This is part two of “A Letter from Europe,” prose tracing my travels from Amsterdam to Florence to Barcelona, May through July 2017.
It’s been just over a week since we got home from Barcelona and I’m slowly adjusting to being back to the United States, to the pace of Sonoma County, to the space of this house compared to our cozy, compact apartment in the vibrant El Born barrio. The sounds of tractors and roosters have replaced the morning yell from five stories below—“Hallo!” followed by the loud clanking of metal on metal, a delivery man pushing his cart, weaving through the neighborhood to sell to, I presume, restaurants and businesses.
Barcelona offered many other sounds during our 30-day stay in Catalan country. Our first weekend boasted afternoon and evening parades—groups of 50 to 100 people in costume or some color flair, marching along with a band carrying drums and horns, singing and cheering in celebration of the upcoming Sainte-Jean-Baptiste holiday. Homemade rockets shot from rooftops, kids with sparklers waving them in the night sky. We kept the door to our balcony closed out of fear of bad aim, or an inebriated partier setting off a firework into our temporary home.
El Born is an old neighborhood of Barcelona near the Gothic District where residents live in buildings aged over 100, in close proximity, on narrow streets. If they needed to, neighbors could jump across the street to the home they look into each day. Mostly they just hung plants and laundry from their two-foot-deep balcony, doing their best to avoid being voyeurs.
Our apartment was 78 stairs up from our street, Carrer Assaonadors. Across the street was Tapeo y Tapeo, a small wine bar and restaurant where we challenged each other on how many green olives we could eat. We were served green olives at many of the restaurants we patroned. Neither of us are fans of green olives, but we’d coax each other to try them. It led to a friendly competition throughout the trip of how many we could eat, with plenty of awkward faces at each other those nights, biting into the bitter fruit.
We had a small grocery at the south end of our street, which opened up to a small plaza containing a fountain and some trees, a dining area and playground for the local kids. Continue down that path and it takes you to the incredible Parc de la Cituadella—landscaped with immense fountains and statues, a gorgeous gazebo with a piano inside for public use, and down around the corner, another piano, set up outside in a dirt court that overlooked a small lake packed with paddle boats and plenty of birds. Jonathan played a couple of Radiohead songs, we sang along, and when the public jam session was over, he took a deep bow, garnering applause from the large crowd (five people) sitting on benches around us.
We walked through the El Born cultural center to observe the foundations of the neighborhood and its history. We practiced our Español, which was noticeably better than I think either of us realized. On the warm nights, we would walk out from our top-floor apartment, up the final few steps to the roof of our building, and watch the sunset, pretending the church at the top of distant hill known as Tibidabo was a castle. You could just barely see that a statue topped the highest pillar of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. I knew I wanted to go up there before we left Europe, back to the U.S.
The Sunday before our 12-hour flight home from Barcelona, we snagged seats on a tour bus headed for Tibidabo. We hopped off the bus at the base of the hill to board a 100-year-old trolley that took us about a mile up. We then took a strange looking cable car to the peak—a school bus shaped tram designed at a 45-degree angle.
Up and up and up we went until we reached our destination, welcomed by the golden statue of Jesus with open arms atop the church. Tibidabo revealed the most breathtaking views of the city and its greater area. Surrounding the church, the small theme park included a ferris wheel, a small roller coaster, an airplane that “flew” over the hillside cliffs, a small train for tots, and, oddly enough, a water ride designed to look like the terrain of Alaska.
At one of the lookout points, I was so taken by the view I decided to “burn” the image in my memory so I could always go back there. I did this the first time Jonathan and I went to Kapalua Bay in Maui—swimming on my back in the warm water, feet toward the shore, the palms, the beautiful resort.
I looked deeply at the scene and closed my eyes for a second or two, then opened them again. Looking deeply, then closing my eyelids, then opening them again, each time recalling a detail when my eyes were closed. Over and over, until I could close my eyes and see the scene.
Our 72-day journey around Europe was an experience that impressed on me in ways I’ll carry with me forever, a different understanding of culture, food, design, art, and people. I’ve caught myself missing Barcelona several times since I’ve been back. But just as I go back to Kapalua Bay anytime, in my mind, now I can do the same with Tibidabo, with Barcelona.
Where Barcelona felt like an escape, Florence satiated a hunger for Italian food and Radiohead. But Amsterdam is something else. I’d go back to our gezellig studio in the Jordaan any day. I’d love to see the city in winter. On our second night back in the states, we sat in the backyard with my parents, and after a few glasses of wine, convinced them to travel there with us… someday.
That was over a week ago now. I’ve needed this time since our return to collect my thoughts and adjust to the old routine. But the adventure isn’t over.