Friday, August 14, New Hope, Pennsylvania

On every trip I take there is one moment when my own incompetence combines with Murphy’s Law to make life a struggle. Such was the case as I left Barcelona Airport for Dublin (where I slept in the airport) and Copenhagen (where I spent one evening).

My first inkling of trouble came when I sought the bus to the airport. The “Barcelona Ticket” I’d purchased promised a free ride to the airport. I’d seen the sleek, modern A buses navigating Barcelona’s streets. But such was not my fate. My ticket did not work on the A buses; rather I was directed to a city bus, #46. This meant an uncomfortable, bumpy ride in too-crowded public transit. But, actually, it didn’t. The bus was nearly empty and clean, and, as a bonus I struck up a conversation with a young couple from Switzerland. A pleasant experience.

Next issue was my painting. I’d paid mucho dinero for a large painting in Ousouira, and had been hefting it onto buses every since. Now I worried about getting the airline to protect my valuable ‘over-sized’ luggage. Would it survive the baggage handlers? I got to the airport four hours before my flight so I had time to devise a strategy for painting protection–and one appeared miraculously before my eyes as I entered the terminal. They have machines–you’ve probably seen them–that wrap your luggage in some sort of shiny plastic wrap. For ten Euro’s I submitted my bag and painting. In seconds I had one piece of luggage rather than three (my big backpack, my day pack, and my painting). Problem solved.

Except that I immediately began thinking I’d replaced one problem with another. I forgot that airlines have weight restrictions. If your bag weighs too much they charge big bucks for the overage. My new uni-luggage looked, to me, too heavy. I paid another Euro to weigh mine on a machine in the terminal. Sixteen kilos. Was that too much?

Three and a half hours till my flight, still plenty of time.

Happily I found that I could immediately check in to my flight even at this early time. I found the line and joined it behind about twelve other folks. In twenty minutes I was hefting my bag onto the stand and handing my passport to a short, middle aged blond woman from RyanAir.

“Your boarding pass?” she asked.

“I don’t have a boarding pass,” I told her. {I’d tried to check in online from my room but the system required a printer, which, of course, I didn’t have. I assumed I could do what I often do, get my boarding pass at the airport as I check my bag.}

The woman looked nonplussed. She reached down and grabbed a piece of paper and began scribbling on it. This didn’t alarm me. How many times have I stood in this kind of place and watched someone type in Moby Dick onto a keyboard while I waited. After a couple minutes she handed me the paper.

“Forty-five Euro’s,” she said. She pointed to a line behind me, the RyanAir ‘help’ desk. It was about 50 yards behind me. On the paper was a check mark next to some Spanish. After staring at it for a minute I realized I was required to pay $50 for ‘failure to check in online’. For just a second I thought to try to explain my situation to the woman (“I didn’t have a printer!) but one look at the scowling people behind me on line defeated my thought. Sheepishly I grabbed my bag/painting and drifted shamefacedly toward the RyanAir line.

There were a handful of people on this, new line. I waited. And waited. And waited. People on the help line have problems, problems that need the individual touch. RyanAir is not an “individual touch” kind of company. They function on the premise that “we have low prices, which means you’ll have to fight us for every nickel, and we’ll ultimately win because our lines will be so long and slow-moving that you’ll beg us to only charge you fifty bucks.” Behind a thin veil of material we line-stander’s could see a guy sitting, apparently doing nothing important–like opening up an additional line to help us.

It occurred to me that I could defeat the forces of entropy by registering right there on this line. I took out my tablet and found that there was free wifi! I went to the RyanAir email and attempted to check in. Ah, but it wasn’t to be that simple. For some reason the RyanAir website wasn’t accessible.

Just as I got to the front of the line the second guy opened up. He didn’t look happy. He glowered at me and spoke in heavily accented English through a small, round hole at eye level. With the noise of the terminal I couldn’t make out much of what he said, but I could still interpret his body language. I explained why I’d not checked in online. I showed him the failed link to the RyanAir website. Tough luck, he said–or rather his body language told me since I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

“You must check in online at least two hours before your flight, ” I heard him say.

“But it’s still nearly three hours till my flight,” I replied. I waved my tablet up for him to see that I, theoretically, had internet access.

He pointed down the terminal. “Information,” he intoned. I realized he was telling me to go the airport information. My hopes skyrocketed. Perhaps they could connect me properly to the wifi. With that maybe I could convince them to print my boarding pass.

I should add at this point that moving my bag/painting around the terminal was not simple. The plastic wrap prevented me from wearing the backpack. I had to drag the whole contraption 250 yards down the (thankfully slick) floors to the info desk.

“What’s your email address?” the guy asked me. At least he was relatively mellow, not smiling but not scowling either. I couldn’t figure out why he wanted my address but I quickly surrendered it. It was now two and three-quarters of an hour before my flight. I had 45 minutes to check in before the penalty kicked in.

The guy got up from his desk and went to his printer. In 30 seconds I had my boarding pass.

“You are my favorite person in the world,” I told him as I reached for my cumbersome baggage for the trip back to RyanAir check in.

This time the line was longer, maybe 25 people ahead of me, but I still had nearly 2.5 hours till take off, ample time to get through this line and through customs. My biggest problem was that I was intensely thirsty. I just wanted to get this over with so that I could find a place to buy some water. I waited………dragging my baggage step by agonizing step. In about 25 minutes I arrived back before the blond lady.

“Ah,” she exclaimed, “you have your boarding pass!?” She seemed confused. I’m sure she was trying to understand how I’d gotten it. I had no energy to explain it to her, and there were those impatient masses behind me on line.

Finally, when her quizzical look failed to fade I told her, “There was more than two hours till my flight so I was able to check in online.” Abashed, she apologized. I told her, essentially, “no problem.”

Then she grimaced. She handed me back my boarding pass. “You need stamp,” she said, sheepishly. At first I didn’t get it, but inevitably the realization hit me.

“No line,” she told me, suggesting that I needn’t stand on line for a third time, I could–once I had my stamp–move to the front of her line. Inside my head a voice spoke to me:  “You know that isn’t going to work. Those other people on line will not tolerate you cutting in, stamp or no stamp.”

I bent down and retrieved my bag from the stand and tried to wend my way through the waiting would-be passengers. There were so many now that I couldn’t immediately see the RyanAir help desk ahead. When I caught sight of it I shivered. There were at least 15 people ahead of me. And still only one window was open.

It was now 90 minutes till my flight. No need to detail the agonies of standing on that line for a second time. The only positive note was that–ten minutes after I joined the line–the queue grew exponentially after I got on. By the time I reached the front there were nearly 50 folks waiting behind me. I thanked the airport gods that I’d not tarried to buy some water before joining this group.

“Bam!” Down came the stamp. It took 15 seconds. The guy gazed resentful behind my back after I got to the front. He wasn’t going to waste any time talking with me. I had my stamp.

The bag was getting heavier. My throat was more parched, if that was possible.

I nosed my way towards the front of the check in line. i could see the blond lady ahead of me, but the noise and crowd made it impossible to speak to her. I prayed she would look up and recognize me. Meanwhile a family of six strode toward her, blocking any hope I had of nudging forward. My only hope was to wave to her from my walled-out location.

Then a guy in RyanAir dress strode toward my dreamed-of location and sat down, displacing my blond lady. In seconds it was done. Her shift was over; this guy was taking over. I waved frantically, but, of course, she didn’t notice. I watched sadly as she smilingly made her way through the crowds toward her Barcelona home.

I got back on a check in line, another 25 people ahead of me. By the time I got, again, to the front of this queue I had an hour till flight time. I worried about the next line, the security check and passport line. And there was still the matter or weight.

The rest is a happy story. Check in took seconds. No one cared about the weight of my bag. The security lines were fairly short. I made it to the plane with 15 minutes to spare.

Now would I be able to find somewhere to sleep at Dublin Airport since I had a twelve hour (midnight to noon) layover?


Monday, August 10, Barcelona

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The seemingly endless narrow boulevards of Barcelona. Shops and more shops all filled with the latest fashions.

The sounds of Barcelona:

The clickety-clack of the wheeled baggage of tourists flowing up the Rambla. It is very much like the water streaming out of a spring in some mountain except that this flow is upstream from the harbor. I couldn’t figure it out at first; where were they all coming from? Then I noticed a bus stop disgorging tourists and bags. But, still, I couldn’t decipher the ultimate source, till I took a small boat out on the harbor and saw the six gigantic cruise ships tied up to the docks. The number of tourists here is astounding. They/we pack the narrow streets gazing into the thousands of restaurants and shops.

Cha-ching, the sound of money flying out of your hands into those same restaurants and shops. Barcelona is, I’d wager, the most expensive place on Earth. A typical meal begins at $20, and most are double or triple that. Dresses in the shops, hotel rooms, souvenirs, all suck the Euro’s out of pockets at an alarming rate.

And the church bells. Like most of Catholic Spain this place is bestrewn with old churches. But the bells have competition from the roiling masses of people (mostly young) who occupy the streets from noon to the wee hours. My room is on one of the main tourist streets so my landlady helpfully supplies earplugs to new guests.

I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed my time here; too lonely now at the end of my trip. Tonight I board a plane for Dublin where I’ll sit for 12 hours waiting for my connection. Then I go to Copenhagen for another layover–21 hours–before heading for Newark. As with most of my trips I’ve reached the point where I look forward to home cooking.

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Friday, August 7, Barcelona, Spain after leaving Zaragoza, Spain

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The Ebro River flows through Zaragoza

I spent only a few hours in Zaragoza, a place of old churches and its most famous native son, Goya. There’s a good museum devoted to him here, which provided me with two or three hours of enjoyment. I discovered a ‘new’ painter, a woman named Menchu Gal, whose mastery of color is wonderful.

Wednesday, August 5, Ronda, Spain PART II

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This bridge is what brings thousands of tourists to this small Spanish city. It’s a LONG way down.

There is nothing to dislike in Ronda aside from the occasional surly waiter. The streets are immaculate, the hotels beautiful, the restaurant food is, understandably, expensive (but the food in the supermarkets is amazingly cheap), the weather is hot but not too hot. There are interesting museums and very old churches to look at. It’s a good place to visit.

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The view down from the bridge. There’s a river down there somewhere but this is August and it hasn’t rained for quite a while.

But as I said in my initial post from here, I have little energy for exploring. I did the requisite things, as my photos will attest, but without much gusto. Tomorrow I move on to Zaragoza, which–if I’m lucky–offers a kayak ride on the Ebro River if I can get there quickly enough.

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More of the river valley.

Wednesday, August 5, Ronda, Spain, PART I

{Walker} Percy’s diagnosis was that when we are mired in the everydayness of ordinary life, we are susceptible to what he called “the malaise,” a free-floating despair associated with the feeling that you’re not a part of the world or connected to the people in it….A real-world crisis can provide a respite from the malaise….Percy wrote in one of his essays. “Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” Part of the answer is that when a hurricane is about to hit, we no longer feel uncertain about our role in the world. Everyone is focused, connected, engaged. We know what we’re supposed to do, and we do it. (from Sunday’s NY Times Book Review section)

I think I need a hurricane.

I enjoyed Algeciras–or really I should say Gibraltar, which was my reason for being in Algeciras–but somehow I lost my way afterward. I’ve been in a malaise ever since. I haven’t even left my Airbnb-procured apartment today. I spent most of the day on the internet reading about Vivian Maier, drones, migrants in Lesbos, and assorted other topics. I’ve enjoyed myself but, of course, it brings up the question of why I’m not taking advantage of the exotic locale outside my window. It has always been my travel habit to take days off, to spend a day in Chichicastanengo or Abidjan reading. But that’s partially a rationalization. I am definitely in a funk, disinterested in real life.

I spent Sunday in Gibraltar, the Gates of Hercules. In seven hours of determined walking I circumnavigated the whole peninsula. I wanted to be there in part because of a memory of 1970.

By the winter of that year I had spent over three years in the navy:  one year in Chicago, one blissful year in Key West, and one year aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, CVA 67, aircraft carrier and floating hotel for 5,000 men. In the eleven months I’d spent on the JFK I’d seldom even sniffed the sea (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean that lapped up on our base in Norfolk, Virginia). When I hefted my duffle bag to the ship the previous winter she had been in dry dock. I didn’t get any actual sea time until late in the year. In fact, when we set sail for Guantanamo Bay in the fall it was my first real ocean voyage.

The day after we left Gitmo a rumor spread through the CIC room where I sat looking at a radar screen. Our presence was urgently needed in the Mediterranean Sea. The rumor-passer’s didn’t know why, just that we were going. And for once the rumor turned out to be true. My only memory or the trip was one night sitting in a little fenced in area beside the flight deck staring up at the millions of visible stars.

By the time we got to Gibraltar I was lying in my bunk below decks, so I never saw the lights of the Rock, or Morocco across the way. This time I wanted to see what I’d missed that November day in 1970.

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So I HAD to take a picture of these ordinary freighters leaving the Med.

The Brits stole this place from Spain in the early 17th century when the England was a growing super power and Spain was in decline. It was handed over “in perpetuity”, something the British took very literally. I learned while I was there that Britain cleverly granted Gibraltar representation in Parliament some years ago, before they held a referendum of the residents to see if they wanted to be handed back to Spain (they didn’t).

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A small fraction of the ongoing construction.

The place is a polyglot of languages (Spanish, English, and a unique tongue called Lanito); currencies (they’ll take pounds, euro’s or their own Gibraltar pounds); and cultures. The most mystifying thing to me is the extraordinary growth that is taking place. Everywhere you look there are apartment/condo buildings going up.

Who is going to live in these new apartments? Not spanish, I’m certain. That would only groove the way for reincorporation within the mainland. Certainly not the children of present residents. I assume it must be Brits looking for better weather. There are few jobs here so, again, I’ll assume the newbies will be retiring citizens of the British Empire. The peninsula does resemble Hong Kong with its multitude of high rises within a confined area. Maybe Gibraltar will be the new Hong Kong.

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I sat down for a rest on my walk up the mountain when I turned around to see this guy staring hungrily at me. He knew enough to position himself bestride the stairway where any food-carrying human would need to go.

One of the big tourist draws are macaque monkeys. There is a large colony of them who live on the two mountains. You can imagine how this impacts tourists. There are signs everywhere asking that you not feed the monkeys, a suggestion that is honored more in the breach than the observance. The animals are not the cute, cuddly creatures you might wish for. They are the greedy, resentful thugs you’d expect to see in any wild animal.

The real prize was to get one to sit on your shoulder while you fed him/her candy or bread. One guy wearing a backpack stood near a big male bruiser. Deftly the monkey reached out and snatched the bag from his shoulder quick as you can say ‘lunch’. But humans have their instincts, too. The human grabbed his possessions back before the monkey could get away. The whole scene felt to me like a cold war between the food-rich homo sapiens and their food-desirous ancestors.

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Even empty candy wrappers might be of interest.
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Mom and baby macacque
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It took me a long time to climb to the top so I’ll be darned if I’ll omit at least one picture of the harbor taken from the tourist aerie.