In praise of virtual travel writing

Nice story here about underpaid author Thomas Kohnstamm, who wrote his Lonely planet guide without going to Columbia. (Or did he go there and have to deal coke to survive? LD is characteristically confused.)

Guidebooks are so superficial, and information online so plentiful, that there’s actually no reason now why they shouldn’t be written from afar. (Diplomats all over the world are currently being binned for the same reason; this links in to the gradual decline of the late 20th century fetish on writing about X unless you are X, but let’s not go there today.)

In the same vein, it is also possible to visit somewhere and nevertheless fail to come up with the goods. I think Claire Prentice, writing in the (London) Times this weekend, actually visited to Barcelona. But, while she may have had a great time, she still gets approaching half her hard data wrong. Stuff like:

  • Girona Airport is 90-110 minutes by car or 75 by bus from Barcelona city centre, not 40;
  • it’s “Aeroport del Prat”, not “d’el Prat”;
  • the tramontana typically blows up in Figueres at any time apart from the summer, when the prevailing wind is southerly;
  • the new statute of autonomy came onto the books two years ago, not this spring;
  • ETA didn’t declare a ceasefire in May (year?);
  • there ain’t much construction going on east of the city but there is a whole lot of Mediterranean out there;
  • completion of the Sagrada Familia is scheduled for 2026, not post-2058;
  • it’s família, not famalia, although what she or the sub is getting at is anyone’s guess.

Claire Prentice’s silliest moment come when she tries to add a human touch:

[Gaudí’s] work had a typically Catalan spirit, which lives on today. While staff in shops, bars and restaurants in the centre are happy to talk to customers in the official Castilian Spanish, or English, you don’t have to travel too far to get a taste of Catalan nationalism. In a tobacco shop a few miles north of the city centre, my request (in Castilian) for three stamps is waved away by the middle-aged man serving. A faltering attempt in the guttural-sounding Catalan prompts a chuckle, but it also delivers the goods.

Speaking as a manic anti-nationalist ranter, this strikes me as complete bollocks. I’ve been in most of the separatist bars in Barcelona and have never been refused service for using Spanish, although I’ve had a few strange looks. And there is absolutely no way anyone would get funny with a customer for using that language in a normal shop, for the simple reason that roughly 77% of the local market regards itself as primarily Spanish-speaking. The most plausible explanation is that the guy in the shop couldn’t understand Claire Prentice because her Spanish is non-existent.

If you live in Barcelona, you know this stuff-and, for example, Graham Keeley does. If you don’t, you need to research it. So if we’re going to be written about by furriners, let’s have less Claire Prentices and more Thomas Kohnstamms. And don’t rely on any of them.

(Via Iberian Notes)

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  1. Trevor – you’re right. We’ve had this discussion on many blogs and I never believe it. Even if you’re in deepest Lleida you’ll get served if you speak Spanish. I too am convinced that the problem comes from people who think they can speak Spanish but can’t, combined with the normal total lack of effort which is traditional among for anyone serving customers in Spain.

  2. Terra d’Escudella on c/ Premiá in Sans doesn’t serve people who speak Spanish.

  3. So what do you expect if you go to place full of flags and where everyone has a turnip head and dresses like Munich 1923? They used to be more civilised, but things have changed quite considerably in the last couple of years, and there are plenty of people now who will pretend they can’t understand you to avoid the indignity of you giving them money. All *so* unconstitutional, but I’d be perfectly happy to let them get on with their incestuous practices if they’d extend the same freedom to everyone else.

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