Barcelona, 1987: A Tramp Abroad
Ninety minutes north of Boston sits the home of my high school years: a sprawling, storybook campus where 500 fortunate souls converged each fall to negotiate the psychological horrors of adolescence. Though catalog-lovely, it was remote indeed, and in the pre-Internet dark ages, we had to make our own entertainment. Our common salvation was a pay phone in the basement of each dorm — the lifeline to Pizza Wheels and whatever else you had the connections to order up.
I wasn’t there for entertainment, anyway. I was there to work hard and thereby hopefully claw my way out of my family’s economic circumstance. I was also there to try to earn a place in the school’s junior year abroad program, a dream I’d set my sights on long before I ever set foot on campus.
After a punishing (and self-inflicted) course load my sophomore year, I made the grade and at 16 was off to Barcelona. Prep school’s autumn palette of orange brick, orange foliage and seemingly unlimited Grateful Dead bootlegs was replaced by a vivid rush of color, sound and the vital pulse of a city that was gaining momentum in shaking off the Franco years and looking toward its moment on the world stage a few years hence in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
The host family I was assigned was a quirky, urban dream and a perfect fit. My petite Spanish mother wore stylish leather skirt suits; a lone braid secured by a gold ornament descended past the blunt cut of her dishwater blond bob. Every morning she fled the house in a bleary-eyed rush for her job down at the justice department. A divorcée, she had a ten-year-old son and a live-in boyfriend from South America. She was her own woman, and if her lifestyle twitched you out, she didn’t give a damn.
I was in heaven eating ham sandwiches for dinner at ten o’clock at night and sitting on the couch with my parents, watching dubbed American movies and sharing a giant-size Nestlé Crunch bar. And I beamed with delight listening to my brother proudly recite the names of all the NBA players he knew when we went out Saturday mornings to walk the dog and buy fresh bread, or cigarettes for Mother and beau.
My new scene was one of independence and horizons open for the exploring. My classmates and I were bestowed with incredible amounts of trust and freedom from the moment we arrived, and we used them well, jumping weekend trains to the coast or to Salvador Dalí’s madhouse museum up north—or to France, if we felt like it. Once we’d left school for the day, life was ours to make of it what we wanted, and I know not one of us had the same experience.
I had always been a pop music hound, and Barcelona opened up a whole new sonic universe for me. I dove into the quasi-surf music of rockers Hombres G; power trio Gabinete Caligari; and the angelic soprano of Ana Torroja, frontwoman of the widely adored Mecano. I’d set the dial to los 40 principales of radio station 93.9 while I did my homework, and watched the weekly “Solid Gold”-like TV chart show with my little brother.
I grooved to Italian rap and French techno, the ghostly stylings of Black and the buff yet sensitive Eros Ramazzotti. And of course there was no escaping the global blockbusters: Rick Astley, Terence Trent D’Arby and the stubbly Adonis himself. George Michael’s “Faith” LP saturated the airwaves and clubs and was an indelible part of our soundtrack. At my brother’s request, I painstakingly translated the lyrics of “I Want Your Sex” for him to impress his friends with.
The city itself was one giant learning lab. Art history class meant lectures and the usual grainy slides—but it sometimes meant hitting the streets and checking out the real deal with our own eyes: Antoni Gaudí’s Parc Güell or his many residential buildings along the Paseo de Gracia, mere blocks from our school. We’d climb the steps high up in the musty spires of the old cathedral in the Gothic Quarter, and attempt to attain greatness by osmosis as we drank sangria at the shadowy tables of Els Quatre Gats, Picasso’s old watering hole.
After school, my friends and I would make our way to my low-key neighborhood in the city center. Our favored spot was the benches at the foot of the man-made lake across from Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. Old men played bocce in the park behind us as we learned to smoke Fortuna cigarettes and nattered on about our hopes and dreams, until dusk settled and the lights of the great skeleton church winked on. Saturday nights often found me walking home from my best friend’s apartment in the posh northern part of the city after the last Metro train had made its run. My beloved three-inch purple slingbacks echoed on the pavement all the way to Gracia. Once I passed the stone-faced Guardia Civil officer stationed at the corner of my block, I knew I had made it back safely.
My English-speaking hours were enriched immeasurably by Larry, my literature teacher and a fellow parolee from my stateside school. We were Betty and Al, the untethered expats of Paul Simon’s smash from that year’s “Graceland.” We took in art films together; I accompanied him on his trip to the bank every Tuesday. We bonded over meals on class trips around the region, kindred spirits and keen observers with a love of language. Larry saw writing in my future, for which I adored him.
Too soon, my adventure ended, and I returned to New England for my senior year with a heavy teenage heart and a not-always-successful pledge not to make too many unfair comparisons. But in time, I was able to transition from missing Barcelona to appreciating its place in my life. My experience served me well in later years, as I drew on the confidence to drop myself into unfamiliar situations and foreign lands and know that I’d get by. It was the start of learning how, as the school’s slogan promised, to be at home in the world. And I still eat my share of chocolate bars in front of the TV after hours.
PHOTO BY JOSH STONEMAN