Return to "developed world,"

 

          The flight from Nouakchott to Dakar went smoothly. Once I got there, I was able to keep myself reasonably busy until about 9:00 in the evening. Then it got a little tedious. The Dakar airport is not very comfortable and it does not offer much to do. I spent a little time re-organizing my luggage, as well as getting the trunk and box ready to mail off once I got to Barcelona.

          We left Dakar a little late, but all went smoothly. I didnít get much sleep on the plane, but did doze off a bit.

          Arriving in Barcelona, my first move was to get the trunk and box to the post office that was advertised on the Spain Correos website as being in the airport. I found it in the terminal next to the one where I deplaned. Oddly enough, though I was there during the hours of operation and on a day of its being listed as being open, it was closed. Oh no, not another country where things donít work right!

          After a few minutesī wait, though, the employee showed up and was very helpful. My only problem was that the trunk weighed 24 kilos, and the maximum weight for any given item is 20. There was a little wiggle room in the box, so I opened up both the box and the trunk and found four kilos worth of goodies to transfer from the trunk to the box. Then I sent both items on their way. I was much lighter now, with that deed done, and carrying only my one piece of luggage!

          Several months ago, I corresponded by e-mail with an acquaintance from San Francisco who suggested a hotel in Barcelona called the Hotel California. I couldnít resist! That is where I stayed for the last five nights, and it was wonderful ó small, clean, and well-situated, with a friendly and welcoming staff. Breakfast, included in the price of the room, consisted of granola, rolls, juice, coffee, and teas ó always a nice way to start the day.

          On my way to the hotel, I spotted a sign with the large words "Maoz Falafel." Underneath was added the word "Vegetarian." Once I got situated in the hotel, I found my way back to it and made it one of my mainstay meals during the last five days. Itís terrific: five falafels in a whole wheat pita and an open salad bar of fifteen ingredients that the customer can add himself, including pickles, whole garbanzo beans, hot sauce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cauliflower, and tabbouleh. They are reasonably priced at Ä3.20. (They are on the web at www.maozvegetarian.com.) "Maoz" is pronounced like "mouse," with an extra little "oo" added to the diphthong.

          It wasnít my first falafel in a long time, since there are places in Nouakchott where I could find them, but I did have broccoli and nectarines this week for the first time in two years.

          Barcelona is as wonderful as I remembered it being when I was here nineteen years ago. Since that time, it has become a much more popular destination, the result of its being the site of the Olympics in 1992. Many of the attractions I visited in 1986 are now much more crowded than they were then. La Rambla, which was then predominantly frequented by locals with just a sprinkling of tourists, is now overrun by tourists, and has become the local version of San Franciscoís Fishermanís Wharf, New Yorkís Times Square, and Parisís Champs Elysees: souvenir shops and restaurants catering to tourists, where locals only go if they work there.

          Every fifty meters or so along La Rambla there is another "human statue." In case you havenít seen one in your travels, these are people who have created jobs for themselves by dressing up in costumes and posing for pictures with tourists. Some of them are creative and original, including the guy with his head sticking up through a table so that it appears to be the centerpiece in a platter of paella, a devil playing chess with an angel, Julius Caesar, a painter who has fallen off his ladder, a baby in a carriage, King Tut, Che Guevara, a matador, a gladiator, a pair of people on bicycles, a pair of soldiers, a gilt angel, a guy festooned with fruit and one with flowers. For me, they donít add anything to the ambiance, but tourists seem to like them, considering how much they have proliferated.

          Since my first visit, I have placed Barcelona alongside Paris and London as my favorite cities in Europe, all of which I rank equal to each other in fascination, owing to their ease of transport, architecture, handsome public gathering places such as parks and plazas, and art in public places as well as museums. I rank these cities just below Venice, which is at the top of my Favorite Cities Pyramid. (Worldwide, my other entries on the same level are Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco.)

          Signage around town and in many of the museums is trilingual. Usually the first language is Catalan, followed by Spanish, and then English. If there is a fourth language, it is French. I am having my own linguistic challenges, though, as I have to stop myself from saying, "Salaam aleikum" to people when I walk into shops. What made it even worse was that a young man approached me to talk and within a few minutes I found out that he was originally from Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara), where they speak Hassaniya. He was surprised to find anyone here who could even do something as basic as greet him, just as I was not expecting to say anything to anyone in Hassaniya so soon after leaving Mauritania.

          My first night here I slept eleven hours, the first decent nightís sleep I had had in three nights, and I have also been averaging eight or nine hours a night since then. Itís delightful to be in a temperate room, which makes sleeping all the more comfortable.

          The Internet speed here is incredibly fast - faster than even the best connection in Mauritania. The change of screens is almost instantaneous. I have never seen anything like it, and I am enjoying it.

          On Friday, I took a look at the remnants of the old synagogue, located in the Call, the old Jewish quarter of town. I was there at the same time as a tour group from Israel. Their group leader was able to tell me where I could find a congregation that held services, and that is how I made my way that evening to the Comunidad Israelita de Barcelona.

          The services were held in a fairly modern synagogue, attended by about 75 men on the ground floor and a sprinkling of women upstairs. I wasnít able to follow very much, as it was held totally in Hebrew, but I did recognize "Līcha Dodi," led by four boys, and one other song. I was happy to participate in my first Shabbat service in two years.

          When the services were over and I left the synagogue at 9:45 PM I was surprised to see that there was still some light in the sky. (The previous two nights I was asleep by that time of night, exhausted.) I imagine that this is the combination of being not only further north but also in a country that observes daylight saving time. There has been some variation in hours of light in Mauritania during the course of the year, but itís not anything as drastic as it is here.

          I enjoyed the quietness of the city streets. It wasnít until Saturday that I even heard the honking of a car horn. During my six days in Barcelona, I heard drivers beep their horns a total of three times, a significant improvement over the usual blaring that one hears in Nouakchott.

          I leave tonight for Bilbao, where I look forward to seeing the Guggenheim Museum there. There are only two trains a day making the nine-hour trip. My choice was to leave in the early afternoon and arrive late at night or to leave at 10:30 at night, arriving just before 8:00 AM. Neither was a choice I prefer, but I am going with the night train, hoping that I will be able to sleep along the way. That would be better than arriving late at night in a new city.

          People warned me that I was going to experience some culture shock, or even what they sometimes refer to as "reverse culture shock." Keeping that in mind, I was looking for anything that may qualify along those lines. Here I was, surrounded by art, walking around in a city where there is efficient public transport, clean streets, a good variety of food, and toilets that work. I was staying in a nicely appointed hotel, in a climate-controlled room, and sleeping in a clean and comfortable bed that was raised off the floor. All of these were enjoyable aspects of my visit here, wonderful things that I appreciate, and all I could think is that there was no shock to anything that I was experiencing.

          What does shock me, however, I can pinpoint in two words: smoking and graffiti. I find it hard to believe that there are still so many people - especially young ones - in this so-called "developed world" who think that it is a good idea to smoke; and that they are allowed to foul the air in restaurants as well as so many public places. Especially shocking to me is the high number of parents toting small children around, teaching their kids by their own example to become the next generation of smokers.

          I also find it shocking that there are people who see fit to destroy the property of others by defacing it with graffiti. There are many beautiful old buildings here in Barcelona that have been marred by the graffiti "artists" who advertise their ignorance for all to see, who have unfortunately found no other way to make their mark on the world than with the paint that they use to deface public monuments and private property. I doubt that these same people would find it equally "artistic" and enjoyable if any one of us entered their homes and spray-painted our names and symbols on their bedroom walls, clothing, and other personal possessions.

          That was the only thing culturally "shocking" that I could think of.