Questions of Travel
Is it better to have stayed here and thought of there, Elizabeth Bishop asks, in her 1956 poem. Take Barcelona, ever so pleasing Barcelona. Or don’t take it, not quite yet. I am still holding onto Barcelona as a possibility, because to let go of Barcelona would mean a kind of death.
On my first visit, just out of high school on a bohemian-budget ramble through France with a mostly best friend, an unlimited rail-pass trip during which we slept under rowboats and had mussels at random fisherman’s bungalows, the city was just a train station to pass through to the pulsing soundtrack of the budding self, so blind were we, seated on the ground at the Barcelona train station, picking at a stale baguette, so wrapped up in the adventure of being together, seventeen-year-olds abroad, counting coins while talking to random Scots who might as well have worn feathered hunting costumes. Using fantasies about the moment so musical they blocked most reality and even our fantasy of the one to come, we believed we had deciphered the world. My francophone friend wished to spend little time in Spain, though she made an allowance, because of her liking for the diffident heroine of The Sun Also Rises and so all too briefly, we skirted into Pamplona the day the bulls ran and then fled Spain.
A few years later, having received a grant leading me to Yeats in Sligo, hoping for some red before the green of that summer, I headed first to two cities in Spain: Granada and then Barcelona, and so my real entry to Barcelona involved holding a guitar a Granada gypsy’s family had sold me (another story).
Who knows what youth is really looking for? I clung to that particular determination which whispers, constantly, that adventure has an ultimate meaning, that travel works as an end and good in itself. Does later-life travel declare or undo the self in a similar way? Young travel certainly gives you wings, making you feel the potential energy of who you might become when they unfold to greater span, back on familiar ground but higher-flying, never the same.
Travel at most ages and you can find physical constraints paradoxically freeing: you have no obligation, you are free to recognize the cramping of your own mind. The peril and joy of no attachment, no one knowing where you are in a certain moment, can inspire awe, Freud’s vision of the all-swallowing libidinous oceanic. Early in that return trip to Barcelona, I swam the sea in Cadaquez, overseen by Dali’s crazy house, and had something of an epiphany a quarter-mile out, knowing I could drown and no one who cared for me would have a clue where to look, a strangely peaceful realization in that the sea’s eros and thanatos made all strivings needless: no matter the form, deliquescing algae matter or college student, I would be part of the bowlscape of sea and land, a crazed museum and the empty sky.
Travel and you are looking out a train window at landscape you will never walk through. You wave at a beaming beautiful child with whom you will never talk. All these thanatos edges – the limitations, the temporality – tighten with the anticipatory eros of novelty, as well as, if you are on a budget, the pleasant and slightly OCD stricture of making do in a city you don’t know well.
Back in Barcelona, because of the budgeting, I found myself having coffee in a true dive on Las Ramblas, a long esplanade of mercantilist desire off which you could find the tiny winding Roman-era street of the hostel in which I was staying, a place with a pleasant, mute block-bodied proprietor never to be sighted without his broom. For whatever lucky reason, I’d been happy to score a single room in his hostel, and the proprietor and I understood each other. Though Franco had died long before, a leftover spirit of protest hovered over Barcelona, an enjoyment of freedom: surprise luxuries and messages combined like cheap strong incense everywhere in the air, in the signs proudly in Catalan as well as, back then, their translation in Spanish. If cultures have an age, the age of Barcelona was also in its early 20s. Faces turned up toward the sun like lily pads in the café at the bottom of the Plaza Catalunya from which the Rambla spilled, and people from all classes issued Catalan consonants with glee, abandoning the Spanish lisp, feeling the happy sting of brazenness.
To be in Barcelona then was not wholly unlike what it might have meant to be in East Germany a decade-plus after the wall came down, awake after a long hibernation, the seedy underground and murky edges happy to stretch out. Hence in Barcelona among the gilded street performers imitating the monuments of pre- and post-Franco, awaiting coins from the very few tourists, were the transvestites, much less architecturally perfect than they are today. Back then, was it not the case, everything was less professionalized, surgery less an option, private will triumphing less than it seems to in our celebrity-waistline moment over the collective body. The transvestite prostitutes overflowed with corseted, sloppy-belted charm.
And everything of the city showed the palimpsest of decades of bad thinking from the Franco administration, like the historic modernist building covered over with a bad façade, a garish glass-fronted neon shop selling luxury leather handbags.
A few days earlier, in a burst of optimism, I had actually gone looking for a writing job – I had the lark of a thought that I could support myself as a writer though I’d painted most of my time in college, my easel alongside people who would go on to become art-world stars. Yet an objection to the amassing of objects painting requires had grown in my parochial mind: did I really wish to produce coffee table topics for the elite via the New York gallery system? The stink of capitalism and vocationalism filled our studios: my fellow students had started narrowing their inquiry into series easily understandable by gallery directors. Naïve, I thought writing was more democratic, and surely instead there might be writing jobs to be had, and while I had worked as an assistant (for a puer former psychologist turned fashion photographer), in retail (a dance-clothes store), food service (college dining halls, alumni reunions, folk-music cafés), should I not be putting a bit of pedal to the dreamy artist metal? Or mettle, as it were, and did I have enough to make a go of it, everyone in my family a scientist and how would I support myself? No matter how you looked at it, somehow one had to link art and market, support oneself with the thing one loved: or was that not the path?
Therefore, in Barcelona, I ended up answering a newspaper job ad for publicidad, thinking it meant publicity-writing, and only because they needed someone with the look of an extranjero, a person from beyond the pale, the older manager sent me to have photos done, some kind of publicidad modeling, a task I accepted because why look gift horses in the mouth however mealy-mouthed the specious beast?
Especially since the grant failed to pay for all aspects of travel. And, after a stint in Granada among the Roma who live in white-plastered caves across from the Alhambra, my wallet had started to thin out in inverse proportion to my curiosity.
There is a book I love reading with my children, one of those William Steig books in which a happy little pig named Pearl goes out to enjoy herself and quickly finds a magic bone which can talk and do magic, ending up by saving both of them from a very suave wolf, and I think this magic bone sums up a lot of the way I used to travel and still feel about it, the art of travel as well as the art within it. The magic bone I always had back then, in this case, the thing that justified everything, the thing that sucked everything into its needy little core but could sometimes save me, was the part that thought it saw the world through the optic of art or art-making or being on the side of the outcast flaneur.
Whether I was going to paint, choreograph or write, doing that most American thing and especially Californian thing of showing varying degrees of focus and exposure, I was trying to understand whatever small carrots had been thrown my way and whether or not those linked with what I felt drawn to do: reading, taking notes, dancing, playing music, watching people and film, drawing and painting, the idea if not the practice of sculpture. Some Rabelaisan discord of appetites moved me, and what could speak to all these interests? Would only film be the most generous medium, allowing the totalizing artwork of aspiration?
Back in the homeland I might go out with a backpack in which, were you to examine its contents, you could find, on any given day, a sketchbook, a 4B pencil and gummy eraser, a little notebook for ideas, a book, a leotard. Did I lack focus or was I burdened by hunger? Because it was the arts I wanted, the arts in any form, which traveled along with a certain freedom of movement and the body, the body along the edges of the main institutions. The artist walking cloaked like a mod in 60s London or Baudelaire in his cape breathing in the bourgeois or syphilitic streets of Paris, always a kind of clairvoyant flaneur at the edges of a city like Barcelona.
And why is it that some people as they develop move the eros of new sap flooding their veins less toward the idea of all the potential mates around them, treating them merely as happy corollaries, and instead let art be the sun for all tropism? Why do some subvert evolution with the desire to make art? Even animals do it, make gratuitous artistic creations: consider the unnecessary nests of the weaverbird or birdsong itself, as Rothenberg does in his book Why Birds Sing.
How does the world of imagination become so filled with light, like Bergman’s magic lantern in Fanny and Alexander? And why through that optic of artists or art-making does the world open itself with such promise, offering explanations of alienation, fulfillment, color, wonder, even sex? All the books, movies and sculptures to be known and recognized like distant family members lining up to be embraced and brought into your fold, so much better than any living person to understand all you want to say with your inchoate young self. Link with art and any leaf hanging on a tree promises a story, its own understanding of form and metaphor, obelisks, spirals or death, all of it boiled down to one thing: the need to look and seize the moment. This seemed the gift. With art came the moment. Train enough in seeing and feeling, think of all your artistic predecessors as patient uncles and aunts, and then you too would learn to recognize the aura around the banal, as when Benjamin unpacks his library. Passages you may have noted, paintings before which you have stood, films you have swallowed whole: all of it could begin to direct your attention so long as you stayed open. This was the gift, or was it not?
And how well, with its modernist architecture, its open-spirited port spirit, a city like Barcelona can seem to capture all that is youthful in spirit, hungering for meaning in a life of looking at things, of taking them in.
In every culture or concern, find a rise and fall toward and away from the simple toward the baroque. The Kuikuro tribe of Brazil living in the high Mato Grosso uses prehistoric methods of hunting and foraging, yet finds it beautiful to implant in the chins of its young children, by very elaborate process, a long, chiseled bone from a monkey spine, and so indigenous kids lounge deep in the Mato Grosso jungle on a hammock from prehistoric time with bones jutting out of their chins like the calcified hipster beards dipping toward caffeine titrations near any Seattle tech start-up. Ballet in the seventeenth century evolves toward an increased complication before hand movements become starker, serving narrative, before moving again toward the nuance of filigree and elaboration. Japan’s early Edo period invited in detail and thick walls before returning again to the primacy of light and balance. In the West, the High Renaissance becomes Mannerism, Impressionism becomes Modernism becomes Pop Art, and the way the physical carries the spirit gets essentialized before it undergoes mitosis, never as radical as it thinks it is, because the pendulum between filling the page with detail and essentializing it has its back-and-forth arc, the revolution staying consistent.
So in life. Move toward the specific, the painfully deliciously specific and you start to find that this particular person matters, that place forms you – cf. every romantic love song written by a singer mid-twenties – and then as you age you branch toward the undifferentiated sky, soaring a bit in the broad sweeping patterns. Not just that a friend always behaves a certain way in a certain situation, too disappearing or present, too much the prey of some new line of thought, whether AA or Buddhism or a charismatic therapist wielding any totalizing world view. Get older and you know certain holidays as necessary or needless. You know your traits, say, that you see the world more poignantly after a film, more sharply after an exhibit, a certain kind of dinner party or discussion. Enter a new milieu and with x-ray vision you quickly sight patterns of community and withholding, friend-making and caution. Older, you meet a new person, whether five or eighty-five, and see how every person contains a little world of autism and radical acceptance. Life becomes something about being on a train in which every place has its own borders and stern guards and boundary-crossings. A humorous strangeness, a defamiliarization, appears in how understandable or recognizable people start to seem, how open or closed-minded, despite whatever particularity to which they or their tribe cling, their particular form of monkey-spine extruded from their chins.
Older and broader patterns obtain, large Rothko-like swaths of colors with nuance present as you gaze at the color field. The nuance is the eros offered up by your mature sight, a little lagniappe for you to savor even as you note the tango of the back and forth. Older, you note these broader patterns but paradoxically you start to move again toward the specific. Is this the most moribund form of eros? Or one of death’s most erotic forms? Each little edge of everything matters. My dying father truly appreciated the owl of the east and owl of the west that started their hoots each day alongside his house in the dark before dawn. Having worked too hard his midlength life, having made workaholism his habit and teleology his addiction, being an adherent to a certain eschatology of ease and abundance – one day there will be enough for the family, one day I can do less – he finally slowed down enough to attend owl hoots instead of waking to begin the day’s titration of caffeine and any given day’s self-flogging toward a consistent goal.
Children care about the little. The meniscus of water making a small air-bubble below a faucet, careful tracks in snow following a friend’s gargantuan strides, a bakery’s buttery waft, a tree angled perfectly for climbing, the gaze of an adult. And yet the old also care about the little: consider how retirees take up highly specific acts, a particular pool class, the rhythm of swing-dancing, perfecting the swing in golf, gardening in raised beds, which club you join, which card you will play in the dwindling game, the owl hoot.
To be specific is to be young again, to care about the phenomenal world. To be broad, to let things go, is adult, but also speaks to some unchanging inner witness which we sometimes can access. When you start to choose the specific, you know where you are on the spectrum toward the recognition of whatever wisdom will wash our mind clean in the last moment before death. Whatever its mineral composition, the dirt over us, the cloth or flames, all will be the same.
What, among other aspects, is so hard for the new parent is (the deep-sea change) between being someone on one spectrum, moving toward abstraction and pattern recognition, and suddenly becoming one who must be so unerringly specific: reaching for the exact crook of the arm for a nap to take place. Inflate the balloon the right size, so big! Invite the happiness-promoting kids to the birthday party. Become a parent in our era in which parents are asked to be all ages and you become someone who can will a particular slowing down (death, abstraction) into the specific (life).
Whether or not you have kids, the ones who do will later in life understand the ease of switching gears between the broad pattern and the specific note.
So if maturity offers perspective, the foreground and background, routine can sometimes become a transvestite substitute. Routine can make it seem as though all wise choices have been made. Now one might just as well settle in for a long winter nap, habit your blanket, predictability your pillow, the illusion of a life without fears your dream.
If this is the case, art is terminal adolescence, meant to wake you up.
The detail, the angle of sight in Las Meninas, in which Velázquez’s mirror puts you into the painting itself – all stays urgent. Why did Picasso spend some four months creating sixty obsessive studies from Las Meninas? His life as a man may be less than exemplary but his artistry in understanding playfulness, self-authorization, the intensity of the gaze and rigor stays one to emulate. Getting perception right means you have stayed awake. Perceiving your moment right now: the snow skewed in its falling, the messy field of hair atop a child saying goodbye, the last letter you got before she died. Awake, young, old, everything can seem important and connected, not necessarily part of a larger design but arbitrary, asking you to care nonetheless, to pinch yourself awake with the detail.
Perhaps the day after the modeling photos, a collection to which I would never return, leaving them deposited in the coffers of a place called Imatge somewhere in the bowels of Catalunya, I was still thinking my coffers were at an end: and so, the dive, the coffee. In the dive, and what was I doing, taking small beatnik notes in one of the many tiny notebooks I’ve had and lost, so many over the years – the art of losing is hard to master, as Elizabeth Bishop says elsewhere – an actual duck came waddling toward me, coming to wake me up.
Between table and chairs, a duck!
In one of the casuistic or adventitious moments of travel, a strange opportunity waddled toward me. A plot turn: a live duck as if fleeing its fate from the kitchen or basket of a gypsy. In those days, in Barcelona, you could still see far more Roma when now you only see them on the buses or at certain intersections, good as New Yorkers in their wish to wash the windshield of a fuming, spitting, idling car.
The duck must have made me laugh in surprise because I caught the eye of two boys eating nearby, both French, but one, Pierre Sanchez, of Spanish extraction. His friend was blond and uncertain, all energy connected at his Adam’s apple, suffering from airy detachment from life, while Pierre was of the streets, had played in Annecy with the great jazz festival, as easy as a dusty sandal, and right off showed that grace and relaxation you find in those who have survived war zones, bad education, absent family, ambition ill-fit to birthright.
How did it happen that we ended up talking enough? How does a casual conversation over a duck lead to a night in which only Pierre and I went to see jazz in a crowded bar he favored? There Pierre sat in on a set, a skilled trompettiste, fluid and capable of bringing the swell of emotion the trumpet knows almost as well as the French horn, the deep brightness of things unsaid and swelling. Small and wiry, he flashed ease and grace and already I was entering some story with him.
I can live on a baguette a day, he bragged. That night he ventured the idea that I should busk with him in the square outside La Catedral, the huge main square outside one of Gaudi’s earlier masterpieces. I was, it should be said, no one’s idea of a guitarist, being closer to a pianist prone to improvisation. The semester before at school, in response to the end of a relationship, I’d started a girls’ band at school in which all four guitarists played just a few crucial chords. Our band’s name was Watershed and our big moment came in playing some festival at our school, for which we had a poster, using an image linked to Borges about The Enigma of Choice. Some boys famously thought that poster showed a rain of vaginas, but I cannot ask the lead guitarist about her pick of it, an Iowa writer now dead a few years. That none of us played brilliant guitar deterred us not a jot: not only were we a garage band, we felt we had imbibed something by proxy, to various degrees linked to boys with calls upon the idea of playing rock, some of whom went on to heights of fame, some of whom abandoned such youthful concept as soon as the suits came knocking, rock being defined as a juvenile waystation. My own ex-beau had lamented to me, with sincere angst, I can’t imagine playing rock after 20 (though still drumming). It was enough for me to have learned whatever noodling I had, and to have thought I could learn gypsy guitar, which I had actually learned in Granada, a little, from a family of gypsies with whom I lived in a cave.
And so in Barcelona with a guitar, invited by Pierre, the next morning I found him so we could sit in the shade on the stairs by the main cathedral in the neighborhood called the Barri Gotic, the gothic neighborhood. This cathedral was Gaudi’s earlier masterpiece, and Pierre and I sat in the shade alongside of the stairs leading up to it. Of songs I knew Neil Young’s simple “Heart of Gold” down pat – I crossed the oceans for a heart of gold – which I taught him, and also “Cinnamon Girl” with its strange string tuning. He knew enough to teach me “Whiskey”.
We were an odd pair, a pair of convenience or congruence, playing outside La Catedral. Even when I was just tuning up, clearly no one’s adept, people would toss coins into my open blue plush guitar case. Either those passersby felt pity or recalled their own youthful foolish hijinks and selves: their coin’s arc seemed markers of such recognition. Sometimes when a coin dropped I felt the passersby knew something I didn’t yet understand about how this moment might look for me later: pitiable, enviable, lost, the beginning of something, none or all of that, but surely awake.
Or else they were just in the habit of throwing – coins, stones, who cared? Hear music and you throw, much as my daughters, in Barcelona on this last trip of mine, always wished to coin-toss toward the most random supplicant, the beggar, the cartoonist, the human making himself into a monument about stasis.
We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are – as far as we know – the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.
This winter we came back to Barcelona and I say we because those coin-throwing daughters and my husband came, all supported by a different if equally genial grant which, in this case, required me to see as much of the contemporary art and literary scene as possible so as to better understand how sectarian tensions were reflected in the cultural production of the city, or some agglomeration of all those highly academic nouns. To put it most directly, if I could expand my international vista, my teaching would improve. If I could just get a wider if more specific view of life right now in a corner of the world rapidly molting, I would be better. That was the grant’s idea, a giant suckling head offered up on a gilded plate, apple in its mouth, ready for consumption. I cannot make fun of it, or I can: I proposed it, we ate the apple.
We came, together as a family, the idea being that we would be together and I would work in the stolen hours and then they would leave and I would work even more in earnest. That was the idea.
The vision that had first inspired writing the grant had included this: I had come across a postcard of Parc Güell, Gaudi’s playful park, one which you may have visited, or perhaps you’ve seen its image: a series of mosaic-covered benches twinkling in the sun, broadcasting all the playfulness of the mosaic self you too might know in such a place. I had the thought of bringing both daughters but especially the youngest, prone to architectural construction, to such a place: Gaudi’s conflation of imagery, his ability to bring together paradoxes, the biomorphic with the gaudy structural – forgive the pun, but it occurs also in Spanish, in a different form – it could inspire revolutions.
As an organism, my family sometimes feels as if it is a mobile artists’ colony, those moments when I realize that each of us works on projects near one another: my mate sketching, the youngest involved in elaborate tiny doll dramas, the eldest reading or sewing, the way I might be pecking at a book. Some mates and families do best with projects and the world of responsibility – say, building a table together, organizing camping gear – while we seem to thrive away from more extrinsic responsibilities in some kind of dreamy flow, and so we looked for ways to make my research part of the moment being together. I was to see Gaudi to know how current artists departed from him, the Gaudi I’d never seen so much of in that bohemian busking past, and the wealth of this created a broad enough mission. At noon, one day we bought tickets for the next day to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unwieldy masterpiece, the vast unfinished cathedral which these days, in overcrowded, post-Olympics Barcelona, inspires lines of WWII-spared descendants snaking around the corner, a mix of Spaniards, Japanese, German and French busloads descending with cameras to document that they too have been here and then here, hordes about whom locals complain, though not wishing to look their own gift horse in the mouth: visitors photograph Barcelona’s quaintness constantly, at this site, and then in this other site, too, half-attending to specificity while ignoring how much any particular in a photo album is a subset of the generic. And anyway why is it that we need to feel that our trajectory and vision is singular? Why must we feel our march across the earth is unique?
That day, the Sagrada Familia ticket-buying was a waystation: we were heading toward the goal of the trip, in other words, the picture on the postcard, the Parc Güell that had inspired the grant that had inspired our long flight, a strange circuitous spice-route flight through Istanbul toward Barcelona.
On the subway toward the park, my older daughter noted how many Barcelonas coincided: the cleaner Barcelona, the part of Gracia in which we were staying, made up of planned hexagonal grids and luxe stores, as well as the Barcelona of the subways, a dirtier zone. A perfect transvestite flashed advertisement-white smiles at them, but the train was too crowded for them to note this.
At the Lesseps train station, we might have bought tickets for our more immediate entry to the park but drawn to escape the subway, the kids sashayed forward and we ran to catch up. We followed the line of people moving inexorably like a sullen river out of Conrad along the sidewalks of the upper Gracia neighborhood and up the huge hill toward Parc Güell. The faces reminded me of a little-known Kinnell poem about joggers, which I recall, correctly or not, as having this line: Their faces tell there is a hell and they will reach it.
It seemed wise that someone head more quickly uphill to get our tickets, so I told my family we would meet at the top, where, to my surprise, I found a line to end all lines, a formidable line made up of sublines, conduits, diverters, line administrators, soothsayers, graphs, maps, timetables and ropes, the line itself a kind of destination. Of course, this was Christmas week, and on another week the sublines and conduits might not have existed; perhaps we might have been able to enter. But we were there then, this was our day to see this postcard-documented place, and though the line’s grandeur took my breath, I was ready to stand, a willing soldier in the trenches of tourism.
In its way, the line was not unlike the art piece I would see later in the week, alone, at the Arts San Monica exhibit at the base of Las Ramblas: a pillar covered with tiny mirrors which you, like a package tourist, could place in many picturesque spots, at the top of a mountain, say, an old-fashioned selfie pillar: you would see yourself reflected against the landscape from many angles.
So in that monumental, statuesque line, I stood while my kids and mate kept hoofing it up the hill, still some half hour away. We had one phone between us: I borrowed someone’s to tell the family how to find me in the line. Some lines ask you to enter what we as a family had seen while living in Cuba, the Communist line which asks of its adherents a kind of existential putting-on-hold. You forget yourself and must put yourself on hold.
Yet this line was of a very different order, seeking to keep you alert, with up-to-the-minute dispatches. Important representatives of the government holdings were dispatched in their blue smocks to answer questions about the line. Only so many people could walk the hallowed grounds at a time.
It is probably fair to say that all of us in line, if in different terms, had come to what we had thought would be sublime in order to dislodge ourselves. My memory, from having invited my sister to this same park years earlier, was that there had been no admission fee, no line, and that only a few desultory types wandered the terraces of Parc Güell. But surely my memory lacked the permanence of a monument or even the structure of this line. Every few minutes one of the blue-smocked people would come around to our crook in the line to flip a sign. Had we gotten our tickets at the subway station, we would’ve been able to enter at 3:30. While now it was 4, and then 4:15, 4:30, 4:45, 5 – the time anyone waiting in line could enter. In winter, darkness would fall at 6 if not 5:30. Grumbles rippled backward. All this wait and for only an hour, a half hour, of witnessing.
As Elizabeth Bishop asks: should we have stayed home and thought of here?
My mate and kids would still not make it up the hill for the next twenty minutes, and though I was bookless, a romantic tragedy started unfolding right in front of me in line. There stood the kind of French woman who in her youth had been, perhaps, a seeker of sun and men, a bouncy scamp on Greek islands or the budget Costa Brava holiday. It could seem odd that her neck and back alone told me this but I would have bet my cherished place in line on the certainty. She lacked the lithe angled presence Americans associate with the French, the one inspiring all the diet books: hers was the face and body of a lusty northern peasant in the fields, well-haunched while threshing grain to feed the village.
For her own Parc Güell moment, she had encased herself in tight wide jeans, boots with a furry lined top hinting at childhood’s sentimental teddy bears, and a broad-shouldered leather jacket, cracked in its seams, over which a dark blue hood flopped. I linger on the clothes because none of their pretense or faux civilized casualness did away with the strong animal presence they enhanced. She had a tremendous head of curly proto-blonde hair over a broad red northern face, seamed and cracked as her jacket, teeth pretending to no special mercantilist intervention or childhood abundance, but a mouth that smiled, ready for pleasure, at her pale Spaniard.
The Spaniard escorting her was a short man with the black hair and white skin of a courtier, maybe a decade younger, also in a black jacket if one more unctuous. So considerate, so courtly in his attentions, he bestowed upon her all that some women crave from their mates: it almost took my breath away to watch the performance of such exquisite sensitivity, such fatherly attention to her every shifting discomfiture.
From the display, it seemed they had only recently met – a bar or disco? a drunken ferry ride? – and perhaps only the night before: from the way they laughed a half-beat too readily, each made clear how wildly the fantasies spun for both.
All this observation might sound like charlatanism of the purest order and surely some part of it is. My first job, age twelve, was to read palms with a friend in Berkeley’s Walnut Square, at which age I found it strangely gratifying that adults would say, ah, really, how do you know so much about me? And perhaps such dangerous gratification, the tendrils of the potential knowing of others’ realities, equips or damages a person enough that she thinks she really should travel to a place like Barcelona from which she can learn the world. That if the outer contours of identity were really that transparent, that porous, from such damage, you might be forgiven for thinking being an artist would be a good thing, the artist as code for traveler. Both carry the same thing: a curiosity about others that makes one want to take the first step out the door, because otherwise, why not stay in the contours of the self and never head to Barcelona?
You and I, we travel because of our curiosity but is it curiosity about what the place might be or who you might become in such an imagined space?
In that endless line, the Frenchwoman basked in the attentions of her solicitous compañero. His French was enough for him to have gotten by with foreigners before, a sweet, lispingly sufficient French. Tu l’aimes le froid –? Mais si. A laugh. At any gap in their conversation, at the point into which doubt might flood, they would plug all off with a hug, a reminder of what they had known the night before: physical rapprochement their ultimate sealer. Plug it up, push it in – the tactic would work until that exact plug would no longer be sufficient.
And I kept wondering: what does he want from her?
Though it seemed clear. She traded up in one domain while he did the same in another. As Hemingway has one of his characters say, early in my friend’s beloved The Sun Also Rises, everything is an exchange of values. In a post-austerity country, the Spaniard could use her relative wealth, mobility or help. And she – understanding some vitality may have been lost on the altar of hedonism, lost in some plebe job – she could use some fun, all of it an equation older than Colette, going back to the time before Potiphar’s wife.
She, meanwhile, was keen on asking questions about his job. He did something that required both motors and public presentation. In America he would have been a used car lot salesman, speaking with the assumed dignity of someone who knows others might look down on him as little more than an aid to their plans or, worse, a monkey wrench. Oui, oui, mon travail, he said, yes, my job, and then sought to clarify, briefly, particulars important only to him and his petit microcosm, not lingering, knowing with masculine instinct she probably didn’t care one bit about it other than wanting to track future prospects, geographic commitments, class.
At this point I would’ve bet not only my place in line but also the price of my entire family’s entry to Parc Güell (which seemed fairly stiff for something which Gaudi had intended as an inducement to the bourgeoisie to enjoy la naturaleza) that she had been a party girl but the party had ended seven to ten years earlier. Still, not so long that she hadn’t forgotten its savor. She kept glancing back at everyone behind her, with the force of an urban rat tearing into a hunk of meat in an alleyway, as if that gaze said: older, sure, but let me just enjoy this, it is mine to have. And also, a softer look after: is it such a crime? Another look at all of us behind her said: I know you are looking, and really, it is no crime, I need to have my fun, don’t even cast the first stone, you have no idea how bad (monotone, subservient) the rest of my life is.
I looked elsewhere. Perhaps their age difference was greater than I’d guessed, giving the scouring headlight of that gaze. That said, I strangely wanted to assure her, to enter their story: I did think it good she was having fun. Except I could not help feeling a little worried, such became my over-involvement in her petit drame, that her Spaniard with his courtly car-selling ways was probably using her, that perhaps her mobility or whatever little sum had enabled her to bake her young skin could be enough to lift him out of hard-times Spain, out of the car lot or grease-monkey world. Oui, oui, mon travail. He wanted to be somewhere other than where he was, perhaps to be someone other, and was no different from any of us in that line at Parc Güell: travelers having come far uphill for a vision. Is it fair to say that most of the time we are all always tourists, our bodies on loan, our time to take in anything so short? And the longer we stand waiting, the shorter our time will be. Let them both travel then, in line and out, let all of us travel, let us just finally get in to our destination.
It seemed almost certain that with his warm eyes, not terrible French and his extreme attentiveness he would lightfinger her heart and then take some of her material belongings: this increasingly was my conclusion. They needed very little interaction, as our line caterpillared forward, about who was paying, already her purse was in hand, ready to fork forward the combined entry fee, though they would only have, like me, an hour before the sun set. He acted with supreme clarity as if he ignored the purse, while he took very seriously his position as native guide. As the line continued to snake, he kept whispering to her, or rather speaking as if in a whisper, as if only to her, about how things were proceeding: I will make this terrain plain for you.
Parc Güell, continued
The family had come uphill, we had reunited, I left my French tragedienne and her male courtesan. As a family, we strolled the last bandwidths of sun, the pathways of the upper park awaiting our entry into the lower park bedecked by Gaudi. In the upper park we heard a joyful dreadlocked ska band, saw a Serbian silhouette artist quickly cut paper profiles, and watched a lonely man from northern India make, with amazing skill, a rag doll bellydance to his CD player until he sat, dejected, head in hand, at the lack of coins thrown his way. Mainly Pakistanis and northern Indians lined the upper esplanades, selling one of three things: necklaces, castanets, or themselves, defining the attraction with their narrowed possibility of wares as much as Spain, the park, the attraction defined all of us.
Once our hour arrived, 5:15, the time at which we could get into the lower part requiring admission, darkness swallowed most of the hill on which it perches. The distant city glimmered in the last of the day. What could we see if we only have half an hour or more before it is dark? The laundrywoman, answered a kind guard, see the salamander. The laundrywoman was a hearty stone fixture at the end of a terra-cotta wall, but as I looked at her she seemed to be weeping for us. Not far from her was splayed a mosaic salamander, over which package tourists themselves splayed out in lizard fashion but one by one. Each stopped to pose, with a space of politesse carved around them, so that it would seem as if they alone had happened on a charming spot no one else had discovered.
Later in the trip I would see this exact photographic etiquette replicated on the rooftop of Gaudi’s beloved La Pedrera, an apartment building commissioned by a couple, high in the bourgeoisie. The rooftop’s famous chimneys and forms play against the boxlike roofs of the rest of the city, but certain refugees, heterogeneous and hence lacking codes, bunched up and grumbled at the other aliens whose code stated it was a good idea to halt others from walking up and down the pathways so that the photo of a single person against the one ideal landscape could be taken, a sort of inverted David Caspar Friedrich tactic. When I look at my own photos from the visit to the Pedrera, very near the apartment in which we were staying, I see increasing disorientation. My last picture is of my thumb. Much better, in a way, to look up at the Pedrera from the street or the courtyard of the neighboring, free, and under-populated Fundació Suñol, where you see a few unusual rooftop sentinels looking over you and also have no one’s idea of the ideal spot as the antiromantic scrim over your own.
At Parc Güell, at the salamander, the salamanders posing for the others were hoping to post their photo publicly, believing it added to the capital of their being, given that others would note their curatorial eye and unique experience.
To a fault, probably, I had never been drawn to movie stars whom everyone loved, having found perverse pride in finding beautiful what I thought the masses did not; and in this curatorial eye, there must live a double infatuation: one loves one’s ability to pick up form from background, to see behind a stone, to shine a light into a neglected space.
And so, it seemed to me, was also true for my two daughters back at Parc Güell. Too many other people had come to revel in Gaudi; they did not want to gaudiar, as the Spanish verb has it.
In past travels, I used to like to come to a semi-arbitrary place in which I roosted, getting to know its habits, and had done this in a few locales: a village off a tobacco plantation in the mountain country of Sri Lanka, a Pyreneène medieval village. The serendipity of insight arising from this habit made me prefer it: more interesting salamanders seemed to crawl out from unforeseen rocks. Whereas this adult travel felt different: proper nouns to amass, architects to know, guidebooks to consult. And the very idea of a priori, of being a particular tourist who comes see a specific thing for a specific reason, lacks much of the grand discovery of youth.
After ten minutes in the park, the sun still sufficient to show my youngest’s face, I kneeled down with her, trying to read her mood. You want to go? I said.
It was true; she wanted to leave soon as we had entered.
One definition of dramatic irony: every step you take toward your goal pushes you farther from your truest goal. And to her good credit, at seven, she saw the joke and laughed: we had come for this place, such a long trip to Barcelona, partly for her. The postcard and fantasy, the arrangements, the trip and wait, only to arrive and, ten minutes into its heart, the place released us from its spell. And why? Some imagined truer (happier, more comfortable, more alive) self awaited her anywhere but here. The irony, the irony.
We moved like victors through the sullen photographing crowd, jubilant and freed, liberated from the need to add to any quantity of hordes or the need to take in the moment. Our relief in the cab that sped away, the driver opining warmly about Catalunyan independence, matched his: we all would be very happy to be separated from mass hordes dictating our movements.
And the French tourist and her Spaniard? Last I saw them, they leaned against a mosaic wall, trying their best in the dimming day to take, on her better phone, a selfie that would let them recall their Barcelona moment in the best light.
Speeding toward an end
There is another premise of travel that when you are about to leave a place you suddenly meet everyone interesting whom you should have met earlier.
What is that about, after all? You abandon your ideas about what you were going to find, you expand, and you are fully in the place as you might not be unless you are about to die.
I only partly found the Barcelona from my pitiable-busker days, the Barcelona I thought I had known, toward the end, when I rented a bike and the bicycle let me take in the city, riding among hell-bent bicyclists who loved the cuneiform dotted into city streets and pedestrian esplanades, obeyed by locals but ignored by visitors, the bike paths a smart urban plan letting you cheerfully go all the way from the mountain to the sea or through vast swaths of mercantile enterprise while not having to push through crowds.
The man from whom I rented the bicycle had been a race driver but had taken over this shop which his grandfather had owned. He was surprised by the mobility of Americans: the global radar-darting across a map cannot be wholly comprehensible to someone who opens a business in a shop his grandfather has owned. After motorcars, he had decided that it was better to know the city freely, on a bicycle, and surely there was something of the adrenaline-laced motorcar-racing enterprise in biking in Barcelona, fleeing the masses while knowing yourself as part of the arteries of the city.
In that biking moment, I considered what the skateboarders knew, so serious outside the contemporary art museum in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood, a spot famous for skateboarders, such that a film was made about them: the fun of speed in a known trajectory, speed itself becoming the perception. Speed alone can be the eros, and never mind the helmetless thanatos, the bloody spill I saw one skateboarder take, or the four-year-old long-haired boarder so gung-ho on impressing his father he jumped a wall to disastrous effect.
A last note
Where is everyone going on a Sunday in Barcelona? They linger slowly, go for a walk, they go to dar un paseo, they don a beret and go for their errands. People’s gazes are drawn to the stores advertising fifty-percent sales after the New Year. Women wear uncomfortably high heels, young men push shopping baskets and empty strollers, and no one has very big families. This is Europe in the new year. People are having fewer children, or when they have more than one, they are poor or they had twins or they have them all at once, close to one another, to be done with it, and surely demographic data to both discount and support all such observation could be found.
What is it to find you no longer have Serendib, that mythical island toward which the Dutch sailed, ending up in Sri Lanka, from which the idea of serendipity comes? What is it to fix any point on the map? Perhaps this is what Elizabeth Bishop means when she talks about being in one place, thinking of there instead of getting here. We must have a biological urge to retain an illusion of Valhalla, to keep escape our option, even if here be dragons.
To bring my family to Barcelona meant, in a sense, to slay that girl who had been an earnest dreamy busker outside that cathedral with that French trompettiste. To show them something of the old, to induct the next generation into the charms of travel. My older daughter, eleven, loved walking anywhere, and then stopping to choose tapas or a croissant, imagining a future life that would include only three elements: walking, exploring, eating. My younger daughter found travel overwhelming, especially the crowds that made one-on-one perception harder. Perhaps part of returning to a place is that you discover that you must discover how much less self-infatuated you are than when you were all blind potential.
I write this from the Fifth Avenue of Barcelona, not far from La Pedrera, with only a few more days to go before returning home. The faces of the Barcelonans, walking by in pairs as if exiled from Noah’s boat and forced into lives of endless consumption, getting and spending, look weary, but at least they are together: in this city they understand not only walking but also the beauty of walking together. Spanish men and Japanese women, a common pairing, pass by: it is, as Robert Hughes fulminates in his magisterial, cranky book, a city taken over by Californian and Japanese tastes.
Mothers and daughters wear identical boots. One mother strokes her daughter’s vest, produced by sweat factories in Asia. Dogs, humorous and spotted, drag owners along. Servitude to the bourgeois ideal, to Kinder, Kuche, Kirche far from the madding crowd, surrounds me. People do not treat children here with southern warmth but more with the watchful, warm regard you might have toward a particular investment: often parents walk by, anxious but purposely unheeding as a child cries behind them. These children study their parents for cues, while waiters watchful for more business, wearing jeans originally fashioned in San Francisco at the time of the gold rush, try luring the parents in for an adult café. Everyone has a phone and an attitude toward bags and belongings.
This is a neighborhood which sees people having a lonely air at night as they let themselves into their apartment buildings hung with tasteful art. Certain hours bring unhappiness, people trying to find succor. They belong, they don’t question, but they are exhausted from enjoyment while trying to move ahead. In luxurious neighborhoods, signs of Europe’s austerity measures are inverted but somehow live on in body parts: on display in the length of a women’s legs, paraded in elaborate tights, or proudly displayed in boots and fetish objects. Couples comfortable with each other still have lots of opining and creature comforts to share within themselves and with other couples: you very much feel Marx’s idea of the bourgeois in this part of Barcelona, where you do not find package tours but you find the urban French, those coming to seek in their travels, so often, a place similar to home.
At a local exhibit of the photographer Salgado, people bunch up to look at the Kuikuros’ monkey-spine photos. Salgado shows us the extreme areas of the earth where the details vary, but as the gallery-goers leave, in their self-satisfied, weary faces sizzles the death of dreams. If you talk with them, they are unfailingly helpful, but the friendliness has its boundaries. And yet into what, after all, do I try to induct my children? My memories?
A true final thought
In my last sight of Pierre the busker, he was awake in my bed, shirtless and smiling like a small Jean-Paul Belmondo. I was leaving for the day; we would meet up later; I think I was answering some message from the publicidad agency. Faites comme vous êtes chez vous, he said, jokingly, before I left, feel at home. We had not slept together, we had merely slept next to each other, compañeros of the camino, fellow buskers, followers of separate romantic myths, survivors of La Catedral, who had talked all night. Is it surprising to my adult self that when I came back a few hours later, he was gone, as was the camera my father had given me and perhaps some other important items?
What had he robbed me of? Should I have stayed home and merely thought of here? There was nowhere to send the asymmetry of the letter his theft sent me, a bolus of violence. I fled then, late in the day, heading to the station to take the train only partway to Annecy, his next destination, before turning back. I would never reach Annecy and its beautiful lake, as I would never reach many beautiful places: should I have reached for them and thought of home? Instead I went on to follow the more organized idea of the rest of the summer, the green star of Ireland, taking the boat to Cork, making my way through crowds filling the streets for a U2 concert, and from there to Yeats’ grave in Sligo, keeping the Barcelona I knew a similarly buried memory. What burial song could accompany the loss of the romantic dream?
In an alleyway on my last day on this most recent visit, just outside the cabinet of curiosities near the Catedral, a museum of solicitude, a guitar player named Justi with a saddened wise way about him and a cheerful sax player from Mexico City do what they can to sing Justi’s songs into a mic. Up the cobblestoned street comes a gypsy girl in socks with great glee and a not terrible voice. She takes over the mic which automatically harmonizes a tone one third above her voice and, so augmented, she belts out the chorus of a dispensable pop anthem while Justi and his Mexican accompanist smile, trying to silence her with grace, as now they may take up public space solely by dispensation of the town’s bureaucracy, which has started assigning buskers two-hour intervals. And the gypsy girl with her libido for song can ruin it for Justi and his pal, because she cannot just sing into the mic but must sing loudly her song of self. Clearly this exact charade has been enacted plenty of times. She has them, and their polite smiles will not fend her off. How come you don’t let me sing with you? she keeps saying, just a little. Like all of us, she wants that interpenetration of realms that a port city allows: gypsy become busker become tourist with family. But she must stay in her role and their kind firmness succeeds in shushing her, while the cabinet of curiosities museum and its over-solicitous guards await me.
Long before the guards think it appropriate, I flee the museum, which, with its enchanting, overwhelming collection, makes me drown in the stuff of Barcelona. As I walk back out into that square emptied of Justi, his sax-player, and the bestockinged gypsy girl, this last day returns Barcelona to me: the perverse cheer of travel for which there is no real guidebook. First you must pass the chaos of uninvited loudness before entering an enclave of the professionally overfriendly. As you head through an open passageway, admire the last of the day’s slant of light. So that you might again appreciate the generosity of travel, note that some random mute might sidle right up to you: toothless since he needs to hand you a paper napkin folded into a rose, with, this time, no reciprocating coin needed. Inside the rose, however, lives the question: to travel well, must you leave behind the self you thought you were coming to see? Once you had within you someone who knew how to appreciate, to live in the moment, who walked hours to see the sea, someone who thought less and probably lived more.
Is Serendib the place where the dragons in the corner of the map assault you most with questions about yourself? Is our greatest travel the one we make through time?
Forget the mute beggar. As Bishop asks: why, why must we have our dreams and also fulfill them? Stay naked for one more second. Is it not enough just to have the dream? Take Barcelona.
Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Mann_und_Frau_in_Betrachtung_des_Mondes_-_Alte_Nationalgalerie_Berlin.jpg#/media/File:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Mann_und_Frau_in_Betrachtung_des_Mondes_-_Alte_Nationalgalerie_Berlin.jpg