Archive for the ‘barcelona’ Category

Bob Arno

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Image: ABC Tasmania

[Written in 2003, this is the 2nd part of the story of a remarkable connection. You’ll need to read part one for the set up.]

For the last seven years, I’ve kept a web page full of people’s email about street scams they’ve been involved in (as victims) in Barcelona.

In the beginning I just wrote down brief descriptions of things that I saw or was involved in soon after moving to Spain. I’d seen hardly any street crime in my (then) 33 years and I found it fascinating to watch for. It certainly wasn’t hard to find. Often it came right to my door or to the street under my balcony. Before long I began to receive email from others who had visited or lived in Barcelona, each with their own story to tell. I put the stories onto the web page and they soon outnumbered my own. I continue to receive a few emails a month from people who’ve read the web page (generally after being robbed, though sometimes before leaving on a trip). I don’t often reply to these emails, apart from a line or two to say thanks when I put their messages on the web page, often months after they mail me.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been very interested to meet these people, though I’ve had plenty of chances to. In general I don’t seem to have much interest in meeting new people – it’s quite rare that I do. I should probably be more sociable (or something) because once in a while the consequences are immediately extraordinary.

Among my email, I get occasional contacts from people in the tourism industry. Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, people writing books or running travel services or web sites. Mainly they want to know if they can link to the web page, or to use some of the content in their own guides. I always agree without condition. After all, the main (but not the only) point is to help people be more aware, and besides, the majority of the content was written by other people who clearly share the same advisory aim. With this attention from various professionals who are trying to pass on the information, I began to wonder how many such people there were. Maybe there were other people with web sites devoted to street crime. So once in a while I’d do a web search on “street scams”, or something similar, just to see what came up. It’s usually interesting.

On July 30th 2001, I went looking around for similar web sites and ran across Bob Arno. I took a quick look around and fired off an email to say hello, and offered to buy him a beer the next time he was in Barcelona:

    Hi Bob

    I was just having a wander around the web when I ran into your
    pages about pickpockets. They look good, very useful.

    You might be interested to see a page of my own:

    All about things that have happened to people in Barcelona. It's
    not too well organized, but there's a lots of it. Most of it falls
    into well known classes of petty crime. Things are getting worse
    here, with the most recent tactics being strangulation from behind
    and squirting a flammable liquid onto people's backs and then, you
    guessed it, setting them on fire.

    Let me know next time you're in Barcelona and I'll buy you a
    beer. I'm also in Manhattan very often.

    Terry Jones.

Bob looked very interesting, and we seemed to have the same point of view on street crime. He’s a seasoned professional, a Vegas showman, and is constantly traveling the world studying many forms of crime and passing on his knowledge. Check out his website.

I sent mail to Derek, passing on Bob Arno’s URL. I said a little of how funny and random it seemed to me, of how over all the years of doing different things and meeting any number of famous and high-powered academics and intellectuals etc., and not really having much interest in any of them, that I’m sending email to this Bob Arno guy suggesting we meet up.

The next day I read more about Bob’s exploits and interests and I guessed that we would probably get on really well. I sent off a longer email with some more of my observations about Barcelona:

    Hi again.

    I sent off that first email without having looked at more than a
    page or two of your web site.

    It's very interesting to read more. I spend far too much time
    thinking about and watching for petty thieves in Barcelona. I've
    thought about many of the issues touched on in the interview with
    you by your own TSJ. The whole thing is very intriguing and lately
    I've begun to wonder increasingly what I can do about it, and if I
    want to do anything about it. I have tended to act to try to stop
    pickpockets, but I've also seen things many times from a distance
    or a height, read many things, seen freshly robbed people weeping,
    talked to many people who have been robbed, thought of this as an
    art (I'm interviewed in a Barcelona newspaper under the headline
    "Some crimes are a work of art" - I'm not sure if they understood
    what I meant), etc. I've never tried filming these people. But I
    know how they look at you when they know they have been spotted,
    how their faces look when the wallet hits the floor, how they prey
    on Western or "rich" psychology, and so many other things.  My
    focus has been Barcelona, after coming to live here 5 years ago
    and (at that time) having an apartment 1 floor up about 100 meters
    from Plaza Real. If I had had a net I could have caught people
    several times a day.

    I recently got a video camera and was thinking of interviewing the
    woman on my web site who was strangled here earlier this month. By
    the way, the papers reported up to 9 cases of such stranglings in a
    single day. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the tape. It hadn't
    occurred to me to film the thieves, but it would be so easy.  In
    Barcelona it's trivial to spot these people, and also feels very
    safe since many of them have been arrested literally hundreds of
    times.  There is basically no deterrent. There are undoubtedly more
    sophisticated pickpockets here too, but there is little in the way
    of evolutionary pressure to make them improve their methods. The
    tourists are too many and too unaware, the police are too few, and
    the laws are too slack. Why would you even bother to improve or

    I also know the boredom that comes with professional acts. I used to
    do a lot of juggling and unicycling, practicing 6 hours a day for a
    long time. But I could never stand to have a canned show that I did
    time after time - it was just too routine to have a routine. So I
    refused and eventually drifted into other things.

    How can I get a copy of your book? It doesn't seem to say on the web
    site. Also, the menu of links at the top left of your pages looks
    extremely garbled under my browser (Opera).


As it turned out, my timing was perfect. I got a mail back the next day from Bob’s wife Bambi (yes, really). She said they’d be in Barcelona in just 5 days time and that they’d love to meet up.

And meet up we did!

They came to our apartment and we all hit it off immediately. As I’d thought, we did have a lot in common, both in terms of what we had done and in outlook. They told me they also get lots of email through their web site and hardly ever reply. Ana and I took them out for food. We sat outside at the nearby Textile Museum. Later, Ana went home to look after Sofia, and I stayed with Bob and Bambi. In the end I was with them about five hours and I had a really good time. We arranged to meet the next day to go hunting for thieves on the Ramblas. In one sense, “hunting” isn’t at all the right word: the thieves are typically very obvious to anyone who’s actually paying attention. But there’s a lot of subtlety in tracking and filming them, so it really is something like a hunt. I’ve since spent many hours, on several occasions, in action with Bob and Bambi in Barcelona. But that’s another story.

After getting home that first night, I went back to Bob’s web site and read more of his pages. He’s had a pretty colorful life. Actually, it’s extraordinarily colorful by almost any measure. “Who is this Bob Arno?” I wondered. Fortunately, Bob has a “Who is Bob Arno?” page, which I finally got around to reading.

Halfway down… unbelievable… I want to cry.

    Born in Sweden, Bob Arno is a great-grandson of Dr. Axel Munthe,
    who is most famous for his novel The Story of San Michele.

Patricia Volterra was my great aunt.

Giants in the Born!

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

Giants dancingAnother day, another great sight in the Born.

I was sitting here 15 minutes ago when I became aware of lots of drumming and piping outside. I tossed up whether to go down and film some of it, given that I’ve recently been posting a few things from the Born and it might be getting repetitive. I’m glad I did though, because the giants were out.

I’ve seen these giants dozens and dozens of times over the years in Barcelona, but I’m still not sick of them at all. I find them somehow majestic and solemn, and I love watching them parade down an old street bobbing up and down to the music, doing courtship dances, and spinning around. There’s also lots of variety. Sometimes you’ll see at least a hundred of them out for a special occasion.

Have a look at the video. It’s very impressive live. I hope some of that comes across in these few short clips. You have to wait until about 2 minutes in before the giants start moving and dancing.

Paella for 325 people

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

PaellaOnce a year they cook paella in the Born. They put out two long lines of tables and chairs. Anyone who wants a ticket buys one (8 euros in 2008) which gets you a large plate of paella, bread, salad, water and wine.

This year there were seats for 325 people.

It’s changed over the years. There are more tourists and it’s more expensive. Some say the paella is less good, though I don’t agree with that (in fact it’s never been fantastic). The atmosphere is completely relaxed with tons of people from the neighborhood out having a nice meal. I’ve been going every year for 10 years, when not away on travel.

Paella paddle
The best part for me is usually watching them make the paella. This year was a bit different. For the first time they had butane gas burners under the paella pan. Usually they just break up a bunch of wood and set a blazing fire right there in the middle of the Born. They also only had one pan, whereas there are usually two.

The photo on the right shows one of the paddles they use to stir the paella. That should give you a good idea of how big these things get. Today they didn’t really need anything that long, but it was nice to have around just in case.

And below is a short movie I made. I chopped it up a little so as to end with a frame of my daughter.


Saturday, June 7th, 2008

BandoneónI’d never even heard of a bandoneón before last Thursday.

There was a performance of the guitar class at the kids’ school and after they were done the two teachers played for us all. It was great. The woman on the right playing the bandoneón is Argentinian and has been in Barcelona for 3 months. She’s been learning the bandoneón for 5 years and playing guitar “all my life”. As for the bandoneón, it looks good, sounds good, and doesn’t sound easy to learn. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia page linked above:

Unlike the piano accordion, the bandoneón does not have keyboards per se, but has buttons on both sides; and also unlike most accordions, most buttons on the bandoneón produce a different note when played closing than when played opening. This means that each keyboard has actually two layouts – one for the opening notes, and one for the closing notes. Since the right and left hand keyboards are also different, this adds up to four different keyboard layouts that must be learned in order to play the instrument.

Check it out:

Google maps miles off on Barcelona hotel

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

hotel sofiaI’m a big fan of Google maps.

But sometimes they get things very very wrong. In January I posted this example of them getting the location of the San Francisco international airport way wrong.

The screenshot linked above is supposed to show the location of the hotel Princesa Sofia in Barcelona. They have the address right, the zip code looks about right, but the location is about 30 miles off.

Caveat turista.

Digital camera found in Barcelona. Do you know these girls?

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

tounges smallWe found a digital camera down in Barceloneta this afternoon. Here are a couple of the images on it.

Do you know these girls?

The menu on the camera is in German.

You can see why I’m desperate to get them their camera back.

three girls small

Dare to try sushi!

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Dare to try sushi posterHere’s a poster at a food stand at the airport in Barcelona.

This says volumes about the Spanish palette. It’s at the airport – in departures, where the truly adventurous might be found. The kind of person that travels to another country and might even sample foreign food. The kind of person who might dare to try sushi!

The Spanish text encourages you to “discover” sushi, implying that you’ve never had it before.

Years ago Ana and I would occasionally have lunch at a Chinese restaurant just off Plaza St Jaume. They had a proud little sign on the door that said they were the first Chinese restaurant in Barcelona. Opened in 1971!

If you got the impression from this that the Spanish palette and their cuisine is not the most open in the world, you’d be right. I suspect there must be decent correlation between how long your culture has been around and how deeply-seated your food preferences run. Yes, that’s a very vague statement.

Anyway, I like Spanish food, I’m not knocking it. But I do find this poster very amusing and indicative.

The unmistakable screams of the freshly robbed

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

screamI was just awakened, at 1:30am, by a series of prolonged and heartbreaking female screams. Beyond any doubt, a bag snatching.

I suppose there are many reasons one might scream in the night, but people who scream in the instants after their bags have been snatched are unmistakable. The screams are desperate, often hysterical. You can tell that the victim is in motion. Quite often you’ll hear several sets of running footsteps. There are the yells of the slightly more calm, urging others to ¡cogenlo! (catch him), stop him. If the thief gets away, as is usual, the screams change to disbelieving wails of despair and broken sobbing. Then silence returns. Bag, money, passport, credit cards, mobile phone, hotel key, personal things – all gone in a flash.

When I first moved to Barcelona we lived in an area where this scene was played out several times a week, occasionally right under our balcony. We lived on the first level up, in an entresuelo. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life. I’d dash downstairs, once with my inline skates on – and those were the days when I was a heckuva skater, to join the chase.

I started compiling my stories and those of others into a page of Barcelona Street Scams. This interest eventually led me to meet Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent (blog). They’re professional thief hunters. I imagine they’re about the best in the world at what they do. As I’ve promised before, I will one day post the story of my ancestral connection to Bob.

Over the years I’ve managed to stop probably 5 robberies. Usually this means chasing until the thief gives up and drops the bag. Then you make your way slowly back to the grateful would-be victim.

But once I did rather more. Below is the email I sent afterwards. There’s no need to point out that it was probably dumb. It’s not as though you stop to think.

From terry Thu Jun  7 01:26:35 +0200 2001
Message-ID: <>
Date: Thu, 7 Jun 2001 01:26:35 +0200
To: dsmith -AT-, high -AT-

today i saw a bag snatching
happened about 20/30 yards in front of me
2 guys on a motorbike
the back guy leans sideways
smooth as can be
takes the handle of a bag from an old well dressed woman

they head off down the side of the church
right next to where i live

the people yell out to the people at the end of the street
looking away from me

i am in motion


i zoom past the robbed
going absolutely flat out
heading to the end of the street
thinking i had no chance at all

but, around the corner
not more than 5 yards
i see the guys on the motorbike
caught behind some walking other people
(there is construction there
which makes it narrower
harder to pass)

this is right on the corner of paseo del borne (our street)
and montcada


i fucking tackled them
over the top
arms spread to get them both at once
guys to the ground
motorbike to the ground
me falling stepping over the top
grazed shin, no more

i wasn't thinking really
just knew i had to stop them
couldn't do it as good as it could have been
and as it was the bike crashed down almost
into some people beside it
who had no clue what the fuck was going on

the guys jumped up
ripped off their helmets and flung them away
one smacking hard into the wall
and sprinted off
leaving one shoe behind

i was pretty surprised
didn't occur to me that the bike was stolen too

the cops turned up in about a minute flat
there were 30 or 40 people gathered around
talking like crazy
no-one knew what had happened
the robbed people just came around the corner to find a mess
one guy saw it and one woman
the woman acted like my PR agent
telling the entire crowd
over and over that i was a hero

it was great
so funny
i smiled and bowed to them all
like an idiot
hamming it up

the robbed people thrust a 2000 ptas reward into my hands
absolutely insisted that i take it
(we ate it in pizza later)

the cops shrugged it off
called in the stolen bike

it was pretty cool
i could get into being a vigilante

i should have tried to have held one of the guys
but i thought hitting them hard sideways
and knocking their bike over would do it

but, it wasn't their bike

i was smiling afterwards
the most exercise i've had
since beating derek to the office on skates a few weeks back

Amants de Lulú

Friday, February 29th, 2008

I’ve not been blogging much recently, but that may change before long.

Today I was having a nap and awoke to hear music on the street downstairs. I went down to take a look, and took the camera along for your benefit. I should film more of this sort of thing, I like it so much, and there are lots of groups playing around here. But I’m often sitting around in my slippers working and I figure they may end before I get there.

Here’s Amants de Lulú playing about 50 meters from my front door. I hope they don’t mind appearing on YouTube. I bought their self-titled CD for €10 after filming them for these few minutes.

Random travel thoughts

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

Here are some random thoughts on air travel from my last few weeks.

US travel is much much easier than it used to be. In the years immediately post-9/11, it was such a hassle to go anywhere. Despite the fact that we still have to take off our shoes and put liquids into ridiculous transparent bags, it’s much less hassle than it was.

Ubiquitous free wifi is still a distant dream. It makes sense to offer it as it’s a differentiator, it’s a fairly cheap thing to provide, companies and advertisers can sponsor it, etc. If Samsung and others can set up recharging stations for laptops in many airports, can free wifi be far behind? As I already wrote, I’d choose an airline offering free wifi – even if their tickets are more expensive. Probably dumb, but true.

One on flight (US Air, I think) I pulled down my tray table to see a full-tray advertisement. Never seen that before. The ad was for Sony noise-canceling headphones.

In 2002/3/4 I was Gold on Delta. Even so, I never used their lounges. I still have the Gold membership card and I used it to check-in in Chicago. The woman didn’t look at it, but handed me a invitation to the Air France lounge. So I went in. There’s “free” everything (though not wifi): sandwiches, wine, beer, champagne, newspapers, coffee, etc. Lots of business types. Meanwhile on the other side of the wall the regular punters are sitting in discomfort surrounded by super expensive and bad quality crap food offerings. The frequent flyers board calmly straight from the lounge, first of course.

Esther, who has about 10 million miles with various airlines, told me that in Frankfurt she gets taken to an entirely separate Lufthansa building. From there the “senators” are driven to the plane in a Porsche.

I hate taking Air France through Paris. They’re always a risk – I’ve been hit by strikes about 3 times, had to stay overnight in Paris (far less attractive than it may sound when you’re bussed late at night, after waiting for hours to get things sorted, to the cheapest economy hotel as close to CDG as possible), they’ve lost my bags (temporarily) a few times, etc. BUT, the meal last night out of Chicago was really excellent.

Terminal 2F at CDG is full of ridiculously expensive stores. It’s nuts. I did once buy a watch in one of them, back when I was spending way too much time in airports and I had taken to buying cheap watches in them for some reason. The watch shop in terminal 2F has extremely expensive watches. There are dozens of models for around €3,000. I saw one for €9,950. How many of them would they sell a year? It couldn’t be too many. If you’re going to spend that much on a watch, would you just pick one up at CDG? Or do a little more work and get it elsewhere? I guess if you’re that rich it may not matter to you. And there are plenty of other insanely expensive stores there too, with Hermès scarves, Mont Blanc pens, etc. It feels somehow wrong – I mean economically wrong, as though much more money could be extracted from travelers if they weren’t all selling outrageously expensive stuff.

In the waiting area at CDG for the flight to Barcelona I sat next to an American family. The son was saying how the flight from Paris would go West to get to Barcelona. The father corrected him, saying it went South, and then corrected himself saying it was actually South-East. I guess that’s not too remarkable – I’ve probably been on many flights where I couldn’t have correctly given the direction accurately – but it did make me smile. The conclusion of the conversation had the whole family believing something wrong, just because the father figure had stated it categorically, and then made a correction to make his claim even more precise and authoritative. The act of refining his opinion seemed to the family to lend extra weight to his claim – it wasn’t just South, it was South-East – while simultaneously revealing to others that he didn’t really know.

It still takes bags half an hour to emerge in Barcelona. Vegas is about the same, perhaps with more of an excuse.

I had about a 5 hour delay going in to Vegas. We got in at about 2 in the morning. Outside with my bags there was a queue of about 1000 people waiting for taxis. No kidding. It went back and forth about 4 or 5 times out the front of the terminal, running the whole length of the building. But it was well organized and moved fast. Still, a bit daunting. It was raining but not too cold, and we were covered.

It was about -17C overnight in Chicago on Wednesday. I shoveled snow a few times, for the first time in a long long time. I used to do it for fun in Canada, and do my neighbor’s driveway as well, to their amazement.

The Van Galder bus service out of O’Hare is pretty good. Efficient, not crowded, reasonably priced, easy to find/use etc.

I hired a car from Fox rental cars in Oakland. $16/day for a PT Cruiser. Hard to beat. No GPS though. I’m going to rent a car with GPS next time I do something like that. I made about 5 driving trips with multiple Firefox tabs open on my laptop showing Google maps.

Well, enough for now. I’m very happy to be back in Barcelona. I could live here forever.

Dinner at Els Quatre Gats

Saturday, November 17th, 2007


I’m just back from the annual Mosterín Höpping family dinner at Els Quatre Gats (the four cats). We sat at a table right under the famous Ramon Casas painting above. It’s nice to just walk over to Picasso‘s old haunt of 100 years ago and be surrounded by all that history. I was just browsing the Wikipedia entry for Picasso. It’s amazing to think that he was burning his own paintings to stay warm during winter.

Beach, chicken, hospital

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Today we ate roasted chicken sitting outside Opollo in Barceloneta. We sat in the sun on a wooden terrace right on the beach. The sand was one step from our table. Fergus and Amy were there and the 4 big kids ate and played for a couple of hours, Lucas in a t-shirt the whole time. It was 19°C (66F) when I headed down there at about 2pm.

Then we took Findus across the street to Hospital del Mar, where they filmed the hospital scenes for Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Findus has had a bit of fever following a vacination. It took us about 10 minutes to get seen by a doctor. They did some tests on him, including blood oxygen, taking a snot sample and doing a viral analysis while we waited. It’s all extremely good, with several people looking after you, all very friendly and professional, etc. This is just walking in off the street on a Sunday afternoon. We were there about 90 minutes, and they gave us the results (a virus causing bronchitis), prescriptions, etc. Universal health care can never work, right? Socialized medicine is evil, right?

And then home. All walking, no need for a car, or even the metro. I love having such a local life here. I like having my kids grow up by the sea, and that they can play for hours in the sun on the beach in the winter. I haven’t owned a car for almost 12 years.

Things like that.


Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Yet another in the Homage to Barcelona series…

In September every year during the fiesta of La Mercè, there’s a Correfoc. It’s probably impossible to convey what being in the middle (or, more likely, on the side) of the Correfoc feels like. The name comes from the combination of the Catalan words for run and fire. The Correfoc proceeds along Via Laietana. It’s incredibly loud, smoky, chaotic, and some would say dangerous. I can’t imagine such a thing being allowed in more “civilized” countries, for fear of injury, lawsuits, etc. People are advised to come with some kind of head covering to avoid getting burnt by showers of sparks. The Correfoc is unforgettable.

The main Correfoc is so explosively crazy that they put on a scaled down version for kids. That happens a couple of hours earlier, when it’s still light. The explosions are fewer and perhaps softer, and there’s less in the way of flame and sparks. But it’s still damned impressive.

Here’s a video I took at the 2007 Correfoc. My son Lucas (age 6) was relatively brave this year. I managed to get him to stay crouching with me on the road sheltering under a top in the middle of dancing devils and showers of sparks. He was terrified and exhilarated at the same time.

Remember: this is just the kids’ version. Turn your volume up to Max and you might get an idea of the noise level. The background thumping is the sound of drums.

In contrast, last year (aged 5) we took him to the adult version, having missed the kids’ one. He was standing on a windowsill with three other kids, all yelling in advance for them to “bring on the fire!” etc. When the Correfoc got within range he lasted about 30 seconds. As you can see, the adult version is pretty severe. Take a look.

Bésame mucho

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

I love Barcelona. I love living in Barcelona. There are many reasons. One of them is that stuff like the following happens on a regular basis.

At 8pm tonight I could hear music outside that was louder than the music on my stereo. So I turned off my music and went out on my balcony (did I mention the wonderful Barcelona climate yet?). Down in the street an impromptu concert had struck up. I’ve seen many of them, and I love them. They’re loud and raw and energetic, and the sound and feeling in the narrow streets is just fantastic.

I went back to work, leaving the balcony door open. Neighbors were out listening and looking. After ten minutes I decided to go down and film a little for you, gentle reader (etc). So here you go, Bésame mucho, as played by a French 20-piece brass band in the street about 50 meters from my front door. I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to live here, why you would want to live in a place where this sort of thing doesn’t happen. I’ve been here nearly 12 years, and I don’t think I take this stuff for granted at all. I love it.

Apologies for the shaking video, there were probably a couple of hundred people there and I had one arm up in the air to do the filming.