There’s nothing like travel to perk up the senses, grow some new dendrites, eat something you never thought you’d eat and meet someone you never would otherwise have met. Travel consistently gives me a laugh. T-shirts, funny signs, foreign words that are awkwardly translated or words that in their own language are just plain funny. Funny circumstances and circumstances that aren’t funny at all, but maybe when you look back on them, they were actually fairly amusing.
Standing in line to get in to the Guell Park in Barcelona (a project of the noted architect Antonio Gaudi) a couple of weeks ago, I glanced around at the other people sweating in the sun waiting patiently to get inside. A young man immediately behind me was wearing a T-shirt that said “Lake Tahoe Daily News” with a photo and headline reading, “Beware of mean raccoons.” How weird is this, I asked myself. A couple from Tahoe right behind us in line?
“Are you really from Tahoe?” I asked. “We’re from Placerville. This is amazing.”
He gave me a totally blank look, so I pointed to my shirt and then pointed to his shirt. He said something that sounded like “What?” in another language and kind of shrugged. He smiled and I smiled, and that was that. How does a European guy get hold of a “Lake Tahoe Daily News” T-shirt, and if he doesn’t speak English, why would it even appeal to him?
Two skater-like dudes in different towns had the same black T-shirt. “Sex, F***ks, Rock ‘n Roll,” they said. It struck me as something made and printed in China for the Spanish market. It would never sell here, because the syntax is all wrong, and we don’t use the plural “F” bomb that way. They must have known generally what it meant or at least the rough sentiment. From the looks of them, I’d have to guess their T-shirts were about as close as they are likely to get to “Sex and F***ks,” rude as that sounds. On the other hand, maybe they get a lot of “Rock ‘n Roll.”
My favorite was a faded blue number that I saw at breakfast in our hotel in Barcelona. A gentleman on the high end of middle age was wearing “Southern Denim Varsity Paradise Oceans” on the front of his shirt. He wasn’t from around here, I can tell you. If anyone has a notion as to what “Southern Denim Varsity Paradise Oceans” means, I’d appreciate a call or e-mail. Any way I look at it, it just makes no sense to me.
There were a lot of “Supermercats” in Barcelona and San Sebastian. They were like really big mini-marts but a kilo shy of being what we would call a super market. They sold quite an array of things but not everything you’d find in a Safeway or Raley’s. One that I happened to notice across the street while we were resting and having an espresso on the Avenida de Roma in Barcelona was the “Butt Supermercat.” I took a picture of the sign, butt it didn’t come out that good. It might have had a picture of two pigs as a logo, butt I didn’t get close enough to tell for sure. It was a pretty busy street, and I was tired from walking five or six miles already that day.
La Rambla is a fascinating boulevard in Barcelona. It stretches for about a mile from a big plaza with fountains down to the giant monument to Christopher Columbus, where he’s known as Colon or Colom. Traffic moves in a single lane on either side of a wide promenade that people flock to in droves to stroll and shop, to see and be seen. La Rambla means a stream. It was a stream back many, many years ago, and the pedestrian part is concrete with rippled grooves like waves. Really neat. It’s pretty touristy, but lots of locals were also there sitting on the free benches (not all are) and gabbing away, eating ice cream or fresh fruit. There were several fresh flower vendors and the place used to be a big venue for sales of pets, especially birds. On weekends, it’s very popular with human statues and pickpockets. We saw a few of the statues but no pickpockets and didn’t get pickpocketed there. That was later on the Metro.
One day on La Rambla, we popped into a century-old gelato and bakery shop. It had a sign and photo on the wall noting that it was 100 years old. I thought the gelato was pretty darn good. Georgette is the ice cream aficionado, and she proclaimed that it was good but not as good as in Italy. Sitting at the counter I noticed shelves opposite me. They had bread and baked goods, and on the top shelf, as best I could translate was a large, clear plastic bag full of something and a sign taped to the shelf announcing that, just like it had for the last 100 years, the shop was selling “Fartos.” You gotta admire that kind of loyalty to “Fartos.”
I couldn’t make out what they were but surely some kind of pastry. My dictionary doesn’t have “farto,” nor have I been able to find it online, so if anyone knows what a “farto” is please contact me. Whoever knows what “Southern Denim Varsity … etc.” means will surely know what a “farto” is.
The Catalunya Museum of History was fascinating. Catalan and Spanish are both spoken and recognized as legitimate languages and the Catalan spelling of familiar Spanish words is sometimes a little hard to get.
Barcelona has been a Phoenician port, a Greek harbor, a Roman colony, a Carthaginian watering hole and lots of other things in between. Vikings visited in their singular way. Arab Muslims spent some time occupying the city, and the Visigoths were all over Spain back in the day. Imagine being able to say, “We used to have Visigoths in these parts.”
Barcelona is something like the fourth largest port in the world, and it was huge. We rode a cable car, or tram or ski lift (to me it was a gondola-type ski lift) over the harbor to Montjuic (Jewish hill). It was very cool, but we had to wait two hours to get on, so that took some of the cool out of it. Exploring Barcelona’s history is a whole vacation in itself for me, but there were other things to come. Like bullet trains and pickpockets on the subway.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.