Chapter 07: Dated, Moth-Eaten, Musty, Stodgy

Uncle Jimmy!

You ever get bored wearing that same suit every day?

It occurs to me that I’m being pretty damn old school. Writing you honest-to-goodness letters about my adventures. Dragging out pencil and paper, scratching words down without the use of spell-check, and then searching for forever stamps to get my writings delivered to the afterlife? Seriously, seriously old school. (And yes, there’s a really bad joke in there somewhere about ‘what lies beyond’ and ‘forever stamps’).

Well anyway, as I was pondering these old-timey ways of mine, I realized that for almost all of my international wandering, life has been the opposite of old school. I have never really shared a trip without the gods of social media hovering around. It’s just too easy to drop a couple of photos on Instagram, or share pics of my food on Facebook.

Wait, you don’t know what those are, do you? Sigh. That might take a while to explain. Just go with it for now, OK? Thanks.

Anyway, I guess I’ve always thought … what’s going to happen after the Zombie Apocalypse finally transpires? Anything that is going to survive and tell its story to post-z-day-humans is going to have to do so without technology, electricity, or a player. So putting my tales to the mercy of the future is going to require me to come back around to the way I originally learned storytelling. Using a library card and the Dewey Decimal System.

I guess I want to be in section 910.01.

Yea, I know, you’re probably shaking your head at me and my seemingly endless stream of mind-word-vomit. Strange thoughts often run side by side in my head. What can I say?

Ahem, let’s get back to today. And start with a couple of general observations, as I again walk these streets of Barcelona.

Back in 2017, I was very much aware of my tattoos. You see, I have two full arm sleeves, which means I have ink from wrists to shoulders, all the way up. And on the back of one hand. I’m not really able to disguise this. So last trip, I was noticed.

Now Spaniards are very polite. They didn’t point, stare, frown, or comment. But they did give me that sideways-look, where they’re eyeballing my arms from a safe angle, all the while wondering if I’m a sailor or a criminal. And that last thought was true. I was talking to a bartender one day during the original trip who was complementing my art. He pulled back his shirt to show me his, while informing me that most people in Barcelona who have ink tend to hide it. Because indeed, it was still associated with questionable seamen languishing in port-side bars of ill-repute.

Now skip to today. I see ink everywhere. Old and young alike. Everyone now seems to have a little something, and there are both men and women who have substantially more, like me.

And I’m not entirely sure I like it.

It sounds a bit prudish and hypocritical, I know. But I kinda enjoyed the old fashioned cultures of last trip. Yes, I’m seriously inked for life. But still, it felt like a really nifty time-throwback when people generally kept their artwork to themselves. But times do change, and so has Barcelona.

What hasn’t changed, and something I do strangely love deeply, is that folks rarely have a clothes dryer here. Washing machines, yes. But drying is something Mother Nature handles for you.

Every balcony has some sort of clothesline or rack, and every window is usually filled with fabrics getting that wonderful smell of natural dryness inserted within. Or they’re being rained on and covered in bird shit. Goes both ways.

Back home, I had once associated this act with poverty. So-and-so can’t afford a dryer, or so the insult went. Despite the fact that when I was growing up, we did have a dryer and Mom still hung our things up in the backyard on the lines. I remember there was this incredible freshness in both the scent and texture of clothes that are dried the natural way. And here in Barcelona, I can get that same sensation every day.

OK, back to the here and now. Pickpockets almost got us again.

Yep, you heard that right. It’s a serious, serious issue here in this city. One the police and the government don’t seem to want to handle as much as I want them too.

Last trip, Nikki got picked twice. Once on the subway, where a he/she team blocked our entrance to the car just long enough to unzip her purse, steal her wallet, and leave before the doors closed between us and them. Second time was on a bus, where a he/he team got her phone, seemingly right from her hand, before again scooting out.

Now that last one went from scary to almost laughable. It just took a few months to switch from one to the other.

She knew almost immediately that her phone was swiped. She saw the guy that she thought had done it and started screaming at him in Spanish. He was a fairly big guy. Not quite my size, but still substantial. And Nikki is going off on him. I don’t know what is being said, or when my cue is to step in, but after a few minutes an older gentlemen broke the standoff.

The “robber” kept swearing that he didn’t have her phone. How the police could search him all they wanted. It was the older guy who pointed outside of the bus and said the phone had been handed off, and was now far, far away.

The secret to a successful heist. Partners.

We immediately walked up to two police officers and reported the crime. They seemed concerned, but not to the point of actually doing much. It happens way too often here.

Nikki’s phone was still broadcasting its location to my phone, so I showed the officers my online map, with a blue dot moving slowly away from us. First a few blocks, then more. Then it started rising up in a building until … nothing. Just disappeared. The partner in crime had apparently pulled the battery. And that was the last we saw of the phone.

Skip to more recent times. Like last week when we were loaded up and headed to Morocco. And to do that, we first had to get to the airport. Which meant, the subway.

It was crowded, and we each had a large backpack on. I always keep my phone in my front left pocket and my cash in a zippered pocket just below it. One hand always covers both. Nikki wears a zippered bum-bag to her front which holds all of her valuables, and one hand is always on it as well.

So as we leave one train to transfer to another, she told me that they had tried to get her again. Shows how her zipper was halfway open. Only her hand resting on the center portion had stopped it from being a full robbery. As I was shaking my head, somewhere between anger and wonder, I looked down at my own pants leg … and the zipper that was half open as well.

Now, I have empathy. A lot. And I felt horrible for Nikki the last trip when they stole from her twice. But there was something about them trying that with me that felt 1000x more personal. I was livid inside. Kept having daydreams of catching one and slowly dismantling him. Started thinking that should Spain be a new home, it wouldn’t be Barcelona because of those assholes.

I was seriously unhappy.

Doing the reverse trip last Saturday night, subwaying back from the airport at 9pm on a super busy evening, with our backpacks loaded, well … it was an exercise in paranoia for me. And again, a feeling I instantly abhorred. I don’t thrive on conflict. I just want to live an easy and carefree life. And I suppose I have been lucky to have been so naive for so long. And now, I’m not.

I need to come to grips with living in a city with this kind of crime. I suppose it’s not so different than acclimating to an American city where violence is always a possibility. That doesn’t happen here. Just thievery. Maybe it’s just so different a type of criminal to avoid, that my mind is struggling. But, as much as I want peace, I also will not run and hide when things do not go perfect. So I must figure out how to make pickpocket safety a normal part of my daily life here. And not take it personally, as much as I want to.

Still, it’s a nice daydream, ‘educating’ those that decide to prey on others. 🙂

OK, on to happier things!

Since we’re talking old school today, I had an interesting observation last night when I was walking around El Born, the next neighborhood over. After people travel, they often talk about ‘places’. Show their friends lots of photos of ‘things’. I do the same, it’s normal. But what about the underlying, well, everything?

I know I come across as an Europhile at times, but there is something very different here compared to North America. And that’s the fact that everything in Europe is older than the car.

When this city was built, feet and horses were the transportation of choice. Streets were designed for them. Cars came later and everything was thus retrofitted to use those older, smaller spaces for the new motorized way of life. In the States, buildings and roadways for cars went up around the same time. Pedestrians were never really part of the initial plan. So here in Barcelona, the ability to have a truly walkable life is just built in.

I find this to be absolutely incredible. My thought last night was how fantastic it was that I could walk anywhere and everywhere. No competition with powered vehicles, if I so chose. Any direction in the compass. Shopping and errands? Walk. Recreational stroll? Walk. Dinners, shows, music, booze? You get the idea. Walking is not limited at all.

I’ve been trying hard to think of an analog in the States or elsewhere. Portland Oregon, perhaps. Or San Francisco, but your legs would need to rival Hercules there. Other than that, walkability seems limited to smaller areas. Which is sad.

When I first moved to Florida, my apartment was located in Sunny Isles Beach, which is right on the ocean. Strolling out of my complex, I immediately had available a grocery store, a pharmacy, my gym, several restaurants and specialty shops, and the actual ocean. If it weren’t for the fact that all of my friends were elsewhere in Miami, I would not have needed a car at all. And it was a great way to live. I marveled at it daily.

When I moved in with Nikki a couple of years later, down in the sprawling suburbs south of Miami, I suddenly needed my car for everything. The only walkability was strolling the streets of single family houses, all of which looked the same. And I seriously missed the convenience of being bipedal.

I have to laugh, because it seems that no matter what, I have to always be different. Here is an entire culture, based on the mighty automobile, that I seemingly want to shun. I suppose living the “car life” can actually be great, in a way. Having the ability to go anywhere, no matter the distance. But I think we’ve lost something too. That choice to enjoy life right where we are.

So, I guess I’m ‘old school’ in this regard as well. The man who once wanted to port his entire life into the electronic and future world, now seeks the most minimal of existence. There’s nothing wrong with a life based on plastic and steel conveyances, but I’m all for taking myself back to simpler and more intimate times. Wherever I settle next, wherever I travel, I want to keep it self-propelled as much as possible.

Oh, I’ve found another benefit to all this walking, especially now that I’ve acclimated. Health. It’s funny, to me at least, that back at home in the States one goes to the gym to get fit. Indoors on a treadmill. I’ve been here in Barcelona for just three weeks now, and my pants barely fit my thighs anymore. (Muscle, not flab from eating!). No real “exercise”, just having the ability to move, and actually using that ability.

Back in Key Largo, my supermarket is maybe a ¼ mile from our home. A very short walk to the highway that runs the length of the island, “Frogger” over four lanes of traffic, and then a parking lot. It’s that close. Yet I only go there on the motorcycle or in the Jeep. Never walk. Never bicycle. Here in Barcelona, walking a few miles to a restaurant (and a few miles back) is done without thought. I wonder why that is? It has to be in my head, right? Following the American Way of Life? Sheer laziness? I need to seriously ponder this. I can’t just state that Florida isn’t walkable, so I can’t walk. I absolutely can. It seems that somehow I won’t. Something to be worked on, I suppose. I like my tree trunk quads and I want to keep them. 🙂

Whew, long letter so far, eh? You still reading?

OK, so let’s talk festivals. Then I’ll let you settle back into your slumber. Or whatever it’s called out there in the lawn.

Spain is just silly with putting on festivals. I think they have more holidays than the entirety of the Americas combined. From big national ones right down the local.

Last weekend they had this event with the long name of Festa dels Cors de la Barceloneta. Basically, it’s a long tradition dating back over 150 years where more than twenty “choirs” of groups representing various types of workers parade through the streets of the old Barceloneta neighborhood where our apartment is located. They wear matching colorful clothing and carry these elaborate “poles” that are representative of their profession (nets and oars for fisherman, cereal boxes and sausages for grocers, completely normal things like that). And they drink and dance. And then they drink some more.

How to describe the scene? Well, at 8:15am the drums started. Or at least that was when we woke to drums. They could have been beating much earlier. We looked out our window and the bands were playing, dozens of people in costume were dancing, and crowds were gathering. So naturally, we went and added to the mass, by a count of two.

We spent all morning and early afternoon just walking from performance area to performance area, watching each group. All were having the time of their lives. I started to take pictures of the overall event when I realized that the best part of the festival was in the faces of the choirs. So I must have then snapped hundreds of tight shots of just the smiles and laughter.

It was interesting just how into it they all were. For instance, a group might be three dozen dancers plus the band. All ages, from the elderly with canes down to parents dancing with toddlers. And everyone in between. Twirling for hours, they still grabbed each other often, laughed, kissed each other on the cheeks, and acted like it was the first dance of the day. You couldn’t help but be swept up in it.

So after many hours of the frivolity, and thinking the day was over, we took a short siesta and then went walking around the old city, where we came across something even more elaborate.

Castellers. This is going to take some serious detailed describing to help you visualize the scene. Castellers are human towers. Yes, I said human towers. There are easily a hundred people in the group and they start by forming a base. Biggest members in the center, and they are then encircled by others pressing in tightly, all forming this foundation to support what they are about to erect. There are maybe 40-50 squished together individuals at this level, and it must be strong.

What happens next is that at three points of the base, the tower people line up. They climb up onto the mass, walk across the pile, and the first three members form the first “story” by standing on the shoulders of the base. They are in the dead center, arms linked. More join this tier by climbing to it and inserting themselves into and around the three that started. Then the next tier climbs across the base and up the first tier, again, standing on shoulders of the group below them. Three of them. Then the next and the next. Each three people strong. The climbers get progressively younger and smaller, until finally it’s time for the top. A small child, maybe five years old (and wearing a helmet), climbs all the way up, gets to the apex and waves an arm. And thus the tower is built.

Oh, that kid on top? They are the EIGHTH tier of the tower. Yes, the eighth! The height of these things is mind boggling.

Once the wave of the hand is done, they then dismantle, just the opposite way of the build. Each tier climbing/sliding down the others, until only base remains, and they then loosen and break down the foundation as well.

Now … it doesn’t always go well. 🙂

Sometimes they start and then just stop. Someone isn’t right, or a portion of the structure feels unstable. But twice that afternoon, they had created the entire tower and were starting to dismantle when someone lost their portion of the structure. You can see everyone shaking from the strain. And it takes just a second to topple. If my math was correct, each of the two times it fell there were 26 people who collapsed onto the base of 50. Straight down, from a height of over 40 feet. That’s a lot of bodies coming down. But no one seems to have been hurt.

Although … that top kid came out of one pile crying. Her mother picked her up and Nikki overheard them talking. She thought that the kid was injured, but she was instead just really pissed off. Until everyone is safely apart, it’s not a successful tower. (Which apparently was important to this kid). Because they failed, she was upset. Very upset. The good news was that after each of the collapses, we saw that kid fearlessly climb up and over, and then the whole tower successfully dismantled. So she eventually got her success. It was truly a sight.

OK, long letter over. Time to go find some more unusual stuff for you. Oh! And very soon, a special visitor is coming. Can’t wait to share those stories (once they happen, of course).

Love, Rick

PS: I just thought of something. If you can get Internet down there under the sod, you should go to ThePirateWanderer.com and check out my photos. Words can only do so much, and you really need to see some of this visually, in living color.

Oh wait, sorry about the insensitive reference. – R

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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