September 30, 2005

Last Day in Spain

After half an hour looking for a gas station – not an easy find in Barcelona – Dan and I split up for separate tasks, his being to arrange shipping of his artwork back to the States – a bureaucratic and linguistic nightmare he’s been involved in all during these weeks – and mine simply to explore more of the city on foot. My first stop was Corte Ingles, the big up-to-date department store on the Plaça Catalunya – there are branches of it in every sizable Spanish city, and several in each major metropolis, as if Bloomingdale’s had gone expansion-crazy. This one was nine floors of men’s and women’s and kids’ modas and a travel agency and a supermarket and an electronics superstore and who knows what else. Buying nada as usual, I walked east on the Gran Via for about a mile to the Plaça Glories Catalones, a monument to Catalonian glory which turned out to be a big ugly roundabout surrounded by a high concrete wall, with an empty park within it. But there was a great open-air flea market along one arc of it, about two blocks long by one block wide, and you could prowl in search of new or used clothing, CDs, DVDs, books, reading glasses, office furniture, power tools, and a sandwich and beer to assess them with. Whether the flea market was a parody of the Corte Ingles or vice versa, I decline to judge.

I walked back west on Carrer de Valencia and up to the Plaça Sagrada Familla, where stands the cathedral of the Sagrada Familla, a masterpiece of psychedelic postgothic architecture designed mostly by Antonio Gaudi, which was begun in 1882 and is still unfinished. (That is not a typo: 1882. Confident local officials maintain it may be finished by the centennial of Gaudi’s death in 2026.) Perhaps the world’s most gawked-at construction site, it consists of several spires in the shape of slightly bent, very tall wine -- or more accurately Galliano liqueur -- bottles, with architectural details taking the place of dripping candle wax. I call the style “wackismo.” The building is surrounded and capped by five yellow cranes that have been there so long they’re practically part of the architecture. In concentric rings outward from the cathedral, you find first a layer of tourists snapping photos, then a layer of tour buses from all over Europe (as far away as Poland), then a layer of snack stands. Dotted among them are human statues – mimes who have dressed themselves in the robes of gothic statues and then spray-painted themselves either silver or bronze from head to toe. Give them a coin and they’ll move into a new position. All of these accretions seem as much part of Sagrada Familla as the stones themselves. And finally, what can you say about a cathedral that has the same effect as a Woody Woodpecker cartoon?

I walked back to Plaça Catalunya, the main circle of the city, through neighborhoods of beautifully designed middle- and upper-middle apartment buildings. Mostly six to eight storeys high, their scale was comfortable and nostalgic to me: I grew up in a six–storey apartment house amid acres and acres of matching buildings. These in Barcelona were swankier and better maintained, and they dated not just from the Depression era to the Sixties as those in my Bronx did, but from the 19th century all the way to the present.

After four days in Barcelona – two on the front end of the trip, two on the back – I feel like I’m starting to know the main areas of the central city. But there’s a lot I would have needed a longer vacation to see, like the Montserrat, a tall monastery on a mountain outside of town which you can see from all directions, and which is called “the soul of Catalunya.” And if I’d had a much longer trip in Spain – a month or more – I would have loved to drive through the Pyrenees and the Basque lands and Navarre, and then further into Asturias, the Spanish Wales (green coal-filled mountains), and Galicia, the Spanish Ireland (Celtic language and bagpipes included). Not to mention crossing into Portugal, where the land and the people are supposed to be wonderful.

Am I in love with Spain, then? No, but I like it a lot, and if I kept seeing it over a long time I would probably come to love it. It wasn’t a big part of my fantasy life before I visited it – as Greece was -- and I think that’s what’s needed for love at first sight: you have to have seen the thing in your dreams, however vaguely, have to have longed for its kind of presence, its way of speaking and walking and looking, in order for a first glimpse to masquerade as a stroke from out of nowhere. I like Spain, but I think liking is a kind of loving, the kind we can give to all the things in the world that are just there, just existing, without our pressing our fantasized demands and unfulfillable longings upon them.

What would I recommend seeing in the parts of southern Spain I’ve seen? Toledo would be first on my list, a magnificent small walled hilltop city preserved over hundreds of years, with some of the most striking rooftop views imaginable, and with narrow cobbled mazelike streets that are, because of their manageable scale, a delight to walk in rather than an irritation.

Madrid or Barcelona? See them both if you love exploring and comparing cities. If churches and museums are what you want, pick Madrid. If you prefer an electric contemporary atmosphere and lots of shopping – and more sweet shops and pastry shops that you’ve ever seen, because of the Catalan sweet tooth -- it’s Barcelona. Sevilla is historic and walkable and crowded and partly pretty; we overstayed by one day – three days would have been enough. Valencia was not a picture postcard or museum city, it was a likable knowable modern lively place where people seemed to live real lives, and where, if you got stuck in a tangle of streets, you could find your way out.

And what lessons have I learned, dear friends, from these sixteen days? I probably won’t know for a while. But I have some pointers and suggestions for my fellow earthlings, both European and American, based on a comparison of cultures.

For Americans:

1. Learn to drive. Europeans zip through crowded cities in small cars that are easy to maneuver, and they fit into parking spaces that would cause most Americans (outside of New York, of course) to run shrieking in terror. Yet for all the apparent chaos of the traffic, I did not see so much as a single fender-bender in all my time in Spain. In the typical American medium-sized city, where people drive sluggish, unresponsive tanks that block other drivers’ view, and don’t know how to park and don’t know how to turn and don’t know how to change lanes and don’t know how to respond to a spontaneous situation, but only know how to use cruise control, you can see several minor and major accidents in a day without trying.
2. And take up motor scooters. They’re the best way to get around – and above all, to park – in a big crowded city. NY, SF, Boston – you need them.
3. And learn not to be boorish, gauche, or gross. You rarely see a Spaniard drunkenly blubbering about how much he needs to pee, or raising a fist in the air and jumping up and down like a character in a car commercial, or threatening someone with assault for accidentally bumping into him. Spaniards are polite and composed, and that suggests self-assurance. They walk along streets as crowded as Times Square, or more so, without losing their tempers and without jostling. Almost all the loud, vulgar behavior one sees here is on the part of Americans or – I have to add – northern Europeans, usually soused.

For Spaniards:

1. Study the design of the American bathroom, and in particular, absorb the concept of the shower curtain. A shower curtain is not a swinging glass door that goes one-third of the way across the bathtub, nor is it a partial wall two feet in length. It goes across the entire length of the tub, and thus prevents water from soaking the floor, and thus prevents expensive water damage to hotels. It would also be nice if you provided enough space outside the tub so that a wet person could dry off – but perhaps I’m being too picky.
2. Please try to understand that many of the people who visit your country are not native speakers of Spanish, and even more of them are not native speakers of Catalan. In fact, many of them cannot immediately tell which of those two languages they are hearing, when a hundred-word paragraph is thrown at them in answer to a halting question such as, “Donde estan los servicios?” Given the fact that tourism is a major component of your country’s economy, and that you as individuals (all but two or three of the Spanish individuals I’ve come in contact with, for instance) derive your income from tourism, it might be acceptable for some of you to greet an English-speaking visitor’s fumbling attempts at communication with patience, rather than with, say, a blank stare or a disappointed frown or a weary sigh or a sputter of incomprehension. For example, if you work in an ice cream shop that offers several flavors, only one of which is lemon, and a tourist asks for “le-mohn” rather than “lee-mohn,” you might pretend that you understand what flavor he is asking for. And though I hesitate to suggest it for fear of being thought reactionary, if all day, every day, year after year, you meet guests from many nations who use English as a lingua franca, it might be permissible for some of you to allow yourselves to learn a few basic phrases of English. Come to my country and ask your way around in a clumsy mixture of Spanish and Catalan and a little English, and we will not sneer at you, but will help you and show you around and ask friendly questions about where you come from and how you like it here.

We returned to the hotel room early this evening. One can thread among the crowds on the Ramblas only so many nights, unless one is a pickpocket or an acrobat or a seller of parakeets. One longs to be able to enter a shop or restaurant and know how to ask for what one wants, and not to have to view each encounter as a test. I can hear the twangy guitar music in the Austin airport now. I can taste the barbecued ribs and the enchiladas. I will drive down South Congress Avenue again and think, as I do every time, “God am I lucky to live here.”