Last night the northern winds of October suggested that the plane and I blow south rather than north, but instead of following my instincts, I returned home. As it happened it was to perfect cool, sunny and colorful autumn weather. It is warmer here than what I left in London – where it snowed!! on Tuesday night. That was a treat for a Canadian who never minds the first snow of the season and knowing it was a strange event for that city and I felt that it was a wonderful white thing to witness.
I had arrived in London two weeks earlier to cool autumn weather and quickly left for Barcelona where my friend Chrissy and I stayed for several days, before returning for three days to the land of the queen who was surely wearing her woolies this last week.
So I thought I’d share some photos and some impressions, but just to show that I was still on the job, here is a picture of me about to take Walking with Wolf into the Quaker Book Store on Euston Road in central London where it is now for sale. I also took the opportunity to talk with a nice fellow at The Friend journal office about doing a review. I must admit that was the only book related work I did for the last couple of weeks.
We only had time in London to visit the Abney Cemetary Trust in the Stoke Newington area where I was staying at Chrissy’s. We walked around what is the largest wooded area in the central area of London, 32 acres of overgrown trees, lichened tombstones and moss-mottled monuments. It was perfect to be there on the gloomy day we were, that alone being there in the spooky season. Turns out that it was at one time used by a Quaker girls school and also is home to the remains of the Booths, the founders of the Salvation Army. We wandered the paths between the granite monoliths and creeping vines, England’s history slowly seeping into my chilled bones.
Chrissy, who I met eighteen years ago on the beach in Montezuma, Costa Rica, has invited me to visit her in England since that first year. I haven’t made it over before, initially due to dealing with cancer, then to my parents’ final years, then to the book. So it was important that I go. She has a cozy flat in the Hackney area of northern London but also a walk-up in downtown Barcelona. That was where we headed, to usually sunny Barcelona, though while we were there the rain in Spain didn’t just fall mainly on the plain, if you know what I’m sayin’. Fortunately even when it was raining, we could sit at the open terrass doors of the flat, sipping wines, eating chorizo and cheese, playing scrabble and watching the tree-lined social scene below us. One of the main beauties of Barcelona is the constance of people out on the street – all day, all night - Chrissy says it is because so many live in dark flats and the nice weather makes it conducive and nicer to be outside. It is also obviously the social nature of the Spanish and the pleasure they take in eating, drinking, talking and participating in life.
From Chrissy’s flat in a rare moment with few people
Besides the extreme gregariousness of the people and the balminess of the climate, the other outstanding feature of Barcelona is its architecture and outdoor art.
Everywhere you look there aren’t just really old or really new buildings, big and shiny or organic and stony constructions, but this city is filled with whimsical and inspired, rule-bending and extravagant creations. Much of this is due to Antoni Gaudi, the architect who was behind the design of a great number of intriguing complex colorful buildings incorporating nature’s idiosyncratic forms into each. His work is a warped form of gothic – Gaudic you can call it – and ventures into Art Nouveau.
There is the Park Guell where he lived the last few years of his life (before being struck down by a trolley – poor guy) surrounded by ceramic-tiled pillars and sculpted railings over cave-like bridges, a number of casas commissioned by wealthy families, and the notoriously unfinished Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia – which looks (to this American-influenced chica) like someone plopped Disneyland in the middle of this already gothic city. There are building cranes still suspended all over the rising twisted spires which have been worked on since 1882 yet people don’t hold out hope for it being finished in this life time.
Each building is more ornate and magical than the last. There are various other examples of modern architecture throughout the city as well as medieval and gothic, with countless large works of art and designed gardenscapes interspersed throughout. Any city that would let an obviously obsessed, child-like, brilliant designer like Gaudi rule their skyline and build these non-traditional creations is a city that I have to love. Dali and Picasso also played here – well, the influence of the city on the artists or the artists on the city leaves behind a trail of magical genius for the rest of us.
Outdoor art – and stainless steel kiddies slides in a garden park
I guess a big turn around in the city came with the Olympics in 1992 when architects reworked the beachfront, landscape designers built artistic garden parks and artists were commissioned to fill spaces with large installations. The waterfront became miles of beach along the Med and cafes and bars put up their umbrella-sheltered tables to cater to the happy sunbathers.
Riding our bikes we got to cover a great part of the city, winding through the back alleys and through the cafe-strewn boulevards. Although I ride my bike everywhere here in Hamilton, I’m seldom in this kind of density of pedestrians or on as busy streets, but I just followed Chrissy, who is a very experienced cyclist in both London and Barcelona. I enjoyed the days when we walked, as I could actually see more without having to keep my eye on the road.
We took the metro as well as the exterior escalators that climb up the elevations that surround the city – where Park Guell sits and Montjuic, home of the big art gallery and the football stadium where the Olympic programs took place. Everywhere there was art, everywhere there were people, and everywhere there was food – as long as you understood the hours when lunch was served, when shops were closed so people could eat lunch, and when other bars were open or not…it took a bit to catch on to what was open and when, when we were supposed to be eating and what, but it was always worth the effort to be in the right place at the right time…and the menu lunches – about ten euros for three courses of fresh food off a changing menu, with a glass of wine and a cortado (little cup of coffee), was always a great deal. And we had a great sushi lunch at Cirkus – part clothing store, part excellent sushi in a very cool environment.
Food and its presentation took alot of our attention, as it is prone to do anywhere in the world. We also spent a lot of time checking out music – from choirs in old monasteries and big cathedrals, to street musicians playing intriguing instruments, to smoky jazz clubs – the Harlem and Soul Jazz Clubs - and the best night – LaRumbe, a Catalonyan/South American fusian rumba band with Violeta, their flamenco dancer, three drummers and hot guitarists – I’ll go looking for that gang again somewhere in the world.
Choirs singing in spectacular places
On the left, a mournful digeridoo player
This looks worse than it is – they were preparing for a movie shoot – but it looked real, the police going after the illegal sellers on the street – great thing to come across.
We spent one day taking a train an hour away to Montserrat. Here a mountain of rounded rock spires rises up out of the otherwise pretty flat land and a huge monastery sits protecting the quiet lives of the monks and welcomes the feeding frenzy of the tourists.
Chrissy and I spent the day hiking through the wooded rocks and once we got away from the very loud group of out-of-control kiddies and the chatty womens’ hiking group, we found ourselves walking in silence…the first true quiet I had heard since arriving in Barcelona. Although I live in a small city and love to be surrounded by laughter, chatter and music, I also seek out peace and solitude - we both felt the privilege of finding some private space up close to the blue sky, hidden from the crowds by a couple hours of walking. It reminded me of the canyonlands of the southwest of the US or the mogotes of Cuba - I’m not sure if Dan Brown put Robert Langdon in these hills in Da Vinci’s Code, but he could have. A beautiful peaceful day.
The time flew, and so did we, back through a very clear sky, above the Pyrenees and over France to cloudy cold England. We did get a couple chilly days of sun – one we went biking along the River Lee and the canal to the Quaker bookstore to drop off the books; the last day I went alone through central London – arriving at Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guards which I didn’t stay for as there were already thousands of people ahead of me and that wasn’t on my personal list of must sees. Instead I walked and walked through the huge old buildings, marveling at how big London is; through the free Tate Art Gallery, marveling at how huge it was; and returning to Hackney on the buses, marveling at just how big this whole city is. I was constantly amused and impressed with the wall art and graffiti - some samples:
WHAT? Oh you Brits – lighten up!
Then it snowed, as it would be, the first time since 1934! And it was time to go home, in time for a book-signing in Westport on Saturday followed by my friends’ big Halloween costume party. And to anticipate the outcome of the American election on Tuesday! November will be spent working at getting Walking with Wolf out further – still chipping away at media, at reviewers, and making plans for next spring. But going to Europe was inspiring – I think I will have to return soon. Particularly to Spain - I like a country where people love people, where men look you in the eye, and life revolves around eating, talking and dancing. And even though the language of the area, Catalan, was difficult to understand, my Spanish held up fine. Gracias Chrissy, nos vemos!