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First trip to Barcelona? Here's what NOT to do

Heading to Barcelona? Looking to shop the flea markets?

My advice, if you don't speak Spanish buy a phrasebook.

Or you might end red-faced like stupid here.


I never intended to decapitate the old woman; I never even meant to suggest it.

We’d arrived in a mid-November Barcelona a couple of hours earlier; the sun draining to a lemon chill, the hotel impressing beyond the Expedia photos, and the location so central our bedroom peeked naughtily up the skirt of the Sagrada Família.

Up until now, we’d avoided any linguistic calamities: we’d met the challenge of directing our Nutella-baked taxi driver with aplomb, although there was an unfortunate incident of Brit-speak as we first pulled away from the airport.

But we’d got to our hotel, eventually. No need to call the embassy.

So when we scuttle buoyantly into the Els Encants Vells flea market 45 minutes after arriving – suitcases dumped, travel hair placated, exploring trainers tied – we feel confident we’ll do fine. And, if words fail, we’ll use the power of our arms (and legs, if need be) to communicate effectively.

Yes, we’d slot right in to local life, my English chum and I.

The market itself is a flood of crumpled bags and boxes; bric-a-brac crawling over toes and scurrying between legs. One misplaced step, one unbalanced tippy-toe, and we’ll tumble into a wonderland of dusty brass, bronze and bone china.

Despite antiques nipping our ankles, we manage to stay upright and wobble the full length of the market’s lower-level, occasionally catching our crooked reflections in the sumo-sized roof mirror overhead.

First level complete (and thankfully, without international incident), we turn our attention to the flood-lit second-floor. This is a two-tiered bric-a-brac affair, you see; Barcelona’s biggest outdoor flea market – and, with purses of crisp Euros, we’re ready for it.

Once upstairs, orderly toiletry stalls replace the disorder below. Obsessively neat rows of deodorant, shampoos and toothpaste line the tables – it’s hard not to imagine Rain Man’s bathroom.

But one stand in particular draws my attention.

Less shrink-wrapped than its sanitised neighbours, it’s covered by a velvet crinkle of unusual buttons, coins, books and odd little paintings. And behind it, a pocket-sized Catalonian woman hunches down on a child’s stool, like a baby wombat shielding itself from a dust storm.

As we approach, she shrugs off her wool blanket and rises with a smile (although it’s hard to tell if she is actually standing or just craning her neck – she’s that small).

I pick up a spidery ink drawing of a man in the rain and inspect it closely. The first I notice that the woman is talking to me is when my mate elbows me sharply in the ribs. By the pitch of her Spanish, she’s assumed I’m curious enough to give the drawing a new Gloucestershire home. But I’m not. And so I tell her this.

Which is my first wrong move.

Caught in the moment, my sesame-seed brain whirls to life, triggering my lips into action and out of my mouth an Anglo-Spanish mash-up crashes towards the lady like a spooked Severn Bore.

Unable to stop myself adding to the tide of nonsense, I spray her with more obscurity in a desperate attempt to let her know I’m not going to buy the picture. It doesn’t work. She’s now readying a carrier bag, convinced I want the man in the rain (even the man in the rain is wincing at me).

So I put Plan B into action. My second wrong move.

My brain calls in my hands and they jump into the fray. By now I’m trying to body-pop out of the situation – but to no avail. The lady is extending her hand to me, tanned palm open, waiting for me to cross it with Euros.

Wide-eyed in panic, and struggling for a gesture to full-stop the non-sale, I make a blade with my hand and draw it sharply and slowly across my throat.

In English I mean, ‘Thank you, but I am not interested in purchasing from you today’. In Spanish, it looks a bit like, ‘I’m going cut your throat, old lady.’

Only the horror on her face indicates what I’ve done wrong. My innards turn to water. And, after a few stunned minutes, my friend touches my elbow, ‘time to leave’; she whispers.


Profile photo of Claire Robinson

Meet Claire. An award-winning freelance writer, based in Gloucestershire, England, with an obsession for travel and gin. Her difference? Everywhere she goes, she seems to bring calamity along also. So her stories have a humorous edge - and are mostly about Claire making a travel buffoon of herself. For Claire, too much travel content is serious and high-brow. Her take on travelling is the opposite - her view is a fun one, with a lightness of touch that makes travelling feel real and human. And if she makes people laugh along the way with her tips, personal stories, and guides, then all the better.

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