and sympathy, feel free to get in touch.

If you have a body part that doesn’t suit where you live, leave your ‘clean enough for my mum to read’ comments below.

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Stuff your rucksacks with pens, bras and the Economist puts travellers in touch with charities that need help

BBC TV presenter Kate Humble came up with the idea for stuffyourrucksack while stuck in a small Saharan village. Invited to a local school, the kids asked her how many hours it would take to travel by camel to England. Wondering out loud about how camels might cross the sea and whether they were allowed on ferries, a little arm went up: “What’s the sea?” The teacher asked her if she had a world map. Humble was humbled. If you grow-up in a land-locked country with no access to maps, books or the internet, how do you learn about the ocean? If only she’d known the school needed a map, she could easily have stuffed one in her backpack and opened up the world to a bunch of kids somewhere near Timbuktu. was born.

The idea is simple. Small charities (or travellers who know about them) use the site to post wishlists of things they need. You check the site to see who needs what near your next destination, pack a few bits and pieces for them and then see what the organisation do when you drop them off. Travellers can feed back on the places they visit and are encouraged to keep their eyes peeled for more organisations that deserve support.

“The beauty of it is that it gives equal value both ways” says Humble. “The community benefits from something they actually really need and you get a local experience that you just can’t buy or get out of a guide book”.

Marybeth Gallagher from an after school programme in Namibia says: “The children have benefitted greatly from this website. I cannot begin to tell you how much loot people have hauled from all parts of the globe to donate to our kids. They have also come to visit and to spread the word about our work. It’s a brilliant idea!”

The site is currently getting a revamp and due for a re-launch in May. The hope is that it becomes a vast self-policing message board between travellers that extends to include more information about volunteer work. Aware that many big projects need volunteers to commit to 6 months or more, Stuffyourrucksack wants to hear from smaller organisations that would appreciate even just a few hours help as travellers are passing through town.    

To give you an idea of what you could be stuffing your backpack with, here are just a few ideas to get you started:

A doctor in Chiang Rai in Thailand needs ibuprofen

A charity that helps street kids in Guatemala needs more sleeping bags

A deaf school in Kenya wants toys

An animal hospital in Sri Lanka needs dog collars

A school in Cambodia needs English teachers (minimum 1 week)

A hospital in Malawi wants cell phones

A school in Cuba would love some musical instruments

A university in Macedonia is desperate for copies of The Economist

A school in China needs balloons

An organisation in South Africa wants your bra

And if you’re travelling across the Sahara, there’s a school out there in need of a map…

Visit for more information and join them on Facebook.

Read the article on Matador or here.

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Bolivian border, headaches and Lake Titicaca

Bolivian/Peruvian border. Photo Natasha Young

Peru stuck its fingers up at me as I left. Twice. On my last night, the girl at Interbank gave me fake money and I was in too much of a rush to realise. The taxi driver and I had been getting along famously until I tried to pay him with the Peruvian equivalent of a Monopoly note. Then, just as I was about to board my bus for Bolivia, I was told I needed to exchange my ticket shaped piece of paper for a completely different ticket shaped piece of paper. Well obviously. What I didn’t know until I reached Puno was that in fact I should have been given two tickets, one for each leg of the journey. Nobody told me that part. And so it was I reached Puno on lovely Lake Titicaca at 5 o’clock in the morning with a purse full of joke money and no ticket to Bolivia. The unhelpful girl at the Tour Peru office (may she burn in hell) refused to help or call the office in Cusco. Peru 2: England 0. Take that you Chile-loving Brit.

Lake Titicaca, Copacabana. Photo Natasha Young

I was rescued by a lovely man at  a different company (I wish I could recall which one) who saved me a seat on his bus in case I needed it (I did), clucked in disapproval at his rivals and generally made me feel all special and warm. A few hours after arriving, I was finally on a bus leaving Puno. The road out of town hugged the lake like best friends after 4 bottles of wine. It was a slow, dusty and pot-holed ride and although I was desperate for sleep I didn’t want to miss the view. This was the real Peru, where women wore traditional dress for themselves rather than the tourists. Kids chased scampering sheep, men tinkered with fishing boats and women nattered to their mates as they went to market. Just as I was nodding off to sleep, I was delighted to spot 3 flamingos.

Copacabana. Photo Natasha Young

At the Bolivian border we all shot through customs with barely a cursory glance at our passports and an inky stamp. Except the Americans. They were in there for nearly an hour and had to take out wads of cash to pay the fees. “Everyone hates us” whispered one of them to her friend when they eventually boarded. The bus driver definitely did. Half an hour earlier he’d asked his assistant what the hold up was. “Americans” was the snarled reply. The driver raised his eyebrows, sighed and harrumphed off the bus for a cigarette.

It was around that time that the headache started. I’d not had altitude sickness when I was at 4600m in the Atacama Desert and Cusco’s 3000m hadn’t bothered me a jot. Clearly Bolivia was in a league of its own. The headache began at the border and didn’t disappear until my plane landed back in Chile a few days later.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Copacabana on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. Instead I arrived shattered, sweaty, hungry and with a cracking headache. We were dropped off in a busy square where taxis, vans and buses belched their exhaust fumes as they vied with each other for business. I jumped and staggered into my giant backpack and tried to figure out where the hell I was. I had planned on slumming it in a cheap dorm bed, it but I felt horrible and decided that only the best – at $10 a night – would do.


View from la Cúpula. Photo Natasha Young

La Cúpula (when I eventually found it) was just what I needed. With views of the lake, this was a hostel pretending to be a boutique hotel. The simple clean rooms were surrounded by gardens where guests loafed about in hammocks reading books and snoozing. As I checked in, a woman popped out from behind the clothes line and herded her sheep past reception and down the lane.

I was feeling decidedly ropey. Rather than go shopping for food, I went to La Cúpula’s restaurant and gorged on salad, local trout, potatoes and corn, all washed down with homemade lemonade. I felt like I hadn’t eaten properly for days. Dessert was a big mug of coca tea.

In a bid to find an ATM (there isn’t one) and get a feel for the town, I went out. It’s distinctly different to Peru. Here there was rubbish strewn everywhere and weeds growing through the broken paving slabs. True, there were touristy souvenir-selling streets and hotels that served pancakes for breakfast but unlike Peru, it didn’t feel like Bolivia had sold its soul to tourism. Many of those splashing about in the lake or renting pedal boats on the beach were city-dwelling Bolivians. In the square outside the cathedral, cars covered in gladioli and ribbons were being lined up for the daily vehicle blessing ceremony and old men dressed in black huddled together in the square to smoke cigarettes. In the market, burly women in thick skirts and bowler hats swatted the flies off the meat.

Bolivian rubbish. There's a lot of it. Photo Natasha Young

After an hour or so I headed back to the hostel. I wanted to find out about trips to Isla del Sol and buses to La Paz but my head was throbbing and I was starting to feel sick. I’d been travelling on a punishing schedule, determined to make the most of my 3 weeks holiday from work in Santiago and I was nearly at the end of my trip. The altitude was killing me. I just needed a little lie down for half an hour and I’d feel right as rain. Fourteen hours later I woke up. For a brief moment, I thought it had done the trick. Then I sat up and my head thumped.

So what can I tell you? Copacabana. It’s in Bolivia. It’s quite dirty. It’s next to a really, really big lake. You can eat trout. I came. I saw. I slept.

Beach at Copacabana, Bolivia. Photo Natasha Young


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Billionaire Piñera takes Chile – now the party really is over

Sebastian Piñera has just won the general election in Chile. As one friend on Facebook put it, the Mercs and the 4x4s will be out on the streets of Santiago tonight.

The polls and pundits have been predicting his win for months but I still can’t believe it. The man with the smarmy smile and the billboard that said ‘Delinquents – The Party’s Over’ has gone and won. Was that a Pinochet slogan? It sounds like it could have been.

After only a year in Santiago and now back in the UK, I can’t claim to know a lot about Chilean politics. But I can imagine that a billionaire who apparently owns a TV station and has a controlling interest in LAN, the national airline, is probably quite keen on making money. Namby pamby topics like social justice, free health care or environmental concerns like not ruining the countryside by building an effing great big dam in Patagonia are unlikely to be top priorities.

Bachelet has been generally well-regarded. Had she legally been able to stay in power, she may well have done so. Eduardo Frei, Piñera’s opponent, didn’t seem to be nearly as popular. ‘I just don’t trust him to do what he says he’s going to do’ said one friend. Meanwhile, Piñera’s posters were everywhere. From deserted deserts to the wind battered beaches of Chiloe, his smug beaming face was there, promising tough reform on crime and a ‘breath of fresh air’. In the end, he won, with 52% of the vote to Frei’s 48% in tonight’s second round.

As a non-Chilean, I can’t possibly begin to understand what it’s like to grow up in Chile’s rigid class system. I haven’t seen a military coup or lived under Pinochet’s regime/government (choice of word depending on what side of the fence you sit).

What I do know is how hard it is to talk about politics in Chile. As a teacher in Santiago, students clammed up whenever politics was mentioned. I was told specifically by my boss not to discuss it in class. Occasionally, I’d see unguarded glimpses of Pinochet support – ‘It was just a change of government’, ‘He was nice to me when I was little’, ‘My friend says his only mistake was he didn’t kill all the communists’ – and it shocked me to the core. Essentially there are those in Chile who really believe that a man, under whose rule thousands of people allegedly disappeared, was the best thing to ever have happened to their country. And yet nobody seems to want to openly challenge this belief. It’s as if politics is a nasty, embarrassing business and that the past should be lain to rest. Will Chile ever be able to move on if it can’t talk about what happened in 1973 and the years that followed?

And so it hit me today, as the election results were coming in, that my friends in Chile were talking about politics in their status updates on Facebook. For many there was disgust – ‘Nothing to celebrate’, ‘disaster’, ‘I’m leaving Chile!’, ‘Chileans have sold their souls to the devil’ – while for others there was a feeling that not much would change. ‘It’s just the centre right versus the right. Half of this country has already been sold off, I just hope there’s something left after the next 4 years’ said one. Some had practical concerns ‘When are the shops opening again? ‘(it’s illegal to buy or sell alcohol during an election) while others didn’t even seem to know there was an election happening, ‘Can anyone lend me a tent for the weekend of the 25th?’ asked one, ‘Where can I buy a cheap fridge?’ said another. Only one lone voice sounded gleeful ‘A great conversion! Chile is a great nation. I’m proud of my country’. Nobody liked his status. Meanwhile others, in the grand tradition of keeping their opinions to themselves, chose to seethe quietly with a ‘……………………’ and a ‘no comment’.

Here’s to more commenting. May there be much more of it. The last time I checked it was still free and OK to do so.


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10 things I learnt in Chile

Chilean flag. Photo Natasha Young

1. 2 ½ hours journey time is nothing

Having been brought up in miniscule England, I always used to prepare for any journey longer than 30 minutes as if it were an Arctic voyage. I’d consult maps, pack skis and prepare a lunch. Manchester to London takes 2 ½ hours by train. In English terms, this is very far away indeed. In Chile, you’re nearly there. You can start packing away your bits and pieces and put your coat on. Mendoza in Argentina is a mere hop, skip and a jump across the Andes from Santiago and takes 7 hours. Travel may never be the same again.

2. Politics matters. Democracy matters

Right and left are not the same. Democratically elected governments should not be confused with military dictatorships. A military coup is not, as one student tried to argue, simply a change of government. Voting matters. Resistance matters. Some scars never heal.

3.British customer service is really good

British friends may moan about it, but it’s fabulous. In Britain, most shop assistants actually care about trying to help you find what you need. There’s usually a friendly smile, pride in knowing something about what’s being sold and often a welcome amount of honesty (“Haddock? Ooh, I wouldn’t if I were you lovey, have the cod instead”).

4. British public transport is rubbish

The Chileans should come to Britain and show us how it’s done. It may be a long, straggly country at the end of the world, famous for wine and not much else, but by God they know how to run a bus service. Long distance coaches in Chile are cheap, plentiful, comfortable and punctual. You can watch a selection of terrible straight to video films to pass the time and there’s even a man to hand you a wee pillow and a blanket when you’re feeling sleepy and wake you up with a carton of juice in the morning. I hang my head in shame at the thought of any Chilean who has been to Britain and jumped on National Express, Megabus or British Rail, in the mistaken belief that it might be a good idea.

5.You can always make new friends

Moving to the other side of the world (or even a new city) is a scary business. But the truth is, I’ve always met new people I like, wherever I’ve gone in the world. If your old friends are good eggs, they’ll always be there for you, whatever you decide to do with your life and wherever you go. Meanwhile, new friends are just waiting to be met.

6.Rain can be a good thing

Hardly a day seemed to go by in Manchester when in didn’t rain. Rain stops play, spoils barbeques and outdoor music festivals and ruins your hair. But it also makes the countryside beautifully green (the South of Chile doesn’t look that lovely without a little help), clears away the smog and stops mosquitoes. And would all those Manchester bands you like have learnt to play the guitar if it had been sunny outside? I think not.

7. Yes doesn’t always mean yes

It took me a really long time to learn this, but in Chile ‘yes’ often means ‘hell, no’.

For example:

(To a waitress)

“Is this white wine (that I just watched you take out of a cupboard) cold? “  – Yes.

(To Chilean friends)

“So I’ll meet you at 10pm. You’ll be there on time, won’t you?” – Yes.

(To any bureaucrat)

“Is this absolutely necessary?” – Yes.

(To a stranger on the street)

“Excuse me, do you know where Calle Biarritz is?” – Yes.

(To someone hurrying onto a bus)

“Is this the airport bus?” – Yes.

8.You get what you pay for

Pay peanuts and you will get monkeys. Slip a bloke 40 quid in the street to sort out your internet connection and cable for the rest of the year and there’s an odds on chance you might have a few problems with it. Buy super cheap shower gel and it will extract all the oil from your skin until you feel like you are made entirely from wafer biscuits. Take the cheap bus in Bolivia and you will be squeezed into a mini van next to a vomiting toddler and a man who smells of cheese.

9. Red wine isn’t so bad

When you’ve not got time to chill a bottle of white, red wine does the job. I even grew to like it. To be fair, paying buttons for a classy red that would cost a fortune at home is a sure fire way to get a taste for the stuff.

10. Dogs are like valium

I’ve always loved dogs, but working in a Chilean dog shelter confirmed it. Few things make me happier than stroking the ears of a wet nosed mutt with a wagging tail.


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