We are in Barcelona, threading our way through the crowds in a tiny square near the Gothic Quarter, and a plaque catches my eye. Plaça de George Orwell. After too many years of education, I’ve managed to memorize almost nothing of value, except this:
As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.
These are the opening words to a 1940 essay Orwell wrote as the Luftwaffe began their nightly pounding of London. I first read these words in my early twenties, and I’ve never forgotten their simple, revelatory power. As usual with Orwell, his plain words cut through the shit, capturing the strange and paradoxical chaos and cruelty our species chooses to live with.
Six years before, after journeying to Spain to fight the fascists — one of the greatest lost causes of the twentieth century — Orwell had written Homage to Catalonia. It initially sold only a few hundred copies, and is the chief reason Orwell’s name is today affixed to a Plaça in the capital of Catalonia. It’s a good book to read.
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The first time we visited Barcelona, nine years ago, I set out for a run and, as usual, got hopelessly lost. I’ve been lost before — in fact it’s habitual with me, and a source of strange pride. I’ve gotten lost on runs in Singapore, Seattle, Galway, Cambodia, and in plenty of other places. But this was different. I knew roughly where our apartments was, somewhere down that lane in the Gothic Quarter. But our door had simply vanished. I had no address, map, phone or phone number.
Tired and aching from my long morning run, as an implacable burning sun inched higher every minute, I began to succumb to dehydration. I know the symptoms well: fuzzy brain, crankiness, and a need to immediately lie down on a cool bed in a dark room. I was desperate for a bottle of water, but of course had no money. I felt a rising sense of panic. I wanted to cry, but that would further dry me out. Then I considered begging.
But how do you beg for directions?
Closure in Calella de Palafrugell
That was nine years ago. On this trip, I did not run in Barcelona. Instead, I’ve taken a few tentative runs and hikes around Calella de Palafrugell, the village on the Costa Brava where we’re now staying for a week. A smiling giant lies down and stretches his rocky arms out to the sea, enclosing a sun-washed crescent of small sandy coves lined with hotels, restaurants and bars that nestle in the giant’s chest. Repeat that image several times, and you have a good idea of the Costa Brava.
Calella de Palafrugell is an old holiday town, with sparkling seas and strolling tourists happy to be away from home. To the right and below our balcony, a large stone house with a clay-tiled roof sits right on the beach, with a dramatic patio on the second floor and a private sandy beach below. Apart from its prominent location, the building is not luxurious and looks as though it has stood here for centuries. But, by Old World standards, it’s relatively new, built by the son of the fabulously rich Mr. Velcro. Whether the family still owns Velcro Manor isn’t clear. But the origin story is this: Mr. Velcro, at that time a Swiss electrical engineer with a different name, returned from a hike in his native Alps one day and noticed that his dog was covered with burrs. That’s when…
At the other end of Calella de Palafrugell, imposingly large houses snuggle against the giant’s left arm. These were built by former fishermen who discovered there was more money to be made harvesting cork trees than risking their lives with nets and hooks.
If you hike south from Calella de Palafrugell, over the giant’s right shoulder and along the sea, the path takes you to the sumptuous Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. I didn’t get lost on my way there, but did lose my way in the garden itself, looking for the cacti — always my favourites.
The garden was founded in 1927 by a married couple, the Woevodskys. Nikolai Woevodsky was a former Russian colonel, and Dorothy Webster an English aristocrat. Today, the garden isn’t as well-known as its summer music festival. Apart from Christina Aguilera and Sting, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know any of the other acts in this year’s edition, as they’re all Spanish performers. But pre-Covid lineups included Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, Peppa Pig and Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan has played Cap Roig Music Festival several times.
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The first day in Calella de Palafrugell, I went for a run, carefully noting landmarks at every turn. Left at the first roundabout; straight at the next three roundabout; then left at the stone building with the FUNKY TOWN sign.
I wear a running watch, but it’s not a fancy model, the kind that tells you where to go and when you heart will explode. But it does keep track of the basics: time, pace and distance. I tell myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going.
Begging for directions
Soon after we arrived in Calella de Palafrugell, I located a book of Orwell’s essays and read “Marrakech.” Like many of his essays from that period, it’s a devastating indictment of racism and colonialism — subjects he knew first-hand, as a former colonial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar). He writes about the invisibility of the subject races, those with brown skin. A bundle of sticks moving down the road is just that, until one day you squint and see the ancient shrunken woman beneath the load. After that, you can never “unsee” her.
In Barcelona, where nine years ago I had been hopelessly lost, the beggars have adopted a new posture. They now prostrate themselves, knees on the pavement, arms outstretched on the ground, fingers balancing a paper cup — and always, always face down. The posture is the thing, you see, for now it’s easier to give. No need to engage, to see the beggar’s eyes. Nor to think about the transaction and what it means, why it’s necessary. Drop a coin into the cup, move on.
Yesterday afternoon I went for a run to the San Sebastià lighthouse, just over the giant’s left shoulder. The distance is short, but the paths are steep and the slanting sun was still burning hot and soon I was drenched in sweat and my pulse was climbing with dangerous insistence. So I kept reminding myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going and, above all, listen to my heart.
Tomorrow we fly on to Greece.