barcelona flaneuse

I've been to Barcelona three times and I'm ready to return!


TOURIST OR TRAVELER? Can I avoid being part of the “horde”?

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My cat neighbor seen from my tiny Barcelona apartment.

I love Barcelona.  Imagine my horror when I watched a YouTube video (Bye Bye Barcelona) that identifies tourism as the scourge that threatens to destroy this city I love.  In fact, Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau, has pledged to somehow keep the city from coming to the fate of Venice, a city where tourism has all but cancelled out the possibility of a normal life for locals.

Is it possible to be a traveler, a visitor, and avoid at least some of the impact tourists inevitably have?  For — like it or not — I am a tourist in Barcelona even if i never set foot on La Rambla and stay away from Sagrada Familia and Park Guell.  And what’s the problem with tourism anyway?  Isn’t it a great source of income?

The problem is that in order to accommodate tourists with hotels, apartments, restaurants, fast food, tchotchkes and tee shirts, space is taken away from the normal functions of residential life, and the space that remains becomes much more expensive.  Crowds make it difficult to move.  The narrow street outside the Picasso Museum can get shoulder-to-shoulder intimate due to the waiting lines for the Museum (which is a beauty and seems well-managed).  Traffic can become impossible, as it has near both Sagrada Familia and Park Guell, driving out families who have lived in the area for generations.  Sometimes I think Gaudi has a lot to answer for.

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“My” apartment near Palau de la Musica Catalana and Santa Catarina Market.

While I know tourist apartments have an impact on local real estate, renting has given me a different perspective on the place I visit.  Even when I’ve traveled as the leader of a student group, I’ve believed that something as simple as cooking your own meals can shift your relationship with the place you visit. Negotiating a food market in a foreign city is a learning experience.

In my tiny apartment, I soon realized I needed clothes line and clothes pins (hardware store), a small pillow (dry goods store), food (veggies, cheese, coffee, wine), a caving block (art supply) and sundries (a pharmacy).  I had chosen this apartment for its proximity to Santa Catarina Market, but I quickly realized that lovely as the market is (and much more patronized by locals than La Boqueria), it was the green grocer a street away that had the greens and artichokes I wanted at a much lower price.

And one shop led to another.  A few doors down from me there was a small wine shop that had both the cava I wanted, good cheese, and a cashier who could point me toward a hardware, itself in a pretty tourist heavy area, El Born.  I found a great art shop, Vicente Piera on Corsega, a long hike from home, but every excursion took me past other noteworthy sites.  For instance Raima on Comtal, the most luscious stationary store I’ve ever been in.

And as you track down the clothes pins, you find yourself in the company of people like the woman with her shopping bag rather than the couple with their backpack.

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On her way to market.

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Outside Santa Maria del Mar in El Born.


KINTSUGI…And Creating a Regular Feature

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Not so long ago I swept my favorite tea bottle off the table with my elbow.  The tea bottle and I were both shattered. My impulse is always to save the shards, and I discovered the interior compartment was unbroken.  I put all the bits I could find into a bag and waited for inspiration to strike.

Time passed.  I considered putting the pieces together as well as I could, then covering the outside with papier mache, creating a sort of egg shell. But I saw no solution for washing the bottle.  I couldn’t imagine a way to make the papier mache waterproof — and I’d have covered up the blue and white ceramic, the reason I chose this bottle.

A solution occurred to me when I found a roll of clear, broad packing tape on the shelf near the epoxy I would use for the first step in reassembly.  The gluing was difficult — as much on me as the fragments, and yes, there were gaps.

Next I wrapped the scarred surface in the transparent tape.  It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.  It could be rinsed out and the bottle insulated the tea better than it had undamaged.  It occurred to me later that I was, in a clumsy way, practicing kintsugi, the art of mending or making do.

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In the Japanese tradition, valuable ceramics were repaired in a manner that did not attempt to hide the repair but to dramatize it with a sprinkling of powdered gold along the seams.  I had no gold powder, but I may have been practicing a more immediate tradition. My mother too saved the shards.  Her attitude always was, “If nothing else, I can put dried flowers in it!”  And blue and white objects were always salvaged.

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A week with a huge dumpster at my disposal has me asking many questions.  What is worth saving?  How do I decide? Is it a question of repairing or finding a new purpose?  When do I let go?

Clearly these questions apply to more than ancient blue and white tea pots.  But the urgent matter at hand is a blue plant pot that cracked when it was left out in last winter’s extreme cold.  Time to get the epoxy.



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I knew I wanted to see the Sardana when I got to Barcelona.  On an earlier visit, I wasn’t aware of when to be in the Cathedral Square to witness the traditional dance, but during my month-long visit I managed to be present several times.  The dance itself is rather formal and intricate, if you pay careful attention.  One of the several things that fascinated me was the age range of the dancers.  You may hear an activity described as being “for all ages” but I saw people of an age span from eight to eighty join the circle of the dance.

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The basic formation for the dance is a circle in which people join hands.  The circle may comprise as few as four or as many as twenty.  Participants put their coats and bags (and sometimes their small children) in the center of the circle.

The Sardana is considered a traditional expression of Catalan culture, and it was forbidden during the repressive Franco regime when defiant dancers would form a group in a city square, then disappear into the crowd when authorities arrived, a sort of Sardana flash mob.  You will often see the red and gold Catalan flag displayed at the Sardana.

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Notice the foot-wear.

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Although at first glance, the dance may seem simple, it is done competitively.  You’ll notice the tee shirts some of the dancers wear identify their particular group.  And the most avid dancers, young and old, often wear a sort of espadrille on their feet.

The live music that accompanies the dance is provided by the Cobla, a band of about twenty musicians that includes a hand-held drum, oboes, and some brass, a double bass.  There are several Cobla representing different folkloric clubs and representatives move among the crowds collecting donations to support the band.  Each donor is given a small lapel sticker.

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The Cobla members are dressed in matching suits and ties — very stylish.  Although the Sardana gathers quite an audience, it is not so much a performance as a social gathering.  I noticed that the same groups made it a point to get together, week to week.  One Sunday, there must have been over one hundred dancers.

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A dance for all ages — an good exercise too.

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A child in the center of Sardana circle.

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The Cobla on the Cathedral steps.

If you Google “Cobla Barcelona” you should be able to find examples of the music.  I became quite a fan and even brought home a couple of CDs — but there is no substitute for being there.


ART GEAR — Tins and Pocket Protectors


A few years ago I was in the process of encouraging friends and students to take art gear with them everywhere so they could liven up their journals.  One of my strategies was the “Vest Pocket Studio,” which is contained in a clear plastic pocket protector.  I filled the compartments of a seven-day pill container with watercolors from tubes, added a pen (extra fine point, Pilot V Ball pens are waterfast), a tiny watercolor brush, some 2 x 3 inch pieces of watercolor paper, a folded paper towel and was ready to go!  Not pictured here is the super-handy water brush which will fit in neatly and eliminates the need for a separate water container.


Another alternative is to take advantage of the many tiny tins that exist in the world and use them to contain art supplies. The Vermints tin at the top is three inches by two and a quarter and it will hold nine half-pans of watercolor (I haven’t filled these yet), a tiny pencil and brush (the brush’s handle comes off to contain the brush-tip), and a few pieces of carefully cut watercolor paper.  In my experience, children love the tiny six-pan tin at the bottom of the picture.


Of course  you can rely on the trusty old Windsor and Newton compact travel kit (a messy one seen at the bottom), but I also like Peerless Water Colors, pigment dried on paper, which then allows you to cut it into small sheets and stable them to a “palate” as I did above.  I clip these bits of instant color into the back of my journal, then all I need is my water brush.


I put a small sheet of pastry parchment over each sheet so that if I close them when they are still wet they won’t stick together.

The tins for Altoid mints come in several sizes and can accommodate between six and a dozen half-pans and a collapsing brush or a small water-brush (available in art supply stores and catalogs).  So save your tins and you’ll have no excuse not to bring some color to your next sketching session.

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I don’t think trompe l’oeil, like these images of pigeons on a fountain in Barcelona, can be properly described as a disguise, and yet they do play with the viewer’s sense of reality.

One of the things I like about Barcelona is that it wears its politics on its sleeve.  There are frequent demonstrations and the Catalan flag is flown everywhere.

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So some things are very “up front” in Barcelona.

But in other instances, there are mysteries.  For example, the opening and closing hours of everything from banks to stores to tourist offices.

And when to try your marginal Spanish and when to make an attempt at a few words of Catalan.


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And then these roll-down devices that cover the windows and doors of most businesses after closing.  They are concealing but also revealing — either advertising their purpose or acting as a frame for a bit of graffiti art.  I admire Barcelona’s graffiti artists for keeping their work on these surfaces.  Almost never do you see graffiti on a wall or monument.

So Barcelona has its disguises but they mainly function to charm the viewers, not confuse them.