On Dead Famous People in Los Angeles, California

August 12th, 2014

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I said to my friend M_____, who lives in California. “Death is terrifying to me until I visit a cemetery. And then it just seems quiet.”

We were standing over Frank Zappa when I said this. Well, over who we thought was Frank Zappa, according to a web site I found on my phone. Frank Zappa, you see, has no marker. So you have to work your way over from a nearby tree, and some nearby graves.

George C. Scott doesn’t have a marker either. He’s on the other side of the cemetery, next to Carroll O’Connor. It’s less surprising that he doesn’t have a marker. I mean, the man didn’t want his Oscar either. But maybe being buried under a big blank tombstone next to Carroll O’Connor and Walter Matthau has the same effect as refusing an Oscar. Basically, at the end of the day, it’s exactly the same as winning an Oscar. Death is an equalizer, too.

All the colors in the cemetery, which is behind a skyscraper and is hard to find amidst the parking meters and the fire hydrants, are sort of the same. Brown, green, darker green. Stone, grass, leaves, a bench, a brick, a vine. There is Natalie Wood, with her married name and an Orthodox cross. Fanny Brice and her children. Peggy Lee is by a fountain. Louis Jourdan has a marker, and he’s still alive. Truman Capote has humble little yellow flowers, not nearly fabulous enough. Dean Martin has red roses, as you’d imagine, left just a few hours before.

But with Marilyn’s grave, her little shelf in the wall, all you see is fuchsia. The flowers, the lipstick marks on the outside. Apparently Hugh Heffner has bought the drawer next to her, so he can leer at her without her consent into eternity. But Marilyn’s flowers. Nothing in that green patch in that concrete block of Los Angeles on a cloudy day. Nothing is like those flowers. A pink bunch and a red bunch and a peach-y bunch, maybe from the day before. Even a little wilted, they are right on cue. Ready for their closeup, blaring into the heat of the day.

Art Street, Milan

June 22nd, 2014

The Don Gallery

In Milan, I follow the advice of a slick travel magazine and ring a doorbell in a neighborhood that’s covered in street art. It’s a gamble and the first time I try, I don’t get an answer. I do this just to see if it works, if the press is a liar like everyone says.

After a few minutes, an embarrassed shuffle of my feet, a fleeing thought about a potential language barrier, a little girl with long blond hair comes to the gate. She’s holding a jump rope and and is wearing a pastel t-shirt that’s a staple at grownup stores that have fashionable kids’ lines.

Boungiorno?” I ask. Little kids who speak languages other than English always strike me as freakish alien supergeniuses. Like their eyes could bore holes in concrete, too.

“Hello,” she says back with an accent and a grin. She runs back to the house and shouts “PAPAAAAAAA!”

Just behind her, a guy with a mustache is strolling around the driveway behind the gate strumming a guitar. He smiles and waves and doesn’t let me in, but holds up a finger, the universal symbol for, “Hold on a sec.” He’s not Papa.

Papa does show up, though, an instant later. He’s wearing loafers and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes. He’s tanned like it’s September even though it’s only May and he lets me in when I ask if the gallery is open.

“It’s open,” he says in English. “Only it’s not a gallery right now. It’s a house. It’s my house.”

He introduces his daughters — there’s another tiny blonde alien racing around just inside the door clutching another jump rope — and the guitar guy, whose name is Antonio. He nods, keeps playing.

He escorts me into his living room, and then his office, and the stuff on the walls is outrageous. A Shepard Fairey, a Space Invader, a Banksy, a Ron English sculpture. All of it just sitting there in a house behind a gate in a residential neighborhood in Milan by the crappy train station — not even the good train station.

When I tell him I’m from New York, he says, “Ah, but you have much better street art than this.”

Probably. But not in my living room.

He gives me a tour, points to the Fairey and says, “This is your Shepard Fairey, of course.” Mine, though. Mine meaning American, mine meaning New Yorker, mine meaning I have borne through the door of this house/gallery some idea of authenticity, and that’s a hilarious.

I don’t know anything about anything. I just like to look at pretty things. Cathedrals. Paintings. Italian men with tans and very blue eyes.

I circle the room slowly, trying to get a handle on where I am and what I’m doing, and the little girls watch me the whole time, keeping just enough distance, still holding their jump ropes. Antonio continues his song. After a few minutes, the silence gets awkward and I say goodbye. When I tell him that I heard about the gallery in a magazine, he says, “Yes, well. We did some PR. We had a party.”

So I guess that’s why I’m here. Because at some point there was a party.

I step back out onto the street feeling strangely accomplished. About street art that’s not on the street. That’s curated into the living room of a white-painted Milan apartment — the first private space in this city that I’ve ever seen. Until this moment, for me, Milan is all squares and churches and arches full of visitors, all train stations and expensive hotels. It is men on Vespas in business suits, jetting off to places I’ve never been, and darting behind doorways where I can’t go.

This glimpse behind the gate, I am not so sure about. A gallery or a house, indoors or out, it is maybe the real Milan or maybe not. Maybe it’s a party that happened a long time before I arrived.

Wallace Fountains: Paris, Marseille, New Orleans

June 21st, 2014

The Wallace Fountains are everywhere in Paris. Designed to bring water to every citizen of the city, from the richest to the poorest, they’re so much a part of the Parisian landscape that after a few days town, you stop really seeing them. They sort of blend with the boulevards and the green parks, the onion-domed advertising columns that are painted the same color. Take them away, though, and Paris is not Paris. They exist in a number of French cities besides Paris, and in handful around the globe, from Amman to Macau. Here are three that I’ve seen in Paris, Marseille (where the caryatid has been splashed with neon paint), and New Orleans. The latter isn’t painted that same gleaming, bulletproof green that you see in Paris, but has more of a coppery finish.

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Budapest: The Baths

March 18th, 2014

I.

I soak to the bone in water so hot that my toes turn purple. The bathtub, along with the rest of the hotel is new — or newly renovated, anyway — so it bleats bright under the bathroom’s covered LED lamps. Every day, they leave me a brand new roll of toilet paper, even though I’ve barely used the original. It’s totally confusing.

I think of boiling myself like a Massachusetts lobster, taking away the chill by any means necessary. I’m always too small for bathtubs, never long enough to rest my head, so I’m always either freezing or drowning. This one holds so much water that I float, almost.

II.

There is no 16 bus that goes to the top of the hill, so the options are to walk or to take the funicular. The funicular is expensive and stupid and in whipping wind and rain, the walk does not seem bearable. Or more, the walk seems like it would push me off the edge, me and my camera phone and my little shoes, which are soaked through, a bad choice.

I skip the recommended cafe. I skip the art museum. I move ahead in the guidebook to the church, which will offer shelter. The Catholic girl notes that a church would, of all places, be the much-needed shelter in an impromptu city storm. The result of an instantly answered prayer.

Please God, give me shelter. Boom, have an ornate Hungarian church on a hill.

I’m so cold that I cannot appreciate the church, its interiors painted in funhouse colors, a blue dome like the sky. On a sunnier day, maybe I could feel more. Could feel the centuries of faith and comforting routine seeping through the walls. Could feel my feet. Instead, I take a pew just to stop moving, to leaf through my guidebook and figure out what I’ve missed.

I wonder, for the thousandth time, why I came to Buda, land across the river, when Pest was treating me so well. To see. To leave no stone unturned. All the usual stupid travel things.

Standing on the corner by the car tunnel, waiting for a bus that I don’t initially realize is not coming, I chatter in the cold. I am on my second umbrella in two hours, the first one a cheap model that disintegrates in my hands, that turns into a flapping flag of fabric and a silver spider with eight broken legs. I’m furious and underdressed for my own life, which makes me even more furious.

I stand under a leafless tree with a British couple who don’t know any more about the bus schedule than I do. When we finally get on a bus, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. We all sigh in relief when it rumbles, smooth on its wheels, across the bridge, toward home.

III.

The hotel is right at the end of the bridge. All I need is to get across the bridge.

By the time I reach the hotel, I cannot feel my fingers either. I wonder if I will freeze to death before I get to the door, while I am running around the long ring road that used to serve as its driveway. If I will be discovered sprawled out on a Budapest sidewalk in front, my snot frozen solid. It would be poetic. Almost literally dying in the gutter.

I make it to the curling wrought-iron gate and slip through, giving the doorman a smile so he thinks I’m staying. He humors me, tosses one back, even though he knows I’m not.

You can always tell a really nice hotel from the carpets, how your feet make no noise. The ones at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace render me silent — one of the few things to do so. I smile again at the woman at the front desk. She doesn’t buy it either.

In the bathroom I use the moisturizer — there’s moisturizer — and realize, when I look in the mirror, why the front desk lady is under no illusion that I’m staying. My hair is frizzed out straight like I have spent the afternoon testing the voracity of the city’s electrical sockets with my fingers. I tame it all down, pretend that I’m civilized, even with my pant legs soaked through, my ankles exposed like I have never seen a weather report before.

On the other side of the carpets of silence, I take a table and order an $8 pot of white blossom tea, which comes with a tiny glass of water, two little vanilla cakes, and — god bless it — a miniature madeline. Two different waiters offer me newspapers, but I refuse, too absorbed in the conversation happening at the next table.

One guy dominates. He has a European-but-educated-in-England accent and a Hitler Youth haircut and the topics of the day meander from the excessive loudness of New York City restaurants to Beyonce to his annoying co-worker who sends incoherent emails in English. A fawning American girl interjects every once in a while. She has a lot to say about New York — none of it good. The two others at a the table, both European, barely get a word in.

I am comforted when they hail a taxi to another hotel. So they’re impostors, too.

I drink two full pots of tea. I am relieved when the waitress asks if I want more water. Because after the first pot, I very much want more water, and I am unsure of the protocol surrounding these things. Asking for something free seems a little gauche, especially after I’ve used the moisturizer. I drink what amounts to eight cups of tea, never letting the white porcelain cup leave my hands the entire time, greedy for the warmth. Out in the lobby, someone plays semi-standard lounge fare on the piano — the themes from Love Story and the Godfather. The room around me is swathed in gauzy orange and green and decorated with “art glass” and chandeliers. For a brief, beautiful instant, I consider staying for dinner, but I can’t. I have drunk enough so that I could float away. Be bloated forever.

I head back out into the cold. It’s dark now. The rain has stopped, but the wind persists.

On Searching for Franz Liszt in Budapest and Not Finding Him

March 14th, 2014

At the Liszt Museum, in the music academy, they don’t have anything I want. Well, anything except the pianos, which sit in the middle of finely-wallpapered rooms, silent and with their keys covered.

Even like this, they radiate magic, all warm grainy wood and faintly yellow keys. There’s one, tiny and in the corner and sized for a child, with hammers that strike lengths of glass instead of strings, so it makes a kind of sparkling noise, fit for a winter ballet. Another is bigger than my bed and made by an American craftsman in Boston. Liszt played it late in life and it still works, but I can hear it only on the audio guide, a solo so beautiful that it stops my slow transverse around the room. I stare out a window, watch people bustle on the street below, toward Oktogon, toward the House of Terror. I listen to the whole song.

They put a whole song, a sonata, on an audioguide. That’s the kind of museum this is.

There are portraits, and he was handsome, so I appreciate this, too. The ones of him as a young man show him to be ravishing and long-nosed, his hair grown long and shaggy as befits a rockstar of any generation. But he was first. Women fought over locks of his hair and flew into hysterics when he played. There’s one story of a girl at the stage door who picked up the discarded stump of his cigar and wore it in a locket.

There is none of this in the room. Nothing about the affairs. With George Sand and the married Comtesse, with whom he had three illegitimate children. There is a whole corner dedicated what this museum declares as his actual primary devotion — Catholicism. There are prayer books, his small alter, an embroidered bleeding heart that he wore inside his coat. That the latter thing, smaller than my palm and made with great care, was given to him by a female admirer is mentioned only in passing.

For romance, to find the romantic inside this actual king of the romantics, I will retreat elsewhere. To recordings. To Google searches. To somewhere other than a second-floor apartment on Budapest’s main street, an apartment inside an academy. The heart of Franz Liszt, it seems, cannot be contained by that.

Ours and Theirs

September 13th, 2013

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In Cordoba, Spain, away from the tourist clog around the Mesquita and the rambling alleyways of the whitewashed Juderia, there is a residential neighborhood that falls mostly silent after 10:00 pm, where the paint is a little cracked and the busses whoosh by a little faster, ambivalent to the cowering pedestrians on the street corners.

This is where we find the rock bar.

We are guided here by a pamphlet that D___ finds in the train station, a low-budget, hand-scrawled affair with a decent map and recommendations written in only passable English. It touts itself as the guide for the cool kids, and we are entranced.

We find it on the map, but also by following the thumping music, and the cigarette smoke of a few slumping locals outside. Inside, the mostly empty room shudders to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which is broadcast over a couple of enormous TV monitors. Pastel-hued prints of the Beatles, Aerosmith, and Zepplin cover the walls. Above the bar on a shelf sits a drum set, and above that, the words ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE lined up in block letters.

The beer is cheap. The wifi password is “IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE.” When D___ asks the bartender for it, he replies in English, “Imagine all de people,” and D___ isn’t sure which language, or which spelling to use. Our technology-obsessed, internet-parched minds compel us to figure it out, and we do, determined that those few minutes of flowing email, of Instagram that is truly instant, have made it worth the trip.

By our second beer, the bar starts to fill and the music changes. Baby-boomers in sundresses and loafers dance with their arms around each other. A girl saunters by wearing a t-shirt with an enormous jeweled butterfly on the front. Michael Jackson has disappeared from the monitor and gives way to bands we don’t recognize. One is shown in a video clip from the 80s, the lead singer dressed up as a mock version of an American teenager — letterman jacket, pleated jeans — and sitting in front of an enormous keyboard. The song is a play on 1950s doo-wop, sung in Spanish. Another band is called Tennessee, and they play in a Manfred Men-ish style, all of them wearing sunglasses.

“I think we should go,” says D___, finishing his second beer.

I check my email for another minute, not wanting to let go of that moment of precious connection.

Earlier, we’d eaten cheap tapas on the wide, square Plaza de la Corredera with a half-moon hanging over us in an empty, black sky. A passle of little girls raced around us, shrieking over a game with rules we didn’t understand, their parents nearby at metal tables, smoking and finishing their beers. Someone’s little dog, off the leash for a few minutes, panted for our leftovers. The houses along the Plaza were mostly shuttered, their owners on their late-summer vacations in France or Italy or New York, but the conversation hummed below anyway, for everyone left behind. In the rock bar, we wished we were back there. Or maybe we wished we could duplicate the feeling of that place and bring it everywhere, to the rock bar and back, and home again — a sense of the familiar and easy in uneasy places.

Iguazu, The Ride

August 4th, 2013

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I was saying to Kenny, “You know, it’s kind of weird, or at least interesting, that they’ve applied theme park sensibility to real-life natural landscapes…”

And then they dunked us under the waterfall and we all started screaming.

It was cold, for Brazil. Or I suppose it was cold for the foreign idea of Brazil, which all about steamy tropicalness, of snaking rivers and toucans and steam rising from boundless jungle. There is truth in that idea, probably, when it’s not winter in Brazil, and when you’re somewhere other than Iguazu Falls, which lies along Brazil’s southern border with Argentina and Paraguay. It was cold, for Brazil. It was 50. It was too cold to be dunked under a waterfall, anyway — a big waterfall. It is no simple trickle, Iguazu, where the liters of water dumped over its horseshoe-shaped edge are counted in the millions — per second. Where the water falls so hard and fast that the cliff erodes by inches in a single year and the rainbows spring up in triplicate, arching far beyond 180 degrees.

And I get the idea that you want to touch it or ride it. It is the immediate impulse when you see it — the weird desire to merge with an unstoppable natural force. Seeing Iguazu, you can sort of understand the weirdos who go over Niagara every year thinking they can survive. And maybe there are similar narratives with Iguazu — people looking for the ultimate thrill — but I don’t know them and the tour guides don’t volunteer it, if it exists. (You only think of the right questions to ask when you’re home. Or maybe that’s just me.)

We saw the waterfall up close and far away, from a helicopter and on a bridge where the spray is so strong and close that you have to wear a raincoat to keep from getting drenched. And it is not a gentle, Maid of the Mist sort of uncomfortable dampness. It is soaked-through, must-change-my-underwear-and-my-mascara-afterwards sort of inundation that requires the careful hiding of your iPhone and your leather purse. And then we took the boat ride.

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The boat departs from a dock downriver from the falls where everything seems brown and tame, the steep cliffs of Argentina rising on the opposite bank silent and empty. When they ask you to leave your shoes behind, it seems innocent and respectful — like visiting the temples in India. A thing that you do when you travel because you’re asked to do it and you want to fit in and seem savvy.

It was sunset when we departed — not a great time to go, but we’d dallied on the bridge. We sat in the front of the boat — an oversize inflatable raft with a stinky gasoline motor — thinking it would afford the best view and protect us from the water spray. But a tangle of Bolivian teenagers, traveling with their church group, crowded in front of us. They were cute, at least, and eager.

The driver headed straight for the rapids, hitting them hard, with impeccable aim, swerving to find them as they cropped up. The boat’s wobbly cargo screeched with glee and terror as if we’d hit the big hill on the world’s most excellent new log flume ride. The rocks along the shoreline made me nervous and made me wonder about insurance. Before we’d departed, our guide smiled, a twinkle in his eye and said in heavily accented English, “I will pick up the survivors at the end, OK?” Note that he didn’t actually join us.

Photo ops are a key part of the experience. The boat’s skipper wore a pool-blue rubber suit and heavy boots and carried a camera in a waterproof case. He asked us to stand and smile in front of certain points of interest, our bare feet unsteady as the boat spun and careened. On one side, the Devil’s Throat was barely visible in the distance amidst the fog and fading sun. On the other, a tall section of the Argentine falls spilled over behind us — the perfect backdrop for a photo. The kind of thing that school kids and smiling families choose out of a book at Sears to complete their portraits, to give it a specific look of picturesque otherness. At Iguazu, after your boat ride is complete, you can buy photos of yourself screaming and preening at a dockside kiosk.

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They dunked us after all the photos were taken, our hair flattened by the wind.

As the boat approached one cataract — a piece of Iguazu called the Three Musketeers for its triad of wide, even falls — we started talking about thrill rides.

Then the water dumped on our heads, heavy and relentless, and everything around us turned white and cold and I was sitting in water and submerged in it up to my ankles. They they dunked us again. And again. And one more time. The boat driver and the skipper laughed. I pulled the hood of my raincoat down over my face.

We hit the rapids again on the way back, but no one seemed as excited, or shouted as hard. Our small group folded in our ourselves, our lips blue, exchanging quiet data on the state of our underclothes — laughing, at least a little. When I stepped out on the dock, there were pine needles stuck to my legs. Despite the shouts of the men at the kiosk, we bought no photos.

Traffic, Delhi

October 3rd, 2012

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Manu and Dayel are the family drivers and they think we are hilarious. They speak just enough English to tell us so, or maybe it’s just something in their eyes.

On the night of the party, we’re in Dayel’s car, which is scary because Dayel drives like he’s rounding the curve in a NASCAR race but really, he’s driving a van in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Saturday night in the second largest city in the world. There are no discernible traffic laws in Delhi, no stop lights, no lines in the road. Most cars carry no insurance. The city’s pedicabs have no working headlights or tail lights, and they account for every third vehicle on the street.

By the time the party is over, when we are happily warm and a little tipsy and piled into Dayel’s car, when he is blasting Hindi dance music at top volume, as he accelerates, foot to the floor, even though there’s a truck twenty feet in front of us, Jen realizes that she knows exactly how to drive a car in Dehli. She’s sitting in the front, on the passenger side but on the left. Her stomach has been iffy all night.

She holds up the palm of her hand, presses it forward toward the windshield, and goes, “Beeeeep.”

It seems, in this moment, that she is exactly right. That here, a horn is a turn signal and speed is the only chance at survival.

Dayel swerves to the left and we see what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to create a fifth lane of traffic to the left of a long line of trucks, but the space between the trucks and the guardrail is so tight. It barely looks wide enough for our car.

“NO,” we shout. “NO!”

And he laughs, because he’s going to do it anyway, and because we have no idea how this works and we think we do, because we’ve driven Toyota Camrys and Chevy Cavaliers on the streets of suburban Massachusetts and Texas and New Hampshire.

He does it and we shout some more, and when a car suddenly appears in his makeshift lane, he swerves back, falling into line behind a cement truck with the words, HORN PLEASE painted on the bumper. Dayel obliges.

“What are all these people doing out?” asks Jen.

“It’s Saturday night in New Delhi,” says Katie.

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We pass through the same neighborhood we did on the way, a tangle of low, neon-lit hotels that had been choked with hollering street food vendors, and stores crammed in with endless piles of things – plastic, glass, electronics, live chickens – only it’s silent and dark now. The shops have lowered their metal grates. The sidewalks have cleared. Still, Dayel does the same thing he did on the way: He locks us in. We joke that he’s trying to keep us from trying the street food – something we’re all fairly desperate to do – but we know that’s not the reason.

It takes us twenty minutes to get home from the party. Abiding by the American-style speed limits in our minds, we estimate that it should have taken an hour. We will learn later that Dayel and Manu had a bet about who could get us home first, that there was beer riding on it. We are not sure how the results were tabulated, or who judged, but we’re guessing that Dayel won. For Manu to have beaten him would have taken miracles – and a sixth lane.

Babu Market, Two Days Before the Wedding

September 25th, 2012
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When I hold out my hand to the bracelet seller at Babu Market, I expect him to touch my wrist, but he doesn’t. Instead, his hand cradles the widest part of my fist, the breadth between my pinky and thumb knuckles.

An instant before, Mrs. Sahrawat dropped the sari across his table of bangles, a bright folded square of gauzy pink netting with an elaborate appliqué of silver beads and sequins. He ponders this for a moment, nodding. That’s when she gestures for me to show him my hand.

I have this panic about doing things wrong, mostly because I am always doing things wrong, and my heart sinks when I realize that I have given him my left hand – the only one not laden with shopping bags. Alas, a taboo instantly trod upon, and I’ve been in India less than 24 hours. He doesn’t seem to mind, though, because he reaches for me without a blink, takes a moment to make his determination, drops my first, and gently pushes the sari aside.

He works quickly, selecting from one section of his table. The bangles are arranged in long rows by color, threaded onto dowels. He finds a pink that is nearly identical to the color of the sari, pulls up the dowel, and chooses a thick handful. From another section, he chooses some with white crystals, and from another, a stack that’s inset with pearly little beads. Then he arranges them, flipping them over using both hands and they move as fluidly as a slinky, first a pink one, then a white one, then a silver one, so they form a regular pattern. He puts them in a box that looks like it’s been fashioned, by hand, from some other box, from a whole other generation of boxes. Like it’s descended from a long line of boxes. It’s covered in paper that says “S. R. Bangle Store” and has an illustration of a bird holding a bracelet in its beak.

He moves on to Tanya, and when he touches her hand, he ponders for a little longer and says something, barely audible and in just a few words, to Mrs. Sahrawat.

“This is harder,” she says to us.

We assume, for a moment, that we’re going to move on to another bangle stall. There must be others in Babu Market, just like there were more shoes, more dress shops with spangled frocks folded into bags upon bags, more stalls for menswear and rhinestone-studded purses and bindis. Mrs. Sahrawat drives a hard bargain and her strongest chip is the most elegant one – refusal. If she can’t get the price she wants, she shrugs, turns down the corners of her mouth, and goes to another stall, leaving the merchants shouting at her back.

But then, the man hollers up to someone standing above him, on the roof, it seems, of the stall across the aisle. There is a room up there with a jagged tin roof and a riot of boxes and packages inside. An instant later, there is a shopping bag on a pulley sliding across the aisle, down to the bangle seller. He pulls out a new set of bangles in Tanya’s size and does his sorting trick, one bracelet at a time, settles them into a different kind of box – also recycled from another box.

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We try to pay, but Mrs. Sahrawat refuses our money in the same way she rejects the sellers who won’t budge on their prices – coolly, and without question that negotiations are over. We add the boxes to our bags, to our growing stash of wedding stuff, and continue on to a wall of glittering sandals. We have been in India less than 24 hours. The course of action for the rest of the day is set: Hold out your hand and give it a moment to size you up.

Barcelona in Six Square Meals

February 15th, 2012

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There was the tortilla in La Boqueria, jetlagged and with an empty belly. And how I pointed because I was afraid to say things in Spanish or in Catalan or in anything that wasn’t English. And I ate it standing up amidst the stalls of hanging pork legs and lanyards of chiles and wide-eyed staring fish. I thought it was the best market I’d ever seen — no small feat after Provence, after the strawberry sellers in Paris and the guys with tables of mangoes and coconuts halfway across the Pacific. But I liked this better, the colored glass and the narrow lanes and the candy sellers and the intricate sea creatures with spiny, spindly shells.

Dinner!

There was a baked piece of brie encrusted with pistachio nuts and a raspberry dipping sauce, and a sliver of pork loin on a little piece of toast with a chile pepper and a toothpick, and a salty piece of seared cod with chutney and there was beer. And endless little pieces of bread rubbed with tomatoes and olive oil and garlic. And outside the restaurant beforehand, C______ passed out cold on the sidewalk and I ran next door and got her the Spanish equivalent of Gatorade, which was predictably bright yellow in a bright orange bottle. When she felt better, she said, “How did you know that would help?” I said things about electrolytes and then our table was ready.

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On the flight over, my foodstuffs are divided by a solid wall of mashed potatoes made from potato flakes. It stops the river of gravy from spreading across the little aluminum plate. The potatoes feel solid and inevitable. The vegetables can be counted on a single hand, and they’re incomplete, the shaved-down insinuations of carrots. Something shaved off a bigger carrot. A dismembered carrot.

Peppers in Long Strands

I go to McDonalds. Fuck everything, I go to McDonalds. Because it’s predictable and because the results are consistent, the whole world over. Because I am too tired from stomping around the city in flat shoes, from staring agog at Gaudi’s creations, to fish through a guidebook for something recommended. I don’t want a meal. I want fuel to keep seeing things. I order in English and sit on the bottom floor amidst noisy families and write in my notebook. The McDonalds is on the Passeig de Garcia, one of the most fashionable streets in Barcelona, near the Casa Batllo with its arched dragon back, its bones and scales. I sit in brown and orange familiarity in the basement with the kids, and I write in my notebook. A full third of the bun on each of my cheeseburgers is fully, undeniably stale.

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At the restaurant that everyone recommends, we get a heap of slivered, fried baby artichokes, which are like French fries only made of artichokes. Their flavor is so delicate that it’s like eating fried air. We share plates of sliced meat and more brie with nuts and patatas bravas and when the bill comes, our only thought is that we should have ordered more.

The Beach

Me and C______ sit in a seafood restaurant by the port on a Sunday afternoon in winter and in the sun, it feels like summer. Or like some strange version of summer where people get sunburned in their heavy coats, where the breeze soothes and chills all at once. We get paella, which comes in huge metal pans with huge spoons. The yellow rice glistens. We chug sparkling water and talk about men, and after, we walk down to the beach. And over to the W hotel, which is shaped like a giant post-apocalyptic taco. In the lobby, we ask to see a room but the guy isn’t there, so we wander past the LEDs, past the mod fountain and the dumpling-shaped chairs and we walk on the boardwalk around the outside of the taco, which overhangs the ocean. What must it be like in summer, with full-strengh sun and everyone tanned and dazed from a day on the sand. Instead, it’s just us taking pictures, trying to imagine it, watching the sun set and pretending that it was June.