“Do you not swelter? Are you not cramped and crowded?”
Epictetus, on the Olympic Games, first century AD BARCELONA, Spain — Well, sure, you swelter. You cramp. You sweat. You take a deep breath and suck a mouthful of bus fumes. These are the Olympics. This is Barcelona. It is summer. It is 9,000 degrees. Do you not swelter?
Travel writers have this trick. When they want to make a foreign place seem utterly charming, they toss in a few phases in the native tongue. They say things like: “In (pick a place) you can sip famitas and munch tapitos by the light of the Paya des Chocos.” And you, being the typical travel reader
— meaning you flunked French in high school and have been trying to get cultured ever since — are so overwhelmed by these words that are so special they have to be written in italics that you rush out and book a flight to this place, no matter how much it costs.
It is only once you get there that you learn the translation: You can sip famitas (sewer water) and munch tapitos (stale bread) by the light of Paya des Chocos (loading dock.)
Have a bueno (nice) trip.
Ever since the hoopla began for these Summer Olympics, people have been romanticizing Barcelona, calling it “the jewel of the sea” or “the gem of the mountains.” Well, it is true, there is a sea. And there are mountains. I would recommend either of those places over actually being in the city. But it’s hard to get room service there.
So you are stuck here, downtown, between the carbon monoxide and the cigarette smoke, between the constant noise of motorbikes and the din construction workers who begin hammering outside your window when the sun comes up. Hey, give ’em a break! The Olympics are one day away, and there are still buildings to finish.
Which is part of the Spanish thinking. Why do today what you could do next October? No wonder the most famous landmark in this city is the Sagrada Familia, a breathtaking church that was started more than 100 years ago — and still isn’t finished! They get things done in their own time here. I estimate the 23rd century.
TRAVEL TIP: When visiting the sea, enjoy cabos des puros and sol asoleado.
TRANSLATION: When visiting the sea, enjoy cigar butts and a sun that will bake your skin off.
The toilets lack seny
I have been coming to Barcelona on and off now since the mid-80s. So I offer this studied description: hot, grimy, industrial, noisy, crowded, impatient and often rude. That’s the real Barcelona. I have read several articles that swoon at the local concept of seny, common sense, something the people of this region apparently pride themselves on. Sports Illustrated wrote about it. TIME magazine raved about it. So much seny, these Catalonians have!
I don’t know. If they have so much seny, why can’t they figure how to flush a toilet without pulling a cord?
Yet, I have not come to bury Barcelona, but to praise it.
So when do I get to the good part?
Momento. First, I think we should avoid waxing nostalgic about any city that gets CNN. Barcelona has its aged charm, but it is also thoroughly modern. This is a city where you can flip through a huge compact disc section in the massive El Corte Ingles department store, and, just down the street, buy a live chicken.
This is a city where a bullfight ring stands within shouting distance of a new Pizza Hut, whose delivery girls arrive on roller skates.
This is a city that has Roman ruins — along with an 80- foot-tall poster of Michael Jordan.
Barcelona has gotten more than a face-lift for these games; it has gotten a nose job, a tummy tuck and liposuction. Over $8 billion has been spent to turn warehouses into parks, build sparkling new stadiums, construct new beaches, overhaul the airport. Modern.
None of which has cooled the embers of a would-be civil war. Catalonia, the region that is home to Barcelona, still dreams of its independence. There are banners that proclaim “A Free Catalunya.” Also banners that say “A Free Catalonia.” (I think, in the interest of a successful revolution, they ought to agree on spelling.)
TRAVEL TIP: When you hear the sounds of balas, remember what the Spanish say: “Agachada!”
TRAVEL TIP: When you hear the sound of bullets, remember what the Spanish say: “Duck!”
Patience is a necessity
There are several ways to see Barcelona. You can see it the way the U.S. men’s basketball team is seeing it, through the windows of a $900-a-night hotel that is rented exclusively for them, guarded full-time, and might as well be on top of Mt. Olympus.
You could see it the way most other Olympic athletes are seeing it, in a specially constructed village that features three private beaches, pavilions and entertainment.
Or, you could see it the way the rest of us slobs are seeing it. Out on the streets. In the thick of traffic. Take a deep breath.
Ahhhhhhh . . . uuuhhhughhughkaachhhh!
I know, I know. When do I get to the good part?
Momento. You’re going to need patience here. Barcelona may be great at cooking paella, (translation: fish leftovers) or brewing coffee with enough caffeine to make Elvis rise and sing “Hound Dog” one more time, but when it comes to the service industry, Barcelona does not come at all.
You wait. You wait. You speak up. You wait. There are no bouncy Bennigan waitresses here, eager to fill your water glass and ask “is everything OK?” Here, you order your meal, and you may not see the waiter until next month. You want to buy something in the department store? Well, if the salesperson has time. Call information for a phone number? The first operator will give you a wrong number, the second will give you another wrong number, the third will tell you the place doesn’t exist.
THINGS YOU WILL NOT FIND IN BARCELONA: Air conditioning, no-smoking sections, bran, oat-bran, StairMasters, lunch-in-15- minutes-or-your-money-back.
So, OK. What’s the good part? The good part is, somehow Barcelona survives all this. Like fish who have learned to swim against the current, the gentry here have mastered the undertow, and manage to smile through it. Hell, they revel in it. Never mind that there is a siesta all afternoon and everything closes. Never mind that you’ll eat dinner at midnight, and get the check around 4 a.m. If you lay back and take Barcelona at its own pace — let the smoke become an aroma, let the noise become background music — you can have a wonderful time. There is art here. There is theater. There is dance. There is culture, history, architecture and cigarette machines. Everyone is happy.
They are also behind these Olympic Games. A poll shows 94 percent support the event. And to get people here to agree 94 percent on anything — besides a shorter work week — is a hell of a feat.
So if you’re thinking about coming over, come on over. We’ll all pile on, squeeze closer, breathe less. If there is one sentence that sums up this hot, crowded, grimy city and its embrace of the Olympics, it is this one:
Barcelona makes room.
TRAVEL TIP: When visiting Barcelona, make sure to llevar su desodorante.
TRANSLATION: Bring your deodorant.