Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Time to Live, a Time to Get My Hair Done

Although my weightiest decisions in the last several days have been along the lines of whether or not I should turn over on my beach blanket, I have been thinking about things. After a few late-August days of quiet boarded up shops and streets filled with confused-looking foreigners carrying bags from international chain stores, the Catalans are back in town, and the city has come alive.

My friend Doug and I have been working out some heavy stuff. Doug was one of my teachers back in the martial arts days – as one friend remembers him, he’s the guy who made me do a series of 104 attacks and choreographed responses during a test not once, but twice (because it wasn’t good enough the first time). These were the kinds of tough love we knew were in our best interests and that have made us the ninjas we are today. . . or something.

Anyway, Doug and I have been grappling with various philosophical dilemmas over glasses of Crianza and cafĂ© con leche, in restaurants and cafes and plazas, trying to sort out Catalan (totally different from Castillian Spanish) and pinching ourselves every once in awhile to be sure we really are cruising along a boardwalk on the Mediterranean amid the barely-dressed masses of late-summer beach goers. After growing up in a small town in South Dakota where he learned early that chicken doesn’t come in neatly wrapped Styrofoam packages, Doug has since traveled many places in the world, studied and worked professionally in the culinary arts, run his own business and scaled the slippery slope of corporate America. . . and he can do more pushups than I can. Like myself, Doug has an inquiring mind and also a taste for delicious food, innovative design and spontaneity, so we make good travel partners.

We have wandered around various neighborhoods, both touristy and local, photographing the ubiquitous grafitti and pretending to be Scarlet Johannsen. We have decoded the Renfe train schedules that have facilitated our journeys to Sitges, a beach resort just 40 minutes outside the city. We have eaten some great meals and some mediocre ones. We have scoped out what seems to be the Barcelonan Williamsburg and its most popular pub, filled with chain-smoking tapas eating Catalans (with asymmetrical haircuts, of course), back in town with eccentric fashion and stories of their summer vacations. I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCBA) the other day, whose front entrance is a wide modern plaza populated by shirtless skateboarders and their admirers. The art left me cold – all except for a film by Helen Levitt from the late ‘40s, where she was observing New York street life, and specifically a bunch of kids playing somewhere in the Bronx, I think. It was interesting that in a vast beautiful modern museum, the most captivating ‘works’ were this particular film, and the scene out in front of the building – which, while a little menacing, felt alive and accessible and visceral.

Our journey has not been without a little drama. We entered one of the immaculate and perfectly ordered metro stations the other day to a bunch of hot-headed young men embroiled in some kind of battle. One guy jumped down onto the tracks and gathered some stones, which he started to throw at his adversaries, who mingled among the throngs of regular flip-flop wearing Sunday travelers. The station attendant called for help but the battle carried on for several minutes before any official-looking person showed up. Feeling their distinct absence, I of course had to examine my attitudes about cops, but am still pretty sure that we’re better off not counting on anyone else to protect us from anything. This attitude has been reinforced by the biography I’m reading of a Syrian man who was incarcerated and detained in completely inhumane conditions for WEEKS in the clusterfuck following Hurricane Katrina – all without ever being told what he was being arrested for, without being given a phone call, without being even read his rights, and while (wrongly) being accused of being a terrorist by a bunch of 18 year old ‘National Guardsmen’ carrying automatic weapons. Reading these stories and descriptions of history as recent as 2005 in what is supposedly a first-world democratic nation has been horrifying, to say the least – not surprising, but horrifying. That we live in a country whose system of justice can still plummet lower than those even of the most under-developed countries in the world -- natural disaster or no natural disaster, terrorism or no terrorism – is something that deserves a great deal of attention.

So perhaps having room for this kind of contemplation, having time to read books and have long conversations that span several days – maybe these are the reasons to travel. . . not so much to tick off visited monuments from a list or to return with a fabulous tan and a new pair of shoes (although these things can happen, too), but just to make time to live and think and be present and enjoy the company of friends and family – all which are challenging to do when caught up in the frenzy of day-to-day survival and the pursuit of goals. These are my reasons, anyway. This is the wisdom I bring you from my beach blanket.


  1. Amazing post Hillary! I couldn't agree more and love seeing and hearing about your Catalan adventures with Doug. You guys could (and probably should) conquer the world.

  2. i CANNOT believe i just missed you by a few days. i loved barcelona all by myself and found all kinds of amazing. then leave by boat if you can. there's a ferry to civitavecchia, near rome. it's worth it. ;)


  3. Hilary. Thank you for once again putting my non-yoga-doing existence into perspective. Beautiful writing and pictures. I will pull some weeds in your honor.