The lady at the Vueling counter tells us our connection to Portugal is entirely overbooked and will have to bump off the two in our group with the lowest priced tickets. She zeroes in on Chichi and my passports. No surprises there. And though I always get the short end of the stick when it comes to zipping around this little planet, I welcome these unfortunate events with open arms in the hopes the universe will reimburse me with serendipitous moments. And besides, who doesn’t welcome a 24-hour layover in Barcelona?
After dumping our backpacks and duffel bags in a hostel right on the western edge of Plaça de Catalunya, I venture out with Aisha, who is pursuing graduate school here, and Vell and Krystl who have a couple of hours to burn, while Chichi decides to sleep in. I leave my camera and wallet with the pointless collection of receipts that make it look fat rather than overdrawn. I pull out a photocopy of my passport like I always do when I go out late at night and do not have the luxury nor time to spend across the table from the police officer unwillingly assigned the mundane task of ignoring tourist complaints. Barcelona is a magnet to the creative and adventurous. Including those who creatively pickpocket the adventurous. And La Rambla, being the happening pedestrian thoroughfare that it is, is crook-town central.
The stores are slowly closing down for the night while the colorful and shady convene under trees, newspaper kiosks and on park benches. As we walk down the tree-lined boulevard to Barceloneta, one of the city’s beaches, I notice the laboring collar shift from blue and white to red and black—an Amsterdam without the dividing window panes, effectively establishing the confusion of roles between the merchant and the buyer, the onlooker and the object. A group of people in what could easily be their baby sisters’ clothes invites me over for a good time in unmistakable Catalan; I politely wave my hand back and try to catch up with my friends.
Shops with the unfortunate smell of a Times Square tourist trap enjoin passersby to avail of the best souvenirs from China. Three shirts for ten Euros. And if they feel generous, maybe a Gaudi keychain thrown in? Shivering at the thought of a gaudy Gaudi, I do not notice I am standing over a colorful mosaic which looks like a tiled smiley face. Aisha says it’s a Miró and I jump off as though I have just stepped on hot coal. How spoiled Barcelona is, walking over Dada-surrealist masterpieces like that. If this were art where I come from, it would be set twelve feet away, in a bulletproof, climate-controlled plexi-casing, surrounded by four security guards, a museum aide and their walkie-talkies. And a mall would be built around it.
Noticing I allude to these forms of otherwise inaccessible art, Aisha invites us to walk a little further east to where the Rambla ends on the Passeig de Colom. She says since the Miró museum is a haul over in Montjuïc and should be closed if we were to go there now, a nice sculpture by the ocean might be a good concession. I agree and upon getting there, climb up and inspect the materials it is made of. I know nothing about alloys but when I am excited, I tend to climb up things. I am reminded of the sculpture the same Barcelona native made in Chicago, called “The Sun, the Moon and One Star.” I used to eat open-faced sandwiches under it while waiting for the Cook County office to open so I could argue a parking ticket a little too often. It seemed to stand up nondescriptly, like a jet-lagged model in sunglasses on a big city go-see. But here in Barcelona, you can feel it belongs among the masses, comfortably niched in its surrounding Mediterranean context.
We walk south along the Passeig, leaving behind bobbing sailboat masts, trying to fence each other out of existence, and admiring silly scultpures of giant prawns and printing presses. We take photos of the Mirador de Colom, the city’s tribute to Christopher Columbus. He supposedly arrived back here after his European discovery of America in the 1400s, bringing home news of a fertile frontier and loads and loads of bling.
We walk back north and explore the slightly medieval alleys of the Barri Gòtic. I twist my ankle several times but realize there are no uneven cobblestones to warrant the gait. I imagine how hard it must have been to carry around a lance in chain mail armor in jutting stone pavements. But not in Barcelona.
The next day, I jump out of bed and pull Chichi with me to the metro so we could see two more things before we fly out. The Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s answer to the ephemeral, stands eternally unfinished in the Eixample district of Barcelona. The basilica shoots into the sky like a quartet of skeletal sandcastles doted on by construction cranes in acute surgical concentration. With all the hubbub of drills and tourist footsteps, one wonders how the marvelous stained windows stay in place at all.
And true to everyone who has lived and died describing it, there really are no words. Here’s my attempt: Melting All Souls’ Day Candles.
Of course I apologize for that, but I like the fact that it scoffs at timelines, completion dates and gravity. Some sort of timeless rebellion that resonates with all of us. Someday, I’ll bring my offspring here and there’ll still be cranes installing minute details like a pineapple head on the Passion Tower and it’ll still take my breath away. I walk back to the metro unable to wipe the smile that began the moment I saw the Sagrada.
Then we take a bus to Gracia district where the Parc Güell is located. Like a child in a candy store, Gaudi’s imagination ran wild with this one. Mosaic lizards, Moorish and cake houses, caverns, colors, fountains—it’s what happens when you pair a blank check with a crazy mind. And when you’re in a park such as Güell, you tend to feel licensed to do awkward things in public like execute a plie, burst into song or play a didgeridoo. Chichi is gasping for air from the sensory overload. I am gasping mostly of hunger, so we run to the other side of the park where cheap paellas are being served. As promised by the placard outside, there is a piece of everything in it and with enough sangria, the dish begins to taste good.
We check the time and almost fall on the floor finding out we have less than two hours to spare to get back to the hostel, and then on to the airport. The train is fast and thank goodness for the airport express bus a block south of our hostel. If not for their presence, we would have to spend another day in Barcelona.
On the way to El Prat International, I see a couple more buildings designed by Gaudi—their windows falling down the façade like melted pieces of cheese. And then I seriously question my life choices. Should we have taken the express bus?