Editors' Choice

12 Hours in Barcelona

by Marianne Rogoff

Make the most of the time you have.

The flight from Palma, Mallorca, Spain, to San Francisco, California, includes a long layover in the city of Gaudi. I land in Barcelona at 6 P.M. and will be on another plane from the same airport at dawn. I can easily “kill time” at the huge airport: shop, eat, read, sleep in uncomfortable chairs. I consider dropping some Euros on a hotel in town. But why kill time, when time is all I have? I place my luggage in a large airport locker and get on a bus to the center of the city. No plan, except to see where in the world I am tonight.

I’ve been to big cities: New York, Los Angeles, London, Mexico DF. Barcelona, too, is huge, a sprawl, with miles of concrete and uncountable numbers of people. Twelve hours seemed like a really long time and now I see it is a single half-moon on the face of the ever-cycling clock of eternity. No amount of time could be enough to absorb what is here: true of any lifetime, in any place: never enough time.

But I try. It’s all I can do.

I see right away that I will not be able to cover much ground on foot. The blocks are long, the buildings loom, imposing shadows and blocked views. The double-decker red city tour bus pulls into line at the downtown square and I become exactly what I am: a tourist here.

I step up with the others and pay the price for a guided drive through the city on the open-air upper level of the bus. Three beautiful young British boys help me with the headphones and point out where we are on the map: a dot inside interlocking circles. They have tour-bus passes that allow them to step on and off buses for three full days, stay, linger, view, walk, hop back on elsewhere, return each day for more. I will not be here long enough to make full use of my one-day pass, just long enough to take full advantage during this fortuitous, out-of-time interlude in Spain.

Dusk in Barcelona. September. The air is perfect. I am dressed just right with a light sweater. And I am alone in the world.

Mallorca, too, was an interlude. Yachting around the island, six of us, three couples. I was part of that, coupled for a week. I kept the captain happy, I smiled, was pretty; we bantered, took off our clothes, got drunk, made love in the V berth. Separate people, together at times, otherwise on our own. A loose arrangement, desirable for those who’ve been burned by love, still paying for the last arrangement, smarting, on guard; meeting new mates, we proceed without commitments, with caution, so the heart won’t break again if this, too, should end. Don’t all relationships end? All lives end. We pass through, touch down, connect for a moment, move on, leave so much behind. And it matters so little? Our little cracked hearts, in the grand scope of things. Big Barcelona makes that obvious. Hundreds of couples, fighting and kissing, children now teenagers, all the lonely people (like the Beatles said), where do we all come from?

The coupling was good (they have all been good while they lasted), but I had to get back to California, to teaching. I’d already played enough hooky at the start of the new school year. My guy was staying on, renting a Ducati and motorcycling through the Pyrenees for another week. I was invited to join him for that as well. But there was school. And I also knew he’d be happier alone on his bike in the landscape. He is happiest alone. I understood that; it’s not something about him that could be changed. I had my week, we kissed goodbye at the yacht harbor, and I left any feelings of wanting more from him there. Is this true about myself as well? Am I happiest alone?

The dusky light gives way to streetlights on the gaudy Gaudi structures erected incomprehensibly in the middle of, next to, juxtaposed with, the surrounding architecture that looks nothing alike. Where were the city planners when this city was built? Barcelona is a wild amalgamation of architectural styles, shapes, heights, and colors. I breathe it in, adjust my eyes to the shifting twilight, move the tiny headphone buds deeper into my ears to learn the history, where to focus my eyes and thoughts, as we pass along through this chaos of sights-to-see.

I hear bits and pieces:

The Olympics were here in _________.
There is the Jewish Hill….
The ______ Museum, ______ Library, _______ Theatre.

In the giant downtown gazebo, are those Russian ballerinas pirouetting?

A series of color-lighted fountains are spewing in sequence to a Bartok symphony!

Now, fireworks explode into skies between buildings.

Hundreds, no thousands, of people are out walking the streets.

Wow, Barcelona! It is ALIVE! Is every night like this?

No, of course not. I happen to have a 12-hour layover in Barcelona on a festival occasion, a night when free ballets and symphonies and theatrical performances are taking place all over town, lending a glow, heightening our pleasure, focusing the eye out of the chaos of so-much-to-see into the framework of the arts: dance, music, language. Over there, young spoken-word poets are rapping hip-hop beats; here, it’s Shakespeare in Spanish; now, a celebratory speech; in my ear, the stories of Barcelona’s past and future. I see it all from my perch on top of this slow-moving red bus.

Having circled one loop of city highlights, I step off the bus and enter the strolling crowd of pedestrians on La Rambla. On any night of the year, I had heard, what you do most especially in Barcelona is walk La Rambla with its outdoor cafes, restaurants, shops, and galleries. It is nighttime now and I am alone in the teeming city, fearless. What makes me have no fear? I believe that the worst things I could have imagined when I was a young and fearful woman have already happened: rape, robberies, death of my baby girl, death of my marriage to Dearly Beloved, death of myths of how life is supposed to be. There’s no such thing as supposed-to-be! I know this now. There is only HOW IT IS and (like Barcelona) life is like this: chaotic, unpredictable, dynamic. And, it is also orderly (like symphonies and ballets), predictable (there will always be hundreds of pedestrians walking La Rambla, now and forever), and energized (life is forceful, changeable). I have changed. Never thought I’d feel this kind of free joy again, this loose/liberated ability to couple and part, this independent willingness to enter the stream of strangers, one of them.

Near midnight I find a pleasing restaurant – a clean, well-lighted place, with soft lighting and more people that you’d think would be still out dining at midnight (unlike at home, where everyone is ready for bed by 10 p.m. or earlier, the bedroom community of early commuters and high achievers).

I ask for red wine and a bowl of soup. The bread arrives with the wine and I serve myself a Holy Communion, redeemed of sins, penance over, at the center of heaven. I am the mother of a happy, healthy grown son; I love my job; I am a free spirit.

I chat with a Dutch man dining alone at the next table. He’s living here for a month, studying Spanish and Art.

“How long are you here for?” he asks.

“Twelve hours. And it’s half-over.”

Half over, like life? Not over yet!


Marianne Rogoff's travel story "Alive in Lisbon" appeared in The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008. The true story "Raven" was selected for The Best Travel Writing 2006. She has published the memoir Silvie’s Life, along with numerous stories, essays, and book reviews, and teaches Writing & Literature at California College of the Arts.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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