24 October 2011

Food twitches


Say what you like about English or British grub, but it is my firm belief that the Brits have probably the most outward-looking and open-minded approach to food in general.

While it is common to spot people in other countries poking fun or sneering at what is deemed "inferior foreign food", you won't find the same attitude in the UK, especially amongst newer generations (the old days of nans slagging off "that foreign muck" are hopefully over, hopefully...).

Of course, no-one's arguing that British cuisine is as varied, inviting and world-renowned as many others, but it is a fact that people outside the UK are often guilty of spectacular bias whenever their brain attempts to process the notion of cuisine north of the channel.

"Fish & chips", I hear you say...

22 October 2011

Twitches and traits

Teufelsbruck, Großer Hamburg

One of the first things you’ll notice if working or spending time with German people on their home turf is their near-obsession with opening windows “to get some fresh air”.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. And the same terrifying thought crossed my mind too: “perhaps I may have BO and perhaps that’s what’s driving them all to that!”. At the end of the day, how many non-fresh-smelling people that you know are aware of the biggest cardinal sin of all (i.e. inflicting BO upon innocent victims)?

However, relief came when I heard other non-Germans also remarking about it (not the BO, but the serial window-opening).

In other words, no matter if it’s pissing it down, or the temperature is minus, or there’s gale force ten outside, within five minutes any of your fellow workmates will race to fling open the window “to get some fresh air”. Often they even do it as they walk into an empty room or environment that smells completely neutral or clean - which is why such behaviour reeks of compulsion to me...

16 October 2011

Social conservatism


If there's one country in the Western world where historical events can be directly linked to current cultural attitudes, then that place has to be Italy.

This is particulalry most striking when you look at how other places have managed to pull well away from their darkest days (see, for instance, Germany and Spain below). When you look at culture and society in Italy, instead, I'm afraid you can clearly detect the whiff of where a certain far-right ideology stemmed from.

Let's start with homophobia.

Italy is miles behind even when compared to what the UK used to be like in the caveman days of Section 28 and Margaret Thatcher. Just to give you an idea, last week's newspapers reported that the first university LGBT society in the whole country, something that has been run of the mill for years anywhere in Europe, was finally being set up at a campus in Rome - in the year 2011.

09 October 2011


(also see 'pubs' and 'food'--- both chapters coming up)


They say that, such is harsh weather a central part of their life, that the Eskimo have an unusually large number of words for 'snow'. This may explain why the English language is packed with synonyms for the word "drunk": wasted, smashed, mashed, lashed, boxed, plastered, rat-arsed, shitfaced, hammered, fucked, pissed, sloshed, blottoed, slaughtered, paralytic, wrecked, wankered, mullered, gatted, trolleyed and -of course- the more twee "intoxicated".

Check your French, Spanish or German thesaurus and you just won't find such a generous range to pick from.
In fact, one of the most typical reactions you're likely to hear from people fresh from a trip to England is their sheer shock at the amount of alcohol guzzled in the Land of Hope and Glory...

03 October 2011

Languages: who drew the short straw?


A new resident to Italy would take but five minutes to clock that the whole country appears collectively hellbent on destroying their language.

Any workplace, TV programme, newspaper, or even supermarket would stuff the unlikeliest of sentences with English words (in many cases misused and, in most, horrifically pronounced).

In turn, this is ensuring the virtual disappearance of perfectly valid Italian words. And so you’ll find that they no longer have a “riunione”, but a “miting” instead. “Facciamo il miting e poi mi dite qual e’ il fid-beck” (“Let’s do a meeting and then you’ll tell me what you think”). Or…an Italian doesn’t exercise, he “va a fare feet-ness”, he does fitness, whatever the fuck that means. Oh and listen, “beck-ap” your files, won’t you?

More, when the Italian telly shows the equivalent of Match of the Day, they won’t show “le fasi salienti”, but “gli ai-laits”, the “highlights”, because they obviously reckon that butchering an English word or ten makes them look trendy and cool and up-to-date with whatever they think it’s “feh-shun” (by which they mean “fashionable”, of course). Cringeworthy or what?...

Tarting yourself up?


When you compare fashion from one country to another and look at England, you've got to understand that the country's obsession with anything celeb-related is, literally, mental, which is crucial if you want to grasp how most English women go about it.

Guaranteed, wherever it is that you come from, there are also lots of people making a fuss out of the X-Factor (or whatever its local equivalent), Big Brother, some footballer's wives/lovers or others. No doubt, there will also be a few magazines devoted to perfecting the art of shallowness and turning grey stuff into pulp. Perhaps a gossip TV programme and so on.

Whatever the amount, however, when you think about Britain, multiply it by at least 10 and then add another 100 for good measure. Square.

The telly and the press are bursting at the seams with that shit. People are OBSESSED with what their celebrities do. They talk about it at work, at home, on the bus, on their death bed.

Cheryl Cole's new hairdo, Tulisa's gnashers, Victoria Beckham's 75th boob job, Jordan's tan, Wayne Rooney's prozzas, Jody Marsh's obnoxiousity, Bob Geldof's daughter's sweaty armpits, the appalling The Only Way Is Essex, you name it. In England it's a humongous money-making monster...

02 October 2011

Employment and tax evasion: a Spanish timebomb


It goes without saying that this blog would be punching above its weight a tiny bit if it even tried to analyse complex economic circumstances and possible causes behind the recent global crisis. We simply wouldn’t have a clue.

But I tell you one thing. I don’t know how Spain is going to manage when the twenty, thirty and forty-somethings of today approach their retiring age. Forget today’s mammoth crisis, either the country will collapse to bits or most Spaniards will be forced to work full-time into their eighties and nineties until the day they snuff it.

And this is because millions and millions of Spaniards today are being forced, certainly against their free will, to contribute between little and nothing to the state’s coffers.

I explain...

Metro and underground

Berlin Metro

One of the beauties of Berlin is undoubtedly its vintage-looking underground network. Especially in the Eastern part of the city, tourists will marvel at carriages coming straight from a different era, complete with wood panels and 1950s (or 60s or 70s, depending on the line) décor. Out of all the European cities I’ve visited, it’s certainly the most fascinating.

But. Here comes the but. The well-paid chaps in charge of the Berlin Metro network could do with a week-long study trip anywhere else (but Italy). Or perhaps may look up the word “signpost” (or “Wegweiser”) in the dictionary. Put simply, orientation around the Berlin underground is painfully confusing. Oh…and since we’re at it, they could do with sticking more ticket machines around, because it’s absolutely ridiculous that just yards away from the ultra touristy and super central Brandenburg Gate you have people queuing at the one (one, that’s right, it wasn’t a typo) machine available.

And what’s the score with those very few metro maps on walls?..

Trains: the British disgrace


The state of the railway system is an area where the English really need to get their head out of their backside and humbly look around for examples to follow. Whatever it is that they’re doing, it’s not working, and even if it is getting slightly better (which is debatable), it is doing so at exorbitant and unacceptable prices.

Some people would tell you that privatising the railway system in 1995 was when it all started going tits up. Fares skyrocketed and private firms started making a fortune almost overnight, even though the government still keeps wasting billions on them to keep the network afloat. A fucked up brand of free market indeed.

Yes, some ultra modern trains did finally appear ten or fifteen years later, but services are constantly disrupted up and down the country with (never-ending) “engineering works” being doled out as the routine formula and –most importantly- travelling by train in England has become completely unaffordable.

Manners: don't say 'por favor'


It shouldn’t surprise you that, inundated as they are with foreign tourists and Northern Europeans in particular, the Spanish have coined a few nicknames to describe British or American tourists or anyone who tend to turn pink after a bit of sunbathing.

One of them is “los porfavores”, which refers to the fact that most British people (and most tourists, to be fair) follow every request or order in shops, bars and restaurants with “please” (por favor in Spanish). This in turn begs the question of how Spanish people can easily be perceived as extremely rude, especially when it comes to the area of customer service.

If you consider how ceremonial behaviour, would-you-be-so-kind, could-I-possibly, would-you-mind, excuse-me and sorry are the order of the day in Britain, the almost total lack of their equivalent in Spain is a very interesting cultural trait.

Bottom line, the direct translation of some of the most ceremonial-sounding English expressions is clunky at best and non-existent at worst. Try translating “would you mind bringing me a glass of water please” in Spanish (“os desagradaria traerme un vaso de agua, por favour”) and you will be met with genuine laughter. It simply doesn’t translate.

This is particularly true in Catalonia, which of course, some Catalans would proudly argue “is not Spain”.

Quest for a doctor


Not unreasonably, most English people will generally sneer at the level of bureaucracy encountered on the continent. But try to register with a GP (which, for those unfamiliar with the country, stands for General Practitioner, basically family doctor) in the Land of Hope and Glory and you may be up against the most centralised, bureaucratic, archaic system known to man.