A Tale of Two Cities
This is not the original work by this title, but a shorter version by a lesser know author. However, it is about two sides of the same city and it begins with this dramatic question: how did I manage to meet a couple of hookers tonight and what happened next?
But before we get started I must remind you that I usually carry a copy or two of our current MotoMatters calendar to hand out to people who display some indication of interest in MotoGP. When at home that is most often a Rossi 46 sticker on a car, or a replica helmet, or a t-shirt or hat. But in fact if you show any sign that you like motorbike racing and our paths cross, I might suddenly and without warning give you a calendar if I can do so safely. If you’re wearing your Rossi helmet and riding on the freeway when I see you, sorry, but the timing just wasn’t right.
The second point may remind you of something you’ve heard from another source. As David, my colleague at MotoMatters, was driving me from our hotel in Sabadel to my hotel in Barcelona, he remarked that the latter is his favorite city in the world. Perhaps a friend of your has expressed a similar sentiment. When I mentioned to Spanish friends in the MotoGP paddock that this was my first trip to Barcelona I was greeted with unanimous rolling of eyes, wondering how this could be true for a man of the world. What could I say but admit my mistakes of the past (made worse by the fact that the wife and I had stayed in Madrid for extended trips in the past but never made it to this gem of the Spanish east) and declare that I had already resolved to extend my Catalan visit by one day so that I could at least see something of their favored city.
Wanting advice about where to stay, I’d waited until this weekend to book my hotel for the Monday night after the race. This turned out to be a good idea, as I am now sitting in a 4-star room the Fira Palace, reserved through Booking.com for 106 euros. The hotel is so nice that I almost returned to reception to verify the price once I’d been shown to my room. Then I figured that as a last minute booking, the price was reduced to avoid an empty room and left it at that. I hope that’s the explanation and that check out will not yield an ugly and expensive surprise. One likes a bit of suspense in life.
After dropping my gear, I left the hotel to see the city on foot. In spite of the concierge’s directions that the trip to the old part of town was too far to walk, I decided to make him a fool by heading out in my flip flops. I am currently in a sort of crisis of footwear caused by just having read Born To Run. If you know the book you know exactly what I’m going through. If not, read that book at your peril, because it’s so interesting and compelling you’re likely to start walking around barefoot at every opportunity just like I do.
All went well as I traveled down Avenida Paral Lel toward the harbor. Before long I was walking along the water, feeling fine, my feet enjoying the fresh air after three days of stomping around in abnormally supportive North Face trail shoes. I walked and walked, enjoying the people watching and beautiful weather. I passed La Rambla without realizing it due to vagaries of the free map the hotel had provided, but eventually back tracked along a side street to find it.
Along the way I noticed several things that I found interesting. One was the Bicing business, which provides bicycles at loads of points around Barcelona for as-needed use by subscribers. Each collection of bikes is locked until a user unlocks one by swiping a card at the adjacent terminal The terminal tells the rider which slot has been unlocked, and away the rider goes, free apparently to ride as long as needed until he or she turns the bike in at the parking rack closest to the destination. How cool is that?
Another was that the culture of the motorcycle is not under-reported by those who tell how pervasive it is in Spanish society. I spotted the girl above at play one of the motorbikes parked in front of the Chinese restaurant where her mother worked. Mom watched her from the doorway as the girl pawed the controls and pretended to ride.
A few blocks later this boy, Ramon, followed, sort of, his father and stroller-bound little sister as the trio made their wandering way and slow down the avenue. Every few yards the dad would turn and look back for Ramon, who liked to ride up to doorways and hide until called for. Each time he passed a coin-operated ride, here with a small motorcycle instead of pony or little carousel as we’d have at home in the US, he’d plead for a ride, then pout when denied.
This really is a land of two-wheels, and something else piqued my own MotoGP-skewed interests. Sure, Gaudi and all that, but I kept noticing instances of this motorcycle-crazed country’s love of Valentino Rossi in spite of a home boy being the current World Champ in the form of Jorge Lorenzo. As the motorcycles and scooters zoomed past one after another, every few minutes, or so it seemed, a yellow 46 would appear, or a Rossi signature helmet, or a Nastro Azurro (a brand of beer and former Rossi sponsor) sticker on a fairing. I wondered how many Rossi references I’d see before I found some show of Love for Lorenzo. 46, 46, 46. I started to feel bad for the guy, because though not from Barcelona (he was born in Majorca, I believe), this is considered his home race, being closer to his place of birth than any other Spanish race. How long would I have to look to find a 99 instead of a 46? I did eventually, but that will have to wait until the end.
In the mean time I saw a Colin Edwards retro replica helmet, a Shakey Byrne shirt, and even this, a Noriyuki Haga replica crash hat! Sure, it’s Haga, but in Spain? Where was all the Lorenzo love? Maybe the reason Lorenzo keeps planting his flag in foreign locales and claiming that as Lorenzo Land is that he can’t call him home country as such. Ouch.
Then I come around the corner and see this. (I know you want me to get to the hooker part but you’ll have to read this Rossi stuff unless you skip down to the end, best for last and all that.) Once I entered the chic shopping area with sunglass shops every few yards, Rossi was everywhere. I almost bought some new Oakleys. They look pretty cool on him after all, and then we’d would have at least one thing in common!
By now my decision to go nearly barefoot with the flip flops had come back to bite me on the ball of my right foot. A blister was growing and burning. A reasonable man would’ve taken a cab back to the hotel, but I am not reasonable. I admit it. I’d just come from a race where Colin Edwards wanted to do a few laps with multiple fractures in his collar bone from the previous day’s crash. What was a blister to me? Nothing! I soldiered stubbornly on.
I enjoyed walking around La Rambla in spite of the pain and by the time I’d retuned to the harbor I’d scoped out a place for dinner and a probable location of free wifi. Score! I limped the mile or two back to the hotel and soaked my feet before having a little rest. I cleaned up, put my shoes on, and an hour or so later headed back out to see if I could catch any sweet light on the city. I walked back down to the harbor, the blister still hurting but not so bad tucked into a sock and trail shoe. At the fancy MareMagnum, where earlier I’d made a kind of self-portrait in the giant curved and reflective glass on the second story of the shopping center, I logged in with my laptop to the free wifi. I caught up with email and Facebook and then went down to a tapas restaurant just out of view in the above image. Sangria and tapas right on the water, at sunset, in Barcelona? Forget about it!
Earlier in the day I’d noticed an intriguing gelato shop near the top of La Rambla so I limped up there, noticing that even in the shoe and sock the blister had pretty much had enough of walking for one day. But on I trudged, through the tourists on the packed avenue that lead roughly in the direction of the hotel. Lots of sidewalk cafes were open and crowded, and those guys who sell junk for a euro were flipping glowing things in the air while making bird like whistles with some sort of device between their teeth. Old guys tried to sell me roses, though what they thought I needed with a rose I don’t know. Perhaps they figured I might like to give one to the hooker with the heart of gold I was about to meet. I must’ve passed the gelato place I was aiming for, because after reaching the top of the tree-lined section, I’d had enough and decided to head back for the night. A cross street looked like it would lead back to Avenida Paral Lel, so I decided to try a short cut. Boy, was that a dumb idea!
Now is the time when I’d like you to recall how I began today’s tale, the part of giving a calendar to someone showing some motorbike racing love.
Only a few blocks away from La Rambla, I noticed that the general ambiance had changed from pleasantly touristy to downright dodgy. WHile logged into Facebook, I’d learned that a friend had just been robbed on the beach, losing an iPhone and a Canon 7D camera. I grew concerned for my safety, in fact, and so much so that I removed my watch from my wrist and tucked it into my pocket. I was a bit nervous that I had over $6k worth of camera gear in my back pack, and as I limped along on my blister, must’ve appeared like the slowest gazelle in the herd to some circling lions who had recently appeared from dark alleys.
A block or so after tucking my watch away, I noticed that I’d stumbled across one of the city’s red light districts. “Hey baby, want to come with me?” “Uh, no thanks, I’m cool for now.”
As I walked, I felt an arm slip through mine and turned to find a quite pleasant young lady clearly interested in getting to know me better. “Sorry, not tonight,” I said, so startled by her visceral approach doing business that I forgot even to try Spanish.
She said in very good English, “Ok, but mind your wallet. It’s dangerous around here,” and let me go. On reflection I rather wish I had been able to give her a rose, because that was some good advice.
My sense of direction told me that I was getting close to Avenida Paral Lel and that it would be better to keep going than turn around and run the gauntlet a second time. At this point the story gets a little weird, but I swear that this is the truth exactly how it happened a short time ago. I felt someone catching up to me on my left as I was trying to get to safety. My new friend was a young and up to no good Spanish kid, and he had a pal who watched us closely while we continued as a trio. Punk One said something in Spanish, his tone faux friendly, a big smile, rather like the one the wolf dressed as Grandma gave Little Red Riding-hood. He thought he was pretty tough, but in fact he was just a punk, and after a moment of wondering how many friends he had along with him, I decided it was just two, the one trying to talk to me and, I swear this is true, his friend in the Sete Gibernau shirt.
(For non MotoGP historians, Sete Gibernau was a Spanish rider of great talent who gave Rossi a brief run for his money until Rossi destroyed Gibernau’s spirit and belief in his own ability to win.)
There was something about the shirt that broke the spell for me. As the Punk One continued to ask me questions in Spanish, I gave him a look that said, “Come on, amigo, I’m too old to be really scared of you and your boyfriend, but I’m not old enough that you aren’t going to get a fight if you want one.”
He said, “Oh, you don’t speak Spanish,” and stopped walking. He turned around and headed back. Punk Two followed for another block or so as I kept one eye on him and the other on where I was heading, looking for a possible Punk Three to appear. A block away from Avenida Paral Lel, Punk Two gave up as well and turned around. Given the circumstances, I decided not to give the guy a calendar in spite of his wearing a Sete shirt.
Once back on the main drag my foot really started hurting, but I was close to the hotel now and kept the pace up until I passed the one spot where I’d earlier found the only reference to Jorge Lorenzo I’d seen all day. One of many motorcycle shops I’d passed as I’d made my tour had offered in the window a Lorenzo replica helmet, the black one with the Por Fuera white circle around red X. Sure, it was on sale and displayed next to two Rossi helmets, but at least Barcelona had something to show for Lorenzo’s premiere class title. However, as I passed that shop at 10:30pm, the steel doors had been drawn shut to reveal the art work that someone had painted on the center door. I looked around, saw no one looking in the mood to steal photo gear, and brought the camera out quickly to snap this shot:
I don’t know what the other photographers did today but that, my friends, was how I spent the day after the Catalunya Grand Prix.