Thursday, April 19, 2012

A little spirituality

I am writing to you from one of our quieter evenings here in Barcelona - I have been meaning to write for a while but (as suitably quixotic as it may sound) walking home from the supermarket at dusk along the streets lined with newly green trees really inspired me to sit down and tell you what has been happening for the past couple of weeks.

(On a random bookish note, I am currently reading Emile Zola's Therese Raquin and he describes these springtime trees as covered with "a light, pale-green lace", which I really liked - especially in contrast to the extremely dark nature of the rest of the novel. This is the second Popular Penguin I am reading that was kindly gifted to me by the bookshop when I left - I really love how they feel to pick up and race or meander through. And of course they're light enough to be perfect for travelling, a stance I will old-fashionedly and staunchly maintain in the face of Kindles. For the booklovers I know reading, for example My Green Bookshelves (great up-and-coming blog by the way from a friend and fellow ex-bookshopper, turned publishing student) - I also recently finished Jennifer Egan's Look At Me and Ali Smith's The Accidental. It was interesting to read these one after the other as they are both predecessors to the authors' hugely successful novels A Visit From the Goon Squad and There But For The respectively. They were very good but perhaps inevitably I found them both a little disappointing, partly because I felt they explored similar themes to their younger siblings that I loved so much, only less articulately.)

Right, forgive the foray into works of fiction. I think it is still a hangover from finishing university that I so relish having the time (or lack of guilty conscience) to read novels. For me, reading in our Barcelona bedroom or on the Spanish sun warmed grass is also one of the delights of travelling - I know that coming across these books in years to come will invoke the same feelings and scents, sights that surrounded me at the time.

So back to reality and the present - recently we were enjoying one of our frequent meals at Les Tapes on what happened to be the day before their 30th birthday. We took S and B one of those aluminium models that you can "make" [fold] yourself of a tuatara for their fishtank that sits opposite the bar and is a great source of enjoyment to them and customers alike. (Thank you to my mother for having the wisdom to tell me to put a few of these sorts of things in my suitcase!) Tuatara has since taken up residence there although he's not very sturdy so he seems to spend most of the time lying down after being knocked over by the fish. We were lucky enough also to be gifted 30th anniversary t-shirts and to celebrate with a drink after closing with S and B and a friend of theirs at a bar just down the road. It was wonderful hearing their stories and experiences, about how much has changed in 30 years, and I think we both felt quite privileged.

And just over a week ago we celebrated Easter. On Good Friday we wandered down to La Rambla to see the Easter parade taking place. I was completely overwhelmed by the number of people (particularly older people) who turned out to witness and call out ("guapa, guapa!!" - "beautiful, beautiful!!") to the huge Virgin Mary and Jesus statues on big, lavishly decorated carts being carried through the city. Easter (or Pasqua in Spanish) seems much more religious than commercial here - there were only a few Easter eggs in the supermarket and no posters of Easter bunnies with colourful baskets. Instead, "Easter cakes" (Mona de Pasqua) appeared in the windows of bakeries and cake shops (traditionally given to children by their godparents) and the city seemed to empty out as families travelled out of town to enjoy the long weekend. We stayed and I spent Saturday preparing the same food that my mother makes for Easter, on my own for the first time. This was quite strange for me but ultimately satisfying - seeing the same things take shape at my own hands that my mother made so special throughout my life. Finding all the right ingredients at the supermarket was also a triumph after a number of experiences when we have carried things home only to open them and say "...this is not what I thought it was going to be - but let's eat it anyway"!

Actually this doesn't only happen with supermarket shopping ... a while ago M and I tried a restaurant near our place that came highly recommended by various reviewers. Meson David did not disappoint as they served up a huge, delicious pork leg to M for just 8 euros. It's quite a big place and obviously very popular so we enjoyed sitting and watching tourists and locals alike enjoy the food and wine under the wooden beamed ceiling. When it came time for dessert the waitress bought us a menu in Spanish, as opposed to in English, which as always was a bit of a triumph for us because (we assume) it means our Spanish is half decent or at least we do not scream "tourist" when we open our mouths (generally even when we speak Spanish people are very quick to switch to English as soon as they realise we're not locals). So we ordered and I decided to go with the mysterious "musician's dessert with love" without knowing what it was. Well ... I was served up a four euro plate of nuts and dried fruit. Or what was effectively scroggin. We couldn't help laughing, even as I lamented coming to the other side of the world only to be served scroggin, and as we tried to figure out what nuts and dried fruit have to do with music or love.

Anyway, I suppose the week following Easter was a bit of a "religious" week in general for us (disregarding the numerous non-religious elements, obviously ...). On the Sunday we visited Santa Maria Del Mar, mentioned in my last post, and marvelled at the magnificent stained glass windows and enormous, ancient stone arches inside. A few days later we hopped on an hour long train ride to get to Montserrat - a village built around the religious effigies, symbols and centuries old hermits' dwellings hidden in a spectacular mountain. The name literally means "serrated mountain", a very apt description of the beautiful stony mass that stands to the northwest of Barcelona. Words (indeed pictures) actually feel a bit inadequate to describe the sight of and feeling or energy of the place. First, it is one of those slightly unbelievable and yet completely pure examples of nature at its best. Secondly the energy that this evokes combined with the spiritual nature of the place is undeniable.

We took the steep cable car from the train station - if you can spot it, that yellow speck in the bottom right third of the picture is the car packed with 35 people. This picture was taken by M who made it climbing up the whole mountain to the other side by the dimly visible cross pictured above. I turned back after half an hour of discovering how unfit I am and how ill-chosen my footwear was. Before we started out though we checked out the fantastic Basilica not far from the cable car stop. Unfortunately we missed the famous boys' choir (reputedly the oldest in the world) that normally sings there because they were on holiday but we did spot the Black Virgin statute that the place is known for and were, again, in awe of the church itself. Later, while M was powering up the mountain, I wandered up another path on my way down past sunlight dappled monuments of the Stations of the Cross and discovered, at the top, a carved wooden seat. It looked Hungarian from afar but I told myself to snap out of it because why would it be Hungarian? Sure enough though, it was! I couldn't believe it, in the middle of Spain's one of most magnificent sites...well, what can I say, we're everywhere. I am not ashamed to say I laughed out loud in delight all by myself up on that mountain track.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A little bit random

Twice in the last few weeks M and I have acted as Barcelona locals or at the very least "seasoned tourists" for some slightly lost looking visitors. By coincidence three out of four of them happened to be Finnish (make of that what you will in light of the current Brownlee upset ...) and the other German. On both occasions it took us all about 20 minutes to find that we'd bumped into those kind of people who you don't need to know for long or well in order to have a fun night out with them.

The first couple we only spent one evening with, drinking one euro cervezas from the "cerveza men" who sell beer on every corner of every central street after hours. Often these beer cans are extracted from underneath a grate or a manhole so it's a good idea to wipe them down before drinking - and of course I guess it's not what you would call legal, just as drinking on the street isn't - nonetheless they're popular with the Barcelona nightlife. Although, like all good salesmen, the vendors are sometimes persistent to the point of annoying. Anyway, the four of us spent a lovely evening on the waterfront talking and laughing and finding the similarities in lives that seem to be completely different.

A week or so later we met another couple cautiously eying Les Tapes, which was full to the brim with regulars. We took them to another bar for some tapas and formed a three day friendship that involved the first jug(s) of sangria we've had since arriving and a party that was shut down by police 20 minutes after our arrival (a complete coincidence, obviously!). Of course we took them back to Les Tapes (which is unmissable if you're ever in Barcelona) and had a delicious meal of gambas (prawns) and fish, which, for M and me, was our first time sitting in the low-ceilinged seating area downstairs instead of at the bar. Afterwards our hosts, the bar's owners, recommended another place to try nearby to round off the night with (as Les Tapes closes at 11.30pm, partly to avoid the  neighbourhood complaints that lead to the type of police visits and fines mentioned above ...). They later joined us there after closing for a drink and to share some jokes. In other words M and I now have a surrogate aunt and uncle here in Barcelona and as you can imagine, this is one of the best things you could ask for after being in a foreign city for six weeks.

On Sunday us girls went to El Born for the afternoon, a suburb M and I haven't explored much yet. The sun and seemingly most of Barcelona's inhabitants were out enjoying the day in all its glory. We ate lunch  at a reasonably priced tourist spot only metres away from Barcelona's oldest church, Santa Maria del Mar and then headed for Parc de la Cuitadella. This is a huge area (to my NZ eyes at least, perhaps not for Londoners) that houses (naturally) a Gaudi waterfall, a zoo and a tiny lake full of rowboats. M and I came across it on our first day here and were immediately enchanted (especially by the orange trees). On Sunday it was absolutely packed with sunbathers and friends gathered for picnics and to play music or dance together. On the way we got distracted by a big vintage market that was being held in a nearby train station (with the trains still running) and I bought my first piece of Barcelona clothing for a whole three euros.

These are the sort of friendships I think are typical of travelling (at least my preferred way of travelling). They are necessarily short in nature, which may be why they seem to quickly reach a level of camaraderie we sometimes don't find with those we see all the time. Or maybe that is because (in the case of foreigners meeting foreigners) there is immediately a common ground to start from simply due to the coincidence of choosing, from all the cities in the world and all the years and months in our lives, to be in the same place at the same time.

These are probably all relevant, but I like to think friendships like this are also a natural consequence of having or taking the time to stop, ask, talk, listen to people who we might otherwise be too busy or frazzled or fed up to even look at. Goodness knows I can relate to that frame of mind and the accompanying cynicism. And of course, it would be unfair of me to omit the instances we have met people here in a similar vein and found that, in fact, under no circumstances would we normally (want to) associate with them. However ... insert cliche about no pain no gain, diamonds in the rough etc here. It is true though I think that once we get past that initial gathering of mental energy to make the effort we wouldn't otherwise, the good that we can find in and learn from people (hopefully) outweighs ... well, all those other people that we can choose never to speak to again.

(Having said that, despite Barcelona's 1.6 million population compared to Wellington's 400,000, it unsettling how often we bump into the handful of people we have met here just walking down the street, as you would at home. I can only surmise that this is because the city centre is, while much larger, similarly concentrated to Wellington's. In the end the encounters are less obviously because here I do not have 24 years of history with the city waiting around every corner.)

On a completely different and less meandering note, not just Barcelona but many other large cities in Spain completely shut down on Thursday. The March 29 general strike was against labour reforms currently being introduced to combat the country's rather horrific unemployment rate. I can't really enlighten anyone about the politics of it all, but we did wander down to Placa Catalunya to witness the thousands of people, the signs, chanting, police, random smoke in the air around the city ... we actually just missed the tear-gas part of the evening, which was probably fortunate. Going to school in the morning though most shops were shut or had their front grates lifted only halfway, only cautiously inviting customers because doing so was, I believe, a lack of solidarity and traitorous, especially as every business had been warned with flyers on their doors that on March 29 "nobody works, all shops are shut!".

Public transport also ceased, but the worst part was that rubbish collectors and street cleaners were also on strike. Rubbish bins overflowed and spilled onto the footpaths, completely blocking the way. The roads were littered with old fliers, cigarette butts and other random debris. The cleaning only stopped for 24 hours but walking through the city was like navigating through the gross aftermath of a massive party (despite the fact that, due to most places being shut, the city had been much quieter than usual ... apart from all those people protesting, obviously). I really felt for the cleaners who would have 10 times the work to do come the end of the strike. Yesterday morning though, bless them, the streets were back to their relatively clean state ... and that, I think, deserves some respect.

Muchos besos como siempre, hasta leugo!