(Yes, I know, it sounds stupid. But I swear that not a day went by without my singing that to myself at least once. My powers of free association are both a blessing and a curse, like… I don’t know, something else that’s a lot like that.)
As with my last post, I am currently in Edinburgh, with about 11 days left until I head down to London for 3 weeks, and thence onward to Helsinki, Finland, for Worldcon 75, the World Science Fiction Convention. As an attendee, and a member for the year, I get to vote for the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s equivalent of the Oscars. As with the Oscars, there are other SF awards, like the Locus, the Nebula, Spectrum, and others, some of which are arguably of more merit. But, still like the Oscars, the others don’t get nearly as much press coverage. There’s more I could write about that, but it probably makes sense to save it for my Helsinki post(s) — by which time I will have forgotten what I meant to write about, saving us both a great deal of time and effort. Winning!
Anyway, my only real point in bringing up the Hugos is that, since I get to vote on them, I have been reading the nominees. (Again) like the Oscars, voters get packets of the nominees, so I’ve been reading through free PDF copies of a bunch of really good novels, novellas, novellettes, novellinis, novellejos — I don’t know, I’ve been getting kind of lost in all the categories — graphic novels, short stories, art, and so forth. I was pleased to find that I had read a bunch of this year’s nominees already — not even 1/3, mind you, but definitely more than usual — and the others have been pretty uniformly enjoyable. The only stand out sucky one was a short story by a guy with a reputation as an a-hole, who was only on the list because there’s a big a-hole voting block who nominated him. (More on that in the later post, if I remember it.) The flip side is that, while the materials are good, having to read a bunch of them for a deadline feels rather like having a lot of homework and being behind on it. Not unlike having a travel blog. So, super awesome to have both of those going on at once. Plus, did I get enough walking in today? Did I do yoga? Did I meditate? Stay current with new Elder Scrolls Online content? Read enough Twitter? Read enough Hugo nominees? Make any progress on the travel blog? Go see something interesting locally? Eat something even a little different from what I’ve been eating every day all week? Do any of the dozen or so things I vaguely sort of ought to do but keep putting off because of all the other things?
This is why people become hermits, you know. I mean, *proper* hermits, not this genially misanthropic thing I’ve got going. They head off to a shack in Peru and live in a hut with nothing for company but a solar charger, the collected Harry Potter audiobooks, and a llama named Dolly, and you don’t hear from them for 5 years, and when they return they have a limp and a beard and eyes that have seen too much, eyes that look right through you, and, yeah, they shave, and they clean up, and they dress normally enough, but the first dinner party you insist on holding around them they drink silently for the first half hour before responding to a casual question about their time “down south” with suddenly blazing eyes and Words Humans Are Not Meant To Hear. None return from *that* dinner party unchanged, and none will tell you what they heard, and barely half of them will live out the year.
So, just FYI, that’s what I’ve been doing in Scotland. Also, Edinburgh has finally had a patch of cool, rainy weather, which has been wonderful. It means I have to work harder on getting enough walking exercise, but it’s still awesome. So much better than all the warmth and sunshine we’d been having here, which even the locals find a bit unnatural. Unnatural… yesssssss.
So, currency achieved… where was I?
A Linksys To The Past
My last day in Seville was Friday, February 17th, though it was barely a day in Seville at all, since I was up before dawn, finishing the last of my packing and cleaning, and heading out by around 7:30am to meet the 8:50am train to Barcelona. A 25 minute walk through morning streets that seemed very different from the Seville I’d become used to: everyone I passed seemed very purposeful. Of course, you wouldn’t have many tourists walking around then, and I’d expect that in cities/cultures that stay up later, the folks up earlier in the morning have a damn good reason to be up that early. But I almost felt like I was seeing a different city, and kind of regretted not having been up and about that early before. Not that there would have been anything to do. Not that I’d have done those things if there were.
Anyway, I got to the train station in plenty of time, negotiated with a few machines until I found one that would agree to give me the ticket I’d preordered, stood in a surprisingly long line to get a breakfast-sandwichy thing to have for second breakfast once I was on the train, and then settled down to wait for the platform number to be posted — which happened right when I was disassembling parts of my packs for better arrangement. I cursed, quickly reassembled them, and quick-trudged off to the train, sitting down with a whole 5 minutes to spare. (Gotta say, I’m really not a fan of the “Hey, we have no idea where you have to go until *right* before you have to be there” thing. But I guess it still beats dealing with the TSA (or local equivalents), so whatevs.)
The 5-1/2 hour train ride goes north through the middle of Spain, through Madrid, and then drifts east to reach Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast. I suppose a reprise of the earlier map of Spain would be in order here:
The ride was pleasant enough; I had a forward facing window seat, treating me to more views indistinguishable from Southern California:
I did have a seat companion to ignore for about half the trip, but the ignoring thereof was not a trial. I don’t think I’ve had a proper conversation with a public transit companion since my bus ride from the airport to the downtown terminal in Taipei. I’m pretty decent at matching conversation, but not terribly adept at (nor inclined towards) starting it, so if my companions aren’t talkers, little talking will be had. Unless, of course, something obviously funny presents itself — but in my experience the results of assaying that sort of thing vary pretty widely. On this trip, no such events presented themselves, and I have no complaints.
We arrived at the Barcelona Sants station at 2:25 in the afternoon… and I suppose this would be a good time to drop a map of the city:
There’s a lot that can be said about Barcelona, and I intend to say only a very little of it. Culturally, there are several points that I find of particular interest:
1) It’s the capital of Catalonia, one of the semi-autonomous regions of Spain. Spain seems to be a bit of an uneasy federation, not unlike the United Kingdom only grouchier about it. You may have heard of the Basque region in the north, which has been fighting off-and-on for independence for many years. Catalonia appears to be only a little happier about the arrangement. I really only saw this demonstrated in the area of language: Catalan is not quite Spanish. So, you’d look at restaurant menus at and see things written in the two languages that, as a person fluent in neither, looked almost identical. And the national art museum had bilingual plaques, with descriptions written in Catalan and Spanish. Given the number of international tourists in Barcelona, the amount of space devoted to 2 local languages, in place of Spanish OR Catalan and some more internationally useful language like (just to pick one out of the air) English… this is kind of hard to read as anything other than a big F.U. to the Spanish government.
There was some talk, during all of this Brexit stuff going on in the U.K., that an attempt by Scotland to break away into its own country and join the EU might be blocked by Spain. The Spanish government really doesn’t want to talk about parts of countries breaking out and becoming independent, because as far as I can tell they’d lose the Basque region in a heartbeat, and Catalonia almost as quickly. Then Theresa May and her government did some new stupid thing that annoyed the Spanish (I think it was about the status of Gibraltar), and Spain piped up, “Nooo, no problem, you Scots could go right ahead, we have no objections at all!” Heh. Politics is fun! (When you can look at it from the outside.)
BTW, during a break soon after writing that paragraph, I was browsing Twitter and this story synchronistically came up in my feed:
Just in case you were wondering if this was idle speculation on my part. 🙂
2) It’s a very modern city. There are old buildings to be sure, that date back to medieval times (and excavations going back to 5000BC), but much of the central city was rebuilt in the 1800s by modern planners, so there’s a clear street grid, wide avenues, large and frequent plazas, fairly uniform building heights of 4-7 stories, and some amazing architecture. More on that later.
4) Related to that, Gaudi. A world-famous Catalan architect (1852-1926), he seems to be *the* big local hero, and has architecture and art all over Barcelona, and plenty of other architects were inspired by him. I feel like I’m giving him short shrift to just mention him here and then move on — he is, after all, kind of a big deal. But I’ll have more on that later and you can always Google his buildings.
3) Finally, back in the prehistoric days of 1992, Barcelona hosted the Olympics, which had two effects. First, they modernized even more things, built more public transit, built a subway system, and generally enhanced the infrastructure to get ready for it, and have been benefiting from that investment ever since, even in Spain’s currently tough economic times.
Second, it was the first time I’d ever really heard of Barcelona, and as I watched the Olympics coverage I was astonished to realize that Spaniards were Europeans! This, of course, sounds absurd. Of course they are! But, growing up in San Antonio, Texas, “Spanish” really sort of implied “Mexican”, and without really thinking about it I had subconsciously assumed that Spaniards looked like Mexicans. Of course, they don’t. Mexicans are primarily aboriginal Americans (and, going further back, Asians), with varying degrees of Spanish (European) blood mixed in, and Spaniards sit somewhere in the French/Italian European bloodlines. And, to be clear, if you’d asked me, “What do Spanish people look like, ethnically?”, and given me any reason at all to think about the question, I’d have spit up the right answer. But, without thinking about it, it took seeing pictures of Barcelona and Barcelonians in the Olympics coverage for me to suddenly go, “Oh, wow, they’re totally Europeans! Of course! Of course, they would be. Duh!”
For comparison, I grew up mostly in Texas, and didn’t realize why it was called “The Lone Star State” until I was in my late 20s. Then it suddenly occurred to me to wonder, and I immediately realized that our state flag had 1 star on it. But I’d never consciously thought about the name before, it was just a predefined label.
For further comparison, I didn’t realize that people had accents until I was in 8th grade. I’d moved around a lot as a kid, been around all sorts of people from different parts of the country, and my mother’s family spoke a more accentless English (if there can be said to be such a thing) than most of my neighbors. So, I just kind of thought that people talked however they talked — I didn’t really notice the differences, and the idea that there were regional similarities never occurred to me. Then, in junior high, I had a Texas History teacher from Brooklyn, with a strong Brooklyn accent, and that’s when it clicked. “Oh, wait, he’s not just a unique example of himself, he’s part of a group of people who talk that way, and that’s what accents are!”
These little enlightenment experiences still stand out to me, years later. Any embarrassment at having not noticed a fairly common thing is thoroughly dwarfed by the pleasure of the realization. (And, given the number of daft things many people believe, that never crossed my mind and that I still have trouble crediting that people can buy into, I’m going to claim I’m still ahead of the game.)
But I digress.
The Barcelona Sants train station is circled on the map above, a little west of center, and it conveniently connects to a subway line that runs north east along the major streets, exactly where I needed to go. I navigated it without too much trouble, and found myself coming up right in front of a Gaudi building, the Casa Milà, just a couple of blocks southeast of where I was staying.
Looking the other way got me this view:
It was, of course, the middle of February and thus theoretically winter, which can be shown by the woman in a heavy overcoat at the left, and the trees with no leaves. This was pretty much the only way I could tell; it felt like a pretty comfy spring day to me.
I walked easily to my Airbnb place, which was a quiet building set back about 2 blocks north from the main central street that cuts diagonally across the city’s grid (inventively named “The Diagonal Avenue”), managed to correctly buzz the apartment, and made my way up 3 of the 4 floors to be let in by Ian, the college-age son of the flat owner — who was a very attractive woman perhaps a hair younger than I whose name I confess I’m now struggling to recall. I could swear it started with an “M”… Margueritte? Magdalena? Madre De Ian? I don’t know; I rarely had occasion to use it, and it’s now 4 months later. She was *super* nice and we shared an interest in yoga, but she spoke very little English and I know barely a dozen words of Spanish, so it was basically a lot of smiling warmly at each other for a month. They had another guest staying a bit longer term, a 30-ish Italian guy who spoke (I think) decent Spanish and a bit of English, and I think was in Barcelona looking for work — though I only know that from hard-not-to-overhear phone calls, since we barely exchanged more words than I did with… Mariana(?).
Most of my conversation was with Ian, who spoke fluent English, had done some early college in Atlanta, Georgia, and was now near graduating in Barcelona while working essentially as the software architect for a startup company creating computerized menu/ordering systems for restaurants. Oh, and he was a big anime fan. We’d already bonded over the internet when I booked the place, and we’d both anticipated sharing a great deal of anime during my stay… but before I got there he’d ended up largely moving out to a place closer to the startup and to the university, to reduce his commute, and I ended up almost never seeing him, which was a pity. The few times we talked, I found him delightful company. Oh well.
(There was also a friendly and mellow white bull terrier — not my fave breed of dog, but perfectly agreeable otherwise. There was, I was told, a younger brother, currently studying philosophy at the university. And I’m not sure where their father might have been, but Ian never said word one about him, so I’m inclined to guess that he’d either passed away or else left under unpleasant circumstances. Neither possibility really encourages inquiry, so I thought it best to leave it as an unknown. I’ve blithely ignored things that were far more my business than this.)
Ian was pretty much running the Airbnb aspect of the place, and it’s his photo attached to the listing. He was also responsible for setting up the two WiFi networks that covered the long, thin apartment, and I had to give him kudos on the network names: “A Linksys To The Past” and “Virus Gratis”. In case you don’t get them, the first is a play on a WiFI router manufacturer named Linksys, merged with a classic Nintendo game, “The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past”. The second promises “Free Virus” if you connect to it. I particularly liked this sticker on his laptop:
So, yeah, Ian was my kind of people.
The room itself was long and narrow, with a window overlooking some rooftops, and the WiFi was generally quite good — though it could bog down something fierce in the evenings after people started getting off work. There wasn’t a lot of room for yoga; just a narrow walkway between the bed and the large freestanding closet, but I angled and contorted and made do. I found organic grocery stores, and settled in for the month.
Depriving Barcelona of Its Brightest Ornament
“The sage knows without traveling.
He sees without looking.
He works without doing.”
— Lao Tzu
He travels without touring. I have to confess, Barcelona has the dubious distinction of being the city that I cannot help feel got the shortest shrift from me, of all the places that I have been. I don’t know why, but I really was *not* in the mood to be going places. I barely was in Seville, and even less so in Barcelona. Some of that undoubtedly derives from my immersion, at the time, in Elder Scrolls Online. As I wrote a couple of posts ago, they had a succession of celebratory events and rewarding activities that, while they eventually grew to be too much of a good thing, were still pretty much at the very peak of Good Thingness when I arrived in my new residence. So, any inclination that I might have had to go out had to fight pretty hard with Fun Stuff To Do Inside. And it’s always been my nature to get immersed in the things that interest me — as, I suppose, it should be.
When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
— Shunryu Suzuki
Of course, as a counter argument, I did get what felt like a prodding e-mail from Airbnb the other day, with a message that I captured via Twitter:
Well, regardless of what I should or shouldn’t have been doing, what I *was* doing while in Barcelona was playing ESO, plus Fallout Shelter, watching YouTube, watching Luke Cage on Netflix, and other mostly indoor sorts of things, with occasional trips out every 3 or 4 days to walk around the city. And I was there for a month, so I did get to see some stuff…
Barcelona is — by far — the most architecturally interesting city that I’ve been in. I mentioned early that the central city was rebuilt in the 1800s, so (a) it’s got a really modern layout and (b) it was rebuilt at a time when people like Gaudi were experimenting with architecture, and even his less experimental predecessors and peers still thought buildings shouldn’t just be functional (as opposed to the later, hideous, Bauhaus movement) but also aesthetically pleasing. So, walking through most of Barcelona is a long series of these sorts of things:
I could go on with these for a long time, but you get the idea. And that’s not even getting to the fancy stuff, like that organic Gaudi building from above. Or this one:
Or the grander intersections:
Or the plazas:
Or the same plaza in slightly better focus due to less movement. And with better jams. And pigeon tides:
Or other plazas:
And then there’s the public art:
And random mini-parades:
And of course the food in Barcelona, on those few occasions that I ate out, was fantastic.
If there were two areas where I felt like Barcelona suffered a little, the first was in the car exhaust pollution. Spain has one of the poorer air qualities in Europe, and a long day walking around traffic tended to make me feel a bit ill. (The 2 days I took the open double-decker tour buses around the city rather did me in.) This is aggravated by the fact that it’s a dry climate — it rained a few days while I was there, but generally it was temperate and sunny — so the pollution isn’t washed out of the sky the way it would be in rainier places. Seville was much the same, except that there were so many little, narrow streets with little or no traffic that I didn’t find myself breathing it as much. So, that was a down side to Barcelona.
And the second was that it was (for them) winter, and most of the trees were barren of leaves. This is hardly the city’s fault, but there were some promenades where I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out.
But, sleeping trees aside. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a city as intrinsically pretty. (Not including Barstow, of course. That wouldn’t even be a fair comparison.)
There were a few other highlights.
Park Guell is a park designed by Gaudi, just a little north of where I was staying. I went there twice, the first time just walking by because they seemed to be charging admission and I wasn’t in the mood. But by the second time, a couple of days later, I’d learned that only a museumy part of the park required the admission, and the bulk of the place was free to walk around in. So I did. It was nice enough, with lots of paved paths wandering through semi-arid vegetation, leading up to nice views over the city. For the most part, I’m not super satisfied with my photos of the Gaudi bits, so I’m going to direct you to Google for those. But this one of the entrance turned out Ok:
I walked up a windy path that took me through a couple of neat arched tunnels along the hillside:
Eventually, I got up to the top of the park’s hill, and was rewarded with a pretty decent view of the city:
The little area at the top of the hill had trees and benches and I sat out for a while relaxing and waiting for the tourists to clear away from the edge so I could take a good panorama shot. And so that I could join in a little 2 person play, that I captured afterwards and will present here, for your entertainment:
Scene: a retired American software architect sits cross legged on a stone bench, on the top of a hill overlooking Park Guell. A young blonde American woman approaches him.
Note: It occurred to me sometime later that she was probably not asking about some bit of park art or architecture called the “Park Wall”, but was in fact asking me where “Parc Guell” was — a possibility that had not crossed my mind at the time because (a) I was too distracted by amusement at our conversation, and (b) Parc Guell was where we _were_.
Second note: on the off chance that you think that I answered “Si” in order to toy with this young woman, you do me too much credit. Not that I wouldn’t have toyed with her, amiably, but I am not that quick on my feet. She asked me “¿Habla Ingles?”, in Spanish, and even with as little Spanish as I know, “Si” popped out reflexively purely because of context and free association. But, once she got to the longer question, I had no way to easily construct a response in the same context, and reverted to English. The comedy was just a happy side effect, and thinking that I did it deliberately is like seeing a face in the bark of an oak tree or divine agency in lightning. So, the next time I do something that doesn’t make sense to you or you suspect ulterior motive, just remember that my consciousness is just your pareidolia, and I am merely relative to the observer.
The Bus Tour
I did one of those hop-on-hop-off bus thingys, about 10 days after I got there — I normally like to do them the day after I arrive but, as described, I was busy. I bought a 2-day ticket, and rode both days, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with this one. Partly because of the levels of car exhaust around me, particular when we hit some road work and spent 20 minutes going nowhere. And partly because the recorded tour announcements were pretty bland, and very intermittent. So, definitely a fail on that one. I did get a handful of amusing shots, though:
The tour bus did take us down to the docks and along the waterfront, some of which was a bit industrial but got better towards where the cruise ships docked and then improved thereafter. But honestly I found the waterfront kind of dull. The best part was on the way back into the center, where we passed this building.
Note: even as poor a selection as these pictures are, they’re still all from Day 1 of the bus tour. On Day 2, I took a different tour route, and it was so dull that I took almost no pictures and they’re not worth preserving here. Ah well, you win some you lose some.
The National Art Museum
Even *I* could scarcely visit Barcelona without going to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the National Art Museum. Especially since they have a free admission day once a month, and this was that day!
I really should have taken the subway to get here. It was a lovely day for the walk, but walking the 2-1/2 miles there, walking around the museum for 3 hours, and then walking all the way back was a bit much; that return trip was just a slog.
Inside, they had a lot of medieval art, like this:
Beyond the medieval art, the museum also had a bunch of modern stuff, though most of it wasn’t (to me) as interesting. Still, there were some exceptions:
So, that was, by and large, my month. A bit overviewy, but really as much as is needed considering how little I actually got out and around. Honestly, I’m not sure how much more I would have done even if I hadn’t also been doing separate touring in a fantasy landscape. I mean, yeah, there were more museums I could have seen. I could have eaten out more. I certainly could have walked more, and actually should have — though the traffic exhaust kind of put an upper limit on that. In truth, Barcelona did not get as much of my attention as it really deserved but, hey, Life happens. (Or, Second Life happens, in this case.)
And it’s a beautiful city, it really is, hands down the most objectively artistic environment that I’ve been in yet. Imagine New York or San Francisco, but wider streets, super decorative building facades in thousands of variations, and few buildings over 4-6 stories so that you don’t feel hemmed in by them, you feel welcomed. If you’re in the neighborhood, I can highly recommend the visit.
I woke up early on Friday, March 17, left at around 7am, walked down to the subway station that I’d arrived from, took it to the Airport shuttle bus terminal at the Plaça Espanya (near the National Art Museum), caught the shuttle easily, and was at the airport after a 30 minute ride. Then, off to Edinburgh at 10:40, arriving a little after noon — as will soon be told.