Barcelona has never been acceptable to Madrid, which is, by comparison, a sullenly bureaucratic sort of place; at least that’s what Barcelonans would have you believe. Barcelonans are Catalan, which has never been Spanish enough for Spain. Having been conquered by Rome, Barcelona was on its way to becoming Spanish. Yet the Visigoths, who drove the Romans out, had something else in mind. As did the Frankish kings, who infused it with their laws and language. By the time it was ready to “come back,” it wouldn’t fit. And hasn’t wanted to since. There is Catalunya, of which Barcelona is front and capital, and there is the rest of Spain. The two might spend time together, but they prefer to get back to their respective dinner-tables, soccer clubs, and wherever else like-minded folk may congregate.

Having spent a febrile seven days in the midst of Barcelona’s squares, streets, hillsides, and small restaurants, I’m inclined to agree with them.

Until I saw the place, I was skeptical of Southern imagery, unless it came from the American South. Experiencing it, however, in the third dimension was such a revelation that I will never find the words to describe it. That’s where image-making comes in. I didn’t plan to be working much, but I found, once my lady-friend, Laura, and I were on the hoof, that I wanted to draw. Whenever we found a likely prospect, she happily obliged and participated as well. On at least two occasions, we found hilltops overlooking the city and drew from them. Nor were we much concerned with time. It was nearly eight o’clock when we traipsed down from the summit of Parc Guell — one of Gaudi’s masterpieces — onto a pathway that led us to a jogging trail, from which we descended onto the winding roads that are so characteristic of Barcelona and followed them back to the Metro station. (Right angles were imposed during the mid-19th century, but they don’t seem to have stuck.)

Watching the light settle onto, and soften, the edges of distant hills, I was struck, among other things, by its familiarity. It was the light that had enchanted Monet and Pissarro. I didn’t think I would be similarly agog, but I was wrong. I could watch it dissolve those distant hills for a very long time. Yet it was sharp enough to accentuate whatever was — a hand-forged street-lamp, for example — nearby. Above Parc Guell, we found a sort of valley, from which we could look out toward the Mediterranean past the ridge of another massif, which was dotted with small bushes touched with yellow blooms. Below me was a crumbling villa, which I drew as part of a vertically accented landscape; then, after finishing that, I drew the place itself. I’d seen dozens of such pictures, but I hadn’t done them and, as such, they meant a whole lot less. Having tried such a thing, I can feel it, as it were, in my bones. (The sunburn I got was felt for a whole day afterwards. My face is now as dark as an Arab’s.)

We stayed near the Barri Gotic, the medieval quarter whose crooked congestion is relieved by squares, which are generally teeming. My favorite was within a city block of where we were staying. It was anchored, on the far side, by a church that was probably begun in the 14th-century, but re-facaded, as it were, during the 18th. One evening, we saw dogs chasing each another. On another, passersby who were not necessarily dedicated to the idea of getting home moseyed about with the spirited indolence you don’t see much of in the States. (If you do, you wonder how in hell that could happen. Just as I, an un-acclimated foreigner, had wondered about these people.)

This square had a democratic character that isn’t always the case in Barcelona, whose democratic character has ebbed and flowed. To think that the place had been under a dictator’s thumb until 1977 sobered up the often-ecstatic feelings I experienced as a pedestrian who had been re-united with a walking city. During the Franco years, you kept your nose clean and knew where all the exits were. As a rule, the square is emptier than most and opens up very dramatically. At night, it looks like the sort of place where Zorro might have flounced his cape and, possibly, tripped over a flagstone. It would be hard to take such a place for granted — yet everyone else seemed to be doing it. Laura and I were in a constant “pinching ourselves” condition. I was often reduced to a series of “Wows!” which I supplemented with swear-words that were equally laconic and every bit as applicable. Laura was similarly overwhelmed, though more economical in her expression.

We did touristic things, but only as the mood struck. (We ignored the Fondation Miro as well as the Picasso Museum. And the Sagrada Familia.) Robert Hughes’s Barcelona, which attempts to distill the city’s political turmoil as well as its artistic past, is as comprehensive a text an Auslander might care to have. For the time we were there, it was our principal guide.

We stayed in an ideal location, along the Passeig de Colom, which, before the marina that passes for a harbor was built, looked out to sea. A horizon line, which includes swatches of cobalt and ultramarine (depending on what time of the day you look), is etched above the small masts and newish buildings. Such a sanitized view serves to suggest that visual poverty can exist even in a place as rich as Barcelona.

We saw a picture of the old street at Els Quatre Gats, known, these days, as the hangout of Picasso. (We had a glass of champagne there as a waiter-for-life — of which there seems to be a kind of fraternity in Barcelona — raced between the cash register and a mysterious kitchen.) There was an abrupt-looking seawall and nothing else. Lost worlds abound in older cities, though they don’t seem quite as absolute in Europe as they are in America, which glaciers over its past with a genocidal efficiency.

Retro-fitted as it is, the Passeig de Colom is very charming, with its abundant palms and strategic balustrades. Toward the south is the Columbus Statue, on an enormous plinth, that was built for the Exposition of 1888. There are over four hundred Columbus statues in America, but none are so hard to get to as this one. Columbus’ time in Barcelona was, however, seen as historically significant enough to hoist a post-life sized replica up above a public square, fasten it to a slinky column, and let it look out toward the sea the Great Man would eventually conquer in a messily spectacular way. Columbus’ legacy is tarnished, these days, by his rather brutal tendencies, which killed and enslaved as well as casually conquered. But his legend lives on and on. There is a smallish statue in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived for a time. It is lovingly tended by Italianate partisans, but is otherwise left alone. I wish a similar fate on all of the world’s Columbus’s, who started off with a bad idea and made it work just enough to have successors. We can all look toward Columbus and his ilk for our go-get-‘em attitudes, assuming we haven’t thrown them off, or made them work for us in kinder, gentler ways.

Past the Big Statue is Montjuic, where the quarries that supplied Barcelona with most of its native stone are located, though they are not used today. A fair number of Civil War patriots are presumably buried in its valleys — or were tossed among them and allowed to decompose. It is that kind of place.

Like all places man has occupied for so long, Barcelona’s history is a bloodbath. In the medieval period, the serfs could never quite get a handle on their rights, which were in the hands of feudal lords. (In 1640, that came to a head with in an attempted revolt, which was brutally crushed.) When, in the 1830’s, anti-clerical sentiment exploded, churches and monasteries were sacked and burned. Then came the industrial era, which made wage-slaves of such men, women, and children as it could exploit for pittances that seem unimaginable (except in places like Bangladesh) today. During the Spanish Civil War, children were hauled out of the rubble like broken toys. And resistance was met with a firing squad.

Yet for all of its troubles, Barcelona is the sort of place that measures up to one’s expectations, assuming that they’re big enough to fail. The people are reasonably courteous; traffic, while snarly at times, is manageable; and a persistent Mediterranean light informs everything you see. And don’t see as well. Once it gets into your system, it stays.

Street musicians are the sort of working people of which a city cannot have too many. They come and go like gypsies and seem to be regarded, by local authorities, as such. After having played a few tunes on an adjacent metro car, an accordian player and a henchman, having sensed a cop, gathered at the door and scrammed when it opened. Perhaps one needs a license to play on the street. Or maybe such people aren’t liked as much as we think they should be. Every city has its unexpected tolerances as well as the kinds of prejudices that appear, to outsiders, as completely arbitrary. Washington treats its impoverished citizens rather poorly. It favors a left-brain mentality, which can solve the odd problem, but has never made the world a better place. Barcelona appears to understand that the left brain should be escorted to the far end of an era and left to sulk for a while.

There are lots of kids in Barcelona. They scramble through the streets on foot and on bicycle, or alongside of a mom or dad.   When among themselves, they kick soccer balls off stone and plaster or run after the kinds of things only kids think they can catch. Twenty-somethings, whose affection for the outrageous is undimmed by a countervailing regard for History, ratchet up sluggish energies and keep the local time signature at a constant boil. They walk around in their skinny jeans, their Goth-influenced t-shirts, and act like strangers on the one hand and landlords on the other. They organize (and dissolve) rock bands; open up kicky art galleries; and grow as much facial hair as they can. (In button-down Washington, one doesn’t see a lot of rebellion. Barcelona is so full of it that it passes for a kind of nervous tic, a collective shudder.)

And, while city planners have looked the other way for centuries, there are so many glories that it’s impossible to remain un-seduced. Near us was one of Spain’s most acclaimed public spaces, the Placa Reial, which was built — as so many places in Barcelona seem to be — on the site of an old monastery. Twenty years ago, it was a haven for pimps, drug pushers, and other dangerous sorts. Now it is a public nexus, with “funny-looking” lamps designed by a young Gaudi to evoke the spirit of Hermes. By day, Japanese tourists pose for pictures before fountains that produce just enough water to stay moist. Along a banquette that merges imperceptibly with the plaza itself, tourists play musical chairs as they vie for shaded areas at various restaurants. During the day, the square is as crowded as an American-style mall, but there the resemblance ends. In no such place can the eye re-orient itself to the contours of a more leisurely world, with its parrot-crowded palms and color harmonies that suggest hot sand or sultry moonlight. The Placa Reial is as perfect a living area as one might find anywhere — or dream up at one time and discover, to one’s delighted surprise, that such a place actually exists. It is the sort of place where one might consider a violent past and come to terms, as the sunlight falls upon a discarded newspaper, with that regrettable tendency in oneself.

Laura and I looked for a jazz club there. It was unfortunately dark — in the sense that no one had thought to show up — that night. Because people often get lucky when on an adventure, we were let inside a shadowy vestibule by a British couple and wandered up marble risers while gripping an iron balustrade. We found the right address easily enough and rang the bell, but nobody answered. A peephole showed that the place had to exist, but, in Barcelona style, nothing was going on that night and nobody had bothered to say anything about it.

The only American city that looks anything like Barcelona — and only in the French Quarter — is New Orleans. For that reason, and many others besides, I felt very comfortable there. With this difference. I did not feel the menacing presences that give New Orleans its dangerous overtones.  Barcelona had chased all of the “bad people” out of the Placa Reial and they had gone somewhere else.

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The natural landscape, though defeated in places, is so ripely abundant that, like history itself, it is taken for granted. Parrots flit from palm to palm, screeching at one another. Their tufted feathers, which blend nicely into the fronds that provide them with nesting material as well as a daily habitat, are almost incandescent. Washington’s sparrows and starlings look, by comparison, very drab indeed. (Small wonder that people are always feeding them. They often look half-starved.) Small-tongued lizards make sudden appearances underfoot. And magpies strut around like minor officials with a slight chip on their shoulders.

Above the city, thistle and Scotch Broom dominate the hills, which are also the domain of joggers, dog-lovers, and tourists who care less for comfort than solitude. A scrubby-looking cedarish thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of its Virginia cousin, defies the skimpy rainfall. And umbrella-topped pines embody the spirit of Art Nouveau.   In the city’s hinterlands, knobby-headed cacti, purple-hearted Bougainvillea, and Century Plants cascade from walls and terraces.

Barcelona’s most remarkable tree is boabab-shaped at its base and lower trunk, spiked with thorns toward its branches, and hung with cucumber-like fruit, which, over time, separates into a pillowy down, which blows about the place and precipitates, in those who aren’t used to such floating debris, temporary coughing-fits. I apologize for my botanical ignorance — a thing that is, alas, commonplace these days; little else can be expected from a zeitgeist that has separated itself — except when it is off-duty — from nature.

* * * * * * * *

Once away from its crowded squares and knitting-needle sized alleys, Barcelona spreads out in a sometimes-disagreeable way. Its developers have trashed historic buildings; its teeming population cares very little about making a good impression; and its traffic is as maddeningly self-absorbed as it is in Washington, where overcrowded roads and expressways are a kind of spiritus mundi. In fact, if anything characterizes the City of Washington, it is not the monuments ordinary citizens hardly see at all, but the pugnacity of its drivers. In DC, driving etiquette is a cynic’s nod, a bag of lip service, and an oxymoron so absolute that it might define the very word. Downtown might be described as a kind of rogue state for drivers, who slash into a right turn as they were being dogged from behind – which might well be the case. A lot of pedestrians are killed in Washington. Why is that? I would suggest that life can become cheap in the eyes of someone who is so rarely un-empowered that he or she can’t be bothered to look after anybody else . Like the little people Orson Welles described in The Third Man, life that doesn’t tear around in a Lexus is something that needs to look lively or get out of the way. When it doesn’t, it interferes with a manifest destiny the Type-A personality reserves especially for him or herself and, because it is a strictly personal possession, it is denied everybody else. A rather ugly proposition, but it is so embedded in the way “we do things”, it is not an aberration, but an ethos.

Barcelona drivers will have to work very hard to emulate the sleek brutality of Washingtonians, but they’ll do. Barcelona’s narrower streets induce an equally watchful eye. Step off the curb and something that gets forty miles to the gallon and can fit into a booth at a small restaurant will keep you honest.

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As in America, rich people appear (Surprise, surprise!) to be shallow and self-absorbed. You can see them on the Passeig de Gracia carrying Cartier bags, which are stuffed with things people in adjacent neighborhoods cannot afford and would, if asked about them, reflexively reject. I’ve never seen so many clothing stores — not just in along the Gracia, but in every neighborhood we went to. I know people have to dress, but a great many Barcelonans seem to have developed a morbid obsession with shucking one outfit after another in a search for – what? Shameless ostentation? Superfluous comfort? A sense of “I’m Better Than?” (If you’re not, you’re certainly willing to try it on.) In Barcelona, clothing stores are open after the average restaurant has blown out its candles, totted up its receipts, and shut its doors. And if they aren’t, they look, with their wispy mannequins and baby spots burning into the wee hours, as if they are. And don’t tell me image doesn’t count. It most certainly does — even in a place that should have absolutely nothing to prove.

Call me a Puritan, if you like. I don’t mind it a bit. If you go shopping-free for a day, I will give you my pointy hat.   And should you start wearing second-hand clothes, my worn-looking Bible is yours to have, to hold, and pass along.

As in New York and Paris, there must be Barcelonans who do nothing but shop and go to restaurants. Being the sort of judgmental person other judgmental persons judge for being so judgmental, I’m breezily unconcerned about my anti-shopping/restaurant-averse orientation. As if that were not enough, my animal rights propensities were often roused when I saw so many people tucking into fish and meat. Barcelona once got its living by the sea. It is a long-standing tradition to sup of such fruits de mer as have survived overfishing. But I still don’t like it.

Barcelona can grab you by the cuff if you aren’t paying attention, after which you’d better look out! Such everyday aggression is alarming if you’re not used to it. The waiters come at you with seating plans, as do hired leafleteers, who hand you things as you go. Tenacity is a universal quality, but it appears in a great many guises. In Barcelona, it is in the everyday pressure to participate — which existed for a time in small-town America, but has been eaten up by the irresistible march to a city’s hinterlands as well as the superbly engineered anonymity of The Highway. When we see people protesting something, our instinct is not to join in — or even inquire after the nature of the protest — but to slink away. We don’t like it when people hand us things; we prefer to throw a little tantrum when we see that someone has slipped an advert underneath our windshield wipers. In our quest for privacy, we have overcome the urge to be curious — at least in the way of the old-timey citizen. Imagine your typical American election. It is a tedious sort of thing that forces people to spend time with each other. In the days before cellphones found the collective ear, tentative conversations thrived — or at least made a start. It is only in America’s larger cities that people collide in a way that forces them to pay attention to one another. The parking-lot culture that has overtaken America-at-large allows for an uneasy exit, a glimpse of a pseudo-desert, followed by the sensory overkill of a big box store or mini-mall. That is why cities like Barcelona are so necessary to one’s sense of human interaction. Even if it were architecturally sterile, it would pulsate with the messy decision-making processes of a great many people with differing aims and objectives. Even if it had nothing to offer us in the way of civilized comforts and aesthetic high-watermarks, it would be essential to our sense of the body politic, in which one person must give in a little for another person to fit. In the Barri Gotic, the young glide past you on the four-wheeled surfboards that seem, after being sideswiped by a few, to be underused in America. And the narrower the street, the more it is thronged with motorcycles. We fell to huddling alongside of storefronts and doorways as they rumbled past. None were inclined to stop; they just assumed we’d get out of the way.

Recycling stations were rampant, but locals seem to think that, if they can dump a bag of something in front of them, city workers will do the rest. Such a slapdash approach to civic duty is not encouraging. After spending time in Vienna, whose citizenry is militant about its streets and squares, I thought all of Europe might act accordingly. And while Barcelona gets higher marks than Washington, whose debris-choked streets can be downright shameful, it is a Southern city — south of France, that is — with dolce far niente attitudes and reflexes.

Almost anything will disappoint an eco-Puritan, as I would characterize myself. All in all, Barcelona is remarkably clean-featured and is far and away superior in this regard to any American city I have ever lived in.

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Barcelona shares with all Catalonia a fiercely partisan feeling about the Catalan language, as well as its culture. (During the Franco years, the language officially disappeared and was demoted, albeit unjustly, to dialect status.) Such feeling is abundant in the Art Museum of Catalunya’s exhibits. Fortuny’s Battle of Tetuan — a magnificent, if one-sided, piece of academic painting — is there, along with a great many modernista-era images by Casas and Rusignol, who are identified with that movement. The best paintings, however, are by lesser-known people like Fransec Gimeno whose painterly spirit is a marvel to behold. (Some years ago, a friend of mine sent me a postcard with one of his images, which is at this museum. I wondered who in the hell this painter was. And wonder still. There isn’t much about him anywhere. I identify with such a fate, which will probably be mine.)

I did not see much in the way of artistic vitality, which seemed to flourish more in such urban grace-notes as parks, squares, and promenades — of which The Ramblas is the most outstanding.   For centuries, The Ramblas has been a place of public conjunction, a venue for self-display, and a safety value for a population that became infamously crowded as the city filled up with day-workers, plumes of smoke, and tired rebellion. Today, it is a kind of moving spectacle, framed by the ochre and terra cotta of apartment blocks and hotels. It favors both leisurely strolling and the giddyup that seems to laugh at itself. Toward the Drassanes, painted men and women pose as monsters and goddesses. They are so convincing that natives as well as out-of-towners fork over good money to take pictures of them. Such human displays would not go over in America, where Irony must kick-start a show and keep it winking at how funny/stupid it is. Watching people jump away when a human stature reached out to them was absolutely refreshing. Such naivete has been overthrown, in the States, by a constant diet of the nearly spectacular, the pretend-spectacular, and the self-referentially tawdry.

The Eixample — which was built during Barcelona’s industrial expansion — has been the victim of rampant speculation, but it also contains the greatest wealth of modernista architecture in the world. Gaudi’s Casa Battlo and Mila (the “Stone Quarry”) are there, along with buildings by modernista’s “lesser” genuises, Puig i Cadafalch and Domenench i Montaner, men who have been, in my view, unjustly overshadowed. Yet is must be acknowledged that Gaudi’s shadow is a very long one. And because his crowning masterpiece is unfinished, it gets longer by the day. (His saintly status lengthens it as well.)

I did not draw any of these buildings. They’re hand-sculpted enough as they are. Why attempt to re-create creations so daring that they are completely satisfying unto themselves? When in Park Guell, you succumb to Gaudi’s vision; you do not attempt to reproduce it. Besides, it so irresistibly strollable that, as Gaudi crooks his finger, you follow right along. Why stop to make a picture? It is already there.

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Barcelona’s relationship to the sea is not as visible as I would have liked. The Drassanes, a museum dedicated to that very thing, was closed. A maritime influence was more than hinted at inside of the city museum, which was constructed to serve the port of Barcelona in the early 1900’s and sprawls, along with Barcelona’s marina-space, out to sea. Santa Maria del Mar, one of Barcelona’s crowning achievements, was begun in the 14th century to serve the spiritual and, sometimes, temporal needs of men who made their living as sailors and mariners. It is a stunningly simplified space that owes as much to the Romanesque spirit as it does to the Gothic, which can be more easily discerned, in its ribs and groins, its vaults and arches. Because it was vandalized during the Civil War, there is no clutter. Just the apse, a central nave, and the plain-looking benches that are hardly pews at all. Votive candles gutter off to each side while modern-day worshippers peer quietly into the gloom.

There are a lot of Irish in Barcelona, including our temporary landlord, who was the sort of cliché we should arrange to produce more consciously. He was warmly impish and fairly twinkled with the good-hearted humor one expects from a Son of Eire. He’d been a teacher, gotten bored, and wandered, with viola in hand, to Barcelona. (He composes things, plays in amateur orchestras, and seems happy as a clam.) He also wandered into his present situation, which is to supply guests with comfort and good cheer — at which he excels almost absurdly. Whether he accounts for the superabundance of Irish bars is a matter of conjecture. He seems jolly enough not to need a drink at all.

Fellow countryman Colm Toibin found Barcelona in the 1980’s and comes back, from teaching stints, every year. He is a smallish, unassuming fellow who seems, like many Irishman, to be obsessed with the Catholic Church, which casts a long shadow across the face of Europe. Yet it does not seem such a morbid thing in Barcelona, though I am not privy to its politics and cannot speak for them. Yet Barcelona’s unabashed sensuality seems to draw the timid-natured as well as the exuberant. Guinness may not taste better in Barcelona, but one might be tempted to drink more of it. Or make the outlandish toasts one can never think of in Dublin or some other drippy sort of place.

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Leaving Barcelona was not the heart-constricting thing I most dreaded. We left as we came, without a whole lot of drama and a civil spirit I did not expect to encounter when we returned. It involved standing in line, watching the city fade away as the bus to the airport took us from the heart of the city to its hinterlands, and a long flight that included more sleep than I thought I had any reason to ask for. While on the bus, I gave my leftover Euros to a young man who probably didn’t need them, but might have spent them on something fun. They were of no use to me. Might as well hand them over to someone for whom a few extra bills might have spelled the difference between an evening at home and a visit to an Irish bar.

Once across the Pond, the eyestrain I must have accumulated during the trip flared into a headache. We spent so long in Customs that we missed the connecting flight at Philadelphia, though Laura managed to find another one a few hours later. After a few bus-rides, we managed to arrive at the terminal, got on, and were home-free. Once at Laura’s apartment, we unpacked a little, after which I fell into bed. And did not rise — except for a small, culturally dissonant interval (friggin’ rap music!) — until six in the morning.

Such is Washington – which felt summery in all the worst ways. Yet it was so alarmingly different, with its scrubby little trees (no palm or bougainvillea in sight) and dusty architecture, that I found myself liking it. I wanted to make a drawing from the Brookland stop, which offers a jumble of strip malls, railroad infrastructure, and single family homes, which were crowded together, like so many miniature boxes, below us.

I did miss the parrots, however. In their place, scavenger-birds flew down onto the pavement, plucked something off it, and assumed a temporary perch on ledge or parapet. As I lay sleepless, with just enough headache to know that I’d be awake for the dawn, I watched a crow strut his stuff on the opposite cornice. He was as cocky as all get-out; comfortable in his own skin; and he wanted more than he presently had. Posing between struts, he could have been The Spirit of Washington. Yes, he very well could have.


Brett Busang

Brett Busang

Brett Busang is a writer and painter whose most recent essays will appear in Open Letters Monthly (for which he is art correspondent), Gastronomica and Weber: The Contemporary West. His paintings are in numerous public and private collections, including George Washington Hospital in Washington, DC; and Media General, in Richmond, Virginia. He lives in Washington, DC.