Watching the view of the bay appear out of night into a grey and rose morning was calming. I started with the good buffet and the huge café con leche and then walked down stairs to the beach from the esplanade to make footprints on the sand. There were people in the water, astonishing considering the temperature; I was wearing a jacket. They were in regular bathing suits, although some were in wet suits but I could tell by the way the wet suits shifted about that their feet were uncomfortably cold. Many of the women in swimsuits were topless. I would have worn a wool sweater into the water over my topped bathing suit. A tough crowd these northerners.
There were lots of dogs, some in, some out, of the water. A small, Jack Russell type, in a red and white overcoat was wildly enthusiastic and tried to induce his fellows to express similar exuberance, but they were much more blasé about the sand and sea experience.
I went back up to the esplanade and walked over to the museum, passing a shop with the kind of hair fasteners that are difficult to find in Barcelona since the little store in the Boulevard Rosa Mall on Pasig de Gracia closed. The two women who ran it wore every kind of hair ornament transforming themselves into exotically crested birds behind their counter’s plethora of combs, barrettes, ponytail clasps, feathers and rhinestone clips. I miss them. The little shop I was peering into wasn’t open yet.
At the San Telmo Museum I wandered through an exhibit of etchings, engravings, paintings and drawings of Monte Urgull starting in the 16th century and ending in the 19th with the beginning of photography, showing from the shore Santa Clara and Urgull. The views portrayed were amazingly consistent. It didn’t seem that any artist had thought to move more that three feet in either direction or go out in a boat to sketch. This wasn’t what I had come to see but I continued to count on serendipity, which didn’t happen.
I then went upstairs to an exhibit of photos by Fernando Postigo Silva, a photo journalist, recording social and political agitation in the Basque area from 1977 to 2001—strikes, riots, demonstrations and terrorist attacks. This was educational because I know practically nothing about the Basque protests but there were many, many photographs, all relatively small and since I did not recognize most of the names it quickly became a blur. There were a lot of politicians, police and funerals. It was an amazing record.
But by now I had spent over two hours wandering, looking, but not seeing what I had come to see. I looked at the map they had given me at reception. I saw the section I wanted but could not figure out where it was. I went to reception and asked.
Since there were very few people in the museum they kindly led the elderly foreigner to the door, which was just outside the exhibit of views of Mont Urgull. I had seen it but since it seemed to lead outside I had ignored it.
My guide brought me into a cloister off of which was a church filled with dimly lit, enormous paintings, of enormous, striving figures. A bell went off in my head muffled by the passage of many years. Sensing my enthusiasm for what I saw, my guide said they were by Sert, the name rang no bell I am ashamed to say, and that there was a guide in English she would get for me.
I stood in the church with three other people gazing up at gigantic canvases on which huge men, sometimes women, performed all kinds of physical labor. The bell got louder. My guide brought me a pamphlet in English and French. I read the first paragraph of information but it didn’t help.
The huge laboring men over my head slowly focused into familiarity. I thought, “These are like the figures in the murals at Rockefeller Center. “ I did, however, associate the figures with Diego Rivera. But the penny didn’t drop until I came home to the hotel and Googled, “murals Rockefeller Center.”
The murals are by José Maria Sert (1874-1945) who replaced Diego Rivera as the painter in the downstairs lobby of Rockefeller Center after Rockefeller fired Rivera objecting to the portrait of Lenin Rivera had incorporated into his mural and refused to paint out. I was reunited with a forgotten acquaintance from New York City. Since Sert was pro Franco he and Rockefeller must have gotten along well. Interestingly it was John Rockefeller Jr.’s wife, Abby, who suggested Rivera.
The canvases are full of physical power, the figures arranged rhythmically without much interest in individuals. The work is monochromatic making it more concentrated in it power. If he had worked with a variety of colors it would have been distracting. These are monumental, dynamic and visceral canvases but there is certainly irony in the fact that Sert, not a supporter of the workingman, produced paintings full of epic figures of laborers—ironworkers, fisherman, shipbuilders. Humans are strange. But it is a stirring experience to be in the cavern of that church surrounded by massive paintings of men straining at all kinds of physical labor. Sert’s nephew, Josep Lluis Sert, is a famous contemporary architect.
By the way, should you go bring opera glasses. It will enable you to see details otherwise lost to height and dimness.
Now over three hours into my museum experience I was beginning to flag but I walked up a staircase that displayed rubbings of old gravestones before taking the elevator to the top floor and finding the painting collection. I decided to have a walk through and come back the next day. As I said to the ladies at the front desk as I left, they have at least two museums.
I cast a brief glance at a portrait of King Philip III, a Mary Magdalena by Tintoretto, three El Greco’s and around the corner a little Ruben’s Madonna and child. On the floor below were modern paintings and below that a floor of medieval armor and swords preceded by Neolithic stone bits. Then there were all sorts of byways with displays of everything from head ornaments for men and women to agricultural implements. By this time I was sagging badly.
I left the museum and fumbled my way to the Maria Christina, a 19th century dowager duchess of a hotel. I wandered its high ceilinged corridors for an appealing restaurant when, to my astonishment, I saw a decorous—everything in the Maria Christina is decorous—sign declaring Saigon Café.
One of my few complaints about Spain is that it is impossible to find good SE Asia food here. This is because the Spanish are, generally, as horrified by spicy food as many English. Any restaurant in the Maria Christina was going to be good, so I felt I could bet on the quality of the meal. Around me were groups of friends and families slurping up glass noodles with aplomb and looking eagerly under the bamboo latticework of steaming basket lids at pale, plump pillows of dim sum.
The menu was eclectic including Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. I ordered from my chubby waiter, whose nationality I couldn’t decide on, Tom Yum Gung, a spicy, superb Thai soup with shrimp and mushrooms and duck curry, which was the Vietnamese rather than the Thai edition of the dish. That is not a criticism. Rather than the watery, bland perversion of Tom Yum Gung I am served in Barcelona, I received a bowl of steaming soup glowing with droplets of red oil, that with its full-bodied spicy broth loosened my sinuses. The duck dish was so large I could not finish it. I apologized to my plump waiter and told him that I was, at this point going to switch countries and have a café con leche. My remark made him giggle which made me decide he must be Thai.
Thai men giggle. It is not a chortle. It is a giggle. This can drive a foreigner to teeter on the lip of insanity, or homicide under certain circumstances—i.e. trying to find out about a parcel in a Thai post office. It usually erupts out of embarrassment, in that case the embarrassment of having to speak English. But I like the giggle because it is to me a signal that Thai men are allowed freedoms Western men are prohibited.
When I first traveled in the East I was amazed at how men were interested in fabrics, not just male suit fabric. I went to have two out fits made by a Nepali tailor in Kathmandu. There is a lot of unemployment in that town and one of the places to hang out is a tailor’s. The men gathered around, admired my fabrics—two pieces of silk—and wanted to know what I planned to have made. They gave full endorsement to the proposed designs. I was amazed, since I come from a culture where men do not have the freedom to enjoy that kind of beauty and creativity.
Men are told in most cultures that they have the freedom to do whatever they want. No they don’t. I, of course, know primarily about American culture which keeps men, particularly those less educated, with less money in their trouser pocket and less knowledge of the world in a narrow trench where they are allowed hard work, violence, guns, alcohol in quantity but not tenderness, or to admire beauty in anything much beyond a nude mammal calendar picture, or to explore different kinds of music or dance, certainly not poetry. Prisoners of the limitations of their class, chained to a denial of all but a few emotions, shackled by fear of not being “real men” they are told all the time how free they are. I am probably exaggerating, but not a great deal. As one moves up the economic scale there is a little more freedom but it is never large.
I taught a poetry class once in a high school in a small town in Nebraska. (This was during my personal diaspora when I taught all over the US driving back and forth across the country 10 times in six years.) In this particular class there was a giant of a young man, tall, strongly built who when he heard he was going to have to try to write a poem started to gibber all kinds of sneering comments about poetry and people who wrote it. He was in fact having a hysterical fit of fear at the thought of even attempting such a task. His regular teacher with resignation written all over her face took him off to the library. I thought probably he should have been taken to the gym where he understood things.
There was one young man, intelligent and quiet, also a giant, who wrote a good poem. I praised him in front of the class for his performance and realized half way through my first adulatory sentence that I should not be doing this. He was not happy at being praised. Indeed, he looked grim. I realized I had enabled people to tease him for the next week.
Being asked to write poetry creates a threat to your manhood in the middle of America. Manhood is easily destroyed in red states.
The next day was Sunday and the museum was closed so I walked down the beach, and joining with another woman headed in the same direction, climbed a stair, whose metal grill steps were embedded with mussels, to find the gate to the esplanade was tied shut. Again there were people swimming and a small fleet of sunfish whose white sails were pretty as cast off petals against the blue green sea.
My intent was to walk around Mount Urgull. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was the promenade of choice among the citizens of San Sebastián on a Sunday. There are expansive ocean views on one hand and precipitous rock on the other. One comes out near the Maria Christina Hotel. I had a moment of temptation to have another SE Asian lunch but friends had given me the names of a few restaurants in the old town so I decided I would find one.
I turned back toward the old town and after working with the paper map, which has the advantage of not suddenly changing direction, and Google maps, which flips this way and that causing my dyslexic brain much distress, I found the restaurant E and K had suggested, Janito Kojua. I had a good fish soup but it was not as deep flavored as I had hoped, and rice with little clams, which was excellent. The restaurant itself has a warm ambience, reflected in its rather motherly staff and is calm. My waitress when she saw I had left a third of my rice oozed the sad but resigned disapproval of a mother who has done her best for a picky child.
I walked more after lunch totting up 9 kilometers. Then I went home to the hotel and had a long talk with my grandson in NYC, always a happy event.