Thursday, October 18, 2012

I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain...

...than in most countries. How easy it is to make friends in Spain! ... I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Spanish working class - I ought perhaps to say the Catalan working class, for apart from a few Aragonese and Andalusians I mixed only with Catalans - and not be struck by their essential decency; above all, their straightforwardness and generosity. A Spaniard's generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force the whole packet upon you. And beyond this, there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances. - George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia)

The first friend I made in Spain did not even know me when he offered to put me up in Barcelona. I was taking Spanish classes in Bangalore and my instructor's a friend of his and she told him about my trip. Francesc has been to India many times, and the fact that he loves India and that his friend spoke well of me was enough to get me a "my home is your home."

My trip to Barcelona was for four days, and because I really picked the wrong time for a first visit to the city, had he not been there to show me around, I would've left it bewildered. Apart from being in the train station early in the morning, to pick me up, he woke up at the crack of dawn each day (and with me sometimes waking up late and leaving him waiting, I'm ashamed to say), and showed me the best of what was possible to enjoy in Barcelona, in the din that was La Mercè.

I had plans for another 8 days in Catalonia at the end of my trip (my flight back was from Barcelona), and while the first two days were reserved for el clásico, the game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, I wanted to spend the remaining 6 days in the rest of Catalonia. I asked him whether he would accompany me and was delighted when he said yes and further that we would take his car for the tour. He planned the whole trip, giving me a wealth of options and explaining the various permutations on the map, but always leaving the final word to me - I was the guest, after all. And the one thing he'd learnt in India was that the guest is God. Or something like that. It was a lesson I'd missed, somehow.

And so, after tramping around Spain for 3 weeks, and then watching an exhilarating game at the Camp Nou, I found Francesc waiting outside my hotel the next morning in his Opel. Thus began our road trip. I still couldn't get the sardana I'd seen a few weeks earlier at the Camp Nou out of my head, so I asked him whether he had any of that music. But no, all he had was a thick stack of Bollywood music (the hits of Aamir Khan): and so the hills and the forests of Catalonia reverberated to Pehla Nasha and Aati Kya Khandala.

I won't describe in much detail here the places we went to (I hope to do that in a later post), but it was mostly the city of Girona and the northern stretch of the Costa Brava - from the strange Cap de Creus near the French border to Tossa de Mar further south. I didn't see much of Tossa de Mar - we stopped there only on the way back to Barcelona - but didn't like the place much. It has much bigger beaches than the other places in the Costa Brava we'd been to and so attracts lots of tourists and has ugly hotels dotting the beach-front. Francesc says it gets worse further south.

I preferred very much the rocky coves and the lovely villages on the coast up north. But it's also more isolated and had it not been for Francesc, I wouldn't have seen any of it - it's not an area well covered by public transport, and to experience it without a car would've taken a lot more than the 4 days I had. 

The other advantage of being introduced to Catalonia by Francesc is that he's the friendliest chap you could imagine. It's not just him, though, and it definitely is not just Catalonia. Throughout my trip in Spain, the people were the warmest and the friendliest I've ever been around. They speak very little English generally, but even so, if you approached anyone for help, most would take as long you need and use as much sign language as they know to make sure you got what you needed. It's as if none of them have anywhere to be in a hurry. And why would they, in a country as beautiful as theirs?

To take one instance, there was this young mother with her child in a bus-stop in A Coruña. Galicia's the only place in Spain where my GPS gave me trouble and I was well and truly lost in this instance. I knew the bus number I had to take, but couldn't figure out where to catch it from. After walking around for a while and having had no luck, I chanced upon those two waiting alone for a bus. I showed her the map I had and the bus number I was supposed to take, hoping that she would indicate on which street it stopped. But she brushed it away, told her little girl - about 4 or 5 years old - to behave while she was away, and took me herself to the stop where I could catch my bus. I suppose, apart from the general kindness, it's also an indication of how safe their country is.

So, anyway, like I said, the whole of Spain are a friendly bunch (except this one chap behind the ticket counter in the bus station in Ronda - but even he wasn't actively rude, just curt and grumpy: if I were in the tourism department and had to pick the face of Andalusia, it wouldn't be him). But I thought the Catalans managed to exceed the very high standards set by the rest of Spain. For one thing, they talk and talk and talk. In the one week I spent with Francesc, I can't ever recall a conversation with a stranger that got over in less than 5 minutes, no matter how innocuously it started. Ask the lady at the laundromat where my trousers were, and you'd think that's a conversation that'd be over in 10 seconds: "It's right there, behind that shirt." But no, Francesc managed a 7-page animated conversation on the topic with her.

Sometimes, I wished I understood a little Catalan to figure out what on earth they talk about so much. Used as I am to avoiding any sort of eye contact with strangers and sticking to monosyllabic sentences, I sometimes found it exhausting just watching them. Everyone - from above-mentioned laundromat lady, to the strange couple dressed as astronauts in a car park, to hotel receptionists, to tobacconists, to even the policeman we once stopped in the middle of a street in Barcelona to ask for directions (cars piled up behind us as the policeman and Francesc had a leisurely conversation - but not one honked) - seemed genuinely delighted to meet people. But curiosity often got the better of my mental exhaustion. Not that I'm any the wiser, though, because even if I asked Francesc about it later, his English translations were often the very concise Reader's Digest versions. There was this man in a shop where we'd walked into to buy a bottle of water. Naturally, a 10-minute conversation followed. After we left the shop, 

"So, what were you guys talking about, Francesc?"
"I was just telling him that I was showing you around the Costa Brava and that we'd been in Cadaqués yesterday."
"And what'd he say?"
"He said, 'Oh, that's good.'"

But anyway, that's how it was. Francesc always made friends wherever he went. And especially with the women. I don't know how; it's not like he's Pierce Brosnan or anything, but they all seem happy to talk to him. That's a general thing I noticed in Spain, though. Compared to some other countries, actually the only other country, I've been in, women don't put up deflector shields and have the general attitude of being alone in a basement with a well-known sex offender on being hailed by strange men - even if it were the middle of the night and there were two strange men. And yes, yes, before anyone jumps down my throat, it must have something to do with the general attitudes of the men there, too. But yeah, he has them eating out of his hand, and one girl even let us in the museum she was the custodian at, for free, after he talked to her for a while.

But of all the friends we made, the one I'll never forget is the one he (and therefore we) made in Begur. We were walking around the town looking for a place to eat. The bistro we walked into, by coincidence, was owned by the most beautiful woman I'd seen in all of Catalonia. After the customary 15-minute greetings, she asked us what we wanted to eat. The Spanish have this habit of drinking chocolate - no, not a watered-down chocolate shake, but the real thing; you could freeze it in your fridge and sell it the next day as a bar of chocolate. It's as thick as mercury and is the most heavenly drink I've ever had. So, I asked for that. She made an apologetic face and told me that she doesn't sell it anymore, but if I went there again the next day, she would buy it and have it ready "just for me."

At least, that's what I think she said. For one thing, even if she spoke perfect English without any accent, it still would've been very difficult to concentrate on what she was saying - coming as close as she did, laying her hands on mine, and looking at me with light-green eyes as clear as the waters of the nearby coves. But the next day, there was chocolate waiting for me at the bistro, so that must have been what she said.

This next day was also my birthday, one where I not only turned a year older, but a whole decade older. Dinner was again at the bistro, but we reached there very late and were the only ones around. She was having dinner with a friend and his son, who were visiting her from afar. She cheerfully asked us to join them and introduced us to her friend. He was a documentary filmmaker and while we ate had plenty of stories to tell of his just-concluded visit to Nepal. (He also complimented me on my Joan Miró t-shirt - clearly a man of taste.) And after the loveliest (and longest - the Spaniards are never hurried about anything) birthday dinner I've ever had, they got out a cake and a small candle and sang me happy birthday - these old friends who were meeting each other after a long time, and who hadn't known either Francesc or me until the day before. Not a bad way to get older.

It had to end, of course, and after a week in Catalonia, it was time to head to the airport. Catalonia is a beautiful place and when I first saw Girona, I told Francesc that that is where I'd like to buy a house one day. The trouble is, I kept changing my mind practically everyday. I said the same when I saw Begur, and I think I've now settled on Cadaqués. But I'm sure I'll change my mind again when next I go there and see more places. And I can unreservedly say that as beautiful as the towns and the villages dotting the hills and the coves there are, the people are just as big an attraction.

I've been told that I mostly only write about places and things and that even the photographs I take have very few people in them. Well, I hope this one didn't get too mushy. But you see, I don't think I could ever be as nice as Francesc was to me, to anyone, let alone someone I've never met before. And so, as meager repayment, all I can do is write about the land and the people he loves so much.

The Trip

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