"Election day in Barcelona

I got in the habit of telling people we were going to Barcelona so we wouldn’t have to suffer through the elections here at home. This wasn’t exactly true — I’m not capable of planning that far ahead. I booked the tickets for the first week of November because I was told the tourist season in Spanish Catalonia would be over by then and I could get a better deal.

But as the weeks went by and the campaigns heated up, I found myself looking forward to being able to put some distance between myself and the smorgasbord of empty calories that constitutes most American election coverage. You know what I mean. When we got on the plane, things had descended to the point where John Kerry’s making a stupid remark about how if you got a good education you could do well in life, whereas if you didn’t make the grade you’d wind up in Iraq had been the subject of “in-depth analysis” for almost 24 hours.

The pinstriped yakkers on TV were beside themselves, going on about what this meant. Kerry, who wasn’t actually running for anything, apologized for his tone-deaf sense of humor. Republicans said his remark showed how little Democrats thought of our soldiers.

I wished in vain that somebody would point out that what was really out of touch about what Kerry said was his obsolete assumption that a supposedly good education means you “do well” in life. Ask a history major or a philosophy major about the job market. Economic indicators suggest that the generation in college today may be the first to look forward to a lower standard of living than their parents. This, in spite of the fact that when you look at what’s besetting the world these days you could make a pretty good case that what’s needed aren’t more plastic surgeons, but people with a better grasp of what we’ve done to the planet and the excuses we’ve made to tell ourselves we couldn’t help it.

So the prospect of going someplace where no one was running for anything and, if they were, I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me was fine as far as I was concerned.

At nine o’clock at night in Barcelona this city of 1.5 million people is just sitting down to dinner. That’s one of the first things you notice after arriving — the different way the Spanish divide their days and, especially, their nights. Most full service restaurants are closed until the stroke of nine. And after that, they’re packed.

They’re not just crowded with young scenesters, either. You see people of all ages, including families with school age kids. It seems as if everybody’s out and about, enjoying city life, which means nightlife. That, after all, is what ultimately differentiates living in a city from the country: all the illuminated action that takes place after dark.

Barcelonans appear to love going out and walking around their town. Indeed, one of the city’s main thoroughfares is called the Rambla, which strikes an English-speaking ear as chiming pretty nicely with ramble, which is what you’re meant to do here. Orwell wrote about the Rambla in his memoir about the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia. In his book about the city, Robert Hughes observes that a lot of Barcelona design seems pitched to eye level, which only tends to reinforce the notion that getting out can be a feast, even if you have no particular place to go and nothing special to do. The broadest part of the Rambla, the middle, is closed to motor vehicles; a pedestrian can cruise it for blocks and blocks.

It struck me, though, that a factor contributing to Barcelona’s lively nocturnal scene is the almost willfully inept state of its local TV. Concepts like prime time or Appointment TV seem not to exist here. Local broadcasting looks just a little better than what we know as public access. People sit behind desks and talk with one another for long stretches. When you think they’re about to take a break, they draw a breath and plunge on. Otherwise, there’s a mélange of shows — mostly American reruns and old movies dubbed in various languages — from other European countries along with international versions of MTV (you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a few minutes of South Park in Deutsche) and CNN. I actually saw a commercial for socks.

Of course, it was CNN International that brought us the news of what finally happened in the elections here at home. They reported that corruption had emerged as the issue most cited by voters in exit polls. Yes, something was rotten about our politics, and the smell had finally made its way into every state in the union. It took a long time, but even in states like Indiana, where people tend to think of government as a force of nature they can’t really do anything about, they were feeling this need to say, “Stop making things worse!”

What a relief. We turned the TV off and went down to the street. We were hungry and, for a change, it didn’t seem late at all.




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