I was only going to stay in Mallorca a week. Swim in the ocean, lay in the sand, look at beautiful European women in bikinis. I’m not really a beach person though, so expected to get bored pretty quick and just want to get back to Barcelona, or somewhere else Spain. Nor am I a Spring Breaker, so my first two days kind of horrified me: Mallorca is the equivalent of Fort Lauderdale, where hordes of young Europeans, mostly Germans, descend for a week or two of binge drinking on the 10K stretch of beach and hotels called the ‘Platja,’ east of Palma. Mostly young men, or else they’re just the most visible, roving around in groups, carrying kegs and boomboxes (which I didn’t even know existed anymore) cranking Ramstein and appearing scarily like Hitler Youth in their matching t-shirts and shaved heads. I’m not exaggerating: on my first morning run I happened to pass a group of them yelling at an older (ha, ok, my age) mixed-race couple, and I learned enough German in high school to know they were asking/accusing the (white) guy what he was doing with a black girlfriend. Either he was very stoic and patient, and/or didn’t understand German, since he didn’t react. I myself wanted to punch them in their Aryan faces. Anyways, the stormtroopers-in-training tended to congregate down at the east end of the Platja, so I could mostly avoid them.
I also don’t like rich people, and the island of Mallorca and its capitol, Palma, are main vacation points for the superrich, about a seven hour ferry ride south of Barcelona, part of the Balneares Islands, collectively one of Spain’s ‘states’. Palma has a crescent-shaped bay facing south, creating an ideal harbor, hosting dozens, if not hundreds of yachts bigger than my whole apartment building back in Michigan, with many high-end hotels nearby, along with casinos and chi-chi bars and nightclubs. Fortunately, I couldn’t afford any of that, so avoided los ricos as well. Notably, there were no other Americans on Mallorca, or I never met any. Which was nice.
This was midway through a two month vacation to supposedly just Barcelona, a treat to myself for my first year teaching full-time, which had had its ups and downs. My students were great, but the administration and my fellow faculty weren’t exactly on great terms, and neither was my department the model of sanity. I felt I’d been plopped down in the middle of a three-way Hatfields and McCoys feud, and in the meantime, as a contract employee, I was having to writing the equivalent of a master’s degree for my ‘teaching portfolio,’ every year, for three years, and being on three different committees, and two different departments, and suddenly having to teach five classes a semester, in composition, requiring the reading of a lot of student essays. All that plus trying to run and host a monthly poetry open mic in town, and find time for my own writing. So I’d been feeling a little slammed.
Barcelona, while starting out awesome, had turned not so. My plan had been to just hang out in the city and do a lot of running, and writing in cool European cafes, and reading all the cool Spanish writers like Enrique Vila-Matas in the original Spanish, and seeing actually good (because European) movies, and I’d even lucked out in my first week in arriving right during the Barcelona Poetry Festival, with multiple free poetry readings in spanish and english (Gary Snyder!) happening every day. I found the place I’d hoped to stay the whole time through airbnb.com: a widower renting out rooms in her apartment to travelers. I was not the only one, there were three rooms, and she seemed to just make her living at it. At first, she seemed nice, even helping me track down lost luggage, and the first couple of weeks were ok, but things got weird: I came back for a siesta one day, which I did often, so she knew I’d be back. And, I found her walking around cleaning the apartment in just her underwear. I tried to be polite as I could, but after, I guess, I’d rejected her, nothing I did seemed to make her happy, to the point where she was accusing me of stealing her food. By then, tourist season in Barcelona was in full swing, and finding another long-term place to stay was just impossible. Suddenly, I was looking at spending a lot of time just jumping from loud hostel to loud hostel, and spending way more money than I’d planned. So, I decided to Escape From Barcelona and take the ferry to Mallorca. Taking the plane is actually cheaper, and faster, but I liked the idea of being out on the water. And pulling out of the Barcelona harbor at midnight in a rainstorm ended up being the most memorable moments of my trip—of my life—just me out on deck, wind blowing me sideways, mountains in clouds and city lit up fuzzy, the ship groaning and vibrating, feeling relief, defeat, sadness, exultation, fear of the unknown, exhaustion, and the cold seeping into my bones. I shivered there until the lights faded on the horizon.
I thought with the festive Spring Breakish atmosphere that the nightlife might at least include some cool live música at any of the many bars along along the beach, like flamenco, or Spanish rock, or anything, really. Barcelona had been filled with various and sundry clubs hidden in back alleys featuring eclectic music. I almost gave up though. At night, the youth vanished (maybe into Palma?) and the really older folks just strolled around or hung out in the bigger corporate hotel bars, with guys playing Casio keyboards singing horrible versions of horrible Julio Iglesias songs. And yet, people actually danced to it! Surely there must be something better.
And, on my second night, walking west along the ‘Rambla,’ the boardwalk paralleling the beach, I stumbled on two guitarists playing and singing in a small place called the Tattoo Bar, which, like many of the shops there, and because of the warm weather, opened to the sidewalk. One of the musicians reminded me of myself, strangely, with long hair in a ponytail, and more than a little grey showing. He sang in Spanish, so I couldn’t understand everything, but had a great voice. I sat down and listened, along with a small group of other tourists, and a few locals. After a couple of songs, he looked at me and held out his guitarra. “You look like a musician. Quieres tocar? Do you want to play?”
Wow. But hell yeah. I’ve been a musician all my life, from playing electric bass in metal bands back in my twenties, to playing and singing at open mics, even begun busking the streets of Ann Arbor in the last few years, so not unfamiliar with just getting up and playing for a crowd. And no musician ever says no to an invitation to play!
The set up was minimal: Just one small amplifier with two inputs, one for an acoustic/electric guitar, and one for the microphone. I sang songs I thought Europeans might have actually heard of: a couple Beatles tunes, plus “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. Which everyone likes—I think because, in addition to having an actual real musician and singer, there was the added bonus of me being an exotic English speaker.
Turns out that the two guys singing were the owner, Lucas, and his son. The bar was fairly new, and that was the first night Lucas was trying out having live music as a way to attract customers. He got behind the bar to serve drinks, and after every song kept saying, “Otra John! Otra!” feeding me glasses of wine. I ended up playing all night, all the songs I knew, shredding my fingers. When I finally said basta, enough, at around midnight, Lucas told me I can play there every night for as long as I was staying.
So wow. I’d kinda found my ideal situation: Run, swim, write, read, eat, then play music and sing all night, in a place I can mostly walk around barefoot all the time. And did I mention the women in bikinis? I changed my return ferry ticket and make arrangements with the hotel to stay for the rest of my time in Spain.
In the afternoons I took the bus into Palma and explore, finding the awesome and air-conditioned Literanta bookstore, with its own little café. The movie theatre CineCiutat showed independent and foreign films. Plus I just liked wandering, getting lost, and people-watching, which Palma is perfect for. The downtown is like a lot of older European cities, a sort of maze-like centro of streets that would qualify as alleys in America, which are actually practical, because shady on hot days, though as the city spreads out the streets widen and the architecture just becomes bland apartments buildings where, one assumes, all the people who serve the superrich and the drunk tourists live. The buildings downtown tend to have the ‘Mediterranean look,’ white stucco walls and red clay tile roofs, looking more like Marseilles than Barcelona. And, like all European cities, people actually walk everywhere. Tourists, locals, everyone out and about.
Things got even better: Lucas hired Jerry, this South African guitar player to come in on weekends. A big guy with dark skin and long dreadlocks, he made a living as a musician with his own band and, he said, backing up bigger acts when they tour Europe. He looked a little doubtful when Lucas introduced us and suggested we play together, but as soon as he saw I could play and sing, we hit it off. He had a good ear, so could play along with songs I knew, though mostly we played and sang his repertoire of classic rock songs, many of which I knew, my favorite being Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” the solo for which he played note for note. I never did figure out how he ended up in Mallorca, but how does anybody end up anywhere? He was a great singer, and could change his voice for the song. People loved his gravelly Fats Domino version of “Blueberry Hill.”
Although most of the young tourists seemed to be German, a sizeable group of older tourists came from other countries, especially Norway and Sweden. They too frolicked on the beach, but were more likely to be out taking evening strolls, and to stop in the beach bars for drinks. Seeing what ‘classic’ rock/pop songs they knew was interesting: The big British bands were familiar, like those already mentioned, plus The Kinks and Pink Floyd (at least “Wish You Were Here”). They knew older American stuff like Elvis and Motown, and some Bob Dylan (my specialty). Surprisingly, they knew The Eagles, especially “Hotel California” and “Desperado,” though not “Take It Easy.” Who knows why? Bruce Springsteen not so much either, though two Swedish women recognized, like just barely, “I’m On Fire” when I sang it. But singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zant and Jerry Jeff Walker? Not at all, nor even seemingly Johnny Cash, and Jerry actually thought of me as a country music singer because I played that stuff. I should’ve bought a cowboy hat.
My second week there, this guy Christian, from Russia, appeared randomly, like I had, just happening to be staying at a nearby hotel and walking by one evening. He could barely hold a conversation in English but knew dozens, if not hundreds, of old American gospel blues songs, and if you weren’t looking at him when he sang, you would swear you were listening to an old black man. In fact, he said he made his living back in Moscow in a blues band and had lived in Chicago for three years while working for a Russian company, taking lessons from old blues guys the whole time. He was only there a couple nights but, like me, playing music became the highlight of his vacation. He didn’t know any popular songs, so I mainly just followed along with what he did, though he also played a mean harp, and sometimes soloed on the bluesier stuff I knew, including, most magically one night, my version of Johnny Cash’s version of Tom Waits’ “Down There By The Train.”
There was also Omar, from Nigeria (I think) who always dressed in a traditional long colorful robe and a matching cap. I’m pretty sure he was living there illegally, undocumented, and claimed he’d traveled the world busking, which I’d seen him doing in Palma my first day. When he heard that Lucas was looking for musicians, he came down and Lucas agreed to him playing on a Thursday. Omar played guitar and this weird African instrument that I never learned the name of, about the size of a mandolin, but with seven strings and a unique tuning arrangement. He didn’t use the mic or amplifier, just sang original, political, songs, like one which is kind of a litany of sentences in different languages saying something like, ‘What do we want? Freedom! Qué queremos? Libertad! Que voulons-nous? Liberté!‘
The customers, what few there are, seemed to like him, but Lucas was not amused. After not even a half set, he signaled Omar to stop, and they had a ‘discussion’ that got a wee bit heated. Omar left, angry, and Lucas asked me to sing for the rest of the night. Which I was glad to do, though felt a little guilty. Days later I ran into Omar on the bus into Palma. He remembered me and smiled. “Hola chico! Cómo estàs?!” I asked him what happened and he said Lucas promised him money and refused to pay. Because he traveled all the way out to la Platja, he’d lost money that night, when he could have been busking in town. Which sounded unfair to me. I mean, what did Lucas expect Omar to play? But who knows? Omar speaks Spanish about as well as he speaks English, so I think it might have been a kind of a miscommunication?
Jerry arranged for his hot French girlfriend to play a couple weekends while he and his band played gigs over in Andratx, where, apparently, all the English summer-breakers go (the British, according to Lucas, are supposedly worse than the Germans, if that can be believed, “raping and stabbing each other”). She also played guitar and sang but just wasn’t as good as Jerry, though did have a great bass player, Jimi. She had great voice, and seemed to be trying to learn Jerry’s repertoire, but didn’t speak, or pronounce, English very well. I guess she felt that to be popular (like, ‘make it’) she had to sing in English, but she never sounded exactly right. I asked her to sing something in French one time, and she did, and it sounded awesome. I liked her, and would’ve liked jamming casually with her, and in fact she did invite me to join in on some songs, like the seemingly ubiquitous “Hotel California,” though I felt weird just standing there singing along, like she was using my English-speaking ability to cover for her. I think Lucas wasn’t too excited about her either, and disappointed that Jerry has bailed on him. The crowd seemed less excited about her too, though Jerry had such a likeability factor about him that I don’t think many people, including me, could compare.
Lucas and his employees, all of them South Americans, loved me, and Lucas kind of took me under his wing, at least at first, even inviting me out for a run one morning, showing me a locals’ swimming spot. I never did understand if he and the rest were actual residents of Spain or not, or how that worked, though he and his family went back to Argentina every winter, during the off-season. They’d been in Mallorca for years, and the bar used to be a tourist trinket shop (of which there were plenty). He shared a little bit of the history of the area, like that when the bigger corporate hotels moved in, the fact that they offered ‘everything included’ packages (meaning meals in their own restaurants, and their own bars) sucked a lot of business away from the smaller local businesses. So, in fact, starting a bar seems actually kind of risky to me, but also something Lucas had always wanted to do, and he’d decorated it with trinkets and memorabilia from the small beach town where he grew up in Argentina.
People could also actually get tattoos at The Tattoo Bar, from an Uruguayan artist named Nelson, after Nelson Mandela. He had his own tattoo shop farther down the beach, where he worked during the day. The Tattoo Bar had a better location at night, where he enticed passing drunk people to memorialize their vacation, and gave Lucas a cut. I asked Nelson if he had any time to enjoy life on Mallorca, but no, doing tattoos all the time was how he makes his living and, like seemingly everyone, he went back to South America in the off-season (though did tattoos there too). He offered to give me a tattoo at a discount, like forty euros (fifty to sixty dollars), a good deal, so I had him do a black cat on my right bicep. I got it with a week still left in my vacation, just in case he had to touch it up or something, which unfortunately meant I couldn’t go swimming for the rest of my stay. Something about salt water not being good for the new ink.
Todo bien, but towards the end, I was ready to go: Lucas also had a falling out with Jerry over money. I’m not sure of the details, but it again seemed that Lucas was backing out of an agreement to pay, and I again felt a little culpable, because he seemed to be depending on me as a fallback, to whom he only had to give free drinks. Which I’d been happy to do, but he even started being stingy about that, which makes me feel like, really? You were paying Jerry and now you’re trying to make me feel guilty about a couple gin and tonics? But, I didn’t make a fuss, though neither did I feel as obligated to play, and spent some of my last nights in Palma, including an amazing open mic at the Palma Jazz Club, playing bass. It was actually the opposite of most open mics in the US, in that 1. I was the oldest person there, 2. bass solos were encouraged, and 3 young non-musicians, including women, actually came to listen. Also, they didn’t play blues, but rather a kind of 70s funk, though when they found out I could sing (in English! Mejor) we did some Jimi Hendrix.
I did play at the Tattoo Bar on my last night though. It was a Tuesday, not a lot of people, but I played and sang the best I could, working up a sweat, though I stopped early. We took photos, and Lucas and Nelson and everyone shook my hand and hugged me. I was sad. Part of me thinking, why couldn’t I just do this? Just sing in a beach bar, instead of going back to Michigan? But, it wouldn’t be enough to live on and, well, the job back in Michigan did fund the trip. Who knows though, if I’d met some cool Spanish woman, and I’m sure they exist, maybe that would’ve been enough to stay. Sigh. The whole experience, though, surely made me think about the idea of doing what you can do as a job versus doing what you love.
I got back on the ferry the next day at noon, and leaned on the rail as the ship pulled away and paralleled the coast for a while, meditating on the hills and forest I never even got around to exploring, plus small quiet coastal villages, until heading, finally, out to open water, Mallorca getting smaller and smaller.