Monday, September 3, 2007

Breakfast at Barclays

The main Barcelona branch of Barclays Bank sits on the most famous block of the most prestigious street in Barcelona--the Manzana de la Discordia of Paseo de Gracia, where flamboyant modernista mansions vie with each other for a visitor's attention. Barclays itself is unprepossessing on the outside, imposing and somewhat splendid on the inside, as well befits a venerable financial institution. For better or worse, Barclays is now my bank.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, I visited Barclays almost every morning, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Not for some perverse diversion, mind you, but to arrange financing for an apartment. In Barcelona, particularly as a foreigner, a girl has to all but give up her first born to secure an apartment.

When I found my place, I was still naive enough to believe that I could be living in it the very next day. It was empty, after all. I had hauled an air mattress all the way from Canada for this very purpose. What else could be needed?

Apparently, what was needed in addition to the first month's rent and the agent's commission were four additional months of rent: two to be held by the landlord as a damage deposit and two to be held by my (Spanish) bank as a guarantee in the event of non-payment, a so called "aval bancario". Batting my eyes was apparently not an acceptable substitute. This I had not prepared for and arrangements had to be made.

The agent, sensitive to my total ignorance of all matters financial and Spanish, put me in the hands of a friend of his at Barclays, Aurelio*. Aurelio immediately passed me off to his co-worker, Utz*. Aurelio and Utz quickly became, for me, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the banking world.

Aurelio, possessed of all the information supplied by the agent, perpetually had the look of someone who had just jumped onto a fast moving train, having first chased it for several blocks. He was forever late, never returned my calls (hence the need for personal visits), and only occasionally delivered what he promised. However, he always apologized with passion and presented me with alternatives as to where to lay the blame for whatever had not come to pass (por supuesto, the blame never lay with Aurelio himself).

Despite his short-comings, Aurelio was really quite likable, as was Utz. Aurelio's opposite in every respect and undoubtedly of German parentage, Utz was neat, pink and unfailingly correct in all matters professional and social. Utz was the structure to Aurelio's storm and was charged by Aurelio with shepherding me along.

Between the two of them, what in Canada would have taken a day, Aurelio and Utz accomplished in just two short weeks and only hours short of my total nervous collapse.

To fortify myself for, or sometimes to decompress from, a morning at Barclays, I usually headed to one of the terraces on the nearby Rambla Catalunya (pictured above). The Rambla Catalunya (not to be confused with the chintzy chaos that is Las Ramblas, further to the south) is a leafy escape from the suffocating crowds of Paseo de Gracia, a street thoroughly inconducive to eating or relaxation of any sort despite the countless cafes lining its sidewalks. Admittedly, the Rambla Catalunya is full of over-priced touristy restaurants with mediocre food, but the relative peace and excellent people watching are usually worth the price. In any case, a glass of wine is never more than 2 or 3 euros away.

For a cheap breakfast or lunch (all my wallet could stand at the time), the best place was El Fornet d'en Rossend (Rambla Catalunya, 80), a Barcelona chain of French-style bakeries. Don't sit on the terrace and wait for someone to serve you, as I did for a good half hour. The service in Barcelona is of the "unexpected" variety and I have over-adapted to the point of no longer being able to discern when there isn't any. Eventually, the girl cleaning the tables put me out of my misery by indicating that you order at the back of the shop and bring a tray out to the terrace.

With a little more time and cash, you can have a much-better-than-average lunch at Taller de Tapas (Rambla Catalunya, 49-51,, an often recommended Barcelona restaurant. Don't be alarmed if the waiters don't smile at you. Despite my efforts, they didn't smile at me either. This did not affect my enjoyment of the food.

(*The names Aurelio and Utz are a fiction, but I like to think that they retain all the flavour of the actual names of my friends at Barclays.)

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