Lands of the Setting Sun: Knowing de Rambla

That man has been following me. He thinks I'm English.

“This is plane travel!?”

The last time my mom had flown across the Atlantic, it was 1975, when she came to the Netherlands to rescue her friend from a cult. Her middle seat on the 777 from Los Angeles to Heathrow came as a total shock.

Of course the flight was horrible. It was supposed to be. The seats are tiny, the food is terrible, and people lose their minds. When smoking on planes was outlawed, airlines began recycling air from the inside of the plane rather than replacing it, spreading bacteria, causing things like deep vein thrombosis and even air rage. But how did she not know this? How had she missed the entirety of 1980s stand-up comedy?

After a short stopover in Heathrow, we took a more comfortable but also more turbulent ride to Barcelona. It was late when we got there, and my Catalan pronunciation was not great.

“Doce noo de Rambla,” I said to our cab driver.

Know de Rambla,” he replied.

The Catalan language is a mystery to me. It’s more closely related to French than Spanish, though not really intelligible with either. It’s fared better than other minority languages in Europe because the place where it’s spoken has always been fairly wealthy. Serra and Portola, the founders of California, were Catalan, and frankly it’s weird that the language never caught on there, because technically Spain didn’t exist until 1715. For 250 years, the Spanish Empire had been governed by a personal union between the crowns of Aragon and Castile; only in the 18th century was the country politically united. When that happened, Aragonese began to die out, yet Catalan continued.

This was going to be a bigger problem than anticipated. Catalonia is in the throes of a nationalist movement, and at the time of my visit there was a great antipathy towards the both the national government and the Spanish language. Signs in the airport came in three languages: Catalan at the top, English in the middle, and Spanish in small print at the bottom. For this reason I never became comfortable in Barcelona. That and the food, which tended to focus on chewy fish and tomatoes.

We arrived at the Hotel Gaudí, a wonderful hotel off the Rambla across from the Plaça Reial. The elevators are lit up with little LEDs, and it speaks in an English voice not unlike Matt Berry. I’d highly recommend it.

“Hey, English! Manchester United!” shouted a young passerby who may or may not have been a pickpocket. My training kicked in. “Not English, American!” I had never wanted not to be British so much in my life. I swerved to avoid getting to close to him. “Ah, my American brother!” he said. What exactly was I supposed to say to that?

According to Rick Steves, the Rambla is the most likely place in Europe to be pickpocketed, though beyond this encounter, I never saw any further evidence. While my mother slept from an unprecedented jet-lag, I went out to dinner. The Plaça Reial is home to many youth hostels, so most of the people eating at the restaurants around it were foreigners, Americans and Canadians in particular. But it was the other people who fascinated me the most: families out for after-dinner strolls at 22:00, children playing and shouting in a language I’d never heard before. I finished my disappointing haddock and returned to the hotel.

What excited me most about Barcelona were the women. Whit Stillman’s Barcelona is one of my favourite films, and from that and sketchy reports from the US Navy, I’d formed the impression that this was the loosest port in the Mediterranean. I’d meant to meet some people at a local indie club, Sidecar, but ultimately fell asleep, woke up at 2:00 AM, and whiled away the wee hours of the morning watching Long Way Round.

Anyway, further reading online seemed to imply that Barcelona was actually quite a poor place to get laid. If experience is any guide, the loosest port is probably in Israel.

Lands of the Setting Sun: Getting Ready

Bella Hispania

Bill Bryson has never written about Spain, nor has David Sedaris. Michael Palin and Charley Boorman both went through Spain, but only a little bit around the edges. I was beginning to worry. I had planned this trip meticulously for months, and with only two days to go, I’d run out of ways to prepare.

In England didn’t need any book or travel show; the country was omnipresent in English-language media. And in Israel I’d been in a Birthright group with a guide. My impending journey into Spain seemed somehow lacking.

Months earlier, trapped on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I decided to read the Oxford University Press’ history of Spain. Somehow, they managed to turn the story of this country, the product of endless cultural invasions, wars, and political intrigue, and make it dryer than the winter rash that had developed just in time for the trip. My only option was to talk to my friend Sam Ettinger, who had spent a semester there.

“When you go, are you going to use an American or British accent?”

I ignored his bizarre conceit. “Why don’t I just speak Spanish?”

“I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”

“Remember that time I was on the bus in San Francisco, and that old racist lady sat next to me and went on a rant in Spanish about how the Mexican kids in front of us were shaming her ethnicity by acting black?”


Actually, my Spanish was shaky. Despite growing up near towns where Spanish is the first language, taking five years of Spanish classes, and understanding the written language, I faltered embarrassingly when trying to hold a conversation. On the other hand, it seemed to be only Northern Mexican Spanish that gave me trouble; I chatted for hours with some Argentine girls in London who didn’t speak any English, so my luck in Spain was anyone’s guess.

“My point being,” Sam continued, “you don’t want them to think you’re English. They really don’t like the English right now, what with all the vomiting on the beach.”

I was well-acquainted with the English in Spain through television. Spain– Valencia and the Balearics in particular– is full of wintering British who hole up in their own community with no interest in the country around them, and queasy students yakking all over the place, berating the locals for not serving chips. It’s a problem. On the other hand, Spaniards love the Duke of Wellington and Joe Strummer, so I came out of the conversation having learned nothing about what English-speakers face in the country.

I’ve wanted to go to Spain since I was ten years old, and thought it might actually be the inspiration for Hyrule in the Legend of Zelda games– particularly Ocarina of Time, which has lots of Moorish and Islamic influences going on there. And because California was settled by the Spaniards so much later than the rest of Latin America, their influence was much more recent; the people of 18th century Los Angeles probably spoke with Castilian accents, but since the original Spanish-speaking community was effectively eradicated by the influx of Americans, we’ll probably never know.

In either case I planned meticulously. I was taking my mom; despite growing up in a Spanish-speaking region, she never learned the language well enough to speak in a foreign country, and there were some things I knew she would want to see, though I had no idea how much.

Compared to other European countries, Spain is huge; bigger than California, and not long and narrow like that state. Seeing the whole country would be impossible, but I decided on a few locations that were important to me: Barcelona, Madrid, and Córdoba. I also made arrangements to visit Gibraltar and Tangier nearby, and our plans included an overnight stop in London on the way back. All apologies to the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Granada. Next time, I promise.

To be continued…