Saturday, April 21, 2018

The barcelona trip

We made it to Barcelona because the Revolution was letting some trains go, whilst stopping others. It was hard to understand the logic, and the committed part of me was longing for the general strike; but the other part of me just wanted the usual comfort bubble, and vacation. So we left, me in the state of a happy bourgeois slug.
We hadn’t had such a long getaway since last year in L.A., when we took off two days, stayed in the fanciest hotel in Pasadena, and visited all the neighborhoods in East L.A. we had read about in the books, or that A. knew about from the enormous store of information she had accrued during her time representing French culture at the Consulate. So now we were here, in Montpellier, going on a jaunt, and we took the train casting glances at each other, like we were so smart. The smart couple. This was going to be great!
We felt at first it had to be great – that we had to have a great time. This is an infallible formula for having a bad time. Which tinted our first day. Our room in the Gothic quarter was appropriately gothic, with medieval smells emanating from the drains and a donjon style staircase that would have thoroughly pleased the martyrprone heart of a penitante. It screwed itself up to the fourth floor, trying our lungs and heart with each turn. We deposited our stuff, headed out, and around the corner plopped down for beer and tapas. Barcelona is a big beer city, and it is characterized by these tiny sized glasses for drinking just a bit of beer, which is just the right thing, and giant sized glasses for drinking a lot, which is just the wrong, although it looks so festive. You can become soggy your first night out, a destiny I was trying to avoid.
The next day we arose bent on tourism. This was satisfied by an Himalayan trek up the slopes to the Miro Museum. I’d insisted on this, because I wanted to touch base with my memory of Barcelona as I saw it in 1981 – or was it 82? My early years keep falling through a hole in my pocket. I came to Barcelona with my CODOFIL friend, Danny Wilhite. For some reason, the visit to the Miro lodged in my memory as a highlight – at that point the place had probably existed for only a decade. It was barely an institution then – merely a duckling of an institution. However, A. and I discovered many many more stairs to climb than had protruded in my memory. It was worth the walk. Although the best Miros are not in the museum, and there are many of the sad, lost works from the 50s and 60s, when Miro was torn between being a UNESCO monument and imitating the Americans – let’s make the Miro dot drippy! – there are some lovely pieces from his great decades in the 20s and 30s, and some discoveries. I was really moved by a piece from 1945, that tracked white, reaching hand prints over a complex background that included a dense, scrolled black middle, giving the effect of something human pressing on the fourth wall of the painting, trying to escape it – which I image was very much the feeling of 1945.
The we foolishly disregarded the prospect of dining at the Miro – which had a very nice courtyard restaurant – and instead proceeded to the Museum of Catalan Art, which was a bit down the slope. The art was housed in a magnificent, many domed building that was originally erected as part of the World Exposition of 1928. Excellent views of the city, with a vast staircase leading down down down to a furiously frothing fountain, something that seemed competitively larger than the fountain in the Piazza Navone in Rome. There we ate some cheap crap, but with large views, touristically. Time for a fast parcourse of Catalan art history, from the Romanesque up to around 1900. The galleries were Borgesian, or Escherian one, since each section seem to wind around and around without bringing you to any exit. The Romanesque was a little disturbing, as it consisted of bits of mosaic and structures taken from old churches, which I kept thinking should have been kept in those churches. The Renaissance was more to my liking. I was impressed by the global fact that though the Renaissance brought with it perspective and the portrait, the whole humanistic ethos, with the Greek and Roman myths, was absent. There was not a goddess or centaur to be found. Instead, it continued the overwhelming piety of the earlier epoch. The great triumph of the Catalan painters of the early Renaissance was in the department of pious tortures. Everywhere there were martydoms, and the hacking off of heads, sawing through of bodies, or just general assault of staked and suffering saints, was rendered with an evident familiarity with how to do it. Public execution was a great school for these painters. My favorite, among the carnage, was Jesus descending into Limbo, by a Catalan artist named Bermejo. It was definitely on the same plane as Memlinc – had that unearthly coloring, that expertise with massed, naked bodies exposed on the day of Judgement. Nakedness that had lost all sexual allure, and was a sign of our species' utter poverty.
That evening we made dinner at home – saving money left and right! Or maybe not.
The next day we met my friend Bernat at his office. Bernat is the editor of Nuvol, a sort of mashup between a Catalan Mediapart and a Catalan Believer. He was in the midst of making abridged versions of the next print edition, which he was going to send to political prisoners. Although the world is paying no attention, Spain’s government, in a gesture redolent of the 19th century, has been putting Catalan nationalists in jail. The former president of Catalan is fighting extradition in Germany, but members of his cabinet are in jail for real, where they are being denied any but the most miserable of visiting rights – their children can see them twice a month, for instance. Hard to believe – like something the Austrians were doing post-1848 to the Italians.
Bernat was his usual courteous self. We met way back in the 90s, in New Haven. We immediately recognized in each other the joker in the pack. And, of course, with age we have each learned to sublimate, to an extent, our joker-ish instincts. Back when we met, hard as it is to believe, everybody was not perpetually staring at a screen. There was this extra-screen thing – called, back then, “reality” – and you would walk around in it much as now we can walk around a VR environment. The kids don’t believe it! But it is true. Someday I am going to acronymize it as RR - real reality - and offer tours.
Bernat took us to a restaurant that was not on the tourist circuit – which is what the tourist dreams about, the negation of his essence allowing for contact with the authenticity that the clever natives package up for him and bus him through. Ah, the paradoxes of everyday life! But we thought less of paradoxes than paella at this place. It was excellent. We talked of the usual topics – family, friends, literature, and politics. As for the form this took, I refer you to the Eumaeus section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which about covers it.
I told Bernat about trying to find an agent for my novel, so Bernat called up an agent he knows in Barcelona, and we arranged a meet n greet at a French bookstore that eventing. Vila-Matas, one of her clients (I was beaucoup blown away by that) was being interviewed in French about the French translation of his recent novel. When we arrived, the interview was just beginning. We understood the questions, which were in French, and not the responses of the great writer, which were in Spanish, giving us a rather jumpcut sense of the proceedings. Vila-Matas has the head of a great writer. It is broad and massive, a sort of Picasso creation, one part minotaur, one part bull-dog. Luckily, the sense of massiveness is dissipated when he talked, for he was funny. Or at least some snatches of speech that I vaguely understood were funny, and the audience laughed. Bernat introduced me to the agent, and I made my pitch, rapidly. Then Bernat introduced me to his wife, Anna, and his marvelous kids, a five year old girl and a ten year old boy. We went to his apartment for pizza. The apartment is in, I believe, the Gracia section of town, which was once the redoubt of anarchism. Strangely, there is no real monument to or museum of anarchism in the city where anarchism was once so prevalent. I proposed to Bernat starting one – we could even lead tours of tourists, who would wind through town to see the anarchist sites, and end up at the Sagrada Familia, where we would ritually spit on the devotional sculpture. I guess this is an entrepreneurial idea for another lifetime, though.
The next day we left by train.
Lessons from our trip are: Barcelona is the most beautiful 19th century city ever; subscribe to; and don’t buy the local nescafe in the grocery store cause it sucks.

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