We left the ship before 9 o’clock that morning and spent the full day in Barcelona. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we jumped on a tour bus that circled around the city. The “hop-on-hop-off” day pass meant we could visit the most famous buildings with the added convenience of a British audio track to tell us all we never cared to know about the banister designs on their balconies.
Once we completed one loop, we stopped for lunch just off La Rambla – the major city street that runs from Plaça de Catalunya at the city’s centre, down to the Columbus monument near the port. It was a small, upscale Tapas place. There was only one other couple there when we sat down and we ordered a few small plates from the long list on the menu to split amongst us. Apparently, tapas are just appetizers if you don’t share them.
“How are we supposed to split a burger?!” my mother demanded as my brother began to order. We ordered a few other dishes including lightly fried cod and sautéed spinach with pancetta and white beans. But, before that, we started with the ham we had looked forward to since we had in the city one week before. The €19 plate didn’t disappoint as the salty pile of cured meat quickly disappeared into warm blankets of Spanish bread. Then we washed it down with fizzy sangria. Aidan said the burger wasn’t bad either so, I had a bite of that too.
With full bellies, we got back on one of the buses, this time on the other route that ran through the marina and to the many beaches along the coast. We got off a few stops down at the longest beach in Barcelona. As my brother skipped across the hot sand towards the ocean, I put on my bathing suit and Mom and Norm took a seat at one of the beachside cafés.
Everyone says the most amazing beaches are in the Caribbean. Those people are right if you’re looking for the bluest water, the whitest sand, and a nauseating assortment of tourists who should never (ever) take their clothes off. Here, the sand wasn’t as white and the water wasn’t as blue but for that reason, there were fewer of those kinds of tourists. The segment of vacationers we might affectionately call “obnoxious Americans” were too busy sweating through their Hawaiian shirts at the famous monuments to spend time at a beach that didn’t measure up to the ones in Playa del Carmen or Montego Bay. Here was everyone else, clumsily playing a game of paddle ball, awkwardly tossing an American football, or sunbathing at spots they didn’t need to save by draping towels all over them. No husbands grumbling about wives spilling out of their oily bathing suits; no pale women sucking back ice drinks or sitting under an umbrella while they yell at their kids. The Europeans had it figured out. Everyone at this beach was doing exactly what people at a beach are supposed to be doing: enjoying it. They could do that because they weren’t forced to enjoy it; an inevitability when you fly several hours to visit a beach that’s supposed to be among the best in the world.
From there, we walked barefoot along the road to catch the bus father down the coast. We completed the full loop of the route before getting off at Plaça de Catalunya near our hotel. Just outside, a large crowd had gathered to watch some break dancers who had been hanging out there all day. Before my brother and I stayed to watch, Mom told us a group of girls were moving through the crowd and picking the pockets of spectators. After the performance ended and the crowd dispersed, we saw the performers talking to a group of four or five young Spanish girls. Without thinking, I adjusted the camera strap hanging around my shoulder and walked back to the hotel.
Dinner was even better than lunch. The hotel’s concierge recommended a small restaurant that was attached to the local market where they brought in everything fresh each day. There was a plate of bream – a salty white fish – served with the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever had. We had a pot of steamed mussels, and a skillet of wild rice risotto tossed with massive, soft strips of three kinds of mushrooms and hunks of chicken and sausage. Then we split a salad and had some more of the ham we had a lunch. (We stopped salting our food for three weeks following the trip to normalize our blood pressures).
After dinner we took a walk. We followed the old cobblestone alleyways back towards La Rambla passing street vendors, musicians, artists and lots of graffiti. At one corner, there were two men in the middle of a surprisingly powerful performance of an aria and at the next corner in the same alley, just out of earshot, seven or eight people were standing against the different walls listening thoughtfully to a street musician. Some watched as his fingers danced across the wires of his Spanish guitar while others kept their eyes shut, swaying back and forth with the guitarist. He swayed more noticeably, as if his body was waving with the sounds vibrating in the air.
It was amazing to see such talent in close quarters. The street musician kept his case open almost out of sight. Passer-bys paused at a distance for a moment, just to see what had attracted the attention. Most of them understood and stayed a little while longer. No-one walked up to put anything in his case but the musician didn’t seem to mind. If the hidden case means anything, it’s that the jingle of change would have been more interruption than appreciation.
After navigating several crowded squares, past glowing open air restaurants and ice cream shops, we found La Rambla. The trees that lined the side of the busy street were strewn with lights, illuminating the crowds. I stopped here and there to look at a few cartoon renditions of the people who, for whatever reason, chose to pay for cartoon renditions of themselves. Every once in a while, I would laugh out loud, just to make the subjects feel a little uneasy. While I did, Mom and the others would charge ahead as if they were trying to catch up with the sights. I had to rush to catch up with them. That’s when I noticed the families and couples people-watching from the bars and restaurants off to the side. They looked puzzled, staring as if the act of people-watching made it okay to look for as long as they wanted. I imagined them silently asking themselves: “what are you doing? People don’t rush around here.”
We snapped a few night-time pictures at the Columbus monument before heading back. It was our last night in Europe and we were flying out early the next morning. When we walked back to the hotel, we saw people getting ready to go out for the night. Men dressed up in collared shirts and dark jeans walking with women that were far better looking than they. Everyone looked loose after what seemed like just enough wine at dinner. We passed many of the same artists and musicians in the streets, still singing, still playing, still drawing. I crawled into bed feeling a sad sense of satisfaction. It was late, but the night was still in full swing.
In the next few hours, the girls in tiny dresses would pour back into the streets. The musicians would pick a few coins out of their instrument cases and head home for the night. The singers would walk away from their corners after the crowds had dissolved. Right before I fell asleep, I thought that I won’t see any of this again any time soon. I’ll go back to Toronto and in the following weekends I’ll probably stumble out of a club or two with a special girl of my own – just like a few of the guys lucky enough to go home with one of those girls. I’ll go to a hot-dog cart and scarf back a bun full of mystery meat, hot sauce and sauerkraut. It will taste nothing like the meal I had that night in Barcelona but it won’t matter. Then I’ll jump in a cab that smells like some combination of tabouli and goat meat to take my drunk, sauerkraut-smelling ass home. I’ll feel happy.
But I won’t remember the way I felt that night in Barcelona and I won’t have pleasure of wandering down those stone alleyways to the sound of Spanish lullabies. All I’ll have are these typed pages and the comfort of knowing that they’ll still be playing by the time I get back. Then I drifted off to sleep.