Monday, April 04, 2016

Barcelona - Fresh off the boat in Europe

Now that Australia was under my belt, I was a world traveler. Bring it on Europe. I sat excitedly in the plane waiting for take off when the lady in front of me decided to put her head in my lap. Don't get any ideas, she just reclined all the way that I could almost stroke her forehead and sing a lullaby to her. I muttered to myself and put my head into the lap of the person behind me. I believe putting world leaders for 10 hours in economy class would bring world peace. Air travel gives a wonderful sense of community, except when you have to establish dominance over the arm rest in subtle ways.

After a long flight I was in Barcelona! I hopped of the bus and walked towards the hostel taking in the sights as I lugged my wardrobe with me. The alleys were a labyrinth which I could never have figured out without Google maps. But I liked what I saw. There was an air of joie de vivre around. People were well dressed and looked energetic. Maybe my senses were dulled by the slobs in silicon valley. Or maybe everyone looks well dressed when you wear five layers of clothes. And the food was cheap which surprised me as I hardly saw any overweight people around.

Early next morning, I decided to walk around the famous Gothic Quarter. Ancient buildings, crumbling walls, cobblestone streets and a plethora of public squares gives you sense of being in another time. And presently I came across the Cathedral. On a cold rainy Friday morning at 8am, I was the only tourist and the friendly guard waved me through without a ticket. And my lord I was treated to something special. I was alone in this magnificent temple of God. I was speechless, not that I was saying much before that given that I was alone. My heart soared as I imbibed in the beauty around me. It's hard not to feel a connection with the transcendent when you stand in the silence of a massive 800 year old cathedral surrounded by magnificent art. I was truly inspired and thanked God for the beauty in this world.

And beauty is in abundance in Barcelona. The spectacular Sagrada Familia, a masterpiece by Gaudi, God's architect, is a must visit. Despite the crowds and the commotion, it's hard not to be inspired by this incredible canvass of pure genius. Gaudi's work is brilliant from the standpoint of beauty, nature and spirituality. His use of curves and splines in 3D left me in awe. He is the paragon of attention to detail. He has accounted for the interplay of light and sound, for the structural integrity, for beauty and for scriptural accuracy. Gaudi is my hero for concocting this delightful cocktail of God, nature and engineering.

Now given that the only countries I've been to are the US and Australia, I braced myself for the language challenge. Spanish is largely an alphabet soup to me. I decided that not knowing the language was part of the adventure. I'm not usually a yes man but I did say Si to everything thrown my way. The extent of my Spanish was 'los angeles' and for some reason 'caliente'. Where would I need to say 'hot angels' is beyond me. I thought sign language would work. It does, but sometimes it can make you look quite stupid. I had gone to this Church that has the sword of St Ignatius but I couldn't find it. So I asked the priest who didn't know a word in English. How does one act out sword? I'm not a charades expert, but I think I did a pretty good job as he finally understood me. The priest must have thought I was nuts with all my theatrics. This was after I misunderstood the communion rite and tried to drink the Blood of Christ when it was only meant for dipping the Body. Imagine the scene with me trying to grab the chalice toward my month and the priest pulling it back. I had to let him win just because everyone was staring at this lanky Indian dude in shorts and t-shirt on a cold rainy morning.

All the gesturing and yanking had me hungry and I decided to get some food under my belt. I stepped into a homely cafe that had some delicious sandwiches and pastries displayed out front. I liked the ambiance where the diners seemed to be from the hood and had a friendly banter going. I stared at the menu for 5 minutes and finally spotted Americano under coffee and California under sandwiches. But I wanted to try something local. And there was a line of hungry people behind me. I took a shot in the dark hoping that I wouldn't die from the food or from the shame of committing a faux pas in my order. Thankfully Spanish food is generally safe and I don't have any severe allergies. As I sat at a table, I tried to fit in by browsing through the newspaper. I realized that pictures don't speak a thousand words, but nonetheless I flipped through with a pensive look on my face. I knew what my horoscope said of course. Good things and bad things are going to happen. The food was delicious and I felt I truly was in Europe. With cafes such as these why do people do McDonalds or Subway?

Questionable hostels are a quintessential part of backpacking in Europe. And so is couch surfing. I had never tried the latter before, although I have experience in corporate America's version on it, Airbnb. Hence spending a night at a strangers home is not a new experience. But why would anyone host for free? After reading a lot of online reviews, I concluded that letting strangers into your home is quite enjoyable for some people. From a safety perspective, I presume being a guy helps. All things considered, I decided to give it a shot.

Call it beginner's luck or Catalan hospitality, my first couch surfing experience was awesome. I connected
with Mar when I was looking for a host in Manresa, outside of Barcelona. She and her dad played tour guide and satisfied the desires of a Jesuit junkie that is me. Everything Ignatius in Montserrat and Manresa were covered. Throw in some Catalan traditions and stories over a sumptuous three hour Catalan lunch and you have a perfect day. I felt part of the proud Catalan culture, if only for a day. And who knew that my Indian accented English would be much celebrated in a tiny corner in Catalonia. The only thing they wanted from me was conversation in English. If only life were this easy everyday.

Next up, Valencia. I love Valencia Oranges and I can't wait to try the Oranges in Valencia.