Friday, November 5, 2010

Burning Up the Road to Barcelona

This was an innocuous story about traveling to a marathon - or so I thought. But it drew a blistering letter to the editor. The writer thought I had disrespected Barcelona, a city I loved. She blasted me with both barrels. It was snarky. Best I could ever learn, she was married to a man originally from Barcelona and had strong nationalistic feeling about Catalonia as a region distinct from the rest of Spain. Filled with references to Spanish history, her letter must have been virtually unintelligible to the readers of a small-town newspaper in Tennessee. She even criticized me for calling Barcelona a town, an endearing term I'd thought. She then went on to educate me about how big it was, as if a guy who had run a marathon through its streets wouldn't know that. I never answered the letter. You never know who will read a story. From the Herald-Citizen, March 30, 2008.


We were cruising through the mountains of northern Spain in Albino’s BMW. It is 379 miles from his home in Burgos to Barcelona, and we were headed there for the marathon, Marató Barcelona, which was scheduled for two days later.

My running watch thought it was already tomorrow, showing March 1 as we drove along, having forgotten about leap year—it was 2008. I scrolled up February 29, creating myself an extra day.

Albino had brought along a couple of soft cases filled with CDs for our listening pleasure during the long haul. He sat with a case spread open on his lap and flipped through the choices, occasionally minding the wheel while we rolled along at the sensible speed of 90 mph. He has an eclectic taste in music and we listened to everything from Andre Segovia to Miles Davis to Etta James.

That last one was on a CD called Night Train to Nashville, which Albino bought at the Country Music Hall Of Fame during an exhibit highlighting Nashville’s blues heritage. He held the CD up for me to see.

“You wanna hear that?”

“Sure, why not? Plug it in.”

The very first sound to come out blasted me backwards fifty years. It was disc jockey John Richburg—John R his own self!—introducing his blues show from Nashville’s WLAC-AM clear channel station. At night that station ruled the airways over two-thirds of the nation during the 1950s and 60s, days before FM radio. The sun went down, WLAC jacked up its power and all stations with the same frequency blinked off. It didn’t matter if you lived in a holler in Appalachia or drove a taxi in Chicago, you listened to John R advertising Ernie’s Record Mart, White Rose Petroleum Jelly and Silky Straight.

“…John R in Nashville, Tennessee, smack in the middle of Dixie!” John R was saying on the recording.

Dadgum! I swear I hadn’t heard that voice in nearly half a century. They’d captured his voice from that long ago time and stuck it on the CD. It was as if the space-time continuum stretched and twisted and folded back on itself. No longer was I hurling through arid mountains in northern Spain but instead lying on a feather bed in the unheated room of a farm house in Jackson County, Tennessee listening to an old white AM radio that sat beside the bed. John R talked me to sleep at night.

I never saw a picture of John R, and I hope I never do. I don’t know if he was black or white, and I don’t give two hoots which it was. What I have is his voice. And I’ll have that until they take away my drool bucket.

That’s how we drove 379 miles to a marathon—listening to obscure musicians that many people never heard of. Albino knows that old music from the 50s and 60s even though he grew up in Seville, Spain and wasn’t born until 1971. He collects vinyl records and owns 500 CDs. He moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 2003, and quickly fell in love with Nashville. He had fetched along a bit of Nashville for our trip today.

At 90 mph you can drive 379 miles in 4 hours and 13 minutes. Practically speaking it doesn’t work out that way. You lose time. We had to stop and buy gas, and eat lunch, and pay tolls. Three times we paid the toll takers. Two times it cost 26 Euros, or $39 US, non negligible, we thought.

The driver got sleepy, too. I suggested we pull into a parking area because I wanted to make a picture. Albino stretched out for a nap and I took a little hike to get my picture.

What picture? Of something that had bothered me a bit—the way the landscape is changing. We were traveling through a scrubland of brown rocks and badlands reminiscent of Wyoming, terrain familiar to fans of early Clint Eastwood westerns. Now and then we saw a compact town huddled on the slopes, some cropland.

And across the ridgeline marched rows of metallic invaders, tall aliens stalking the land, now facing windward at rigid attention. Legions of wind turbines turned lazily. The unearthly-looking machines provide clean energy all right but, in their imposing strangeness, they completely alter the value of landscape for the human spirit. As global oil production diminishes, I expect their numbers to grow. Spain, as well as all nations of the world, will need their help to meet energy needs. I made my picture, and photographed the future.

When we finally reached Sunotel on Gran Via in Barcelona, our nerves were whacked. It had all worn us out: Trying to find our hotel in traffic worse than New York City, getting the strap on my backpack caught in the car’s hatch so that it wouldn’t open while traffic backed up behind us, a guy insistently blowing his horn. Albino: “That’s why I don’t carry a weapon; I would have shot him!”

Albino asked a surly red-faced clerk for a late check-out time for Sunday, the day of the marathon, so that we could take a shower before starting our 379-mile drive back to Burgos. Hotels usually comply happily with that request. Yeah, he could do that but it would cost us 30 Euros extra. Sure. Another insult. Albino fumed, but we had little choice.

And then Angel arrived, a friend from Madrid, a generous hombre and also a formidable one. He had made our reservation. He dismissed our fear. Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay that, he assured us. He was as good as his word, we found out when we checked out that Sunday.

Eduardo and Jorge, two more Madrid friends, arrived. Jorge was escorting Alejandra, his esposa hermosa.

We all went to the marathon expo the next day, the place where you confirm your registration; pick up your timing chip, bib number and other miscellaneous stuff, a place where you can also shop for all sorts of running gear. It was crowded; about 8,000 runners had registered for the race.

The men’s water closet was crowded too. A woman worked to keep it orderly—while men were there. Men did arrive and men did go right in front of her, including myself. I was squeamish about that but overcame it.

In the words of Robert Jordan, the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book I was currently reading, Ernest Hemingway said, “There are no other countries like Spain.” I believe that’s true, and in many ways. Barcelona is maybe an example.

As far as the rest of Spain is concerned, the town is perhaps too proud of having its own language. Catalan, which is spoken by its seven million citizens, is distinct from Castilian, the Spanish language. The reality then is that people of Barcelona must be able to speak several languages in order to talk to anyone.

Nevertheless they cling to their history and culture. As we made the rounds of the various counters, booths and tables at the expo, Albino came up to me.

“Did you notice that nobody will open their mouth until you start talking? They don’t know what language to speak. There are so many languages here!”

Angel has refined taste, and he had made lunch reservations for our gang of six at Seven Doors, Siete Portes, a white tablecloth place where the waiters wear black ties and dinner jackets. It’s been in business since 1836 they claim. We had paella—good race food, rice based—and wine and beer. I abstained from those last two, in abeyance to race needs. The tab for six came to 220 Euros, roughly $330 US.

That night I passed up a visit to still another white tablecloth place, opting instead for marathon snacks, rest and television: professional basketball, the ACB, Europe’s answer to the NBA; and, maybe better, the Miss Espanya contest, a gaggle of gorgeous women in tiny Bikinis. One by one, they did prance, each gliding the runway like a walking horse hitting its gait.I was pulling for Miss Tenerife, but Albino came in around midnight and we turned in. I didn’t find out who won. Come 8:30 AM next morning we had a marathon to run.

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