Sometime around early 2013, long before we decided to move to Europe, our daughter Hannah decided she wanted to participate in Rotary’s foreign student exchange program. I had always envisioned her doing an exchange in France, probably projecting my own feelings of missed opportunities and dying dreams onto her. But alas, my dreams were not hers. She decided she wanted to be posted to Spain. In the end she was placed with a family in La Roca del Vallès, some 30 miles northeast of Barcelona. The family took her in, made her feel welcome, treated her like she was one of their own.
A few years have passed since then. Hannah still travels to La Roca periodically to visit her host family. It was time for us to finally meet them and say “Thank you!!”.
Naturally, seeing that we have impeccable timing when it comes to travel and national crises, we arrived the day Catalonia declared independence from Spain. If you haven’t followed the news: Spain did not look too kindly on this move, dissolving Catalonia’s autonomous government. Based on Spain’s forceful response to Catalonia’s polling day some weeks prior, people being pulled out of buildings by their hair, protesters beaten indiscriminately in the streets, I envisioned Spanish tanks rolling through the streets. As we were approaching Barcelona, crossing the Pyrenees, my thoughts kept drifting to faded memories of grainy footage from Tiananmen Square.
I thought: “Worst case scenario, we’ll grab a cab and hightail out of the city”.
In the end, none of that happened. Some (sizeable) demonstrations. No police brutality. No tanks. No batons. The leaders of the Catalan government fleeing to Brussels. That was it (for now anyways).
Upon arrival we took the train to Granollers, a city northeast of Barcelona, near La Roca, about a 40 minute minute trip.
It was early afternoon. Hotel check-in done, we took a stroll, Hannah being our guide through her old stomping ground. We came across a large square. Obligatory medieval church in the background. Junior high kids doing impossible tricks on their scooters.
Passing through the square, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone running towards me. I though “Oh shit, I’m going to be robbed now”. I jerked around, ready to engage my assailant (which is like so not me by the way). Rushing up to me was a kid, perhaps 12 years old, pushing his scooter with his left hand and reaching out with his extended arm and open right hand, trying to catch up.
I was baffled for a second...”O.K., no robbery... What the heck does this smiling kid want from me!!” Then instinct took over. I reached out and gently slapped his hand. He made a fist and we fist bumped, which sent him over hill. His entire face lit up and he was off. Back to doing impossible tricks on his scooter.
I returned on my path, catching up with the others. I was confused. First of all, I am not the hand slapping, fist bumping kind of guy. Never done it before and will probably never do it again. Therefore, I was proud of myself to have guessed what he wanted me to do. Then, I looked up and down my outfit. “What!? Why?! Do I really look like and American tourist?” I wasn’t wearing a camera or a baseball cap or any of the other dead give-aways…Sigh….
At least, it seems, I was able to make that boy’s day.
The next day we spent in Barcelona. On the train ride into the city I noticed Graffiti. A Lot of Graffiti. In London you see a fair amount of it. Some here, some there. In Barecelona’s outskirts it seems to be everywhere. If you told me they had dedicated work forces that systematically spray everything they come across, I’d say “Yeah…that makes sense”. This video possibly demonstrates my point best:
I have always felt ambiguous about graffiti. Art or vandalism? Here, along the train tracks, I thought, it actually improved the scenery. A nice change from the monotony of concrete.
Nice inner city. Lots of traffic but also wide Promenades and Pedestrians only zones. Kath and I both though there were similarities to the architecture of Paris.
We walked into Mercado de La Boqueria, off La Rambla in the heart of Barcelona. A busy market with lots of color and delicious things to eat on offer that will bring any Foodie to his knees. Think Seattle’s Pike Place Market on steroids. Little bags of delicious morsels for sale for a few Euros. Some of this, a little bit of that.
Oh, and if you, like me, appreciate meat…jamón ibérico specifically, (the Spanish counterpart to the Italian Prosciutto), then this place is about as close to foodie heaven as you will get.
By the way, I’m totally into this Tapas thing they do here. A little bit of this and some of that. Why settle on one portion of one thing when you can experiment with a number of dishes all at the same time!? I guess variety might be the spice of life after all.
It was time to move on. Along the way we noticed the globally ubiquitous presence of McDonalds, only done a little different here.
A little less “In-your-face” shall we say?
After some wondering, and having only limited time, we picked La Sagrada Familia as ourTourist destination for the day. The Basilica was designed by Antoni Gaudí ( who by the way left his architectural footprint all over the city…that’s a good thing in my book). Construction started in 1882 and is still ongoing. Lack of funds or something like that…which strikes me as odd considering the wealth of the Roman Catholic church. Hm.
The evening was spent with Hannah’s host family. A meal was shared. Good times were had. No doubt an exhausting evening for Kathleen and Hannah’s host dad who both speak English and Spanish fluently and did their best keeping me in the loop of the conversation. I tried German at one point, but alas, no takers.
Saturday, last full day in Spain, we decided to avoid the city and headed to the beach. The seaside town of Mataró was only a 20 minute bus ride from where we stayed. Hannah went back to Barcelona to hang with one of her friends, so it was just Tristan, Kath and myself.
Ahhhhhh…the Mediterranean Sea…there something so very…I don’t know….Mediterranean about it. We walked the beach, played in the surf, stretched out a bit.
Exploring the town, pro Catalan independence flags (those are the ones with the star on it) were hanging everywhere. Narrow streets, ancient doorways.
We also came across a procession of sorts. Drummers, flutes, giant medieval looking statues, dancing. No idea what that was about, but cool nonetheless.
Alright, time for another meal. Living with a teenager we are used to frequent and extended “I’m hungry, can we stop?” sessions. Looking for a reasonable place we found a cafe that served, what has become one of my favourites: Pintxos.
One could easily think that this is not a big a deal. A slice of bread with some stuff on top. The type of thing you would expect to see on any haphazardly prepared party platter. An appetiser. But then, there you would be wrong. This is a whole other thing.
The name Pintxos is the Basque version of the word Pincho, which refers to the fact that all items of wholesome goodness that are invariably found on top these slices of bread are pierced with a skewer in order to secure them to the absorbent surface on which they are artisanally placed. You order a whole bunch of Pintxos, about 10 or so. Add a beverage of your choice, and that is lunch (or dinner).
OK, by now, we all know my affinity to cured meats, jamón ibérico in particular. We also have established that lots of little things to eat is a great way to have a meal. So how could this be anything else other than a brilliant idea. Viva la España! Is it time to think about moving to Spain yet?
And yes, I know, I write a lot about food in my reports. In my defence, I think sitting down with family and having a meal together is just about the most rewarding thing one can do. And better yet, do it in different countries, each with their distinct flavors and ambience. Chat up people on the next table. Have a conversation with the waiter. I remember one particular interaction in a French bistro, Kathleen egging on our waiter (with her signature Kathleen sass) after he complained about Macron: “Oh yeah, you wanna swap your President for ours?” He did not.
I’d rather sit and eat with friends and family than run from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, paying lots of money (and I mean Lots) in admission fees to see stuff you’ve seen a dozen times on TV before anyways. If you want to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, for example, you have to shell out an eye watering amount of about $65 for ONE person. If you are a group of four…you see how it adds up. Go have a meal instead! Sit, look at the Eiffel Tower while you are having the meal, ponder the meaning of life and discuss with your companions. Good times almost guaranteed. But then again, that’s just me. Each his own.
Sunday, time to head home. Our train headed into Barcelona and then on to the airport. It was late morning and along the way, at each stop, we picked up more and more Catalonians with flags draped around their shoulders. Apparently all heading downtown for a pro-Spain, anti secession demonstration.
Typically, when it comes to political protests, I feel uneasy. It inadvertently seems to attract looters and troublemakers. I am specifically thinking back to the 1999 WTO demonstrations in Seattle.
This felt different though. There was a positive energy on the train. One person shouting a word I could not understand and EVERYBODY on the train replying in unison “VIVA!”. Falling into song one moment, having a lively debate (filled with laughter) the next. In Barcelona the train, filled to the top with protestors emptied.
Upon returning home, we watched the protest on the news. Thousands were marching for Pro-unity.
The political issues in Catalonia are complicated. There are no easy answers.
A communiqué from the Prime Minister
Oh yeah, and I got a personal e-mail from the Prime Minister.
“Dear Marcus” it said, “As I travel to Brussels today….”, essentially explaining to me how she would be fighting for EU citizens rights in UK post Brexit. And something to the extend of Hey…don’t worry…you’ll be welcome here!
It ended with “Yours sincerely, Theresa May, Prime Minister”.
Now, I know that this was a generic letter that filled in my name and every EU citizen that registered with the Home Office probably got one. Still, I felt somehow touched. Some effort was made, however big or small, to make this e-mail personal.
Come to think of it, I wonder how many immigrants in the United States have received an e-mail from their fearless president, ensuring them that they have nothing to worry about. HA!! Sometimes I do make myself laugh out loud.