Chance had it that two old friends were, entirely separately, in Barcelona at the same time as me, thus precluding my spending the entire three days in the kind of solipsistic and yet voyeuristic trance I’d fashioned and worn in Paris and Foix. Good news for those long-term readers quietly hoping I’ll peg back the word-count a bit now that the novelty of simply being Away From Things has worn off. I certainly do intend to exercise a little more concision as I venture through the warm south. And, at the same time, I hope you’ll forgive me some sloppiness - stylistic, grammatical etc. If I carry on at the same fussy rate as heretofore, I’ll be physically on the Eurostar home in September, while mentally still contemplating a weird dog seen in Genova in July or something.
Rest assured though that accompaniment in the Catalonian capital hardly reduced my propensity to worry. This time it was my mother’s fault. Of all the cities I’ll visit – young ex-communist capitals, economically-subdued southern metropolises, sites of recent terror attacks – it was Barcelona and Barcelona alone that she, despite never having been there personally, felt it necessary to warn me about - on account, she said, of ‘the pickpockets’. She wasn’t alone. A now habitual pre-arrival ‘safety in [city]’ Google search revealed a veritable subculture of people about to go Barcelona and freaking out about pick-pockets, bag-snatchers, muggers, swindlers, scammers, pimps, sex workers, drug dealers and more besides.
Naturally, there is also a counter-movement intent on quelling the hysteria and maintaining that Barcelona is utterly safe to anybody exercising ordinary levels of caution. I concurred with the assertion that ‘you’d have to be an idiot to let a stranger teach you how to play football or dance flamenco in the street’ (remember that detail) but, nonetheless, did disembark at Sants station with a padlock on my big rucksack and my money and passport in my small rucksack and my small rucksack on my front and my head screwed on and my wits about me, and by the time I’d gotten off the Metro at Drassanes I’d realised that nobody else was being so self-importantly over-cautious and I decided to chill out a bit.
Bianka, the girlfriend of my Airbnb host (Marie, who was at work) ‘did the welcome’ in the small but decent flat with a dark tiled floor and art and plants and guitars and reassuringly cluttered kitchen. Bianka laughed when I told her I’d read online about this part of town being potentially unsafe at night. ‘It is safe’ she said. And then, boldly, ‘everywhere is safe.’ I took her word for it and we had a good chat.
Bianka was from Belgrade. She first came to Barcelona two years ago on holiday, staying in Marie’s Airbnb and they got on so well that she decided to move to Barcelona in order that they could be together. Now she was studying photography and adapting to life in a different kind of city.
‘At first I was overwhelmed because it is so busy and there is a fiesta every night and people take drugs but now it is okay’, she explained. She told me, only semi-jokingly I think, that my country is leaving Europe because of her country, Serbia, and other Eastern Europe states chasing EU accession. ‘You must hate us a lot if you are willing to do something so crazy’. I didn’t really know what to say so just I told her that I didn’t vote for it and that I was looking forward to visiting Belgrade in August.
‘It is okay’, she said, ‘you will have a good time but it is not so good to live there. People are not open-minded like in Barcelona’. This struck me as a good juncture to start talking about Podemos (the left-wing electoral party that grew out of the Spanish anti-austerity movement) but she quickly rebuffed this conversational line by stating bluntly: ‘I don’t like to talk about politics’.
By the time I’d broached the rift between Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, she’d definitely lost interest and I decided it time to go and walk around outside. The apartment was on the edge of the Gothic Quarter, off the southern end of La Rambla, the city’s epicentral boulevard, familiar from ‘Homage to Catalonia’ in whose opening pages George Orwell, who fought for the leftist militia during the civil war, describes: ‘this wide, central artery of the town’ and its ‘loudspeakers […] blaring out revolutionary songs.’ He recalls his first impressions of Barcelona:
‘It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. […] There was much in it that I did not understand. In some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for’.
Something to think about there for certain of the Orwell-fixated journalists of the Sensible Left.
Now, in the maelstrom of post-transition, bourgeois-friendly capitalist democracy, it’s harder to perceive what kind of class dynamics are at play here. The northerly sections of Las Ramblas are lined by expensive hotels and high-street outlets. At the southern end, photographic menu boards advertise 20 euro meals to tourists. Beyond La Rambla, stretching out over visually refreshing bay waters towards the waterfront development of Port Vall, runs La Rambla de Mar, built in 1994, in the city’s confident post-Olympics era. At night here, dozens and dozens of African and South Asian vendors sell a panoply of goods – handmade jewellery, Nike trainers, football shirts, finger spinners – from white sheets, which are quickly bundled up and stuffed into hold-alls at about midnight when the police arrive. The siren of the squad-car screams out for a few threatening seconds, prompting the vendors, some in small groups, some alone, to hurry away to who knows where.
In the Gothic quarter, apartments, apparently mostly of a similar size, are stacked high above labyrinthine and shadow-cool streets. Each has a small balcony, from many of which hangs the red and yellow flag of Catalonia.You could stand on your balcony here and easily hold an intimate conversation with any one of about thirty neighbours.
At ground level there are small supermarkets, clothes shops, head-shops, bike-hire outlets, segue-hire outlets, scooter-hire outlets, art galleries, tapas restaurants, wine bars cevecerias, Irish bars, cocktail lounges, purveyors of souvenirs and hyper-modern ephemera, house clubs, pizzerias, coffee shops, sushi restaurants and innumerable other such establishments. These cater to tourists mainly.
In Plaça George Orwell, (apparently known to locals as Plaça del Trip or Acid Square) where ‘1984’ is vividly painted in red and blue on a metal shop shutter, about five restaurants ply a slightly cheaper trade than their Paris equivalents. An abstract and only slightly humanoid statue sits in the middle of things. A middle-aged woman in punk attire winds her way around the tables asking for a cigarette. Finally she gets one from a middle-aged British woman who offers a flaming lighter as a follow-up, which the punk rejects. Then she snatches the lighter and sparks herself up before goadingly feigning to hand it back three or four or five times before losing interest and chucking on the table. A man sleeps on a cardboard bed in a doorway. After dark, people sit on crates and drink shop beers around the terrace tables. South Asian men sell cold cans of Estrella to British teenagers for one euro (an improbably small mark up.)
On the first afternoon I go to the Museum of Catalonian History where I spend too long on the early historical sections (as in Copper Age early; you might as well be anywhere during the Copper Age) so fail to properly take in the thorough coverage the region’s modern history. But still I learn a lot about Catalonia, its cultural distinction from the rest of Spain, its historically fraught relationship with Madrid, the brutality it suffered during th civil war, the doggedness of its many various resistance movements, (though not a great deal about Catalonian terrorism in the 80s and 90s), the centuries long shaping of its identity, and the ongoing question of how independent it truly wants to be.
All of this leaves me wondering about the general political outlook of contemporary Catalonia, and a few days later, by chance, I read a letter in the Financial Times (genuinely the least bad British newspaper I could find in multiple newsagents, plus has a good cryptic crossword) that Catalonians are probably split about 50/50 between those who do and don’t want independence from Madrid. These days, the letter claimed, it is a topic to be avoided during social interactions, as discussing it invariably leads to arguments.
I hadn’t realised that Catalonian is a entirely distinct language from Spanish and when I discover this fact, I’m left not knowing know which language to poorly attempt to speak, using a few basic phrases cribbed from the internet, in order not to feel totally abject in my tourist status.
In the evening I meet Marie, home from her job in construction logistics (a role which appears to belie her scruffy, artistic demeanour). She is French but finds my efforts at her native tongue too frustrating to deal with so we speak English. She’s immediately likeable, diminutive and spirited with short red hair. She came to Barcelona eight years ago intending merely to stay for one summer. I ask if she’s ever been to Madrid and tells me she hasn’t, in the way a Glaswegian might if you asked them if they’d ever been to Yeovil. She rolls a spliff without much fanfare and offers me some and then she immediately gets the giggles extremely hard. I can’t even remember what she was laughing at. Something to do with the time one of her Airbnb guests later went on to become Madonna’s PA.
I ask Marie about the guitars and whether she ever plays gigs. She seems to find the very notion funny, but then answer that she does sometimes. I ask if she’ll play now and she shyly objects at first but then is very quickly persuaded. By my (admittedly inexpert) judgement she is pretty good and I tell her I think so and that her voice reminds me of Bjork’s. This seems to please her a lot but, I probably mainly said it because she had told me two minutes earlier that she likes Bjork. I’d said in my initial Airbnb message that I’m a writer and she asks me to help her edit some English lyrics written for her by a friend. Too stoned and swept up in the moment to explain that I’m not really a lyricist, I agree and she produces a print-out of the lyrics to a song called ‘Fire Rabbit’. She plays it once through and it’s genuinely quite good imho, seeming as it does to evoke themes of generational anger at difficult-to-identify oppressors, and the importance of resisting apathy and resignation. It does, though, contain a few strange non-sequiturs, which might be a result of mistranslation such as: ‘… in that dark and secret place/ where we all have your face’.
I share my thoughts and she looks a little crestfallen and says she now thinks she’s misunderstood the song because she thought it was above love. I say that there can be no single, correct interpretation of good lyrics, which seems to re-encourage her. I then offer a few edits, mainly focussed on bringing through the Fire Rabbit motif a bit more and skimming off the incongruous lines. Marie thanks me for these but I’m not convinced she’ll heed them.
The following evening Marie and Bianka came home together while I was in the shower. I heard them arguing and when I came out of the bathroom Bianka was gone. Marie and I chatted a bit and she apologised for being in a bad mood. I asked what was up and she said Bianka had left ‘just because I gave her one bit of advice’. Something to do with Bianka having 1000 Euros in cash and Marie telling her to put it in the bank and Bianka not wanting to do that. Marie said she thought really the cause of the argument was incidental; they’d be rowing a lot recently and Marie worries they’ll have to break up.
‘She is eight years younger than me’, Marie (who I reckon to be about 35) explained. ‘I just want a girlfriend and to stay at home together and to go out only sometimes. But she is new to the city and wants to party and take drugs and that is normal but maybe we can’t be together.’
The next night, my final night, Marie and Bianka came home together and didn’t argue, in fact talked happily, and then went to bed, so who knows how their story’s going to play out?
And yes, the confused chronology of this instalment is partly an effect of a newly-feckless approach to writing, but also, I think a fitting formal product of the city’s pleasantly disorientating vibe. I was quickly seduced into a sultry mental fever by the temperatures – 35 decrees C and above by day, rarely below 25 at night - the insistent offerings of the bars and food outlets, and above all the architecture - a modernista super-organism of unfamiliar, anti-geometric shapes, beguiling curves, swollen apexes, suggesting flora, berries and fertility, art nouveau forms and gothic borrowings. (And a load of more linear contemporary horseshit as well.)
The organic elements obvs stem from Gaudí’s influence and sorry to be that guy that who goes to Barcelona and then won’t shut up about Gaudí for two weeks but..
The Sagrada Família – the famous basilica which Gaudí devoted his life to, before he was killed by a tram at the age of 73 with about a quarter of the construction completed – manages to transcend its electronically-ticketed, machine-gun protected, audio guide-mediated anchorings and inspire a kind of woozy terror with its stark depictions of Christ and co, it's stem-like spires and its almost digitally-luminescent stained glass. Construction continues apace (due to be completed sometime this century, before, presumably, renovations begin) and were I in more wankily post-modern spirits I might claim that the intermingling of the spires with lofty cranes actually enhances the whole aesthetic.
On the one night I wasn’t with the pals, I went on my own to a club just around the corner from Marie’s place called Club Macarena. It was nowhere near as terrible as it sounds but actually a vaguely trendy, small-scale house and electro club, whose doorman initially wouldn’t let me into because my said my 10 euro note was not crisp enough. Inside, the DJ booth was in the middle of the room and people gathered around and danced or nodded rhythmically while watching the DJ or DJs DJing. I am led to believe this is a modish club set-up, from a short-lived obsession a few years ago with YouTube videos of pop and electro colloborators Tirzah and Micachu.
Going into it, I mainly just wanted to be able to say I’d been clubbin’ in Barca, and hardly expected to last two hours, but so delicious was the vibe and so scintillating were the grooves and so massage-like was the bass and so much a tiny bit cheaper than London prices were the drinks, that I stayed the course and emerged blinking onto the narrow calle at about five, whereupon I got chatting to a really friendly guy - whose name and general aspect I can’t remember - about football! He was absolutely over the moon to hear I liked football too and asked me if I want to play.
‘But do you have a ball?’ I asked, blatantly fucked.
‘We don’t need ball man, come on!’
He then basically rugby tackled me and, as he was much taller than me (that I do remember) I struggled to extricate myself from his grip and he just merrily led us both down the narrow street this way for a good few paces before I managed to stumble free, right outside Marie’s door.
‘Well this is me man!’ I said. ‘Have a good night yeah!’
‘You too Liam! It was great to meet you!’ And then, when I’d turned to go in: ‘Oh Liam! Wait! Look you dropped your wallet’.
I looked down and, sure enough, my wallet was on the floor in the middle of the street. I picked it up and thanked my new friend profusely for his vigilance and kindness. It was not a problem, he said, and went on his way.
I was about to fall asleep when it dawned on me what might have just happened. I googled something along the lines of: ‘how quickly can you copy a debit card?’ and was terrified by the results. I phoned the bank and cancelled the card straight away, necessitating an administratively drawn out visit to Western Union the next day to withdraw cash. My friend and her friends, with whom I had dinner the following evening, suggested I’d perhaps over-reacted by cancelling the card. ‘He clearly decided you were alright and just wanted to teach you to be more careful’ one guy told me . Maybe. Or maybe he did just want to play football without a ball.
On my final afternoon in Barcelona I cycled to a beach several miles out of town. This was a dreamy four hour sojourn, which took me along a decidedly Ballardian circuit, past beaches and casinos and super clubs and parades of restaurants, playgrounds, a marina, a Decathlon, a vast, ambiguous, unpopulated zone which might have been a level on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater where sound-checks for a musical festival were heard, a nature reserve, factories, a power station, which seemed like a remnant from a future that never came to pass, luxury apartments, non-luxury apartments, before finally I decided I’d gone far enough and it was time for a swim.
The water was as warm as a half-hour old bath. Three young Spanish boys were splashing around nearby and seemed to find me a source of interest. Eventually one of them, apparently the most cocksure, asked:
‘How old are you?’
’29’ I replied.
‘I am 12’.
They laughed and then huddled together giggling. This provided the structure for the ensuing conversation, them laughing for a minute before giving me quite a banal question or statement and then laughing at my answer.
‘Where are you from?’
(Laughter followed by discussion)
‘Do you like Football?’
(Laughter followed by discussion)
‘Do you like Barcelona?’
(Laughter followed by discussion)
‘Do you have girlfriend?’
‘Not at the moment’.
‘I have four!’
‘That’s a lot… Many.’
‘Not for me.’
(Laughter followed by discussion)
Then a really long consultation at the end of which the young chico came back with:
‘I am nice.’
The validity of this claim was undermined almost immediately as the boy emerged from under a wave holding a massive rock. He then held this up as if to throw it at me, from point blank range. His friends laughed, almost disbelievingly. He then drew his arm back. From the look in his eyes I suspected that he himself wondered if he might, as if he were encountering some terrible new potential within himself.
‘This is the real Barcelona’ I thought. ‘Off the tourist trail, twenty miles out of town, standing waist deep in the sea, about to be bludgeoned in the face with a massive, perfectly smooth pebble by a 12 year old Spanish boy’.
At last, with a snigger, he dropped the rock. I swam around for a minute, heart racing, and then got out.
‘Goodbye’ the boy called. ‘It was nice to meet you’.
At sites of tourist interest throughout Barcelona, on lampposts and other pieces of street furniture, are stickers bearing a skull and crossbones and the statement, in black upper case against a yellow background: ‘Tourism Kills the City’. Clearly some people do well out of the tourist economy here but not everyone. A city the size of London can absorb a constant tourist presence as a minor annoyance, manifested merely in it being a bit tricky to walk down Oxford Street sometimes and Camden Town tube being ‘exit only’ at weekends. But for Barcelona, which has a population about one seventh of the size of London’s, and as the capital city of a region with a complex, in some ways uncertain identity, ever-swelling masses of tourists perhaps do pose something of an existential threat.
Moved to research the subject online, I discover that the city’s council has recently increased the number of ‘housing inspectors’ in response to protests over the proliferation of Airbnbs, which some claim is driving up rents and forcing out long-standing residents.
The focus of the anger seems to be less on residents letting spare rooms to make ends meet, and more on professionals who own one or more Airbnb properties that they do not live in. Marie is in the former camp which just about lets me off the hook, or so I tell myself. But still, I have no idea of the status of my future Airbnb hosts. There’s ethical dimension to this self-serving project that I hadn’t given due to consideration to heretofore. And, just as I’m leaving the city between that and the administrative upheaval of trying to work out how to get a replacement bank card sent to Europe when I’m not going to be in one place for more than a few days, the pleasant emotional spell I’ve been under for the past few days is broken.
While the heat in Barcelona was often humid and sometimes quelled by sea breezes, in Toledo - Spain’s ‘holiest city’, an hour away from Madrid by train - it is dry and dead still. Like Foix before it, Toledo is comprised of a well-preserved old city and an expanse of modern urban sprawl, visible from the high vantage of the former element as a heat-shaken near-mirage of office blocks, car parks, roundabouts, billboards, and high-cabled bridges.
It is renowned as ‘the city of three cultures’ and certainly Moorish, Christian and Sephardi Jewish elements are all boldly manifest in the city’s architecture, often interlaced in stunning interplay: Moorish arches above Christian Pillars, a mosque re-purposed as a church, a synagogue re-purposed as a church (it’s mostly stuff being turned into churches tbh). But the city’s history, as much as it is one of harmonious coexistence between the three religions, is also one of conflict, regular and often violent reconfigurations of power dynamics, the gravest example of which being the issuing of the Alhambra Decree by Ferdinand Isabella in 1492, demanding the expulsion of all practicing jews from Spain.
Today, the sacred buildings have all been adapted to the logistical demands of commercial tourism (which I guess is the true modern religion, amiriii?) and, in the new town, a graffito asserts that ‘refugees are not welcome’. I’m constantly reminding myself not to extrapolate too much about these places from small and singular details but it is a dismaying to see.
The status of my Airbnb host here (‘Diana’), in terms of the dichotomy established in Barcelona of: Good (innocent amateurs trying to make ends meet) vs. Bad (private capitalists renting out properties exclusively to tourists) is ambiguous. Diana asks me, as soon as she opens the door, whether I speak Spanish. I apologise that I don’t and she looks terrified, even though, it quickly turns out, she speaks English fairly well, albeit in a slightly hesitant way, which I think might be a product of a speech impediment. She looks to be in her late 30s but has the air of a likeable 18 year old, energetically and innocently excited by her own intelligence.
I tell her I’ve come to Toledo in order to see the Don Quixote windmills.
‘Youuuu like (beat) Don Quixote?!’ she asks, with some wonderment.
‘Yes’ I reply, expecting her to reveal a mutual passion for the delusional Don..
‘But it is so boring!’ comes her actual reply.
‘No, it’s funny!’
‘It is not’ she says, finally.
It’s not that she’s anti-literary – she talks rhapsodically about Lorca and Shakespeare – it’s just that, she says, Spanish kids have to read Cervantes in classical Spanish, which is really difficult. As Shakespeare is for English kids, I guess.
I’ve arrived earlier than arranged and Diana hasn’t finished cleaning the apartment, a fact that isn’t helping her apparently naturally nervous disposition. She asks me to help her and I follow her to my rented quarters where I just fecklessly stand in the doorway and carry on talking while she cleans.
Diana’s intellectual proclivities are more scientific and mathematical she tells me. She used to work as a health and safety engineer in Madrid.
‘But then she economy went…’ she says, before crossing her arms emphatically and making a sort of ‘sorry, wrong answer’ SFX with her mouth. She lost her job and can’t find another one in the same sector.
‘What is the economy like in the UK?’ she asks and I intimate that it’s okay, maybe not as bad as Spain’s and then realise that her comprehension of English probably couldn’t withstand a lecture on the vicissitudes of the gig economy and the public sector pay cap, so proceed to just stand there dumbly while she mops the floor.
Now Diana works as a science teacher, which she enjoys but doesn’t pay as well as her former job. In the school holidays she also gives private tuition in this apartment. She lives in a different apartment nearby, while renting out the three rooms in this one, hence the ambiguity. One of the other rooms is taken by an enchanting woman called Christine who’s from Quebec. She’s visiting Toledo during a summer break from the University of Valencia where she is taking a masters (or the equivalent thereof) in Spanish translations of Malian folk stories. She seems to just about tolerate my idiotically over-eager questions about her research over coffee in the mornings.
The third room is taken by Pauline, a long-term tenant who comes home from work at about 11pm each night and leaves a note in Spanish for Christine and me to please keep the noise down as she needs to sleep in. We make and drink coffee whisperingly the next morning but Pauline can still be heard screaming ‘joder!’ (fuck) from the other end of the corridor.
The artistic keynote of Toledo is its association with renaissance artist El Greco, who lived in the city for 37 years. I feel like I fail to get his reputed brilliance and initially it seems like his supposed innovations amount to just painting everybody to look a bit like rats and also sometimes letting the primer or the canvas show through the paint. But after staring hard and long at the (fairly small) litany of his works which remain in the city, I do begin to appreciate The Greek’s brooding complexities and mannerist breakthroughs a bit more.
On my final full day, I travel by coach to Consuegra, a small town 50 km from Toledo where ‘Don Quixote’s windmills’ are apparently to be found. In the six or seven small towns the coach stops in on the way, fascist and anti-facist graffiti is visible, in about equal abundance. It’s only as I’m getting off that I notice a swastika carved into the seat-head in front of me. Again, trying to not extrapolate too much.
The windmills (‘los molinos)’, it turns out, are only about 100 years old, so definitely can’t be said to have inspired Cervantes who wrote ‘Don Quixote’ in the early 17th century, but, reasoning that the fundamental nature of windmills can’t have changed very much across that 300 year interval, I’m satisfied by these smooth white cylinders with elegant black sails and conic roofs. They really do have a gigantic vibe about them, standing sentinel over countless miles of dusty ground. You could forgive Quixote his mistake.
On the horizon, the white limbs of a wind-farm are just about visible.
One of the windmills has been converted into a ‘gastrobar’ and I drink a cerveza in its shadow. It is very windy here, great shock. But in the sun it’s nonetheless punishingly hot. Some men are at work, painting the windmills. If I had to do that, I think, I would be dead within an hour.
As I leave Toledo, the temperature is pushing 42 degrees C. The record temperature for July here is 42.6. Coincidentally (or not), on the way to Madrid I read a Guardian article about the effects of climate change on Spanish farming, with some areas seeing 75% less rainfall this year and harvests fall by 50%
In Madrid, the temperature reaches 41 degrees, the hottest ever recorded in the city. .
Here my Airbnb hosts are a family, apparently spanning three generations. There’s a woman of about 70 called Maria who lives with her daughter, Camilla, and Camilla’s partner, (I think) Roberto. Then there are (at least) four children, who, Roberto tells me, are Camilla’s but they live in the Philippines and are just here visiting. I’ve only just learned that the Philippines were a Spanish colony for three centuries. The country’s colonial past is covered in its museums without a great deal of angst or contrition as far as I can see, except in an exhibition of Hispanic art at the Prado, which does acknowledged the role of native art in the development of Latin-American culture.
My Airbnb review from Camilla reads: ‘Liam was nice. Very timid but friendly’. The perceived timidity was partly, I think, a consequence of the fact that, when I asked Maria about Podemos she got really angry and said they’d turn Spain into Venezuela. She also wouldn’t stop asking me questions about the British Royal family (‘what is Harry’s girlfriend like?’; Did I know that Charles had an ‘erotic phone call with Camilla on the day of his wedding to Diana?’). After all this, I probably went out of my way to avoid conversation. She also called Theresa May ‘crazy like Donald Trump’ which I did fun. Unperceptive, but still fun.
But the other, and primary reason, for my timidity was that I spent a good portion of my short stay in my bedroom, or sort of sneaking around in anti-social way, owing to an absurd series of incidents, which I’ll expand on another time, but the long and short of it was that I drank too much Rioja and was sick on the bed sheets so had to take them to the launderette and brought them back clean but then spilt tomato sauce on them while opening a tin of sardines so had to take them to launderette again but the stain wouldn’t come out, which panicked me, because I was still without my bank card so was eking out the money from the Western Union in Barcelona and was gutted by the prospect of having to hand over cash to pay for the ruined sheet, but then, genuinely, in this household full of Catholic iconography, when I woke up from a dismayed sleep, the sheets were clean again.
I did manage to get out and about a bit. Firstly, to the Prado museum, which is astonishing, primarily for its Sorollas imho (check out: ‘And Still They Say Fish Are Expensive’) And also it's Rosa Bonheurs (check out Rosa Bonheur). In the Prado bookshop, I found a book called ‘The Beaten Track’ by James Buzard. This is an account of European culture in the 19th and early 20th century insofar as it was shaped by travel, which, the book seems to assert is a distinct enterprise from tourism. A quick skim, revealing discussion of the European journeys of Dickens, Christina Rossetti and an entire chapter on the notion of the ‘anti tourist’, gave new grist to the old mental molino and I made to buy it. Then I discovered it cost 68 euros which, even if I had my debit card, would have been beyond me. Certainly buying the book would have kept me off the beaten track, by simple dint of making everything thereafter unaffordable. One day, in more sedentary times, I will buy that fucker.
The following day I went to the Reina Sofia, the modern art museum and saw Guernica. ¡Guernica! I didn’t expect to see it. I just walked round a corner and there it was. I mean, admittedly, it came at the end of an exhibition called ‘Picasso’s Path to Guernica’ but I didn’t dare to dream they’d have the actual painting. But they did. Right there, on the wall. In all its horror.
The exhibition, which gave artistic and historical context to the painting and included photographs of the children killed and injured by Franco’s bombs - strongly reminiscent of the contemporary images of dead and injured children in Syria – theorised that a major part of Picasso’s development as an artist was to move beyond cubism, a movement enthralled by material objects and bourgeois interiors. Many of Picasso’s early works are of interior scenes, comfortably hemmed in by walls. In later works, when the walls start disappearing, they reveal abstractions, monsters and uneasy figures, often recognisably female.
I’d seen a lot of different bourgeois interiors in the last few weeks. For isn’t that what Aribnb represents, the commodification of the bourgeois interior? The properties are, in most cases, tremendously comfortable spaces to inhabit. Not just in a literal, physical sense, but also in a psychological sense, in their provision of an atmosphere of homeliness when you’re not at home - something hotels by their nature fall short of.
In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, Sigmund Freud examines the German equivalent word ‘Unheimlich’ (literally ‘unhomely’) and shows that uncanniness is a feeling of the familiar (the homely) suddenly seeming unfamiliar (unhomely/uncanny) and thus frightening.
Airbnb’s slogan is ‘Welcome Home’. I suspect that the corporation instructs hosts to actually say these two words out loud to their guests, because several of mine have done so, usually as a slightly anxious afterthought. When they’ve finished showing me around and have given me the keys, they’ll have walked off down the corridor and then suddenly turned and said, not always very convincingly:
‘Oh and Liam, welcome home.’
Hearing that when you’re a thousand miles from home: uncanny.