Finding the zoo was pretty easy. A change of train lines, from the L3 (green) to the L5 (yellow) was required. Emerging from the station we located the Parc de la Ciutadella, where the zoo lives. We found a sign and followed the arrow…to another sign, with an arrow pointing back to the first sign. It was funny. We distracted ourselves by exploring the gorgeous neo-baroque Cascada fountain and laughing at the fact that we could see the fence enclosing the zoo but not the entrance. Settling upon a direction, we circumnavigated the walls of the zoo, emerging at the entrance roughly 100 meters from where we entered the park. When we attempted to buy tickets, we were informed that the “animals are closed at 5,” by a woman who blinked at me furiously, as if to remind me how stupid I am.
My Traveling Companion announced that we needed to go back to the hotel. I insisted on Plan B: we could go to the MUSEU MARÍTIMDE BARCELONA. One of my books calls it “the most fascinating museum in town.” Another says, “These royal dry docks are the largest and most complete surviving medieval complex of their kind in the world.” The third book describes it as “excellent…well worth the visit.” The fourth, “one of Barcelona’s finest Gothic structures.” Nowhere did it even hint at what we were told when we entered the building, which is that it is closed for renovation for two years.
At this point I had lost all credibility with my Traveling Companion, to the degree that he wanted to take a taxi back to the hotel. I insisted on the subway (having at my advantage the view of the subway station and knowing it was on the L3 (green) line).
I dropped my Traveling Companion at our hotel and told him I was “going shopping” before dinner. Shopping is something I find difficult in all circumstances, and I am no better at it with the anonymity of being a foreigner. I did manage to buy some tights (which I badly need back home but have little need for here), and a pretty lilac linen scarf. I asked clumsily to wear the scarf out of the store despite the fact that linen season is still months away. I had not traveled much more than another block when I realized my mother would have liked it, and it made me sad.
My Traveling Companion suggested dinner in the hotel: a fine idea after a day of failures. The restaurant is on the roof, with a limited menu and one charming staff member in attendance. I drank local beer and we stuffed ourselves on ham, followed by sandwiches and ice cream. At the end of the meal I asked my Traveling Companion what he thought we should do tomorrow, our second to last day. He suggested the zoo, but with a different Plan B.
My traveling companion and I arrived in Barcelona yesterday. We took the train from the airport (aeroporto), the up-side of which is that it is the most inexpensive option. The down-side is having the shacks and graffiti-covered hulls of buildings you see from the train as your introduction to the countryside of Spain. And of course, this being Spain the lovely colorful subway map that comes in all the travel books and is posted on walls seems to have essentially no relation to the lines as the trains actually travel them. We simply scratched our heads, argued a bit, and got on the train everyone else got on. What a relief to see that our stop was only number four (of course, when I say “our stop” what I mean was the connection we were going to attempt, which was in Spanish on the train and is in Catalan in all of the guidebooks).
At some point on the train a man with an accordion appeared in our car. When this happens in New York, people make eye-contact with you and roll their eyes theatrically. Here in Spain, local folks went into extreme no-eye-contact-mode, and the tourists smiled at their traveling companions with a half-wink, “Say, this never happens in Tokyo!” In New York, we have yet to have a man with an accordion get on our subway car, though we have had the rapper and fellows with guitars. I love music on the train, even when the musicians are not talented. It’s obviously people like me who keep these folks in business. I usually let my Traveling Companion keep the Euro change in his pockets, but I had to intercept the 2 Euro coin from him; he is a true believer in tipping street musicians of all kinds.
Triumphantly we got off our train into a packed underground station with flights of stairs and tons of people, some wearing party masks, and one of them carrying an unhappy, meowing cat in a crate. We made our way to the huge paper posters of train schedules to discover that they were written in some sort of cuneiform script. Here, our triumph ended, and we ascended to the street.
At this point, you see, we were utterly unable to see how you switched to the subway train line, so we walked. Emerging on Passeig de G
ràcia (which also has a Spanish name, Paseo de Gracia), we immediately encountered an enormous Sunday political rally, complete with flags, party stickers, neck-kerchiefs, loudspeakers, a lingering helicopter hovering above, soldiers, police, and thousands of strolling, well-dressed people. My Traveling Companion wanted to know what they wanted and why they were assembled. I had no clue. Many of them waved a red banner with “CCOP,” which is probably Catalonian Communists. I have a history of encountering communist party rallies, and happened upon one the last time I came to Europe, near the open air market by our hotel in Venice. This time, my Traveling Companion would never have tolerated me taking a picture, so I didn’t.
The hotel was not too hard to find. As in Italy, the street signs are attached to buildings at the corners of intersections so it took us a few blocks to verify that we were headed in the correct direction. I brought along an orphaned AT&T iPhone in case of emergency (Verizon phones are based on shorter string technology and do not stretch across the Atlantic Ocean), and turned on this phone to use the compass. I was right about north (a skill I cannot always count on, but did inherit from my father). The iPhone is being covered by “Orange” wireless. Tempting to make some calls, send a bunch of texts, etc., but once I saw a $3000 mobile phone bill.
Besides, I felt like a hero when I found the hotel (for about five minutes). We had to wait for our room until 3:30 pm, about 4 hours. We went and got delicious croissants and cafe au lait around the corner (being too simple-minded to be able to order anything more substantive). The wait for the room was actually excruciating! Stupid details of the timing of check-in and check-out are always so dicey. My Traveling Companion did not sleep on the plane but fell asleep waiting in the lobby and still sleeps now.
Our room is as strange and wonderful as I expected. Modern in the extreme, with three levels, two rooms and two baths. They have the bizarro key-in-the-light-switch deal here, which makes sense but also adds to the initial confusion of figuring out a room. The other hotel guests include a squalling baby and several commandeering adult men, who seem like they are in our room when they talk in the hall; this is never more startling than when you are sleeping off a headache and an overnight flight in coach. Housekeeping persistently knocked around 6 pm and I had to shout genuine nonsense at them to make them go away.
I logged on with the “free wireless,” which is 60 minutes worth of wireless, free every 24 hours.
We will rise soon and go eat tapas around 9:30 pm, enjoying sitting outside under a heater, listening to our fellow diners chatting in French on one side and Korean on the other. We will enjoy the communal aspect of the Euro-zone, where our waiter will bestow the most marginal service imaginable, and expects no tip, and we will bask and eat in a plume of second-hand cigarette smoke. There will be fried white anchovies and a decent glass of red wine even though I will ask for white, and it will be a privilege.
How often does a person need a vacation? Certainly vacations are a first-world luxury, and even within the developed world, standards for appropriate amounts of time off vary from the American two weeks to countries like France and Finland where they have 10 national holidays and 30 mandatory days of vacation. Even within the U.S. there is wide variability about holidays granted by employers; my husband, the Bacon Provider, earned his keep at Microsoft for almost 18 years, never once getting to enjoy Martin Luther King Day because it’s business as usual at Microsoft on Martin Luther King Day. By my accounting, he worked 18 days that the federal government set aside to honor a civil rights leader and encourage shopping after Christmas. This is almost four weeks of vacation.
For our spring vacation last year, we planned a trip to Japan and Hawaii. The Bacon Provider has been to Japan on business a number of times, and has been talking about taking me there for years. We were also taking our two kids still in the house these days, boys aged 17 and 13. I have been looking forward to going to Japan for a long time. We bought tickets in advance to visit the Ghibli Museum on April 14th. You have to buy these tickets in advance, but it is not possible to purchase tickets from the U.S. online. Instead, you must make reservations over the phone. It is a complex transaction, where the purchaser is required to give the full name and birthdate of each ticket-holder. This memorable phone conversation took up the better part of a morning, to a local Japanese tourism office in Seattle.
Obviously, rolling blackouts and food shortages and radioactive fallout from catastrophic failure at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima Daiichi meant that we did not go to Japan for this vacation. I have waited a long time to go to Japan, and I will have to wait some more.
When I was a little kid and still believed in the possibility that the world was a very magical place, I used to imagine that nothing happened outside of what I could currently see and experience. If people went out of view, they stopped existing. Sometimes this was kind of a cool idea, because it meant that I did not need to worry about missing interesting things. Other times, this was a very scary idea, especially when my parents took me to stay at my grandparent’s house while they went out of town. I do remember wondering if places that I had never been actually existed, or if they would be conjured up just before I arrived.
One of the many side effects of being a parent is sometimes phrases get stuck in your head from books and movies and books-on-tape enjoyed by your children when they were young. My oldest (now an adult) loved Thomas the Tank Engine, and I can hear in my head, “A change is as good as a rest!” whenever I think about vacation planning. I don’t think we travel to rest up. I think we do it to get out of our ruts.
People closest to me know that this moving-to-New-York-thing has been a bit of a long, bad vacation. A number of things have not worked out how we expected, and I find myself living in a spooky and lonely rural/suburban town for which there are no freeway exit signs, as if living here means getting away from it all, whether or not you want to get away from it all. I do not have all of my clothes or books or sewing supplies. In early July I took a road trip, across the U.S., which ended with moving in to a furnished apartment. From there we moved to a furnished house. In the summer there were days when I had so much trouble getting going that I would sometimes get back in bed, fully clothed, at mid-day. The pets thought it made perfect sense. It was more of a function of needing a place to sit in a small apartment than a sign of suffering, but I did do it more than once. These days I have too much to do.
That I am ready for a vacation means that this is where I live: amongst the long drives to everywhere, the deer, and the spooky water which goes to the faucets in Manhattan. Right now, I am planning a trip to Barcelona in a few weeks. Only my youngest son will be able to come along, but the Bacon Provider has reason to go there for work and it sounds pretty interesting to me. I have never been to Spain. Those magical people better get to work building Barcelona before I get there.