Friday Night in the Barrio Gotico

Everything seems larger when you’re a stranger. Even the sinewy corridors of the area surrounding La Rambla, packed with tourists, Indian men selling cans of beer and Spanish youths sharing cigarettes or urinating on garbage bins give not the impression of claustrophobia but of an universe expanding into the small hours of Saturday morning.

I take a caña at a few bars in the salubrious company of Carlo – an Italian gynaecologist whom I’d met in the line to apply for an NIE. Thanks to our mutual frustration we’d hit it off and decided to celebrate the inadequacies of the Spanish public service with a few tapas and beers. There is no other (graceful) way to cope.

Una caña is a glass of beer, (around 300 millilitres I guess, but it varies) and the easiest way to ask for a drink if cerveza is too much of a mouthful for you. All around you there are the party goers: the intimates, the relaxed diners, the timid backpackers and the insanely intoxicated.

The reality that this city is a weekend retreat for other European nations hits me like a cold Cornish pasty as, walking past a group of British tourists dining al fresco in Plaza Real, I see that the only woman among them is painting the pavement with her dinner and presumably the fifty beers she’d have previous to ingesting it. The waiters displays a comprehensive detachment from it all, either demonstrating tacit contempt for the inebriated tourist, or perhaps deliberate omission of duty due to his being privy to the sub-standard level of food preparation in the kitchen. Speculation is all you have when the world moves at lightning speed around you.

Like all tourist magnets, La Rambla is offensively expensive compared to places only a few streets away. A beer at the Hard Rock Cafe will sell for at least double the price of something from a smaller, local bar. The same goes for coffee, food and standard goods such as umbrellas, dancing puppets and live chickens: all of which are available for sale on La Rambla all day and throughout the night. Of course, tourists willingly pay these exorbitant prices. Why? Who knows. It happens in Sydney, Paris, London, Rome and anywhere there’s a major international airport. It’s clear that it would make an excellent PhD thesis.

Opening Act in Barcelona

For a brief moment when I wake this morning, to the sound of a mosquito zigzagging across my face, I experience that confusion of not knowing where I am. Not just believing that I am somewhere else, but forgetting where I am and how I got there. When realisation overcomes confusion, there’s nothing else to do but lie there and wait.

My window looks over what I know isn’t a courtyard, but I can’t find any other word to describe it and I’m sure one exists. It’s a perfect, concrete rectangular hole that has been sliced out of the middle of this building, stretching six floors down to the abyss. Narrow windows, carved into the walls like the days left of a sentence, spill the usual kitchen and bathroom rumours that provide me with the only clue of what life is doing downstairs on the streets. From the windows, threads of wire shoot out at various angles onto which sheets, towels and clothes cling in a desperate fight to prevent falling down into the dark and stinky doom.

The light is different. The smell is extraordinarily different.

When I open that door and walk out to Plaça del Pedró today, ready to start my new job, all the apprehensions, the excitement and uncertainty of the past few weeks will come with me. And while I can’t escape the burden of myself, I guess that with each step out the door, day by day, I’ll lose a little of something and gain a little of something else.

Landing in Barcelona

I’m swimming in the dour blue decor of Sydney International airport. Behind me, an afternoon American soap opera blares the vacuous platitudes of  those we-pay-our-writers-ten-dollars-an-hour plotlines. In front of me, the ashen faces are coming to terms with the next ten hours in economy class, imprisoned both by their fleeting predicament and such riveting dialogue as: “Abe found out the truth and thinks I’ve got something to do with it. Oh my God!” My flight was to be as uneventful as Abe’s eventual response, summed up simply with ‘bad food’, ‘no sleep’ and ‘aching legs’.

But words demand to be written, particularly when the words represent the universal lamentations of international travel. If humans are evolving, and implicit in this evolution is that we’re all growing taller, then no-one told Cathy Pacific. While there’s ample area for everything above the hips, the seats leave so little room for the rest of your body that every adjustment, scratch and lunge for the water bottle is like battling your way out of a polyethylene straightjacket. Only a touring troupe of contortionists would be the last to complain, and I’m certain that, after eight hours even those guys might feel the need to liberate themselves, run up and down the aisles and cry to the gods of joints and ligaments for clemency. I’m not overly tall for a human; I don’t stand above the crowds, never brush my head against the roofs of public transport facilities, and my knees are unaccustomed to being wedged against anything but my Levis when I squat, which isn’t very often…

So you can imagine my relief when the sleeping pills finally kick in.

OK, I’ll cease complaining. As much fun as it is being the plaintiff in a one-sided tirade detailing the injustices and human misery associated with moving around the planet, none of this is new to the commuting public, nor to me. Nevertheless, my next charitable donation will go to whatever society fights for the rights of battery hens; or to teleportation research, or to whoever approaches me in the street with a bucket and absurd costume first.

As the plane make its final turn, I gaze over Barcelona arising from its slumber. The light is new, and the city looks as if she’s staring into the sun-streaked mirror of the Mediterranean.”Last night was a blast. How’s my hair?” she says to me. I’m flying over my new home town and I wonder how the scales will balance. Will I regain the imagination I’d sledge-hammered into a corner in my head with drugs, love and the rhythm of routine? Can I ignite a sense of passion into my artistic, culinary and verbal output? Or is it escapism in disguise? To alter your life for experiences; to blow yourself into a dramatic change with a cyclone of amnesia, denial, fear and hope, is the ultimate masochistic act  – far greater than stapling your nipples to leather straps, although the risk of infection is about the same.

I type these words just after having landed at Barcelona airport – all baggage accounted for, guitar in one piece. I’m begging for a shower. There’s an unexpected feeling of calmness here at 10:30am. Outside, tourists are lighting up cigarettes, fuelled by the same fervour that rammed them through the customs gates. Every so often I hear snippets of French, Italian and English – all of which I can claim to understand at some level. The air smells clean. The aroma of strong coffee screws my nostrils like a rabid dog on heat. That’s where I’m headed first.

One night in the squares of Padova

Follow the winding, paved streets for long enough and you might just become sufficiently lost to discover that Padova is a city with a heart. On the outside, the people are young and beautiful; on the inside they’re tortured, and afraid of escaping the chains of expectations that shackle them to each other and to their daily rhythm. It’s a place where the denim jacket is still in fashion (either that or it has come back into fashion, with the same results); the youth pander about, most often with a cigarette drooping from their upturned lips, sporting whatever style of shoe is in mode (this year it’s the low-cut sports booties) denim jeans, denim jacket and, if they’re students, an invicta backpack. And there are flocks of them: on the buses, in every café, in the squares. The boys move around in groups, looking at the girls fluttering and chattering about the boys who are making jokes about how big the girls’ breasts are.

The town and gown theatre plays out every evening. The students congregate in the Piazza dell’Erbe to drink their spritz and beer, smoke joints and chat about their boyfriends and girlfriends who are invariably studying English somewhere in a richer country than their own. One minute’s bike ride away is the Piazza dei Signori where the town go to drink more expensive spritzes and beers, sit in comfortable chairs, and smoke American cigarettes. Maybe they’ll go home later for joints. The two crowds rub together like two sheets of satin, but the static electricity they generate – that silent but active energy – does not dissipate. All this goes on until 10 or 11 o’clock when the cobbled-stoned bed must be remade and everyone washes lazily from the squares and cafes in search of a restaurant.

The bustop at the train station attracts the usual crowd of drunks, immigrants and those who prefer to loiter and watch the people come and go. There is the man with one leg who hobbles around on crutches – he has a permanent scowl, dark eyes and a long, dirt-brown beard, which always seems to bear the crumbs of his last meal. Occasionally he might ask you for a Euro to contribute to his next drink or sandwich; he has learned better than to ask those people waiting for buses. They rarely wish to be disturbed, as they mutter curses upon the public transport system.