(Note to readers: I’m trying out a new style this time, writing from the second person, even though this is about my own experiences during the past week.)
So, you are going to Barcelona for the first time and you don’t speak Spanish. Well, not to worry—most people here speak some English, and those who do not are still used to dealing with foreigners. This is a cosmopolitan city, after all, with visitors year-round from all over the world.
In fact, you will find that people are patient and friendly here in Barcelona. Certainly one reason for this is that they are happy for you to spend your money in their bars, their restaurants, their cafes, and their shops. And so, even if you can barely say a few words such buenos dias and adios, and of course, tapas, you are still welcome here.
The first person to greet you here in Barcelona is your taxi driver, who is picking you up from the airport to take you to your hotel, Salles Hotel Pere IV. He is from Pakistan, and he tells you that he has been living here for well over twenty years, but now he is getting ready to migrate to Sydney where his wife and son are already located. You have a friendly conversation with him, in English of course, and soon you arrive at your hotel.
You soon find that people from all over Asia are very present in this city. The bodegas, known here as supermercat, are all run by South Asian migrants, or so it seems. Meanwhile, the Chinese have cornered the market in small shops selling cheap clothing and travel gear such as suitcases and backpacks. You will see these shops all over the city, at least outside of the main tourist areas, as well as plenty of Chinese restaurants, but you also find that there are even tapas cafes run by Chinese migrants as well.
There are also plenty of Asian tourists here, spending their time and money on Barcelona’s treasures. Every morning you go down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast you see large groups of Chinese and Japanese tourists in the restaurant. You also see them in the hotel lobby, either embarking or disembarking from their buses with their suitcases in tow. This is a middle-range hotel, not too expensive, but not cheap either, and it seems to fit their price range and comfort standards, as it does yours. After all, you are Asian too, even though you don’t look the part. But you do understand their languages, even the Shanghainese that some of them speak, and so you fit right in with the clientele of this hotel.
Unlike them, however, you are here mainly for business purposes, not purely for tourism, although there will be some of that as well. Your primary goal here is to attend a five-day conference, and so every morning you dutifully take a brisk twenty-minute walk to the conference venue: the Barcelona Arts Hotel located near the beach. (See my previous entry for a rundown of this conference).
You enjoy seeing the Mediterranean ocean—er, sea—for the first time in your life, and you become fascinated with watching its various moods and colors at different times of day and night in different types of weather, sunny, rainy, or in between. You marvel at the beauty of this body of water and you say to yourself, “no wonder this ocean…er, sea has been the subject of so many works of literature, art, and poetry over the ages.”
After you mistakenly call it an ocean on Facebook and your colleagues and friends patiently correct you, shaking their heads and wondering if you actually did receive an elementary education, you then spend some time pondering the difference between “ocean” and “sea” and you decide that after all this must be more of a poetic than a technical distinction, even though they will tell you that seas, unlike oceans, are surrounded by land. But what does that mean, really, and when does a sea turn into an ocean and vice versa? It is all very confusing, and you decide that this distinction must have been decided by some pedagog while he was concocting a geography textbook for children sometime in the 19th century.
One of your first site visits is to the University of Barcelona’s oldest campus in the middle of the city, where you are meeting some representatives of the university. You will later revisit this old campus with its gorgeous main halls and arcades and gardens and other classical features (see my previous entry). You marvel at how students are strolling, sitting, reading, studying and chatting in the gardens and in the arcades as they have done for many centuries. There are no university campuses like this in either America or in China, or if they do exist they are only pale imitations of the originals--a theme that keeps recurring during your visit to Barcelona, which as with any European journey is always a quest for the authentic.
The conference keeps you busy for the first five days you are here in Barcelona, and mostly you see the inside of underground conference halls. Nevertheless, you do get to see some of the city’s sites. On the first day, one of the professors working for the conference organization takes you and a few other guests on a marvelous tour of the Casa Batllo. He tells you that this strange building, whose interior you climb as you and hundreds of other visitors, mostly from China and Japan, marvel at all the various fixtures and windows, is meant to invoke an undersea experience, and indeed it does. Being inside it feels like being in a psychedelic submarine diving into the depths of somebody’s dreams. And it is of course not just somebody who is slumbering and dreaming, but the city itself. You end the tour at the very top of the building where you see the sword hilt of St Jordi (George), Barcelona’s patron saint, plunged into the body of the dragon. And if you time this visit with the sunset, the red light invokes the blood of the dragon (although the guide did not tell you this).
Besides St. Jordi, you must also pay homage to a few other legendary figures. One is the Catalan artist Joan Miro, whose museum is located atop Montjuic overlooking the city. The museum itself is well worth the trip, and soon you are lost in the primitive and deeply spiritual symbolism of this Catalonian artist, whose work you’ve admired for many years. You’ve seen his work in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., but here in Barcelona is an entire museum dedicated to the life and work of this artist, one of the giants of 20th century art. You commune with Miro for a while and try to understand his vision and his symbolic language, which of course you never really will, and so you go on a stroll around the mountain, and pass through gardens, past the Olympic stadium and over to the other museum on the hill where you walk down—it’s not far—to the streets below to catch a bus across the city.
Another is the architect Antoni Gaudi. And so you are led here and there to search for traces of his stamp upon the city in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. You also learn that he died tragically in 1926 after being hit by a tram, although by that time he had lived to the age of 73, and so it was not as tragic a death as it would have been had he been run over by a horse-drawn cart in his 30s. In fact, by that time Gaudi had assured the city that he would be remembered for a very long time.
Gaudi’s principle creation, La Sagrada Familia, awaits your visit following the conference’s end on Saturday. So you dutifully book a ticket online for a guided tour of this unfinished masterpiece. You are told to do so by many people, and you do it. You do not want to wait in a long line, nor do you want to go there on your own without somebody knowledgeable about this edifice and its unique history and visual language. And you are extremely grateful that you did so, because your tour guide is a rather diminutive Barcelonan named Maria, and she is indeed the perfect person to take you through this highly unusual church dedicated to Jesus and Mary and the Evangelists and Disciples.
After introducing you to the historical background of the building of the church, why it was halted, and how it is now in process of being completed by 2026 according to Gaudi’s original plan (and there is a nice model to show this), you step through the nativity scenes and inside the church where you and hundreds of others find yourselves looking upward in awe at the treelike columns that support the edifice and the play of colors as the sun penetrates through the various stained-glass windows, shifting from greens and blues in the morning hours to reds, oranges and yellows in afternoon. Your guide Maria also explains the scientific basis behind Gaudi’s creation which is meant to gather the maximum amount of light into the interior. You learn more about this in the underground chamber beneath the main hall of the church which functions as a museum.
Then, after going through the hall once more, you exit on the passion side and you find yourself in a nice park, with real trees, their leaves all green and yellow in the late afternoon sun, and you wonder why anybody needed to build an artificial forest when the real thing is so much more marvelous. Still, you look back at the edifice and see the towers and imagine what it will be like when the last tower, 170+ meters high, built to honor Jesus, is finished. And yet, you are not really a religious person, having grown up in a mixed Judaic-Christian family, and so you are not as awed by the church as some devout believers might be.
Still, you like to visit places of worship and you seem to find some inner peace in doing so, and so you wander off into the old Gothic quarter to find the older churches, and you eventually wind your way over to the mother ship, La Catedral, where you are once again lost inside the gigantic body of this gothic church, and you exit through the side quarters where there are 13 geese in a pool (or so you are told—you didn’t bother to count them) which is an age-old tradition, and you soon find yourself wandering behind the church as the sky slowly darkens, and things get positively medieval, and there is a man—you aren’t sure if this is real or a dream at this point—who is playing a classical guitar, and he is playing Taregga’s tune “Recuerdos de la Alhambra”, which you feel is a song that captures the mystery, magic and romance of Spain like no other, and yet you are wondering at this point, what is Spain, really? This is a question that will perplex you throughout your entire journey.
You then find yourself wandering deep underground through the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement that was once here, and you start to see the deep historical layers upon which this city was built, and it sounds cliché but you look at these remnants of an age long gone and think how fleeting and insignificant your own life is really, and you start to understand why Gaudi wanted to leave a more permanent mark on the city of his birth and death. (While, actually he wasn’t really born here in Barcelona, but he was born in Catalonia, so he’s a native for sure.)
Of course this distinction between Spain and Catalonia is also something that intrigues and confuses you throughout your journey. You see many signs on walls and buildings all over the city calling for the liberation of political prisoners, and you learn something about Catalonia’s recent bid for nationhood and its sense of a separate identity, and you also learn that Catalonian is a separate language, distinct from Spanish, and closer to French, and you actually find that since you can read French, it is actually easier for you to read Catalonian than to read Spanish, which is quite a delightful surprise. And you wonder how long it would take you to learn Spanish and for that matter Catalonian, and you determine that next time you visit Spain (or any Spanish-speaking country for that matter) you will learn at least enough of the language to not feel like a complete imbecile (now there’s a nice French word).
So far you have picked up a few words and phrases of Spanish here and there. A waitress, with great patience and friendliness, taught you how to say “la quenta por favor” (the bill, please) and now every time you say this to a waiter and they understand you, you feel a great sense of achievement and triumph. You know you are capable of learning more, and perhaps even becoming somewhat proficient if you put your mind to it. After all, you did learn French and also Chinese and Japanese, and you seem to have a knack for languages.
So you spend some time during your stay in Barcelona wondering why in hell you never bothered to learn Spanish? Well, actually you did learn some Spanish through osmosis, and also through some children’s shows such as Sesame Street and (you have to have grown up in the 1970s to remember this one) Villa Allegre. And you realize also that as an American, much of your knowledge of Spanish culture was filtered through the lens of Hispanic culture coming from Latin and South America. You recall that you were once drawn into the labyrinthine works of Borges, and you enjoyed the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and you did at one point try to read Don Quixote but without any success. As for language, you learned a few bits and bobs here and there over the decades, but one thing you do realize when you actually arrive in a Spanish-speaking country for the first time in your life is that people here speak really, really fast, and unless they write down what they are saying, there is no way for you to keep up with them.
And so you mumble and bumble and stumble your way in taxis and buses and subways and shops and restaurants, picking up a phrase or two to use as you get around the city. Quickly you learn that nobody understands you when you tell them you want to go to Salles Hotel Pere IV, and that the only way they will know where you are going is if you say “Pere Quarta”. It takes a friendly cab driver to let you in on this secret. You also learn how much money to put into the ticket machine in the underground and what buttons to press, and again a friendly attendant helps you through the process as if you were a five year old child, which you certain feel like at times.
But mostly you walk. As a city person, you know that only through walking do you really get to know a city. And so every day, when you are not busy with other things, you are walking around the city. You quickly learn how the city is organized and where the various neighborhoods are located relative to each other. And you realize quickly that the entire city is one gigantic contemporary art museum dedicated to street art, otherwise known as graffiti. While most of it is fairly humdrum or political in nature, some is true art—if Jean Michel Basquiat had been the painter, these artworks on the walls and doors of the city’s old buildings would now be worth millions.
You dutifully take a stroll down Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s equivalent to Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road, where tourists get fleeced by tricksters, hucksters, gangsters, and pickpockets, but mostly by overpriced restaurants and shops. You stroll deep into El Raval, which you are told is a “seedy area” but has been gentrified a bit lately. And yet, the MACBA is located here, in a space that is ideal for young skateboard punks to hang out and show off their skills.
You are fascinated with this area because for some reason it seems more “real,” more “authentic” than Las Ramblas. And you spend many hours wandering and getting lost in the gothic quarter known as Barri Gothic. Later, a Barcelonan will tell you the city is a gigantic theme park, and you see how he is right, and especially between Las Ramblas and Barri Gothic you feel you’ve stumbled into some more authentic and alcoholic version of a Disneyland castle town with its narrow alleyways and its Roman ruins and gothic churches. What makes it especially so are all the various shops ensconced inside the alleyways, row after row of them, selling various curious, knick-knacks and googaws, all of which seem to claim some sort of originality or authenticity, but of course you quickly see the patterns and how most of these goods are mass produced replicas, probably overpriced as well.
As a musician of sorts, you find the most interesting shops are the music shops, selling sheet music by the score, all gathered on shelves in folders and folios, and you spend hours in these shops searching for old scores of authentic Spanish or European music from bygone days, including choral music, music for piano and voice, guitar, etc. Well, why not buy a real authentic Spanish guitar and relearn some of the old tunes you once learned while studying classical guitar all those years ago? And you remember how your uncle used to play these tunes when you were a child, and how entrancing and mysterious they were, and how Spanish!
What you really want to do is to see some real musicians performing here in Barcelona, but you don’t seem to be able to coordinate a visit to a concert hall, so you settle for a live music club deep in El Raval called Jazzsi Club Taller des Musics, and it turns out to be a really cool space, with an intimate connection between stage and audience like the cabarets of old. The musicians are all phenomenally good, and they take turns mounting the stage and play in different combos with drummers, bassists, guitarists and singers switching in and out. The songs they perform are mostly Anglo-American canonical rock and pop tunes, which is slightly surprising—you were hoping for more jazz, but you do get some in the form of a Latin number featuring a keyboardist, bassist and drummer before they go back to their lineup of Beatles, Police, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and others. This makes you wonder why American music has had such a great influence over the world in the past century (something you’ve written a book or two about and a few articles actually) and why the music is so approachable and why such an obviously local audience are all singing along to these songs, and also why every taxi, restaurant, and bus you’ve been on has been playing them as well. The Spain of your imagination, the Spain of Fernando Sor and Tarrega and the other great masters, is not the Spain of reality. Or perhaps you are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, you have now done the various quarters, and you have tramped many kilometers—perhaps over 100 in the past week—up and down avenues, and around the funny stop-sign octagonal shaped blocks, learning how to navigate around the traffic, the automobiles, buses, and bicycles and scooters with their own dedicated lanes. Of course you must also pay a visit to Park Guell up on the hill above the city. Barcelona has great fengshui, and you quickly learn how to tell which part of the city you are in and what way you are heading by the steepness of the streets as the city climbs its way up the hillside.
You spend a late afternoon wandering around Park Guell, having been astute enough to purchase a ticket online as you did with Sagrada Familias, so as to avoid the crowds or worse, not getting in at all. After paying homage to the curious lizard that is the emblem of this park and of Barcelona, you climb further up into the forested park that surrounds Gaudi’s creation, passing all kinds of street hawkers and musicians along the way, and you go up and up as the vista overlooking the city and ocean beyond becomes ever more majestic.
You see the conference hotel at the edge of the city facing the ocean—one of the tallest buildings, next to the Sagrada Familia whose towers jut out from the middle of the city. All of those modern, orderly avenues and streets are now a great big jumble of colors stretching out to the ocean, a deep blue, and the lighter blue of the sky which is now turning orange in the late afternoon. You hear the shouts of football (soccer) players in the parks that surround the hilltop, as people from many countries speaking many languages pass by. Of course you must also visit Gaudi’s house, now a museum, where he lived for the last twenty years of his life, and see the odd furniture he designed, the toilet where he did his business, and his small bedroom and prayer room. And you wonder what it was like to live in this house overlooking the city and whether he could have imagined what the city would become over the next century and beyond.
Before you leave the city, there is another man you must pay homage to, namely Pablo Picasso, who was also in a sense a native of this place. Certainly he spent a great deal of time here in Barcelona and had various phases of his career here as his museum makes clear. You walk through the medieval castle that is home to his museum, and you spend some time in the section devoted to his various renditions of the Velasquez masterpiece known as Las Meninas. You wonder why he became so obsessed with this 17th century painting and why he made so many versions, all of them faithful in some ways yet diverging in others, and of course done in his own inimitable style. It is now time to exit through the gift shop and purchase a fridge magnet, a notebook, a box, a poster, a real book, or all of the above.
After a week in Barcelona, including two days of flaneuring, you are now ready to fly back home, but not before one final journey. On Tuesday morning, you take a subway to the bus station and then take a one-hour bus ride up into the mountainous area that lies beyond the city. You are heading to Vic, a small town up in the mountains, to visit the university there, and on the way you feel as if you are entering a dreamworld composed of timeless villages and mountains.
Your contact at Vic introduces you to the university, and then he takes you on a tour of the town. You marvel at the old quarter in the middle of the town, with its tall buildings and its lovely arcades, dating back to the fourteenth century. There are also beautiful facades from the arts nouveau movement of the late nineteenth century. You see an outdoor food and clothing market in action in the main square and you wonder, is this the “real” Spain? Or is it authentic Catalonia? And what’s the difference? Your interlocutor, over one of the best meals you have had since you arrived, tells you that there are many Spains, and this seems to help you begin to understand what Spain is all about.
So, you are now packing up to head to the airport tomorrow morning, and you have had enough of Barcelona for now, but you are certain that you will return here again sometime, perhaps with your family or with friends or else on another business trip of some sort. Not only that, but you also hope to visit other parts of the country next time as you continue to unravel the mystery that is Spain.