A vacation can begin in an airport, so long as the joy of sliding along its polished floors doesn’t give way to wrangling for a spot in a check-in line for a flight that no longer exists. The Wifi in the Barcelona airport feels like dial-up, further suspending the future. A group of mostly Brits are sprawled out on the shiny marble outside the airport’s fancy restaurant, sleeping on their luggage, reading the newspaper or trying to get online. The restaurant, a strange glimmer of luxurious pause in an otherwise bustling way station, is currently closed and, by the looks of the limp napkins folded into the wine glasses, only open to celebrate milestones in Spanish aviation and its architecture. Out by the check-in lines, students create campgrounds out of quiet corners and an older couple sits in chairs with their heads tilted far back, sleeping.
It’s the first day of the Eyjafjallajökull debacle. Checking in no longer has a function; it’s like flipping on the TV in the middle of the day. Reaching the start of the line only gets you a well-coiffed airline employee throwing up her hands slowly, looking not at you, but at vague spots behind you, tiredly taking in the mass of waiting customers even though her day has just begun. You lean in to try to enclose her in your transaction, and so that the other passengers don’t catch on to your plan. But the truth is you don’t have one, and immediately her resignation feels like a trick reserved for certain passengers—those without a plan; those hardy enough to camp out; those who will come to understand, if she lets them, that this act of God is an excuse to vacation in Barcelona, rather than just stop over.
But some, possibly missing funerals and birthdays and anniversaries, are instead crying to the agents at the tourism kiosk. Perhaps they have a plan, and this is it: tears are more likely to yield discounts, vouchers, free nights. “Don’t cry,” the agent tells the woman next to us, repeating the words until they sound like a command. The subtext of it might be, Why don’t you give my city a chance. The woman’s teenage daughter is smiling and hugging her. Eventually the woman laughs through her tears, but it’s not clear whether it’s because she’s triumphed with a free hotel stay, or because the agent and her daughter convinced her she was being daft. The first would certainly yield the second.
Woody Allen is not unrealistically kind to the city in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film that, along with the 1992 Summer Olympics, has undoubtedly helped to keep a nice supply of tourists coming to Barcelona for tapas, paella, Picasso, guitar serenades, Gaudi, beaches, a panorama to rival Florence, a loose indoor smoking law and— be warned – a glow-in-the-dark octopus toy shot into the air by Pakistani men who loiter around the old city mistaking adults for potential customers—that is to say, for children, or fools. The flying octopi at first seem in keeping with the whimsical tone of an accidental vacation in a city steeped in revelry. For Barcelona only seems to bother with daylight hours because its tourists do, so the idea of selling an item that can only be enjoyed at night makes sense, even if the target audience has not really been considered. (Another specialty is a bird-mimicking whistle about the size of a lima bean. If you hear them, you know you’re approaching a tourist stomping ground.)
It’s our third afternoon, another afternoon hotter than promised, and Air France still won’t pick up the phone. The same recorded message sounds more exhausted each time we call. So for two days, we don’t call. We’re being entertained by Abe, the co-owner of a bar and restaurant called Dos Trece, who is an old friend of my partner. Abe begins his shift at 5 p.m. and says he often doesn’t wake up until close to then. As the face of the restaurant—his brother is the business end—his work ends somewhere between two and four in the morning, at which point he goes out.
Being six hours behind, we have equal trouble waking up in the morning as Abe does. So we spend a small slice of the afternoon with him, savoring whatever parts of the city he recommends, including requisite paella on the beach served with sangria that he quickly pooh-poohs as “boxed.” Walking around the town, Abe runs into everybody. He meets one of his bartenders and they joke about never seeing each other in daylight. Everybody kisses us twice, even people we’ve never met. At the harbor, Abe points out a giant lobster sculpture hanging overhead as the only celebratory remnant of the Olympics. Of course, there are other, more useful remnants (soccer stadiums, highways, tourists).
Dos Trece, named for the area code of Abe and his brother’s hometown of East L.A., serves an eclectic mix of food including Middle Eastern-inspired tapas, mushroom and radicchio risotto, and the “best burger in BCN.” It’s a clear favorite of Barcelona’s young folk. Abe lets them smoke downstairs, where a large projector screens football matches. No one appears exempt from freebies from the drinks menu, which includes a kiwi-flavored frozen rum cocktail and numerous other originals. The drinks become more elaborate as our trip goes on. If I don’t ask for my “regular” drink, the Fidel Castro, a rum-based cocktail that riffs on the dark and stormy, I get a surprise. To sit at the bar is to witness the bartenders’ experiments, to be slid shots, and to befriend regulars, including an American couple who show us grainy cell phone pictures of their mansion and car and tell us they’ve just bought half an island.
Dos Trece is the first and sometimes final stop of the night. But on Monday Abe insists we go to Nasty Monday, a giant dance party at a club called the Sala Apolo. “You have to go—just to see it,” Abe tells us, as if it’s the Picasso Museum or the Gehry sculpture at the beach. We arrive fashionably late—4:30 am—and get in only because Abe convinces a doorman. Inside it is indeed a spectacle: less like a nightclub and more like a raging concert without a band. The event is big enough that the exit looks to be in the midst of an evacuation, and there are twice as many people still inside: young, casually dressed mostly teenagers thrashing to the final three songs in front of a projector that broadcasts information about upcoming events and, eventually, “The Party’s Over!” written in a snazzy font while Coldplay’s “The Scientist” blasts dolefully downward.
Some turn the Coldplay into an excuse to slow dance. In the midst of the loitering we’re introduced to someone who turns away from a group of girls, says girls are boring, and kisses my (male) partner on the hand. A fight soon breaks out between two girls; someone in our party helps to break it up. It’s 7 a.m. by the time we get home. We spend the hours before sunrise at someone’s brand new bar, complete with pristine white floors, shiny granite countertop, and a scent of sawdust and paint. Ordering a drink here is such a new concept that it feels like being on a film set after hours.
New York, that insomniac city, avails itself to the paying public as much as possible, and worries about how to make more money when it should be sleeping. Barcelona is a more affordable city, its people far less cash-obsessed. Trying to get a meal at Cal Pep, a renowned tapas spot, means memorizing the hours posted on the door: it is only closed on Sundays, but like many restaurants in Europe, it also closes during non-meal hours, and the window of opportunity changes depending on the day of the week.
Once inside, the experience at Cal Pep is best had at the bar, where the service is fast-paced and menu-less. Certain delicacies can be hastily recommended, if necessary, but it’s better to just see what arrives and glance at your neighbors for hints of what’s to come. A man next to me tries to actually order—he’s clearly a repeat customer—but the chef, Pep Manubens, ends up dictating his choices anyway, confident that he’ll like all of them: a kind of crawfish cassoulet with chickpeas; deep-fried, salted jalapenos; squid in butter with new potatoes; sausage served with beans in a sweet and smoky sauce. Manubens seems to have a bad cough, and barks unintelligibly at his wait staff in between taking sips of water. The wait staff seems relieved when a plate is dropped while Manubens is back in the main kitchen, out of earshot. Manubens attends to customers casually, smiling with his mouth and frowning with his eyes. His presence at the bar is enough to charm us. He is happy to pose for a picture at the end of our meal.
As if they know what we’ve been up to, Air France is unsympathetic when we finally get through some five days after our arrival in Spain. The Frenchman on the other end portrays the volcano situation as the unequivocal end of commercial aviation. “The airport is closed. I have nothing,” he says. But when I ask, “What about Wednesday?” I get two seats on what turns out to be a half-empty flight to Charles de Gaulle. During the flight I try to imagine where everybody is: on a budget cruise ship bound for Southampton; zooming down the Autobahn in a rental car; crying into their carry-ons back at the Barcelona airport.
The day we left, an American woman breezed past us on the sidewalk, telling her companion in a loud, clipped voice, “At the very worst, I leave Sunday.” Those with obligations elsewhere certainly had the right to see the volcano as a hassle. But none should have excused themselves from seeing it as an opportunity to weigh those obligations anew.