By James Chow

Protected: Chicken Feet and Magic the Gathering

Had an interesting lunch with Ting Ting and Paul this afternoon.

We knew Paul from the Bristol improv show last month and he had been very interested in trying out Dim Sum with us. So we brought him to Dynasty!

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Paul is German and is a proud Berliner. Naturally, he was quite amused when we spammed him with the ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ JFK quote, and he was adamant that we pronounce ich properly. Paul has been travelling around the continent for a long while now and had lots of stories to share. We also talked a lot about Berlin, German beer, German girls, the Nazis and East and West Berlin.

Paul might be going to Singapore next year and might pay Kuala Lumpur a trip. I have plans to visit Berlin this summer too so we exchanged quite a lot of travel advice!

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We had been teasing Paul that he wouldn’t dare try the ‘chicken feet’ dim sum dish (aesthetically named ‘Dragon Claws’) but he took on the challenge! So we ordered some of that, along with the other ‘normal’ dishes. It was hilarious watching him prod the chicken foot with his chopsticks (Paul uses chopsticks remarkably well) as though it was some roadkill but ate it cheerfully afterwards.

I have a video of the entire process but I’ve promised not to upload it. Winking smile

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There is something that I have been quite excited to blog about.

After almost ten years of absence, I am back in the Magic the Gathering circle!

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Since the beginning of the year, I’ve noticed that there have been some MTG tournaments going on in the Forbidden Planet outlet at the top of Park Street, next to Cosmo and Waitrose. This kindled my curiosity towards Magic and I began checking out the new editions and cards.

One day, to my surprise, I found out that CJ, my flatmate, had been an avid MTG player too!

So we started talking about our past experiences playing in tournaments and the expansion sets in ‘our time’. We got so nostalgic that we decided to get some decks so that we could at least start battling each other.

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So in February and March we each got ourselves a starter deck from the Ajani vs. Nicol Bolas duel deck package, and began buying booster packs to enhance them. We also purchased a lot of individual cards from online card trading sites to fill up the capabilities that we needed but couldn’t get from booster packs.

I designed my deck after my old 2003 blue-black counter-cripple deck. I was dismayed to find that the mana cost for Counterspell has risen to C-C-B (Cancel), but was quite delighted to find awesome new variants, like Redirect.

I spent many nights looking through the thousands of new cards that had been released since I stopped collecting in 2003. It was very exciting how so many new cards and gaming concepts had been introduced, like kicker, unearth and awry.

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I am, however, not very comfortable with the introduction of Planeswalkers.

Of course, I am aware that I am a player of bygone times and am still very new to this new concept. I may not understand its full implications but for now, I feel that Planeswalkers are those imba cards that, once cast, disproportionately bias a game to a player’s favour. It kind of seems to me that a lot of players will simply be racing to get their Planeswalkers out as soon as possible and defend it at all costs as it ravages the battlefield.

Not very creative.

In any case, I am glad that I am back in touch with the world of MTG and am excited at the new possibilities! It is great to have a flatmate who knocks on your room door every other night just to brandish his deck and ask ‘Magic?’ Smile

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I’m not sure if this enthusiasm will last long but it doesn’t really matter. Magic the Gathering has left a long and deep influence in my life during my secondary school years and its impact will probably stay for the rest of my life. I was a great fan, having spent an exorbitant amount of money on collecting cards and countless hours thinking up strategies and designing decks.

Above all, Magic the Gathering, being a trading card game, taught me the joy and satisfaction that trading (anything) can bring. I learned costly and painful lessons from buying or selling the wrong cards at the wrong price at the wrong time; as well as experienced the thrill and addictive satisfaction of having conducted a profitable trade. From the years of being in the trading card world, I have learned to be a better judge of value, as well as a finer negotiator and persuader.

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By James Chow

Protected: Friday 13th and New Greek Flatmates

It’s Friday 13th!

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Just came back from having drinks with Ting Ting at Pitcher and Piano. We had an awesome time talking about our Easter holidays and the places that we had gone to.

Coincidentally, I had just come back from Spain and she is going there in the summer!

Walking home from the Harbourside was cold! It is already well into spring and I had thought that it was warmer so I didn’t bring my overcoat. Freezing Really bad idea.

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The sad thing is that nowadays, I have to (at least try to) study for a few hours every day. With exams coming up in June, I really can’t afford to slack that much.

Due to the tremendous amount of last-minute lecture notes printing by students, the printer in the MSc area has broken down (again) and was not fixed for the entire Easter weekend. Last Monday was a bank holiday and the university was closed on Tuesday as well.

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So as you can imagine, all these inconveniences plus the fact that I wake up at approximately 2.30PM every day (and the Dean’s Court gang organizes parties every single week), make the task of studying properly very, err… difficult.

3.30PM today is the deadline for submitting our dissertation topic choices on Blackboard. I had already done in once I got back from Lisbon. So just for the record, my top-6 dissertation choices are:

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1. Prof Paul Grout – ‘Credit Crunch and Legal origins’

2. Prof Sheila Ellwood – ‘Accounting Manipulation under IFRS’

3. Dr Simon Norton – ‘Money Laundering’

4. Prof David Dugdale – ‘Pricing’

5. Dr Richard Fairchild – ‘Corporate Finance Decision-making: Capital Structure and Payout Policy’

6. Michael Willis – ‘IPO Underpricing’

The professors and the school will decide which topic we’ll end up with. I really hope that I can get my top-two choices. I would be quite sad even if I get the third. Sad smile

On other news, I’ve got two new Greek flatmates – Athena and Maria!

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Grace is leaving Winkworth House and Athena is official taking over her room. Maria doesn’t stay here officially but pops in and out our flat all the time. Smile

They are absolutely delightful people. Athena spends a lot of time in the kitchen telling us stories about what’s going on in Athens (due to the current sovereign debt crisis) and the great places in Greece that we should visit!

Athena doesn’t cook as much as we (annoying?) Asians do but I was also treated to authentic Greek cheese that you can’t find in just any supermarket! Her arrival does add a lot of chatter and laughter to our flat and also now makes me want to visit Greece more than ever!

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By James Chow

Protected: My Trip to Barcelona, Spain – Top Places to Visit (P.2)

Note: This is the second part of a 2-part travel log to Barcelona. If you haven’t read the first part, please click here.

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I think every travel log to Barcelona deserves at least a brief mention of the nation of Catalonia and her proud people.

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Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain and the capital city of Catalonia: an autonomous region in Spain. Historically, Catalonia was pretty much a nation of its own and the Catalan language, culture, and laws were distinct from other parts of the Iberian peninsula.

But then, sometime in the 18th century, Catalonia lost its autonomy and was soon ‘absorbed’ into the Spanish central administration. Worse, after the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, the Catalan culture and language were officially suppressed by dictator Francisco Franco.

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Today, Catalans are still a proud people who still very much view themselves as Catalans first, then Spanish, according to a Catalan friend of CJ’s back in Bristol. She frequently visits our flat and has told us many stories about the oppression of the Catalan culture by the previous Spanish administrations and how she envisaged Catalonia to one day be an independent and sovereign nation. Viva La Revolución! Hot smile

Haha, history class dismissed. Let’s continue with number six!

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6) Camp Nou, Barcelona F.C.

Nobody hasn’t heard of this football club. In fact when I say ‘Barcelona’, that’s probably the first thing that pops into your head! Soccer ball

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And rightly so. Being proclaimed the ‘best football club in the world’ and featuring players like Cesc Fàbregas, David Villa and Andrés Iniesta, this is a football club that has contributed many players to the 2010 World Cup winning Spanish team.

Even some girls I know who had never watched a single football match in their lives have heard of Lionel Messi. You’ve got to give this club some credit.

Welcome to the largest stadium in the entire Europe! Beating Wembley, Old Trafford, and their arch-rival in Madrid, this stadium comfortably sits almost 100,000 people!

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I watch football but, like many of my friends that I grew up with, I only watch English football. But I do have the impression that very generally speaking, Spanish football players play better than the English. Thinking smile

Since none of us were Barcelona fans, we decided not to pay the 23 euros per person fee to get inside the stadium. Instead, we took loads of crazy photos in the HUGE compound outside the stadium, and visited the official FCB megastore.

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Stuff here were mighty expensive. A home jersey cost 99 euros, far more expensive than any English football club’s!

Even the neckties here were way more expensive: the one below costing a painful 55 euros! But I always buy a tie (as a matter of tradition) from the club shop whenever I visit a European football stadium. So here’s my official Barcelona F.C. tie! Open-mouthed smile

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There was a short awkward moment when we did not know what else to do at Camp Nou. We definitely did not want to pay 23 euros each to see the pitch, and I simply could not think of any friends who were Barcelona fans whom I could buy some gifts at the shop for.

So we just spent the hours taking shots like this in front of the stadium!

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I know, if you are a Barcelona fan you would totally think that we wasted a great opportunity for not entering the stadium, but well… At least we had some fun. Smile

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7) Montjuïc

We spent the afternoon and evening hiking up, and then down, the Montjuïc. This was a very prominent hill in the city dotted with landmarks.

Our itinerary was to begin at the city-centre side of the hill (the north-west), walk to the centre of the hill and visit the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games venue, then continue to the top of the hill where the Castle of Montjuïc is, and descend from the east ending up at the Barcelona harbour.

The first building that we saw on the hill was the Palau Nacional:

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This ultra grand building houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which you can probably tell from the name that it was the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

We were completed struck in awe by the huge, majestic building, which absolutely had that Mediterranean palace grandeur in it; but what was even more amazing was the view of the city of Barcelona unfolding wide open in front of our eyes, opposite the entrance:

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This was already halfway up Montjuïc, and everybody was just sitting there in the late afternoon sun enjoying a Sangria, checking out the Barcelona skyline, and listening to some really awesome Spanish guitar music.

Yup, there was this guy playing and singing right there, and people really loved him!

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We stayed there enjoying the view and music for about an hour, and then continued heading east towards the centre of the hill.

Very soon we started seeing nude statues carrying the Olympic torch. And after refreshing ourselves with some squeezed-on-the-spot orange juice from a store, we found ourselves arriving at the Olympic Park!

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It was a very glorious place but we couldn’t stay for too long. The sun was setting in a few more hours and we had to descend the hill and reach the harbour by sundown.

But we didn’t leave before I performed a perfect floating Buddha jump in front of the main entrance of the Olympic Stadium! Smile

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And we proceeded up, up and up the hill, following the carriageway. There were extremely few cars going up and down the hill (approx. 1 car every 15 minutes), so we claimed the entire road to our own!

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As the sun began to set, we were exhausted, hungry and dehydrated. But as we turned the last corner, we finally saw the red-and-yellow stripes of the Catalonia flag, flying high on the Castle of Montjuïc!

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We were overjoyed to see the huge, centuries-old fortress, having arrived at our last destination for the day!

Just like the Tower of London, the Castle of Montjuïc had a grim history and had been used as a prison and execution site of many political prisoners. As the evening sun began to cast long shadows on the hilltop fortress, the cool, spring air chilled and an eerie atmosphere set around the place. Ghost

But on the other hand, our spirits were lifted by the awesome and unmistakable aerial view of Barcelona city with her compact, bright buildings spread out like a never-ending carpet of marble!

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Our descending path, heading east, was almost completely hidden from the sun as we started our way down.

But on the bright side, there was always an awesome harbour view on the way down!

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It was a serene experience, you know, making our way down the hill on the steep, winding dirt road, heading towards the ocean. Barcelona was indeed awesome because it had wild party beaches, beautiful hills, unique culture, and world-class sports… all in one bustling, metropolitan global city.

We spotted the Costa Serena cruise ship parked at the harbour! This is the sister ship of the infamous Costa Concordia, which had just made world news for capsizing in Italy a couple of months ago.

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When we finally reached sea level it was already dusk.

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I remember I had wanted to piss for so long and so badly on our way dow that I was almost immobilised. LOL.

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8 ) La Boqueria

I had noticed that a huge lot of fruits and vegetables found in supermarkets in the UK were imported from Spain. This country is famous for agricultural products, and while we were here, we had to check out their local fresh food markets!

There is none so famous in Spain as the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, or simply La Boqueria, which is located right beside La Rambla.

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This market was founded hundreds of years ago and the amount and variety of goods on sale was staggering.

We woke up early in the morning to visit this market and the first thing that we saw was fresh fruits, fresh fruits and fresh fruits… everywhere!

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Not only were they juicy, huge and fresh, they were extremely cheap as well! We got a large box of gigantic, sweet strawberries… for just 3 euros!

The only thing that could possibly beat the fruits in quality and value… were the ready-made fruit juices!

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The juice was freshly squeezed on the spot and they’ve got juice from almost any fruit you can possibly think of (almost… no durian of course)… at only ONE EURO per cup!!!

That was definitely the cheapest and healthiest stuff that we had bought so far! And we were so excited that each of us drank multiple cups until we absolutely couldn’t take in anymore! Sick smile

Of course, other than fruits and vegetables, there were also all sorts of meat.

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One remarkable thing that all of us noticed was despite this being a wet markets and thronged by tourists and locals alike, the floor and place in general was exceptionally dry and clean.

The goods on every stall were very ordered and well-presented, there wasn’t a single fly in sight, and stall owners were all very hygienically clothed and equipped!

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In case you are a European reading this and wondering: “aren’t all markets like that?” Let me assure you with the greatest confidence that no, many on the other side of the world are not at all like that. Smile

Other than foods on display, there were also lots of stuff to see! Like where our girls were totally awed by this kinda handsome guy slicing bacon:

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After being tempted by so much food, we were utterly famished and desperately needed some breakfast.

Fortunately, there were these little stalls that offered fresh meat and seafood: you pick the what you want from the rack and they’d fry or grill it for you on the spot!

The only problem was, every single word on the menu was in Spanish.

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We tried to speak to the guy in English but ended up with an utter communication failure. So in the end we randomly poked our fingers at four of the items on the menu, and waited patiently while the guy cooked up our surprise meal.

It wasn’t so bad! We ended up with a large plate of grilled salmon, a steak, an oily plate of bacon and eggs, and a dish with sausage, fried tomatoes, and a mountain of weird, yellow beans.

The taste was okay, but the experience was hilarious. I could still remember the tension while waiting for our unknown food and our faces when they finally arrived. It was priceless. Smile

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9) Picasso Museum

Ultra-famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was not born in Barcelona, but he did spend much of his young age in this city and regarded it as his ‘true home’.

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Once again, let me remind you that I am not an art enthusiast. My knowledge of Picasso is pathetic: all I know is that this guy is famous for cubism, and lots of his pictures and art are pointy and cubic and abstract as hell. The only art that I had heard of was his version of Las Meninas.

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But since this museum houses the most complete collection of works by Picasso in the world, I guess it was worth a visit… even for an art n00b like me.

The museum was a little far and I would say quite difficult to find. We spent quite a long time zig-zaging through the winding streets of Barcelona old town, getting lost a few times, before finally reaching here!

But the building had a kinda Moorish kind of feeling to it.

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Very fortunately for us, the audio guides provided were extremely helpful and easy to understand.

The museum may look small from the outside, but the interior was absolutely huge. We spent the entire afternoon walking along the corridors and staring at paintings that we had no idea what they were, listening intently to our audio guides.

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It was second last day of our stay in Barcelona and all of us were utterly exhausted (see the last section of this entry for the reason). I can distinctly remember how tired my feet were that day and there were scarcely any benches in the museum!

Several times my feet were so tired that I had squat down or sit on the floor while listening to my audio guide but I wasn’t always successful in avoiding the museum patrol staff, who would politely ask that I stood up. Sad smile

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Perhaps we should not have put the museum after such a tiring journey as the exhaustion did spoil our mood to learn more about Picasso. But I must say that the museum was great, had lots of works on display, and the audio guide provided lots of interesting information.

Well, another thing about the museum was that no photos were allowed. Those two up there were taken before I was told that photography was forbidden. And boy, the museum staff was everywhere!

So I contented to just taking a photo of MYSELF at one of the corridors which I liked so much. They can stop me from taking pictures of the Picasso’s artwork, but I believe the copyright to this pierce of artwork belongs to me, right? Open-mouthed smile

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LOL I actually took this picture in front of a staff member. Nyah-Nyah

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10) Ciutat Vella, the Old Town

The last and final destination in my Barcelona list is the Old Town. Of course, several destinations listed above (Picasso Museum, Barceloneta beach, La Rambla etc.) are located within the old town, but I strongly believe the old town area in general deserves specific mention! Open-mouthed smile

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The old town is a huge area bordering the Mediterranean Sea, and is divided into four districts:

Barceloneta – the area with the most exposure to the sea and is famous for the Barceloneta beach, described in part 1.

El Raval – traditionally the more shady area of Barcelona with a relatively large immigrant population (some people call it Chinatown LOL). The famous La Rambla (also in part 1) is located in this area.

La Ribera – a really happening place (especially at night) with loads of pubs and bars and shops. Also has some really magnificent buildings like this Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar:

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It was a really interesting building because from the outside, it looked just like any other large church building with a very solid exterior. But once you enter inside, the whole place didn’t look so ‘solid’ anymore but was actually very spacious and light!

This was apparently one of the best classical examples of Catalan Gothic architecture.

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The magnificent Arc de Triomf (above, first photo of this blog post) was also one of the examples of fine architecture found in La Ribera.

– and the Gothic Quarter – the centre of the old city of Barcelona with lots of old buildings with awesome architecture dating back centuries! Check out Plaça Reial, with its fountains, marbles statues, and palm trees, this place is claimed as one of the most beautiful squares in the world!

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And of course, the most famous building in this area is the Barcelona Cathedral, the city main church. But watch out, Sagrada Familia might soon be a huge competitor when it is completed!  Surprised smile

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Of course, i cannot possibly post photos of every building that I’d seen in the old town here because there are simply countless of them. So I’ll just talk very generally about the area.

If you are an architecture student, this is a spellbinding place that you could spend days in. Because apparently every single turn is filled with architectural surprises.

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Or, if you’re just a regular guy like me who knows very little about architecture, this would still be an ultra awesome place to just spend the afternoon strolling in. Smile

There were just so many narrow streets with a limitless variety of shops, restaurants and bars to check out.

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And once again, the experience of wandering in an endless maze of fascinating alleys was made complete by the random street performers camping out at almost every major corner.

These were not your random homeless guy making noise with an instrument he barely knows how to play. These people were proper professionals. You could tell that from how ‘Spanish’ the whole place suddenly becomes when their music is around, and how many CDs they could sell in an hour!

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We spent many hours just wandering the streets of the old town (not including the time visiting the attractions in the area). We were lost multiple times but nevertheless found many pleasant surprises.

My only regret is that we should have spent even more time.

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Now, before wrapping up this Barcelona travel log let me just briefly tell what exactly happened in Barcelona that made us so bloody exhausted during our trip!

The 29 March Spanish general strike.

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A little bit of background: Spain’s economy is pretty bad with unemployment at 23% and youth unemployment at almost 50%. So the government implemented a string of austerity measures to reduce deficits. Nobody likes austerities, of course. Least of all the workers.

So it was supposed to be just a general strike by all the major unions to protest the new policies but it degenerated into a riot and turned out quite messy.

Very messy indeed.

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The protests happened in the entire country, but Barcelona’s was particularly violent.

Shop windows were smashed, street vandalised, and even a Starbucks shop was set on fire.

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The entire public transportation system (Metros, busses, trains etc.) was grounded for that entire day. Metro stations were literally gated and taxis charged extra to ferry passengers.

So that is why we were so tired: we had to WALK between the places that we visited on that day! Surprised smile

And mind you: Barcelona is a HUGE metropolis!

But at least we got to witness lots of crazy stuff… Like stuff being burned down in the middle of a busy intersection:

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Banks being spray-painted:

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Windows being smashed:

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It was a rather tense afternoon in the city if you are a shop owner. I spoke to an owner of shop who wanted to keep her business open because closing for a day meant lots of revenue gone. But the protesters seemed insistent that EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS in Barcelona adhere to the strike.

Protestors in the hundreds would gather outside shops that were open and keep harassing the shop (by chanting and sticking hundreds of stickers on the shops windows) and customers until the owner concedes and closes down for the day.

It was quite insane.

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So by afternoon on the 29th, the vast majority of shops in the city centre were closed. And many did not escape the wrath of the protestors even after they had closed.

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The protestors were particularly angry at banks, whom they accused were the main cause of the recession. So bank branches suffered the most vandalism. e

Even this poor ATM got torched:

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The general situation in the city was quite chaotic, with protestors chanting and marching on the streets, main streets closed and lined with heavily armed riot policemen, stuff burning on the streets, businesses forced to close down, and police helicopters circling the city.

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But despite the war zone-like environment, we felt quite safe. Police presence was very high by evening and we knew that the protestors wouldn’t harm tourists.

In fact, I quite understand and empathise with the Spaniards’ situation. When you face a horrible economic climate you’d expect your government to make it better, not worse. But then alas, lots of long term recovery programmes come with pain in the near term. So it’s not entirely the government’s fault either.

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Barcelona was an ultra awesome city but it was quite unfortunate that the strike happened while we were there. The lack of public transportation on that day meant we had to cancel some of our plans.

Well, perhaps this is a very good excuse for me to come visit again in the future! Open-mouthed smile

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