Spring Break 2012 brought a trip around the Oregon High Desert with faithful ol’ traveling buddies Mom and Sis. A couple of camping trips that really turned into road trips. There is a lot of terrain to cover but we kept the plans loose to accommodate spontaneity and weather. There was so much I hadn’t seen of the outback yet (all the land East of the Cascade range) and I wanted to show my mom the Painted Hills.
We rented a cheapo economy car for John Day Country (the Painted Hills are only one of three “units” of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument) knowing the access roads are pretty dry and well graded, though very dusty. We ended up finding this tourist magazine about Oregon’s Scenic Byways and doing the whole length of two of them and one half of another. The roads are all two-lane state highways that were practically deserted in late April. We started out on the Journey Through Time Byway, which traverses the length of John Day Country.
The highlight of this route is, of course, the Painted Hills, but another unit of the National Monument, which I had never checked out before, turned out to be almost as good: Sheep Rock’s Blue Basin. The trails winds along a dried up arroyo for about one mile until opening up into a naturally formed amphitheater of sheer cliffs painted blue and chalk white, pillared and dripping in weird formations. We just laid down in the dust for a couple hours and stared, it’s one of the most psychedelic places I’ve ever been while at the same time being very cozy and intimate.
There’s a couple of camp grounds in the Fossil Beds Monument area but the we checked them all out and the most scenic and tranquil was the Mule Shoe Recreation Area, just past the intersection of Hwy 207 and 19, with sites right on the banks of the John Day River.
Besides all the wonders of the three John Day Units, there’s also the fun of exploring the minuscule living ghost towns like Mitchell, Spray, and Fossil. Everyone is very friendly but gas stations are rare, often for local card-holders only, or closed on random days, so fill up whenever you have the chance.
We followed the Byway all the way east to Prairie City and beyond to the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. Itching for cool alpine forest and grassy meadows after the arid outback, we drove up to the Strawberry Lake trailhead to find snow, and as we gained elevation on the steep trail, we ended up hiking in foot deep packed powder! Luckily we had brought hats and gloves, but coming out into the clearing of the half-frozen alpine lake we found the sun warm and wind still. Lying out on the big boulders we warmed up enough to take off our coats and breathe.
We had three nights for the Byway and were able to roam at a leisurely pace but ended up back at the campground past dark every night. It would’ve been nice to have one extra day to just hang at Mule Shoe and be with the river. Oh and since everything and its brother is named John Day Something out there we asked the owner of the Dayville Mercantile who the hell the guy was. Apparently he was just some dude who got shot up by the indians but didn’t die. I guess that was about the only local hero they could rustle up in those desolate pioneer days, in these desolate desert parts.
Due to my ongoing obsession with spending a summer in Buenos Aires, I’ve begun perusing the apartments for rent on the BA Craigslist. I’m hoping to go Summer 2014 as my U of AZ teacher’s stipend will be paid out through the summer months even though I’ll be free of work and classes (awesome!). I want to go and sit in a cafe and read everything by Pizarnik, Puig, and Arlt and go to lots of dubbed films and work on my Vos conjugations. I’ve been researching Buenos Aires neighborhoods and although there’s quite a few hipster hot spots, San Telmo seems to have the right aesthetic. It’s the oldest barrio in BA and it’s lined by all cobblestone streets. It was historically home to an upper middle class, who constructed many of their 3 story mansions there, but then fell into ruin after a cholera epidemic (so literary!) caused a mass emigration to the northern barrios. So it has that faded grandeur that gives so many old towns their sad and beautiful magic.
The first time I looked on CL I was blown away by the perfect rustic bohemian style of so many of the rooms! The architecture itself is a dream: parquet or hardwood floors, french style balconies, stained glass windows, exposed brick. Not to mention those interior patios with potted plants in every nook and cranny! Also, lots of heavy reclaimed wood furniture, victorian era velvet sofas, ethnic textiles, oriental rugs, built in bookcases, vintage record players, muted earth tones paired with bold pastels, basketry, and tons of chocolate brown and cognac leather!
I have to say, in all my travels through Spain, France and Italy searching for that heart-stopping medieval-European aesthetic magic, the place where I really finally found it was in Girona, Catalonia. I’m talking in a solely sensorial sense, and I should specify that this post speaks only of the old town, on the east side of the city. The Barri Vell. Though other places have won me over in a more holistic way (the geography, the culture, the history, the people), Girona is the stage I want all the world to be. It’s labyrinthine layout, the majesty of its Jewish quarter (said to be the best preserved in Europe), and an abundance of churches, monasteries, chapels and gardens that is breath-taking. It’s what I wanted Italy to be.
More specifically, it’s what I wanted Verona, Italy to be. Verona dissapointed me (here), but Girona’s stepped plazas, cantilevered twin cathedrals, and ivy-covered walls, are straight out of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no tacky modern art sculptures, high-end stores, or locks on their monuments. And Catalonians are quieter. Another factor of the visual impact that Girona has is the fact that it’s shockingly free of tourists, and we were there in August! Someone told me it’s because all the people who would know about it, the vacationing French and Germans, always go to the beaches. To the rest of the world it’s just a medium sized city in the middle of a strange place called Catalonia. But I have never walked around a European old town and found myself completely alone. To stumble upon something that touches you deeply and have that moment to yourself is priceless, almost revelatory. Nearly the entire stretch of its defensive wall has been preserved, though parts have been reconstructed. And we had it to ourselves. We walked the entire outer limits of the town, way up on top of the wall, which is like a miniature Great Wall of China and climbed the lookout towers to find silent panoramas awaiting us. Where were the people? It was like being in a museum before opening hours. Everything becomes realer without the hoardes of pleasure-seeking tourists that reduce the scenery to a parody of itself. Alone, you can take all the time you need to soak up the enchantment that only a minority of travelers go looking for. Besides the wall, there is a terrifying cathedral towering the skyline, which happens to have the widest Gothic nave in all of the world, a couple monasteries, the arabic baths, the Jewish quarter, and the river, with it’s long stretch of painted houses and thin stone ribbons of footbridges. The colors are more Italian too. Provence’s castle and cathedral towns, like Avignon, are so clean and grey, almost white, they come off as very dainty, you can’t imagine that any blood was shed or that Romans walked there. Girona’s old town is different, it’s bold, mighty, musty, and a little mis-matched. Sun-bleached ochres, rusty greens, and the sandy-black stone color of Barcelona abound.
The other thing about Girona is its steps. It is truly the city of steps. It reminded me of Venice, in that it would be nearly impossible to traverse by bicycle. It catches you off guard because, from above, Girona doesn’t appear to be very hilly, it’s certainly not nestled in the mountains, it’s on the bank of a wide, flat river. But once you enter the old town, you enter a maze where stairs go every which way, intersecting, veering off, and elongating shallowly to cover whole passages. It holds your attention endlessly. But be prepared for a workout and wear your most comfortable shoes. I’m sure my pictures won’t convey the playfulness or mysteriousness of the place, so you’ll have to spend a day there yourself, you’ll find you feel like a character in a 1200-year-old play that’s never changed it’s set.
We took two days to explore Cadaques as I had heard so many wonderful things about it and didn’t want to be rushed, though it is small enough to cover in one day. We planned to spend only the morning touring Dali’s house in a nearby cove called Portlligat, but wound up spending the entire day there. Cadaques is on a rocky, hilly, peninsula that juts out into the Mediterranean. Getting there by bus is easy and preferable, as most of the streets in Cadaques are undrivable and everyone has to park outside the center, like in Venice. We took the bus from Figueres, it cost 5€ each one way and took 45 minutes. The bus traverses the mountains on roads that drop away sheer to the valleys below, which are dotted or lined with olive trees.
You can walk to Portlligat, on a clearly marked trail, it takes about 20 minutes and goes up one very steep hill. Portlligat must have been a micro fishing village, with about 10 houses, a harbour full of dingheys and sailboats and thousands of olive trees. As history has it, Dali’s father exiled him from Cadaques after his antics started getting really polemic. So Dali just bought a little fisherman’s cabin in a cove around the bend. Over the years, he built up the house into the spacious villa you see today. If you are into interior design or architecture, I recommend planning to spend several hours there. The tour guides tend to rush the groups along, prodding you through the rooms with just enough time to snap a pic. But if you drop back from the group a bit they’ll leave you alone in the rooms for a short while.
Portlligat doesn’t have any life of its own now, aside from being the place where Dali’s house is. All the ancient little fishermans’ huts have been turned into canteens to service the daily influx of tourists. But there’s only a couple and the only food is uninspired bocadillos, so I suggest having lunch in Cadaques before you go.
I fell completely head over heels in love with Dali and Gala’s sense of space and decoration. And though the house is practically an ode to occultish whimsy, I was surprised that the house wasn’t tackier, more bizarre, more “surreal.” There are a couple of atrocious Daliesque relics, the stuffed bear in the foyer, the michelin man plastica around the pool, the gigantic Jesus sculpture made out of rubbish in the olive grove, but overall it’s floorplan, furniture, art-work, and textiles made me burn with a desire to move in. I thought nothing would ever top Luis Barragan’s house in Mexico City (here and here) but this might. The setting must have a lot to do with that, nestled on the rocky cove, with a practically private beach, the colors and stripes of the boats, the long bright sky, the endless tide of olive trees with their silver leaves. It’s so simple, and so Mediterranean. I just didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.
One of my English students offered to let me and my sister stay at his dad’s vacation flat in Figueres during our tour of the Empordá-Costa Brava region of Catalonia. It turned out to be the flat where he grew up, his dad is an architect and designed and decorated the whole place, but had since retired to the country, so we had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a wonderfully cozy space, a sort of subtle 1982 eclectic Ikea feel, with traditional Spanish touches (See pictures below). It was lovely to come home to after a long sticky day in the sun. They also had one of those George Clooney Nespresso coffee makers and encouraged us to use up all their “capsules.” Love it!
Figueres is smallish but has a nice wide Ramblas with trees and benches for people-watching, a relatively appealing old town, and of course, the Dalí Museum. I’m not including any pictures of the museum because nothing grabbed me. It’s an interesting concept, Dalí meant for the museum itself to be the artwork, and I liked the exterior with lots of giant eggs perched high above the fortress-like walls, but the exhibits were just too campy for me. And though he worked on it for years, it came off as a last ditch attempt at proving his eccentricity. You shouldn’t listen to me though, you should go, everyone loves it. I will say, however, that I had no idea he was entombed there, and when I stumbled into a little, tucked-away, dimly lit room, and found myself alone with his grave, I found myself feeling a bit of awe.
The highlight of our day exploring Figures, was finding the Royal cafe (see pictures above). Among all the spiffy, euro-cool cafes and depressing old-man bars, we found this dusty gem of a cafe on the Ramblas. It has preserved its original art-nouveau woodwork, windows, and tiling and has an assortment of posters and knick-knacks from every decade since. We ordered a beer, a white wine, and olives, and expecting to pay around 8 euros we were bowled over by the vintage price of 3 euros for everything! Love it!
I’m saying goodbye to Spain, for now. I’m heading back to the States for the academic year. After that, I might come back to Barcelona for a graduate program, depending on how much I miss it, or head to Buenos Aires. I’ll have a year to kill before starting a Masters in Fall 2013. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get sucked back into the cool fun of American coastal culture and never leave again. Doubt it. In any case, I decided to make a little tour with my sister of northern Catalonia. Due to the massive wealth and power Catalonia acrued during the late Middle Ages and Rennaissance, as veritable merchant king of the Medditerranean, it is riddled with castles, forts, monasteries, little towns, and even big cities that have preserved their impressive Gothic architecture, which is some of the finest to be seen in all of Spain and even France. Since there are so many provinces to go to, spread out like a fan around Barcelona, and both of us have a fascination with the lives and houses of artists, we decided to tour the Empordá-Costa Brava region. Dalí was born and is buried in Figueres, where he built his Museum Theater, he built his house in Cadaques, and bought a castle in Púbol, outside of Girona, where his wife Gala is buried. We decided to forego the castle at Púbol and instead took the day to explore Girona, which turned out to be the highlight of the tour. Here is an excerpt from the wonderful picture book Salvador Dali: The Emporda Triangle
The Empordá triangle, like its notorious sister the Bermuda Triangle, outlines a space where unusual things happen. In this case, that space is the land surrounding three major landmarks of Salvador Dali’s life: his house at Port Lligat, its front door guarded by a stuffed bear; the castle of Púbol, where he lived in his old age and where his wife Gala is buried; and the Dalí Theatre-Museum of Figueres, where he himself is buried. Some of these landscapes and buildings recur in Dali’s work, and each of the buildings constitutes a work in itself.
Though I toured the Costa Brava last summer, I unfortunately skipped over Cadaques, and shockingly had never made the one hour train ride from Barcelona to Girona, in all my 15 months of living there. If you visit Barcelona and have more than a week, I tell you to get yourself to Girona, its old town, especially the Jewish Quarter, is absolutely mind-blowing. And if you are into furniture, interior design, or architecture, I highly recommend taking a tour of Dali and Gala’s house on the sea at Port Lligat, a 20 minute walk from Cadaques.
I finally made it to Sitges last Friday, which is only about a 30 minute train ride south of Barcelona. It’s a tiny town, famous for its gay pride and annual film festival, but has a sprawling gothic church which dominates the coastline, and is so well preserved it looks like it could be part of a movie set. I was also happy to come across some whitewashed villas lining the little streets of the old town; those iconically Spanish white walls just don’t exist in Barcelona, where the endless stone is always warm grey or tan. I was walking past the public library’s open door, when I noticed they were exbiting biographical items from the life of Santiago Rusiñol, one of my favorite Catalan impressionist painters, so I ducked in. It turns out that the library is named after him as he lived in Sitges for a while and I also discovered a small but luxurious courtyard in the center of the building. It’s full of banana plants and has a fountain and with rooms full of books spoking off to every side, I felt that I had stumbled onto a little heaven.
I had worn my alpargatas (flat espadrilles) which I soon found are great for around the house and siesta in the park but not for all-day trekking. Though almost all the shops are closed for lunch, between 2 and 4, I found a little souvenir shop that had sturdy black flip-flops for 4€. For lunch we ended up buying the cheapest thing we could find, Subway. We ate our 3€ tuna subs on a bench along the oceanfront promenade and then promptly took a siesta without moving an inch. Once the sun got a little stronger we headed down onto the sand and I went into the water, which was a bit cleaner than in Barcelona, though chilly, and found schools of sardines swimming all over the shallows. They didn’t seem to be the least bit bothered by the presence of human legs. I went to shower off, as most beaches have showers spaced every 50 yards or so alongside of their promanades, and found there was no handle or sensor to turn the water on. It turns out Sitges is trying to conserve water, and so you must buy a water card for 3€ which you wave in front of the faucet to get 60 seconds of steady stream. I’m not sure if there’s a quota for the day, but the card’s good for the year so I guess it’s not so bad. With that, lunch, train fare, and two espressos, all in all the day trip cost 21€.
I believe in magic. Magic of place. Magic of place is definitely endangered, if not already extinct in most places. But I have been lucky enough to find myself in places where it still thrives. When I was very young and impressionable I found it on Assateague Island in Maryland where the wild horses still bathe in the sea and in the Florida Bayous where the spanish moss hangs so thick and long from the oaks you have to brush it aside like a curtain and later on Monhegan Island where there are no cars allowed and there’s no electricity and the entire north half of the island is protected land where generations of adults have been building little fairy huts out of moss and sticks and leaves in the trunks, fungi shelves, and fallen logs of the forest. Places like that were the first, and they had the same kind of magic, I’m not sure what to call it but it must have something to do with the sea. I found the same sort of magic on Prince Edward Island in Canada, on the misty coastal cliffs of Humboldt County in California and two weeks ago, on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, on Corsica.
This kind of Arcadian place magic is found in the countryside, in rural environs. Nested in farmland it is pastoral magic, up forgotten mountain roads and in pockets of poor, unindustrialized villages it is folk magic and on islands like Corsica it is an ancient rustic witchiness. An enchantment that is too rough to be twee. It’s pretty, yes, it seduces, but it’s hands are full of thorns, the hair is tangled, and the body covered in fine dust. It has heart.
There’s other types of Place Magic of course, each life-altering in their own right. There’s the one that formed me as a young adult, the magic of wilderness, when I discovered timelessness in the isolation of places like the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, the Painted Hills in Oregon, or the Vizcaino Desert in Baja, Mexico. This is a shamanic magic, psychedelic, found in certain regions of protected land or else vast stretches of nothingness where no one goes. In those dangerous rivers, unsigned mountain passes, and primeval forests one can leave the body. It’s an animistic magic, it’s beauty deafens the brain and sucks thought out of reality. Like where we go to die.
Then there’s the Place Magic I’m currently crawling the Earth, little by little, to find more of. The city. Not just any city, in fact, most cities don’t have it. They don’t have Duende magic. What Lorca suggested was a spirit of irrationality, connection with the body, a heightened awareness of death, and a dash of the diabolic. I’ve found it in frenetic, aesthetic and legendary cities like New York City, Venice, Mexico City, and my own Barcelona. Where, if you come as a visitor, a traveler, a wanderer, you are bombarded with multi-sensory experience. The colors and forms of the architecture, the music and noise of the streets, the secret bars and cafes, the rich food, the feeling of connecting with the eyes of a thousand people. If you get it right, and land in a city with Duende at the right time, you just go floating, everything is on, you’re in a movie, you’re famous. Everything is expression. It makes you swoon.
But right now my favorite is romantic Corsica, sylvan and littoral. But I don’t mean romantic in the sentimental way, I don’t think of it as tender or even passionate, I’ve heard that Sardinia, to the south, it more like that. Corsica is too mysterious to be joyful, too wild to be a fairy-tale. I never thought mules were beautiful until I saw them poking around in the blackberry briars on Corsica. I can’t explain my instant affinity with the island. But pack mules saddled with their Mexican blankets in the Grand Canyon seem commercial and pitiful, here on Corsica, with their long velvet ears poking over the fence, they seem like magical pony lambs, and also very ancient, pagan, worthy of being a spirit animal. Everything is like that on Corsica, it’s all symbolic. If my plan to spend a summer there writing a tome pans out, I would spend it either in Sartene, the labyrinthical city to the south, seated about an hour inland, full of light and plants, or in Corte, the old capital, set deep in the high mountains to the north, it’s where the university is, and full of secret plazas and dominated by its citadel perched on a cliff far overhead.
Magical Things About Corsica:
1. Everywhere you go there’s a clanking of a sheep or goat’s bell. Animals could not be more free-range than they are on Corsica. Along with those bell-bearers are pigs, cows, horses, chickens, and geese, all roaming wherever they please, over mountains, along roads, or on the beach.
2. The fragrance its famous for is no myth, (when Napoleon, who was born on Corsica, sailing back to the mainland after his imprisonment on Elba island, and a wind blew in from the southwest, famously said, “I smell Corsica.”) the evenings are full of the white lilac trees, sage, and wild myrtle that combine to fill the air with an incredible Elysian scent. It makes you feel immortal.
3. The sand on the western beaches looks like ground up gems and doesn’t leave your skin dry and chalky but rather soft, plump, and sweet-smelling.
4. Wild herbs and fruits and everywhere. I’ve never seen so much wild fig in my life, and huge trees of it too. Also, lots of wild thyme, chives, lemonbalm, and prickly pear fruit.
5. The age-old traditional Corsican foods are all witch-worthy. Here are descriptions from a local guidebook: Beef stewed with juniper berries, Chesnut flour polenta, Blackbird roasted with sage, Sheep’s milk cheese with zest of oranges and sweet fig jam, Chesnut flour beer, Myrtle liqueur.
6. The best thing of all is that the Corsican people abhor tourism, though they have no other industry, besides wine exportation, that is so lucrative. They have never yet allowed a developer to taint their coastlines with resorts, though many have tried. Only on a tiny section in the south, near Bonnifacio and Porto Vecchio, do they allow rich Italians, French and Spaniards to have their Mediterranean playgrounds. The whole majority of the island is preserved in all its ancient introvertedness. There are only two main highways, which would only be considered secondary roads on the continent, the rest of the motorways are thin slivers of ribbons winding along the mountainsides. There are no modern hotels, I only saw inns, bed and breakfasts and gites, little huts in the hills, or yurts, like the one we stayed in. People still use donkey carts to get to market, still use the shrines carved out of the stone to pray, and they still live off their land.
WHERE WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO VISIT ON YOUR PLANET?
That’s sort of an arbitrary question for me because I would literally love to go anywhere. But right now I am feeding a growing obsession with China. Everyone I talk to sort of seems surprised by that, like when I mention China they just think of overpopulated cities and greasy food and pollution and plastic crap. Obviously, the symptoms of the astonishing rate at which China is developing their economy are apparent on various levels, but, as far as travel, China is a massive piece of land that has nearly every categorization of ecozone known to man. The subtropical forests of the south, the mountains of Tibet, coniferous forests in the north, lake and river basins, the Gobi desert and the Silk Road in the northwest, the plains and grasslands of the Northest on the Mongolian border, the rice paddies, tea plantations, and bamboo forests. China is covered with unusual geological formations and plantlife, caves, waterfalls, and hot spring lakes, not to mention the most captivating selection of out-of-this-world wildlife on Earth. That’s enough right there for someone who loves wilderness, but as someone who loves cities, I have to mention that the two biggest Chinese cities are becoming, and are going to be, super hip. I have an artist/musician friend in Shanghai who went for 3 months and never left, he was having so much fun. And I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Beijing, it’s where the Chinese youth subculture seems to be emerging strongest. Remember that hand in hand with economic development comes cultural development, explosions in art, music and design. Also, Beijing is one of the oldest cities on the planet and the effect of the artifacts of its ancientness juxtaposed with its modernity, is sensational. But mostly I just want to ride a bamboo raft down the Li river.
I woke up this morning to a woman wailing down in the street. I thought I heard her say something about “robo,” figured it was just another purse snatching and rolled back over. But her wailing got louder and I started to hear a crowd amassing. I thought maybe her flat had been burgled. I thought maybe her entire life savings had been looted by an ex-boyfriend. I was not even the tiniest bit prepared to see, when I finally peered out my balcony window, a full-on five alarm inferno erupting out of the balcony windows of the flat across the way, two over to the left, one floor down. I guess I’d never really seen a fire blazing away like that before, huge bonfires in a backyard, yes, the forest fire of 2001 in Prescott, Arizona from a distance, yes, a lifetime of crappy footage on the news, yes, but somebody’s home, an apartment, 10 meters away from me, no. The affect was tremendous. At that distance you can feel the heat, ash wafts into your hair, the massive black smoke roils into every nook and cranny, and you put your shoes on just in case. Other than a family who fled from the same building and dissappeared around the corner, I didn’t see anyone running away or packing up. A man was on his cellphone, the small crowd was restraining and presumably comforting the wailing woman, and every single other resident on the block was out on their own balconies, some ironically smoking cigarettes, some holding their children, and some, just like me and my roommate, feverishly recording everything on digital cameras. Seeing everyone else, some on balconies even closer than mine, if you can imagine that, just calmly watching quelled my first reaction of “we gotta get the fuck out of here.” Then I remembered my ex-roommate telling me why there was bricks between the beams of the ceiling. A Barcelona apartment, and I suppose all old apartments of Europe, are ensconced in about 12 inches of stone. The danger is relatively low of any fire spreading to another flat. Of course, fire can crawl balcony curtains, sparks can jump up to a wooden flowerpot, and when the butane tank that every kitchen uses for its hot water and stoves blows up, the explosion can easily make it out into the stairwell. So maybe not everyone was watching calmly, just they knew they had some time, they knew the “bomberos” or firemen, whose jackets that say “Barcelona Bombers” (bombero in Catalan) never fail to delight me, would come eventually. It certainly did feel like e-ven-t-u-al-ly. I don’t know when the blaze started but it took at least 10 full minutes from when I started watching for them to arrive. I guess that’s not crazy rediculous. It just seemed like too long.
I did start shaking and breathing faster and sort of ducking when all the junk on the balcony started popping. Stuff just let go into entropy, a foldable metal clothes drying rack sprang apart in the heat and fell to the pavement, several terracotta flowerpots exploded and released their soil, a glass tabletop shattered and merged with the wafting ash, a rolled up venetian blind said goodbye to its hooks and uncoiled itself like a red hot carpet into the street below. Objects that, just the day before, leaning out of my balcony with my boyfriend, I had named in Spanish. Every week I trade him an hourlong English lesson for an hour of Spanish vocabulary practice. We go to a public space and I try to name or describe what I see. Yesterday, feeling lazy, we decided to analize the balconies of my block. The balcony across the way, two over to the left, one floor down was a rich lode of vocabulary as it was chock full of identificationally- challenged clutter. I got to use words like amasijo, chisme, trasto, and desechos; jumble, bric-a-brac, junk, and detritus. Later, when I was watching the bomberos rake up the smoking remains, I felt almost remorseful for having so slandered the wailing woman’s posessions. Certainly detritus was better than ash. And that’s what she owned now. I had never learned the verb for “to char” in Spanish. Carbonizar. To turn to carbon. Yesterday, I had scrutinized those items that seemed so permanent and now they were just traces of carbon over the sea.
The bomberos are almost gone now, they’ve taken the yellow crime scene tape down at either end of the street. They spent about two hours examining the structural damages to the building. Stone is not impervious to fire, the balcony of the upstairs neighbor has a large crescent shaped hole where part of it fell away in the concentrated flames shooting up from just below. The perfectly right-angled stone frame of the balcony door has lost all of its edges. Whereas before it appeared like a stately bank vault entrance, now it looks like an ancient cave or prehistoric tomb; the stones now undulating their soft facets under the still-dripping water. The last two bomberos are gathering up the entropic remains from the street, spraying and sweeping, and a great airing out has begun. The neighbors have all thrown open their balcony doors, they are shaking out curtains, wiping down windows, sweeping the tiny terraces, watering plants. There is still no sign of the wailing woman, she was carted away in embraces hours ago. But I expect she will be back later to begin her own unfathomable airing out. With the smoke completely gone and revealing 60 degree weather, and the sun’s rays finally overhead enough to penetrate the canyon of our alley, I take stock of my own detritus. Looking around my humble room and thinking about what I could lose and how it would feel, I understand the momentary collective mindset of my 10 meter community, it’s a perfect day to start spring cleaning.
Gandhi Bookstore in Mexico City has unleashed their 2011 advertising campaign via billboards, posters, magazine spreads and their famous postcards. Mexico has retardedly low book reading statistics and the ad guys over at Gandhi are sweeping me off my feet with their caustic, tongue-in-cheek, philosophical, and nearly desperate approaches to get people to read more books. They have more than a hundred postcards up on their Facebook page. Link here.
Well, after last night it makes 2 attempted and now 2 successful robberies for me and my short stay here in Barcelona. It happened in the middle of an evening English class, in McDonalds, around 8:30pm. We always meet at McDonalds because they don’t play music, it has a vast amount of comfortable tables, they don’t care if you don’t buy anything or even bring in your own food, and its always empty. But last night it was especially desolate. We were the only ones in the whole front section. I guess because of this, I put my biggish black bag under my seat, something I would never do in a crowded cafe. About half-way through class, I noticed some activity out of the corner of my eye, my brain registered it as an employee wiping down a table and thought nothing of it. I was facing the wall, my student was facing the room. About five minutes later, I felt more activity near us and noticed my student glancing strangely at someone in my periphery. It was like they were deciding whether or not to sit at the table next to us. A chair was pulled out like they were going to maybe sit down but then they left. This took, maybe 4 seconds in all, and I never turned my head to follow my student’s gaze.
I’m just so locked into my space bubble in public, like on the metro or the street, I don’t meet eyes with anyone, ever, and I never pay attention to any action in my periphery. Not because I’m spaced-out but because its what my innate defense mechanisms have mutated into. It seemed like in Philadelphia and Mexico City, if you gave your attention to someone looking for it, you instantly gave yourself up as easy prey, like if you just acted like they didn’t exist they wouldn’t fuck with you. This is maybe a good defense mechanism in places where overt violence and egomaniacal gangsters abound, but in Barcelona, it’s exactly what damns you. A person who refuses to give their attention to a little activity near them, even quite near them, is a person who will be robbed many times in Barcelona. Most of the victims here aren’t like me, they get robbed because they don’t know the rules and they’re not paying attention beacause they’re clueless. This is the easiest and most common victim, the wallet in the back pocket sticking halfway out, a camera hooked on to a bag strap, an unzipped backpack, mostly tourists. But pickpockets can even play people who are extremely aware and on guard, by diverting their vigilance to some other kind of action. Robbing a cellphone off a table under the owner’s nose is easy, just have a jacket hanging over your arm or a clipboard with a petition full of signatures, anything that acts as a shield, and while you get 10 seconds of their attention asking for a cigarette or a signature, the other hand makes split second swoop across the table and that’s it. The victim could have really been on guard, could’ve been thinking “who is this bum asking for a smoke” or “what is this paper, I’m not signing anything.” The victim felt suspicious and was even scrutinizing the persons actions, just not the RIGHT actions. To get a guys wallet out of his inside jacket pocket takes a lot more diversion, so much so, that he will be alarmed and feel that something threatening is happening. But it won’t be the hand making a slightly perceptible swoop near his chest, it’ll be the hand that’s squeezing his shoulder really hard. The rich guy’s thinking “What the fuck is this guy doing grabbing my neck like that, saying something about recognizing me from college, smiling, what the fuck is this guy doing?!” And then when it’s over a second later the guy breathes a sigh of relief, glad that the shady guy left him alone, and that nothing came of it. He won’t realize that his wallet is gone, and that that’s what the guy was doing until he gets home.
My thief last night was a good one, really good. She was observed by my student the whole time. My student said she never saw her bend over in the slightest, which means she must of used her foot to slide the bag out and push it under the table behind us. We actually have no idea how she did it. But my student said there was an accomplice, another woman, about 5 yards away who caught her eye for a second, enough for my thief to bend over once the bag had been slid out from under my chair. I didn’t realize until about 10 minutes later when I went for my water bottle. I felt proud to have been prey to someone so skilled, then I felt really fucking angry, then I felt like an idiot who deserved it for putting their bag under their seat in fucking Barcelona.
CATALOGUE OF INCIDENTS AND LOSSES 2010 -2011
JUNE 10 2010: Man casually gets closer and closer to my backpack and I barely sense him reaching out an arm to unzip the front pocket. I switch bag to my other shoulder and he falls back. I had just attended my study abroad program’s “Theivery In Barcelona” session and I was savvy. LOSSES: 0
JUNE 26 2010: Man and woman on moped drive up alongside me and woman grabs my side bag. Due to it being slung diagonally across the chest, woman lets go and they drive off. LOSSES: 0
JULY 16 2010: Man runs up to me in nearly empty street and grabs at my side bag. Finding it difficult to slip off he starts tugging and wrangling really hard until the strap breaks and he runs off with it. LOSSES: 30€, credit card, American ID card, lighter, lipstick.
JANUARY 11 2011: Woman slips bag out from under my chair without me noticing. LOSSES: 60€, datebook, novel, sunglasses.
You can watch some cool videos of thieves caught on camera below.
Well, we tried. But we didn’t make it all the way around the Alps. We both woke up with hangovers and colds after our night in bone-chilling Venice. After making it to our cozy bed and breakfast in Bolzano (below), Sarah came down with a 24 hour virus. Or else it was something she ate at the rest stop in Padua. We woke up with brave intentions to push through to Salzburg where we already had a hostel reserved. But with me coughing and sneezing and her running to the bathroom yet again, we decided to stay on for another night and then start the long drive back to her flat in Lyon the next day. It didn’t really feel like defeat since we decided to take a scenic route towards France from Bolzano through the heart of the Italian Alps, down around the coast of Lake Como and then down to Milan. I hadn’t yet gotten my fill of Italian practice or those Lombardy lakes.
One thing about those scenic routes, they always take much longer then you think. But they do save you a lot of money. The trip on the highway from Lyon to Barcelona alone is like 60€ in tolls. I don’t know how people afford it. The only problem with doing scenic routes is doing them in the winter. We had to work with only eight hours of light a day, which was not even close to adequate, even with hitting the road at 9 every morning. The backroad I was most excited for, SS45 out of Genova to Piacenza, has a handful of incredibly poetic tiny towns and one midsized medieval relic called Bobbio (below), that stands with it’s Roman walls and aqueduct intact, which were all ensconced in darkness and fog by the time we had wound our way there.
If you’re going to do scenic routes in winter, try to limit your daily mileage to 200km. Most of the mountian roads kept me in 3rd gear and going less than 50km per hour. One of the most stunning routes we did get to drive in daylight was the Moyenne Corniche which hugs the cliffs from Nice (below), through Monaco, and down to Ventimiglia. The entire stretch offered foggy panoramas of the sea down below which was the most mind-blowing shade of milky-opaque teal I have ever seen.
Our tour of South Tyrol was SS42/38 from Bolzano to the northern tip of Lake Como. Which took about five hours and had hairpins so acute and so often, I spent long stretches stuck in 1st gear! It was also the deepest into the Alps (below) we could get on our trip short of jumping on one of the many ski lifts strung out on all sides of the road. Thanks to the perfect sunlight and clear sky, we were able to discover for ourselves what a panorama view of those pristine jagged peaks can do to a person.
Another wonderful route was the scenic loop around Lago di Garda (below), the biggest of the Lombardy lakes. It too had the same chalky opaque water, though less teal and more cobalt. That must be caused by the snow melts which carry sediment into the water and scatter the light (is it obvious that I just googled that?). The ferocious winds blowing that day made actual waves crash on the shore. It felt like we had the lake to ourselves as the road was empty and the many little towns dotting the route were shuttered and silent. The faces of the mountains that plunge into the lake on the west side are so steep they decided to bore through them rather than pave. The entire 50km stretch is nearly one long tunnel, though the scenery is not occluded as in many places there are columns in place of an outer wall, making a series of stony picture windows. The view from the opposite side of the lake, of what appears to be an endless row of caves perched just above the waterline, is stunning.
All in all, I think three things. One is that I am deeply comitted to Italy. Two is that roadtrips should be saved for summer, when there is fifteen hours of daylight and clear weather. Three is that a week long driving tour should be kept to one small region. We could’ve spent the whole time exploring the plethora of castles around Verona, soaking in the rainbow colored villages which spiral along the coastline near Genova, or sampling the wines and photographing ancient church steeples in the Tyrolian Alps. Not to mention Venice. I have nothing to say about Venice. Just go there. Go there right now.
I was really excited to see Verona. I don’t know why, really, I guess it was lodged in my brain as this fiery and romantic city from playing a part in Romeo & Juliet three different times throughout my life. I just felt like it would be a living museum, and in the way that it has perfectly preserved its Roman arena and castle fortress, it is. It was the first arena to lay eyes on in person, but it affected me less than the gigantic bullring with its Moorish arches in Barcelona. And as they were showcasing a “life-size” nativity play within, the 11€ entrance kept us out. Most of the architecture was perfectly Baroque as I had hoped it would be, but with the day-after-Christmas-shopping frenzy going on all around us, it was hard to soak it in. In the way I’d imagined Austrian towns would be a perfectly quaint Christmas setting, with fires blazing, wassle steaming, and hand-made ornaments being sold at little carts in the plaza, Verona was the exact opposite. I’ve never seen such an overt display of wealth in my life. I don’t even know how the town keeps their Louis Vuitton bags in stock, the wealthiest must go to Milan to shop. Smart phones and tiny dogs abounded. And the array of fur coats was astounding. As someone who loves fur but would never deign to spend more than 60€ on a piece at at second-hand shop, it was at first fun to marvel and covet, and then just alienating. It felt like the last place on earth I would want to reside (though I would return in summer for guided history tours and hiking in the surrounding hills for views of the town and its dividing river from above). The street with the couture shops was so crowded, we had to stand in line at the corner just to enter it. I swear, my shoulders were packed so tightly with my neighbors that if I had lifted up my feet I would have been carried foward nonetheless. We managed to escape and find some desolate tobacconist where we purchased our own luxury goods, Italian cigarettes.