Waking up

14 February 2010, from Barcelona

I begin to wake up in the gray streets of the city. It’s winter in Barcelona, and the city’s storied color and flair are muted under the leaden sky. The pedestrians hurry along the small streets, bundled up in overcoats and scarves of earthy browns and greens. I am relieved, a little; my palette of Northwest woolens will not look much out of place – except that, oddly, absolutely no one wears a hat here. It is unseasonably cold, yet apparently ‘unseasonably’ accurately describes Barcelona’s weather, which varies greatly from year to year, and day to day. One day the forecast calls for a light snow; instead the sun breaks out from scattered clouds.

In much of the US, the defining point of geographical reference is the road, dividing or encircling or carrying away. In smaller towns, the reference adds dimensions to an intersection of roads, or a corner of streets. In this swath of cities and countries that ring the Mediterranean, the central point of reference is the plaza. The plaza indicates the commons, the home outside the home, the village within the city, the territory within the neighborhood. Arriving in the plaza, one is almost home.

And so a new visitor to a city, like I am to Barcelona, should first center themselves by finding their closest plaza. While around me in the Barri Gòtic are a medley of small squares, markets, boulevards, parks, and green spaces, the plaza of reference is Plaça de Catalunya – which happens to be the cultural and functional center of the city as well. Here meet major avenues, local and tourist buses, railways, and subways. 19th-century expansion of the city created other centers, most obvious on a map being Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes. But Glòries is, in reality, a modernist pile of parking lots, elevated freeways, shopping centers, and the phallic Agbar Tower, known colloquially as ‘the suppository.’ Or as Jim calls it, ‘the gherkin.’

Spiting progress and urban planners, Plaça de Catalunya still beats as the heart of the city, and as the gateway to and from my home, and so it is to there I walk along the gray paving stones of Barcelona.

In the metro, I enter the land of the underground. Even here in a new city, familiarity washes over me. I grew up just outside of Washington, DC, in the 1970s, while the DC Metro was being constructed. I learned to navigate the angled schematic map of the then-small network, to carry myself gingerly down the interminable escalators, to coerce the ticket machines to issue me my magnetically-striped cards, to listen along with everyone else for the incoming trains, and to ride, swaying and silent, into the dark subterranean tunnels. Since those formative years of subway education, I have traversed subways around the world. Always, the subways are the same: their maps of geometric schematics, their whooshing and rolling cars, their ringing, pinging, and bonging of the alerts, their scratchy unparseable phrases of the recorded announcements. It is a place that needs no speech, whose meaning is communicated with a visual language of icons, numbers, colors, advertisements, and an object language of cars, doors, seats, platforms, tunnels, stairways, gates, entrances. The soundtrack changes – gypsy music, Chinese one-string violins, harmoniums and accordians – but always there is the sickly-sour smell of the underground, as if the tunnels are the pores of the earth itself.

I like to think that all cities connect through their subways, that there is a hidden, secret line – let’s call it the ‘X’ line, and its color is white. I board the car at Plaça de Catalunya here in Barcelona, the lights dim and brighten along the stations of the journey, from Lisbon’s tiled Restauradores up to Paris’s Châtelet, from London’s historic Charing Cross across to Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and the Soviet ghost of Prague’s Můstek, crossing into Asia at Istanbul’s Taksim, emerging into bright Tokyo’s Ginza, then heading across the Pacific to Los Angeles’ Pershing Square and San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and finally, from Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza, I slowly rise on those infinite escalators into the sunlight.

Back in Barcelona, I ride the L7 train to the end of the line on Avenida Tibidabo. I transfer to the Tramvia Blau, an rickety blue streetcar that creaks very slowly up the hill to Plaça Dr Andreu. There, like any reasonable European, I take coffee and a sandwich at Mirablau Cafe. From the wide windows I can just make out the major features of the city laid out below me: there is the Agbar Tower on the left, the Sagrada Familia puncturing the mist in the center, the hills of Montjuic Park to the right, and beyond all this the gray waves of the Mediterranean.

Only half-way up the mountain of Tibidabo, I board the funicular railroad to take me the remainder of the way to the summit. Up here, there is a peculiar pair of sights: the Tibidabo amusement park, and the Temple de Sagrat Cor. From the cathedral, Jesus gestures over the collection of somewhat hokey and strangely disconnected rides: a Ferris wheel, a carousel, arcades, playgrounds. The wind has picked up, and the cold fog embraces us. Few shivery visitors attempt riding the amusements, although at one point a whirring airplane circles slowly around and around its attachment point.

I walk along the asphalt paths towards the back of the park, eventually finding myself rambling along maintenance roads and utility buildings. The underbelly of the amusement park merges with the twisted trees. I imagine the mountain dismantling these structures of steel and wood, absorbing the materials back into the earth.

Further along, a cobbled path leads to the large communications tower that dominates the hill. The wind has calmed, the fog has grown less dense, and the amusements are left far behind. A group of people on horseback suddenly pass me and disappear into the forest. Around a corner I find a door in a hill; if it were open, it would lead me into the control center for the multitude of antennas mounted on the tower. From the top I could perhaps see through the fog and to the certain sunlight beyond. But the tower is closed for the afternoon, and I continue walking, passing under thick steel support cables that must hold the tower from floating away.

Along the back of the hill I find a small, steep path that takes me past a few houses, then onto a residential street. My GPS, which understands the pedestrian ways of this city, tells me to head not along this street, but down a narrow staircase. For several hundred feet I descend, passing fences and gates adorned with mailboxes, looking into the small patios of modest houses, brushing against flowering bushes that lean out over the passageway. From a distance, I hear voices echoing across the small canyon – perhaps a Sunday afternoon party? The instructions on the GPS route me back and forth, switchbacking along the slopes to the eventual train station far below.

I feel a sense of deja vu, and realize that this experience is familiar: this is a story being re-told, now in Barcelona, but before in Istanbul, in Braşov, in Lisbon, in Shikoku. In this story, a traveler arrives in a city, then spots a hill far above, climbs to the summit, and looks out across the land; he searches for an obscure descent, and over a long time, and with no little doubt in his direction, weaves his way back to the city itself. It is the story of the climbing of the hill, it takes place in a strange city in a foreign country, and it is something that I must always do.