Getting Orientated in Barcelona

I don’t know if it’s residual jet lag despite my having been in Europe four months, but I tend to wake up about five hours after going to sleep, read a bit, and then manage to sleep for another two to three hours. I went to sleep around 2AM this morning and when I groggily woke up some time later, I thought there was no way it would be 7:00. It was 7:30! I couldn’t believe how dark my room was. I heard my host get up at some point, but managed to get back to sleep until about 10:00, when things got really loud in the building. Not a great night, but not terrible either.

Since I had no food with me and hadn’t eaten since my sandwich last night, that was my first priority. I pulled up directions on my phone to the nearest tourist info centre so I could get a paper map and headed out.

I’ve chosen to approach Barcelona rather like I did London. I never thought I’d get here and there isn’t anything I feel I must do. Moreover, I am not on a vacation budget and having spoiled myself rotten in the last four months in the affordable Balkans, it doesn’t feel like a punishment to do Barcelona on a shoestring. So I’m happy with spending my free time ambling around and seeing what I come across. I will take a free walking tour tomorrow, though.

This church is on my street.


I’d done my research on mealtimes in Barcelona and knew that I wouldn’t do better than a coffee and pastry for breakfast at 11AM. So I popped into the first café I found (at the end of my street). Prices were terrifying, but it is what it is. A normal coffee was a small mugful and had milk in it, a pleasant surprise on both counts.

I made my way to Plaça de Catalunya, an important square in downtown Barcelona on the edge of the old city. I knew I would find there not just the tourist info centre, but also a SIM card for my phone. I’ve been doing without phone service since I arrived in Sarajevo, not having been in any one country long enough to make it worth getting one, and I’ve really missed it. Since I will be in Spain at least two months, it was worth getting one here.

Here is a fountain in Catalonia Square:


And one of the many buildings around it.


There was a huge lineup at the tourist info centre, which is underground, so I just grabbed a free map and went back above ground to Movistar’s Mobile World Centre store in the hope of getting a SIM card. The set up was similar to a Telcel store in Mexico, where you go to an info desk to say what you want and are assigned a number and a queue based on your enquiry. This first attendant asked me if I had my passport as, like in Bulgaria, your SIM has to be registered. It was then a longish wait to be told they were out of rechargeable mobile SIMs. Since the attendant got snappy with me when I asked her at one point to please slow down, I was glad to have an excuse not to give Movistar my business. But the attendant did redeem herself a bit when she said that the El Cortes Inglés department store next door has a telecom section on the seventh floor, but she had no info beyond that.

I went into the fancy schmancy store and up seven very slow escalators to find a whole floor devoted to telecom with counters by different companies. I’d done some preliminary research and knew that everyone has comparable prices and coverage. So when an attendant from Vodafone asked if she could help me, that was that. For 21 euro, I got a rechargeable SIM with 2GB good for one month, 100 minutes anywhere in Spain, and I think unlimited text messaging. I asked if I could get an Almería number and she said that the numbers are good for all of Spain. She registered the SIM using my passport info and then did her thing to put the SIM in and get it set up. The process was much quicker than it is in Mexico and comparable to what I experienced in the Balkans.

Phone sorted, I headed to the Gothic Quarter, the old part of Barcelona.





I wasn’t really “feeling” how touristy and full of expensive shops the area was so I started to duck into narrow alleys to get a tiny bit off the tourist track.


But it was hard to get lost. 🙂


I LOVE Gothic architecture. I’ve seen some gorgeous churches in the Balkans, but there’s just something about Gothic design that makes my heart skip a beat.





I’m not sure how I managed to fill three whole hours from leaving home, but I did! 2PM is the start of lunch hour here and I knew to look for a “menú del día,” a three-course menu for a set price, usually around 10 euro. I’d seen a few menus by the time I was ready to eat and had gotten an idea of what to expect. So I just went into the first restaurant I saw that had a menu with things that sounded good and that would be good value, that had no English on the menu, and that didn’t have tourists!

For my first course, I went with Greek salad. I wasn’t expecting just tomatoes and cheese, but it was very good and the included bread was perfect for mopping up the dressing. Yes, that’s a beer behind my plate, included in my 10 Euro cost! I got the beer because it was more monetary value than a soft drink and, well, you know me and beer. 🙂


My second course wasn’t worth a photo, just soggy frozen fries with a very generous portion of moist grilled chicken breasts without any sauce or seasonings. Like in the Balkans, there was oil and vinegar on the table, so I used the vinegar (balsamic) to spice up my meal a bit and make the fries nicer. The chicken really hit the spot!

There were a lot of options for dessert, including cake and fresh fruit. The waiter and I shared a laugh when, after he listed all the dessert options, I said, “The first one, please,” and he had to remember what it was!

It was a vanilla cake with nuts and really good!


And the menu. Which, thankfully, was in Spanish, not Catalan! The first thing on the menu is peas sautéd with ham. I was surprised by how many people were eating that as they were not even nice fresh sweet peas. The first item for the second course is rabbit and I have to say I was tempted to try it.


One thing I will like about eating out in Barcelona that I also liked in London is that you don’t have to tip!

I then decided to amble over to Barcelona’s most famed landmark, the Sagrada Familia Basilica.


“A coffee a day is the key to happiness.”





These little motorcycles seem to be a very popular mode of transportation in Barcelona.



Now, this is how you do an Arch of Triumph!



This part of Barcelona is a feast for the eyes!







I was rather underwhelmed by the Sagrada Familia Basilica…


Until I got closer!





I was tired and had about a 5KM walk back home so the plan was to route myself home from here with my phone. But my phone went from 20% battery capacity to dead as I was doing that!!! My street was not on the map! I decided that I would use my map to route myself back to Catalonia Square and from there try to retrace my steps from the morning. Once I got closer to Poble Sec, I could ask for directions if I got stuck.

This is the scooter I’d buy. 🙂


I like seeing the name of my country when out of it.



Catalan really does look like a hybrid of French and Spanish. “Sweet Catalonia, homeland of my heart…” and off to Google translate I go. 😀 Okay, I did better than it as I don’t agree with the translation although it’s on the right track. “Sweet Catalonia, homeland of my heart, when I’m away from you, I die of longing.”


I love the random owl on the building!




“Her only crime was to be a free woman.” Need to check out this book!


Such quirky buildings!






So many scooters! This is back at Catalonia Place.


From there, I knew I had to take the famous La Rambla pedestrian street. I racked my brain trying to remember the name of the street I’d taken to turn off onto La Rambla and suddenly remembered that it was similar to the name of one of Contessa‘s dogs, Carme (the dog is Carmeh!). From there, I very slowly retraced my steps, looking for familiar landmarks and names I could remember.




I did really well until I got to one large boulevard that did not look familiar at all. I was in an area that was still on the map, but which did not have the names of the little streets. I was able to locate that boulevard and then another big one that I recognised, which was in the opposite direction than I’d turned down the first boulevard. I turned around, made my way to the second boulevard, and from there, I recognised the café where I’d had breakfast. Behold, the church on my street! 😀


It was a lovely low-key first day in Barcelona. I’ll admit that I’m having a bit of sticker shock, which is tamping down my enthusiasm a bit. I wish I could have made the 11AM walking tour of the Gothic Quarter today, but it will happen tomorrow and I will have more juicy details to share rather than just general impressions. But I am very happy to be here, thrilled that I can understand people and they me, the weather is gorgeous, there’s palm trees, and the city is so much more walkable than many Balkan cities I’ve been to (sidewalks!!!).

I’m going to attempt to call it an early night so that I can get the bulk of tomorrow’s work done before my tour… I have two nice workspaces here, the kitchen table and the terrace, so I should be comfortable.

Electrical Power in Europe

One of the legacies of having spent so much time off grid in my RV is that electricity is at the forefront of my mind. When I was preparing my packing list for my European adventure, I looked at the ridiculous amount of things plugged into my uninterrupted power supply and knew I had to reduce my electrical needs dramatically because I wouldn’t have the luxury of access to lots of outlets in Europe. In fact, I would have just one, into which I would plug an adapter to go from my North American style plug to a European style plug.

It was easier than I expected, but not cheap, to reduce my electrical needs. I replaced my large external hard drives requiring AC power with slim credit card sized drives that only power through USB. I bought a 1TB Western Digital My Passport Air external hard drive for my backups and a slightly thicker 3TB Toshiba Canvio external hard drive for media. In this way, I also went from four external drives to just two. I’d been “collecting” drives for years, starting with a 500GB one in 2009 and then getting increasing capacity every year as prices began to drop, so it was nice to consolidate everything into two drives. The reason I put my media on an external drive is that I have a Macbook Air, which has a solid state drive. When I replaced my computer in 2015, I went with the smallest drive possible because a SSD is crazy expensive. So I have to store my media on another hard drive or else I’d run out of capacity.

Next, I had to find a better way to power my iOS devices. At home, I plug them into the USB AC adapter that I then plug into a wall socket. You can, in theory, charge iOS devices through their USB cable plugged into your computer, but I didn’t want to have to rely on that. My computer only has two USB outlets and they are always in use, with one dedicated to the backup drive and one powering a USB hub into which I plug a mouse, the media drive, the keyboard (which I didn’t bring with me), and, of course, my transcription foot pedal. Little did I know that the solution for that would present itself.

iOS devices notwithstanding, I had reduced my power needs to just my computer. The computer charger has a built-in voltage adapter, so I just had to find an adapter that would let me plug into a European socket. After doing some research, I decided to go with a much larger unit than I had hope for, but that would let me plug into just about any socket in the world, the FosPower FUSE worldwide universal AC international adapter with dual USB charging ports. Notice that last part! The two USB sockets are well powered and charge my iOS devices perfectly.


I’ve now used my adapter in two modes. First was in the UK, which has enormous sockets! I had a hard time getting the adapter to work (didn’t help that it was the middle of the night and I was still half dead with jet lag) until I remembered reading a review by someone who had the same problem, where I’d learned to push down on the plastic part in the middle to get it to pop up.



UK power adapter

Now, I’ve been using it in European mode and it is still working great! I was a bit (lot) nervous when I saw the Schuko outlets, but the prongs on my adapter fit it perfectly. The thinner Europlugs also fit in the Schuko outlets.






As long as I’m plugged directly into the wall, the adapter does not get hot. I once wanted to charge my iPad while I was in bed and tried to combine the adapter with an extension cord, but the adapter got really hot!

The FosPower FUSE worldwide universal AC international adapter with dual USB charging ports is proving to be very robust and reliable. It does take a lot of room in my luggage, but I’m sure it’s less than if I’d had to bring multiple adapters. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that I’m annoyed by the incredibly bright blue light it emits to show it’s working as it actually lights up a whole room! But I can cover it with a scarf or sock and it doesn’t overheat, so that’s what I do when I have to sleep in the same room where it’s working hard to charge my things.

Converting to European electric power has been really easy for me because I only have the computer to worry about and it has its own voltage converter. You’re on your own if you want advice on how to power things like a North American hair dry or curling iron here!

My biggest complaint about power in Europe is that I can’t just blindly reach down and try to plug in something because I’m trying to align very slim prongs with tiny holes. I thought it would be easier with sockets that fill the whole outlet, but nope. Still, that’s just a minor inconvenience!

So How’s Working from Bulgaria, Well, Working for Me?

So how’s my work life here in Bulgaria?


I have as much work as I can handle and am actually turning down jobs and picking and choosing my projects. Quite a contrast with my very lean spring!

The time zone difference with my clients hasn’t been an issue so far.

One client normally has an 8AM PST deadline, which is 6PM here, and when he can, he moves it to 12PM, or 10PM here. With him, I used to try to get the work in the evening or night before the 8AM deadline, but now, I tend to get it in sometime in the wee hours of the morning and he has it first thing. This is because I tend to get the work around 8AM his time the previous day, which is the end of the day my time, so I work on the file the next day.

Another client has an 11PM EST deadline, which is 6AM here. I get very small jobs from her and they tend to be easy, but since I’ve been here, most of her files have been tough and I’v struggled to get the file done by bedtime the day before they are due. I’ve negotiated a three-hour extension to 2AM her time, or 9AM here. That means that if I’m heading past dinner time and still haven’t finished her file, I can go to bed, get up and walk the dogs, have coffee, and still have time to make my deadline. But I haven’t exercised that option yet.

My third main client is a bit trickier. I haven’t received any flack from them, but I wonder if that will change. How deadlines work with them is that I sign work out of a “library” and then I have 48 hours to return it. So the time zone shouldn’t matter. However, you’re not supposed to sign out work early in the day PST unless you plan to do it by the end of the day. With the 10-hour difference, I sign out work and then do it first thing in the morning my time, uploading it in the wee hours of the morning their time. I’m still normally well ahead of my deadlines, though, which I think counts for something. I’m producing good work (as per the feedback I get) and they know I’m here, so I don’t think there will be an issues.

Strangely enough, everyone has been sending me crappy files since I got here. It’s just a coincidence, I know that for a fact, but I’ve ended up with much longer working days than I expected and have had many days where I’ve typed to 9PM or later. Today was one such day, but that was because I had to go to Yablanitsa and that ate up almost four hours of my day. I really hope things settle down so that I can finish by five or six, walk the dogs, have a beer while I make dinner, and then decompress a bit. Finishing this late means I’m going to bed late and then I have to be up around seven to have time to walk the dogs and so I’m not getting enough sleep. It’s turning into an unhealthy cycle that I really need to nip in the bud. It’s funny that super long days used to be the norm for me, but I’ve been doing very well at working more reasonable hours for the last year or so. I’m at the point where even if I don’t take a full day off in a week, not getting my evenings off feels very wrong.

None of this work pays particularly well, but with my expenses being so low here, I’m not too worried. I’d be in trouble in Canada, but I’m happy with this type of work versus the income it produces while in a country with an affordable cost of living.

The internet has been working great. There have been a couple of short outages, but nothing to be concerned about. I am spending so much less time waiting for pages to load and files to download that I am noticing that I have extra time in my day. Really! When I am somewhere that I can get wifi in bed, I tend to save reading some sites until then and I find that I get through my reading list here much more quickly. Picture sites like Buzzfeed come up right away, for example. My internet in Mexico was better by a long shot than what I had in Canada, but it still wasn’t fast, and I certainly couldn’t stream with them. It’s nice to be able to catch up on late night TV (Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien, SNL, etc.) by watching clips on YouTube when I’m too tired to read.

I’ve come up with a surprisingly comfortable way to work, but it’s not super efficient. I’m simply sitting in the comfy IKEA chair and typing on my lap. I really miss being able to use a real mouse and it’s a pain to get up and have to move my equipment (hard drives, hub) out of the way but, otherwise, this is actually working out. It does mean that I don’t have the transition from work space to play space, however, to watch a movie or read a book or whatever before I go to bed. Still, it’s good to know that a setup like this works.

I’ve also managed to make the bed more comfortable by making a nest of bedding and pillows, so I’m not sore the way I was my first winter in Mexico, even with all that walking I’m doing. My calves were hurting quite a bit (cramping) yesterday when I got to the top of the mountain, but that’s really it. Even my bad knee seems to be handling all these hills (and even the humidity) with aplomb. I can tell I’m getting stronger and have more stamina than I did when I arrived two weeks ago. The walk home today was tough only because of the heat and I still took the dogs on a proper walk (what I shared yesterday) before I came in to a very simple supper of a salami and jam sandwiches (not together!).

So all is good on the work side of things. If I can only just figure out a non-bipedal method of getting around here, I will be able to gain a little more work-life balance!

SaskTel Had a Province-Wide Internet Outage — And It Was a Good Thing!

Friday afternoon, Saskatchewan was cut off from the rest of the world when the internet, including mobile data, went dead across the province. Since they have the monopoly in this province, they own all the equipment. There were no obviously no redundancies on their grid so the only people who would have had internet service had to have been on Xplornet. This was SaskTel’s second province-wide outage in two months. Both were caused by faulty equipment.

I went through a serious telecom outage this when I was up in Yukon. There was just one cable bringing service into the territory and it got waterlogged from all the firefighting going on. All telecom went down. When an outage like that happens in a remote territory with a population of around 25,000, it’s just one of those things that happen when you live up north. But in a province of more than one million people? It’s embarrassing.

The part of the outage that proved to me that SaskTel is not up to the task of running a 21st century telecom grid is how long it took for their answering service to get a message up saying, “We’re aware there’s a problem. It’s province-wide. We’ll update again as soon as we know how long t his will take.” You know, what SaskPower does within minutes of the lights going out. Instead, SaskTel’s answering service got flooded and would just hang up on you.

What I found most interesting about the outage was that I could have predicted it if I had thought about it hard enough. My internet was actually fine after I got the new booster last year. I was getting a decent signal and no drops. I could live with it. But my connection has been a nightmare since I got back this spring and it hasn’t been any better in town. I couldn’t get anything worth mentioning done in Moose Jaw and I had a hard time getting my emails in Willow Bunch. Something was up with the network, but SaskTel brushed me off at every call, telling me the problem was my phone.

It’s now the second morning since the outage. I have had a strong, steady signal (comparable to what I get without the booster areas where I don’t need the booster) since the internet came back up Friday morning. Yesterday was a perfectly non-frustrating day when I had research to do and while Google is still very slow, my searches came up. I even had internet well past 8PM when I normally don’t have usable service in the evening. Everything’s been fine this morning.

At some point while I was away, SaskTel increased speeds at the tower I connect to. When I’m not throttled and my signal is strong (as it’s been since yesterday morning), I’m getting speeds that are 2.5 times faster than last year (2.5Mbps). Considering what I went through for internet service until I got the new booster, I could actually be satisfied with this service if I knew I could rely on having it every day. I’m not delusional. I know that adequate internet service will take ages to come out here and I would be happy with small steps like doubling our speeds every six to twelve months. It says a lot that I didn’t notice for almost a month that I was getting better speeds than last year!

What the outage made me realise is that Haven’s internet issue is a Saskatchewan-wide issue. They’re always going to have the infrastructure, but we need more ISPs competing for business on that infrastructure so that there is more accountability when that infrastructure fails. Bell and Rogers are not a true competitors. What we need are small locally-owned ISPs that understand the unique challenges of operating a telecom in Saskatchewan. There are a couple, but they operate out of Saskatoon and Regina. I’ve contacted them to show that there is a large untapped market between the TransCanada and the Montana border, including the communities of Assiniboia, Willow Bunch, Coronach, Rockglen, and Scout Lake, that has been neglected by SaskTel and needs more options. Once these smaller ISPs get a foothold down here, then we can start having the conversation about getting service to the Sylvan Valley.

I’ve been in contact with ISPs in other provinces that offer nearly Canada-wide service, but are not in Saskatchewan. They all cite the difficulty of doing business with SaskTel as the primary reason why they are not in the province yet. And they were all very interested to learn that there is such an untapped market desperate for them to hammer out some sort of agreement with SaskTel.

Stressful as the outage was, it ended up being a good thing as it fixed something majorly wrong with SaskTel’s service. I just hope that I continue to enjoy adequate service for my last couple of weeks here.

CMDA vs GMS: Why Your US Cell Phone Probably Doesn’t Work Well in the Rest of the World/Your Non-US Phone Doesn’t Work Well in the US

I got another email from reader Dean looking for cell phone help last night and a bit of research helped me elucidate a great mystery: why US phones tend not to work well outside of the US and non-US phones tend not to work well in the US. I’ve never seen this info laid out plainly so I thought it would warrant a blog post. Please note that this information is very general and personal user experience may vary.

The first thing you need to know is that there are basically two types of cellular networks, CDMA and GMS. Explaining the difference is far beyond the scope of this post. You just need to know that the two don’t play nice with each other.

The second thing you need to know is that GSM is the most prevalent type of network in the world while the US uses CDMA on its two major networks, Verizon and Sprint. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. This is why you get poor Verizon service in an AT&T service area and vice-versa.

This is also why my old Verizon phone worked great when I was in the US but was basically useless in Canada, even though I had a plan to use it there. It explains why RV park and motel guests up in Dawson City who were on T-Mobile had no trouble getting service, but the Verizon customers usually had no service. And it also explains why I have trouble getting service in some parts of the US with my phone with both my AT&T and TelCel SIM cards.

Back to Dean’s question. He’s a Verizon customer about to move to Mexico permanently and he wanted to buy a new phone now that would work in Mexico. Mexico’s cellular providers are all on GSM. I was able to ascertain that the phone Dean wants is only available for the Verizon network and is therefore not GSM network friendly. So he needs to instead look for a phone that can run on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks and that is, of course unlocked.

What all this boils down to is:

  1. To have great coverage across most of the US, you need to be with Verizon or Sprint, but your phone likely won’t work well, if at all, in most of the rest of the world (other countries do have CMDA, but, again, GSM is by far the most prevalent);
  2. If you’re coming into the US from anywhere else in the world or are in the US on AT&T or T-Mobile, prepare to have poor service outside of AT&T and T-Mobile network areas.