“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
— Mark Twain
(And unlike a lot of famous quotes attributed to Mark Twain, this one he actually said.)
As has often been the case in my life, travel prompts big and broad thoughts in my noggin. Sure, I contemplate short-term and in-your-face notions on what I’m seeing and doing, the people I’m meeting, and how much fun I’m having. But travel also forces me to ponder larger notions, typically related to life — mine, in particular, and in general. I don’t believe I’m unusual in that regard, and I think that’s what Twain was getting at in his quote. It’s hard to remain narrow-minded when you see all the world and its people have to show you. And that might be the main reason I love travel so much.
I’m just back after spending a week in Spain. In all my time in Europe, I had never made it to Spain before, so when my Dutch friends, Boogie and Marlies, announced they were having a party for Marlies’ 50th birthday, I knew I had to make the effort. I found a pretty cheap round-trip ticket and I could stay with them, so I knew I could do the trip relatively affordably. A factor, given my current finances.
Boogie and Marlies live in Mallorca where they have a wonderful, cozy little home in Palma. There, they run a 130-foot mega sailing yacht for an American owner. I’ve sailed with my friends all over the Atlantic, from the Grenadines to Greenland, including having spent the summer of 2011 crewing for them on a 72-foot charter boat — accounts of which you can find in the annals of this blog. They are dear friends and when I realized I hadn’t seen them since the summer of 2013 (when I helped them move a big sailboat from New York City to Rhode Island) I knew it was time. That it had also been December 2011 since I’d last been on a continent other than North America and it was DAMN SURE time to go.
And I’m so glad I did. For starters, it was great to see such good friends again after too long apart. Palma was wonderful and the party was great fun, and I also spent a day-and-change in Barcelona on the way home. Some quick-hit thoughts about my trip to Palma and Barcelona (in no particular order):
• I usually try to fly European airlines because the service is so much better than what I’ve experienced on U.S airlines. The service on Swiss was as I’d expected but they seem to be following their American counterparts in cramming passengers into smaller and tighter spaces
• Topographically, Palma and Barcelona reminded me a lot of the Los Angeles basin (without the urban sprawl): brown desert with mountains surrounding a populated bowl, palm trees and other desert plants transitioning as one gets higher in elevation
• All the old, falling-apart windmills on Mallorca made me think I was on the set of “Man of La Mancha”
• The Arab Baths in Palma are small but worth seeing. It’s cool to think the stones had been placed more than a thousand years earlier. And the peaceful garden outside reminded me of the meditation gardens in Encinitas, outside of San Diego
• Barcelona is a wonderfully scaled city. It’s big and it’s modern, but the buildings — with the winding alleys and narrow streets — make it a comfortable city. It’s not overwhelming like a New York or a London, but it’s still big enough to have everything you could want
• I walked past the famous Sagrada Familia and found it a little Las Vegas-y for my taste. But there were churches scattered all over the city that were gorgeous and inspiring without being so, well, tacky. One, in particular, recommended by a friend featured a stunning view from the top of the tower
• As much as I enjoyed Spain, I don’t know if I’m wired for the hours the Spanish keep. I found the quiet afternoons when stores are closed, followed by everything being open during the evening hours, followed by everyone going to dinner at 9 and 10 o’clock (or later) to be disconcerting. Hey, it works for them and I’m game to try, but I may be too much of a morning person for the whole “sleep late, siesta, late dinner” thing
It was also a unique time to be in that part of the world. In addition to seeing amazing sights and experiencing a different culture (or two; more on that later), I also found myself seeing first-hand the convulsions of a political/cultural upheaval in a tumultuous region.
I can’t do justice to the situation in Catalonia/Spain so I won’t even try. But the sentencing of several leaders of the Catalonian independence movement led hundreds of thousands of protesters to take to the streets in Barcelona and other Catalonian cities. By the time I arrived only scattered small demonstrations remained, but the anger simmered throughout Barcelona. From balconies all over the city I saw the Catalonian flag and yellow ribbons, posters crying out for justice, and as I had dinner one evening a protest popped up in the small square in front of the restaurant. I stood in the doorway watching a hundred or so people sing the Catalonian anthem while under the watchful gaze of a couple of police officers. An older gentleman walked along the perimeter of the demonstration with his right arm and middle finger extended toward the singers, illustrating that things aren’t so cut-and-dried. But what was especially moving to me was that the bartender who’d been serving me and with whom I’d been chatting put everything down and stood in the doorway, fist raised overhead, singing along with the crowd.
It was powerful, inspiring even, to see such passion for a cause, and a love for rights and freedom, especially as I see people (myself included, if I’m being honest) stand by meekly as rights and freedom suffer assault in the United States, the place where the modern notion of freedom got started. (And a couple of days after I returned to the U.S., more than 300,000 people gathered for a massive protest in Barcelona. In fairness, the next day, 80,000 people gathered in support of Spanish unity.)
On top of that, the day after I left the remains of the late dictator, Franco, were exhumed from the memorial to those who died in the Spanish Civil War and moved to a family plot in Madrid. It might seem incredible to us, but there are plenty of Francoists in Spain, so such an event (years in the making after court challenges and appeals) was as profound as the unrest in Catalonia. Spain, it seems, is a very much a dynamic nation. That’s both appealing and unnerving. To be honest: I don’t know how I feel about such back-and-forth dynamism. I mean: freedom and independence is a good thing, isn’t? Fascism is bad, right? Well, there are Spaniards on both sides of both of those questions. And since my trip I’ve been reading up on the events in Spain in hopes of understanding things a little better.
And it’s that notion — the desire to understand things a little better — that travel prompts in me. In the case of this trip, external things were more front-and-center than most travel I’ve done. But there have been plenty of internal things running through my brain and heart since I got on the plane to Spain.
On a personal level, there’s the sheer joy I get in being among foreign cultures. And that joy comes not only because of the different ways other people eat, talk, play and relate to one another, but because it comforts me (the ol’ curmudgeon himself) to see just how different people can be but actually how alike we are, deep down. We all want happiness, we all want love, we all want to savor life…we just seek those things in different ways. And one way is not better than another it’s just…different. It’s in those differences I find communion, I find my humanity. No culture has a corner on the best way to do things, so it behooves us to embrace our similarities and explore our differences, and take what works best to keep evolving as a species.
I don’t get those people who freak out on non-English-speakers here in the U.S. Are you SO insular that realizing there are billions (with a B) who don’t speak English? Are you SO arrogant as to think your language is the only one worth learning? One of the things I love most about Europe is the range of languages — and the fact that multilingualism is everywhere — but more, the acceptance people have for others who speak differently. That variety speaks (bad pun sort-of intended) to the multiplicity of the human experience — and how close by it is — and hints at how much more there is for ALL of us to learn and grow.
And that’s not to diminish my/our own language and culture. English is an amazing language, and America has created so many amazing, wonderful things that are rightly celebrated. I celebrate them. But I can also celebrate others at the same time I take pride in my own tribe.
Throw on top of language our differences in food, dress, customs, sport and so on, and the incredible vastness that is homo sapiens is nothing short of mind-blowing. And it’s all out there for any of us to learn, should we so choose. And I, for one, want to keep learning until I die, and travel enables me to learn AND feel better about the magic of my species in one fell swoop. Mark Twain, as he was on so many topics, was wise indeed.
Oh, and one other observation from this trip: electric scooters are taking over the world.