The temptation to hop on my bike and simply point it at the countryside for a long way was tantalizing, but I had some time before that and some work to put away. Besides, Assumption Day kicked off a local weeklong festival, Festa Major de Gràcia. For the festival, the Gràcia district neighborhoods get together and turn city blocks into life-size dioramas, each with a different theme, made with recycled materials and paper mache.
My budget room in a neighboring district faced an interior hallway where no sunlight could find me, but I learned that to sleep in doesn’t hurt in Barcelona. After the day’s work was put away I finally rallied myself to go out around 10pm, wondering if anyone would still be out.
Everyone—young, old, couples, families, everyone—was on the streets for the festival. Roads were closed for pedestrians, kids sporting face paint walked with their families, a teenage jam band was covering Franz Ferdinand onstage, rainbow flags connected balconies, and every so often I’d catch a whiff of dirty weed.
Many of the narrow streets were so packed it was like an all-ages public mosh pit, and I heard many residents preferred to leave for the week to avoid the influx of tourists. I didn’t last long before I needed a break in an old plaça, and decided to explore more of the festival the next day.
My Airbnb in L’eixample had soaring ceilings and a charming glass-paneled elevator with folding doors. When I peeked into the other rooms in the flat, they were each beautiful and spacious, with tall, ornate windows lined in dark wood. The full-length windows let in a pleasant cross breeze and plenty of sunlight. Only my cheap-ass room was like a dark closet.
About this time, a conversation thread on Twitter was circulating about self-care and hotel tricks for cartoonists while traveling. Ha! If only I stayed in hotels, but then I wouldn’t be able to eat and drink what I didn’t spend on accommodations.
Parking was an absolute nightmare in Gràcia, so I wanted to wander as long as possible before having to move my bike.
While I waited for my porchetta sandwich at the bar, a man next to me was chatting easily with the staff in Italian. We struck up a conversation as they poured him a massive stemmed glass of gin and ice with a splash of tonic, “I always come here when I’m in town. A little piece of home when I’m away from Rome.” Spanish-Roman, not Italian, he told me. “You’ll like the porchetta, they take days to make it.” Then he asked how I felt about what’s happening in Hong Kong.
It caught me off guard. I told him it was odd to think of my other home as a place of unrest and have it feature so heavily in international news, but I was still working out how I felt about it. I probably wouldn’t know until I arrived there this winter.
“But you are still going?” he asked, alluding to possible danger.
“Well, of course. My parents are there.”
As events unfolded, once I revealed my origins this would become a common topic. “How do you feel about what’s happening in Hong Kong?” But I didn’t feel I had any particular insight to offer, only shock and apprehension.
My Airbnb flatmate, a medical student from northern China, leapt onto the topic. She was delighted to learn I could understand Mandarin, but the onslaught of rapid-fire, northern-accented Mandarin was far too challenging for my unpracticed abilities.
“I don’t get why you guys are so worked up over us. We’re not so bad. Not you and me personally, I mean the people of Hong Kong,” she added quickly, but it was already painfully obvious my Mandarin was far out of depth for meaningful political discourse. “Ah, we don’t have to talk about such serious things,” she relented. On a more entry-level note, I asked if she enjoyed Barcelona. “No, I don’t like it. It’s dangerous to walk around at night and I’m looking forward to going home. Anyway, I’m making some ‘suan la fen’, would you like some too?”
I looked at the package of hot and sour noodles and wondered if she was sharing a treasure, a small taste of the familiar while she was finishing studies abroad. It reminded me how I used to relish my Chinatown finds when I was at school in NYC. How many packets did she have left before she finished her term and could go home? I did my best to decline politely but I think she was disappointed I didn’t seem to share her tastes.
In truth, I love sour spicy noodles but I didn’t want her to waste her noodles on me. I didn’t miss home and was busy walking around at night eating olives and tapas and drinking wine.
Everyone who’d ever been to Barcelona was overflowing with suggestions for things to do, but even if I paid a million museum fees and partied every night I’d barely put a dent in them all and, contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t here on vacation. I spent a day wandering the Gothic Quarter and enjoyed views of La Rambla from the comfort of a late-night bus headed home.
So what was I planning to do, if I wasn’t getting pickpocketed on La Rambla?
Um, eat my body weight in tapas and wine? (Aside: I did join a cheap gym for a week to try to offset the oncoming deliciousness. They blasted electronic dance music and their diffuser smelled like green apple gummy bears, it was…a cultural experience?)
Anita, who I’d last seen in Thailand, was only a hop and a skip away in Germany. She mentioned she could take some time away to work on her Ph.D. I’d also reached out online to any Vespa folks who were around, and Enric agreed to meet up before him and his buddy Bel left on their own trip.
As I wandered up to the local bodega they’d picked, Enric, Bel, and Anna were sipping drinks, snacking from a bowl of olives, and smoking with the casual nonchalance of The Cool Kids they were. Anita rolled up and introductions were made, then another round of drinks and olives were put away before we finally decided to wander in search of more substantial food: Tapas.
Due to the festival and the month of August typically being a holiday month for Europeans (damn my timing), all of their local favorites were closed or full.
Bel wanted to be clear that he couldn’t vouch for the quality of this new place where we ended up, but I had no basis to judge. I quickly learned that my meager sardines on bread at the festival barely scratched the surface of the tapas experience.
Soon, an indulgent variety of late-night snacks poured forth onto our table. In front of the largest box of wine I’d ever seen appeared plates and baskets of roasted green peppers, the ubiquitous bright red tomato bread, tomato bread with small oily fish, fried croquettes of mysterious molten fillings, and…is that Iberico ham on a fried egg on french fries?!
Bel simply nodded and commenced slicing up the hot, gooey, hammy mountain for consumption.
I love Barcelona.
As our party became more lubricated, the conversation meandered towards politics. Feeling slightly emboldened and having nothing much to offer regarding Hong Kong, I asked something that had been on my mind.
“So, um, is it still not cool to talk about the Spanish Civil War?”
Apparently, in our party, it was not taboo. But they were amazed I personally knew Americans who voted for Trump!
Enric and Bel were leaving soon for a moto trip of their own and wanted to wild-camp along the Alps but were worried about getting in trouble. I joked that when I wild camped in the US, I worried about getting shot.
We ended the evening with goodbye cheek kissing, left then right. Little did I know, by the time I left Europe this action would become so second nature I’d instinctively duck in for the greeting with my American friends, making everyone feel awkward.
My takeaway after the night: Tapas are like dimsum, it’s impossible to go solo. Good thing Anita is in town with me!
Armed with new local recommendations, Anita and I worked during the day and hit the town in the evening (okay, sometimes we had lunch, too).
Stay tuned for part 2, with more food, Vespas, and vermouth!