Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Barcelona - A City and a Book

Yes, I'm back from my extended, ambitious vacation which took Don and me to 4 countries and 9 cities in 14 days. Whew! Of course, I had big plans to blog my way around the Mediterranean but you know what they say about "the best laid plans of mice and men." A nasty respiratory infection and a terrible wireless Internet connection squashed my plans at travel writing.

Several people, including my sister and my library director, upon hearing that I was headed to Barcelona, had recommended The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I admit I had not heard of him before, yet now his name seems to come up in casual conversation every time I turn around. Isn't it odd how that happens? Between us I believe that Don and I carted about 10 books onto the cruise ship. This was the only one I finished! We even took a self-guided "shadow of the wind walking tour" through the Bari Gothic section of the city where much of the action in the book took place. Apparently this novel really put Barcelona on the map - a much deserving city in my opinion.

Every time I travel I'm reminded once again of how very important it is to get out of one's comfort zone and see the world as it really is and not how the news media would have us believe. I consider myself pretty well-traveled and open to new places and scenes but I still didn't expect Spain to be such a beautiful, modern country and a delightful blending of the ancient and the new. Barcelona reminded me a great deal of Paris with its lovely, wide, tree lined boulevards criss crossing the city. Separate, safe bike paths encourage folks to reduce emissions and stay healthy. You can pick up a bike at selected places in the city for a euro, unlock it, ride it all over the city and drop it off at any other designated spot. What a concept. I've heard that Paris has implemented this as well. There are special lanes just for buses and taxis and it goes without saying that public transportation is alive and well and efficient all through Europe. We used it everywhere when we weren't walking and managed to make ourselves understood in Spanish, French and Italian over the course of the two weeks. One doesn't need to be an expert to be appreciated for the effort and, damn, it feels good!

We had one rather ironic incident in a museum (Napoleon's birthplace and childhood home) in Corsica. After perusing three floors of information and reading the explanatory signs in our passable French, we came to a guest book. The person who signed before us had written a diatribe about the fact that "for heaven's sake, the signs should be in ENGLISH!" Hmmmm...We cracked up and proceeded to write a complimentary comment in our best high school French. I just knew in my heart that this anonymously indignant person was most likely from our cruise ship and would be the same person who would write to the News-Press complaining that Hispanics don't try hard enough to speak English. Nothing bi-lingual in America, please, just everywhere else!

Anyway, back to the Zafon book. It's difficult to describe this unusual novel. One word that comes to mind is atmosphere. It's one of those that I suspect people will either love or hate right out of the gate. Barcelona is definitely the main character; not the wide tree-lined streets described above, but the dark, seedy, mysterious labyrinth of alleyways that are home to the less fortunate denizens of the city, circa 1945. Nothing draws in a librarian like the promise of a story about a widowed antiquarian book dealer who initiates his lonely son into the world of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. When our young Daniel, allowed to choose one book for his own, picks a long lost novel by Julian Carax, an author around whom a shadowy legend has been born, the novel is off and running. Unrequited love, shifty politics, class wars and some very sly social commentary all combine to make this novel a great read.


Infobabe said...

I recommended that book to a patron who needed a book for her book discussion group. The last couple of people had picked real stinkers and she was afraid that if her choice were bad the group would disband. The patron liked books with a metaphysical undercurrent. I had enjoyed this book so I hoped she would. She reported back that her group loved it. The group remains intact.

Catphile said...

SallyB: I really enjoyed this entry, it made me feel as if I was part of the tour. Thanks for describing both the book & the city, they each sound fascinating.