5 Dec 2012

Learn Spanish the BigBarcelonaBlog Way : Simple Verbs and Complex Yous

So you've read the BigBarcelonaBlog's guide to speaking fluent Spanish in Fifty Words or less, said Hola and Que Tal, and now you want more. You yearn to converse in Spanish at a greater conceptual depth, to offer pithy insights and debate vigorously and insightfully on the varied topics of the day with your Castillian amigos. And you come to the BigBarcelonaBlog and you say “Ayudame BigBareclonaBlog”. I will overlook the fact you didn't call me Godfather BigBarcelonaBlog because unlike Marlon Brando I'm not hung up on status and get on with it.
First the blunt truth. If you are going to be stretching your verbal contributions you are going to need verbs. And verbs is where Spanish starts to get just a little bit tricky.
Let me demonstrate by comparing the Spanish verb with the English verb.
The English verb is a simple, uncomplicated thing. It wants to make life easy for you. It is your friend. Allow me to conjugate one.

        Verb : To eat
        I eat
        You eat
        ….And now the complicated bit...

        He eats
        She eats

        ...Gah that was a bit crazy says the English language. Adding one whole extra letter! We really let ourselves go there didn't we? Let's get back to normality...

        We eat
        They eat

You see simple, to the point. The kind of verb that gets you chomping on your fish ‘n’chips with the least possible inconvenience

        For comparison purposes. The Spanish verb to eat

        Verb : Comer

        I eat : (Yo) Como
        You (informal) eat : (Tu) Comes
        He/She/You (formal) eats : (El/Ella/Usted) Come
        We eat : (Nosotros) Comemos
        You (informal) eat : (Vosotros) Coméis
        He/She/You (formal) eats : (Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes) Comen

Do you see how complicated that is? There's so many endings that you won't be chewing on a mouthful of succulent  paella any time soon. At least not if you want to bite into it grammatically correctly. Indeed it has been argued that the obesity crisis currently sweeping through the English speaking nations is not in fact due to our greedy consumption of fatty fast foods but instead because the simplicity of our verb conjugation allow us tuck in much quicker. While the Spanish are still checking their endings we've already got a bellyful and are reaching for seconds. And the simple availability and fast formation of our verb endings is reflected in our waistlines. It should be acknowledged that this argument is so far confined to a niche group and that niche group is the BigBarcelonaBlog. But people used to laugh at the idea of Plate Tectonics. And they're not laughing now. Oh no. Actually I don't know if anyone did laugh at Plate Tectonics as they lacked a satisfactory punchline but they certainly pooh-poohed. And they're not pooh-poohing now.

Back to Spanish verb endings which are so varied that the subject pronouns  have become redundant (that's why they are in brackets in the example above because nobody actually says them) as the form of the verb tells you who is doing the action. So to say “I eat” you simply say “Como” and similarly “he eats” translates to “Come” and should you wish to say “you eat” then...

You stop. You consider the number of people you are talking to. You consider the country you are in. You consider the region of the country you are in. You consider the age and status of the person you are talking to in relation to yourself and then, and only then, do you dare to utter a word. It's a complicated business which takes time to sort out. No wonder the Spanish eat so late.

Glance back up to the verbs above. You will notice that English allows for only possible configuration. “You eat.” This is the same whether the you is your friend or your boss or two of your friends or two of your bosses. To each of them you would say “You eat...” Simple, straightforward, spiffing.

But in Spanish all these people would need to be addressed differently depending on the number of them and the level of formality. And when I say informal or formal I don't mean whether they keep their mouth closed while chewing. Instead I mean primarily whether you are in Northern Spain or Southern Spain/ South America and whether the person is younger or older or more senior or less senior than you.

Take a deep breath. Here goes:

If you are talking to your friend anywhere you use the tu form (but without saying tu remember).

So you say : Comes.


But if you are talking to your boss it depends. If you are in Barcelona you would use the tu form but if you were in Andalucia or Buenos Aires you would use the “usted” form. So it would be either “Comes” or “Come”. Not so simple.

If you were talking to two of your friends you would say : Coméis
But the problem arises again if you are talking to two of your bosses. It depends where you are what form you use. So in Barcelona your friends and your bosses would both be “Coméis” but in Sevilla or La Paz it would be “Comen” for the bosses. Indeed the confusion around how exactly you should address your boss has been postulated as an explanation for the much higher incidence of self-employment in Spain compared to other countries. At least when talking to yourself you are allowed to say pretty much what you like.

Strangers can be another problem. Children are always “tu” and old age pensioners are always “usted” but in between it's complete chaos and no Spanish person has ever adequately explained to the BigBarcelonaBlog how and when you know the difference, instead just shrugging and saying irritating stuff like “you just know” which is absolutely no use at all to those of us who just don't.

The BigBarcelonaBlog therefore recommends that if unsure you fall back on the confused linguist staple expedient known far and wide as...the mumble.

I know it's a cop-out and as a plain-speaking, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is sort of blog I should be ashamed but what can I tell you? (The easy thing about English is that when I write what can I tell you? I can do it without fear of offending anyone whereas if I was doing it in Spanish I wouldn't know if the person reading my blog was younger or older, junior or senior, in an internet cafe on the Ramblas or in a hacienda in Montevideo and I would be almost guaranteed to upset someone.)

The other solution is just to ignore the rest of the Spanish speaking world and just come to Barcelona where everybody is a friend and nobody needs to be called anything but tu. Think how much easier your linguistic journey would be and, more importantly, how much more relevant the rest of my blog would be and how much you'd want to go and read the rest of it clicking on an advert or two on your way. It would be rude of me not to leave you (or you, or you, or you) to it. Adios

23 Nov 2012

Catalan Independence

As a regular and respected writer on the city, the BigBarcelonaBlog is often asked for his considered thoughts on the possible emergence of an independent state of Catalunya. Okay that's a lie. Nobody cares what the BigBarcelonaBlog thinks. But is that going to stop the BigBarcelonaBlog opining? Of course it's not.

The question raises contentious historical issues. Was Catalunya ever actually a country? Or is it more of a region? Or a province? Or simply an idea? And if it is an idea is it a good one? To pronounce with any knowledge on these weighty matters requires consideration, research and extended study. The BigBarcelonaBlog has thought about doing all this and decided it just doesn't sound much fun.

So instead it has decided to resolve the whole problem with some much more fundamental (some would say basic, some would say dumb) questions which when answered will lead to an obvious resolution.

Question 1

Whose got the best flag?

This is a little difficult to adjudge because it is not completely clear which flag actually is the flag of an independent Catalunya.

Is it this one which flies outside the Generalitat?

Or is it this one which flies outside many of the BigBarcelonaBlog's neighbours’ windows and is specifically aimed at independence?

We can't be sure. The question being whether if they achieve independence the Catalans will adopt the flag that signals a desire for it or instead conclude that the pro-independence flag has now done its job and can be retired in favour of the traditional one. We just don't know.

However we can be sure of what the Spanish flag is:

We can also be sure what the Danish flag is:

Though technically it's irrelevant. But very pretty. And gratuitous insertions of it do seem to increase the traffic to the blog. Hej to all my Danish friends. And hedge to all my Danish friends with big gardens.

Back to the Spanish/Catalan flag debate. It's obvious that the Catalan is the bolder choice with  more colours and more stripes and even a possible star. However, it could also be argued that the Catalan flag has too much going on - one man’s bold is another man's brash. There is certainly a lot to say for the classic simplicity of the traditional Spanish standard. But the real question as all fashionable people know (and what other type of person reads the BigBarcelonaBlog) is which is the more slimming. That's right. In these increasingly body-fascistic times when choosing a flag it is important to think whether it will show your figure off to its best advantage when brandishing it at National occasions. When all is said and done who wants to look tubby when going to summits or hosting the Olympics or just invading another country for no reason. And as we all know when going for a slimming effect the stripier the better. Strike one for Catalunya.

Question Two Who has got the best anthem?

Again this is a thorny one on the grounds that we don't actually know what the anthem of a newly formed Catalunya would be. However, in this case, it doesn't matter because whatever it turns out to be the Spanish anthem wins hands down.

Why? Because it doesn't have any words.

That's right. This is simply Spain at its absolute best. When every other stupid country was penning self-aggrandising lyrics saying how wonderful they were and how their people were the best and how they were going to beat everybody up if they ever got in a fight with them like six year olds in a primary playground, the Spanish refused to take part. Instead they said “Well if we really have got to have something to play before the start of international football matches then I suppose we’ll give you a bit of music. But we are not, repeat not, doing any silly boasting.”

There’s no way the BIgBarcelonaBlog is in favour of getting rid of an approach as mature as this. One-all.

Question Three Who has got the best language?

Another tough question and one which the BigBarcelonaBlog confesses to be torn by. For example the Blog prefers “Adeu” to “Adios” but “Por Favor” to “Sis Plau”. Short of combining the two languages (which I think we can all agree is a non-starter) then what to do? I think it comes down to Maths and manners.

In the end there are lots and lots and lots of people who speak Spanish, mainly thanks to Spain rather dubiously conquering lots of other countries and teaching them it at gunpoint (apparently, at gunpoint, is the quickest method to ensure people grasp the subtleties of the imperfect subjunctive…e.g. if I were to pull the trigger then you would be one sorry Aztec/Mayan/Inca…get the idea?) whereas Catalunya hasn’t managed to even conquer its own country despite hundreds of years of trying.

And whereas the BigBarcelonaBlog is basically opposed to the nation state as a concept it is very much in favour of the continued speaking of as many languages as possible and so Maths and manners dictates that we should support the outcome which would allow the greatest linguistic diversity.

Independence 2 Non-independence 1

Question 4

What effect would it have on the Eurovision song contest?

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Catalan entry could be the straw that breaks the Eurovision back. Already burdened by the many entries thrown up after the break-up of the Soviet Union (a much underrated outcome of the collapse of communism and one for which Mikael Gorbachev has yet to be held to account) the Eurovision song contest might have to become a two day event. A terrifying thought. In a continent already suffering a grave financial crisis this extra expenditure could send our shriveling economies spiralling into permanent economic slump. In these tough times, Europe just can’t afford any more uptempo bland synth pop. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is. And even more dangerous a Catalan entry might feature a flabiol solo.

Nil points.

Independence 2 Non-independence 2

Can you believe it? After all this intelligent and informed debate we’re still undecided. In order to break this deadlock the BigBarcelonaBlog is going to have to think outside the box…


The BigBarcelonaBlog has always maintained that Barcelona feels like a a capital city without a country. It’s got the swagger, the attitude and the hordes of yappy gap year American students to prove it. But does that country it could be capital of need to be Catalunya? As we know part of the engine that is driving the independence movement is the financial problems of both Catalunya and Spain. Instead of simply separating these financial problems why not solve them?

How? I hear the diplomats of Europe cry.

What is required is a rich country with a rubbish capital city. Let us consider our options. England has London, France has Paris, Germany has Berlin and Italy has Rome. All these are pretty good capital cities. But how about…


Nobody knows what the capital of Switzerland is except the Prime Minister of Switzerland and even he is apparently not 100% sure. Berne, Zurich, Geneva – it could be any of them. What Switzerland needs is a really cool capital city and what better candidate can there be than Barcelona. There’s no international law that says a country’s capital has to be in the actual country. And even better, not being in Switzerland, it isn’t mountainous and cold. So let’s make Barcelona the capital of Switzerland. The Swiss already speak three languages so they’ll easily pick up a fourth which means even more people will chat in Catalan. Barcelona will get all the Swiss bureaucracy money and Catalunya will be allowed to help itself to all the priceless treasures that fleeing Nazi Generals hid in the safety deposit boxes back in 1945. This new income will kickstart the Catalan economy, the wealth with spread to Spain and a new spirit of brotherly love will sweep across the land as everyone thanks Barcelona for saving Spain by being the coolest city in Europe.

Problem solved, I think you’ll agree.

Next week: Israel/Palestine 

20 Nov 2012

Protest! (Barcelona Style)

I have protesed in many places. I have protested in London. I have protested in Birmingham. I have protested in a number of British Social Security Offices. On only some of those occasions has right technically been on my side. Nevertheless I have protested, I have marched and (with a sense of post modern irony) I have chanted  I thought I knew what to expect from such occasions and how I should act but I was not prepared for protest Barcelona style.

What I should have been least surprised about is, this being Barcelona, nobody is going to do anything in a rush.
First, before you do any kind of protesting whatsoever, you have to eat. And when I say eat I mean eat properly. Now I don't want to suggest that when I was at the height of my protesting days back in the 1980s when my fellow students and I boldly stood against a whole load of Thatcherite policies which went through anyway that we didn't eat. Of course we did. But we ate Mars Bars or Pot Noodles snatched during toilet stops at grimy service stations. We didn't gather for convivial home cooked lunches with wine and erudite conversation. We were too busy not shaving, wearing beanies and pretending to be working class.
 But lunch is how protests begin in Barcelona. If it is General Strike this lunch must be served at someone's home with all ingredients bought the day before because on no account are you allowed to buy anything on the actual day because then you'd be a scabby strike-breaker and wouldn't be allowed seconds. The lunch will start around two or so and once pleasingly filled with rioja, coca and croquetas you will head off to the protest sometime after five. It should be acknowledged that the lunch often lasts considerably longer than the demonstration.
 It is then that you will come across the second surprise. The places where the marches start and the times that they do so seem to be mainly established via a combination of rumour, whim and the Passeig de Gracia. In Britain, in contrast, one can always be sure where to go because every union/organisation will provide countless marshalls who will officiously direct you and if you're unlucky call you comrade while they're doing it. And if unaccountably the march is stewardless  you can just ask a friendly policeman who will be lining the route ready to kettle you later. The police are always glad to help early on because if nobody turns up they miss out on the overtime.
 The Catalans obviously regard this kind of start time and start place thing as overly prescriptive and permit protesters to start the march from pretty much wherever you like. Just find a largish group of people and stand by them until they begin walking. You may occasionally find that you have inadvertently joined an extended family gathering in which case they may look at you oddly when you start following them home.
 But otherwise you can assume, especially if you're somewhere around the Passeig de Gracia,  that if you're looking for Catalan trouble you've come to the right place. Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona's grandest street and all marches use it in one way or another. Some go up it and some go down it. Do not worry if you don't know which way is the correct one because you will move so little it usually won't matter.
 That is the next surprise. For those of us who cut our teeth (Ouch!) on British marches we assume that when a march begins there will be some form of forward movement. This not the case in Barcelona. When a march begins in Barcelona the participants usually continue to contentedly stand still. Often for up to an hour. The more philosophically minded among the protesters may take this opportunity to ponder whether a march is a march if it doesn't actually...er...march and having resolved that thorny dilemma may further question whether a march can be said to have really begun if it is not actually advancing.
 Nevertheless at some point some form of movement does just about take place. It won't last long however. If you move more than twenty steps before halting again you can count yourself as doing extremely well.
 Eventually you will stumble on explanations for the inertia. For example, last week, we encountered motorists who had foolishly continued to use the Gran Via (which crosses the Passeig de Gracia) until the moment when the march began. At some point the tide of strikers had simply overwhelmed the cars and the motorists were trapped. Unfortunately for everyone, their cars created a semi-effective barrier which the demonstrators were forced to file through in ones and two slowing down the marches already minimal progress and guaranteeing that the trapped drivers wouldn't be driving home anytime soon.
Next came the photos. Every little group (and this being a general strike there were an awful lot of little groups) wanted a photo of  their big banner (and every group had a big banner - I think it's mandatory). Unfortunately obtaining a sufficiently all-encompassing wide shot, one which gets everybody in so that nobody is disappointed not to be tagged on Facebook the next day is difficult in a throng. But the dogged photographers refused to be put off. They simply stopped moving entirely until the group in front had progressed far enough forward to create enough space to allow a satisfactory photo. But with the group ahead moving at the average speed of a sluggish glacier this could and did take a very long time. Indeed I am sure I would be marching yet had it not been for the discovery of what I will term the Demonstration Bus Lane.  This doesn't mean it has buses in it obviously. Don't be so literal-minded.

The demonstration “bus lane” was on the right of the main march and here people were moving at a much rapider pace. To be clear when I say rapider I'm not talking about anything which would trouble your average tortoise. Nevertheless by joining it for the first time we experienced sustained progress and without even the need to be motivated by tempting bits of lettuce. Looking over at the main march one became aware of further explanations for the lack of movement. Some protesters aboard lorries souped up with sound systems had stopped entirely and decided to turn the whole thing into some kind of DJ groove type event thing (I'm out of my depth here, can you tell?) combining thumping beats with youthful jumping. This certainly added to the general fiesta atmosphere of the whole occasion. But on the other hand it did throw up yet another obstacle and slowed things down even more.
 I hope my disappointment with this is to do with my cultural expectations of protest (rather than a middle aged dislike of synthetic dance/pop and Catalan teenagers whooping). In Britain we expect to march from Point A to Point B where we will mass together and attempt to make out the odd word of speeches given by politicians and union leaders who will sell us all out the moment they achieve power. In my day, the best we hoped for really was that the police would get bored enough to charge at us and we could run away pretending like it was Paris in 1968 all over again and then delightedly castigate them for gross overreaction in the pub afterwards.
Ah, the police. If anything has disappointed me about protesting in Barcelona it is the police. I expected a thuggish hangover from the fascist days of Franco. And what did I get? Pretty much nothing. You never see them. At least in Britain the police do protesters the courtesy of standing along the route with their riot shields looking menacing thus participating in the creation of the sensation that we're engaged in some kind of disobedience. That the state is at least vaguely interested in what was going on. In Spain nada. It's a poor show. In the Mossos' (Catalan riot police's)  defence I should point out that they did once nearly tear gas me but it was such an isolated incident that I'm simply not prepared to credit them with the level of black clad intimidation I'd been expecting. One swallow does not make a summer.
 By now we had been marching for almost two hours and had travelled a distance that would have normally taken ten minutes. The main demonstration was totally gridlocked and in the “bus lane” most people were now walking in the opposite direction to the correct one. Myself and my fellow manifestees concluded that enough was enough, If the march was going to cease to resemble a proper protest in any form at all ( forward movement, agreed direction, aggressive police presence) then we could no longer be expected to continue in it.
 Agreeing we had shaken the status quo, stuck it to the man, and kept on rocking in the free world quite enough for one day we headed home for a light supper.
 So that's protests in Barcelona for you. You can bring your kids. You can bring your granny. But forget the missiles and the Molotov cocktails. Shuffle this way to the revolution.