Across Iberia by Slow Train

by Matthew Asprey

26 April 2011

All photos by
Matthew Asprey 

The Search for Stolchlickoff

Avinguda del Paral·lel is a street moving northwest from Plaça de la Carbonera on the Barcelona waterfront. La Rambla moves northeast from the waterfront, creating a piece of pie between the two big avenues. Within that area you find the Arab and Indian neighbourhoods of Barcelona, the two century old absinthe bar Marsella, streets of hustling prostitutes and mobile phone shops, shadowy alleys full of good restaurants and greasy spoons and bars.

Last time in Barcelona, in 2008, I visited Elephant Books on Crue dels Molers just off Paral·lel. The place was run by an eccentric American guy with a white beard. It was a cavernous English language bookshop. When I’d turned up on a rainy day there seemed to be a power blackout, but maybe that was just the normal lighting. Every book was €3 or less, and the owner bought any English book for €0.60. I guess this wasn’t a smart business strategy, because the bookshop has since disappeared.

That time I’d hung out with a girl from Belgium who worked at a hostel. She was broke. The hostel provided her accommodation and meals, so she would not starve, but she had just three euros in her pocket for the next six days. We wandered the streets off Paral·lel and stepped into a supermarket. She bought a bottle of Stolchlickoff vodka, product of Spain. I guess if you glanced at the red label while drunk or in possession of a very short attention span you might think you were getting either Stolichnaya or Smirnoff—or maybe a mixture of each. “Whoever heard of Spanish vodka?” I asked her. But it was exactly €3.

If I found the vodka undrinkable, I liked the name enough to use it for an open-ended series of short autobiographical stories,  Tales from the Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks.

Naturally the first thing I did in Paral·lel was search for a bottle as a souvenir. I wandered into a few dozen Paral·lel convenience stores. I found such vodkas as Karlova, Moskovskaya, Yurinka, Porthos, Kabekoff, Kremlyovskaya, Wyborowa, Larios, Tovaritch,  Rusalka, Rushkinoff, Blackjack, Ursus, Voditxka, Zubrowka, Gorbatschow, Sobieska, Koranov, Danzka, Mikanoff (the party island?), Marskoff (as in “Let me take this…”?), KoolRoff (it sure will, you old dog!) and Rachmaninoff. The last was German vodka with a logo better suited to a hair metal band than a Romantic composer. But there was no Stolchlickoff to be found, and no bottle of vodka for less than €3.89.

“It’s the gentrification of Paral·lel!” I said to Clare. “There’ll be a Daily Pain here next!”

A Late Night Bull Session with the Guerrillas of Paral·lel

I was sitting in the common room of our Barcelona hostel one afternoon picking ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ on the resident banged-up classical guitar. A German guy named Hans came over with his own guitar and joined me. He requested we duet on ‘Rocky Racoon’. Okay! Now somewhere in the black mountain hills of Dakota…

Hans was 20-years-old. He had dirty blonde hair (“an unintentional Beiber cut—I was there first”) and a lazy eye: you never knew if he was looking at you. He’d been on the road in Italy and France for six months. He busked with a guitar to help fund his trip. On a good day he made €20 or €30 on the street. In Barcelona he’d been playing out on La Rambla, cautiously, because he didn’t have a busker’s licence. He knew the Weill-Brecht canon. He collected folk songs. He was particularly interested in Turkish war songs. He knew one about Gallipoli.

Hans told me that in Italy a beggar came up to him and advised him to beg rather than busk because it was more lucrative. “But I like playing,” Hans said. “Of course, George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London said that begging contributes just as little to society as most jobs.” He took out a notebook and wrote down my email address. “Ignore my pretentious moleskin notebook. It was a present. It’s not because I want to be like Hemingway.”

I poured myself a glass of orange juice. “Don’t worry about it. The days of coming to Europe to write in a good café on the Place St-Michel are over. All the hip kids now write in the Barcelona Kentucky Fried Chicken to be like Roberto Bolaño.”

Hans and I sat up all night trading songs back and forth. We ran through Dylan tunes: ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, ‘I Shall Be Released’, ‘Santa Fe’, and ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’, a great backpacking song. I played him late Dylan songs, ‘Love Sick’ and ‘Nettie Moore’, neither of which he’d heard before. He played me ‘Billy’ from the Pat Garrett soundtrack. A French guy was not a Dylan fan but lit up with joy when I offered to play Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Annie Amie de Sucettes’.

Two American girls were drinking €0.66 red wine which tasted like water mixed with wine-ish cordial. They had just finished a stint studying in Greece. They had abandoned whatever they were supposed to be studying and participated in the production of a student film.

“There was this dream sequence,” Jenny said. “And the actors were supposed to fight in togas.”

“But we didn’t have togas,” said Elena. “So we bought these colourful ladies’ robes at the market. It probably looked pretty weird.”

“Why didn’t you just use a few old sheets?” said Clare.

“Hmm,” said Elena. “We didn’t think of that.”

“What was your role in the production?” I said to Jenny.

“Ah, director,” she said. “One of three.”

A Whirl Through Paris

Clare and I could afford just four nights in Paris. The rates for hostel beds are twice the cost of Barcelona, and for that you get threadbare carpet, dingy corridors, and tiny double beds. But it is Paris.

For information about the realities of living in the city I emailed my long-time Australian friend Jade Maitre, who lived in the 15th Arrondissement for nearly two years with her French husband. In 2007 Jade started the travel website Gadabout Paris with her friend Michelle Rogers. She explains: “We decided to specialise in offbeat, authentic experiences in Paris. We ended up covering all sorts of great topics that were often ignored by the usual tourist traps, such as Paris on a shoestring, vegetarian Paris, erotic Paris, street art and subversive events such as the annual White Party.”

Jade says her favourite places in Paris include Abbesses, “at the base of the Butte at Montmartre. If you’re on top of the hill around Place Terte or heading up the funiculaire, there are tourist traps everywhere, people trying to sell you things. But if you head down past the old vineyard and the Agile Lapin, round Avenue Junot or past the windmills, ending up at Abbesses, you’ll see a wonderful, beautifully picturesque and lively part of Paris that is also very magical - if you look out, some of the old houses there still have the “follies”, mythical type carvings and crazy architectural designs.”

I asked Jade if Paris was a viable city for expatriates in the creative arts.

“I don’t think “viable” if you are a person of very little means,” she said. “I imagine you need a minimum for rents (which were reasonably high when I was there, and are apparently even higher now) and everything is in Euros, so it can be pricey. Of course there are lots of free things to do and cheap places to eat if you’re on a shoestring, but with a relatively high rate of unemployment and more rigid workplace than in Australia, it could be difficult to find work to pay for things. On the plus side, there is amazing inspiration at every turn, and there is a high value places on culture and cultural activities in France.”

Clare and I would have stayed longer in Paris but it was not possible on our budget. We boarded a bus for Amsterdam en route to the Caucasus. Time again to hard nose the highway and continue the prowl.

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