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 professionalize