How I Spent My Sumer Vacation (or, Is That a Selfie Stick or are You Just Glad to See Me?) 9

Awhile back, Liz and I decided we’d escape Austin’s heat and crowds by going on vacation. I suggested Barcelona, which explains why I am not a travel planner. At any rate, we just back from a week there and I wanted to share what I learned.

selfieLet me say up front that, before this trip, I knew absolutely nothing about Barcelona—not even where it’s located. Like many of my countrymen, I am largely ignorant of history, geography, and world politics (in my defense, however, I seem to know a lot more than the average European about Game of Thrones memes).

If you look at a map, it appears that Barcelona is situated in Spain. If you ask a native, however, he or she will unfailingly tell you it is located in Catalonia, not far from France and way too close to Madrid (full disclosure: a month ago, I though Catalonia was a psychiatric disorder).

Catalonians are justifiably proud of their distinct culture, history and traditions and can get very prickly when lumped in with the rest of Spain. In this respect, they’re much like Austinites, who resent being lumped in with the rest of Texas. There are two big differences, however – their pride is justifiable, and they don’t pat themselves on the back for being “weird.”

A big part of Catalonian culture is the language, Catalan. It is at the same time distinctive yet indescribable – but imagine an idiom that sounds like a conflation of Spanish, French, and Italian spoken by Sylvester the Cat and you will have a pretty fair idea.

I found out that Barcelona is a huge tourist magnet, visited by more than 30 million people a year. And at any point during our stay, half of those were ahead of us waiting for a table at a tapas bar. The other half could be found at Antoni Gaudí’s other-wordly masterwork, La Sagrada Família, wandering through the arboreal columns and bathing in the magical light looking for just the right background for their Facebook profile photo.

Speaking of selfies, no account of Barcelona is complete without mentioning the ubiquitous selfie stick. They are apparently handed out, one per person, at the airport and we seemed to be the only people in the entire city without one. I used to bemoan how many people in Texas carry guns, but after our trip I truly believe we’re getting the better deal.

Speaking of tourists, most of them in Barcelona appear to be Japanese. The men are easy to spot – they’re the ones sitting down two abreast on the subway escalator, fanning themselves with a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Barcelona. The women are even easier to identify; their ensembles invariably comprise a long, flowy dress paired with a big, floppy hat and capped off with a surgical mask. If you can’t picture this, just imagine a cross between Stevie Nicks and Michael Jackson.

Barcelona is also renowned for its food – especially tapas. What started out as bar snacks has, over time, evolved into an entire, sophisticated cuisine. There are many theories about the origin of tapas, but most experts trace them back to an inn-keeper, his name lost to the ages, who realized he could unload all his crusty bread heels and yesterday’s leftovers by giving them a fancy name and charging un brazo y una pierna for them.


  1. Well I certainly know what Catalonia’s are. I’m from Oklahoma and Rush Springs grows some of the best around. I love the way Europeans seem to love to divide themselves into ever smaller ethnic groups. Reminds me of a cartoon I saw after Czechoslovakia was divided into The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Well that’s the end of that ethnic conflict right? The cartoon showed two protesting groups converging on an intersection. One group carried signs saying “Free Slo” and the other “Independence for Vakia” Oh well glad you and Catalonia survived your visit. Free Austin…Independent South Austin… give me an independent 704 or give me no food trucks!

  2. When I worked for the Texas Employment Commission we had a Spanish interpreter who also translated Catalan poetry. He would read some of the religious – themed verses when we had a break. It was . . . Interesting. I also learned from him that Catalonia has a Christmas tradition called El Cagador — The Pooper — which is a figure in all their nativity displays of a man pooping. Fritz explained that El Cagador resembles figures found in the area dating back to the Bronze Age, ascribed to some religious function, but I rather doubt that. I think the Catalans found a way to make the world’s best poop joke and keep it going for centuries.

  3. It’s been about 20 years since I was in Bar-the-lona, but it appears (from your account) not much has changed. As you know, our time in Europe overlapped. In Italy the only people I noticed using sefie sticks were people travelling on their own. Then there was this one older Chinese guy who spoke no English or Italian and who I guess was travelling alone because he gestured for me to take a picture of him using his full-sized iPad (evidently they don’t make selfie sticks that accommodate that device!). I did and handed it back. He promptly checked it and didn’t like the way I framed the shot and tried to explain in Chinese how he wanted it to look. I took a couple more shots and he waved at me in way that seemed to say, “I guess that’ll have to do.” How do you say “Whatever, dude!” in Mandarin?

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