In a few hours I will climb into a couchette on the night train to Madrid, bringing to a close my week of trudging around Barcelona with all six pockets of my cargo shorts ludicrously over-filled with various journalist battery-powered gadgets, maps, pamphlets and breath mints. These shorts are an integral part of my Travel Writer Tool Box and I can’t live without them, but when I run across the street to catch a bus, the contents of the pockets swing around, my knees get all banged up and I feel like my shorts are going to drop to the floor. This is what it must feel like for women to run without good chest support. My cargo shorts need a sports bra.
This was my sixth visit to Barcelona over the course of 14 years. I really love this place, and I’m never able to adequately illustrate why, because there’s certainly enough reasons to hate it. The streets are loud, often smell of a mix of exhaust fumes and piss and are second only to Venice for being crowded with the most gifted Slow Walkers to ever sort-of-walk-the-earth. Prices are high and service is ridiculously bad – I had to make one very expensive phone call and three trips to the train station in order to complete the transaction for my overnight ticket to Madrid and nothing short of a loaded gun could have improved the service at TapaÇ24, one of the city’s best tapas bars. Crime is worse than ever, the tourist hoard is inescapable and the locals expect all visitors to speak flawless Spanish and if you only speak it reasonably well, you are disciplined with even worse service. And virtually every day I am nearly brained by a bus side view mirror that passes unnecessarily close (a friend of a friend of mine was killed by a speeding bus’ side view mirror in Bangkok, so for once my irrational fears are fitting – I’m still working on my fear of being hit in the eyeball by a cigarette butt, flicked out of a moving car though… baby steps.).
Yet , there’s an irresistible energy, liveliness and tourist diversity here that overshadows the insufferable parts. Tons of great architecture, roaming options, first-rate museums and beautiful beaches (by city standards) full of beautifuller people. And I don’t care how overpriced and passé it is, I cannot get enough sangria, maybe the greatest summer beverage invented in the history of the universe (though, frankly, it’s better in San Sebastian).
Unfortunately, enjoying myself was a challenge this time around. I was here to write a business traveler magazine article – with emphasis on the business and not so much about the travel – so the bulk of my professional time was spent establishing unwilling contacts with the tourism board, researching the local economy and current political issues and trying to find a few restaurants that weren’t serving over-priced ca-ca. None of this happened easily and as always I walked the equivalent distance of Minneapolis to Boston over the course of six days while chasing down information and people willing to take a break from their personal phone calls to answer a question or two. My feet feel like they’ve been wailed on by the Catholic nun World Cup cricket team.
One of the fun/annoying things about Barcelona is that it always manages to make stunning changes between each of my visits. Apart from fractional progress in the construction of the wondrous Sagrada Familia, every restaurant I knew before has either moved or been replaced, usually by something of lesser quality. Corporate stores have descended in mass, chasing out the cute independent shops. A street that only had one Irish pub the last time I was here now has six. And the street performer situation has greatly improved in quality, but also in competition. It’s total busker chaos on the Ramblas at night with these guys performing practically on top of each other trying to get the attention of passersby, who are so stunned stupid by the sensory overload that they forget how to tip.
And before anyone asks, yes, I’ve been to the beach. I have a savage tan and the topless to non-topless ratio is like 5:1 on good days, which I believe is the best numbers I’ve ever seen, including the Black Sea in Romania where most ‘swimsuits’ could be mistaken for a colorful eye patch if seen hanging on a hook.
As you can probably sense, it’s been a frustrating, grueling visit, even with the comfort and gi-normous breakfast buffet at the business hotel that hosted me for six nights. I managed to sneak in plenty of personal time, but any rest and enjoyment I manage to glean was nearly always erased by an encounter with a chain-smoking, voluntarily mute metro attendant or being given the run-around by the tourism bureau, whose staff are mainly proficient in one thing – giving out the phone numbers of their least favorite colleagues across town so they don’t ever actually have to do anything.
But there is a very, bright and lovely light at the end of this wearisome tunnel… In the continuing saga of everything in my life happening spontaneously and expensively, I have decided to take a break. I’m fall-down tired and I’ve gotta rejuvenate before I start my next project. I’m flying home to Minneapolis tomorrow morning for a month to let my mom hug me, see friends, speak English to native speakers, get free Coke refills, gain four kilos (eight pounds) and sleep like a dead dog. Also, I’ve got some personal and professional business to attend to – like hiring a tax guy that can sort out a Homeless, Ex-pat, Destitute Travel Writer Loophole that excuses me from paying taxes, while netting me a multi-billion dollar bailout payment like the airlines get every third year – which is never gonna happen if I’m continuously on the road, stealing WiFi while loitering on the front steps of Best Western hotels.
Also, I’ve pretty much gotta replace every stitch of clothing I have, due to fading, permanent grease and red wine stains and general fall apart. I can’t be trusted to dress myself, so anyone in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area that has taste and a half day to kill, I’d appreciate some aid. There’s an Everything Omelet in it for you.