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.”

September 28, 2005

Barcelona: That's My Bag

We're in a hotel room in downtown Barcelona, near the old Gottic quarter, and since this hotel has free wifi we've spent the past fifteen minutes carrying the laptop around the room trying to find the spot that has a usable signal. We finally found it: the entrance vestibule of the room, about four feet in front of the door.

The big news today is that I've been reunited with my luggage, which had been waiting for me at the J. Llarens Artigas Foundation, on a mountain outside the city, since I left it there ten or more days ago. We drove back up the mountain this affternoon, greeted our erstwhile guests, and when I saw my bag sitting on the floor waiting for me, I picked it up in my arms and kissed it like a longlost child.

I've carried this khaki L. L. Bean bag, about two feet long by one foot wide (it always goes onboard as a carryon), for at least fifteen years. It's been with me in Athens and Delphi and Crete and Santorini and Naxos -- in Rabat and Marrakech and Fez and Essaouira -- in Mexico and London and Marseilles -- in San Francisco and New York and Vancouver and Chicago and Minneapolis -- in Memphis and Nashville and Asheville -- in Moose Jaw and Billings and Medicine Hat and Missoula and Winnipeg and in Brandon, Manitoba. It's the old-fashioned kind with straps and no wheels; I have to carry it by hand all through the airports while everyone else is taking it easy wheeling their bags. Maybe I'll retire it someday.

New, clean clothes at last! A second pair of pants! And all those socks and underwear and shirts I'd brought! Not to mention the 800-page paperback novel I'd brought thinking it would while away the free hours. And now my reaction is, who needs all this stuff? The big lesson of this trip has been how little I can get by on. Four pairs each of underwear and socks, three tee shirts, two regular shirts, and two handkerchiefs would have been ample for a journey of almost any duration. Plus one light jacket.

I've been without my usual prescription and over-the-counter maintenances, too, and that would have seemed more problematic at the outset. But travel is so exciting that the lack of, for instance, an allergy spray, hasn't presented itself as a problem. Such crutches are only needed in normal life.

Yet isn't normal life also a journey? I would like to travel lighter through all of it.

September 27, 2005

En Valencia, La Noche

Dan got tired early and has to drive tomorrow morning so I took a book -- OLD MAN GOYA by Julia Blackburn -- it´s about when he was deaf and isolated and saw more clearly through the war and famine and starvation of his time than anyone else -- I went to the plaza and read on a bench by the fountain for an hour, then walked the streets book in hand -- what´s better than to be first becoming friends with a city you´ve never been in before? -- walked down streets whose names I didn´t know -- past cafe terraces where couples and groups sat over beer and wine -- past lone young men talking importantly on cell phones on squalid corners -- all in a foreign language, me grasping an occasional word as if hard of hearing -- ¨dies y cinco!¨-- and what´s sweeter than to plan your activity for the evening and end up doing exactly that? -- I returned to the Templo de Cafe where we´d been last night, la noche pasada, and ordered exactly the brandy I wanted, Duque dÁlba, the waitress smiling as she poured waiting for me to signal when to stop -- and sat for an hour reading -- smiling and joking with the waitress over the task of ordering and paying in a foreign language -- Spanish brandy and Spanish women being two of the world´s most serious intoxicants -- and back to the plaza which was now shutting down for the night except for isolated skaters and teenage/twentyish lovers (I can´t tell the difference anymore) -- another rich pleasure, that of pretending loneliness when you know you´re not lonely -- now I´m back in the hotel lobby just before going upstairs to bed -- I´ll be sleeping in the next bed to my brother Dan, my compadre -- I don´t know why we´re so close, why we´ve been friends for more than fifteen years -- we´re nothing alike -- -- but if I waited for a soulmate I´d be waiting till the next life, till the next epoch, and meanwhile the world is full of people worthy of love and friendship --

The church bells are ringing twelve. Good night, everyone.

Another Good Day in Valencia

It´s almost sundown now, we spent the morning at the National Ceramics Museum (which has Picassos as well as older ceramics from prehistory on), the Museo des Bellas Arts (which two taxi drivers couldn´t locate because we didn´t call it by its local name, San Pio V), and the City of Arts and Sciences, which is a vast park/museum/aquarium of big modernist buildings, arched and ribbed and vaulted in poured concrete and steel and glass, with a big lovely blue pool in the middle, all by one great contemporary Valencian architect named Calatrava whom I hadn´t heard of before. Then to the Mercado Central, a glass and wrought iron edifice somewhat like an old railway station, with dozens of little markets inside it: meat, fish, produce, etc -- very much like the market we saw in Barcelona, but bigger and with wider aisles. At evening rush hour we wandered through residential districts: streets of middle class high-rise apartments, and adjacent strets of smaller working-class buildings, all with the same variety of cafes, bars, restaurants, pharmacies, clothing stores, tobacconists, on the ground floors. Valencia looks like a comfortable city to live in, a place with an identity, a feeling of its own substance.

Tomorrow morning we go to Barcelona, stopping for a little while at historic Tarragona en route.


We´ve decided to stay two nights in Valencia, which turns out to be one of the pleasantly surprising cities of our visit. It´s a big, modern city, proud of its first-rate modern architecture but also maintaining its old buildings in grandm clean style. We drove into it yesterday with, as usual, an inadequate map and the most minimal of road signs, and by our usual dumb luck, when we found a chance parking spot and dove into it out of exhaustion, it turned out to be just around the corner from one of the main plazas, where the town hall is. There´s a big circular three-tiered fountain which we can see from our hotel room balcony and from the breakfast room. The triangular plaza is busy with businesslike pedestrians, and there´s a wide open section for skaters and skateboarders and such. And that free parking space will last us for our entire stay here.

Last night I ate paella for two, since they won´t cook it for less than that number. (Valencia is the home of paella.) It was chicken paella, all they had, and for the first time in my experience it was a paella in which the crunchy orange rice outshone the more prestigious ingredients -- which is as it should be. (But I still like Susan´s paella better.)

Surprisingly, the nightlife closed down before midnight -- very unusual for this country. But the guidebook says Valencia is known for its nightlife, so I think we´ll have to explore other neighborhoods, perhaps near the university.

This hotel gives guests fifteen minutes of free internet time, so I´ve got to go!

September 26, 2005

The Bullfight and After

The Sevilla bullring holds about 10,000 people, compared to Mexico´s 45,000, but Sevilla´s is the most prestigious in Spain along with Madrid´s. We sat in a shadowed section a little to the left of the mayor´s box, in the upper deck. The seats are uncomfortable concrete slabs -- lower down they´re uncomfortable brick slabs. Outside, vendors sell seat cushions and bottles of half-frozen water. The stadium was about three quarters full, about equally with tourists and locals. Everyone seemed interested and quietly upbeat, glad to be at the ritual, I didn´t sense any bloodthirtiness. To the contrary, the spectators get angry at the matador whne he doesn´t achieve a quick, painless kill. The corrida consists of six bulls, two for each of six matadors. The weights of the bulls lastnight were 511-618 kg., and you could immediately tell the differences in size and personality from bull to bull as each one ran into the ring for its death performance. Some were confused, others angry, others relatively placid. You could immediately tell the differences among the matadors too, in their smoothness, the control with which they guided the bulls, and their closeness to the bull and the steadiness of their feet. One matador, apparently the headline, was clearly better than the others, but unfortunately he drew the lighter bulls by lot, and the weakest matador drew the heaviest, toughest bull. That one had to work hard for the kill, making five or six stabs, with the bull getting up and pawing in between. It would have been something to see the headliner deal with that bull.

The picaros and bandilleros also showed their skills, and though it was clear they made their share of mistakes, it was also clear how much bravery it takes to enter the ring at such close range to a horned animal weighing over half a ton. Some of the most admirable work was done by the assistants -- I´m guessing they´re novice matadors -- who drew the bull away from the bandilleros after the latter had placed their spikes into the bulls´ backs. It was lifesaving work, equivalent to what rodeo clowns do in distracting the bull from the fallen rider.

The specactle was rich in sights and sounds, and the danger in the ring made me atentive every second, but afterward, I said to myself, "Okay, I´ve done that. I don´t have to do it again." A feeling of dry bitterness in the mouth, like after seeing a movie that´s full of exciting special effects but ultimately empty. People say there´s religious symbolism of sacrifice in the bullfight, but even if that´s true of the ceremony´s origins, I don´t see what it has to do with the performance today. It was a communal recreation like going to a baseball game, except that in baseball no one gets killed.

We´re heading out of Sevilla this morning after four busy days, feeling that we finally are coming to know the city a bit. After much trial and error we can now get to some of the places we want to without a map.

It´s on toValencia, which will be a brier stopover rather than a major sightsee. In two or three days we should be back in Barcelona to explore that city in more depth before the end of the trip.

September 24, 2005

Walking in Sevilla

We´ve pretty much walked all the central touristy parts of this city, and gone past them into residential neighborhoods, most of them middling to lower-middling. The street signs throughout Spain are spotty, often the main street has no signs, apparently because you´re supposed to know what it is, and a select few of the larger side streets have signs. Some plazas and churches are shown on the maps and some aren´t, and the maps aren´t usually arranged with north at the top. As a result we´re continually walking in places where we don´t know where we´re going, and learning to recognize them hour by hour. Often we walk through the same streets again and again, realizing it at some point by spotting a landmark -- a shop sign, a tapas barm a conjunction of streets.

Yesterday evening instead of eating dinner in a restaurant we bought bread and cans of sardines and tomatoes and pears at the market next to our hotel, and we watched a Spanish DVD with English subtitles on Dan´s computer. It was fun -- the movie was a historical conjecture about the poet Lorca´s death -- and tonight we´re going to repeat with a different movie. The restaurant food on the trip has not been a culinary revelation on the whole. At its best it´s tasty and interesting and subtly different from what we´re used to. The fun is more in discovering places, picking one terrace to sit at out of dozens of possibilities. The pastries have been generally high quality, as is the coffee.

It´s evening now, getting toward sunset, and the boulevard near our hotel is unrowded at last and surprisingly pretty: clean and wide and shadowed, with little enough traffic for a leisurely stroll against the traffic light.

We´re hoping for another day of restful strolling tomorrow, before the evening´s bullfight.

I don´t know if my knowledge of Spanish is deepening, but I´m becoming more fluent in the key phrases you repeat over and over to waiters and hoteliers. And I´ve enjoyed trying to decipher newspaper headlines and articles. The Spanish make very little effort to accommodate to the linguistic deficiencies of their visitors. The waiters rattle off their questions as if you were a native, and then you look puzzled and they rattle off something else. Rarely, a waiter will slow down and simplify a question -- and when one did this afternoon, I left him a bigger tip English is out of the question usually. Luckily Dan speaks a little Spanish from his childhood and from his months as an artist here.

I´m reading a book about Goya now, written by an Englishwoman. I think when I get back I might try some Neruda in Spanish.

That´s all for now -- I´m very glad the hurricane is being downgraded. Hope everyone is okay.

September 23, 2005


We´re extending our stay in Sevilla to four nights because there´s a bullfight we want to see on Sunday evening. We chose that instead of going on to Granada and seeing the Alhmabra, the grand Moorish palace complex.

Sevilla is a surprisingly extensive city -- fourth largest in Spain -- I´d be surprised if it has less than a million people -- and the central, older part is pretty, with lots of whitewashed or brightly painted buildings with wrought iron balconies. The most central hotels were full up, but we found one in a slightly less crowded, more neighborhood-style area with lots of places to eat, and well within walking distance of the attractions.

The biggest attraction here, physically and otherwise, is the cathedral, the largest gothic cathedral in the world. Unlike the one in Toledo, it is massive without being overwrought. The sheer circumference of its columns is awe-inspiring, and its many side chapels are finely done. Whaat overwhelmed me most was a raised sepulchre off to one side of the centermost area, on a big marble pedestal, with bronze statues of four kings as the pallbearers -- they represent the original four kingdoms of Spain, which are Castile, Leon, Navarra, and (I think) Aragon. The casket they hold up is cloaked in a bronze drapery, and inside, a small sign underneath tells us, are the remains of Christopher Columbus.

I was overwhelmed to see it.

There´s also an Alcazar, that is a walled medieval fortress, and within those walls, an old Jewish quarter, now quite desirable as real estate. And a magnificent royal garden adjacent, with fountains and tiled benches and centuries-old trees whose trunks are as thick as the cathedral columns.

Now on to a couple of more leisurely, I hope, days walking in Sevilla, and then the bullfight and then a long straight route back to Barcelona.

By the way, I plan to post photos after I get back.

We´re keeping informed on Hurricane Rita through the Herald Tribune and El Pais, the Spanish paper. It looks horrific, and Austin looks as if it´s just on the western edge of the storm. I hope this time more efective measures are taken in advance, as well as afterward.

September 22, 2005

Toledo, Cordoba, Sevilla

I have to rush this post because we´ve been driving around all day and are starving and irritable:

Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities I´ve ever seen, and probably the cleanest. A medieval walled city on a hill overlooking rugged plains, and, inside the walls, narrow, twisting, hilly, cobbled streets. We walked in there for miles and miles, seeing a huge ugly Gothic church, a couple of medieval synagogues turned museums, a mosque turned church, the El Greco museum, and more. A lovely, lovely place.

That was yesterday. Today we drove south to Cordoba, drove through that confusing city and decided not to stay. Now we´re in Sevilla, bigger and supposedly the gem of tourist Spain. So far I´ve seen a lot of construction sites and we´ve been preoccupied finding a hotel and parking. I hope tonight and tomorrow give me a better impression of Sevilla, and I´m betting they will.

The guy at the computer next to me, in this internet store, was writing an email about how this country is getting to him -- temperatures 40 degrees C., a hot wind. And now he´s ended his email and is exploring the website of Harvard Law School.

We´re concerned abuot what little we´ve heard about the oncoming hurricane. Wishing good luck and health and safety to all, especially to our blogfriends around the Gulf Coast and Houston. God help and bless our country.

September 20, 2005

The Prado

Tday´s a museum day -- first the Prado, then its lesser cousin the thyssen acros the stret, then Goya´s tomb across town. The Prado was great for its dozen or so best paintings, the most famous ones by Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, that we´ve all seen reproduced. unlike what I´ve heard, it wsn´t great all the way through -- there´s plenty of stuff worth walking by without a glance. I rate the Met in NY higher overall.

I´ve got three new shirts and some spiffy Euro-socks and excessively brief underwear.

That's all for today, probably -- tomorrow we go to Toledo, a short drive south.

September 19, 2005


Madrid is a lovely city organized arond numerous plazas, many of the circular and with or without fountains, some of them rectangular like the massive Plaza Mayor which is surrounded by ancient four-storey apartment of them with renaissance style nudes painted on the walls. It´s an open area lined with cafe terraces, and used as a stage by comedians and magicians. All of central Madrid seems like one huge tapas bar, and the people's chief occupation, tourist and local alike, seems to be staying up late.

We drove into the city with no idea where we were, but by chance ended up in the center of the center, in a nice two-star hotel that was once the city´s first luxury hotel. We´re about a half-mile walk from the Prado in one direction and an equal distance from the royal palace in the other. We haven´t seen the Prado yet because museums are closed on Monday -- tomorrow we hope to spend the whole day there and at Goya´s tomb (Dan´s special destination).

Meanwhile we´ve been walkig all over -- discovered a lovely cafe bistro across the Plaza de Oriente from the palace, with luxury ambience and midrange prices. The royal palace is the largest of the many grand white stone buildings in Madrid, some of which turn out to be things like the Cahmber of Deputies. Along with the circular plazaa and the well-trimed parks, they give Madrid the air of a Hispanic London, in contrast to Barcelona's Catalan New York. (Like New York, Barcelona seems to have been covered in a watercolor wsah of blackish gray, Madrid seems clean and spacious in comparison, perhaps partly because today happens to be sunny.)

I can´t find any difference yet between Madrilenos and Barcelonans.

We walked through many Madrid streets that look like NY's Soho, however -- former industrial buildings being renovated into classy hotels. And we discovered a really charming residential district near Calle Segovia that smells of media money -- nicely repainted apartment buildings, some with peace placards in the windows.

We went looking for a hotel, the Reyna Victoria, that Dan and his girlfriend stayed in a few years ago. It was the hotel in which Rilke wrote his ¨Duino Elegies,¨one of the greatest sequences of poetry in the twentieth century. We discovered the building -- it´s being renovated as the Hard Rock Hotel Madrid, to reopen in March 2006. Time marches on.

All of this would be wonderful if not for one little mishap that occured last night -- upon arriving at our hotel, we discovered that through a miscommunication my bag had been left behind in Barcelona, in the driveway of the arts foundantion where we´d stayed. My only bag, I should specify -- everything I had packed for a two-week stay. It´s safe in Barcelona to be picked up when we return in ten days, but between now and then I'll be undergoing the spritual exercise of making do with one pair of jeans, a couple of borrowed tee shirts, and whatever socks, underwear and toiletries I can gradully acquire during our strolls.

More later!

September 17, 2005

Roussilon and Back

We drove north toward the Pyrenees this morning -- were ging to the Costa Brava, but it was overcast and rainy and the coast wasn't well visible so we decided to keep going through the mountains into France, 150 km from Barcelona. The border crossing was about as complex as crossing from Oklahoma to Texas -- we only had to slow down enough to pass through an open tollgate. Went to Elne, a town in the Roussilon, supposedly the oldest continually occupied settlement in Western Europe -- since 800BC, the pre-Roman Iberians. Hannibal camped there once. Now there's a nice cloister and church.

On the Spanish side we stopped and walked in Girona, a charming town with upscale shops and a medieval Jewish quarter, El Call, that brings in a lot of tourist business today. The Call is situated on an steep, defensible hill with narrow cobbled streets, and there's a museum of Spanish Jewish life. Dan bought a book on the history of the Jews of Spain and I informed him of the various common spanish family names that were originally Jewish: Espinosa, Mendoza, Lopez, Perez, and of course my name, Colon. He's now eagerly searching for his Jewish ancestry under my tutelage.

Then drove back to Barcelona -- Dan's doing all the driving, by the way, because of rental insurance regulations, so it's lucky he's a former long distance trucker -- and explored a working class neighborhood on the Mediterranean shore, Barceloneta. It was a planned community for workers in the 18th century. Our ceramicist host Joanet had warned us it was very rough, very dangerous -- told us a story of an artist couple he'd hosted who had been beaten up there -- but we must have arrived too early in the evening for that. The place had a nice, homey feel -- we hung out in a bar watching clumsy basketball (Spain vs. Latvia) and good soccer (Madrid vs. Tenerife) on big-screen TV, then went to an overpriced Catalan seafoood restaurant. The neighborhood felt like what the mid-Bronx might feel like if it had narrower streets, was on a beach (which some of the Bronx is, actually), and for some unearthly reason became a tourist destination.

Tomorrow we're leaving early to drive to Madrid -- 8 hours of road time with nothing much of interest in between, sort of like driving across Texas -- so I probably won't be posting for a couple of days.

I found out that Catalan for ciao is "adieu."

Barcelona Hi

One of the deepest joys in life is to discover a great new city, and Barcelona is one for me. My first day there seemed as rich as a week's vacation, staying to dinner past midnight and walking through rainy streets crowded with young people, hearing Irish and British and French and German and American voices as well as Catalan and Spanish. This place has a New York-like energy, probably more so than Chicago or London, but the energy takes place within a labyrinth of centuries-old narrow Gothic streets, with more shops on them than I've ever seen anywhere. There's a perfumerie on every block, it seems, and the densiity of cafes, tapas bars, restaurants, and sweet shops -- all of them overlapping in function -- far exceeds that. How you choose which one to entger, I don't know.

Dan and I walked all around the Gotti, as this old gothic area is known, including a massive market called La Barqueria (sp?) made up of dozens of individual shops -- fish, meat, charcuterie, olives, candy, everything, all of high quality, an overwhelming foodie experience. We wandered into a 15th century Gothic church, big and beautiful with eroded bricks in the overhead arches that seemed like they might fall someday -- where a wedding was taking place, and we stood and smiled at the bride waiting outside.

We took the Metro to a more modern part of town and walked a long way uphill to the Miro museum, which was closed (we'd known), but set in a lovely, large park with a view of the whole city.

We ate a long dinner with Dan's friends who are the hosts of the arts colony -- the senior man, Joanet, was Miro's ceramicist and his father was too before him, and the grounds where we're staying here, in a mountainside hacienda, have Miro sculptures on them as well as Joanet's and his father's own well-documented work.

Dinner was a paella for the whole table -- actually my wife makes better paella, , but there was good local wine and sparkling wine and a dessert of Catalan creme brulee, and good funny talk in English, Catalan, Spanish, and Japanese fort Joanet's multilingual Japanese wife and her assistant. (I demonstrated my ability to count to ten in that language, to general approval).

Catalan is hard for me to sitinguish from Spanish, and since my Spanish consists of 100 words that makes it tough going. The pronunciation is like Portuguese, the verb ending and articles are like French, all overlaid with a vague Spanish atmosphere. My first Catalan phrase is "cafe amb llet," which means cafe au lait or cafe con leche; "llet" is pronounced "yet."

I think if I were fluent in Catalan I'd want to stay here permanently.

Got to go now; this is a dialup connection and we're off to the Costa Brava this morning. It's 8:30 am, or 1:30 am Texas time, and I'm wired after five hours' sleep. Dan says hi, and he tells his old readers that he plans to gear up on his blog again when he returns to Madison in the fall. I don't know how to say ciao in Catalan so I'll say au revoir -- French is a better choice around here than Spanish, for political reasons.

September 15, 2005

Catalonia Bound

Well, I'm off for Spain this afternoon, on a two-week vacation with my pal Dan Ramirez, an artist and former blogger whom some of you know as Lhombre. (He plans to restart his blog at some point.) Dan's been at an arts colony near Barcelona all summer, and he invited me to drive around the country with him in a rented car for his last two weeks there.

We'll have Dan's laptop on board and there are lots of internet cafes in Spain, so I expect to send you some reports from the scene. I've never been to Spain, and for days I've been underlining feverishly in my guidebook.

In two weeks I hope to return here and collapse into a more normal life routine.

I'll be traveling on an airline that declared bankruptcy yesterday, and in this morning's email I found an encouraging letter from them:

"We have taken this action as part of our
ongoing efforts to make [name of airline] a simpler, more efficient and
cost-effective airline. On behalf of the tens of thousands of [name of airline]
employees worldwide who look forward to welcoming you onboard every day,
I want to assure you [name of airline] is open for business as usual:

"Your travel plans are secure -- We are operating our full schedule of
flights, honoring tickets and reservations as usual, and making normal
refunds and exchanges. You can count on the convenience and choice
you've come to expect from the more than 7,500 daily flights to 502
destinations in 88 countries that we, along with our ... partners, provide worldwide.

"Your [name of promotion]Miles(R) are secure -- The award-winning [name of promotion] program has
not been affected, and you can continue to enjoy the program's
benefits--including [name of airline] Crown Room Clubs, double miles on qualifying
purchases with the [name of airline + name of promotion] Credit Card from American Express(R),
and the opportunity to earn and redeem miles on the thousands of flights
offered by... our vast network of global airline alliances.

"[name of airline] is honored to have been named "the Most Preferred Airline" this
year by business travelers* and we thank you for voting our [name of promotion]
program as the Best Frequent Flyer program in a Travel Savvy magazine
survey. From upgraded features on, to refurbished cabins, to
new routes and international destinations, to fewer restrictions and
service fees, we're transforming [name of airline] to be even better for you."

How does one get a job writing that stuff?

September 14, 2005

The One Great Matter

The master from the east came to town and blew everyone away with his nonattachment, compassion, and transcendence of self. He talked about thusness and said, “It is just this.” He talked about polishing an empty mirror and about the jewel-eye of truth. He talked about clarifying the one great matter and about not hiding in the realm of purity.

After the seminar, the students were talking about where to go to eat. Somebody mentioned a Thai place, someone else sushi. From the other side of the room the master strained to hear what they were saying. Watching them walk to the parking lot, he thought, “Why don’t people like me?”

September 13, 2005

"Sure, I Remember Bobby Zimmerman"

I'm indulging my Dylan fixation this morning to the extent of reading this humorous account by an NYT reporter of a car trip along Highway 61 in Minnesota, following directions given by Dylan to Bono in a scene in CHRONICLES, VOL. 1.

The article is four pages long, but filled with fondly observed Minnesota local color -- and if you must skip some of it, you absolutey MUST read the punch line that constitutes the final two paragraphs.

September 12, 2005


He wished he could figure out a way to show people that he wasn’t the cold insensitive bastard they thought. In fact the sadness of life had affected him lately to the point where he didn’t know how much more he could take. The news was all war and flood and crime, all disaster and meanness and stupidity and greed. Then just yesterday he heard a story about the accidental death of a child – no one he knew, the neighbor of a friend in another part of the country – and he had to put his head in his hands – this was in a restaurant full of people in suits lunching – for a full minute, invoking over and over, profanely, one of the names of God.

That afternoon he almost fired one of his employees for a mistake caused by his own faulty instructions. When he realized what he was doing he shouted at the employee to get back to work and stop being a nuisance.

Somehow he got home that evening. “Was it an all right day for you?” his wife asked. He said that it was.

A while later she asked, “Do you want to talk?”

“What do you mean?” he said.

As they got into bed that night she asked again, “Is there anything you wanted to talk about?”

“Not especially,” he said. “Anything you want to, though, I’ll listen.”

His wife began speaking about things of interest to her, and he forced answers up from somewhere, each response preceded by a processing delay, as if he had to keep rolling a stone away from the tomb of his mouth.

But the sound of her voice soothed him, and he huddled against her. He put his arm around her, and soon another part of him took over and he felt masterful and efficient and strong. Bringing her along as if she were the one who needed to be guided to pleasure.

But then at the climax something strange happened. It wasn’t the rocking rampaging explosion he expected from long habit. Instead, at the peak, he hung motionless, arched like a rainbow or a bridge, and with all his nerves ringing he began to moan in loud helpless pulses like bulletins from a foreign land, and when it was all spent and faded he huddled down against her and sank into a second paroxysm, one of tears.

At first he thought he was having a heart attack or something, this trembling all over his skin and through his limbs and into his chest. When he realized it was his soul thawing, he just wanted to lie there feeling it and never go to sleep.

September 09, 2005

Drawing a Line

A package arrived on my doorstep. I didn’t know who had sent it. It was wrapped in gift paper that was only partly decorated and mostly blank.

The card on the box said: “Your job is to add one line to the wrapping paper, then pass it on to the next person.”

I had a colored pencil in my hand and I had an impulse to quickly swipe down with it, make a line spontaneously, and let it go. But then I told myself, “This is an important project, maybe I should think about it more.”

I brought the box inside and sat in front of it, thinking. Ideas came slowly and fitfully. But I couldn’t bring myself to draw the line on the paper. What if my hand made a line that didn’t match my vision?

I sketched lines in the air above the paper. They seemed promising but I wasn’t sure. Every time my pencil touched down upon the paper, I whisked it up again before a mark showed.

I got a pile of other papers to practice on. I drew line after line. After each one, I looked closely and decided it wasn’t the right line for the package. A big discard pile grew.

At last my stock of paper was gone and my pencil was worn down and I told myself, “Now I don’t have to draw that line.” But of course the box was still there.

People asked me, “How about that line you’re working on?” and I gave shifty answers. As time went by, they stopped asking.

It was time to put the box in a closet, I decided. I picked up the box and carried it. Then, just after I opened the closet door, I looked at the wrapping paper again. Before I knew it, I had drawn a line with the nub of colored pencil in my hand. It was the same line I would have drawn when I first saw the package.

I put the package outside, and the next time I looked it was gone.

I enjoy remembering what my line looked like and what the whole box looked like, but memory blurs over time. I took a photograph of the package on the porch, but photos fade too, and this one’s at the bottom of a drawer somewhere.

I hope somebody liked my line.

September 08, 2005

Austin Good, Austin Hilton Not So

The Austin Chronicle, our alternative weekly, isn't known for being pro-establishment, but in this week's issue they're running a glowing article by Amy Smith on how well Mayor Will Wynn and a host of volunteers have been handling the evacuee situation at the Austin Convention Center. An excerpt:

"[A mayoral aide] would recount one chaotic moment when volunteers discovered they were running short on towels. It was 3:30am Sunday, and there were 500 bedraggled guests waiting for showers. The Austin Hilton across the street, the mayor was told, had refused a request to wash hundreds of towels heaped in a cart. So the mayor commandeered a trio of fellows, and the four of them pushed the automobile-sized cart up Red River [Street] and into the Hilton. The hotel night manager told the mayor he would "love" to help, but didn't have the authority to wash the towels. "I ain't asking for your authorization!" Wynn bellowed. "Where the hell are your washing machines?" With that, the staff grabbed the cart and scurried off to the laundry room.

"When Futrell prompted Wynn to tell the towel story at a press briefing, the mayor chuckled and then changed the subject."

And here's a link to an article by Boing Boing correspondent Jasmina Tesanovic on her experiences visiting the Austin Convention Center.

September 07, 2005

Return from the Land of Story

The stream runs down out of the forest, widens into a reed–edged pond, and narrows again to cut a valley through the sand beach and empty into the warm sea. The kids and I are playing in the stream on the beach, straddling the foot–wide channel like giants, then rinsing our feet in the cold fresh water. We try to keep from knocking down the tiny wall of sand, and when that gets tiresome, we try to knock it down in exactly the best spots.

Their mother is walking upstream alone, high–stepping slowly through the pond, her hand skimming the reeds. Three white ibis stand in the water at the far end of the pond, and she is trying to sneak up on them. But she’s barely started when they fly away. Still she advances to the end of the pond, and walks further upstream to where it turns left into the forest. Then she’s gone, behind a palm trunk and into the forest.

This is where, if it were a story, it would begin. After waiting for her for several minutes, I’d stalk upstream myself – and not find her. Gone without a sign. In a shocking instant my life would be overturned, and necessity would throw me onto my deepest resources, which I’d discover to be more numerous and more powerful than I’d ever known. I would find reserves of untapped courage as I followed a meager trail to the ends of the earth, facing down formidable enemies, tracing a labyrinthine conspiracy, perhaps even saving the world in the process of finding a lost love – all this, and protecting the loved ones at my side too.

Then she reappears in the clearing. I’m already halfway across the pond. “Nothing much there,” she reports, smiling.

I wade back to the beach through submerged grass, heart slowing down. The kids are tossing handfuls of sand at each other, and then they’re tossing pebbles at a cairn that marks the trail. Should I stop them from throwing rocks? I decide not to, there’s no chance of their harming anything. The decision feels weightless: either way, I wouldn’t have lost. A drizzle is falling from sun–backed clouds. A faraway motorboat, inaudible, slants toward the horizon. The way back to our cabin is mostly on rocky beach, the wave–smoothed stones hurting our bare soft feet just enough to make a pleasant ordeal.

A few yards into the forest is the realm of story. Here in the clear is the realm of life.

God help the person whose life is a story.

September 05, 2005

Evacuees in Austin: Eyewitness Rob

I hope my commenter Rob won't mind, but I find his comment on yesterday's post so stirring and valuable that I want to use it as my post for today. Here it is:

Hi Richard,

My wife and I went down Saturday and worked with the refugees from Katrina at the Palmer Events Center. She's an RN, so there was a lot for her to do. I'm not a medical person of any sort, but there was plenty of unskilled work around.

We heard dozens of stories from the people of NO (part of the job was just to listen to those who needed to talk), but there was one clear pattern. Very few of them had seen any sort of first responder. No police, no firemen, no EMT's. The first help they saw was Coast Guard helicopters.

One of the Austin EMT volunteers said to me after they left, "I can't believe these people were abandoned by their own city." He took it personally, I think. He said that the city has responsibility for the first three days in a disaster. The first responders are supposed to have a plan good for three days, while outside response gears up.

When you get down to it, it's a miracle that some of them got out at all. A nearly deaf woman with a history of heart problems and strokes who was also a double amputee came through Palmer. Somehow, she had survived the storm, made it through the water to a truck, gotten airlifted to the airport and transported to Austin. The word "miracle" seems inadequate.

One other thing. The victims were much more gracious than they've been shown on TV. Astonishingly, they hardly complained at all, despite the numerous changes of busses and waiting and lines that they had to go through to get to us. Lots of them said they never expected to live and never expected to see a "nice place" (like our stark concrete room with cots and the arc lights overhead) again. They thanked us over and over again for taking care of them. One man said, "I hope you-all aren't having a population explosion around here". I said no, there was no explosion. He said, "good, we talked it over on the bus and we're staying."

A lot of them were really funny, too (whether they meant to be or not). When my wife went to give a man a tetanus shot she said, "now take a deep breath, this is going to hurt a little". He said, "hell, ma'am, you're talking to someone who pulls his own teeth, that needle isn't going to mean a thing to me."

Rob is the author of Roborant, an excellent blog that closed down last month, featuring detailed, cogent reviews of important works of Western intellectual history. My stupid blogroll is down at the moment -- it seems to come and go capriciously -- and a google search led me to an address that didn't pan out. But if you can get to Rob's blog, you'll find it very rewarding. Rob, send us that URL!


Here's another eyewitness report from Austin's events center, this one from Damon McCullar at Burnt Orange Report.

And there's more at Austin Bloggers metablog.


Here's the central website coordinating Austin's aid efforts. Its headline reads:

"Welcome to Austin, families from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama! Our home is your home."

Amen to that.

September 04, 2005

The Hobbesian Decade

That's what David Brooks calls it in a surprisingly nonpartisan column in today's NYT.

"The scrapbook of history accords but a few pages to each decade, and it is already clear that the pages devoted to this one will be grisly," he writes.


"Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield."

Brooks senses a big political shift in the future, but doesn't know what direction it will go in. A sensible assessment, in my opinion.

Read the whole thing here.

(By the way, Brooks opens his piece with a link to the blog The American Scene, which is a nice touch.)

September 02, 2005

American Refugees

When was the last time that masses of Americans were refugees within the borders of the United States? I would imagine it was during the Civil War.

The other night on “Nightline” a reporter used the word “refugees” to describe the people fleeing the Gulf Coast, and Ted Koppel questioned him about the word choice. Had he used “refugees” carefully to distinguish them from mere evacuees or hurricane victims? Yes, the reporter said, he had used the word deliberately. He had covered refugee situations around the world, and the current crisis meets the conditions in its scale and its emotionally and physically dislocating impact.

Yesterday afternoon, picking up the kids at school, I saw a father rush up to the principal and say, “I’ve got two sisters who are refugees, and they’ve got daughters in first grade.” Would the children be allowed to enter our elementary school, the father wanted to know? Of course, no problem, the principal assured him.

Last night I got a mass email from a friend here in Austin, asking if anyone knew of a place where two of her friends from New Orleans could live for several months. Actually two places – the New Orleans couple are the separated coparents of a child, And they have three golden retrievers.

A population shift involving at least a million people over a period of days, weeks.

I have a dreadful feeling that this is the beginning of a new phase of the American experience.

September 01, 2005

New Orleans, 2025

This is the greatest city! Our hotel room is on the 40th floor, right on Bourbon Street, and I can look down over the whole French Quarter and see what’s going on without even going down there. We have in-room VR, so this morning I put on the helmet and there I was, back in old New Orleans the way it was before this flood or something that they had about twenty years ago. It was okay, but it was small and dirty and nothing much interesting was happening, just a lot of people eating seafood and getting drunk and watching other people take off their clothes. I don’t like seafood anyway. Then I changed channels and that was great, because I was in the flood. First I had a rowboat and was rowing all over New Orleans looking for my family. (I found them all, so I won some special hotel money to use in the gift shop here.) Then I was a National Guard girl shooting looters. For each looter you got more hotel money. Then I joined a crew that was rebuilding houses, but that got boring so I took the helmet off.

We had lunch in the hotel. I had a Cajun sausage taco pizza and about twelve chocolate beignets with Reese’s pieces mix-ins. We took a swim in the pool on the roof – it’s shaped like a huge oyster, which makes it the only way I like oysters!

Then we took a ride in an old-fashioned carriage with a sim horse. The horse told us about New Orleans and how they’d really fixed it up since the flood. We stopped and walked for one block and we put a five-dollar coin into this sim musician and he started playing songs. I don’t like that kind of music, but I guess it was okay. He played about six instruments all at once and he played each one perfectly. I guess they have some really good programmers in New Orleans.

Then we rode on the monorail that goes around inside the French Quarter gates. It was cool. You could tell those gates are really strong. Nothing can get in that doesn’t belong in the French Quarter! We couldn’t even see what was on the other side. Oh well, I hear that it’s just like any other city on that side. There’s really nothing to look at.

At the end of the monorail you go into this little auditorium and see a show with beautiful sim ladies dancing. I guess the dancing was okay, even though the clothes were yucky. Then at the end you’re supposed to guess which lady is really a man underneath. I couldn’t guess, but Mom did! We got some casino dollars for that. So mom and Dad went into the casino and I stayed in the casino Kids Room and played a VR game where I was fighting aliens who were attacking New Orleans from space.

Well, that’s all for now, except that I can’t wait till the big storm hits tomorrow or the next day. The guy at the hotel told us there’s absolutely nothing to worry about – all the buildings now are built to take the toughest storms. It’s going to be fun! And if the guy at the hotel was wrong, that’s okay, because I have all my VR training teaching me how to find my family and shoot looters and stuff.