A New Look at the Old World

On our way to MIA, from which we would fly to Barcelona, I looked out the window of the jet and happened to get a good look at the coast.  In particular, a stretch of the ICW between Southport and Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, which we’d just traversed very slowly a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, the perspective was quite different, as I could see not just the route we traveled, but much much more, including the offshore Frying Pan Shoals which we’d pointedly avoided.  I was reminded, once again, of what a narrow little slice of the world our particular journey has allowed us to see.

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Views of Spain and Barcelona on our approached.

Right now, I’m writing this on a train leaving Barcelona, Spain (en route to Carcassonne, France), as I see again how very little we get to experience in our travels – that our experiences are bounded by our own personal perspectives (age, prejudices, interests, life experiences) and the time we allow ourselves in a particular place.  Nevertheless, what we did see provided a tantalizing taste of what Europe has to offer, and how much more we’d like to have.

I haven’t been to Europe in 34 years.  At that time, my sister and I were young teenagers, and we visited relatives in England and Poland.  This was 1980, bare months since the election of the Polish Pope, and some time before the Solidarnosc movement gained traction in Poland.  We were basically visiting an Iron Curtain country, under the thumb of the Soviet Union, with the grimness, privations and limitations of that regime in full evidence.  Our naïve and inexperienced worldview colored our experience; frankly, there was a part of me that was still amazed that this part of Europe was not black-and-white, like my parents’ (who had immigrated to the US from Poland in the early 1960s) home movies.

Fast forward a few decades.  Rick and I are visiting a different country altogether, in a different era, with a Mediterranean sensibility.  Just arriving here was a breeze; no forms to fill out, no forbidding military presence around the airport.  We landed, went through immigration, collected our luggage, went through customs, and were in a taxi within the space of 20 minutes.  Now that we’re in the EU, we don’t have to go through any more formalities until we re-enter the US.

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Plaza Real in Barcelona.  Full of people speaking a multitude of languages.

In Barcelona, we felt very comfortable, reminding us as it did of cities we know and love well – namely San Juan and New Orleans.  (And, I have to say, we are totally humbled by how welcoming everyone is, and how well they speak English, even as I put my halting and barely-remembered Spanish to use.)  We then have to remind ourselves that it’s Barcelona (and other cities) which influenced the look of our New World cities, even though our experiences of the New World cities precede them.  We were looking at the original in Spain.

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Some Barcelona street views.  Everything is close together.

We have just spent months and months in the semi-tropical Bahamas, where sharing a beach with anyone was an imposition, and where resources were limited.  Then a few days at home, with its attendant comforts and profligate waste of resources.  Here, in Europe, “green” is a way of life, where millions of people share small spaces and limited resources.  The sidewalks teem with life and are crowded with people on foot.  Parking space is given over to bicycles and motorbikes, because there’s barely enough room for car traffic (which is wasteful).  Every trash bin is divided into recyclable components.  If you think a 1.6 gallon flush is miserly, you should see the toilets here!  No lights went on in our hotel room unless we put a key card in the switch (although, thankfully, the shower had amazing water pressure – I’m still missing fresh water at the ready after months of going without).

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Lots of two-wheeled vehicles on La Rambla.

The super-modern coexists with the ancient in Barcelona.  There appears to be a contemporary, artistic sensibility pervading new builds, but there is no room for it except among and within structures which are hundreds and hundreds of years old.

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A lot of the development along the waterfront is of recent vintage.  But the old buildings overlook all of it.

Our hotel, the Le Meridien, managed to combine its signature, soothing, and cutting-edge décor within a classic old building.

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In the stairwell of our hotel, modern art set against old-style wrought iron railings.

And a few blocks over was the Gothic Quarter, with 5 and 6 story buildings hovering over alleyways that are barely a cars-width.

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Buildings in the Gothic Quarter, including the Barcelona Cathedral.  You can definitely see the precedents of the historic districts of New Orleans and San Juan.

The food was fantastic.  My favorite style of dining at home – small plates – has its forebears in Spanish tapas.

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Paella with langoustines.

For the most part, it’s very simple food, exquisitely prepared.  The most noteworthy features of our dinner last night were grilled bread with fresh tomato rubbed on it, and sliced Iberico ham.

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Us, at dinner.  You can see what happened to Rick’s hair….

The market a few blocks from our hotel was filled with beautiful, fresh foods.  It makes me want to get cooking!

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Scenes from the market.

I’m envious of all of the young backpackers we see around here, enjoying their gap years or just bumming around indefinitely.  Until we took this sabbatical, I’ve never had much time at my disposal to really explore the world.  And, indeed, this particular trip was planned well before we knew we’d be taking months off, and so was crammed into 2 weeks of vacation time (an especially long trip for us, because we typically take only one-week trips at most).  So, a few days in Barcelona, a few days in Carcassonne, a week-long barge trip in the Languedoc on the Canal du Midi, and then a few days in Paris.  Although a 2-week trip is generous for our schedule, I’m reminded again that I’m only seeing a little bit of this part of the world.







One thought on “A New Look at the Old World

  1. svmerlin40

    Sounds like fun and the thought of Spanish tapas makes my mouth water. Things were a little testy when we were there with demonstrations and lots of spray painting. Unemployment in Spain is still over 25% and over 50% for youth with a minimum wage of just over 5.50 USD per hour. But it’s getting better than it was.


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