Bright light and a dose of dark reality

Early spring in Europe teeters on the edge of gloom and light. Some days live sideways, with cold wind bowing trees and pushing cloud banks — those days look back to winter. But then, the gentle relief of blue gaps above, still puddles below, and blossoms popping against stony walls. This shaky duality makes travel unpredictable, so it’s important to choose wisely; I’m convinced that Barcelona is one of the best places to be when something messes with your plans.

In cities laced with leaded glass and glazed ceramic, spring is really grand. In Barcelona, you can catch the light show at the top Art Nouveau sites: Sagrada Familia, Palau de la Musica, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Although admission is NOT cheap, the expense is absolutely worthwhile. You must make sure you’re on the right side of the stained glass when the sun comes out.

Even when the setting turns dim and mousy, clever geometry makes the most of the shadows. The Modernists were nothing if not inventive, but I think it’s their strange brand of whimsy that divides the Catalan crew from Belgium’s Horta and company. The champagne bottle chimneys, dragon scale shingles, and vaulted spines of stately attics are like relics of an aristocratic fairyland, somewhere the fancy creatures go to lay their bones.

After a jaunt through Gaudi’s dreams, you’re bound to bump into everyday Barcelona, the one that’s taut with Catalan-Spanish discord, yet welcoming and generous to tourists. We were glad for the hospitality, especially on the morning of our departure.

“Did you hear about the explosion?” the German lady asked with concern before we managed to take our seats at the breakfast table.

“No…” It was around eight o’clock in the morning. We had talked about coffee. We had heard about nothing.

“Brussels Airport,” a London accent joined in, “they think it was a bomb”.

Groan. A sinking heart, racing mind, and a sobering look at the news as we put our heads together to figure out a way back home. After we made contact with friends and colleagues back in Belgium, our gracious hosts helped to calm our nerves, and we accepted the fact that we were stuck in Spain while Brussels suffered the fallout of a terrorist attack.

It’s difficult to complain about staying longer in Barcelona. We wouldn’t have caught the flamenco show at the Palau had we left when we were supposed to, nor would we have been able to eat at Casa Lolea for the third time in a row. On the other hand, being marooned anywhere for a terrifying reason twists your mood, not to mention your conversation. We caught ourselves tackling social questions and the consequences of hypothetical events over tapas and sangria, trying to negotiate vacation and reality.

Frankly, I’m not sure how well we did. It was a strange and nervous experience, one that continued as we train-hopped for 13 hours to get home. Being close to massive trauma is surely not the same as experiencing the trauma in person, but I now realize just how much your proximity to an event can alter your response to it. I’m a Canadian living in Belgium, but I felt more Belgian than ever before in that first week of spring.