Monday, October 31, 2011

Michaelmas is nearly halfway through. The trees are reluctant to shed their leaves. Though the temperature rises and falls the hours of daylight announce the deepening of autumn. On Saturday, on the river, I waited for my stroke and watched the geese, ducks, swans, gulls, the riverboats and their winsome crews. I saw Christ Church in the distance.

I have forgotten what I want this blog to be. As I become integrated into life here it’s more difficult to step aside, to romanticize and tie up. British customs have stopped seeming British and just seem expected. The blog was originally meant for book reviews, but I’m not reading enough books, at least the sort that I was practicing for. I have, however, just finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy. I suppose I’ll try to coalesce my thoughts on this in the next two or three days while writing on Chaucer (again) and taking tentative steps towards Milton. And I can’t help feeling that writing one’s opinions on dead authors is fraught with danger. You can’t hope to say anything new, only to add to the pile, another piece of paper in the huge repository of dead books and torn pages and loose broadsheets and there is an apocalyptic furnace.

This last paragraph is full of nots and can’ts. And this confessional tone is irksome. Perhaps this is just autumn melancholia.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tales of the City II

Barcelona as a whole, if taken from the motorway, or by train, is monstrously ugly. Its outskirts have the same shambly, cheap, urine-stained, graffitied, weedy looks of cities which are interchangeable. It could have been Johannesburg. But in the Gothic Quarter it is another city: a city of terraced balconies that jut like stiff mantillas above the streets, the damp stone tiles and the tickly smell of sewage. Clothes are strung from balconies or extended wires; ferns and spiked plants explore or gingerly poke out from between the bars; pigeons and noisy green parrot-like birds shoot up to the roofs or are keep in domed iron cages; doors of vehement graffiti overlaid by political posters or advertisements or slogans. But the rhythm of the city is exhausting, continual wearing alleviated by the home one makes in it, no refuge for tourists.



And still, we are fortunate. When winding around the streets of the Quarter, we stumble across the front of a church in a small plaza. There are well-dressed men and women milling around with flower petals in their hands, looking at the fortressed doors expectantly. In one of the terraced buildings overlooking the square, in the window on a balcony, there is a large plastic horse waiting also. The lights from the cafés in the plaza throw up beams on his muzzle and back. I beg to stay. Within a few moments the doors open, the couple emerges, the flowers are thrown, everyone – the friends, the priest, the tourists who have stopped, charmed – cheers. Beside the couple a man in a brimmed hat strikes a furious guitar and a proud Spanish babushka in folk dress and white mantilla – within arms length of the bride – begins to sing in an unwavering, gut-punching nasal alto that can be heard in all of the alleyways.  

Tales of the City


It’s been an embarrassing lapse of time. Spain was so vivid that it’s been almost entirely bleached out in the past weeks, from over-exposure. We were the least experienced, least prepared visitors, crippled linguistically and clinging to the dictionary and phrasebook. We tried, in order to offer some degree of cultural respect, gesture of friendship. We looked foolish.

In Barcelona, on a searingly hot day, I sought an iced mocha. We went, exhausted, into the Hotel Zurich, a rather posh place (we discovered too late) near the Place de Catalunya. I’d like an iced mocha, I said, embarrassed, flustered, thirsty. The waiter, a distinguished man of impeccable carriage, said a reluctant ‘si’ and began slowly fumbling around for the espresso machine. All of the waiters eyed me up in a tut-tut manner before a younger man approached me in order to tell me it wasn’t possible. No, no, no, said all the others, relieved that the truth had been told at last, that they could leave iced mochas to Starbucks. So I cobbled together more hesitant Spanish to suggest an iced coffee with milk instead. SI! Said the distinguished waiter with pleasure and threw himself into the creation of the coffee. Ah, said the faces of the waiters, she does it the right way, the Spanish way. This is what we drink now, in Barcelona, in the Café Zurich, on the terrace, in summer. There we go, the waiter said, handing me a cup with coffee, milk, ice, sugar, the plastic-stirrer; You have beautiful Spanish.