Let Me Tell You a Story: Barcelona

Sorry about not blogging. I’ve been so busy with doing nothing. It takes up all my time. Well, to be fair to me, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and in the last few days also a lot of getting my old fonts revised. I learned a whole lot about making fonts the right way while I was working on Walleye, and I realized that the fonts I’d made before probably had big problems. I wanted to work those out so I could feel good about selling these, especially because I’m planning on moving into a bigger pool. So far I’ve been selling with Veer, which is a nice company and sells some pretty great fonts, but is fairly small-time, at least compared with the giant of the field, MyFonts, the biggest font website in the world. The nice thing is I don’t have to tell Veer to take a hike, because I can sell through both websites at once. I figured if I’m going to sell my fonts to potentially the entire world, especially since Walleye is so international, I’d better make them airtight. But you didn’t come here to read about my fonts, especially not since that all started out as an excuse for why I haven’t written some of these stories that I went traveling to gather. So I’m going to cut out any further ado.

It took a while to get from Granada to Barcelona. When you hitchhike in Spain, you find out quickly—or maybe that should be painfully slowly—that practically everyone in the country is going “aquí al lado”: just around the corner. This was the case when I got to the gas station at the edge of Granada, although it didn’t help that I got started at three in the afternoon, having taken the morning really slowly without making any sudden movements that might disturb the thriving colonies of bacteria that had been residing in me since I left a hippie commune with questionable sanitation several days prior. One couple at the gas station told me they were in fact going the right way, but they weren’t inclined to take me, which made them the only people on my entire trip who came right out and said that they didn’t want to carry a hitchhiker just because he was a hitchhiker, rather than because their trucking company didn’t let them or because their car was already full to the brim or whatever. The other hundred people who stopped at that station were all going aquí al lado. But I did meet some other luckless hitchhikers, a German couple named Elmi and Emmy, with chaotic dreads and exuberantly colored clothes. As a courtesy they hitched a little further on from me, but they were really just going through the motions; we all knew it was too late and the spot was too lousy for us to have any luck tonight. They gave up first and soon after I followed them to the bus station.

We slept there and in the morning we got on the second of the only two long-distance buses I took all trip, to Murcia. We walked across town to find a usable spot, and split up, and they got picked up first, but I eventually got a ride. It always feels amazing to get in that first car after several days of not hitching. Hitchhiking very quickly starts to feel to me like it never really happened, like it’s all something I heard about once in a legend when I was a kid. Then I get in the car and it all comes true once again. The guy who took me was a Ecuadorian immigrant, and he left me at an onramp to the highway, where a couple of sock salesmen picked me up and took me to a truck stop down the road.

Truck stops are terrific places for hitchhiking—all the truckers are going long-distance and a lot of them have a spare seat and lots of empty time they’re looking to fill. Unfortunately, as I learned, truckers in Spain don’t work on Sunday, and it was Sunday. I found the right trucker right away, an old German guy with a beard who was going all the way to Barcelona as soon as his boss called him the next morning. That left me unenthusiastic about finding a different ride, so, still enervated from the hippie water, I tried only halfheartedly, and the day gradually drained away. Around dark I gave up. I hung out in the restaurant and chatted with the Uruguayan guy who worked behind the bar. He liked my stories and gave me some free cake, which I unfortunately couldn’t keep down. He also told me about a place I could sleep to keep dry (this was after I lost my tent poles): in the parking lot there was an abandoned black Volvo. It was cramped and unspeakably filthy, but it kept off the rain and I didn’t have to touch it very much because I was inside my sleeping bag. I missed my tent poles.

The German trucker’s boss waited and waited. The trucker couldn’t speak any Spanish or English, so all I knew was that he’d be vielleicht leaving soon. I really wish I’d known that that doesn’t mean “probably”, it means “maybe”. I sat there waiting for his boss to call all day, sometimes inside, sometimes walking around in the drizzle. I told the guys at the counter (some of whom had been working there yesterday) that I was pretty sure I lived at the truck stop now. No other truckers were going to Barcelona: I checked. In fact, this truck stop was evidently located in an outpost of the Bermuda Triangle, because no one in it was going anywhere. Occasionally a truck would leave and head to an industrial park that I could see nearby. The only ones that made it all the way to the highway were the ones whose drivers were forbidden to pick anyone up or the ones that were headed in the exact wrong direction. By now I was prepared to take a ride in almost any direction. It was getting later. When dark came again, I started going crazy, stomping on the ground and running in restless circles and swearing. I just wanted to be out of this truck stop.

The only thing that took my mind briefly off of my endless frustrated boredom was a guy who came by in a pickup covered in colorful decals. He started creeping around stealthily while holding a big white pigeon tied to a string. Now and then he would let it go and it would perch somewhere, and then he would grab it again. “This I’ve got to hear,” I told him, but he shushed me and looked up in the sky. And there, high up on a building next door, was perched a rainbow-feathered pigeon. Soon it took the bait and came down to see the other, stringed pigeon. The guy climbed up to the wall where it had landed, quietly, without moving the white pigeon, and then, all at once, gingerly pounced and grabbed the rainbow pigeon. He raised it up to the sky and then kissed it. “Two days I’ve been looking for this pigeon!” he said to the few people who had now gathered to watch. “It’s worth three thousand euros!” He showed me the satellite tracking device it had on its leg, which had directed him here to this truck stop belonging to the realm of nowhere. Of course, he was going aquí al lado.

After nightfall, I finally met someone who was promising. He was going aquí al lado, but he really took a shine to me because I was American, and bought me some drinks, and him some drinks (Jack Daniel’s for him, because he was feeling American). And thus I met Spain’s version of a neocon. He told me, and the whole bar, slurringly about all his opinions: Spain is going down the toilet. Politicians are shameless thieves. It’s terrific that Americans have the right to bear arms (here he was different from almost every other European I met, who thought legal guns were the most absurd thing about America). The death penalty is another great thing about America because wouldn’t you want the death penalty for someone who raped your daughter? He also told me I was definitely going to run into trouble hitchhiking, and if I didn’t let him buy me a ticket to Barcelona with the 50-euro note he was waving around, I would gravely offend him (to be precise, what he said was “Me tocas los huevos,” a brand new phrase for me, literally “You’re touching my balls”).

I don’t like to accept charity, as one of my principles, especially from people who probably aren’t that well-off. I don’t want to steal the mites from the widow when I have some of my own. But I was desperate and I relented, and directly we took off zigzagging down the road to a little tin-box train station. There he stood in the harsh fluorescent light and seemed to sober up and wonder why he’d offered to give me 50 euros. He rescinded that offer and bought me the furthest ticket we could get at the automatic machine: only to Alicante, hundreds of kilometers short of my goal, costing him just four euros. I decided not to argue, because that would only get me back to the truck stop, and I’d probably spend another day going nowhere but insane. Also, he seemed a bit edgy and I decided it was probably for the best that I wasn’t going to be in the same car or bar with him again.

Alicante’s train services to Barcelona had quit for the night by the time I got there on that lonely train, so I didn’t even have the option of giving up that way. Instead I took a subway and a tram as far north as I could, which wasn’t very far because those quit for the night too. I would transfer in the morning. Meanwhile, I climbed on top of the little metal shelter at the tram station, rolled out my bedroll, and slept.

In the morning I rolled up my stuff in the gathering dawn, then lowered it down on a rope so it wouldn’t crash when it hit the ground and reveal me to the people waiting for the tram. This caused me to feel like James Bond. I got on and rode north. The tram ride should have been pretty unremarkable, but it turned out that it went right along the shore of the Mediterranean, and this was the first time I’d actually seen the Mediterranean. I couldn’t stop staring. The morning was dull and there was a hard wind kicking in off the sea. I started recalling bits of the Odyssey. It really does have a way of playing on the imagination.

I got off in the middle of nowhere where the tram was near the highway, and while I waited for someone to have sympathy on me, the wind tried to knock me over. Eventually I got a ride, and then another, slowly making my way up the coast, and even learning—one ride was from a history professor, who explained the ancient crumbling cylindrical hilltop fortifications I was seeing. The day passed way too quickly and after dusk I found myself forlorn in a gas station with ten minutes between customers. I asked people, with the hopelessness evident in my voice, if they might possibly be going in the general direction of Barcelona.

On only the second try, a young guy told me, “Yeah, climb in.” He didn’t even seem excited about it, as if he picked up a hitcher at least once a day. But he was going all the way for real, and he took me there, and he did have a personality, despite the first impression. He hauled ass the whole way past everything else on the road, and then planted me right in front of the Sagrada Família, only rear-ending one car on the way.

Barcelona: here it was. It was actually possible to arrive in Barcelona, despite all of Spain’s best efforts to keep me thumbing for a few more weeks. I goggled at the Sagrada Família from all its angles, while eating a flawless fruit platter that I found in the garbage. I came to the conclusion that the Sagrada Família is pretty much the ultimate building. Every square inch is covered in detail and artistic intention, and bathed in symbolism. I stared a long time. But then I had to go find where I was going to sleep.

Back in Granada, a fellow vagabond named Pipo—there are a lot of vagabonds in Granada—had told me about a squat in Barcelona, an abandoned ice cream factory that had been reclaimed by the people. I got to the right subway stop and then, with the help of some anarchists who were passing out flyers about tomorrow’s general strike, found the right way to walk. I ended up in a neighborhood of giant, industrial buildings, and no people. But a lady at a gas station gave me a map of this place—I was by now out of Barcelona—and I found my way. I gave her a yogurt I’d just dumpstered. While I was at the hippie commune, I met a guy who was walking down the road. I was just walking into town for some errands, but he was walking to wherever the road took him next. He’d just stayed at a nearby meditation center, but that was only one place on his long walk, and he didn’t know when he might stop. He had done the Way of St James, but when he got to the end he found it to be unoriginal, full of people who didn’t know what they were doing, hadn’t found any direction. So he set up his own pilgrimage, one that started at the house that he was now giving up, and ended nowhere in particular, whenever he decided he’d learned enough about himself that he could stop. He gave me some chocolate—almost all he had. When I told him he should keep more for himself, he told me he always gave away what he had. “If you have things, you’re always afraid of losing them,” he told me. “But if you have nothing and you give everything freely, you have nothing to fear.” I thought about him while I gave that yogurt cup to the gas station lady. I was happy to part with it.

When I got to CamyKaZ squat, there was no mistaking that I’d arrived at the right place: it was covered with paintings and the gate was festooned with pink ribbons. Unfortunately, it also bore a sign that told me it was closed for the day. I didn’t really understand how a squat could have opening hours. As far as I knew, squats are just places where people sleep and dwell for free. But no one answered the doorbell, so I sat and wrote my journal while I waited for someone to appear.

Eventually someone did come outside the building, and I went over and got him to let me in. I expected a warehouse in pretty much the state it was in when the Camy ice cream company abandoned it. I found a vast, lavish area full of accommodations and adapted as perfectly as possible for being a great place to hang around and live. It was big enough that you could test out a homemade hang glider in there, and the paintings on the walls didn’t leave me much doubt that the inhabitants were creative enough to do that sort of thing if they wanted to. The wall off to the left was covered by a vivid painting of an alien landing in a flying saucer, wearing a makeshift beak to try to fool a very suspicious chicken army general who managed to be fluffily adorable while wearing belts of ammo.

To the right was a kitchen, stocked full of dumpstered bread and other good stuff (when I came in, dozens of cups of yogurt). In the next room there was a trapeze and mats, and a woman painting a wall to prepare the place for a medieval show that they would be putting on a couple days after I left. Upstairs was an Englishman named Daz, making monks’ robes for the same show. The old manager’s office on the second floor (or rather, suspended on its own under the roof and above the floor of the trapeze room) had been converted into a wayfarers’ room, with a few mattresses on the floor and a notice saying anyone could pass through for four days. No worries—I wouldn’t even have time to exhaust that number of days.

It was after one in the morning when I got there, but there was still fun stuff to do. I met a Frenchman whose name I forget, and we decided to go out on the nightly three-a.m. bakery run together. He got onto a bike that Daz custom-welded at CamyKaZ, low to the ground with a giant basket on the front that was big enough for a couple people to sit in. The French guy filled it with a crate to which we added old bread that not even the whole population of CamyKaZ could take care of before it started piling up too high with bread from the next day and the day after. CamyKaZ never wants for bread. We went out to the Emigrant Bakery, and pretty soon a guy rolled around in a truck. He pulled out crates full of the stuff from the previous day and let us take care of them; we pulled out what we wanted and made sure not to waste the truck driver’s time while he left behind new stuff. Then he rolled off and we checked out all our booty. Incredible stuff! Among other things, I had a flaky rectangular pastry the size of a slipper filled with fruit jam. It was one of the more delicious things I’ve gotten from a bakery in my memory.

The next day was November 14th, the day of the 14N Vaga General (Catalan for “general strike”). The problem I was faced with: How to get there? Because the subway and tram workers were on strike too. And the center of Barcelona, where the manifestación would be, was two hours away on foot. I wandered around indecisive. Along the way I found poster for the local manifestación and march of this particular neighborhood (which goes by the entertaining name of Esplugues de Llobregat). I was already late, but with no better options, I decided to go where it had been and see if I could figure out where I should go from there on foot.

As it happened, when I got there, the local crowd of banner-carrying, shouting anticapitalists was still there and assembled, and was just getting ready to march all the way to the main manifestación downtown.

I’ve traveled by many different means in my life: car, Cambodian low-sided boat, semi truck, bicycle, canoe, airplane. But I couldn’t say that I’d ever traveled by anarchist bloc.

There were more people than I expected, especially from some industrial suburb of the city. Spain seems to take its counterculture seriously. I joined in, and even managed to find the guy who’d given me directions the night before, named Domingo, I think. He shielded his face from the photographers as he walked, and explained things to me about Spanish politics. Thanks to the crazy guy at the truck stop and a few other people who’d given my rides, I already had a fairly good idea of how corrupt the Spanish government is. I also knew, from beforehand, that Spain is one of the only places where anarchy has actually been put in place on a large scale in a way that would actually have worked if the Francoists hadn’t beaten them asunder. Domingo explained that the police here also had a history of being pretty brutal if things went in some way they didn’t approve of. This stayed on my mind as I looked at the brigade of police cars behind us and the other brigade a hundred yards ahead of us and the odd cops on foot on either side of us. But I guess they had resigned to letting the bloc do its thing unimpaired, because they kept that distance and didn’t beat anyone, at least that I saw. We chanted as we walked: Tenemos solución: ¡Bankeros a prisión! (We have the solution: Bankers to prison!) ¡No es crisis, es capitalismo! (It’s not a crisis, it’s capitalism!) ¡An, anti, anticapitalistas! People along the road would shout out encouragement to us, or join in the march, or chant along with us.

As we went, from directions I never identified, our numbers got bigger and bigger. We’d started out with a few dozen people, but before I even noticed, the crowd had swollen to at least a few hundred, taking up four traffic lanes and stretching so far that from the middle I couldn’t see any evidence of a front or a back to the swarm. Also, we decided we were going to take the direct route to the city. That meant the highway. I didn’t realize we were on it until we’d already spilled off the onramp onto the main road and suddenly there were big signs overhead and lane after lane to spread out into. We took over all the inbound lanes, then a couple of the outbound lanes, and finally the whole width of the highway. I think everyone there must have been feeling the same thing I was feeling: a sense of enormous power, the power to conquer a highway. If anything represents capitalism, besides a Walmart, isn’t it a highway? But this feeling was tempered by the knowledge that we only had this power because the system allowed us to. We were many, but the cops had us outgunned all the same, and if they had decided that we actually posed a threat, they could’ve arrested us all, or even mowed us all down with machine guns, in minutes. The fact that they weren’t bothering meant that this protest, like most protests, was little more than symbolic. The little guys hold a general strike; the big pigs take it in stride, maybe give nominal pay raises; nothing really changes. The Spanish system has encompassed protest as a part of business as usual. I’d say it’s about in the middle of the spectrum where it comes to dealing with malcontents. In less powerful countries, the dictator has to suppress outbreaks with brutal force, because it’s actually possible that they could achieve their goals and topple him. In the most powerful countries, like the US, the government doesn’t even need to deal with protesters, because it’s learned how to use the media and money cleverly enough that all the people control themselves from inside their own heads, or control each other through the pressure to be normal like every other good American.

Through the streets of downtown Barcelona, we arrived at a big column at a main intersection.

Some other districts’ blocs had joined us on the way, and now we had arrived at the center where all the other blocs were. The crowd stretched backward thousands strong down all four streets that converged at the Pillar. In the center there were news vans and people climbing up the monument and a vanguard with megaphones. I waited to hear what they were going to say.

I was waiting a long time. I read people’s signs. I tried to listen in, but they were mostly speaking Catalan, which is as different from Spanish as French is, or they were speaking Castilian (standard Spanish) faster than I could make out. I really need to practice my Spanish for a long time. Understanding everything would’ve made everything much more interesting at the column. I read flyers, and listened to scattered announcements from the megaphone about waiting for one last bloc. Time passed. Maybe the crowd in general kept its energy, but I felt myself becoming less and less engaged.

Things perked back up when the last bloc got there. But I was expecting some speeches. I guess maybe that’s not so much in line with the philosophies of this sort of group, because they want to be laterally organized, not organized top-down with some head honcho giving orders. That would be very un-anarchical. Very archical? But still, there are people who can offer interesting perspectives on the problems of a country in that sort of situation. Some people have studied history and politics and know where the country has been and where it’s headed and what could be done to change that. They didn’t have anyone like that; they just had someone who was driving the truck at the vanguard, and told everyone that, okay, now that the full numbers were amassed, it was now time to continue the march.

And it was an impressive march: I won’t take that away from it. Thousands of excited, screaming people clamoring for a change, of some sort, something getting all that wealth out of the hands of the undeserving rich. Maybe it even achieved something: maybe some people who watched all this energy manifesting itself looked on and thought, “These people have got something going. I want in.” But then again, maybe those people just got annoyed that the subways weren’t running and the highways were jammed. I’m not sure what the impact was, because I’m not Spanish and I didn’t understand much of what was going on. But for me, it felt like the march was a symbol for the movement: going and going, but never arriving anywhere. We walked through the broadest streets for a long time, slowly, but probably covering miles. I wanted to see where this would all end. But I also had to consider that I needed to get back to CamyKaZ, and the subways did have a few hours when they would actually be open, and that window was quickly closing. So I ducked into a station and rode the most crowded trains I’ve ever ridden, with people all but moshing to fit everyone in, back to Esplugues de Llobregat.

Back at CamyKaZ, you wouldn’t know anything was going on. Daz was sewing away, and someone was cooking a communal dinner for the whole squat, and in the other room they were finishing the wall. I helped them get some of the highest spots, since I was the only one fearless enough of high ladders. I ate with them, and I played chess with the French guy from the night before, and I watched a guy with a white-man afro practice tattooing on a pig’s ear that he’d gotten from a butcher somewhere. I loved this place. In the morning I even discovered that they had an indoor duck pond. Someone was introducing a chicken to it.

That day I felt like something a little calmer. There was an appointment I needed to keep: I still hadn’t given the Mediterranean Sea its due. I’d watched it roll past the tram window, and at that wide-open windy first hitching spot I’d been able to see it and know that was where the gusts were being drawn to that were sending me stumbling forward, but I hadn’t yet sat down next to it and looked at it.

In a sudden inspiration the previous night, I’d realized that the perfect way to do it would be to sit down on the beach and draw the waves crashing toward me. I bought a single piece of paper from an internet cafe, and also a beer from a little family shop, and after a long walk through the tall buildings of downtown, I came to the seaside. It wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t the sort of weather that brought families out in their swimsuits to come enjoy a day splashing around. People were walking around in the sand and a few intrepid swimmers were in the water. Well back above the high-tide line there were restaurants where people wearing snappy clothes ate very expensive food. I found some rather tasty free food in a different place, then walked down across the beach to claim a spot as my own vantage point. I sat down in the sand. Off to my right in the distance was a concrete jetty where people were walking out to see the sea better. Ahead there was one indeterminate nautical object sticking out of the water on a metal pole, and now and then a sailboat, but otherwise clear unbroken water all the way to the horizon. To the left was the pier I’d come in from, but I decided to leave it out of my frame. I took out the paper. With the back of a little paperback copy of Where I Was by James Kelman as my drawing table, I started sketching. The sea did most of the work. I just had to sit there and be the filter. I don’t draw much, but it came pretty easy there. A guy came by and tried to sell me a beer, but I showed him the one that I already had. I very slowly drained that, and I filled up my half-sheet of paper. Time passed. The beer guy came back from the other direction and I held mine up again, and he laughed and went on. Some time later he came back for a third pass. Unfortunately for him, though my beer was empty, I was just about done. I eyed the drawing, and then the sea. It was a decent likeness. I carefully stashed it inside my book and stood up. I considered, and decided that it did feel like I’d finally seen the sea, and I could go to a different place now with a clean conscience. It’s important to give a sea the time it deserves.

Before I went back to spend my last night at CamyKaZ, I had one more thing to take care of. I needed to see the Sagrada Família by day. And I was glad I went back. I could see all the details I had missed when I came at night. Never have I seen a building that looks so much like it wasn’t built, it grew. It’s as if Catalonia is just the right biome for Antoni Gaudí buildings, and here in the center of Barcelona there were the perfect conditions for the largest, most long-lived, most ornate specimen to sprout and blossom into sixteen towers and hundreds of elaborate carvings and endless reticules of scaffolding that the organism protects itself in until maturity.

I made it back to CamyKaZ in time for cinema night. Behind the painting of the chicken alien, they have a full cinema set up, and tonight they showed Quest for Flame, a weird prehistorical movie about grunting Neanderthals trying to find a flame to carry back to their homeland (they had inexplicably decided to live in the middle of a rainy bog). They come across a tribe of Homo sapiens, who are comparatively the new kid in town, and learn from them that it’s possible to make fire instead of carrying it forever; they also somehow charm a human woman (who spends the whole film naked) back to their bog, with time on the journey back for drama and animalesque sex. I also talked with Daz and some of the other people there, but I had an early morning, so I went to bed far too early to make the nightly bakery run.

I woke up and scooped up a bit of the night’s haul, then found trains to Montcada i Reixac and the highway northward, where I stuck my thumb out toward France. If I’d seen all that in three days, who knows what I could’ve done if I’d stayed longer, but I had other places to take by storm.

File under: Year of Adventure, photos, communal living, new world · Places: Spain

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I am glad I'm reading this in the luxury of knowing you are safe back in Cincinnati. Otherwise I would be so worried for your safety. However, since you don't have the fears that your old granny has, you have managed to live absolutely to the fullest, and write an incredibly good story of your adventures. I still cannot believe all the things that you did there.

Agree about the Sagrada Familia and the other Gaudi architecture. It's one of a kind, and it belongs in Barcelona. Grandma




This so far exceeds my youthful trip to Barcelona in depth, clarity, wisdom, whimsy, and every other way possible. I remember when I was in Madrid the Basque separatists were marching. I had no inclination to be curious other than just taking pictures. Where was my head? You have such presence of mind.

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