Born standing up

25 February 2010

Church & bridge of San Antón, oldest in Bilbao. Via carpantillo (flikr).

Anywhere worth going to in Spain will already be crowded by the time you get there. This is partly because bars (in Basque Country, in Andalucía, in Catalunya) are shoebox-sized conflagrations of smoke (filled, depending on where you are, with bartop trays of pintxos, or forested with hanging legs of cured jamón, festooned with strings of garlic & dried peppers, or there are giant barrels of wine with metal spouts, or painted tile, espresso machines . . . ) — they’re standing room only, usually, and often people spill out in knotted groups into the narrow medieval streets, even in the light Basque rain, & stand holding beers or crianza.

But it’s mostly because eating & drinking in Spanish cities is a complicated dance that takes place on a mysteriously shifting intersection of place & time. I don’t just mean the comparative rigidity of the midday meal, la comida, when the streets empty out & the siesta is sacred, because really that’s truer in Andalucía than anywhere else (here in Bilbao, shockingly, I’ve seen stores open at 3 pm. It must be a northern thing.)

No, I mean that streets themselves change, they are modular & fluid. The steel shutters that close the stores rise & fall, the signs are lit or unlit, terraces laid out & bright or else stacked & chained, so that wandering the old towns you are even more lost at night than you used to be, nothing looks the same as it did that morning. Streets crowd to the bursting or are ghost towns, bars and cafés and restaurants too.

(And often those three places, the place you come to in the morning to read the paper & have your coffee in tranquility & the one you eat in at midday — two plates, bread, wine, coffee, dessert — & the bar you crowd around at night to shoulder around beers, are the same place, the essential unit of Spanish eating-and-drinking: the café-bar. With both its shelves of liquor & its espresso machine & its kitchen, not always open, so that not just the streets but the places themselves never stay the same, are modular & fluid themselves.)

Crowded, empty — it all depends on a kind of Spanish eating-and-drinking differential calculus: the day of the week, the time of day, summer or winter . . .

I feel like I’m drifting off into illegibility, so let me try to be specific. My friend was trying to show me around Barcelona one night, & we were accompanied by a number of impatient Swedes, and suddenly it seemed that nothing that should have been open — the cheap champagne bar, for starters — was open at all, on this Wednesday night; the plaza where normally at ten or so the young people start to swarm to drink out of bottles & skate was empty. Barcelona, she was explaining to the impatient Swedes (I nodded, we understood each other) worked by zones — you ate dinner here at 9, you had a drink over there at 11. If people weren’t where they were supposed to be, something had happened. We put our heads together.

As it turned out, we realized, it must be Ash Wednesday — carnivales had been the previous weekend, ending on Tuesday with the funeral of the sardine (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Martes Gordo — in Bilbao it’d been on a Sunday, people wearing black & mock-crying while the sardine, giant & wearing a floppy purple hat, was burned in effigy outside the opera house on top of a bier of sticks) — and so the entire city was hungover, including the bartenders. Nobody was going out. Places were shuttering left & right around us.

Surely, the impatient Swedes said, there was somewhere to go.

No, we said. There is nowhere to go. This is how things are here. Anywhere in Spain worth going will already be crowded by the time you get there. If it’s not crowded, something’s wrong.

It’s no use peeking in & seeing the roiling cloud of smoke, the mass of dark coats, the napkins & cigarettes & broken glass mosaics on the tiled floor & saying, Too crowded, let’s try another one. You have to dive in, there’s nothing else to be done. The city is a dance, it follows a rhythm, & you are always a few steps behind. My first year in Jaén I called it the Spanish bat-signal. It was as if implanted at birth in the brain of every Jiennense was a transmitter that guided them unerringly to the right place at a given time.

I think this particular kind of crowd logic is unique to the places I’ve lived here. I don’t remember it being the same in, I don’t know, Boston.

You’ll be taken to, say, La Granja — a staid old café in the Plaza Circular with a wood bar, polished brass railings, starched old men serving coffee — on a Friday night, a particular Friday night, where suddenly it’s become a live music joint, there’s a band playing, the lights are off, everyone’s drinking cuba libres at two in the morning. Later, you’ll try to repeat the success with some foreign friends, guessing blindly, & find nothing but a quiet bar, a couple of old men sucking down vermouths.

You’ll try to plan a nice dinner in Gracía, in Barcelona, and find a couple of places via guidebooks & online reviews, only to find the two restaurants you’ve chosen shuttered, inexplicably, on an empty street. A block away, on c/ Verdi, swarms of families walking, old people, students, children, every place open & clamorous. You throw up your hands & decide to choose by sight.

And then when you finally think you’re getting the hang of the dance (ok, 8:30 & still early enough for Plaza Nueva, you think, or: 11 now, Somera will be filling up, or: Sunday noon in Sevilla, time to wander over to Alameda de Hércules and have the first beer of the day) you’ll be thrown off-balance by something big — a local saints’ day or festival, a national holiday, a change in the weather — and suddenly what was closed is open, what was open is closed, up is down and down is up, streets filling & emptying as if they were waterways with drains & sluicegates.

And everybody is standing bolt upright, leaning on the bar to eat, talking incessantly, gesturing with cigarettes. Don’t even bother looking for a table. In the winter, the doors are kept open, & the coats stay on. Some places have hooks beneath the bartop to hang them on. Or you pile them on top of the cigarette machine. Small ignitions of lighters (mecheros — I thought they were matcheros for over a year because I never had to spell it), floating ash, pintxos in Basque Country or Navarre, tapas everywhere else (the Cátalans are not big on tapas, & have banned bullfighting . . . the Basques hate flamenco & don’t drink sangria). Nothing to be done but follow the noise & see what’s going on. It’s not worth planning too carefully — you’re never sure which city you’ll be stepping into, where the crowded places will be.

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