Even The Olives Are Bleeding Expensive
I’m sitting on an uncomfortable metal chair in an outdoor café, on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, playing “Guess the Country” with my kids. The early evening light has that you-can’t-but-relax-and-love-life Mediterranean orange-ish hue. The kids are licking ice creams the vivid colors of chemicals that – back when America was Great! – used to be disposed off a few miles offshore, under the cover of darkness, by no-necked-we-don’t-know-how-to-smile men. I’m sipping a piss-water Spanish lager, mass-pro-brewed by disgruntled Spaniards who’d rather be making wine or playing professional soccer. The basic premise of “Guess the Country”– a game that I made up as an outlet for my anxious-tourist-xenophobia – is that you have to guess the nationality of the various groups of tourists perambulating the pedestrianized plaza of Barcelona’s most popular – as in overrun by tourists – street. This game is neither fair to my kids, who basically know three nationalities – American, Irish and everyone else – nor as easy to play as one would think. Globalism, in the form of manufactured-by-cheap-Asian-labor-for-max-profit-sales-to-the-lucky-billion designer brand clothing, has reduced the world’s tourist classes to a nondescript herd of logoed-shirt-wearers. But, as sometimes happens in Spain – kinda-sorta anyway – the Irish come to rescue.
An Irish family – all of considerable, perhaps even disconcerting, girth – Mammy, Daddy, Daughter and Son, tromp out of the masses of Brits and Euros filling my narrow horizon. All four of them are outfitted in too-tight-fitting Meath GAA jerseys, emblazoned with a Tayto Park logo, complete with a rotund, ever-smiling Mr. Tayto – the friendliest about-to-be-eaten-potato-chip in the world. Son, despite being well past the age – he’s in his early twenties – when this might seem cool, has gone all out for the holiday in Spain, with his thighs thundering out of a pair of sprayed-on Meath shorts. He concludes this distinctly Irish slap in the face of chic-Euro-design, with black socks arising scruffily from a pair of sandals that were considered cool back at the end of Franco’s reign. Meanwhile, Mammy and Daughter settle for loose-fitting-black-hides-everything sweat pants, and new pink sneakers. Daddy, a hard-boiled traditionalist, has Mr. Tayto’s smile crimped and half hidden inside a pair of well pressed, hooked-on-the-nipples, dark grey gabardine pants, and –inevitably – black socks and sandals. He would have scored a full ten points as the Eternal-Good-Gael, if only he had a small transistor radio pressed up to his ear, crackling out GAA scores. The whole family is red-faced-flustered in the still-too-bloody-warm-for-the-Irish, early evening, and – no more than myself, a few moments earlier – they have that unmistakable gait of the Irish-looing-for-beer. They pass, like WWII freighters in front of a U-Boat, and I score a too-easy point.
A large group, all men in their thirties, four different races, converge on the officious black-suited-white-shirted Moroccan managing the tables of an outdoor restaurant. They mill around, in tight fitting American designer jeans and loose primary color polo shirts, with elegant good manners.
I’m stymied until a lanky, very dark skinned one of them speaks.
“So, I got seventeen ‘eads as’ll all looking for nosh,” he says to the Moroccan. “Hows about you proffer a fifteen percent discount?”
“Fifteen? Seventeen?” the Moroccan says, waving his hand blindly behind his back at the busboy for more menus.
“No, no. See understand: I got seventeen ‘eads,” the cockney says, volume increasing, the fingers on his right hand flashing full three times, then the left flashes the peace sign. “And we’ll eat ‘ere, if you’ll give us a discount, let’s say fifteen percent.”
The Moroccan bows slightly, smiles, delicately scratches where a sideburn would be if he wasn’t so cleanly shaven.
“I speak on manager,” he replies without conviction, the same weak smile on his face.
“Twenty percent, tell ‘im twenty percent, and we’re ‘ungry, got a big night comin’ up,” the tall Briton says to the departing North African. “No less than fif… seventeen percent.”
Suspiciously-electric-blue-and-red-colored ice cream melt is cleaned up efficiently, if somewhat face-messily, by young Bostonians. Piss water Spanish lager is sipped by someone who’s not sure where-the-fuck he’s from anymore.
The mill of cockneys of African, Indian, Chinese and Celtic-Saxon-Viking-Norman descent continues; energy rising. Then, on a secret signal they depart. The lanky-dark-skinned Cockney looks around once for the Moroccan, and then he too departs. A few sips and ice-cream licks later the Moroccan returns. He resumes his stand, unperturbed, at the podium.
Las Ramblas hums on.
We touched down in this historic city after eleven the night before, grabbed our bags, and rushed out of the airport to get ripped off by a Spanish cabbie. Mission accomplished – wallet a few too many Euros lighter – and we’re in line in the small, crowded lobby of a veritable Spanish Fawlty Towers on Las Ramblas, being served by none other than Spanish-Basil himself; a frighteningly-energized-for-midnight, gaunt, Gaucho-mustachioed, ageless Catalan. My ten year-old daughter clings tight, burying her face in my side. There’s a mill of tourists in the lobby. Some of them, unbelievably, look familiar. Groups in tee shirts and shorts hover over their bags; all looking travel-weary; passports and paperwork clutched in their hands; waiting on the front desk. As I fill out the hotel paperwork, my daughter emerges from under my arm.
“Hello,” she says quietly to Spanish-Basil.
“Good eeve-a-ning madam,” he beams a proud, tourist-industry practiced smile.
“Do you have a swimming pool?” she asks, looking around the cramped-downtown-feel hotel lobby.
“No madam, eh, no pool in thees ‘otel,” he quickly puts his right hand behind his back and performs a small bow, his mustache turning up into an even broader smile in compensation for having to deliver a negative answer.
“Oh,” she says, shooting me a we’ll-be-talking-about-this-later look.
Twenty minutes later we’re on Las Ramblas. It’s about midnight but we’re all wide-awake-new-city-buzzed, and Las Ramblas is still busy. The outdoor bars hum with tourists and young Catalans having a loud, good time. We’re hungry, and while we could have eaten in any one of the major American junk-food chains, we settle on a Spanish restaurant, a clean, well lighted place, which takes mercy on non-Spanish-speaking tourists by using a menu that shows photos of the food. My only Spanish word, which I learned as a reluctant co-watcher of Dora The Explorer, is azul – blue. My thirteen year-old son exercises his budding Spanish by ordering a glass of milk and a plate of fries. I take no chances and order a small, and – per the photograph – somewhat anemic pizza. My daughter tries to go straight to dessert, and when repelled, settles on an empanada. The glass of milk turns out to be heated milk, which has the consistency of warm dishwater, and is duly left to skin over and get on with its curdling process. The empanada, whose photograph promised so much, disappoints on the first bite, and is then flayed for its pastry crust; the mystery-food contents left in a heap on the side of the plate.
After eating, we walk up Las Ramblas. The crowds are thinning. At a large outdoor restaurant, the wait-staff in black-and-whites clump in a group around the waiters’ end of the bar. One whips a phone out of his pocket, the rest soon follow; faces lean into the silver-screen-glare, until the manager – a squat man, in a too-tight haircut and ill-fitting black suit – strides up to the bar. The silver screens are rapidly slid back into hip pockets, where their glares are still visible through the black fabric. We come across the toxic-chemicals-colored ice cream stand: I succumb to whining “for a once in a lifetime chance to eat Smurf colored ice cream.”
I order, over-proudly employing my one Spanish word, plus a lot of finger stabbing on the glass. The Spanish tourist industry etiquette is to take your order without the slightest acknowledgement; fines may be dispensed for as small an act as a slight nod or even a raised eyebrow; smiling is profoundly prohibited; pause for thirty seconds or so – to instill a further lack of confidence that your order has in fact been taken – then serve any old thing they like, and charge at will; a simple hand wave erasing any legitimacy of the posted prices. As we work our way through this time-honored (since the 1970s anyway) ritual, a mid-fifties, beer-bellied tourist in new-for-the-holidays shorts, ratty sneakers, polo shirt, a shock of grey hair, wobbling under a load of cheap Spanish beer, cuts across Las Ramblas plaza. Trailing a few feet behind him, an older teen – eighteen, nineteen? – short, heavyset African woman, in a too-tight mini-skirt and tang top, tries to keep pace.
“Ok, ok,” she says quickly, as she passes us. “I go your hotel room. All right.”
Turns to her.
Runs his fingers through his hair.
“I don’t know luv,” he says, shaking his head, his beer belly shifting in opposite directions to his head. “It’s a lot of fucken’ drama, ‘int it?”
“I do what told,” she says, looking back without staring.
Her eyes are a hundred years old.
“It’s just a business transaction luv,” he runs his hand back through his hair again. “I don’t need no fucken’ drama – I can get that at ‘ome for free, can’t I?”
Our chemicals arrive – and they’re even reasonably close to those we ordered.
“Why was the man swearing?” my daughter asks, her face disappearing behind the pile of electric-blue ice-cream.
“Oh,” I scramble for a lie. “He was buying something off her and they disagreed about something.”
“Finish up them ice creams, it’s time we went back to the hotel,” I say, gritting my teeth with stoic-paternal-finality.
Barcelona is one of the world’s great cities. It’s been fought over by the Phoenicians (whoever the fuck they were), Romans, Visigoths (whoever th…), numerous Spanish crowns, 1930’s anarchists, and then overrun, first by vengeful Franco fascists, and now by the world’s tourist classes. For me the charm of the city lies in its architecture, built and destroyed and built again by successive generations of Catalans, Spaniards, and temporary colonial invaders, it all seeps with distinctive bitterly-fought-for-character. Like Ireland, Spain has deep roots of bitter internecine fighting. So when Spain broke out into full civil war in the 1930s, the Irish – who were only then finally sitting down for a cup of tea after our own War of Independence, followed by the disastrous sequel, our almost-never-mentioned-Civil-War – joined in, fighting on both sides. This was a trick we had learned well at home during eight hundred years under various British regimes, and then pulled off in a few other countries’ civil wars, most notably the American Civil War.
The Spanish Civil War remains one of Europe’s saddest episodes: Atrocities abounding on all sides, infighting, leveraging of other country’s military resources (most famously, Hitler using it as a Blitzkrieg training ground), religion drawn explicitly into a modern conflict. A few hundred Irish dropped themselves into this deadly chaotic scene. Some were there to refight the Irish Civil War; some to support the Catholic church; some to start a whole New World Order. Some of the New World crowd wouldn’t fight alongside British communists – apparently the New World would carry forward old world grudges – and so joined a US battalion. Mostly the Irish fighters’ efforts in the Spanish Civil War were, not without some irony, quixotic.
Barcelona, never fully at ease with its place under the Spanish crown, definitely did not want to be second sister to Franco’s Madrid. The Generalissimo reciprocated the lack of love, and the people of Barcelona learned the harsh lesson of what it means to live in a repressive society. One of the combined victims – loved and hated by both sides – was the famous architect Anton Gaudi. Though Gaudi was over ten years dead when the Civil War started, the Republicans – who despised his fervent Catholicism – still destroyed his old studio, including all the precious files therein. To the Fascists his sin was being a famous Catalan: All things Catalan were to be subverted. Today Gaudi’s work is a huge part of Barcelona’s attraction: Seven of his projects there have been designated as World Heritage sites – monuments to humanity’s best of the best.
We’re sitting at breakfast in the hotel’s skylight covered courtyard. Sunlight streaks in through the glass, which along with the white plastered walls and marble floor all combine to create an whisper chamber in which every sound is amplified. The wait staffs’ hard soled shoes clip against the marble as they deliver food, before they return to gossip at the bussing station. All the guests’ table talk mushroom-clouds up into the room, bounces off the hard surfaces and falls onto the tables.
“I don’t know if we should eat their eggs,” an older American woman’s anxious voice drops in. “Are they safe … you know? How about the water then? Maybe bottled only? Is that safe? God knows how they make it, or where – right?”
The coffee, black-rich-aromatic, rustles gently into my white porcelain cup.
The waiter sighs the muted sigh of a waiter already tired at breakfast.
“Tommy, sthop it,” an English father raises his voice, turning tourist heads. “People are not sthupid because they don’t speak our language. They could just as easily say we’re sthupid for not speaking Spanish.”
“I can’t believe Caleb is staying in the same hotel as me in Barcelona,” my daughter says, rolling her eyes, disrupting my eavesdropping binge.
“What?” I retort – too loud, turning heads.
“Yeah,” my son chimes in, grinning ear-to-ear behind a Spanish breakfast pastry. “There’s a boy from her grade here, can you believe it?”
“Ooohhh,” I do the stupid-parent thing. “So that’s who was in the lobby last night. I thought I recognized them, and did you say hello?”
“Noooo!” she gives her eyes an Olympic medal winning roll. “It’s embarrassing to meet people you know on vacation.”
Barcelona is a beautiful city, full of interesting places from the Gothic quarter to Barcelona FC’s Camp Nou – but the beach is not one of them. A thriving port city for millennia, the hard working Barcelonians had not considered using the Mediterranean as a place to relax. Plus there was that small problem that were no beaches on that section of coast: No beaches, that is, until they needed some for the 1992 Olympics. So, playing the Urban Renewal card to wipe out a gritty old port neighborhood, they built beaches – eventually miles of them. And they feel just like beaches brought in, with Olympic expediency, on the back of a truck. The Mediterranean whisks them away when it can, knowing they’re not real, as does anyone who ever bought a cubic yard – or meter – of river run sand, and as do the bare feet any child who walks these beaches.
Two trains, and a healthy-sweaty walk from the hotel, and we’re on the promenade scouting a beach location. We came primarily so we could swim in the Mediterranean: Somehow, submersion in that salty water, so steeped in history – from the Athenians battling the Persians 2,500 years ago, to the cat-and-mouse naval warfare of two World Wars – feels like an important part of visiting Spain. But as we wander out onto the beach, we’re hit hard by the powerful, and directly opposing, forces of pre-adolescent-prudishness and raging-teen-hormones: Turns out, it’s a topless beach.
“Oh my God,” my daughter gasps, forgoing the usual “OMG” in her panic.
She throws up both hands as blinkers, shoots me an angry-stressed-look, and leads us on a quest to find a patch of river-run-sand peopled by clothed humans. As the gods of good-old-fashioned-decency would have it, she pulls up next to a group of young Muslim girls; who are very definitively fully clothed.
My thirteen year old son’s smile is so deep and so long, that I don’t remember when, or indeed if, it ended.
As with all things human, we get used to our new setting, and soon it’s a regular beach day. The Mediterranean water is cool and refreshing, and, for me, as full of history as I ever remember it. Like every beach day, we end up sitting on the promenade eating ice cream and complaining about the sun, sunblock, sand and the crowds.
“Why does everyone have to go to the beach the day we go?” my daughter asks.
“Because they’re weird,” I answer, resolutely.
“No, you’re weird – never take that book out in public with the Hitler-thingamajigy on it again. So embarrassing.”
She takes a lick of ice cream.
“No, people are a pain,” she says, through a mouthful of ice cream. “Why couldn’t they stay home and watch TV – just for today.”
It’s morning, early for a tourist town – 8ish – and I’m sitting on what might the smallest balcony in Spain. More likely it’s the three square feet of outside space allotted to hotel residents, on which they are to huddle waiting for the Barcelona Fire Department – the other BFD! – to come rescue them when Spanish Fawlty Towers goes up in flames. Inside the room, the kids are sleeping. Outside, it’s the morning sounds of a city waking: The scraping-sweep of thick-bristled yard brushes, the beep-beep-beep of delivery trucks backing into position, slagging-yells across Las Ramblas, laughter, wheelie-bins slamming onto the ground, the sharp, unintelligible, but clearly discernable, rebuke of a stressed restaurant manager to the devil-may-care street cleaners. I carefully fold over my book – a thousand page biography of Hitler – almost splitting the binding, so the Hitler-thingamajigy is not visible from the street. A group of sixty-something American tourists straggles past; floppy hats, designer back packs, khaki shorts, tanned-blue-veined-legs; they all look a little why-can’t-anywhere-open-as-early-as-we-wake regretful. I hear the rustle of blankets, a mattress compressing.
“What time is it?” my son asks, without opening his eyes.
“Gaudi time!” I answer.
Anton Gaudi was born in 1852 in a Catalan village, and grew up with an artist’s appreciation for the natural world that would infuse his aesthetic throughout his life. He was profoundly impacted by the religiosity of provincial Catalonia, and the living and built architecture which supported that religiosity. Moreover, he had an overarching sense of the supremacy of the Mediterranean culture over other European cultures – one can only presume what he thought of American “salvatges.” Gaudi succinctly summed up his notion of Mediterranean cultural supremacy in a single statement: “We own the image. Fantasy is what people in the North own. We are concrete. The image comes from the Mediterranean. Orestes knows his way, where Hamlet is torn apart by his doubts.” For scorekeeping purposes, according Homer, Orestes killed his mother and her lover when he discovered that they had killed his father, who had just returned from the Trojan War – with a concubine in tow. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Hamlet myth, shows that while dithering over whether he should kill his uncle – who had murdered Hamlet’s father to marry his mother, and gain the kingship of Denmark (so much for the happiest people in the world!) – intentionally, or often not, ends up being responsible for the death of almost everyone in the play. Needless to say, everyone involved in both stories should have been in therapy or jail – or both. How and ever, Gaudi’s natural world influenced, Orestian-concrete aesthetic led him to design some of the world’s most striking buildings, including the as yet unfinished, Sagrada Familia church.
The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family, as it is formally known – expiation being the act of atoning; presumably in this case for budget increases and schedule delays that would warm the cockles of any slobberer-Irish-builder’s heart; they started this thing in 1886! – was a project that Gaudi actually took over from another architect who, after sixteen years working with the “church committeeeee,” could take it no more. For Gaudi it quickly became the focus of his entire life’s work, indeed, perhaps even becoming the meaning of his life. Eventually he withdrew from society – no more chardonnay tippling evenings on the terraces with Catalan’s shakers and movers – fell into a reclusive lifestyle, disheveled appearance, and devoted himself entirely to this life defining project.
The Sagrada Familia is a wonder for a great many reasons. Construction, which has gone on more or less continuously for over a hundred and twenty years, is now slated to complete in 2026. Back when Europe was Great!, medieval cathedrals were completed in this manner, some taking hundreds of years for the design and construction, thereby allowing for the influences of many generations on the both details of the design and the methodologies of the craftsmen, and now craftswomen. For me – a devout atheist, with the aesthetic sensibilities of a concussed Neanderthal – its wonder comes from the sheer scale of everything. The soaring granite columns, the intricacy of the structural engineering – sprawling, parabolic arches that seem goad gravity! – and, most importantly for an atheist in a house of worship, the scale of the irony of such devotion. Nothing about this monument to humanity’s need to atone – for everything we’ve done to one another and the rest of our planet – suggests humility. The whole edifice is a monument to what humans can do when they all point in the same direction and persevere for generations. The attention to detail, the mix of materials, the audacity of the engineering, the devotion of it all, ironically yells out that humanity can be capable of great things. Even though religious belief is not for me, seeing this manifestation of its power to inspire is itself awe-inspiring.
We start to leave the Sagrada Familia. We’re tired, thirsty and hungry, but first we must visit the gift shop, which stocks a collection of award winning photography books on the multiple generations of construction, and gaudy trinkets that could be used as props in a Father Ted Visits Barcelona episode. With bottles of water procured at prices comparable to those found in the shop at a Saharan oasis, we wander out looking for food. Legs tired from slow walking, we slide gratefully into a booth in a restaurant across the street from this monument to humanity’s focused ability. We, the no-Spanish order food with some difficulty from a cranky, I-hate-tourists Catalan waiter. We sit back, visibly affected by time in spent that piece of our planet so artfully enclosed by Gaudi’s design, and watch with a mixture of incredulity and chagrin as our lunches are cooked in the traditional Spanish way – at least tradition since the 1970s – in a fucking microwave.
It’s the last day in Barcelona, and the kids are happy to get back to visiting with their cousins in Ireland. I’m happy to leave too, but I’m glad we visited this noble city. I’ll miss the strikingly beautiful Gaudi, and Gaudi-imitator, buildings that flank its main thoroughfares; the Gothic Quarter with its winding alleys, courtyard wine bars, and five hundred year old churches stuffed with statues so realistic as to put the fear of the Inquisition into a Catholic-atheist; Camp Nou, with Messi’s size 7 – how does a lad with feet that small score so many goals? – European Golden Boot; and the omni-present ever-smiling-I’ll-give-what-I-have-not-what-you-want-shitty-Catalan service.
Spanish-Basil – it seems he never sleeps – calls a cab for us, and, with gangling limbs and his disarming smile, makes a fun show of carrying the kids bags out. He issues a dramatic parting bow, right hand diligently behind his back.
In the tiny Fiat cab there’s a seemingly hopeless breakdown in inter-human communication. The cabbie has no English whatsoever, not even one word, and my one word Spanish vocabulary does not seem appropriate in this situation. It’s unclear just how many times, and at what ever-increasing-decibel level, it will be necessary for me to say “airport, airport, airport” before we can get the wheels of the Fiat rolling.
But he’s a good person this cabbie, and he calmly let’s me fall silent, before making it clear that his hearing fine, but his English is non-existent. He signifies receipt of the “airport” direction with his flat right hand rising slowly, in an airplane like trajectory, toward the windshield. Then he angles his head back, runs his right forefinger and thumb down the glass Rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror, as he thinks deeply.
“Francés?” he asks, turning to me with a refreshingly optimistic smile.
I release an airplane-captain’s-sigh.
“Daddy,” my daughter reprimands me from the back seat.
Still I pause, wondering where in the crevices of what’s left of my brain I might find some French; a language I’ve had no truck with since, some thirty plus years previously, I ceremoniously burned my copy of Cent et Une Anecdotes Facile at the school gates.
“Oui,” I lie – and in Paris a crack develops in the Arc de Triomphe.
Still, we Fr-uddle through. Somehow I impart to him what terminal we need to get to, and with Catalan how-could-anything-possibly-go-wrong assurance, he nods, and turns the key to start the Fiat’s engine.
Of course, it doesn’t start: The travel gods are toying with us.
But, no worries. He turns, smiles an even more reassuring Catalan smile, pops the hood and jumps out. Two minutes later, the hood still open, he’s back, and this time the engine turns over.
My Type-A2-travel-anxiety-stricken-self kicks in, and I offer, in mangled French and with excessive-hand-waving, to close the hood, but his warm smile assures me I’m entirely unqualified for such a complex technical task.
Silently, we reach our terminal in what seems like Olympic record time compared to the inbound trip. He points at the meter, still with the reassuring smile. It’s about half what the late-night-rip-off-artist-cabbie had run up winding us around the deserted streets of his sleeping city.
In a confused gesture of spite at the rip-off-artist and appreciation for encountering a good person, I give him double fare.
He’s genuinely confused. Because he is so genuine, I assure him, in ever-increasingly-confused French, that he’s earned not just the big tip, but the “salvatges” respect for the Mediterranean culture.