Thursday, November 6, 2014

Barcelona: Turn Left at the 19th Century

La Boqueria

Barcelona blows me a kiss … from a balcony overlooking Las Ramblas. Her white dress flies up, just like Marilyn Monroe’s in The Seven Year Itch, but her platinum-blonde wig doesn’t lift a hair.

“She’s a he,” says my quirky guide, Albert.

Of course she is. What better place for a female impersonator to pose than perched on a balcony over the street that embodies living theatre, a street so vast and crowded that each section has its own distinct character—so many little “ramblas” that it became known as Las Ramblas rather than the singular La Rambla.

Barcelona cries, “Eat me! Drink me! … How can I refuse the invitation to enter La Boqueria, the market to end all markets? Fruits and vegetables plump and gleaming, begging to be touched, rows of brilliant colored fresh-squeezed juices and plastic cups heaped with fruits. Pyramids of candies—chocolates, jellies, marzipan fruits, cocoa-dusted nuts—a cornucopia of sweets bursting open. Vast slabs of meat sway over stands, fish and unrecognizable sea creatures seem to wriggle on counters. Locals stride directly to the stand they want while tourists wander in a dazzle of colors, smells, textures gone wild.

So hard to choose …. How about a Torre—a traditional Catalan sweet made of almonds and served in winter? Or a slice of moist date-nut bread? A hunk of pale, sharp cheese? And then I see a cup crammed to the top with large pieces of one fruit: the deep, rich yellow-orange of ripe mango. 

I hold out my hand to buy it and manage to move two steps away from the fruit stand before spearing the first mango triangle. Sweet and ripe, the taste explodes on my tongue.

Barcelona calls to me in Catalan … that ancient tongue, from storefronts and cafes, and walls and balconies, where her flag—the deep yellow of ripe mango, with four red stripes that according to legend are four fingers dipped in blood. At one end of the flag is a white star against a blue background.

Albert, who was born and raised in Barcelona, and has the fierce pride of his Catalan heritage, explains that the people who hang these flags are signaling that on November 9th, they will fight for the referendum that will determine the Catalan state’s right to vote. A human chain of nearly two million people, from the Pyrenees to Valencia, formed an enormous V for Vote.

Will it happen? The election is only a few days away. Locals I spoke to were doubtful, but fervent about the need to try. One said, “Even though Catalonia is the most economically successful state of Spain, the government wants to retain control over us and bind us to ancient laws. The question is: do we need them?”

“We Catalans were always the rebels,” says Albert with a wry grin. “The thorn in the government’s side. We are not fighters, but we know how to talk and write, and really, that’s why we are joining hands—to fight for our voices to be heard.”

Barcelona whispers in my ear … orange-scented murmurs of the true Barcelona, rumors of hidden places known only to its longtime inhabitants, secret places that may or may not exist in daylight, but that are there all the same, if you only have the eyes to see them, and if the light is just right. I listen to the wind and crooning voices and learn about a walled garden behind a bookstore in Portal de l’Angel … a flamenco bar near Placa Real, where at midnight dancers throughout the city congregate to perform for each other, and woe to you if you applaud because the performance is not meant for you … a speakeasy with no sign, where you knock on a faded door and the bouncer looks out and decides if you are worthy to enter … and a magic shop, the oldest in the city, with a multitude of tricks and illusions, and a curtained backroom, where the true magic happens.  

The directions are purposefully vague: turn left at the second cobbled street behind the large café, walk until you see a stone wall, then turn right down that alley. After a few steps, you’ll be there.

There? Where? I search, but see no sign of garden, bar or shop hidden from the public eye. I decide there must be a secret password, an Open Sesame that dissolves the gleaming contemporary facades of the usual suspects—Hard Rock Café, H&M, Zara, and multiplying Desiguals, sometimes four in a single block—to reveal the city’s pulsing heart.

Maybe I’m searching at the wrong time.

Maybe I don't have the eyes to see them.

Barcelona feeds me  and teaches me to nibble. Tapas and montevidos—small meals of fried potatoes topped with spicy Aoli sauce, cheese and meat sliced thin, and my favorite—the simplest of all: a ripe tomato rubbed against the crust of a bread, then drizzled with olive oil, sea salt, and a touch of garlic. All passed down with cold golden beer. I bite into pinchos at the Basque restaurant, Euskal Etxca, near the Picasso Museum —sublime tiny sandwiches pierced with toothpicks. When you are ready to pay, the waiter counts the toothpicks. “The honor system,” says Albert. And I drink orxata, a traditional drink made from roots, dense and chalky, yet surprisingly refreshing.

Barcelona paints my portrait … Picasso draws over my eyes—one jarringly large, the other smaller—the better to squint with, querida. Miro punctuates my mouth with dots and lines to turn my smile playful. Dali curls a deliciously malicious mustache over my lips. The three of them divide my face into cubes and sharp angles so it looks different from every perspective.

I peer into the window of an H&M and squint.

“Do you recognize yourself, querida?”

Actually, I do. I’ve just never seen all these sides of me at the same time.

Dali pulls me by the hand. “Now to Gaudi!”

With the others on our heels, we hurry to La Sagrada Familia and enter the vast cathedral that is Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Gaudi elongates my neck a la Alice in Wonderland until I rise high enough to climb the tree-spiraling columns and touch the ceiling leaves and brush my fingers against the filmy fairy tale spires. I could swear I’m in a surreal airy forest surrounded by fresh green, a carpet of leaves far below.

Gaudi presses his large hand on my head. “There is a misunderstanding that an abundance of light is a positive element. That is not so. The light should be just right—neither too much nor too little—since both things blind, and the blind cannot see.”
He releases me suddenly, and I float like a sagging balloon to the earth.

I leave the illuminated forest of La Sagrada Familia, and feel someone watching me. I squint back over my shoulder.

There they are, in a circle of light: Picasso, Miro, Dali. Soberly dressed in black, studying me—my cubes and lines, my playful dots and crooked eyes, my improbable mustache.

“Well?” I ask.

Picasso and Miro look at their shoes. I am embarrassed. “Thank you!” I call. “Gracias!” And add, “Gracies,” in Catalan, for good luck.

Dali twirls his mustache in farewell.

I twirl mine, too, and return to Las Ramblas, taking my time. Soon it will be the Magic Hour. Twilight—between day and night, the hour when sun and moon share the sky, and the light is just right.

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