21.03.2008 - 27.03.2008 61 °F
The night before Barcelona, we had another marathon hair-braiding marathon. It took A.J. five hours to comb and braid my hair, but the effort was well worth it, I believe. It’s colder in Europe than it has been in the other ports of call we’ve been visiting, so I’ve been wearing a Billabong beanie most days, and I’ve enjoyed removing the cap at advantageous moments to capture and stun unsuspecting onlookers. Unfortunately, I’ll be lucky if it wears well until Istanbul, which means I’ll have to endure one more “session” as it were.
The following morning, Easter Monday, we awoke to Barcelona’s Port Vell, which is nearly as accommodating as Cape Town’s Victoria Harbor, with a plethora of shops, restaurants, and other facilities in the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, this was the also the day that would link me and A.G. for the rest of the voyage. Both of us were taking advantage of port arrival excitement to use the staff lounge computers. Thus it was that I was sitting next to her when we received news from home. My own dad had written to say that he hadn’t heard much from me but that he assumed we had left Cape Verde and were probably arriving in Barcelona. While I was glad to hear from him, I was annoyed by the lack of content. We hadn’t communicated much since Cape Town and I had written long messages that he hadn’t responded to. Just as I was about to say as much to my neighbor, she gasped in horror and read the message she’d just read: that her father had died of a massive stroke six hours after her last phone call to him. The contrast between our two messages was stark and unforgettable, although clearly her life had temporarily come to a standstill, and I was free to go on with my own.
Thus, aside from financial considerations – Barcelona is currently one of the most expensive cities in Europe and the dollar is taking a thrashing against the euro – I was able to experience Barcelona to the fullest. I really enjoyed it. If anything marred my experience, it wasn’t the news about A.G.’s father, but a recollection of my college past. I had attended K College for the sole purpose of undertaking an extensive foreign study program for which the school was heralded, but the year I was to go, I was forced – mainly because of my poor academic performance, which affected my monetary resources – to transfer to a state school. I never got to do foreign study, and it was at that point that my motivation for language development began waning. I remember well the feeling of knowing that all my classmates were abroad somewhere, and I was in my own kind of cultural immersion program – acclimating to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, home of CMU, a place where I would never feel good about myself. Meanwhile, though I’d visiting family in Portugal many times in my life, I never made it to Spain, where I was to have studied as K student.
As I traversed the streets of Barcelona, I was never able to forget that it had taken more than 20 years, but I finally made it to Spain. It was a bittersweet feeling because I immediately loved this part of Spain and part of me lamented the fact that I couldn’t go back in the past and rewrite my own behavior so that I could do what I had wanted to do at the age of 19. However, I also know that the person I was two decades ago wouldn’t have responded to this environment differently and, perhaps more importantly, Spain was a very different place 20 years ago. Spanish society has made great strides in social liberation only in recent years. Maybe the Barcelona of the late-1980s and the me of that time wouldn’t have meshed quite so well. And anyway, it’s more like that I would I would have been in Madrid, which is yet another kit and caboodle.
Anyway, these were the only thoughts that sometimes gave me pause about my experience of Spain. Though they were constant companions, they were easily brushed away whenever I turned a corner and found a marvelous new nook and cranny of the fabulous city. In general, the thing that I loved most about Barcelona is one of the things that I always loved about San Francisco – both are large enough to provide a cosmopolitan feel and to draw or provide world class events and yet they’re both small enough to be walkable and to feel relatively safe. Both cities are located on the sea and have lots of green space with urban parks and conscious efforts to “provide” a bit of nature in the city. Art and food are highly appreciated in both places as well and public transportation is handy and prevalent. However, to say that SF and Barcelona are sister cities cosmetically or culturally would be misleading. Barcelona is, to the American eye, most definitely a European city.
In Europe if you don’t look up, you miss out on a whole ‘nother vista. The ornate-ness and detail is incredible. Yet you must always have an eye to the cobblestones, lest you trip and fall. And the ear quickly learns to distinguish between Spanish and Catalan, which sounds a bit like a hybrid of Spanish and French as well as the wealth of languages spoken by the many tourists who are learning to invade Barcelona.
On the first day, I simply walked. Since we were berthed near the foot of mile-long La Rambla, the most well known promenade in Spain, filled with street entertainers; flower, newspaper and bird vendors; and the patrons of cafes. La Rambla is sometimes called a metaphor for life "because its bustling action combines cosmopolitanism and crude vitality. I walked in ever-increasing concentric squares in and around the areas in the vicinity of the avenue. Every time I turned a corner, I saw something that made me smile. I passed through Barri Gotic, El Born, El Raval, and north of Plaça de Catalunya, I went into L'Eixample and several other prominent neighborhoods. In this sense, it felt more like a NYC experience though not as dirty. In some ways I felt like I had the city to myself because we had arrived during the Easter holiday, which is almost universally observed there; like Christmas in the U.S., almost everything closes and people are home with their families through the weekend or take advantage of the long weekend to travel. The calm allowed me to cover an extraordinary amount of ground, though I earned myself an enormous blister.
Not to be deterred, I rented a bicycle the next day from underneath the Christopher Columbus statue and rode through Parc de la Ciutadella with its green parrots chattering from every direction and then headed towards Barceloneta, the beach. To confirm that I was headed the right way, I asked a man carrying a tuba and he told me to follow him and his bandmates. When we reached the boardwalk we went our separate ways. Later, I came upon him and the rest of the international “gypsy” ska band Gadjo playing in the sand. Moments later, the police came to disperse them, but it was clear that the authorities weren’t too concerned about it – just doing their jobs.
On day three, I took in a plethora of Gaudi sites, including the still unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia, which is like a three-dimensional Dali, and the mosaic-laden Parc Guell, which is simply stunning. Another day I wandered up to Montjuic, a park atop a mountain, and another day I took the tram to Tibidabo, which is the first time I’ve seen a full-on amusement park in front of a church. One night I went to see the Castellers de Barcelona, a 17th century Catalan tradition whereby the locals of all ages participate in the building of "human towers"– and then later went to see DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist perform at Razzmatazz. While Barcelona I heard flamenco, Bach and Vivaldi, Spanish guitar and almost went to an opera. I ate the obligatory paella, which I have to admit wasn’t nearly as good as my dad’s, and I had tapas, churros con chocolate and rich coffee.
One of my favorite places was the Harlem Jazz Club and one of my favorite stores was a little shop called Incas, which had some marvellous. I also stumbled upon a masquerade shop that was fun to check out although the masks were incredibly expensive. It’s too bad since we’re having a masquerade ball on the ship as one of the closing TSS activities.
Interestingly enough, just as we hit Cape Town during Gay Pride, it was also Pride in Barcelona. I did go to one bar, but the community in Barcelona, mostly centered in L'Eixample, is tinier than a pin prick. There is also an extent to which these things don’t interest me much anymore anyway, so I didn’t go out of my way to experience that part of Barcelona. I was happy just to walk around and to try out my now very rusty and limited Spanish. I found that I can communicate enough to make myself understood, which is encouraging, but I’d really like to study that language seriously again.
On the evening before we left, I had the pleasure of dining with Nieves, a friend from Esalen, with whom I’ve stayed in touch. She was in Casablanca for the Easter holiday, but she came back a day early so that we could get together. She grew up elsewhere in Spain but moved to Barcelona a few years ago. She is a blood bank organizer who is finishing up a degree in psychology. I told her about my misgivings about the past, and told me that Spain the 1980s, might have been difficult for me for the reasons that I suspected, so I felt good about that.
As with most of our destinations, I would love to go back sometime and experience the culture more deeply and to visit other regions. I don’t know when that will happen, but it was nice to feel so comfortable so quickly somewhere outside of the U.S. At the same time it was almost too easy - not as dreamlike as Thailand but not as challenging as Chennai. Along with Cape Town, it has been one of my favorite stops. Next Istanbul.