Beauty, beaches and bastard burglars. Welcome to Barcelona.

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Barcelona provides the perfect combo of old-school charm and tropical party town

Call me a statistic. I have joined the ranks of the unlucky thousands (millions, maybe?) who’ve fallen prey to the uber-talented street thieves of Barcelona. I’m actually in awe of them. They are that good. Not that I presented much of a challenge, of course. I was probably Level One Training Exercise material. With my zipper-less handbag. Trying to carry too much stuff. Attempting to read a map on the train in from the airport. Ding ding ding, come and get me!

It was still a shock, though. Fresh off the plane from London, we were deeply engrossed in our map reading, trying to figure out which subway route to take to our apartment. And along came ‘Mr Helpful Spanish Gentleman’, who we now know to be ‘Mr Sneaky Conniving Thief’. As he generously suggested new routes to take, his two cohorts, standing obviously, uncomfortably close to me, did their bit. Not that I knew it was happening at the time, although as I did mention to Caroline, mere seconds after they disembarked, “Those guys were standing weirdly close. Strange, right?” and I’d even moved my handbag closer to my body, away from them. Of course, by that stage, they’d already taken the goods. Bastards! Fast-moving, professional bastards! I didn’t feel a thing. Applause.

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Catalonia represent

Barcelona was an … interesting trip. It almost felt from the get-go like something was a little off. I mean, even before the wallet-stealing incident, we nearly didn’t make our departing flight. The train we were due to take in London was delayed, so we had to grab a taxi. And, as anyone who knows London traffic will attest, taking a cab is no guarantee of any kind of arrival. It definitely got a bit hairy. We caned it from the cab to the train which would take us to the airport, and, during our power-sprint, I lost my Oyster card which I’d haphazardly shoved in my pocket instead of packing away properly in my wallet. Oh well, no huge loss, right? Yeah, especially not, seeing as I’d be due to lose my wallet anyway in about three hours’ time.

The wallet, though — not that much of a big deal. I had about five quid in there (enjoy, assholes) but I did have a lot of keepsakes, which I’ve now learned are best kept safely at home. And the wallet itself was a treasured 30th birthday gift from a friend. But in the grand scheme of things, it was something I was prepared to get over.

Two days later, however, and my camera? Well, that was a different story. This little blue Canon point-and-shoot, that had accompanied me on so, so many journeys, lost on the streets of Barcelona. That was a real blow. I felt it. I mourned that camera. My heart ached, knowing it was out there, abandoned, alone. It was fucking ridiculous. I knew this, and I really, really tried. But after this shitty year and the wallet … and now this? This was a struggle.

Poor Caroline. She worked her hardest to drag me out of my pathetic, hungover state. I was irrationally upset. I did cry, I’ll admit. I yelled out, to no one but the thin walls of our apartment. Then, I got over it. We had a beach to see. And no ordinary beach — this was Sitges, a glorious paradise one half-hour train trip out of the city that promised white sand and turquoise sea and the decadent freedom that only a southern European coastal city can.

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Aaah, Sitges. You make everything better.

There were many topless ladies. And speedo-wearing, fat-bellied men. It was glorious. We splurged and paid for two deck chairs and an umbrella. It was that kind of day. We felt reckless. We deserved it. It was amazing. The sea, I’ve learned, will cure not only any hangover, but any depressive state, too. Dunk your head in and let go. Swim out to the horizon. Then turn back, squint into the sun, trying to figure out where to swim back to. You’ll be about 50 metres off, guaranteed. That’s okay.

The Barcelona madness didn’t end there. Our last night out we wandered the streets by our apartment trying to find a decent tapas bar. We hadn’t even had good tapas yet, you see. Tapas in Barcelona! Mandatory. And as a pre-dinner show, have you ever heard the sound of a person being hit by a car? We did, that night. A very loud, sudden smack, in case you were wondering. Smack probably doesn’t do it justice. A bloody great bang, is more appropriate. One that causes everyone in the vicinity to stop suddenly.

Passersby rushed towards the accident, myself included, though Caroline yelled for me to stop. “You don’t want to see it!” she warned, pulling me back. She’d been traumatised by a recent viewing of a cyclist killed in London traffic. But I think you can’t control these things. Not the first time. It was the adrenaline. I had to see. Even if I didn’t really want to. It was a guy on a motorbike, who’d been hit by a taxi as it pulled out suddenly. I saw him sit up, and heard the sirens of the ambulance draw near. And that was enough. I don’t know if he made it, but I left before finding out. I’d gathered my senses by that point to realise it was probably best not to know.

Continuing our hunt for tapas — because shock needs feeding after all, and we’d basically learned to ‘Surrender All’ to the mysterious forces of Barcelona — where did we end up? Some dodgy, back alley venue which served up a friendly waiter but some seriously sub-standard tapas. I’m talking deep fried, stodgy, packet-type fare. Patatas bravas with a squeezy sauce. But that wasn’t even the highlight. Turns out we had arrived just in time for a lovers’-quarrel-turned-punch-up. And one that involved not just the starring roles but anyone who happened to be in a one-metre radius.

Chairs were knocked over, fists were flying. We hid inside, and went out again once the drama passed. Then, it happened again. And again. We asked our waiter in a panic, as we abandoned our food and huddled by the bar, what the hell was going on. He tried to explain that this was, in fact, a regular occurrence. This woman, well, her girlfriend left her for a man, and the man happened to frequent this part of town. Like, most nights. And every night she would turn up and cause trouble. It was a sort of tragic melodrama, repeated frequently and for which the locals barely blinked an eye. We, however, were undeniably rattled. We tried to tell the waiter what a weird night we’d already had. “A man, we just saw a man get hit by a car!” He didn’t understand. Lost in translation. It seemed appropriate, actually. The crazy shitshow that Barcelona had put on was apparently just for us. What a treat.

It must be said, however, that I’d return in a heartbeat. Never have I had such an unexpected, eventful four days. Never have I had to surrender myself completely to the whims of the universe and chance and just plain bad luck. There’s something freeing about saying, “Fuck it. Bring it on. Show me your weirdness in all its glory” and living to tell the tale.

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Another perfect sunset over beautiful Barcelona rooftops

None of this put me off this city. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m dying to get back and accept the challenge of not being ripped off. I’ll remember all these crazy things, but also the beautiful towering palm trees that intersperse the grand, ancient buildings. The winding alleyways that lead to cobbled plazas. The scorching, late September heat. The stunning beaches. The midnight mojitos.

Oh yes, Barcelona. I’ll be back. Maybe with a money belt, strapped under my t-shirt, like a full-on paranoid travel nerd. And my camera cord wrapped tightly round my wrist. Maybe I won’t drink so much that I don’t even remember where I put my camera at all, let alone how I got home. Yeah, that’s my plan. Be ready for me.

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Wine pumps: best idea ever? Yes. The answer is yes.

Further proof that Italians own it when it comes to la dolce vita: you can buy cheap — and more importantly, good — wine from an establishment that is essentially a gas station. That’s right, people, grab a 20-litre drum and form an orderly queue. This is what I’m talking about:

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Fill ‘er up, kind winery attendant

It may be petrol-yellow in tint but that right there is sweet, sweet wine. A grechetto, in fact, at the ridiculously wallet-friendly rate of €1.30 per litre. As long as you can get past the less-than-glamourous aspect of hauling your wine home in a giant plastic container, you’re set to have a very good time at a very good rate.

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Behold the giant vats

Cantina Tudernum, located just at the base of Todi along the famous Tiber Road, is a cooperative winery that’s been around since 1958. Grapes from 350 associated cultivators from the surrounding area are used to create numerous types of wine, including four classics of Umbria: Orvieto Classico DOC, Grechetto di Todi DOC, Rosso di Montefalco DOC and Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG.

Of course, wine is sold in the traditional manner, ie. glass bottles, too, but what can beat watching this kind of action while simultaneously getting a fantastic bargain:

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I’m liking that prezzo

Frankly, it’s a bit of a show. And it’s awesome.

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Wine pumps in all their stainless steel glory

Once you get home, you’ll probably want to bottle it up anyway, but that just adds to the whole DIY wino experience. Maybe make it a real party and create your own labels, too.

It’s these kind of life-changing experiences that cause you to re-examine certain things. Like, why do I have to settle for paying $15-$20 per bottle for a decent wine back home, in the ‘real world’? Why am I not developing biceps from constantly lugging plastic drums to and from my car? And what other exciting uses could I find for such incredibly cheap booze? Bathe in the stuff? Water the plants?

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Until next time, Tudernum

Probably just as well I don’t have easy access to this service. I’m sure my liver is thanking me. In the meantime, big shout-out to Tudernum for keeping the locals well-liquored in such a novel way.

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Made in Missouri

Hey ladies (and fellas), I’ve got the best remedy for heartbreak/any kind of life crisis/a general sense of unrelenting boredom from your everyday existence. It’s called Missouri, and you want to go to there. Trust me.

When I was planning my Toronto escape route, I’d tell people about my impending trip to Missouri and would most often be met with a look of puzzlement and the inevitable question of “Missouri? Really? But why?”

I can’t pretend it’s a destination that’s always been on my must-see list. The truth is, a very good friend had recently relocated there from NZ to live with her US army boyfriend, and had yet to receive any visitors — despite brilliantly selling her new home with various facebook pics of guns, pickups and the wide-open roads of middle America.

It was certainly enough to lure me. With a blank slate and time on my hands, Missouri offered just the right amount of new, daring and exciting experiences — which partnered well with my freshly adopted attitude of ‘Fuck it, things can’t exactly get worse’.

So off I went, with very few expectations other than the prospect of getting to shoot a gun for the first time, ride on the back of a motorbike, and perv at a few muscly military men in the process.

Right from the start, it was apparent that I was entering foreign territory.

Crewcuts, camos, Cape Air and … me

When I originally booked my flight, I wasn’t aware that I’d be flying directly onto Fort Leonard Wood army base — but I soon figured it out when I saw both the size of the plane and the fact that all my fellow passengers were kitted out in uniform (I’m smart like that). Sure enough, just under an hour later I had been picked up and driven off the base, first having to show my ID at the gate (you have to be accompanied by someone from the army to be allowed access to the base) and getting a bewildered look when handing over my Ontario health card, which happened pretty much every time we crossed in or out. Sorry for puzzling you army dudes with wacky Canadian locales.

And so began my Missouri adventure. Day two saw a trip to Waffle House, home to everything good and greasy, including their famed hashbrowns (choose from smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped or country … just don’t ask me to explain what any of that means).

I can’t remember which version I chose, but I think it’s safe to say it was definitely ‘smothered’ in orange cheese.

And later, a visit to Walmart — which needs no introduction, except to add that I’m fairly sure having an entire section devoted to weaponry and ammo isn’t something you’re likely to find at a Canadian Walmart.

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Just some light reading on concealed weapons, tactical rifles and so on.

They also have multiple racks devoted solely to Duck Dynasty memorabilia, including lots of pink camo ladies’ hats. Meanwhile, over at another of Missouri’s top attractions, The World’s Largest Gift Store (their claim, not mine), aisle upon aisle of tacktastic products await the eager buyer. I’d been warned about the amazing selection of goodies, in particular the lineup of dazzling wolf tees (choosing which to buy was an especially tough decision), but the home decor section had to be seen to be believed. And yes, I am now a believer — that no home is complete without an Armadillo Wine Bottle Holder.

He knows how to unwind after a hard day’s work as an … armadillo cowboy?

When the excitement of Walmart and armadillos eventually wore off, it was decided a trip to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede was in order. Because, after all, who doesn’t want to experience “The Most Fun Place to Eat!”? (Missouri loves its superlatives, apparently.) Plus, anything even loosely connected to Dolly has got my attention. Though the buxom blonde herself didn’t technically make an appearance in person, she did pop up on the big screen at the grand finale, belting out some patriotic tune that got the audience riled up.

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Um, only in America, I guess?

It’s hard to accurately describe the magic that is the Stampede, suffice to say a telling of the ‘birth of America’ and the Civil War through song, dance, trained buffalo and — wait for it — ostrich racing, plus a cutlery-free wild west-style dinner, makes for one very weird evening out. Weird, but definitely memorable.

Really, though, the highlight of my Missouri trip had to be the chance to get up close and (somewhat) comfortable with firearms. That was a pretty big deal, for someone generally terrified of everything that guns represent, and the indisputable fact that my holding one was putting the lives of everyone in my near vicinity in danger.

But once I’d gotten over the sheer strangeness of holding a gun, and once I’d managed to work out the best stance considering just how incredibly heavy they are (leaned up on a surface seemed to work best for me and my weakling arms), it was a real thrill to fire the thing. I was a pretty poor shot, initially. And I don’t think I ever successfully pulled the trigger without jumping with fright once it went. But at some point I managed to work out a good position to allow me to hit the target — sometimes even actually close to the centre.

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I wouldn’t normally advocate drinking and shooting, but among consenting adults in a fenced-off backyard, well that’s a fun Friday night if you ask me.

It must be said, firing off a round at a target that you may or may not be imagining is some particular person’s face is a really great way to unleash some pent-up rage. I highly recommend it.

So, Missouri shall remain a treasured memory, and I’ll be the first to sing its praises to anyone who’ll listen. But the truth is, what made the trip so fantastic was my amazing hosts — who spared no effort in showing me a bloody good time in the ‘Show Me’ state. Maybe it could have been some other slice of America in which I experienced so many firsts, but I know it wouldn’t have been quite the same. It’ll always be Missouri that helped unleash my inner redneck.

Stars ‘n’ stripes and Cracker Barrel. Does it get any better than this?

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The sound of silence: well worth the fifteen bucks

I think the gods may have finally heard my plea. “Please, powers above, let me not be seated next to any more screaming babies with a case of whooping cough; kids that haven’t yet grasped the concept of personal space and flail their bony arms about as they whine for attention; bratty boys that mindlessly yet repeatedly kick the back of my chair as they zone out to cartoons …”

I’m talking about the joys of flying with children, of course. Not my children (of which I have none) — just everyone else’s. I can’t tell you how many times in recent weeks I’ve uttered that silent prayer as I make the journey from the airport gate to my seat on the plane. And how many times my heart has sunk as the empty seats next to me are eventually taken by a parent and their child, or worse — two children in a row.

“Mummy, change the channel. I want to watch that show. No, the other one. The other one. Mummy, what are you doing? I don’t speak Icelandic! I want it in English!”

I’ve readily admitted that I would be happy to pay a little extra if it meant I could be seated a safe distance from the young and the restless.

Image: flyscoot.com

Do you like what they did there? I think these are my kind of people. (Image: flyscoot.com)

Well, now, it appears, I can. Scoot Airlines, the low-cost arm of Singapore Airlines, has introduced a ‘quiet zone’ — 41 seats at the front of the economy cabin where under-12s are not allowed. The aptly named ScootinSilence service comes at a price, of course, but at S$18 extra (£9, $15 CAD), it’s not too steep to put me off, plus comes with the bonus of an additional four inches of seat recline. I may not like paying more for checked luggage or onboard food, but to retain my sanity on a long-haul flight, I’m sold.

Apparently, Scoot isn’t even the first airline to go the child-free route. Other airlines including Malaysia and AirAsia X have been doing so for a while. Big ups Asia.

And let me just be clear: I don’t hate children. I understand that everyone’s got to get from A to B, including families with small kids. Hell, I appreciate that the real people that suffer are the parents themselves. It can’t be an easy task managing one or multiple offspring in a confined space for hours on end, and with the likes of grumpy old me giving them dirty looks and sighing heavily every time one of their kids squeals. So really, seating us apart is a win-win situation, right?

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Homie needs a home, yo

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I suppose this could work as a home …

Late nights and early mornings. To-do lists. Cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, sharpies. Packing tape. So much packing tape. Shitty packing tape that splits and tears and you can’t find the edge and it never sticks straight. DO NOT cheap out on packing tape. Take it from one who has, and lives to regret it.

This is my reality at the moment, tying up the loose ends on one life and making plans to start another. But in between Lani 1.0 and Lani 2.0 is a strange transit lounge of decision making, wandering and wondering. The truth is, I basically have no idea what I’m doing.

One thing I’m quite clear on is the fact that I’m about to be homeless. Soon I will hand over my keys to my landlord, close the door to my apartment, and officially have nowhere to live. It’ll just be me and my suitcase, constant companions for the next few months, sleeping on couches here and there and generally being a freeloader.

And though there’s a certain element of excitement that comes from that kind of freedom, I also can’t help but feel a bit uneasy with it all. I am connected to nothing and no one. I belong nowhere. I am like a little leaf, blown about directionless in a breeze. Or a bedraggled traveller, plodding aimlessly about an airport terminal. With too much time to kill till the next flight. Trying to decide to get food here or check out the offerings at LaGuardia. Which may or may not end up being a giant mistake but what the hell, airport food is pretty much universally terrible so maybe I’ll just wing it and see.

Update: Surprisingly decent mozzarella and tomato sandwich at LaGuardia. No ill effects felt. Unlike this unlucky dude who discovered a wee surprise inside his Atlanta airport sandwich.

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Diary of a madwoman, midweek edition

Today is Wednesday. I had a bikini wax after work and then I went to the art gallery because it’s free on Wednesday nights and it wasn’t as full as I expected. I got lost as I do everywhere but I think that’s okay in a gallery because nobody notices you stopping and staring at the gallery map. A guy asked me what piece of aboriginal art I would take home if I could take anything and I had to admit that I didn’t know, I wasn’t looking at them properly. He hassled me for only glancing at the artwork and I think he was trying to pick me up but I got bored and said a polite goodbye. I wondered if perhaps people come to galleries to pick other people up and then I thought if people do that in the supermarket on Tuesday nights or whatever with a bunch of bananas in the trolley to show they’re single then yeah they probably do here too.

I walked home and a drunk guy dressed in black with his pants hanging really low so I could see his black knickers said that people with red hair are evil right as I was walking past. I smiled because it was funny and the fairy goth girl riding a bike slowly next to him saw me smile and she said I think they are cute, so I guess that balances things out. I looked down at my shirt and noticed my button was undone and also noticed that I’ve lost a bit of weight recently but I think it’s mostly from my boobs and my bra doesn’t fit as well and that sucks.

When I got home I went downstairs and saw a giant spider and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make my dinner even though I was really hungry because I had to deal with him first. And by deal with I mean trap and free because my house is a no-kill zone except for mosquitos because they just want to suck your blood and that’s pretty unfriendly. And fruit flies too when they get out of control in summer which has already started happening and soon I will have to set up a vinegar trap.

This is what I was like except as IF I would just use my hand to cover the glass. That kid is crazy.

This is what I was like except AS IF I would just use my hand to cover the glass. That kid is crazy.

The spider sat very still for ages but I waited it out and eventually he moved and I could not believe how fast he scuttled across the floor and it made me feel ill. I had to move really quickly and he kept dodging the glass and then I nearly lost him when he made a dash for the wardrobe but in a panic I just threw the glass down and thank god it landed over him. I actually squealed out loud and waved my hands around like a crazy person because the whole process was pretty terrifying and I’m basically super afraid of spiders.

I moved to my bed for a lie-down to recover and then I watched him from a safe distance. He did circuits around the perimeter of the glass over and over and I could tell he was angry and that made me feel bad. He kept trying to climb the walls of the glass but he couldn’t, he kept slipping and I wondered if he was freaking out, like he was thinking this is the worst day ever and I wanted to tell him to calm down and relax because I was going to free him, just as soon as I calmed down and relaxed and found a piece of cardboard sturdy enough to slip under the glass when I picked it up.

I went upstairs and found something thick enough and the only thing thick enough was a brochure from the Buddhist temple I’ve been to recently and then I thought maybe that’s appropriate, because the Buddhists would probably approve of my not killing him. I took him outside and I was scared that I would drop the glass and he would run at me and seek revenge for trapping him but I made it out okay. I walked him over to the next-door neighbour’s garden and I hoped they didn’t see me because it would be hard to explain and they might think it was rude to offload my house spider at their place. When I freed the spider I really hoped he wouldn’t turn and come straight for me but then he went the opposite way and I was relieved except he headed onto the road and then some cars came and I really hope he made it.

When I got back inside I finally made my dinner which was baked beans on toast and as I was pouring the beans from the can I wondered if it was one serving or two but it was hard to tell so I dumped it all in the pot. Once the beans were ready I started spooning them onto the toast and then I saw that there were definitely two servings in the can and that meant I could save half and have them for dinner tomorrow night, and that’s when I realised that yes, I am living the dream.

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Escape plan

Escape plan

Hurry, this way to … where exactly?

You owe me some flowers. That’s right, today is my Canniversary. Six whole years ago I arrived in Canada for the first time, pretty clueless about what lay ahead, but so excited to start a new life in this place I knew basically nothing about. It was an adventure in the making. And it’s been a good run. I’ve made some amazing friends, switched careers, tested my mettle in freezing winters, been introduced to the delights of poutine, and had countless other special Canadian experiences.

Now, the run is just about over. Yesterday I gave notice at my job and last weekend I booked the first leg of my Runaway Tour Outta Here (™). It’s certainly not the way I thought I’d be leaving Canada, but I’m attempting to roll with the punches. And in times of strife, I turn to my old friend Expedia. It never lets me down. Planning a holiday is my idea of therapy, and with an entirely blank schedule in front of me, I’ve really been able to go to town.

It might not be the most exotic itinerary, but I’m super excited to visit friends in Halifax, Missouri and London (England, not Ontario, that is). And after a resting period in NZ once spring downunder is on its way, the next chapter is wide open. Where will I be living in six months? No idea. Suggestions welcome.

All I know is that escaping can sometimes be the most appealing option. It’s a scary prospect, but there’s nothing like a drastic change of scene to slap you in the face and distract a distressed mind. Change, they say, is good. I’m sticking firmly to this mantra, despite some unwanted side effects including a sudden, disturbing penchant for terrible/uplifting pop anthems (Taylor Swift, talk to me) and a new friendship borne out of loneliness with my current housemate — a fly I call Jim.

Quick, get the lady a plane ticket.

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