Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #7

We Disembark, are Accosted by Gypsies, and are Unable to Purchase a Car Due to Concerns Over Possible Terrorist Connections
Barcelona, Spain
May 16, 2001
Scoreboard: 11,100 miles; 5 Countries, 20 states


Sundown on the Grandeur of the Seas

The final days of the cruise blew by. Funchal, Malaga, Alicante…they were all nice, but we like Tenerife better. Perhaps the most notable port of call was Alicante.

The fortress overlooking the town is very nice, as is the cathedral they call Cathedral de Tourista, but I chose to spend my day chasing Volkswagen vans. I figured that with the depressed economy I could score a really good deal, then race up the coast and meet everyone in Barcelona.

There were numerous problems with the plan, the primary one being that there were no used Volkswagen vans for sale in Alicante at any price. A secondary problem was that the local inhabitants consider anything short of trans-continental pilgrimage to be easily walkable and likely to take a duration of “five or ten minutes”.

After taking several 45 minute walks to places that I could easily reach in “five or ten minutes” I must have been a fool to set out for a destination easily reachable in “about fifteen minutes.” I swear I must have walked 25 miles at least.

From the luxury of the cruise ship we were thrust into the harsh reality of the Barcelona Sants Stacion (train station) after a logistical nightmare of trying to get our 22 pieces of luggage from the port. Things got worse.

You can’t check bags on Spanish trains, and the ride to Hamburg would involve four train changes, one at a 12 minute interval “if the trains are on time.” Impossible! The bus wouldn’t take all of our baggage no matter how much I offered them.

We must have gone through, I estimate conservatively, 35 strategic variations of shipping things by various means, going ourselves by others, etc. It went on, and on. Nothing worked.

As I ran back and forth (on blisters from Alicante) from the train station to bus station to tourist office to phone to internet to….Theresa held off the gypsies circling our 22 bags like sharks on bait for 11 hours. At one point she cursed them all, thinking she’d lost one, but it turned out that Alexandra was the culprit.

We finally cut a deal with several taxis, and the director of Stacion Sants to take us to a nearby campsite. Actually, my final negotiation was something like “Hey, get off the phone! My wife is going crazy! Just tell me where the closest hotel is and how to get there! I don’t care how much it costs, hey!”

As soon as Theresa saw the campsite on the beach everything was wonderful again. The wind and the water…traveling reminds you that humans are primal forces of nature, too.

The Happy Whale

The Happy Whale

La Ballega Allegre (The Happy Whale), I whole heartedly recommend it, ping-pong tables, tennis courts (small charge), large inexpensive tankards of lager…

We planned on getting in and out of Barcelona in about two hours (and buying a VW van in Hamburg). So far we’ve been here for five days and we’re likely looking at five more. No problem, the spirit of siesta has overtaken us. Lazy or innately existential, it may all look the same to outsiders, but the Spanish are convinced that things get done when they need to.

We found a great deal on a Volvo, and another one on a trailer, we’ll put together a gypsy caravan in the proud tradition of Carmen, and Mr. Toad. Unfortunately we can’t buy the car without residency papers of some sort.

I tried to explain to the guy that I’m English, and would handle the paperwork in London. He didn’t fall for it. I tried to get a very nice guy at the bus station to sign the paperwork, then give the car to me. He was about to do it, but asked the other guy what his concerns were and when the other guy said “secto political“, I knew it wouldn’t work.

I don’t blame either of them. The ETA is waging a very bloody war for Basque independence just miles from here. I suspect that Spanish due process allows for imprisonment of several years if a car registered in your name is used in their activities. It didn’t help that when the nice guy at the bus station looked up I was wearing a t-shirt depicting an exploding blimp.

Of course we’re not actually residents of anywhere, but a gentleman at the British Embassy thought we might get around that trifle. “It’s a bit of a sticky situation…” he conceded.

Of course the office where I need to get the papers is doing something entirely different today, “Come back tomorrow. We open at 9, come here at 8.”

Ok, no problem. I’d found parking (a miracle in itself), I can do anything. I can come back tomorrow.

In a situation that demands changing answers our strategy is….flexible or foggy depending on your perspective. We hope to leave Barcelona by next Monday (this Friday would be nice), and head into France, to Montségur, Lourdes, Brittany, and then Paris for the French Open. From there to Great Britain, France, Germany, Denmark….

Don’t be shocked if next week’s offering is headlined Freiburg, or Stockholm.


Couldn’t ask for a better spot to be stuck. Many of the locals are very friendly, during the disaster day a guy at the bus station must have spent three and a-half hours on the phone (at work) trying to find a VW van for us. The director of the train station made three trips (at half taxi price) back and forth to the campground with our luggage.

The city is full of beautiful structures; a vaguely (perversely misshapen?) phallic sculpture by Miro, the many buildings of Gaudi, the government expenditures at the houses of functionaries that do things other than process residency papers today….the southern train station is more elegant than anything in most American cities.

There’s a rhythm and manner of dealing with the locals.

“Hola!” is the classless, ageless greeting. Everybody does it. It’s incredible how much individuality can be crammed into two syllables. There is the quick feminine “Ho-la”, and then the braying “oh-LaaAAAAAA” of the guy at the gate, and a hundred thousand variations in between.

I’ve learned never to follow with “Habla Ingles?” It’s a 50/50 proposition, but a lot of guys respond vociferously with a declaration that they’re in Spain.

Even if you only know five Spanish words, arrange them in a manner calculated to get something akin to your point across. When it doesn’t work furrow your brow, shrug your shoulders, and in abject frustration ask if they speak English. Turns out that a lot of people who would have initially said “no” really do.

If you’re in a hurry it’s ok to do a shortcut: “Hola!” then the furrowing and disgust with your lack of ability to communicate, then the question. Never, never do as some British and Americans do – show up speaking English like an occupying force that assumes that everyone knows it. People that do will claim they don’t.

Amelia, Myles, Kasmira and Alexandra

I saw a British lady with a horrible attitude wait for twenty minutes as the gate man looked for anything to do besides tell her what he’d just discovered on the phone. When he finally told her it was an improbable “They say they called here five times to leave messages, but we never answer!”

I’m not entirely sure what to offer you next week. Probably some beautiful shots and stories of my children in Barcelona, the aesthetic palaces of Gaudi, hopefully a few words on our caravan and a dateline in France….

Tune in next week when we bust out of Barcelona and head someplace else! (be it by train, bus, gypsy cart, etc.)