An American Brownie in Barcelona

by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain for a symposium hosted by the Libraries of Barcelona. Aptly titled Reading to Travel, Traveling to Read (link to the site here), it was comprised of three days of discussions amongst a broad panel of writers that included Marianne Pearl (wife of slain journalist Danny Pearl, foreign correspondent and author of A Mighty Heart), Clea Koff (forensic anthropologist for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, and author of The Bone Woman), and Chris Stewart (former Genesis drummer and author of Driving Over Lemons). The conversations—translated, UN-style, into French, English, Spanish and Catalan—were divided into roughly a dozen general topics, among them “Living to Travel,” “Ways of Spreading Passion for Travel,” and “Traveling as a Form of Creation.” My assigned topic, shared with Spanish fellow-author Anna Tortajada, was “Traveling as Research.”

As a writer who’s worked mostly with foreign subjects, settings and characters, I found much to ponder in these quadralingual chats. One comment stood out for me in particular: French writer and professor Jean Soublin was recounting how he’d once traveled to study the music indigenous to different nations. “Of course, one couldn’t do that today,” he added. “Now, everyone listens to the same thing.”

The conversation didn’t extend to whether or not this was a good thing, though M. Soublin’s tone (and Gallic shrug) suggested the former. Still, as I explored Barcelona over the next few days, the thought lingered: Has globalization really changed the experience of travel? And is it always and necessarily for the worse?

For a number of reasons, the question was of particular interest at this moment in my life. I’d spent the last ten years on a novel studying the clash and merge of Western and Eastern politics and art, and had just launched into another examining the delicate cultural and political give-and-take in a Tokyo under American occupation. However, in all those years–years marked by the explosion of the internet and noisy, ongoing construction of the “Global Village”–I hadn’t actually left home. At least, not counting Canada (and who really counts Canada?). After spending most of my twenties abroad ( Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and Italy) the triple-punch of poverty, grad school and new motherhood had kept me firmly tethered to Brooklyn. This– my first trip to Spain—was also my first abroad since a Tuscan honeymoon in 1998.

And while I certainly didn’t feel like I was home–or even in Canada–being abroad felt markedly different than I had remembered. It wasn’t just that music had changed, though it’s certainly true that every kiosk I passed seemed to spew the same, vague variety of World Pop. It was that Spain—or at least, the part of Spain near my hotel–seemed far more accessible; more familiar, than I’d expected. On my first sojourn down Carrer Rossello, I almost felt like I was on Madison Avenue. Sleek flagship stores—Chanel, Burberry, Prada, H&M—lined the well-kept sidewalks. Well-dressed women with small dogs abounded.

Through a combination of slow English and bad Italian, I found my way to Circuit City and purchased an electrical adaptor in the credit-card line. I found a SIMs card for my cellphone at a nearby Nokia store, and called home to wish my daughters good morning. I used the restroom at Burger King, paused (from habit) at a Starbucks but then retired to what seemed a more Spanish-style café. In retrospect, however, it was not so very unlike my favorite coffeespot in Cobble Hill, though the music wasn’t as good and half the customers were smoking. Still, the people—a mix of smartly-dressed professionals, foreign visitors, students and artsy types—felt familiar too.

After coffee, I went back to my hotel to change, then hopped on the subway for that night’s installment of “Traveling to Read.” Apart from trying to walk through the wrong turnstile at Diagonal station, I made it to the Library without incident, listened with interest to Ms. Pearl and M. Soublin, and afterwards had a terrific—if very late–dinner with them, symposium organizers and some other panelists. All-in-all, it struck me as an entirely easy and pleasant day–if not an exceptionally distinctive one. It certainly stood in stark contrast to my introduction to Kyoto, my first foreign city, and one in which I’d spent my sophomore year on homestay.

Stumbling through the old capital’s broad avenues, quiet shrines and shopping malls, I remember remembering Roland Barthe’s musings on travel in Empire of Signs. This situation (he’d written) is the very one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning, lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void

And for me Japan was–at least at first—quite a shock. From food to fashion to the crisp cadence of the language; to the very posture and pace of the pedestrians, nothing–quite simply, nothing—felt familiar. For the first time in my life I felt fully an outsider, completely other; almost entirely without cultural or linguistic foothold. The simplest tasks—withdrawing money, finding the bathroom; using the bathroom (all those appliances! All those chirping automations!), making a phone call—seemed vast challenges. Even streetsign English (Fried chicken-drinks here; please remove shoes before being entered) felt like an entirely new language.

At that point, too—before cell phones; before internet; before the translation of hit pop songs into fifteen or more languages—home felt very, very overseas. Connecting with loved ones required lots of coins (Visa being a relatively new phenomenon there and then), a working payphone, and successful negotiation through polite-but-rapid Japanese operator instructions that were interspersed with cryptic-sounding clicks and beeps. Meals, for their part, could feel like an episode out of Fear Factor (“Do you know what this is?!” my homestay father would crow gleefully). And after dinner, all those bizarre TV reality shows!…

It can of course be argued (though I’m sure Europeans would rather not) that European and American cultures simply aren’t all that different; or at least, that they’re far more similar than are American and Asian cultures. And yet arriving in Italy four years later for another year abroad, I remember feeling almost as alienated there as I’d felt in those first weeks in Kyoto: Disconcerted by a foreign language. Confused by the lack of sugar substitutes. Caught off-guard when life shut down for siesta.

Now, twenty-odd years later here I was in Barcelona—phoning home while ambling down the Calle Escudellers. Shopping international franchises, and being offered not only Visa and Mastercard but the choice of paying in dollars or Euros. Logging into Facebook on the computer in the hotel lobby to find that the previous user had just been on Facebook, Spain. It certainly felt like globalization had sanded down some of the differences between our two cultures. But did that mean it was stripping away culture itself? Was the whole world, in fact, becoming like the fictional city of Trude, in Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”: This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels… Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.

Certainly, many Barcelonians with whom I spoke seemed to feel the same ennui as Calvino’s Marco Polo. At our symposium dinner, I had listened (at least, as much as my Italianized Spanish would permit) as city natives in our group bewailed the erosion of their Catalan culture. Friend and fellow writer James Canon, who’d just moved to the city, told of signs on La Rambla telling tourists to go home. (“Did they feel the same way about the Moors?” I asked, having just been informed that Spanish remains heavily Arabic-influenced. “I’m sure they did,” he said.)

And yet, as my visit continued throughout the week, I found myself wondering whether the ongoing construction of the Worldwide Village doesn’t cut both ways; whether, in fact, globalization actually eliminates cultural difference so much as provides tools to understand, even transcend, those differences. It may be crassly American of me, but seeing a Starbucks on La Rambla didn’t really detract from my overall pleasure in Spain—any more than the sushi shops on Calles Moles did. They all simply felt like part of a growing international lexicon that the U.S., Japan and Spain now shared, along with the rest of the world. In some ways—I’ll admit it—such sights were even oddly comforting; familiar signposts that seemed to remind us that while there was much to be learned from our differences, there was also something to be learned from our similar tastes.

I felt the same way chatting at the H&M sales rack with Spanish teens; commenting—in imperfect versions of one another’s language–on a cute style, a great price, the wait for a changing room. Or admiring—along with a multinational group of passersbys–Gaudi’s Casa Batllo on Passeig de Gracia. I felt it exclaiming over a Barbie doll I found in a toyshop, dressed not in cheesy lame an intricate, handmade Catalan costume that had clearly taken weeks (if not months) of loving care to create. And I felt it, finally, on my last night in Barcelona, spent listening to Spanish guitar at the Basilica del Pi.

It was a breathtaking performance of works by Albeniz, Tarrega and Sors. The audience clearly spoke at least a dozen different languages, though most were stunned (as was I) into silence; and the fluent arpeggios of the guitarist were occasionally underscored by the drunken songs of English footballers outside. For me, though, the night was magic; and no less Spanish for all the international ambience.

Later I ended up at Neri Restaurant on Calle Sant Sever, tucked away in the medieval alleyways of the Barri Gotic. The music there was less indigenously Spanish–a mellow blend of American alternative and Samba–and the food a fabulous fusion of Continental and Catalan. After my main course the waitress gave me a free glass of Spanish champagne to go with the night’s special dessert, which she announced with a flourish: American Brownie ala Mode.

“Don’t worry,” she added, seeing my bemused expression. “It’s all Spanish chocolate. And it’s delicious.”

And despite the title, it was.

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s other writing for 3QD can be seen here, and her own website is here.