|Europe as seen by Americans from Frank Jacobs' blog at|
And Barcelona's not even really Spain. I realize that that's not saying much, because most people have no clue what Spain is in the first place. Even for Spaniards, Spanishness is fractured and always in contention. The country's comprised of 17 autonomous communities, and 7 official/ recognized languages. There are customs in the north that are foreign to the south and vice versa. When I told a friend from the island of Tenerife about a certain Catalan Christmas tradition, she admitted to never having heard of it before. "It's like a different country," she said, without a hint of irony. Breaking down Spain beyond saying, Spain isn't Mexico, is harder than you'd think. I can, however, shed some light on the question sharing a bit about Barcelona. More specifically, 3 things Barcelona is NOT.
Sombreros and Mojitos. Yes, sombrero simply means hat in Spanish. But I know that when non Spanish speakers use the word sombrero, they are not using it to reference a Yankee cap and a cowboy democratically. Y'all mean this shit right here:
You mean sombrero of the type made popular by Mexican peasant culture and drinking games on spring break. You mean big wide brims, and colorful ass colors. So you come to Spain, where they speak Spanish and you think they mean what you mean by sombrero. And BCN often helps feed the beast of cultural mistranslation by selling sombreros in the cheap souvenir shops on the Ramblas. First of all, never buy anything on the Ramblas. Not food, not t-shirts, and definitely not those poor parrots being sold alongside goldfish, roses and key chains at the kiosks on the center strip. Most of all, do not buy a goddamn sombrero. You will look crazy. The word sombrero is Spanish. Sombreros are not. Also be careful of mojitos. Those are Cuban. Unless a Spanish bar specializes in making them, steer clear.
Flamenco. My first night in Sevilla, I sat at an outdoor bar with a fellow american, two Ecuadorans and an Argentine, eating cheese, chorizo, and some strange little cracker thing that I'd come to find out typically accompanied tapas in Andalucia, but I'd never seen it in the north of Spain. At about 3am, we heard the strains of a Spanish guitar. Flamenco guitar. In the days following, I would see this twice more: once in a park, and again in another bar. People just whipping out guitars and launching into cantos.
If anyone's carrying a guitar in hippy town Barcelona, it's a safe bet they're about to play some Bob Marley or something.
Any flamenco shows in Barcelona, like the ones for which they are always handing out flyers on the Ramblas and Calle Ferran, are probably not the best of flamenco that Spain has to offer. Remember that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region with its own language, culture, and history. The national dance is Sardanas, essentially, the anti-flamenco. The music, Rumba Catalana, is some strange fusion whose origins are impossible to suss out upon hearing. No. Correction. I'd suss it thus: cumbia that may or may not have lost its way. If you want flamenco, go south, or plan your trip during one of Barcelona's many flamenco festivals, to which artists nationwide flock. The genre was born in Spain, but it's become the very embodiment of the country's fractured nature.
Now, Salsa is also not at all Spanish. Don't go anywhere in Spain specifically for this. Unless it's Club Mojito on a Sunday night, which is filled with Cubans. And no, I've never tried their mojito.
Perpetual Sun. King Felipe II famously blubbered about "the empire on which the sun never sets". But that was in the 16th century, and he was co-opting South American and Caribbean heat (and gold and oil and labor and sexy latin guy image*) for the Iberian peninsula's gain. While it may be appropriate to show up in Cadiz or the Canary Islands in short shorts and a tank at almost any time of the year, when I see you boarding the plane to Madrid or getting off the Aerobus at Plaza Catalunya in short shorts and a tank and it's NOT July or August, I just feel bad. Cause you've been had by Felipe. The sun totally sets in Spain. It's the most mixed of bags when it comes to the environment. North of the center, you've got chilly fall, cold, rainy and sometimes snowy winters, transitional springs and scorching summers.
Perhaps before global warming, winters were shorter and less wintery and the summers, longer and more summery. But it goes beyond that. You'd no more wear your bathing suit and snuggie (I've seen this!!) on Paseo de Gracia than you would on New York's 5th avenue or Chicago's Michigan Ave. In a city where young, urbane parents are worrying about school enrollment when their children are 2 and English speaking nannies are all the rage, you should at the very least, wear a fucking shirt on public transportation.
Indeed there's a beach and everyone speaks Spanish, but this does not mean that anything goes. That said, even Mexico is more than just your sun-sombreros-sangria Mexico and I, for one, wish we'd stop treating it and its touristic cousins throughout the Americas like anything goes too. But we gotta start somewhere.
*Stay tuned. This is Friday's post.