July 31, 2012
Laughter followed by a polite smile. Complete change of subject. A glance at one's wristwatch. These were the most common reactions to my Spanish speaking in Barcelona. Up in the foothills of the Pyrenees my Spanish was so good they thought I was French. Nevertheless, I traveled, I ate, and I made friends. Very patient friends.
I stayed in Barcelona for a month and I took two weekend-long motorcycle trips. Proper roadtrip photos and stories are below, but first, quickly, some bits from Barcelona:
I have never eaten as consistently well and affordably as I did during my month in Barcelona. There seemed to be no end to the amazing restaurants (and I tried around 30 of them in 28 days), but my favorite was La Pepita (in Gracia), where the steak tartare is simply amazing.
Also: Voll-Damm. The ultimate summer beer. They export Estrella Damm, but they keep the good stuff for themselves.
I had never seen any of Gaudi's buildings in person before and was surprised to discover how practical and well constructed Casa Batlló is. It also has some of the most interesting natural light of any indoor space I've seen. I think it's also as close as you can get to being swallowed by a whale.
The first trip was two days southward and the second three days northward, over the Pyrenees and into France. I rented BMW dual sport bikes (a F650GS for the first, a F800GS for the second) which turned out to be quite comfortable for long rides.
On the first trip I had stayed overnight in a popular vacation spot (Salou) and decided that on the second I would try something more rural. I settled on a town called Joanetes, 10 kilometers south of Olot at the base of the Pyrenees, population 267. I reserved a room at the inn, Fonda Barris, which, to my surprise and relief, took reservations online. I found the place without any trouble, but failed to locate the front desk. I don't know whether riding 10 hours on challenging mountain roads had something to do with it, but I swear there was no front desk. I wandered around, bag and helmet in hand, until I ran into a man, probably in his late 70s, who immediately saw that I was confused and began talking to me rapidly in Catalan, the main language spoken in the northern part of Spain of which I understand almost nothing beyond the occasional word which is similar to an English or Spanish word. I tried responding in Spanish, and he asked, still in Catalan, if I was from France. Somewhat baffled, I responded "Estados Unidos," and his face lit up like a bombeta. Quickly he ushered me downstairs and introduced me to his son, his son's wife, and their teenage son. Somehow they communicated to me that the boy was just learning Spanish and I should communicate with him. He asked for my driver's license and, upon seeing it, exclaimed "New York!"
"New York!" they all said. As the teenager and I stumbled through the process of checking in the grandfather kept pointing to a map on the wall and describing routes I should take through the mountains on my motorcycle. The husband and wife kept looking back and forth at me and the motorcycle parked outside and talking enthusiastically. They were all incredibly welcoming and genuinely friendly and I was amused that they saw me, a English-speaking white man, as exotic.
When the check-in process was over the husband took me up to my room, which was quite nice. "La cena?" I asked, and he gave me directions to the dining room downstairs, which I did not understand but which I knew I could find because there were only about five rooms in the whole place. Of course, when I got downstairs I made a couple of turns and found myself, awkwardly, in the kitchen. The two middle-aged women working there looked at me as if I were insane. Then the wife appeared, saw me, and began laughing. "Americano," she explained to the other women. They all laughed and the wife directed me through the kitchen to the dining room.
There were about 20 tables in the dining room, only three of them taken. I sat down at the nearest one. The husband told me the choices for first and second courses and I repeated the only two dishes I could pronounce. The first turned out to be an awful salad and the second an awful piece of meat, probably a pork chop. As I ate I was aware of the locals sitting at a nearby table furtively glancing at me and discussing "el Americano," either too excited to lower their voices or too drunk to care that I could hear. At one point the husband, who had been standing by the kitchen door, watching me eat with fascination, asked why I wasn't putting oil on my salad. He picked up the bottle and demonstrated how it worked, as if showing a time traveler from the future some primitive device their great-great-great grandparents might have used. Too surprised to explain that I simply didn't care for oil on my salad, and afraid that I would accidentally insult him, I thanked him and poured it on. Nothing would have made that salad any better or worse anyway.
At the end of the meal the grandfather sidled up to my table and poured me a complimentary digestif made nearby in Olot. I was skeptical but it turned out to be fantastic. It also knocked me right out.
The next day was Sunday, something I would soon learn is taken much more seriously in France than in America. I rode north through Olot and started ascending the Pyrenees, winding my way around blind corners on steep mountain roads and enjoying the incredible views. I crossed the border into France about 30 minutes before I realized I was in France. There had been a lookout point with a restaurant and some bikers out front, a downgrade in the quality of pavement, and a change in the vegetation, nothing else. As I started descending the mountains I made my way through small towns with narrow streets, narrow cars, and people who smiled and waved at my motorcycle, seemingly just because that's what people do when they're happy. I wanted to stop but I was having too much fun riding and taking in all the new places.
Eventually, as motorcycles do, mine became low on gas. By that time I was on a less interesting road, trying to make up some time so I could get to my destination (Berga, Spain) before dark. I pulled off the highway into a small town and went to the first gas station I saw. It was closed but the pumps accepted credit cards. French credit cards. Not my American credit cards. I couldn't read the French error messages well enough to determine the exact reason but I tried enough times to know it wasn't going to happen.
I rode to the other side of town and found another gas station, also closed, and also with no appreciation for my American credit cards. A little nervous but knowing I had enough gas to try one or two more towns I returned to the highway. When the only two gas stations in the next town were closed I began to understand what the Christian day of rest was really about. Everything was closed, and my credit cards might as well have been Monopoly money. I looked at my map and saw a town with a slightly bigger dot about 30 kilometers down the road (I think it was Prades, France, not to be confused with the lovely mountain village of Prades, Spain). Thinking I might have better luck there, I decided to take a chance and see if I could make it, rather than wasting gas by stopping in other, lesser towns.
By the time I arrived I was convinced I was running on fumes. The first station I passed was closed. So was the second. The third was closed but there were a couple of cars getting gas (using French credit cards) and I realized it could be the last. I thought that if I could just be near gasoline I might find a way to get it into the bike. Immediately upon pulling up next to a pump I realized what I had to do. I surveyed the other customers while I played out the charade of trying to use my credit card.
Presently a middle aged man pulled up with his wife and what looked like her mother in the back seat. Bingo.
I watched as he unenthusiastically filled his tank. When he was removing the pump I approached. Speaking in clear, slow English and waving Euros like a moron: "My credit card doesn't--"
"Arphrargghhh," he interrupted gruffly. He turned his back and continued replacing his pump but I understood his grunt better than anything he could have said in French. Translated into English, roughly: "Buying gas for an American is slightly better than being in the car with my mother-in-law." He walked over to my motorcycle and negotiated with the pump while I put the nozzle in the gas tank. He said nothing as I filled it to the top. I handed him a twenty and he kept the change. I made it to Berga before dark.
Before the trip I bought a GoPro camera and mounted it on my helmet. Here are some highlights (sequence of 5 videos):
I apologize to everyone on my flight for taking photos from the airplane window while I was supposed to have my approved electronic devices switched off.