Yes, I actually picked up a guy so that I could stay in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. As you may have noticed by now, I put a lot of things in this book that I’m not particularly proud of, but I have to admit that this one worked out pretty well.
I chose the guy carefully. He was an attractive but moderately nerdy student from the University of Michigan, not significantly bigger than I was. We talked for a long time before I told him my dilemma and asked if he wanted to share a room. He did. When we got to Barcelona, we checked into an old hotel in Las Ramblas and went upstairs. The room had two single beds, which I liked more than he did, but the arrangement worked out perfectly. After the first night, I hardly saw him. He got up every day some time in the afternoon and went out bar-hopping most of the night. I got up early in the morning and didn’t come home until after dinner. The only time we were ever in the room together, one of us was asleep.
The first morning, I walked a few blocks to the cathedral of Santa Eulalia. I was planning to visit Gaudi’s Segrada Familia but not until I’d seen the kind of building that had inspired it. Now, you have to remember that I grew up in Oklahoma City, where the only gothic-style church in town had a carport. A gothic carport. I was not prepared for a real, centuries-old Spanish gothic cathedral. In the first place, Santa Eulalia was more like an indoor park than a church. There was a kind of walkway defined by arches on either side of the building. In this walkway, people were strolling, talking to each other and stopping to look more closely at paintings, statues and places where people were buried. There were a couple dozen chapels and a kind of yard in the middle where there were geese, and every square inch was decorated with something. I’m pretty sure most of the ministers I grew up with would have considered a lot of the decorations downright pagan. I was a little taken aback myself.
I walked the next day to see Sagrada Familia. It was another day of Spanish sun, which is intensely yellow in cast, an entirely different kind of sunlight from that in London. The colors are brighter in Spain, more saturated, as though the reds might ooze out of the pots and the blues drip from the tiles. This is not an original observation, I know, but that’s the thing about Europe, at least for me. Nothing anyone had said, nothing I had ever read prepared me for this ancient and artful world. I found myself seeing what had been described to me hundreds of times and saying, “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”
Sagrada Familia was not being worked on when I was there. All the construction is privately funded, and funds aren’t always available. The site was completely deserted when I got to it and, if I hadn’t recognized Gaudi’s style, I would have wondered whether I was in the right place. As it was, I stood in front of the facade for quite awhile, uncertain about whether I should go any farther. There was no one to ask, no one to charge me admission or shoo me away. Finally, I just started wandering around, looking at all the wonderful and grotesque details of the church. I was so captivated that I climbed halfway up the spiraling staircase in one of the towers before I remembered that I am deathly afraid of heights. Then I had to crawl back down on my hands and knees. Once safely back on solid ground, I sat down and made a drawing of a turtle supporting a pedestal until I stopped shaking.
For several days I wandered Barcelona, eating amazing pastries and really good, cheap meals. One evening I splurged and went to what looked like a kind of fancy restaurant. It was, but it was still cheap enough that I could afford it. That night, I encountered both paella and creme brulee for the first time. When it came to Barcelona’s lasting impact on me, Sagrada Familia had some serious competition.
This was late April of 1976, not quite six months after Francisco Franco’s rule ended with his death at eighty-two. His appointed successor, King Juan Carlos, had begun a gradual change toward a parliamentary democracy. Spain was looking towards the possibility of freedom, and there were quite a few young people who wanted it sooner rather than later. May Day was a revelation.
I had decided that I would spend the day at Parc Guell, which was designed by Gaudi. When I stepped out of the hotel in the morning onto the narrow stone street, I became aware of something different about Las Ramblas. The atmosphere, usually cheerful and noisy, was both tense and subdued. I saw a soldier, fully armed, standing on the corner across from my hotel. And then I saw another and another. By the time I reached the boulevard where I caught the bus, I had seen dozens of men in brown uniforms, standing, patroling, watching. I got on the bus and looked out the window to see cars full of soldiers pulling up to any group of more than two people and dispersing them. The farther north we went, however, the fewer soldiers there were. As we got into the wealthiest areas, there wasn’t a soldier in sight.
I got off at the park and spent a glorious, sunny day walking among the gorgeous Gaudi walls and arches and tiles. Groups of people in traditional costumes performed Catalan dances in celebration of the day, and I watched them twirl. Not until the sun was starting to set did I get back on the bus and go south.
Gradually I began to see the soldiers again. Now they were doing more than dispersing groups. They were chasing masses of protesters down the winding sidestreets of the quarter. As we approached my stop, the scene outside was chaos, and the noise became overwhelming. I hurried to my hotel and, from the second-story window, watched people yelling slogans and turning over cars far into the night.
The next morning, the quarter was virtually back to normal, although there was some cleaning up going on. I walked to my usual bakery for breakfast pastry, and it seemed as though the night before had never happened.
When I left Barcelona, I went to the island of Minorca, where I planned to stayed for awhile before I went on to Paris. In the tourist office in Mahon, the capitol city, a beautiful young man looked at my Europe on $5 a Day and told me I could get a bus to the area where the listed hotels were, which I did. But I had no luck. Every one of the hotels I went to was completely booked. Bedraggled and dragging my suitcase–no backpack for me, remember?–I stopped a man on a dirt road and asked him in halting Spanish if he knew of any hotels that might have vacancies. Cheap hotels.
He quickly asked me if I happened to speak English, doubtless because my Spanish was hurting his ears and his national pride. He explained that it was the height of the tourist season, and I would never find a room without a reservation. They were all booked by tours. He said it was a shame I needed a cheap place because he had several villas to rent and he’d just had a cancellation on one. But it cost $35 a week.
I spent the next two weeks living in a villa on the Mediterranean. You don’t need to know what I did there because it had a nothing whatever to do with writing and a lot to do with the beautiful young man from the tourist office.
After that it was Paris. My first impression of the city suffered by comparison with the beauty and serenity of Minorca. It was noisy and dirty, full of traffic and exhaust fumes. That evening, I went for a walk by the Seine and fell in love, just as everyone does, with the most romantic city in the world.
Then it was back to London. This time, I got a room at a hotel near Paddington Station. My most abiding memories of that part of my stay are Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” being blasted out of record shops and radios at every turn and the fish and chips in soggy newspaper that made up much of my diet.
I also wrote a play. I honestly don’t know what possessed me. I had never thought about writing a play, and I wouldn’t think about it again for some years. I guess the idea that popped into my head about that time must have seemed theatrical to me, although it doesn’t seem like much of anything to me now.
This play was about two young people who live in the same building, one apartment above the other. They are both writers, both highly cynical about “serious” writing. (An attitude that crept into my own head while I was reading a series of male authors of the 1970s at about the same time I was reading Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.) As the two trade confidences and consolations, talking about the commercial possibilities of the books they’re writing, they begin to fall in love. And then one day, our heroine discovers that our hero has been lying to her. His work-in-progress is not a spy thriller, as he had told her, but a serious novel. He is, in fact, writing literature. Her sense of betrayal is profound and–
Well, that’s enough of that. It was no great tragedy that I wrote only the first act, which Moss Hart says anyone can do, and then accidentally left the manuscript in my Paddington hotel room when I came back to the United States.
I got back at the peak of a hot Chicago summer to discover that I had lost James. He didn’t actually leave me then–that process took more than two awful years–but he was on his way out. If you haven’t guessed, we had an open relationship, and while I was having fun in Europe, he was falling in love in Hyde Park.
I looked around and found a great apartment, which I shared with Leni Tannenbaum. She was an artist and, although she was a delightful person with loads of talent, she was not quite as satisfactory as Judy Handler. You see, I couldn’t hear her working. A pencil moving across a sketchbook page is no substitute for a hand plucking a guitar.
Our landlords were two nice young men, and one day they asked if I had a friend looking for a place because they needed a tenant for the downstairs apartment. Andra moved in and, since neither of us had a job at the time, we started writing a dirty book.