I wrote a letter to a friend detailing a few weeks I spent
FIRST DAY IN SPAIN
Because I didn't know anybody else in the country I
figured I should make every effort to be friendly. I crossed the street from
bus stop to train station to find the Metro. I hadn't consulted any guide
books--I always thought that was cheating. Besides, winging it is much more
My first daytho' I'd spent 27 hours on the bus from Prague with little sleepI decided to walk over to Antonio Gaudi's Parc Guell because my roommate (four bunks to a room, tiny balcony on which I hung socks and underwear washed in the bathroom sink) had just returned with a postcard on which he pointed out where he'd eaten lunch. Armed with an inadequate tour bus map (free at the check-in desk) I set off, passed the Triumphal Arch and Sagrada Familia along the way, got a little lost, bought some bananas, finally found the park after seeing some groovy graffiti; was awed by it all. Overheard an American college girl say under the rough-hewn colonnade: "It's like he was on acid or something." I thought that was a stupid thing to say, but truth is I'd thought the same; walking Parc Guell was an unguided tour through Gaudi's brain.
It was hard to tell where Gaudi left off and nature began. Unfamiliar with the layout, I decided the safest course was up. Up and up, an overhead view of purple vs. green on a yellow soccer field, the shadow of the ball sharp racing along the ground. Past that the people washing their cars with Barcelona at their feet stretching to the sea. Past even this to rugged terrain; what at first I thought was a winding path was a watercourse; I picked wildflowers, even thistles because its flower is so pretty, thinking of the postcard I'd write to Libby in which I'd write 'I picked wildflowers and thought of you,' which was absolutely true and over the phone on her birthday two weeks later she said that had been the line she liked best.
Got to the top feeling satisfied, bouquet in my hands but no one, nothing else at the top of Barcelona but a geologic survey disk stuck in the ground. Loving the solitude, writing in red vis-a-vis marker on my remaining banana for want of paper, I was joined by a man, a little boy, and their tiny dog with a red ribbon in its hair that sought the shade of my leg on that exposed peak. After six hours of walking I was ready to retrace my steps to the hostel, went back along Las Ramblas with its human statues, prostitutes and gypsy cigarette salesmen. Remembered so far as the Placa Royale but got lost after that, searched for Placa Palau when what I really wanted was Caller de Palau about half a mile away, but after two more hours of soulful wandering I made it back, ate some beans and fell asleep.
I still didn't know anybody so the next morning I asked, "Mind if I sit here?" to the red-headed woman in the hostel dining room even though all the other tables were free. There is nothing unusual with wanting to share your table even when the option is there to have your own. Who wants to be alone?
Liz was from London. She was talented, fearless and free. She'd come down to relax for a week after finishing a screenplay. She did wardrobe for the Shamen on a two-month US tour, which meant that she procured the medicine which they used to get in touch with the Great Spirit, she explained. They'd been introduced at a party; they wanted to get their hands on a dream machine' which as she put it 'was invented by one of your beat fellows; he was failing asleep on a bus, the sunlight flashing through the trees put him into a trance; I knew where to get two of the machines." (Sure beats tweaking your resume as a way to get a job.) She was going to Montserrat, billed as the most beautiful natural site in Spain, home to an ancient monastery whose hermits were hunted for sport by Napoleon's troops; the inspiration of Dali, Gaudi, Miro, Picasso (not to mention Hemingway), only 45 minutes and 1500 pesetas outside of Barcelona. It was the first I'd heard of it, and I agreed to go.
So did Jen, an American studying in Germany who grudgingly lent me ticket money because I only had cheques and the cash machine didn't work because I hadn't thought to get a European PIN and time was tight so we caught our train just in time. There was a long line to see the chapel so we skipped that--which I'd wanted to skip anyway because I'm not impressed by the fruits of slavery--and opted for the mountainous hiking paths. Jen bailed early, forever angry with me for 'stiffing' her with a twenty USD when although it was more than 1500 pesetas in Spain, she wouldn't change until she got to Germany where the mark was much stronger; I offered to mail the rest to her but she just left. Liz and I smoked and walked on. She wanted to join the rockclimbers but they didn't have the right size shoes to lend her so we took a detour in search of shoes, which proved fruitless, much to my relief because at the time I was still a little reticent about trying new things. On and up the peak; when we crested the northeast ridge we saw the mountainside of blackened trees, evidence of the fires in 1986.
Liz had a cumbersome bag slung across her body but it didn't affect her balance. "There's a path. Walk with your arms out for to counterbalance." She tightroped the narrow clay path, a hard sixty foot drop to our right. I went much slower, offbalance at first leaning down until I summoned the courage to imitate her, all the way to the end of the 'path' which really was a viaduct which left us at the top of a cistern with no visible means of getting down. At least not visible to me, but Liz, who'd tamed her fear of gravity, found a way.
Someone at the Barcelona hostel recommended a place on the beach about an hour south of Valencia. After a long walk on a perfect day I found the youth hostel--albergue, a funny word which doesn't sound at all hospitable--on the beach in Piles, a resort town on the Mediterranean, practically deserted because it was still a week before the tourist season would start, the week before Easter, when the green and orange stucco beach houses would be opened and Spanish vacationers would crowd the cobble esplanade at the end of which before the dunes was the youth hostel where I stayed for two weeks, $7/night, coffee from a machine first thing in the morning watching the sunrise over the sea, a glistering blister slowly bursting the horizons skin. I was sitting on the terrace reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer; a woman was being pushed into the corner by the setting sun, chasing the rays before it dipped below the rooftop the last of the last of the light illuminating her face and shoulders. Jennifer was her name. We arranged to meet Jane the next day early and rent bikes for an all day ride through orange groves, quiet but for distant mo-peds and the ubiquitous hum of bees buzzing among the orange blossoms.
A NOTE ON THE REGION'S TOPOGRAPHY
"Where else do you see orange groves come right down to the beach? This region is so fertile because it sits atop the largest subterranean lake in Europe!" the man at the bar said over breakfast at Gwen's, British ex-pat hang-out nestled between dunes and orange trees. A Welshman limped to the bathroom. "He needs a new hip," Julian said; held up his hands to see if they were steady; "Yup, could still do it." The bait was so blatant I had to bite, yet I phrased my question in the present tense to be polite: "Are you a surgeon?" "Was. Retired; very retired." He went on to say life's best lived without telephones and clocks. "But you're wearing a watch," I noted.
We filled our backpacks with fresh-picked oranges, smoked a bowl, picked flowers; Jennifer taught me how to splice together a daisy chain: you slice the stem with your fingernail, slide the stem of the next flower through that. We rode uphill into the town, expected a somnolent Sunday morning in the season of siesta. What's all the commotion, why the police on motorcycles motioning us to the side of the road? A bike race! The whole town turned out to watch packs of riders in fluorescent spandex fly downhill at forty miles an hour, and every alley we looked down could have been a painting.
Out of town and into the hills, pausing to eat oranges in the shade, stopping among the prickly pears to take pictures and smoke before the steep climb, loose dirt and big rocks, we abandoned the bikes and walked to the Oliva hilltop rotunda, white balustrade against impeccable blue sky. I ate an apple, draped my wilted daisy chain over the stone railing, stood up only to be startled by the greenness of the green suddenly surrounded by mountains, cactus field and orange grove, blues of sky and sea blurring together on the horizon. Every place we went that day we hated to leave.
It was getting late and we were headed in the wrong direction, but we decided to go at least as far as the yellow building. When we got there nothing was doing, but from this new vantage we saw a new mountain and decided to set out across the field to touch its base. As we're riding I see these guys eating what looks like paella--the regional specialty which costs more in restaurants than I could afford (I ate mostly bread and cheese from the barefoot mercado down the waterfront esplanade, Espana Tipica technicolor postcards in the rack on the sidewalk, the friendly lady who rattled Valenciano (the regional dialect) at me the whole time I was there until the end when I disappointed her by saying, Lociento, no habla espanol). I slowed and they waved us over--a bunch of restaurant workers and their boss having a picnic, complete with sangria with a spout carved from bamboo; Miguel also tried to whittle a recorder but it didn't sound true so he snapped it over his knee. Rabbit, shrimp, rice, peppers, onions, tomato, calamari, all scooped out with oyster shells, washed down with beer; the owner played with a plastic bottle in which a chunk of ice too big for the spout was melting while one of the Miguels rolled a rocketship joint with hash cone on top with psychedelic printed papers Jennifer bought in London; I contributed the pot, a miniscule but miraculous amount of some very good stuff I'd brought all the way with me from Prague, braving the paranoia of German border guards whose respectful disdain of Americans kept them from even touching my passport.
Miguel, Miguel and Miguel borrowed our bikes. "What's with all the tubs?" I communicated to Pablo through the essential pantomime all humans share. They collect the rain for sheep to drink, he explained through animal sounds and weather gestures.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Playing hackey sack on the back patio at dusk with one of the many Australians staying at the hostel, two men who didn't speak English came up from the beach dripping wet in their underwear, clothes folded on the railing. They showered at the cold outdoor shower, pulled on their pants and asked in broken English what game it was we were playing. I knew they weren't Spanish because none of the locals would be caught dead in the water this time of year; these men, however, like me ten days earlier, had been overjoyed at the first sight of the sea after a long road from Eastern Europe and had flung themselves into the cold but inviting sea.
They were driving loads of citrus--tiny lemons and oranges much much smaller than we were getting for free off the trees--to Budapest.
I went to my room, then decided why not, found them with their children and wives in the vacant lot adjacent to the hostel, three double-trailer trucks. Thanks to sign language and their little English I asked if I could ride with them and they said of course, yes, but they wouldn't accept payment. "When are you leaving?"
"Ten minutes. For you, twenty." If they'd been leving the next morning, yes, definitely, but on the spot there I couldn't decide between a three-day trek in the cab of a truck--he showed me the route on a map: through Nice, Nimes, Venice &c. where they'd be stopping for rest and a lookaround--and the sad sorry spectacle of a bullfight in Valencia the next day. I'd been reading Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon all week in anticipation. And anyway it would've been impossible to pack and complete the necessary paperwork to get my passport back from the desk in the time remaining, so I had to decline. I drank strong coffee with them and in parting they had their children, chomping their candy, bestow eight bags of lemons and oranges on me which I put out on the counter for everyone in the hostel to share.
I paid extra for Sombre (shady seats) though it was still so early in the season that the sun had almost completely set before the main event, which as the name disappointingly implies was not a true Corrida but an amateurish spectacle where a tangle of novice matadors confront the bull trying to prove their worth, and though they displayed all the flourishes and showy capework they killed badly. One bull took the sword through the shoulder and into the lung, stood coughing bucketloads of black blood. The matador stood shouting, urging it to die. When it finally collapsed, slowly, a man with a dagger stabbed it in the back of the neck; the well-placed blade caused the bull's legs to stiffen.
It was another man's job to scoop up the red mud.