Friday, October 21, 2016

Barcelona, Back To Texas, Viewing The Ruins

The room might not have been great, but Barcelona still was. I only had the afternoon to do all the things I'd planned, if I could beat back the drumbeat of the oncoming chaos I was sure would greet me in Texas. One thing I knew: I'd need some new clothes, because I wouldn't have access to mine for a while. Anyway, all the weight I'd lost in the past year meant all the pants I had that fit me -- two pairs of regular ones and one of Levi 501s -- were in my suitcase. I had the Levis on. They'd need washing soon.

I've always like the clothing I'd seen in the high-end Spanish shops along the Paseig de Gracia and, indeed, on some of the Spanish men walking along the street, so, since it was nearby, I went over to the Corta Inglés, the giant department store one sees all over Spain, to see what it offered. It was much like any other department store except that it had Spanish stuff (and, of course, a giant supermarket in the basement, the only part of the store I'd ever been to). The guy at the Hugo Boss boutique on the men's floor even suggested I look at Spanish brands, which were just what I wanted, as it turned out, and considerably cheaper than what brands I can get in Austin like Ralph Lauren and Boss and so on were offering. Two shirts and a pair of pants later, I had what I needed. I'm not a shopping-as-therapy kind of guy, but it did feel good to know that I wouldn't be naked in Austin.

And yes, I did head to the basement to pick up three cans of olives stuffed with anchovies and a couple of cans of Spanish tuna. I'm not a complete idiot.

And, as is my custom, I had my last dinner in town at the always-wonderful Nou de Granados, one of my favorite restaurants: a nice salad, and oxtails in a wine reduction on a pillow of truffled mashed potatoes, garnished with potato chips. Don't sneer at potato chips in Spain: they're a great example of the virtue of simplicity. I can't eat many because of the diabetes, but when they're perfectly crisp and greaseless but redolent of fine Spanish olive oil -- as these and many I was offered at bars were -- they put Lay's and the like to shame.

The next morning I woke early, had a decent breakfast downstairs in the hotel and grabbed a cab to the airport. Barcelona to Paris Charles de Gaulle (the hellish Terminal 2) to Atlanta to Austin. I was lucky: not only had I bought economy plus fare (recommended for large or tall people and/or people with legs, not to mention those of us who've experienced lower vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism as the result of a long flight), but it was a Tuesday, so not that many people were travelling, and I had no seatmate. Air France has a fairly crappy selection of films (unless you've always wanted to see The Angry Birds Movie with Arabic subtitles), so I had lots of time to read and think.

Something that's always annoyed me about the menu at the Nou has been the silly errors in the English translation, in particular "backed" for "baked." If I lived in Barcelona, I'd offer to edit their menu in exchange for a bottle of wine or something. (They've also confused "cherries" with "cherry tomatoes," the former of which one doesn't really hope to see in the Caesar salad -- and doesn't) But something Miguel had said in Madrid clicked in my head. He'd noted that Franco had suppressed the teaching of languages during his reign. I knew he'd suppressed Catalán and Basque and Valencian because he rightly feared that allowing them would lead to nationalism, but apparently all foreign languages were ignored until the university level, when it's arguably harder to learn a new tongue. So unlike Germany or France, elementary school kids didn't start adding languages until after Franco was gone.

Of course, this was just the end-point of the story I'd been living in for the past couple of weeks: in 1492, Spain expelled its mathematicians, physicians, philosophers, navigators, businessmen, bankers and intellectuals -- ie, its Arabs and Jews -- turning the country into a land of peasants under the mighty heel of an autocratic church and its Inquisition and a bloated and not very intelligent class of aristocrats, up to and including the royal family.

King Fernando VII, by Goya (detail). Does this look like a reasonable man? An intelligent one? Right on both counts, and obviously Goya detested him.
By the time Spain revolted and threw out the Inquisition in the early 19th century, it had missed the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and had to import British and German workers to ramp up their technology. Fortunately, those workers did a great job -- and the Germans taught the Spaniards how to make good beer and sausages. To this day, a Frankfurt is a Spanish joint featuring beer and sausages! But the progress was halted again with the appearance of Fascism in the 20th century: it wasn't until 1974 that the transition to democracy -- and cultural freedom -- began, which is why the vibe of post-Communist Berlin is still noticeable in the air.

Spanish design of the '60s and '70s: a collection of SEAT automobiles in the Valencia train station. 

I think this explains a lot about Spain, and why it appeals to me: the process of discovery of new possibilities is still in the air, the Catalan secession movement may not succeed, but, like the Scottish one, may force some interesting and needed change, and the arts and the young people who make them, are still charging ahead.

* * *

Meanwhile, I was on an Air France flight back to a country where, for the first time in its history, it was being challenged by an overtly Fascist candidate in a Presidential election. And, on a more personal level, I was returning to a house that was unlivable and many possessions that had been destroyed, including materials I'd need for my next book. To soften the blow, I rented two nights in the most reasonable hotel I could find, actually a big B&B in Travis Heights that I found on the Hotel Tonight app. The first night, I just crashed, destroyed by 20 hours of flying and changing planes, including two hellish airports, CDG Terminal 2 and Atlanta, where CNN is blaring at an unreasonable volume out of the sound system. The next day, a friend and I went to see what was left of my house. 

It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't as bad as I feared. 

Looking from the living room into the office: the toilet that exploded was in the bathroom whose entry is seen on the left. 

These giant honking dehumidifying fans were everywhere. The electric bill will be stupendous, but I do believe the damage will be far less because of them.
Not a great picture, but a lot of stuff was saved. 
My landlord was great: he sprung into action and got a company involved that specializes in this kind of rescue. Despite my lack of renters insurance, his insurance covers the packing and storage of the contents of the house until it can be rebuilt. (Presumably they also bring the stuff back, too). The company gave me the weekend to take what I wanted for the period ahead, which, jetlagged and just a bit traumatized, I sort of did. I checked into the Extended Stay America on the corner of W. 6th and Guadelupe for a week, and arranged for a Facebook friend's airbnb to be my home for a month after that. Heaven knows if the renovation will be done by then; the landlord says the construction folks say it'll be ready by Thanksgiving, but he thinks mid-December is more likely. Whatever. All I can do is take it a day at a time, passively waiting for word.

Eventually, there'll be dealing with Austin Water and the electric company. On November 6, I'll be on a panel at the Texas Book Festival with Joe Nick Patoski and David Dunton, my agent, talking about writing about music from two viewpoints: biographical (Joe Nick's specialty) and historical (mine) and how the two approaches do in the marketplace. It's free, and I'll be signing some early copies of both the rock and roll history and the Michael Bloomfield book. If you're in town, drop by. If you can't make it then, there'll be a rock and roll history release party at Book People on the 19th.

* * *

This hotel I'm writing this in is a circle of hell, and I'll be glad to be shut of it in a couple of days (the parent corporation has been pestering me with e-mails for my thoughts, and boy are they going to get them!), but when I moved in, I decided to try an experiment. Downtown Austin, in the 20 years I spent in Europe, changed utterly and completely. It's like aliens dropped an entire new city onto a few square miles, but I decided to try a little experiment while I'm here and spend as much time walking and looking at the new city as I could. There are primitive cooking facilities in the hotel, and there's the Whole Foods corporate mothership within walking distance, again making it my neighborhood supermarket like it was 30 years ago (except in a different location and with about a dozen times the floor-space). Waterloo Records and Book People are also at 6th and Lamar, and there are loads of new high-rises and boutiques and restaurants scattered all through the west downtown and what the property developers call the "warehouse district," which, yes, it used to be. 

There's been much talk during the development of this of a "revitalized downtown" and a "walkable city" and how much revenue the property taxes will bring the city. I had lunch with a lifelong Austinite who used to live downtown yesterday, and his views were very interesting. "When I was down here," which was in the '70s and '80s, "the residential population of downtown was between 1000 and 2000. Now it's more like 20,000," although another friend had noted that many of the new buildings are 30% empty because they're used as second residences or "investments." I mentioned to my friend that as I'd walked the streets -- something not too many other people seemed to be doing -- I'd noticed that not only the people I'd seen, but the whole way the residences were marketed, were young, rich, and white. The boutiques also slanted that way, and certainly the restaurants did. (Many are parts of luxury chains with branches in upscale parts of California, Arizona, and elsewhere in Texas, and there's a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse not far from my hotel). 

"Yeah," he said, "there was a lot of talk about rentals and a certain percentage of affordable housing, but in practice the way that plays out is that the renters of the affordable spaces live there for a while and then get offered enticing buy-outs so the developers can up the prices or condominiumize the place. As for the places that are already condos, they're hit and miss." He pointed out a couple that are pretty full, and indeed there's one particularly hideous one near me that's all lit up at night with just about every unit seeming to be full. Others, though, especially some of the more expensive ones, don't seem to be much occupied at night. Still, they keep building them and advertising luxury. Certainly West 6th, which is the thoroughfare I'm on and which I walk daily, is lined by very upscale bars (and a few corpses of failed ones), in contrast to East 6th, which has been party central for ages, and attracts frat boys and sorority girls to bars where the aim is to get blotto. West 6th isn't much different, but I sense that the bars are more expensive here. Offering valet parking for $6 to $10, which you won't see on the other side of Congress Avenue, they seem tonier, the patrons better-dressed and maybe more seniors and MBA candidates or law-school types than on the other side. It's comforting that UT's jeunesse dorée has its own blotto-toria. 

As for the restaurants, I've found very few I'd want to return to. An exception is Lambert's, which has made a workable gimmick out of very good barbeque served in a fine dining context. But even there, the sheet listing the day's specials included a $27 shot of bourbon. As I remarked to a friend last night, for three times that you could probably buy an entire bottle of it. And Manuel's is doing a good job with upscale Mexican food, which needn't be as expensive as you'd think. The service bordered on servile when I was there, but it's usually a good bet. 

It's a cliché for old Austinites to lament what's passed, but to me, there's change and there's change. I'd be a lot more in favor of the new downtown if it were more racially, economically, and culturally inclusive. It's not. I love the idea of waking up what was a wasteland of auto parts shops, printing supplies, and derelict spaces, but it looks like greed had far more to do with it than I'm comfortable with. Imagine that. 

And yet, and yet... One of my favorite memories of West 6th was the spring day I had lunch at Hut's Hamburgers (still there! -- although now paired with an inedible pizza joint) and was walking back to my car, crossing the small bridge over Shoal Creek, and saw a mother turtle plodding down the creekside, with five or six youngsters following her. The other day, I was walking back from Whole Foods on the other side of the street and saw something by the creek. I stopped and held my breath: a heron, four feet tall, was stalking down the creek. It was a really magnificent bird, and I edged closer to the side of the sidewalk to look at it. A Type 1 jogger, togged out in expensive sportswear with some sort of phone/music player strapped to his bicep, swooshed past, hissing "Thanks" as he went by. I didn't do it for you, man. But I'd do it for a few seconds more with that bird. Anytime. 

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