Saturday, November 9, 2013

La Vida Nueva

Our balcony view - a world away from Vauxhall...
It's been a criminally long time since my last post, and that's mostly because we've been embarking on the aforementioned new life. But I just looked out of the window here and had a moment of catching up with myself, and knew it was time for an update.  Next week it will be four months since we moved into our flat in Barcelona, fondly referred to then as 'the beautiful wreck'. We've spent that time trying to make it habitable and a profitable sideline as a holiday guest room. That's what has consumed our days these past months, meaning we're well behind on our Spanish language learning (please, don't even mention our lack of Catalan)...

During that time, we have painted, plastered, learned how to fix ceiling cracks, scrubbed, bought beds, secondhand sofas, tables, and found chairs on the street, hauled all our furniture up 57 stairs, done 3 mammoth ikea trips, learnt to barter in the markets, started to use the dictionary a bit less, started intercambios, freelancing, a radio station, in the case of my other half
 (!), held our first dinner party and tried to keep up with the conversation, welcomed friends, family, paying guests, been to the beach a handful of times, thought very seriously about getting a little dog; and started eating dinner much, much later. It's adventure we wanted, and we're having it. And I wouldn't change a thing. (Except obviously having a teleportation device for our friends and family). But they've been coming to visit. And we've loved having proper quality time with them, away from the London hustle we'd become so accustomed to. 
Before, during, after: our living room
Looking back at my notebook from the summer, I can see how far things have come (you get an idea from the photos above, too). In August I was writing on the train en route to the airport to meet my mum, and panicking a bit: 

On my way to pick up mum at Barcelona airport. It's her first visit, and we have been rushing to make the flat appear more finished than it is; having had workmen in for the past couple of days doing everything from changing taps and painting ceilings to industrial polishing of the floor tiles. Just having the floors really clean makes a huge difference, but then so has 30 litres (so far) of brilliant white paint. We started in the huge living room (the ceiling cracks still need fixing) and worked our way to the guest bedroom via the horrid, ugly blue and green kitchen. I don't know how anyone could have countenanced preparing food in that dark, disgustingly dirty room, but it's bright and clean now. The guest room is looking great with a coat of paint and shiny floors; it really will be the jewel in the crown of our little holiday let.

The best thing we have done this week really is ask the upstairs neighbours if we could use their wifi for a week. This has meant we have met them all but also that we have managed to do some research on the building we are living in. We had been given hints of its stature by the owner, who is clearly very proud of the history of the building, but it wasn't until I googled the name of the building's architect that we realised that not only was it famous for housing the Picasso family when they first arrived in Barcelona, it was also the building that the very first photograph EVER taken in Spain happened to portray. And add to that the fabulous setting opposite the Llotja de Mar, Barcelona's centre of trade and industry, plus in later years the art school where Picasso himself trained, and you have a location so incredible we were sat open mouthed whilst reading. It's also wonderful news for our business. I hope these nuggets of history excite and tantalise our guests as much as they do us.

But first : let's hope it passes the mum test!

I'm smiling as I read that through again. Firstly because of the energy it took to be undertaking all of that work, and because we've over the worst of it now. But also because it was still so optimistic, and although I had no idea how things would turn out, or whether we'd ever manage to get the guest room operation off the ground, I put every ounce of faith I could muster into the plan, the one we'd been talking about for years, the one we'd worked so hard to leave our comfortable but ultimately unfulfilling London lives for. Watch this space, as there are undoubtedly more updates to come... and in the meantime, if you're wondering how the beautiful wreck looks now, have a look here. You can even come and stay with us here. I'd be delighted to meet you.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Violets, Books and Old Friends

A new way of friends keeping in touch, meaningfully and off facebook:

This is a lovely idea.

It’s going to be a novel way to start a conversation, keep it going, hear news and updates, and through a friend’s eyes, see a film, read a new book, or try out a recipe, and connect in a different way – a more meaningful way - than email or facebook. It means we can see the world through one another’s eyes every now and again. We can dip in or out; reading about friends’ lives in London, or on the road, wherever they happen to be. I am glad that we thought of it together, in an East London café on a sunny Sunday in early April of 2013.  I’m especially glad for the chance to stay connected in a new way, because soon the luxury of hopping on the tube and meeting up with friends for coffee and cake will be absent from my life.

That’s because this June, in my 31st year, I’m finally taking the leap of faith that I have wanted to since I was 17, and moving to Barcelona with my partner, E – a city I fell in love with even before we met; strangely enough, a city that my girlfriends took me to when I was getting over the breakup of the relationship that ended before E and I got together.

He has always loved Spain, and starting learning Spanish long before I did. On subsequent visits together, we did what everyone does in a city like Barcelona - we immediately imagined ourselves in a top-floor flat in the Barrio Gotico, looking out over the city’s pink rooftops, the sea air ruffling our hair. We could see ourselves eating tapas, suntanned and relaxed, shopping in the Mercat Santa Caterina, feeling plump tomatoes and sampling juicy olives. We stayed with some friends of friends who were sub-letting studio apartments to tourists using airbnb, a site we had no prior experience with, but have since grown to love and become passionate advocates of. We asked them how they enjoyed living there, and how their business was going. They told us that it had been the best decision of their lives. They had 95% occupancy in their 3 apartments year-round. They were doing well. And they said they thought anyone could do the same.

And like that, over a couple of bottles of Estrella Damm in the sunshine in August, it was decided. We were going to give it a go. Work-wise, we had to try to sort out other sources of income, because we know we’re not cut out to run a small empire of sublet apartments (it’s highly illegal, by the way). But then we thought: fuck it. Why not have at least a room that guests can stay in? Barcelona is a city that captivates all who visit her. It should be a good way to cover our costs and meet an assortment of interesting visitors. We’ve decided to try it out now because it feels like the right time for adventure, before we are tied to a city with a mortgage, or kids, or both. Right now, we can still choose.

The concept is to try out a few new things; namely, being self-employed, growing a new business, adapting to a different city and learning how to exist in a place other than London, and most crucially, moving towards some semblance of fluency in another language. It’s either going to be the best thing we ever do, or the most stupid. It means giving up full-time jobs, despite my mother’s worries and continual questions about how we’ll survive, given the current state of the Spanish economy. It means packing up our belongings, items that we have accumulated over the past four years; saved up for, even, and putting some up for sale, putting some in parents’ lofts, and throwing many away. It means we’ve been saving up and trying to live frugally, which in London is night-on impossible, but we’ve certainly been making a concerted effort to make packed lunches everyday, and deny ourselves the usual fripperies – coffees, magazines, takeaways; that expensive showergel has been used up; the Lovefilm subscription cancelled.

And it’s been good. It feels like we’re streamlining, picking away layers of needless expenditure, making things count more, last more, last longer. I’m actually enjoying eating up old tins of things in our food cupboard. Even if it does look like only quinoa, lentils, and risotto will be on the menu for the final few weeks. Actually – and this is a dark secret - I’ve always had a hankering to try to get my possessions down to a suitcase and a potted plant, à la Jean Reno in Léon. This is sadly impossible in reality as I struggle daily with a bona-fide addiction to buying shoes, and have a pathological aversion to throwing away old magazines and newspapers from momentous events - I still have a Newsweek from Obama’s first election victory. 

It’s the same with books.

As we packed up our possessions last week, I realised that between us we have a shitload of them. We must have had at least 300 or 400 of the little buggers in our small flat.  It’s been a busy few months and I’ve been reading less than I ought to, so in the last few weeks I’ve been playing catch-up, reading things that have been on the ‘to read’ shelf for years and I have been meaning to get around to opening. This is a crucial activity, as I need to know whether they will come with me on the journey.

Books that I love are like old friends to me and can never be thrown away. They sit on shelves gathering dust, occasionally opened to flirt with a favourite chapter, or passage, sometimes re-read on holiday, when they are usually left open and face-down, spine cracked, splashed with water from the pool or gathering fine grains of sand in between the pages. The best ones, the most loved ones, have faded in the sunlight and if you hold them in your hand, they open slowly to reveal the most well-thumbed pages. They smell reassuringly, comfortingly old. They are the ones that will never leave my bookshelves.

I just finished the last book on the ‘to read’ shelf.  It’s called Almost French and tells the story of an Australian writer coming to live with a Frenchman in Paris. She struggles with the move, to fit in, and to understand French society. The story itself is nothing special; it won’t make the cut and won’t join the beloved pile of faded, faithful old friends. But the final sentence in it struck a chord. It made me hopeful, and excited, and strengthened my resolve to keep searching for adventure.

I am happy I finally found an excuse to work my way through that shelf of unread books. Let no stone remained unturned, I say. I’ll just keep reading.

This post was originally written for Five Violets, re-posted here for your reading pleasure!