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Barcelona Diaries
Rama Varma

10th January.
We arrive in Barcelona after a 2-hour flight from Luton Airport. Made an early start– had to be at the airport by 5:00. There was the usual last-minute panic about finding the car park. Without the traffic and neon signs, Luton is completely disorienting. Finally, we were given some very good directions by a Gujarati newsagent, who is stacking bundles of newspapers. At least we don’t have to be up at this hour seven days a week. Tapas sleeps on the flight, so Subha gets some much-needed rest. As we plunge through the cottony clouds, we get a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Pyrennees.

 At the airport, I fumble with numerous cards before the ATM machine accepts one of them. We haven’t brought any foreign exchange. Apparently it is cheaper to use the local ATM machines.
We get in line for the Airport bus. The passengers behind us fidget as I struggle with the suitcase and Tapas, who has taken a sudden fancy to the hand-rail. He keeps lunging at it, causing me to drop a handful of coins. Subha smiles apologetically at the driver.
Neatly planted date palms and glass-fronted offices soon give way to dusty apartment-blocks, their balconies festooned with clothes-lines. Except for the sun and the date-palms, we could still be in London.
We get off at Placa Espanya, which is a 10-minute walk from our apartment, or one stop on the Metro. We consider for a moment the suitcase, the pram and an increasingly jubilant Tapas and decide to leg it. As we walk past gaily painted apartments and their trellised balconies, the suitcase takes a life of its own, riding roughshod over the uneven flagstones.
Our greeter is Martin, originally from Aberdeen. He wears a stud on one ear and bright red shoes, in keeping with the spirit of the place. We don’t need much explanation as to why he has left the Granite City to settle here.
The lift can just about take me and the suitcase, so Subha and Tapas go up the marble staircase with Martin. When the doors open, I realise I am on the wrong floor. Tapas’s cries echo through the spiral staircase and I cannot tell where they are coming from. To the lady waiting outside, who looks as if she might exceed the maximum capacity of the lift by a few kilos, I point upward.
I get the wrong floor again. This time the lady rolls her eyes and I point downward. Fortunately, Martin shouts something from downstairs, perhaps Spanish for “that man has never used a lift before” and the lady nods. The signs on the lift are misleading – the real second floor is labelled “P”, for Principal and “2” is the 4th floor.
The apartment has a long corridor, flanked by the kitchen and the bathroom, with the bedroom and the living room at the far end. Martin opens the slatted French window, letting a warm strip of sunlight spill on the tiled floor. It brings back the ache of some long-forgotten memory.
Martin says there are four vegetarian restaurants in the city. He settles down at the table to draw up what I presume is the contract. I grow a bit impatient. When at length he has finished, I realise that he has taken the trouble to draw an excellent map, with the best vegetarian restaurants off La Ramblas marked.
We order a buffet at Govinda’s, the Hare Krishna restaurant. The menu is in Spanish, but the owner speaks perfect Hindi. By the time we have done justice to the salads, soups, samosas and pulav, we are struggling and I have to refuse the dessert. I ask about the Hare Krishna community here and the owner kindly gives me a souvenir commemorating the Janmashtami celebration in Spain. It has a picture of the rath yatra in Barcelona. One half of the souvenir is devoted to the advertisements from the sponsors. Mostly the Indian business community - from garment importers in Gibraltar to Indian restaurants in Malacca.
Walking back past the street performers and cartoonists at La Ramblas, we stumble upon the fruit market. Amidst the numerous varieties of citrus fruits are exotic fruits from Latin America, whose names I get the seller to repeat, but don’t quite catch. A purple one that looks like a pomegranate makes me grimace. It is expensive and tastes of sap.
We are in a cable car, ascending rapidly towards Montserrat. The cars on the ribbon of road below soon shrink into tiny specks and disappear behind the orange haze. The cable car operator says something to amuse Tapas, but it only makes him jump and cling to Subha. My ears pop as we rapidly gain altitude. The folds of the mountain face resemble the stalks of some exotic plant. At the top, Subha is so distracted by the sheer variety of shops that by the time we reach Montserrat basilica, the last notes of the children’s choir are already fading away.
11th January
 This is one of the holiest shrines in Spain and yet most of the visitors are tourists like us. After the recital, there is hardly anyone at the pews, except for a pious Mexican family kneeling at the front row. It occurs to me that this would not happen in India. No one goes to Guruvayoor as a tourist. True, they might spend a while in the shops outside the temple, but that is not their primary purpose.
It prompts me to think how, in the modern world, money is most common measure of value. I do not think this malaise is restricted to the West. How much is the forgotten painting in your cellar worth? How much do you have to pay for putting your mother in a care home? What is the cost of not cutting down CO2 emissions now?
How much was Martin’s hand-drawn map of La Ramblas worth? Priceless!
Back in Barcelona, we saunter into a petrol station. Subha picks up a packet of biscuits and changing her mind, rather carelessly drops it on the wrong shelf. The pony-tailed proprietor swoops down on us. He rasps something in Spanish, mimicking Subha’s action. We apologise and walk away. As we step out, I realise he is still shouting and gesturing at us from the till. Perhaps he is objecting to the pram. Perhaps he is saying we should go to the Pakistani shop next door.
As we step outside, I consider whether I should go back in and pick up a fight. Subha wants to come too. Then I decide it is not worth it. After all, this person is hardly typical of the well-mannered and considerate people we have come across in the streets, buses and metro. Nevertheless, I know the incident will rankle for a while.
12th January
We are outside Sagrada Familia, both awed and repulsed by its architecture. What dark imagination must have conceived such a monstrosity! Antoni Gaudi (1857-1926) started the project in 1882 and devoted nearly 40 years to this work, the last fifteen of which he virtually lived at the construction site, cutting himself off from the world. In the later years, he struggled for funds. He was run over by a tram and died in a pauper’s hospital, from which he refused to be moved, saying his place was with the poor.

One of his teachers at the school of architecture in Barcelona is said to have commented “I have either found a genius or a lunatic”. Gaudi’s architecture has elements of both. I can’t help thinking, though, that the temple towers in South India are equally rich in religious symbolism and detail, and yet aesthetically far more pleasing.
We debate whether we should step in. But the queues are long, it is nearly two ‘o’ clock and we haven’t seen much today.
Managing a one-year old is a full-time job in itself. Tapas’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and nappy changes, although struggle at times, we could plan ahead. It is the sleep routine that defeats us. At various times on this trip, he has been put to sleep on a park bench, the back seat of an open-rooftop tourist bus and in the pram on a busy street. I must admit he has taken to these vagrant sleeping habits very well.
It is 9:30 pm and we realise we have run out of bottled water. Martin has warned us that the tap water was not very nice. By this, did he mean it was dangerous, or simply that it tastes of sea salt? I don’t mind trying it, but I don’t want to experiment on Tapas. So I reluctantly go foraging into the night. Some of the small groceries are closed, so I decide to walk to the petrol station off Placa Espanya.
A short-cut through the back-streets brings me to the Palau Nacional, which houses the Art Museum. I decide to go up the few steep staircases and at the top and I am rewarded with a panoramic view of Barcelona. Almost straight across is the beautifully lit dome of a building, which I guess must be in Parc Guell, which houses some of Gaudi’s more secular works. Below, the dancing fountains leading to the Palau Nacional have been switched off. I look for the Sagrada, but I cannot make it out amidst the glittering lights of the city. I am still haunted by that lifelong obsession of Gaudi.
As I walk back to the apartment, I can see Subha pacing anxiously up and down the balcony. A few more minutes and she would have called Martin to raise a search party. Just as well I haven’t forgotten the bottled water.
13th January 
We are at the Palau Nacional, admiring Catalan murals from the 12th-13th centuries. We have only an hour, so I decide to spend it studying these in detail. Many of the murals have been reconstructed from crumbling basilicas in the valleys of the South Pyrennes, their apses painstakingly restored. The theme is generally based on the apocalypse, with a Moorish Christ with a severe countenance, sitting in judgement.
The “basilica” was originally a Roman public building. The apse would be where the magistrate sat. When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, they borrowed the architecture of the basilica, the most imposing building available, with Christ enthroned at the apse. Hence a social motif became a religious one.
History is replete with such instances of one culture borrowing from another. Hence the Celtic goddess, Aquae Sulis in Bath became associated with the Roman goddess of healing, Minerva. The Greek god, Dionysus became associated with the Roman god Bacchus. Sadly, in the increasingly dogmatic Christianity of medieval times, there was there was little room for syncretism.
We reluctantly walk back to the apartment, amidst sunny avenues lined with orange trees. We quickly wash up and put the rubbish out. I struggle to fold back the most comfortable sofa-bed I have ever slept on. As I put the keys on the table, I take one longing look at the sun streaming in through the slatted windows. I get the feeling that I am leaving a home I have known for a long time.
© Rama Varma Ferb 2007

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