coastal city lullaby

barcelona, spain

After I didn’t quite get run over by a moped—well, Buenas noches to you too, Barcelona—now, where was I? On the fringe of the Plaça de Catalunya, wasn’t it? Where the street-grid is tortured into a disjointed delirium of alleyways. Where basketballs fly out of the dark. Buenas noches, pick-up game players.

And Buenas noches eight-year-olds, squirreling through the alleys in packs. It’s past your bedtime where I come from—a northern California neighborhood where every house holds a family of four and all the lights are out by 11. But at 11 Barcelona is just sparking to life. Barcelona runs on this night air, thick and pungent as petrol.

On the swollen median strip of Las Ramblas, people dine with starched white napkins. I slip through the shadows of restaurant pavilions, all haloed with flaming braziers. There are no kitchens to be seen on the esplanade in the middle of the road. The food must materialize out of this thick air: edible night congealed, a creamy clotting out of nothing.

I find my way to bed by ear. The gossiping night tides call to me. I don’t have a map, but I know my hostel is as far out on this jetty as you can walk without getting your feet salty wet.

For the eavesdropper or amateur cultural anthropologist, thin walls are the best amenity a hostel offers. I listen to the Irish football lads and the American undergrad girls flirt their way through half the night on opposite sides of the very thin wall that divides the male and female domains of this hostel.


Did I sleep? It’s more or less morning when I step out of the hostel into a postcard: beach, palms, sunrise.

I marvel at the moment. Buenos días, Barcelona.

Helios’s veils are all strewn about, diaphanous swathes of rose-gold on the waves, the sun still just half-dressed. Sunrise slants askew, light like watercolors bleeding wet.

Where was I? Where am I? It’s uncanny for a child of the West Coast to see the sun rise from the sea.

A trio of rumpled fellows crosses the sand. They haven’t slept. It’s still yesterday for them and I’m spying from their tomorrow. Minutes later they rewind into my frame of view, now with one bottle of water, one bag of chips, and a six-pack from the corner store. I leave these ghosts of yesterday to yesterday’s party and wander into the sleepy city.

Eau de Barcelona is everybody’s hangover spilled into the deep fryer with the morning’s xurros.

A drunk on a bicycle attempts to escort me on my wander to nowhere. His sentences, like his steering, begin on track, but he is hopelessly off-kilter by the second clause.

All semester long I have been surviving on my stumbling German in the small town of Tübingen. But the café chatter lures my high school Spanish back to the surface, though for years I’ve been drowning it in German courses. I understand you, Barcelona. Te comprendo. At the counter I open my mouth, all of the Spanish words lined up neatly in my mind—and German tumbles out. “Oh, ¿Alemana?” they ask. No, only a bad case of crossed wires.

Shop windows are all the dictionary I need here. From them I learn that sandwicherías have sandwiches and susherías have sushi and gelaterías have gelato but ferreterías do not have ferrets. They have drills and twine.


Perhaps because the buildings jostle so close, nearly cheek-to-cheek above the alleys, the infection spread rapidly. The Gaudí infection. His architectural aesthetic taints every façade. They don’t have balconies here. They have living creatures climbing across the faces of the windows. Shutters drip stagnant stalactites and spying vines. Even the basketball court looks like a deconstructed medieval jousting pitch.

My travel-mate and I spin through the city on the top of a double-decker bus. Our conversations keep circling back to Gaudí. How can Sagrada Familia and Park Güell be both twins and antonyms? Construction on the Cathedral is eternal; the church will never stop growing, while the park melts infinitely into artificial ruin. Its stones are remembering how to be bones. Wisteria roots pry apart the mortar on the path. Both Cathedral and Park are imbued by their creator with a life all their own. Whether growing or dying, they are living architectures. Growing and dying day after day, becoming their own beings, they undream the architect’s dream.


We climb white stairs to the monument at the top of Monjuïc Hill. On the highest stair we flop down to bathe in the sweaty air and drink in the view. Below us is the city sprawling white, sloshing against the mountains and mingling with the sea.

I realize that the street-side weeds are old friends. We recognize one another: We grew up in the same latitude, with the same climate, on two different continents. I am at home in this landscape that resembles my California childhood. The lilt of life in a coastal city was my first lullaby.

This sea is not the sea that watched through a window as I took my first steps. It is not the sea that taught me how to survive a sneaker wave. But it is a sea and it speaks the same language as that other one, a language I know in the tides of my blood without ever having to grasp for a word. I give my last hours in Barcelona to this sea. Side by side we sprawl on the beach. The sea keeps its voice low so as not to disturb my reading, the whisper of waves and turning pages say goodbye to one another.

Before the plane skates off the tarmac I am already homesick for Barcelona. I wear my sunburn with pride—Spain’s sunny kiss.