13 Jul 2011

Cooking Catalunya, Part 2: Christmas Turkey with the Devil

When Tony was accepted on Winchester School of Art’s MA in European Fine Art at their Barcelona studios in 1994 we decided we were too old to live like students, renting a bed-sit or room from the list of the suggested accommodations, so we flew into Barcelona that summer and set about looking for an apartment. It was a task far more difficult than we anticipated, not because we only possessed half a dozen words of Spanish between us, but because Barcelona’s property agents, at least at that time, didn’t have the high street presence we took for granted in the UK.

After a day and a half of walking around the city and not seeing a single agency we checked the Paginas Amarillas and discovered they were all tucked away in offices on the 3rd and 4th floors of the grand buildings that lined the city’s wide 19th century avenues. Two days later we signed a contract for a three bedroom apartment on 42 – 44 Carrer Pi I Margall in the barrio of Gracia, in the north of the city.

The Incredible Discomfort
of Sitting
(in any position)
A month or so later we made a second trip, by car, with bedding and saucepans and dishes, our books and computers. We made it a home, despite the most chronically uncomfortable foam and stick wood modular armchairs I had ever encountered, and have yet to encounter since, and a cooker that was declared dangerous by the gas company and instantly sealed off when they came to read the meter. We, of course, unpicked the little wire lock and welded it back up 5 days later when the gas company returned to connect the new one.


I meet Tony’s fellow MA students at the free basic Spanish lessons Winchester has provided for the first six weeks. They’re mostly post-grads in their early 20s and there’s such angst and drama about so many of them. ‘Genius at work’ is the kind way of describing the impression I get. ‘Heads stuck up their own arse’ is more direct.

I can’t stop myself from comparing them to the writing students on my MA., at the University of Glamorgan, who are miles more friendly and far, far less ego-centric.  At Glamorgan, workshops and critical discussions are part of the process and while it’s not always easy to listen to someone taking apart your poem, or suggesting the surgical removal of a cherished paragraph, we all get through them, and mostly with grace. We negotiate the path of separating the writer from the writing; understand that someone’s rejection of our marks on the page is not equal to an attack on our character and our ambitions.

Barcelona couldn’t be more different. There tend to be two schools of thought. The WYSIWYG school: this is what I do, there’s no discussion. And the Arty Bollocks school that either makes you laugh out loud or want to scream:

Ever since I was a pre-adolescent I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the mind. What starts out as vision soon becomes corrupted into a cacophony of greed, leaving only a sense of unreality and the inevitability of a new understanding. Courtesy of Arty Bollocks

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps vulnerability (we have to become vulnerable to produce our best creative work) and alienation (living and working in a foreign country) combined in some of the students to create the appearance of monstrous egos. Or perhaps people who choose the abstract visual arts do so because they don’t want to work with words that communicate a clear intention.

Given my general view perhaps it was hypocritical to invite a bunch of them to Christmas lunch. But they weren’t all like that and there were about six or eight students who hadn't flown back to their families and frends and it’s no fun being on your own in a city where the holidays are all based around the home. Perhaps it came across as a ‘Lord and Lady Bountiful’ type of act. But at the time I thought I was being friendly, kind even, though I suppose even kindness can be interpreted as condescension.

Apart from an undercurrent of awkwardness I remember the lunch for two other things: what we ate and locating the devil.

1. What we ate
Pavo relleno con Manzanas Golden, Ciruelas y Pasas. I still have the recipe, scribbled down from a Spanish cookery magazine, written half in English, half in Spanish.

I made enough roast potatoes to sink a sleigh, and a big dish of peas cooked with spring onions and lettuce.

For dessert we had almonds and dried fruits and a sweet Moscatel served in a porrón, a glass wine pitcher with a long pouring spout, a ‘tip, pour, stretch and snap back’ technique I’ve never fully mastered without spilling wine all over my chin and neck.

2. Locating the devil

It was Philip, an adherent of both WYSIWYG and Arty Bollocks schools, though obviously not at the same time, who wanted to find the devil.

I have a tiny crystal ball on a silver chain that has the uncanny quality of swinging in different directions in response to questions. It can be great fun at parties and I’m scientifically sure, despite all new age persuasiveness to the contrary, that it changes directions because of the way I’m holding it, even though I’m not conscious of any change in the pressure of my fingertips.

Most people have fun testing it out with questions about their dog (Is my dog a Labrador?), or their relationships (Am I married?), or their inestimable talent (Will I ever win the Pulitzer Prize?) hoping it will swing straight rather than the circular ‘no’.

Philip began with: ‘Does the devil exist?’ and followed that up with: ‘Is the devil in this room?’ becoming very physically animated with each straight swing of the crystal, so when he announced his third question – ‘Is the devil in one of us?’ – my first thought was to hide all sharp objects in the vicinity. Instead, I tweaked the chain and the crystal swung to a stop.

If the devil was anywhere he was in the porrón.


 Hungry Writing Prompts
  • Write about searching for something.
  • Write a description of yourself that boasts about all your faults.
  • Write about being alone at Christmas.
  • Write a letter to the devil.
  • Write about getting drunk.