Saturday, April 17, 2004
I'm planted in what might loosely be described as a cybercafé -- a hole in the wall, hidden away on one of many dark, narrow streets in Barcelona's Gothic quarter, east of La Rambla. Run by a couple of Pakistani 30-somethings, the space completely unadorned, no music playing, no café to be found (though an unused, unplugged espresso maker sits atop a small refrigerator near the door). Eight or nine computers have been shoehorned into this teeny space, three occupied by 9 or 10 year old males of various ethnic backgrounds, playing computer games, yelling back and forth in Spanish, their exchanges liberally greased with foul language. Reporting on what's happening in their games, insulting each other, producing frequent barks and squeals of enthusiasm, disdain, frustration and other emotions likely to burst out of 9-year-olds cranked up on violent entertainment. A fourth, several years older, sits to my left, quieter than the rest, concentrating intensely on his game -- a military extravaganza that appears to deal in high body counts.
It's the first time I've sat in front of a computer since Thursday. Instead of passing sedentary hours in a chair typing away, large chunks of yesterday and today were spent wandering many, many kilometers of this large, beautiful city. My little feet are tired, and not suffering quietly -- one of the reasons I wandered into this den of cyber-slaughter, to give them a rest.
(The teenager to my left just erupted into a cry of "Ahhh, ¡Ataque! ¡Ataque!", followed immediately by several seconds of diabolical laughter.)
The train trip between Madrid and Barcelona is a lengthy, butt-numbing motherfucker, not to put too fine a point on it. Something I've noticed -- the Spaniards seem to have a thing about playing muzacky pop favorites over the inboard sound systems of planes and trains that either are waiting to head out or are just reaching their destination. Yesterday around 7:30 a.m.: I stumble into the train, having just choked down a cup of some caustic substance resembling espresso (leaving my tongue feeling as if it had been peeled) at a train station coffee shop (one of the counter women, a big blonde bruiser, sported a sizeable contusion on her left cheek; another, also impressively massive, had thick black hair trussed up atop her head in a pile that approached Marge Simpson's 'do in height, mass and form) -- whoever had been left in charge of the train had decided to bring us travelers to full consciousness with a line-up of overemotional pop numbers rendered at top volume. The music blessedly got choked off as the train pulled out of the station, giving way to the clatter of heavy rain against the windows, the morning outside gray, dim.
And that was the story for much of the next several hours. Heavy rain, low, gray skies. Now and then the clouds lifted a bit, allowing glimpses of small houses clustered together amid rough terrain, of dramatic, mountainous outcroppings of rock thrusting upward into dark, misty clouds. All that punctuated by periodic stops through small cities, until the train reached Tarragona, on the coast, and headed north, riding tracks set above the Mediterranean, waves of dark green water rolling toward us, breaking on narrow expanses of shore just below the tracks.
And then Barcelona, packed with tourists, far more than I'd expected. French, American, Brits, with some stray Germans and Italians tossed into the mix, the Germans looking a bit bewildered, as if they'd expected to end up at some other, more tranquil destination. A strange, interesting city, looking and feeling to me in many ways like a mix of Paris and Madrid.
Navigating the Metro system brought me to the lower end of La Rambla, where I discovered I'd booked a room in a joint right on the main drag, a joint that has shown itself to be a find. Not because of its location -- La Rambla turns out to be my least favorite part of the city, a zone geared to tourism in fairly raw form -- but because they actually gave me an apartment, complete with small kitchen, high enough up to provide views of rooftop Barcelona, of the hills that ring the city, of church domes and towers. With a good 25 or 30 feet of terrace, running around the flat's two outside walls, complete with a couple of chairs. Not that yesterday's weather permitted terrace lounging. But today's has, and during a brief late-afternoon return to the flat, I lounged a bit, a few peaceful minutes that felt just fine.
Convenience store, Barcelona -- getting right to the point:
Monday, April 19, 2004
After an hour of working away at that last entry, I bolted to a different, more sedate cybercafé. Two 30ish hispanic women entered the first one shortly before my exit, bringing the place to near-capacity. After several further minutes of obscenity-packed shouting among the young males, one of the Pakistani owners decided the women didn't need to be subjected to that, ordering the boys to zip it. Which reduced constant high-spirited swearing to frequent outbursts punctuated by seconds of quiet. ("¡Coño, me muero!" "Bueno, ¡qué te maten, mamón!" Silence. "¡Joder! ¡Cabrón!") ["Fuck, I'm dead!" "Good, may they kill you, cocksucker!" Silence. "Fuck! You bastard!"]
By the time I stepped back out into the street from the second cyberjoint, darkness had fallen, Saturday night was well underway. Pedestrian traffic on Barcelona's backstreet version of major thoroughfares had grown from a trickle to a flood, locals mixing with overabundant tourists, everyone out looking for a good time.
I'd spent much of the previous evening with a friend not seen in just over two years, pausing first at a crowded tapas joint before settling into a restaurant for a couple of hours of chow/conversation. A smart, interesting guy I first met in intensive Spanish classes in Madrid 3-1/2 years ago -- Belgian, now studying for his master's in Barcelona.
Got home late, Barcelona's Friday night street party just cranking up as I turned off the light, slightly before 2. Groups of revelers six floors down woke me up at both 5 and 6 a.m., singing in various languages with loud, ragged enthusiasm.
There is a strange sense of dislocation I experience over here, at once exhilarating and bittersweet -- various languages audible everywhere, signage idioms changing depending on the city. Some folks speak to me in Spanish, others go directly to English after assessing me with a fast glance. Some are patient, friendly, others curt, uninterested. There are many ways in which I feel far more at home here than on the far side of the Atlantic, others in which I am clearly foreign, drifting through styles of daily life rooted in many centuries of history and culture. Far from unique, probably experienced by many millions of people. I, however, am not them.
But I blabber.
Saturday morning: pulled myself out of bed at an excessively reasonable hour, intending to get my butt to Güell Park, up in the hills to Barcelona's north, before the Saturday hordes showed up. That was my intention. My body had other plans, refusing to move quickly, wanting espresso, a croissant, blah blah blah. Factor in Metro ride followed by long uphill slog to the park (a ten minute walk, according to the guidebook I glanced at -- HA!!), by the time I walked in the park entrance, busses were unloading large groups of other furriners. By the time I stepped out of the small Gaudí museum (Gaudí's house in earlier years), the tourism flood gates had been opened -- so many people that after a short walk around the grounds, I got out of there.
Don't know exactly why, but I found myself not happy with being in the middle of great mobs of tourists this weekend, and so generally avoided big lines, big crowds.
Detail, overlook wall at Güell Park, Barcelona
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Something happened to me during the course of this last weekend, and I have yet to figure out what the hell it was. Don't know if it actually has to do with the weekend, with all its concentrated input, or if it's more a result of other things fermenting in this life of mine with the deceptive intensity of the fast 48 hours in Barcelona functioning as a kind of psychic juicer, squeezing out the bad-humored essence of whatever's been in process. (You'll pardon, I hope, the pungent, labored allegory.) Whatever the case, it's felt strange.
(I can identify one component: I'm in the process of changing where and how images for this journal are stored and linked -- if you've done any nosing around this last autumn and winter's entries, you've noticed that numerous photo posts have not been behaving nicely. There will be more of that for a while as the changeover continues -- it'll pass eventually. In the meantime, it means a bunch of work being shoehorned in among writing, friends visiting, classes and the rest of life's general brouhaha.)
My friend S., in Barcelona, spent a major chunk of Saturday afternoon with me working to resolve problems I've run into with the photo changeover, the two of us perched at a table in an apartment belonging to two friendly, generous women from the States -- in Barcelona studying in the same Masters program as S. His second home, apparently, that flat, where he gets to flop after long nights out if driving to his squat off to the north from the city center is not a good idea.
I apparently got fairly intense at one or two points, when he was trying to explain things I wasn't getting, intense enough that he commented on it. (Oops.) I can do that, get intense now and then. Probably not much fun to experience. (On the other hand, in this case it balanced out some intensity of his from the night before when he corrected me re: the names of two adjoining barrios.)
S. spent quite a bit of time
nagging me suggesting I check out el Templo de la Sagrada Familia, the great unfinshed Gaudí church. So I went, late Saturday afternoon, where I discovered the word 'unfinished' hardly covers the reality of this construction project gone wild. It's the shell of a church -- a spectacular shell, but still -- in a permanent state of, er, becoming, surrounded outside by cranes, with nothing inside but columns and a scaffolding matrix of surreal density. And a museum in the basement.
As strange as anything I've ever seen.
I paid my 8 euros to get in, wandered about, stared, took pix, pondered the site's goofy grandeur. Considered paying the additional 2 euros to take the elevator up into the church towers until I saw the folks waiting to go up, a line that snaked out the door, around the building. Wandered some more, took further pix, enjoyed a spectacular sunset. Then caught the Metro, headed back downtown to find a cybercafé.
Today, here in Madrid -- clouds and mid-April sun trading off overhead, shadows and pools of light racing along the sidewalks below -- I passed through the plaza down the street midafternoon, where a lone musician stood near the newspaper kiosk, pumping away on an accordion, playing to the amplified accompaniment of a small stereo set-up strapped onto a handtruck. Continued on, down into the Metro. Boarded a train where I found an accordion player serenading a captive audience, pumping earnestly away on his instrument. There are plenty of musicians to be found on the streets and in the Metro here, but I don't often come across this kind of back to back accordion-fest.
Which reminded me of one of the stranger aspects of my brief stay in Barcelona: every single Metro ride featured at least one performance by a street musician. Every one. Sometimes one individual would finish up, get out at a station, another would immediately replace them, often launching into "Those Were The Days." (If I had a euro for every time I've heard a busker play "Those Were The Freakin' Days," I'd have enough money to bribe at least one of the bastards to learn something else.)
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Not only did every Metro ride come with musical accompaniment, the overwhelming percentage of the musicians were accordion players. Carting their instruments from coach to coach, finding a place to stand. Calling out a fast, mumbled intro, launching into a number.
There are days here in Madrid when Metro buskers abound, others when transit is more or less tune-free. Solo performers often board a train at one station, do a fragment of a song, make a fast pass through the coach for change, disappear at the next station. Many of the performers in Barcelona continued playing through three or four stations, playing numbers from beginning to end, sometimes doing a medley of three or four pieces.
I hopped a train Saturday morning, found myself in a comfortably crowded coach. At one end of the car stood an accordionist, playing quietly. A cadaverous individual -- face gaunt, expression strangely sombre, clothes neat though frayed. Tottering a few slow paces back and forth as his hands worked away at a soiled, tired-looking Hohner, wheezing out the single most funereal tune I've ever heard a street musician play. Producing an uncomfortable vibe -- dark, tinged with an uncomfortable something hard to identify. Anger maybe, or reproach. Feeling subtly aggressive, whatever it was. As the train pulled into the next station, he made a slow pass through the car, holding out a small container for change. No passengers ponied up, he disappeared quietly out the door. Before the train got underway again another musician appeared, his energy lighter, his expression relaxed, his music sunnier. Everyone in the coach seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, many handing over coins when he finished up.
Later that day, during yet another Metro ride, an accordion player stepped into the car, found a place to stand, called out a short intro, began playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue. Pretty decent rendition, though sounding a bit more antic than that piece generally does (coming as it did from an accordion). He turned out to be one of those players who commits to a full performance, producing a smooth medley of four different numbers -- two classical, two jazz standards. Appearing happy to be where he was, cranking out tunes with the flair of an accomplished musician.
Saturday evening, my final Metro ride of the day: yet another accordionist finished up yet another rendition of "Those Were The Days," slipped out of the coach. A man and woman replaced him, lugging a sound system strapped onto a handtruck. Him: nondescript, dressed neatly, taking care of the equipment, handing her a microphone. Her: tall, slim, Eastern European, wearing a red sweatsuit, face not exactly pretty but with bone structure to burn. He cranked up the sound system, the instrumental track for a Celine Dion number got underway. She started to sing, the lyrics translated into an eastern European language. A genuinely lovely voice. I couldn't get around being trapped in a subway train with a loud rendition of a Celine Dion song, though, and stepped briskly out onto the platform at my station, happy to be free.
A number of the Metro stations I changed trains in required a major hike to get from one line to another, commonly including treks along lengthy, featureless passageways. The public transport version of a sensory-deprivation tank. Management's solution: small speakers mounted into the walls pumping in muzak, orchestral renditions of pleasantly innocuous tunes. An approach I've never encountered anywhere else. Gave me the strange sensation I should be shopping.
Saturday evening, back out on the street -- post-Gaudí, post-Metro, post-cybercafés -- walking through the narrow, winding vias of the city's older quarters. Lovely architecture everywhere, both simple and extravagant, the passageways filling up with the Saturday night mix of locals and tourists. Searching for somewhere to get a meal, every restaurant I looked into packed, many with folks waiting outside for a table.
A sign at the doorway to a small local bar caught my attention, advertising bocadillos at decent prices. A couple of barstools sat vacant, I stepped inside, claimed one, ordered a bocadillo and a caña (a sandwich on a baguette, a small glass of beer). The rear half of the bar -- a long, narrow space with televisions mounted at either end -- seethed with a crowd of college-age males, some sporting soccer jerseys, some with faces painted, a few sporting glittery long-haired wigs. A glance at the nearer television showed a game just getting underway, and I remembered it was the night of the derby, the game between Madrid's two A-level fútbol teams, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. The fútbol rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona is the most intense in Spain, I hadn't really expected to find folks in Catalunya paying much attention to a match between two teams from Madrid. Silly me. Fútbol is fútbol (a message I should already have gotten, that phrase being the name of a popular TV show, a Sunday night wrap-up of the week's Spanish league matches -- Fútbol es Fútbol).
As the match's first half progressed, the joint gradually filled up. A 50-something couple presided behind the bar, the man an earnest, good-humored individual, the woman a grizzled survivor with a thick head of reddish-brown hair and the bosoms of a Valkyrie. A cheerful working class couple pulled up to my right, taking possession of the single available stool there. I shifted to the empty stool on my left so that they each had a perch, instantly making friends of the couple, who talked happily away with accents thick enough that I found it impossible to understand everything they said above the bar's swelling noise level.
A 14 or 15-year-old -- apparently with some connection to the male of the working class couple -- appeared at some point, hovering near us, watching the match, until the woman behind the counter spotted Mr. Underage and yelled at him to get the hell out of there, clearly meaning business, the scolding continuing without pause until the kid gave up and slouched outside into the pedestrian way. He disappeared for a while, then reappeared, edging back into the crowd to watch the match, until the woman in charge caught sight of him again, producing an even more intense stream of verbiage, hands making emphatic gestures, mouth opening wide enough as she yelled that I could see all the way back in there to the little fleshy punching bag hanging in the entranceway to her throat. The kid gave up, shoulders slumping, and fled out into the night. I paid up and did the same.
It's a lovely place, Barcelona, and I can't explain why it didn't make a stronger impact on me. Madrid and Sevilla, for instance, hit me upside the head with the 2 by 4 of love within a few hours after arrival. Barcelona -- an attractive, sophisticated, complex city, by rights exactly the kind of place that should have had me in transports -- provided many things to appreciate, but didn't seem to reach inside and grab me. Could be a visit of less than 48 hours just wasn't enough. Could be I was tired -- this jaunt being my fourth of the last two months -- and am ready to spend some time here in what feels like home without taking off anywhere else for a while. Could be I'm weary of doing trips like this solo.
I'm just not sure. I'll continue pondering, see what comes of it.
Graffiti -- courtyard, Barcelona