Spanish Roadtrip

Approx 12,300 words
© Joel Seath (2003)

April 2003


When does a trip start? When you wake? When you leave from home? When you’re half-way round a foreign city and you realise how strange it all is? 3am. A dark, strangely warm morning in the country in England. An hour and a half of monotonous motorway driving, past endless night supply trucks and we find the airport. Calm and ghostly quiet inside, 5am, like we’re treading through desperate souls been here all night. The airport is still and lethargic; people are paper pieces piled up in arbitrary corners, heaped in walkways up against restaurant chairs. This is a dead world that owns no clocks. Literally. On the stroke of six, the tannoy announces life. Like it might wake the neighbours any earlier. If there were any. And we’re late to board. But not too late to see the sweet German girl en route to Berlin, there in front of us in the queue. Details. I’m practising my absorption observation skills. We run to the terminal because we were slow with 5am coffee in a dead world of no clocks. But this is an adventure and all is fine.

But then there’s flying. Flying is a surreal act of perversion. Four hundred miles per hour; 39,000 feet above the clouds and we’re not moving. Flying is a movement with no speed. Taking off and landing. These are actions which necessitate moments of great oneness!! Zen positions numbers five and six. I hate taking off and landing. So much faith in achieving such unnatural states. I close my eyes, press my fingers together, push my head back in the seat and concentrate on breathing and not realising where I am, what I’m doing, what is being done to me.

An hour and a half later, we descend and see the coast of Northern Spain shearing up towards France and fall down into the foothills of the Pyrenees towards Bilbao. The mountain hills surround us and we’re taken in by them and sucked up by the fog and cloud and I think: ‘Who thought to build an airport in the mountain foothills?’ The industrial box building units sweep up to meet us as we wobble leftright down into Basque country. It is not the best landing I have ever experienced. Zen position number six eases me through.

Bilbao airport is a modernist sketch. The architect is sitting there at his board and he thinks: ‘Airport. Airport. Hmm. A tailfin!’ And Presto! Two minutes later he’s designed a low flat arrivals shed with a tailfin on the roof nestled down between the foothills. It’s concrete like the city, as we discover later. I find myself staring up at the vaulted concrete ceiling, in dissection of the architecture, whilst waiting at the baggage retrieval hall. The way the half moon window fills one end of the concrete shed and the way the morning daylight bounces in and smears across the grey.

1030am local time and we climb into a taxi to take us to the bus station in the city. We think our travel plans are working out just fine: plane, taxi, bus to Zaragoza, beer in hand by 3 or 4pm. But San Mamés Bus Terminal is full of people in two diligent lines, waiting in curved queues for two ticket dispensing kiosks to shed travellers on their way. San Mamés isn’t huge (a small covered square) but the two open kiosks (from maybe twenty) sell their tickets like waiting for the day itself to end. 1130am and we finally make it to the front. We push James to the kiosk as he’s the one with the most Spanish and the one most confident to use it. But, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, we’re told (through James’ translation from his pigeon Spanish) that the next bus to Zaragoza isn’t until 8.15 tonight and do we want the tickets or not? We look at each other. We ask each other. We pressure and push each other. Well? Well? James is flustered. This is unusual. You don’t often see this from the Tai Chi one. He’s standing at the kiosk under scrutiny of the ticket vending woman and he’s tapping his fingers nervously on the counter. Well? We decide no. It’s 1130am. Forty five minutes in line and we decide no. We’ve been travelling since 3am and we decide no. It’s 200 miles to Zaragoza. We said no. Then what? We decamp to a bench to discuss the options. James the resourceful has brought maps and travel guides and a Spanish/English dictionary. We study the map and think about taking the train. But we’re alert as we do this. We see a scruffily dressed man, a few days’ beard growth. He approaches us and none of us know what he’s saying or wants to say. I put up my hand straight away. He points to the map and smears out a splatter of Spanish. Spanish words all smear into one long stream of a sentence to me. He’s talking and so I tell him, in English, that I’m English. I pat my chest and he smiles. ‘Mi no comprendez,’ I say. It occurs to me now, as I write, that this is like a combination of Spanish and French. I’m not good with Spanish. Not right at the moment (though I’ve studied the dictionary this afternoon, in the bar, drinking beer!!) The man smiles and continues to smear out his words. I say to my travel partners: ‘The train. Let’s go. Away from this freak.’ We get up and the man leaves us be. It only occurs to me as we stand and go, as he rejoins his friends, that he may have been trying to help.

So we take a trek up to the train station, on foot, through Bilbao (the concrete blocks of tenements, the square grid plan, the circular Plaza de Frederico Moyua at the centre of town cutting through it all). Bilbao is entered, by road, by a long slide down into the city, a speared arrow of motorway, Avenida de Sabino Aranas, which slices down into the grid and which we now pass on foot. We reach the train station and queue again. And again James is pushed to the informaccion kiosk. No English. But we gather there’s a train strike on all routes to Zaragoza. It’s also the end of a long bank holiday weekend in Spain. We didn’t know either of these. We try the car rental agencies at the station. All the cars are out because of the strike. We sit and stand around the bench on the concourse in exasperation. None of this was planned. We consider our options. It’s back to the bus station at San Mamés or phone Fernando and ask him to fetch us. But that’s a six hour round trip for him. We think we hope the tickets at San Mamés are still available and climb into another taxi to ferry us back across town. Down the long Avenida de Don Diego, past the Campo San Mamés stadium on Luis Briñas, the gap in the block which displays the badge of the football club on the side of the stadium in thirty feet high red and white stripes, past the spear of Avenida de Sabino Aranas jutting down into the blocks, back to San Mamés. 1pm and we queue again for bus tickets. This time, when offered for 16 Euros each, we greedily accept (despite the knowledge of having to wait another seven hours in Bilbao). We prayed in hopes and on pain of great commotion if we weren’t successful, denied three tickets and had to wait till morning till the next bus out of town. The prospect of a night at San Mamés filled us with words we dare not speak. Later, on returning to the bus station for the third time that day, I took a look around at the assorted travellers, dirty from the day and was strangely inspired by the title offered to me by the sight. A story, maybe: One Day at San Mamés. I thought of Kerouac, as I inevitably do in times like these; him at various railroad stations, bus stations, sleeping on grimey floors and benches, being stared at by winos and assorted drifters, journey-makers, I thought there at San Mamés, watching the barely changing scene of shifting people in queues, streetcleaners pushing cleaning equipment around which didn’t really clean, just smeared over the surface, closed ticket-selling kiosks, hangdog faces of men and women with large bags at their heels like apathetic dogs, I thought: ‘This isn’t so romantic, Jack.’ And then: ‘This is the whole of it, Jack. This is the absolute whole of it.’ This single clock silently slicing seconds, minutes, hours from my day like thin slivers of ham from a leg. This waiting, this drifting, this not knowing, this dropping: the necessity to fall down into a kind of Zen state to pass through the non-time of the bus station. This is the whole of it. We grab our tickets and hide around the corner like hungry dogs to devour the glory of the information of our success printed on the paper (albeit that we must wait more, wait seven hours, to implement the next part of our journey).

So we wait. There’s nothing else to do. We sit in bars and eat and drink beer. We call Fernando’s mother to tell her where we are. But Fernando is already at the bus station in Zaragoza, waiting for us. And Fernando’s mother must wait for him to call her to get the message to him. There’s waiting all around. We eat, we drink, we walk, we sit in the park. I write as it rains, my coat as a makeshift tent to shield my notebook. On our third visit to San Mamés today, we sit on a bench with two hours to spare. Soon, a Spanish man sits behind me as I write. He turns to watch my pages. I say watch because he doesn’t read. He doesn’t speak English. I know this because he starts a conversation with me. ‘Mi no comprendez,’ I tell him, but he carries on. He talks and laughs as if I understand. He asks what I’m doing and I give him the dictionary because I get the gist but don’t understand the words. He smiles and points to the dictionary, is derisive of the phrase Spanish Learner on the cover. He doesn’t know what it means. I try to find it for him: principiante. ‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Principiante.’ He repeats it. He smiles. His face is close up against mine. His breath smells. He rattles off more conversation. I warm to him despite the smell. I don’t care. It’s becoming interesting holding a conversation in English and Spanish, two different languages by two different people. He talks. I tell him I don’t understand, my feet up on my bag. I’m relaxed. He says: ‘No comprendo?’ I ask: ‘No compren-dez? No compren-do?’ ‘No comprendo,’ he says. This continues for a while. ‘No comprendo, si?’; ‘Si.’ He talks and smears Spanish. He may be talking the local Basque dialect but I don’t know. (Local Basque men walk the streets of Bilbao in black berets; they seem to usually be old men with stout, square bodies, thickset). This man has no beret. But whatever. He’s talking. He’s urging me into something. Suddenly he grabs my head and twists it to the right. It happens too fast for me to be concerned. There, to my right and just behind me, has just sat a beautiful blonde Spanish girl. She’s anxious about something. ‘Ah,’ I turn back to the man and smile. ‘Si,’ I say. I tell him: ‘Gorgeous’ and: ‘Beautiful’ and he smiles too. ‘Corr-jeus,’ he repeats and rolls his r’s. I know the Spanish girl is Spanish because she smiles as he talks on. Eventually we settle back to watch a film crew set up to record a quick news report in the station. We swap occasional observations, in our own languages, as if we both knew exactly what the other one is on about. We drift into a non-conversation and he turns around away from me and, soon after, gets up and wanders off. He doesn’t get on a bus. At 8pm, an hour later, chocolate, doughnuts, waiting, watching, singing, standing, playing stupid word games, standing more, staring, watching Spanish girls later we discover that the place we thought the Zaragoza bus was leaving from, and where we’d gathered and shuffled ourselves to, wasn’t the place we should have been. I imagined one final travel episode of the day in which we miss our bus because we read the number of the parking bay instead of the number of the bus. But James and Tony figure in time. I’m still in my empty Zen travel state. Finally, we climb on board the bus to Zaragoza to leave our captive city of Bilbao. We thought of conspiracy theories earlier in the day: how Bilbao had conspired to keep us there, imprison us. We were almost fated to spend the night at San Mamés. But we board the bus and escape up out of Bilbao, into the foothills, en route for Zaragoza via Vitoria; me on the backseat of the bus, spiderwriting in the darkness over the northern Spanish landscape.

*   *   *


Midnight. We pull into Zaragoza and fall off the bus, dirty, dishevelled, a whole day drenched. Fernando is there to meet us and quickly escorts us to a waiting car which his father drives through town to an apartment Fernando has set aside for us. Fernando is talking all the time, buzzing, firing questions, excitable. He says: ‘We’ll get out here,’ and points across the street to a block on the Avenida de Goya. ‘This is where you’ll stay.’ It’s an apartment, a set of rooms on the third floor once used by his father, who is a retired heart and lung consultant. The apartment is set inside a block like those described in French or Spanish novels: a small entrance lobby, rows of wooden post boxes, small names on placards outside the main door, a concierge. A small elevator takes two of us and luggage up to the third floor and Fernando opens the door to the rooms: tiled floors, mostly empty, a small bathroom with a dripping tap, a kitchen and three rooms which were probably the consultant’s rooms. It’s sparse but warm and Fernando has found some airbeds to sleep on. At this stage of the day we don’t care. Fernando opens the fridge and takes out its contents, six bottles of beer, which he’s thoughtfully previously placed there. We sit at the table in the consultant’s rooms and Fernando proceeds to talk quickly. ‘OK,’ he says, ‘this is what we’ll do; this is where we are; tomorrow you will sleep and then we will meet and, because it’s the end of school term (he’s a teacher of music), tomorrow night we will drink beer.’ He draws a rough map of Spain as he talks, continuously circling the large dot marks he’s made to indicate Bilbao, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Madrid, the beach house where we’ll stay at some point; the lines between cities he draws backwards and forwards, etching the autopistas into the paper as he talks unconnected words: ‘You can go to the mercadona to buy food,’ (he draws on a printed map of Zaragoza): ‘Here. I will meet you at four, four-thirty. It’s twenty minutes to the river. Here. The Muslim Palace is, how you say . . .’ (he wobbles his hand side to side, briefly, pen between fingers, contemplating English words again after a while without use) ‘. . . restored? Si. Yes. Restored. It’s very nice.’ Fernando goes on like this for quite a while. ‘Sunday, Monday maybe, we can go to Barcelona. Madrid is maybe too far . . .’

‘Good,’ he says. ‘OK.’ He looks up at us, eyes wide. ‘Any questions?’ It’s like he’s been drinking café solo on drip for hours!! He’s so alert. We look at each other, shake our heads. Smile, yawn. We talk for another hour or so, round the table, and then Fernando stands and says: ‘OK. Now you will sleep. Tomorrow you will buy food and I will meet you at four.’ And he buzzes back out of the apartment. And we sleep off the day till late next morning.

Zaragoza is laid out along long avenidas and connected through with plazas (Plaza de Espana, Plaza Aragon). It looks like the streets laid out in computer racing games (Carmageddon, Vice City). Paseo de Sagasta, Gran Via, Paseo de Independencia. Great thick palm trees with wide rough trunks like elongated pineapples, sprays of palms set in front of narrow bricked churches in the Romanesque style (like the one next to our apartment block). A large courtyard separates our block from the ones across the way: a run-down basketball court, a children’s play park, the church yard whose Islamic patterned paving is built around the trees. The apartments here stack up nine stories around the courtyard. This seems to be the Spanish way of living. Out back, between our room where we sleep and the street, is a smaller, taller well between apartments. A shady hole which the unimportant rooms back onto and where the sun doesn’t reach. A functional space of height and depth. I sit on the balcony by the church and under the Spanish sun and think of Zaragoza so far. We met Fernando at the appointed hour and he said: ‘OK. Good. Now we will go sightseeing. Later, we drink beer. Come with me.’ He took us to the old Roman town of Zaragoza (Cesaraugustus) on the Ria Ebro via the Paseo de Independencia and Plaza de Espana. He walked quickly (as he always has done) and told us history, geography, facts and figures. He showed us the Cathedral and Plaza de Santa Maria Pilar and always a story with each place visited. We walked through the old town district and he said: ‘Later, we will come here to these bars. You want to watch football before we drink?’ I said yes. Fernando said: ‘You can see it at a place I know. Come. I will see and show you.’ He took us to a bar on the Calle de Cadiz and talked to the barmaid and manager. And soon we were back out on the street and he said: ‘Good. You can watch it here. I will meet you here at ten.’ We tried to get him out earlier but he said: ‘No. Ten. Before that is too early. OK. Now I go. I will see you on Calle de Cadiz. Ten o’clock. I must have a bath and eat. Bye.’ And he left us at our apartment block. Adjusting to Spanish time is difficult. We get up late, are expected to eat a large meal when usually we’d eat lunch at 2 or 3, rest for some hours, then go out for tapas and beer, stay out till late, early in the morning. Fernando comes into the bar where we’re drinking on the Calle de Cadiz at ten twenty. ‘Hola,’ he says. Earlier, I’d managed to order beer, in Spanish. I had the attention of two barmaids and they both smiled expansively at me as I talked, seemingly knowing I had difficulties with the language; maybe remembering us from earlier. Fernando buys more beer. We all talk and I talk and watch and see the swill of the place. A beautiful dark-haired Spanish girl sat at the window catches my eye. After an hour, Fernando says: ‘Shall we go somewhere else?’ And we generally all agree to do this. ‘Come,’ he says and we blindly follow him out onto Independencia and up towards the Plaza de Espana and the old town. Fernando is still buzzing like he’s on a 24 hour high. We come to a bar. He says: ‘This is the tackiest bar in Zaragoza. Come. We go in.’ He orders a large plastic container of red wine and coke mix with three straws. I decline this concoction and opt for the safety of a bottle instead. We sit upstairs in this narrow room with bare dark blue walls and cheap formica tables. ‘I have been coming here for many years,’ Fernando explains to us. He and Tony and James drink several red wines and coke containers’-worth. We talk of nothing and anything and watch the crowd sat around us. Time dissolves and, at some point, Fernando decides it’s appropriate to move on again. He has some grand plan which he’s making up as he goes along. He motions with his head, upwards and sideways and says the now familiar phrase: ‘Come. We will go.’ ‘Nos vamos,’ I say in response. Earlier, we’d sat and watched an American film on TV just after getting up. It had Spanish subtitles. We learnt a smattering of phrases. Maybe a few months in a foreign town, watching TV, and we could learn a whole language. ‘Nos vamos,’ I say. ‘Si,’ says Fernando, and we fall out onto the street again. I’m tired and need to sleep. But Fernando is still buzzing. It’s something like one or two in the morning. I forget. ‘Coffee,’ Fernando announces. ‘You need coffee, yes?’ And I follow him. ‘Come.’ He buzzes in and out of bars, smearing Spanish at the owners, searching for coffee. We trip around until he finds a place and ushers us in. He orders café solo for James and café con leche for me. We drink them down but, although James’ hit seems to have the desired effect on him, I think I’m far too gone for the rich, dark caffeine to have any restorative effect on me. Out on the street again we follow Fernando through the narrow alleyways. ‘This way,’ he says. ‘Soon will be the festival I told you about earlier . . .’ (this, on his tour guide and this was it): We turned a corner and were met by hundreds of people lined up along the narrow street, silent and watching the parade led by huge great drums being beaten in unison, the rhythm of boom, boom, ba-boom; boom, boom, ba-boom. Behind them, slowly, marched men and women in coloured robes and pointed hooded masks which covered their faces and reached down to their chests (reminiscent of the costumes worn by the Ku Klux Klan – but green, purple, black, red). They carried long candle holders and silver lanterns and walked in time to the great drum booms. We pushed through the quiet crowds in Fernando’s buzz and beat of things and came to an arbitrary place of rest and watched as the Easter Parade of Brotherhoods slowly, quietly, rhythmically, eerily marched past us. A truly strange, spooky, ephemeral experience. Fernando says it happens all over Spain at this time of the year and for several nights in a row. The drums echo off into the distance of the street. ‘Come,’ said Fernando. So we went. There was no time left in the world. Time fell away. None of us carried watches. ‘Here,’ Fernando says and we push the door open onto another bar where they sing and dance. Fernando orders more beers and reaches into his pocket, pulls out two lollipops, turns and gives them to two girls behind us. He doesn’t even talk to them, apart from in the offering. The girls thank him and take them and Fernando turns back to us and carries on talking to us as if there is nothing unusual in his acts. I drink but half-heartedly. I’m far too tired and bored of the buzz now. I watch the people in the bar. The girls who have followed us here, co-incidentally, from the tacky blue bar; the man and the woman swallowing each other next to us; the girls behind Fernando sucking on lollipops; the place like a bee-hive. The conversations are all lost. When we leave the place I tell Fernando I must sleep. ‘You want to go home?’ he asks. ‘OK. Come with me.’ And he says to James and Tony: ‘Wait here, in this bar,’ (he points to one in passing). ‘I will be five minutes.’ And to me: ‘Come. I will show you.’ And he takes me to the end of the street. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘This is where we were earlier. See? The Cathedral? Down there . . .’ he points in the opposite direction . . . ‘Independencia,’ I tell him. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘Go straight. All the way. Independencia, Sagasta. You will find Avenida de Goya?’ I tell him I will. ‘Good. OK,’ he says and he turns and leaves me. ‘See you tomorrow.’ The coffee doesn’t kick in but that part of my brain which is necessary suddenly fires up. I realise I am alone in a foreign city, in a strange country. I must navigate by remembering signs, features, objects and object’s relations. In the end, it’s not so hard: Paseo de Independencia, past the Calle de Cadiz, Paseo de Sagasta, Avenida de Goya. I find the apartment block, into the hallway, past the rows of wooden post boxes lined against the wall and the empty concierge’s booth and up the pitch black stair well (because I don’t know where the light switches are) to the 3°dcha (third floor, apartment on the right). Eventually, I sleep. It’s 4am.

*   *   *

At 1030, there is a series of sharp buzzes on the door bell. Tony and James got home sometime around five or six and none of us move. We’re all sleeping and no doubt don’t feel up for talking to Spanish people. I don’t. I lay and doze. Eventually, James gets up and answers it. It’s Fernando, who comes buzzing, bristling in, announcing: ‘Come on, come on. Get up. It closes at two and if we want to be there today we need to be up now.’ And then: ‘Wow, this place smells.’ He opens shutters and windows. My eyes closed, laying there, still, I have no idea what he’s talking about. I construct a slow Spanish sentence in my head, form it from words learnt on the TV and words told to us by Fernando. I chew it over in my head, lazily, slowly, my eyes still closed, contemplating my inflexion and grammar and then, when it’s ready, I say to Fernando, who’s somewhere buzzing around the apartment, and in a gravelly voice: ‘¿Qué coño estas haciendo?’ Fernando laughs and repeats my phrase. ‘That’s good,’ he says. It must be that he’s arranged with Tony and James for us all to go up to the Muslim palace of Aljafería because that’s what I slowly figure as I pad around the place in my underwear, fixing coffee, pouring orange juice, sitting down at the table. Or, maybe Fernando has just concocted the plan. Who knows? ‘How much sleep did you have?’ I ask him. ‘Three or four hours,’ he shrugs. ‘I don’t know.’ When we’re all washed and ready, Fernando tells us: ‘We will take a bus,’ and escorts us to the palace.

There, he talks to the girl in the kiosk outside the palace moat and walls and comes back to us and says: ‘OK. Three Euros each. But, if you are a student . . .’ (he holds up a finger) ‘one Euro.’ None of us are students. ‘Do you have student cards?’ he asks us. ‘No,’ we say. ‘Show me,’ he says and we offer him an assortment of various and random IDs. Fernando takes some cards with little care for detail. He shrugs. ‘This will do.’ He takes the IDs back towards the kiosk. ‘You’re going to pretend those are student IDs?’ we ask. ‘I will try,’ Fernando tells us. After some minutes, he comes back with our tour guide pamphlets, tickets and our IDs. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘Only one Euro each.’ The man is a genius!

We peruse the architecture in the palace: the endless fresco painting on ceiling beams; the gold gilt artwork; the hand-painted words of the Koran around the tops of the white-plastered walls; the onion-shaped doorways; the orange trees in the courtyard, which reminds me of the set of Tomb Raider with its thick dark wood trellis and heaps of ivy, the right angular water channel running through the middle of the raised stone block paving and into a deep pool at the base of the ivy; the thin bricks and Islamic patterning on the plaster tops of columns; the quiet except for the water spilling into the pool. I think: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real orange tree before. Fernando asks a guard and translates for me: ‘This courtyard, and the trees, represent the Muslim idea of Paradise.’ Fernando tells us about the Muslims in Spain after the Romans had left, and of their subsequent ousting in the 15th century. Later, we sit on the grass and soak up the sun.

On the way back to Fernando’s parents’ apartment, where his mother has prepared paella and red wine for dinner, we stop off to buy bus tickets back to Bilbao for later in the week. We walk on and Fernando checks another bus company for tickets to Barcelona. Tony said, as we passed the Bull Ring, that he’d like to see a bullfight sometime, so Fernando goes to the kiosk of the coliseum to see about prices whilst James and I stand and weigh out the moral pros and cons of paying to watch animals being slaughtered for entertainment (even if it is the local culture). Fernando comes back to us and explains that Jesus Millan is the sole matador next Wednesday and he will be fighting six bulls, which is unusual. ‘Usually,’ he says, ‘there are three matadors who kill just two bulls each. But this guy,’ he points to the literature which has a profile of each matador, ‘he will kill six on his own.’ I see his name and remember a lifesize poster of him in a bar window (Taverna el Taurino) opposite the Bull Ring and next to the travel agent: ‘Jesus Millan’ and Millan in full regalia, face forwards, smiling, body twisted in heroic motion, arms out wide. I remember thinking then, and at the kiosk, perusing the literature and schedules on the walls, like I was looking at information for a normal football match, I remember thinking: ‘These guys must be good and brave at what they do.’ And: ‘All those bulls that die. How pointless.’ And, on reading matadors’ names and dates, that those dates symbolised concrete days, schedules, certainties for the deaths of those bulls.

We meet Fernando’s parents in his mini-palace of a home. Up the cast-iron grated elevator of the old colonial type building and into a lobby of sumptuous fare: a huge mirror; paintings on all walls; a Catholic cross; tiled floor. It is a first impression of wealth. Fernando’s father owns five apartments. He speaks no English which means Fernando must translate if any of us converse with him. But he is largely silent, this old man, drinking his red wine, eating his paella and chicken strips, smoking his cigar, sipping his black coffee. He offers us brandy from his drinks cabinet but we decline and he settles down to drink his own and smoke. We discover how this is the main meal in Spain, as Fernando’s mother clears our plates after paella or pasta, me full already, and brings us chicken and then strawberries. It is definitely siesta time. We share stories of old days, Fernando and us, and admire the many paintings Fernando’s mother has painted and which hang from every wall. I think of Fernando’s music skills and tell him that this is where he must get his artistic ability from. We thank Fernando’s parents and take our leave so we can settle down in our apartment on Avenida de Goya for a couple of hours of rest before the Spanish evening sets upon us again. Now, I sit out here on the balcony, overlooking the church courtyard, having written for the last few hours. James and Tony are just beginning to stir from their rest time. ‘Hola,’ James says as he joins me out here. It’s Maundy Thursday and a little while earlier, I sat and wrote and listened to the chanting echoing out from the church. It’s rest time but soon the Spanish evening will swallow us up again.

*   *   *

The festival parades echo round me as I stand on the balcony overlooking the church courtyard in the early evening light. The thunderous noise of drums booming from all directions, unseen, out there somewhere in the city. Girls in white robes running down the corridor of the church, seen through the windows from up here. Nervous energy of men dressed in white T-shirts, black trousers, black shoes; waiting. Children in white robes and lemon capes twirling around in the courtyard, spinning their capes around them in fan shapes; playing at being matadors and bulls. Priests moving between the waiting men and people greeting each other with a kiss to each cheek. Women in the coloured capes of this church and carrying long silver lanterns; small girls in yellow ribbons and white gloves; women dressed in all black, with veils, like grieving widows. The men help each other into their costumes out there in the courtyard. It takes two men to twist a long band of black around each man’s waist; so tight they stagger as it’s pulled like a corset; the pulling men taking the strain and tucking the material tightly in and under the band. And the headwear which also takes an assistant to pull the material so firmly down it must press against the temples: a long piece of white material (fixed in a tight bunched band like a sausage round the temples) and falling down over the backs of their shoulders. Other men and women carry high coned headwear which has only eye-holes cut into it (like those worn by the KKK) and a flap of material which will reach down to their chests. The lemon colour is the colour of their collective church (their brotherhood, as Fernando puts it). Another carries a large drum. They mill around the courtyard, nervously waiting, pulling each other into cummerbunds and headgear, carrying drums and poles for silver lanterns, kissing each others’ cheeks, passing to and fro, the echo of drums thundering around the city like individual hits of café solo to the nervous system.

*   *   *

Outside on the Avenida de Goya, men and women and children in robes and capes and headgear and veils and carrying drums, standing in uniformed lines in front of and behind their float depicting some scene from the Resurrection. The avenida is lined on each side by thousands of watchers, children on parents’ shoulders and standing on high walls to see. This is the procession of the church on Avenida de Goya which will make its ways through the city, like many other processions of all the other churches (‘brotherhoods’, says Fernando) to meet at the Plaza delle Justicia in the old town. We watch here, on Goya, for a while: drummers beating large, wide bass drums with bulbous-ended drumsticks, in unison; down the flanks of the column, snare drums are rattled with quicker, tinnier, more urgent crackling between the boom-boom-booms. Ornate gold and silver lanterns and poles yielding candles are carried and incense is swung from caskets on chains or wafted over the crowd from open-mouthed torches. We push through the crowd and cross Avenida de Goya behind the procession and make our way up Paseo de Sagasta, leaving the Goya drums echoing back behind us as they forge their own way up to Justicia. The city is full of people standing, watching or following the many various processions along all their individual routes to Justicia. Half-way up Independencia, we run into another procession of drummers: robed, caped and hooded men and women, carrying lanterns, gold crosses, incense and spread the whole width of one wide four-lane carriageway of Independencia, whose wide boulevard pavements and colonnades throng with crowds. The drumming is fast and celebratory from black-hooded beaters behind their float of the beatific Virgin Mary. The beat carries us forwards on a swill, a wave; like a rush. We march on through the crowds, skipping along because the drums urge us to, on to the Plaza de España where Independencia ends and we cross over into the old town. There I lose focus of ‘avenidas’ and ‘calles’, names and relationships between them all. Fernando beats us forwards in his usual gait, but even faster than normal. We don’t know where we’re going. He hasn’t told us about Justicia yet. He points his finger earnestly into the air occasionally and beckons us with it as we follow. He darts around corners of side streets, examines, nods earnestly, points forwards, tells us: ‘This way.’ We hear the processions and their drums all around us in the unseen streets, ebbing and flowing through the night like we’re catching up or bypassing or about to ambush the route of one we left some time back. We skip and march up an alley to the serious urgent beat of ‘boom-boom da-da-da, boom-boom’ (‘My drum’s bigger than your drum,’ intones James) coming from the square in front of us. This is Plaza delle Justicia, a small square where Fernando tells us all the processions arrive, on various schedules, to present their floats of the Virgin Mary or shining gold statues of Roman soldiers bearing down on the persecuted Jesus, into the church. We watch as the pale blue hoods beat out their rhythms in the Plaza in bass and snares, and the pungent smell of incense is swung across us as the Virgin is presented through the church gates. One more thunderous rapport and the drums stop and the hoods are removed and the crowds clap as sweating drummers embrace and find their friends and family in the crowd which then thins and swells again with new watchers as the next hooded brotherhood arrive with a different beat and float and arrangement of drummers and celebration. We watch again for a while before pushing on again, skirting the edge of Justicia towards the side streets to bypass the crowd, en route for some place to eat and drink, after Fernando has greeted and introduced us to friends of his and seen them swallowed up in the crowd. He told us earlier, as he told us about the processions, that they would release a real prisoner from the jail in imitation of the act of Pilate from the Bible.

Fernando walks fast again and darts down alleys in search of something. Eventually, he finds a place which suits him: a small, narrow room which is a tapas bar, with two huge bull’s heads hanging from the wall. The place is hot and packed full of people eating small pieces of bread topped with oil-drenched greasy pork and vegetables. A fat man and his assistants work a narrow serving passageway behind the counter. Fernando, Tony and James drink glasses of red wine and me a beer, but we don’t eat. I examine the old black and white photos of matadors with long noses, and black and whites of Ava Gardner who, Fernando tells us, had a famous affair with this long-nosed matador. The fat man smears out a Spanish flow and waves his hands at us after our grace period of twenty minutes or so and Fernando tells us he says it’s dinner time here and if we’re not eating we need to move away from the counter. We squeeze into the corner and finish our drinks. We fall out into the alley again. The city is full tonight amid the celebrations. Fernando leads us to another tapas bar where we can sit and eat and drink. Fernando orders black pudding, pieces of sausage, octopus, squid, greasily oiled slivers of mushrooms, green chillis, bread, garlic bread and red wine. I’m not hungry. Really. I drink beer and watch Tony and James and Fernando wolf down food from communal plates. I watch the rest of the eaters in here. It’s like a huge feeding trough with people sat at tables, eating off plates placed between them, throwing back red wine in large fat glasses or in small wide glasses like petri dishes, pressing tapas into each others’ mouths, talking loud, laughing. Again, I grow tired. There’s too much energy. Later, it must be one or two o’clock or so, when the bar has thinned a little, we stop outside to watch more processions: men and women in all white robes and hoods. ‘This is the scariest group so far,’ James says, making reference to the KKK. Children keep the beat on their drums, as the head of this procession waits patiently around an unseen corner for the Plaza delle Justicia to empty of the previous group so they can get in. A huge float of gold eventually navigates the narrow corner as the crowd moves back for it to make the turn. The incense pungency wafts over us and the black widow veiled women carrying sceptres and crosses and gold and silver lanterns file past behind the float, but they smile, unlike widows. The end of this procession squeezes into the alley and on towards Justicia as the crowd closes in behind it. ‘Vamos,’ I say, and we smear ourselves away and into a different crowded street.

*   *   *


On to Salou on the coast, south of Barcelona. We agree to make plans to catch the bus early on Saturday morning from Zaragoza but there are only three seats left. So we swap to Friday evening instead. Three hours on the bus staring at arid Spanish landscapes and then, when it’s dark, at the autopista drone, trying to shake off the burgeoning development of whisky induced dehydration. Eventually, the industrial spillage that is Tarragona’s suburbs and on through Tarragona itself: stacks of apartment blocks, their balconies at angles to avenidas strung with palm trees and globules of shining boiled sweet streetlights. A few stops here and on through the suburbs to the coast and Salou. ‘Here,’ says Fernando. ‘This is Salou.’ We climb out into the fresh, salty Mediterranean air, wet with difference, not dusty like Zaragoza. Fernando extols the virtue of the air as we hoist our bags onto shoulders and the bus heaves away in a hot diesel-like lumber to leave us standing on a wide, smooth-paved promenade, glossy like marble, and flanked by two rows of dry, thick, tall, sprayed palm trees stretching out along the coastal road and Fernando is already moving.

‘Our apartment is this way,’ he says, and we follow him as he darts between traffic to the rows of stacked apartments whose balconies line the promenade at angles to the sea. This is another of his parents’ various apartments and where he told us also, and occasionally, lives a ‘crazy old man’ who is, in fact, his uncle. We reach the top floor and wake the old man, Jose-Luis, from his bed. We shake hands and he speaks a little English and goes back to bed. The apartment smells of him. Fernando said he owns a leather goods shop down on the street and he comes back here to sleep. He said the old man is maybe seventy and knows five languages and is extremely intelligent. There are books and there is general organised disorder in the living space and the kitchen is an old man kitchen: a dilapidated, broken coffee making-machine, stained with deep dark brown rings and a glass of slurry beneath it; a tea-towel laid out with one fork, one knife, one tea-spoon, one glass because there is no draining board; various pots and jars and pans and leftover bread on the worktop opposite the stove/hob in the narrow space. Fernando tells us not to go in the kitchen without shoes on or touch any of the surfaces with wet hands because of the faulty electrical installation in the apartment. He says it with one finger in the air for attention and prefixes it with: ‘Oh. One more thing . . .’ like the method he used to tell us about his uncle when we were back in Zaragoza, sat around the table that first night. (‘Oh, one more thing. We will go to the beach. But a crazy old man sometimes lives there. Don’t worry. He’s my uncle. He will only sleep there sometimes. He’s very intelligent.’) Fernando shows us to rooms in the apartment and we leave our bags and go out onto the balcony which overlooks the gardens where cicadas chirp and click and, farther out, looks out over the glossed slick stone promenade and palm trees and the dark Mediterranean sea. We sit around a table on the balcony, talk, listen to music, play poker. At two, we sleep.

*   *   *

By night, Salou’s promenade is streaming with nightwalkers, up and down, aimless; veering into brightly lit tourist cafés with plastic chairs and tables and faded signs of pictures of various fast foods. Open top cars cruise the road, sounding horns. By day, Salou is little different: except you can see it all.

By early afternoon, when we’re all up, washed and breakfasted, it’s starting to rain a little, or threatening to. The town is a series of strips of plastic chairs, tables, tablecloths; cubicles of tourist tat slung over with cheap canopies; cafés and café-bars of miserable fare, cheap European lager, signs in several languages (usually badly translated into English). Maybe you only see this swill, which floods around us down here, at eye level. Maybe there’s another Salou. Maybe it’s the rain which discolours it as we trudge and slop around the ever soddening carrers and passeigs (in the Catalan language) after we’ve walked up and down the beach before the apathetic rain set in. The streets fill, literally, because of a drainage problem. Fernando tells us that, although the weather is unpredictable here at this time of year, Salou hasn’t really taken this into account in its town planning. We waste the day walking through widening puddles, into tat shops that Tony takes such great pleasure from, drinking cheap European alcohol in cheap European café-bars owned by Dutch people who speak English and little Spanish. We meet another of Fernando’s friends, come here from Zaragoza, and he disappears again after promising to meet up again with us later. But he never does. We eat cheap food in a cheap rain-sodden café where Tony, James and Fernando order sangria. Later, another café-bar with plastic seats and tables, more sangria made of rough red wine and Eurobeer, which isn’t beer, for me, in the cold late evening under a rain-laden canopy. I watch the water fall on the street outside in this cultureless void. Tony and James and Fernando are quite happy getting slowly drunk on cheap sangria. Fernando wants to go dancing and goes to phone his friend. He comes back to us and I know it’s time for me to leave. It’s past midnight and, though that isn’t so late, I don’t know if I can bear any more of this wet plastic night. Fernando points me in the direction of the beach, from where I can navigate my own way back to the apartment. Tony and James and Fernando spin off into the rain for another night/early morning hours of who knows what and where. I pick my way between the puddles of an undrained town (its transient population, and that must include me, being like the pubic hair and rim of bath scum floating on the shallow surface of a plugged-up bath). I pick my way between the puddles and wonder what on Earth I can write about, here.

And it’s not as if I’m being ungrateful to Fernando for bringing us here. He’s done so much for us this past week and this is his place of memories; especially when the sun shines. It’s just that this is not my place. I have no love of plastic. Salut Salou.

*   *   *

At the end of the weekend and maybe I was a little too harsh on old Salou; now that the town has thinned, shed its weight a little of people packing back off to the cities and inland and the sun has shown. The place is still plastic but there is a Mediterranean breeze blowing briskly off the brightwhite breakers (James says it’s surfing weather with the brisk breeze blowing through the palm tree leaves; the glare of sunlight; the people waiting for the weather to settle one way or the other before they decide if they should come out or not); the sea crashes and the distant mountain hills at the far end of the bay are shrouded in milkiness; the rain holds off and there is a freshness to the warmer air and lightshards fall brightly like crisp cold water in the fountains along the seafront here. There is another end to Salou, up by the train station, where there isn’t so much tourist plasticity. We walk out alongside the train tracks, on the platform which is on the same ground level, and I feel another trip imminent, another expectation of unknown sights and sounds as we look for times and prices to Barcelona. Travelling again. The imminence feels favourable. But for now, Salou has been absorbed into the consciousness like osmosis working: a low-level acceptance, a radiation buzzing like background fluorescent strip light. It’s there and you can see and hear it if you look for it. But, if you don’t, it’s just there and serves its purpose for the present moment. Salou is a plastic, fluorescent strip light, brightwhite like the April sun-glare on glossy marbled paving and off the bristling breakers of the sea.

We sit in a brightwhite lit Chinese café restaurant and have a Gran Buffet (all you can eat) for €8 each. It’s not so grand as it sounds. This is the whole of it, Jack. This is the absolute whole of it.

*   *   *


Barcelona is a series of snapshot images inside my head. My head hurting, dehydration and exhaustion, sitting on the train back to Salou, I closed my eyes and filled my subconscious space, without constructive thought and in some lucidity, with grand designs of huge scales which Gaudi might have undertaken. A day in Barcelona and an overdose of Gaudi architecture can set these immense illusions spinning in and out of place. But Barcelona is more than this . . . the snapshots are all slides though, at the moment, all tumbled out of place and fallen on the floor of my mind. We get off the train, back at Salou, in the late night freshness of air. The town is like a ghostship moored on the shore. Not even kiosks line the promenade now, just spaces where they used to be now that the transients have mostly all packed off home. Sleep beckons. There’s no way I can sort the slideshow images scattered just right now.

Barcelona Snapshot Slideshow

Early morning train stations along the Mediterranean sea’s edge, filled with romantic curiosity and potential: Tarragona, Barcelona Sants, Barcelona Passeig de Gràcia, Port Aventura, Torredembarra, San Vincenç. Pulling into the dark, subterranean Barcelona Sants, nowhere near as romantic as its name might suggest. Names and places need correlating. The wide open avinguda boulevard of Passieg de Gràcia. The hill above the city, in the northwest, on which sprawls Parc Güell. The Barri Gòtic (gothic quarter) in the east, with its cathedral and narrow high calle alleyways where no-one dares to walk. Passeig de Gràcia, brightlit after the subway. Casa Battló: Antoni Gaudi’s architectural gem, curving walls like a façade of bones and plump flesh.  Twelve years in the making, this visit: my chance to visit Battló turned down, back then in architecture school, in lieu of Venice. I always wondered what Barcelona would be like in lieu of Venice. I stood on Passeig de Gràcia, in front of Casa Battló and, for a single moment, realised how this moment was twelve years in the making. La Rambla, past the Plaça de Catalunya and the Barri Gòtic, en route to the waterfront. La Rambla, with its many street artists and jewellery stallholders and its artists made up as the now-ubiquitous statues: standing stock still on pedestals and high up, dressed as demons, scaring children; dressed as angels reading books in sad mournful repose. The Rainbow Warrior moored on the waterfront, which is lined with palm trees for a mile or so in each direction from La Rambla to the casa villas of colonial stateliness perched like backdrop blocks in Mediterranean film scenes. The Warrior docked on the quayside, smaller than I imagined her, painted green with its rainbow bow, wooden dolphin, and sailing under the Dutch flag; the Spanish flag and the CND flag for accompaniment (a recognition of Spanish hosting courtesy – despite the fact that we’re in Catalunya – and banner of purpose, respectively). The ship on the quayside for repairs with a huge, wide banner slung across its masts proclaiming war in Iraq for oil being wholly wrong. I touch the Warrior’s hull, just so I know I have. The cable cars slowly sliding across the sea and sky, over towards the Olympic venues. The Rambla de Mar bridge over the harbour, floating on the green water where small schools of fish swim near the sparkling surface. The sun slicing across the metal bridge ‘waves’ (the ornaments up high, which the architect has used as a device to signify ‘bridge over water’). We wait as the centre of the bridge swings slowly sideways to let yachts enter and exit the harbour. Sagrada Família, a couple of stops up the subway. Exit the subterranean to brightlight and the barely finished temple of Gaudi’s life’s work looms over the Plaza. But the latter 20th century and early 21st century architects have bastardised the piece by insisting on adding to it, trying to finish it. Gaudi clearly had a vast Romantic plan but the 50s saw a stripping down to his Passion Façade and the 80s and 90s entertained Cubist sculpture ideas which Gaudi clearly didn’t have in mind. Sagrada was Gaudi’s raison d’être, where great columns would rise like trees into irregular canopy sprays, high above the nave, and sunlight would pour in through globular windows flanked by fat, bone-like separations between stained glass panes. Innovation has since become stripped to thin modern ideas of yesteryear’s modernism. ‘An art student’s wet dream,’ said James. Every architect, throughout all years and times, must impose his own interpretation and name on a building. Even Gaudi himself did it at Sagrada after his commission, taking over from his predecessor. But at least Gaudi had new ideas, albeit fanciful and ambitious. The late twentieth century additions are plain and plainly inadequate. Pale stone shines like plastic adjacent to the weather-beaten originals. Architects are egos in the guise of people. Structures are edifices blown like marshmallow from the tiny shells of small scale men. Structures are egos in stone. Even Gaudi’s. This is a shame. Parc Güell: trudging up the hot hill from Lesseps metro station. Gaudi’s home a hundred years ago and around which he built swirling pathways and columns of rubble, blue mosaic lizards and entrance gatehouses like bubbles of stone. Gaudi built Disneyland before Disney did. I’m hot and tired and my head hurts from an ill-chosen beer on Avinguda de Gaudi near the waterfront when too dehydrated already from walking. Parc Güell, in these conditions, is one Gaudi too many. Barcelona, on the Gaudi homage, and one Gaudi pretty much becomes another. Fernando salivates over the pretty Argentinean girl who serves us in the café-bar on Avinguda de Gaudi. He explains how the Argentinean Spanish accent is so soft and melodic. Like Irish to us, I think. I wonder how Argentinean sounds to him; how sweet, how soft, how swept up he is in it. Is the Argentinean waitress, with her long dark hair and sunny smile, like a softly spoken Dublin girl as she ghosts around the place? She slips into English for Tony and James and me. In Salou, the other night, with the rain dripping on the canopies of the café-bar where we ate, Fernando noted that the man who served us was also Argentinean and how, even on him, the accent pleased him. I will never know what the accent really sounds like. This is a shame. Some experiences are totally out of our reach. Fernando explains how Catalunya sees itself as apart from the rest of Spain, like the Basque region of Bilbao does. Fernando is a little disturbed by this as we walk down the Barcelona backstreets and he explains that Catalunyans will charge 51 cents for a bottle of water instead of the 50 cents everywhere else will charge because, he says, they’re penny-pinchers. He says: ‘We’re all one country, we don’t need independence from each other; it’s stupid.’ On a wall in Salou (also Catalunya), in English, is graffiti which reads: This is not Spain. We sit under umbrellas on Passeig de Gràcia in the early evening and I watch the Barcelona crowd go by, interspersed with Americans, Germans, Dutch visitors. Whatever the nationality, the honey smeared over the Barcelona streets is, at once, pleasing and sore to the eyes. Couples are hand-in-hand, younger, older; dressed to kill, like style-obsessed ego-Gods and Goddesses; or dressed in cut jeans, slit up the sides of calves. Whichever, dressed in honey. There is a line from a song: Don’t look no more, it’ll only make your eyes sore. At the Estación Passeig de Gràcia, we wait for the last train out of the city and back to Salou. And we wait. The clipped, pronounced rounded ‘r’s of the female platform announcer, crystal along the subterranean tracks, every few minutes or so, declaring trains to Barcelona Sants (‘Barrrr-sel-o-na Sannntz’) or San Andreu (‘San Andrrrr-u’), not being our train and thumping through my headache like a knife on the side of a glass. The hard marbled stone benches. The nervous brown-eyed woman sat next to me: toying with her hair; taking off her brown leather coat and adjusting her clothes; fiddling with the strap of her bag; taking out and replacing her phone. Finally, several trains later, she gets up and leaves on one. And finally, the last train to Salou arrives.

*   *   *


We sit at a café-bar by the sea and drink café con leche in the sun whilst John Lee Hooker’s blues slides over us from the empty place. The sea is calmer and so am I. Fernando tells us about General Franco and the Spanish Civil War. We buy two whole chickens and eat them with beer and dry French bread on the apartment terrace. We note how pollo and polla, in Spanish, mean two very different things!

Days of nothing see us calm of dead energies. The beach is hot and I watch the beautiful girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. In the record store, the Spanish girl has fluttering eyes, sends me sprawling again! How this gesture can be so sensual; sticking me to the memory of her — my fingers in sun-melted honey. This gesture, when someone will look up with her dark brown eyes, smile, her eyelids like hummingbird’s wings: she’s all there is when she does that. Later, on meeting Fernando’s girl friends, I’m told I look more Spanish than English. I take this as a compliment. Spanish eyes and Spanish looks, this day in Salou.

*   *   *


Back in the city and a disorientation sets in. Travelling back to Zaragoza from Salou and entering the stacked up streets, I think how I have to use a different set of co-ordinates, memories, points of reference, methods of being to get by. Just subtle things, but significant because they exist. And we don’t usually have to do this in our normal lives (or, don’t realise we’re doing it, at least). I try to remember which avenidas and paseos spring from which buildings, monuments and blocks of solidity (toothpaste avenidas); I try to piece together a mental montage of places seen and sights passed, like grammar: what comes after the Estación el Portillo, the Bull Ring, Paseo de Gran Via? I think now, as I write, about the subtle differences of the Spanish and Catalunyan written languages (avenida, avinguda) and, later, back in Bilbao in Basque country, the signs will be littered with ‘x’s in the middle of words and ‘tx’s and we were never there long enough to learn how to pronounce that. In Zaragoza today, four days after Easter Sunday, the processions have finished and there is a different quality to the place: the air is not as fresh as Salou and it’s warmer here, weighed down with the humid density of the city. Not hotter, just warmer. The avenidas and paseos are clear of processions and floats and, though still lubricated with the normal flow of people (as they were in most days before the festivals), there are no thoughts of drums along the thoroughfares. Subtle shifts. And tomorrow, another subtlety, like going back through time, in travelling back to Bilbao, which seems an age ago. Another small disorientation. And yet disorientation can be pleasing in a way: the alternative being the usual hum of a life led according to the routines we invent for ourselves.

Children play in the church courtyard below our apartment balcony. They’ve constructed a small scale version of a procession float using a box, a sheet and two cardboard tubes fashioned into a cross standing upright and fixed to the top of it. They huddle under the box (just their legs stick out) and slowly walk it round the courtyard on right-angular routes. Maybe the festivals have not been completely cleared from the city’s consciousness after all. A man walks across the courtyard carrying a large yellow drum at his side. Disorientation is a perception; a perspective, or lack of it; a viewing of scale. Disorientation manifests because of what we think we know, see, sense, live.

*   *   *

Leaving Zaragoza. We get out of bed early, cook breakfast, tidy the apartment. Orange juice (zumo de Naraja), bacon, eggs, toast, sausages, coffee, water. A list of details. Details are important. God, or the Devil, depending on your preferred persuasion, is in the details. Fernando knocks on the door at 1015, after the appointed hour, as agreed the previous night. He looks tired. Too many late nights, too much talking in two languages; sometimes at the same time! The other day in Salou, we ate lunch in a café-bar we’d found and Fernando talked to the waitress in both languages because she understood neither well, and then he mixed the two together. Later that evening, in another bar purporting to be German, Fernando mistook Spanish and English as he talked to the waiters, and the waiters, in turn, couldn’t fathom our respective nationalities – we watched football and cheered on Madrid, rather than the English team, us being in Madrid’s sworn enemy heartland of Catalunya, home of Barcelona, and yet one of us was Spanish and the others English. The waiter asked, in Spanish as we left, and to Fernando: ‘You’re the only Spanish one, yes?’

Fernando looks tired as I open the door to him in the apartment. Maybe he’s feeling the strain of being our constant guide, host and protector. He has done well and we tell him so. But he’s too modest to take the thanks we offer. Fernando escorts us to the bus departure point on Calle de Ramon Pignatelli. We say our goodbyes and thank him again. We tell him we hope to see him in England in the summer. As the bus pulls away, Fernando holds up his hand from the pavement down below us. He looks like a child, tired as he is. Details. And now, Fernando will rest.

*   *   *

Bus Details

This bus to Bilbao, four hours away to the northwest, is half empty. A fat, old Basque man in a black beret sits behind me, dozing, breathing his foul breath over me. The bus is quiet. The arid Zaragoza suburbs peter out into rubble and we trudge along Autopista 68 across the flat Spanish plains. A swathe of white windmills, in regular lines at angles to the autopista, march slowly across the dry terrain like aliens with three slowly spinning arms come to mesmerise us into submission. Rows of vineyards in early season growth nestle up against the road’s edge absorbing carbon monoxide. The hills that cup the Spanish plains, like so many thousand sandstone sphinxes, potched with tufts of dark green wire gorse. Eleven parachutists drift as if they’re buttercups on water, or seed dust sprays falling down to Earth on the breeze. Details. Sitting here, looking, searching for a perfect line like Jack wrote. A line like:

‘Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the colour of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries.’

Patches of vineyard squares spread across the dust-dry flatlands and nudge the sand-redbrown sphinx hills, whose truncated caps are sliced away by whoever painted in the sky, whose clouds are lazystill through lack of a Gulf Stream pushing them on. Last night, in Zaragoza, and just before bed, I stood out on the balcony in the muggy humid air and looked up. The clouds weren’t moving and I thought about the Gulf Stream which funnels up from the South Atlantic and pummels the clouds along, dumping rain on the first landmass it encounters, being us in England. The clouds here in Spain don’t seem concerned that way. I look out over the many vineyards of the Rioja region, grapes for red wine for washing down tapas nuggets of small slivers of oiled fish or sausage on dry hunks of bread; I look out and think of all that wine and all those Spaniards in tapas bars and café-bars and eating paella meals of rice and seafood in their homes and I think how the vines manage to grow at all, out here on the arid yellowred Spanish plains. The clouds pile over inconspicuously, as we edge closer to Bilbao.


Circular journeys balance out well. Back in Bilbao, slipping down the launchship Avenida de Sabino Aranas like a brick barge down into the city and at the bottom we turn left towards San Mamés bus terminal. Again. Welcome back. It’s strange what time does: it concentrates and dilutes, compresses and stretches, both at once; it doesn’t seem long since we left here that long night en route for Zaragoza, almost no time seems to have passed, like we’d never left at all. And yet, everything we’ve done and everywhere we’ve been in between (Zaragoza, Salou, Barcelona, the festivals, the buses and trains, waiting and seeing, walking, talking, meeting, drinking, sensing) . . . everything seems so full. We exist in two times: in our present and in our memories. And we exist there sometimes simultaneously. The future is a third time and complicates the scene still further: a trinity of ourselves. But that’s another story. We step off the bus at San Mamés and I feel compressed and stretched in time. The day is largely wasted. Words have been written, on the bus, but that’s about all. From early in the morning, breakfast and leaving Zaragoza, I’d been preparing myself for home again. Probably even from as early as the previous night. It’s another odd disassociation to be the self you know yourself to be (i.e. the one who commits to all the usual routines and ways of one’s own culture) but being that self in a foreign land. It’s like becoming fully dressed, once more, in a room full of naked people.

We dump our bags in lockers at San Mamés and take a trek up Avenida de Don Diego towards the Plaza de Frederico Moyua. It’s here, we’re reliably informed by James’ guidebook to the city, that we can later find a bus which will take us back to the airport. Don Diego is a long trek up through the Hole (the local nickname given to Bilbao because of its dense, squashed in location in the basin and surrounded by hills). Eventually, we find the airport bus and take note of its departure point for later before heading off to the Riade Bilbao, the river, on pilgrimage to the supposed gem of architecture that is the Guggenheim Museum. Shortly, we’re standing there in front of it. I later discover that what we’re looking at is its rear end and the main focus is on the river’s edge. But I’m still not impressed. This building was supposedly inspired by local fishing boats and fish scales. It’s metal and irregularly shaped. But, to be honest, it looks like something a five year old might construct with a couple of cardboard boxes and sheets of tin foil. Maybe I’ve lost my ability to appreciate and see architecture in the twelve years since my University days. Maybe I’ve got older and wiser. Maybe the architecture the lecturers always crowed on about never was that good in the first place: maybe it was all over-inflated egos all round after all. The riverside perspective, on the bus to the airport, looks weird and more fanciful but still, the architect really ought to consider that the city is a place to put buildings into; not a backdrop like a stage-flat to ignore; to hang the spotlights from; to be a wall for a picture to block out the ugly mechanics and machinery in view behind. And so, with a cursory and courtesy visit, not enough time to go inside, that was the Guggenheim and it’s time to leave San Mamés for the final time.

We retrieve our luggage (after junk food in the park; the same park where, nearly two weeks earlier, I’d written in my notebook under the cover of my coat, protecting ink from rain splodges) and trek back up the sidestreets and Don Diego to Plaza Moyua. We aren’t sad to see the last of San Mamés. Our first impression of Bilbao (through our long day-long wait) taints our last impressions. The ever-present digital street clocks (in all the cities in Spain we’ve been to) flip between time and temperature and tell us, variously, depending on whether in sun or shade or whereabouts up Don Diego we are, that it’s about 25°C. We board the airport bus at Plaza Moyua where a very friendly and patient driver sees us on, and the first fat drops of rain, which had been threatening in the slow pile up of clouds seen en route from Zaragoza, fall onto the pavements. I watch a little girl of five or six, dressed in green army camouflage fatigues and black army boots and pretty white peasant blouse, duck under the overhang in a telephone booth where her mother is talking into the receiver. The child looks so sweet and vulnerable huddled there in her shelter, and yet so strangely dressed like this for one so young. Details. I fall heavily into my seat to watch this and, bending over, leaning, hanging my arms over the bar in front of me. The bus pulls away as I sit like this, my own clothes travel-stained, hanging round me, smelling of cities. I watch the little girl and her mother. Leaving Bilbao. For a few moments there, and a little later, climbing through the hills, the airport with its tailfin roof to our left and in the middle distance, for a few moments I feel like a traveller again. I feel I could travel the world. Whether this has anything to do with the contradictory knowledge of my imminent return to home, I don’t know. Suffice is to say, I feel like I’m travelling, now that I’m leaving.


The plane left humid Bilbao on the gathering rainpocked runway and touched down in England at ten at night. Outside the airport terminal, I was struck how fresh the air at home was; how salty it smelt and felt and tasted (and even here, at the airport, inland and many miles from the sea). The temperature was half that of Spain and there was no humidity; the arid plains around Zaragoza had given way to the fresh, salty air of home. I felt in control again. Words on signs and language infused in me since birth swilled around me and I understood all, of course. Later, in a shop the next morning, I stood for seconds in quiet appreciation, as I waited to pay for bread and milk, at the prospect of civil courtesies in my mother tongue, at being asked for a sum of money and knowing, without thinking or translating, just knowing, what was being requested of me; of knowing that I wouldn’t have to ask for the sum to be repeated or having to hold my hand out dumbly, palm filled with strange coins, questions in my eyes and on my face. I felt in control: strong, confident, visible, able. And, I suppose, in retrospect, I always do when coming back from a trip somewhere strange. I note it now to remind me always never to take the details for granted. The small things are the important things: the things we can do, say, understand. My house is an oasis of calm on my return, but it wouldn’t be so without the chaos of the dips into other worlds.

Bilbao, Zaragoza, Salou, Barcelona
April 15-25, 2003


Tell me something . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s