Lands of the Setting Sun: Native Tongues


I was disappointed with Barcelona, but things were already looking up when we got off the L3 at Sants Station. Finding our way from the subway platform to the main station was not easy in a city with few signs and a fierce attachment to an obscure language, but we we weren’t left wanting for long: a little old lady sidled up to us, noticed our suitcases and gave us directions to the platform. I was prepared not to listen to yet another person pointlessly railing in Catalan, but to my astonishment I understood what she was saying– she was speaking Spanish. I thanked her and raced to the main concourse.

AVE is Spain’s high-speed rail system; the line from Barcelona to Madrid is one of their newest, and it is the second-fastest train in the world (the fastest is the LGV-Est in France). One look at a map of AVE makes you wonder how a flat-broke country like Spain can continue to build high-speed rail while America can’t. The United States’ only HSR line is the Acela, which runs from Boston to Washington via New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. However, it runs on shared track and doesn’t go above 200 kilometers per hour (the Barcelona-Madrid line manages 300). Eight high-speed rail systems are in the planning phases across America, but while California is coming close to breaking ground on exclusive track, the rest are based on marginal improvements like concrete ties and grade separation. In 2011, Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida actually shut down projects in their states to spite President Obama.

But I digress. Sants Station is in a hideous building, though my mom was spared the indignity of having to see the outside. Instead we waited. Across from us sat a young, pretty girl with fluffy brown hair, freckles, and a trademark Catalan nose. As far as my mom and I could tell, Catalan women all have short noses. She wore a colourful outfit and pulled out a massive book– a George R.R. Martin book, maybe. Accidentally, I had dropped the bottlecap from my coke between my mom’s seat and mine, and the girl gave me a judgmental look as I struggled to fish it out.

“She gave me a look,” I said to my mom.

“Who cares?” she said. “She’s reading a dictionary.”

Our laughter spun out of control, gathering further looks of disdain.

We arrived in Atocha Station, a place that I’d first heard of under unfortunate circumstances in the eighth grade, when Al Qaeda detonated several bombs on commuter trains here to commemorate 2 1/2 years since 9/11. That day in Spanish class we learned the phrase “¡Al Qaeda no pasajaron!”


In the cold we stumbed to Atocha’s 19th-century concourse, a glorious brick edifice with a glass roof and a massive indoor tropical garden. It was 13:00 as I raced to the nearest café, then to the bathroom, then back to the café. I ordered for both of us in my normal Spanish accent and the waitress didn’t even blink. It was in Madrid that I discovered I have a Castillian accent.

I’ve taken five years of Spanish lessons from teachers variously speaking in Andalusian, Mexican, Chilean and Venezuelan accents, but here in Madrid strangers spoke openly to me as if I were a local. Of course, being thin and wearing a tie helped; Spaniards are possibly the dressiest people in the world.

Even in Spanish I’m a posh spaz, I thought. Compared to Barcelona, this was like being at home. Madrid was going to be fun.

Lands of the Setting Sun: The View from Montjuïc

The Literal View

The Metaphorical View

Author’s Note: This entry was originally intended to be part of the previous one, but it ended up being too long. As these articles have got some attention, I’m curious to know if readers would be okay with longer entries. Let me know in the comments.

Though we had already seen most of Barcelona, it was Montjuïc that took it right out of us.

Before we could do that, I returned in the wee hours to the Boquería. This time I was alone, and on my way up the Rambla I was accosted by three dubious-looking women who reached out to nearly grab me. At first I thought they were pickpockets. Then I notice they alone were wearing makeup and realized they were prostitutes, scampering away as if that weren’t unusual. Barcelona is full of prostitutes.

Montjuïc allegedly means “mountain of the Jews,” though that may be a folk etymology and the name may be corrupted from something else altogether. It is a mountain overlooking the center of Barcelona atop which is built an old fortress and most of the city’s Olympic Park, left over from the 1992 games.

To get there, we had to walk down the Nou de Rambla into a nondescript neighbourhood that resembles nothing so much as Shepherd’s Bush, although in reality we took the Subway. Allegedly the L3 station connected to a funicular railway running up the mountain, though to our great misfortune we went out the wrong way and ended up in a residential area a stone’s throw from the mountain top, but unreachable nonetheless. It was here we saw Spain’s only cat: massive and golden, like a cheetah but bulkier. He sat idly on the tiny balcony as I sat and figured out how to get up the hill.

I don’t know what made Montjuïc so appealing except that we had another day to burn off, but the main attraction is the view. Barcelona’s skyline isn’t very vertical, but you do get some enjoyment from the novelty of seeing every building you’ve visited, even if, like me at the time, you need glasses but don’t have them. We rounded a corner to catch a lift across the harbour. This part of the mountain was marked by a very Louis XIV-esque rose garden; sitting alone there was a woman taking in the sun and I saw her hairy armpits.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem whatsoever with hairy armpits on women, but I’d never seen any before in person, and that more than anything else it was a sign that yes, I was in Europe, and yes, overzealous body grooming had never caught on south of the Alps. Doubting I could express this to my own mother without sounding like a complete pervert, I kept this to myself, feeling very smug, if a bit uneasy as we rode the very tall, very old, very rickety lift off of Montjuïc.

We were deposited then in La Barceloneta. Previously a compact village for fishermen, La Barceloneta has become not unlike a Catalan Venice Beach, full of skaters and weekenders in cafés.

“I’m sorry,” said my Mom. “I can’t walk anymore.” Strangely, neither could I, so we took a bus back to the subway, and after briefly getting lost made our way back to Liceu and the Gaudí Hotel.

As Catalonia is in the throes of a nationalist movement, I impulsively decided to buy my own Estelada, the Catalan independence flag. On the off chance that independence would be ratified in 2014, I thought it would be cool to have evidence that I had visited the country before it existed. In fact, I thought, It would be pretty cool to get the flags of every country we go through. So as my mom rested, unable to stay awake to eat dinner, I returned to the Rambla to find a suitable vendor. It cost €14, a reasonable price for a flag, though I did find some difficulty explaining myself to the vendor. Nearly every vendor on the Rambla is a South Asian immigrant, and some speak neither English nor Spanish. In such situations I find it’s best not to say anything at all.

2012 Catalan Independence Rally

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.