I am discreetly leaving Barcelona for a week, Inshallah, to visit Lisbon. The authorities are not aware of this. I myself was informed at the last minute: it is, you might say, a trip veiled in secrecy, though I hope not decency.
I'm back now, a week on. I had hoped for a whirlwind romance or at least sleaze and scandal. There was no romance; I ate steamed fish.
There were some interesting sites: a castle for example that overlooks the city (was the cafeteria there under the Visigoths, I asked security. “Heh?” he said). There is also the art collection of the Armenian moneyman Calouste Gulbenkian (Mr. Five Percent). A lovely name, Calouste, so mercantile, like Nathaniel (Rothschild) or Aqa Morteza (our Tehran grocer, surely richer than any two-bit Rothschild or Googlestein, was it?).
There is also a large suspension bridge, which, I think, links the city to San Francisco, and one Internet link, give or take a little exaggeration or outright falsehood, either will do.
The Portuguese are mostly short and quiet. They didn't obstruct me in the street thankfully, unlike Japanese tourists in London, whom I shall pick up, squish into Sushi and put aside in a neat pile if they persist in hampering my long strides toward shopping and personal fulfilment.
Lisbon was littered with old women wandering the streets with plastic bags (“You're in Portugal, dear.” I told one of them. “Kheh?”). Maybe they were still a little lost in a city restructured shortly after the 1755 earthquake (so severe it was felt in the West Indies they say).
The then chief minister, Marques de Pombal, a tough son of a gun, had the city redrawn in quadrangles and straight lines, though he resisted an offer by Dunkin' Donuts to turn the royal palace into a multicultural “Donut” theme park. (“I'll see you in court, Pombal”, angry Donuts supremo Berni Baloney threatened in 1763.” “Heh?” the marquis said).
Berni was the grandson of Dunkin's founder, the Viking pirate Harald “Danken” Fishtart, who would “dunk” his victims into the high seas for gold. (“Vee heff veys of makink you sing” he told the captured diva Helga Nanamouskouris, held in suspension over the shrimp-infested ocean so she would sing. “Shtopp” he shouted in Danish when she began to sing – throwing her in when she pursued her signature aria “I loff you ze vay you arr”.) Such tales are common in Portugal. The lady across my hotel told me a similar one with a sausage theme.
My hotel did not have CNN – like HELLO? So I had to read a book – a tale of fraternal jealousy by Guy de Maupassant. One brother inherits money, the other is bitter, with additional details, conversations, descriptions of ships in a northern French port in the 1870s. You tell me, is that better or the clash of civilisations on CNN, followed by the MTV hit parade?
On returning to Barcelona, I noticed people gathered in the street, protesting not my return, but the war that had broken out on television. (Now the war's on SARS – “mine's a SARS Chow Mein please”.)
The Iraq war seems finished, though not the protests. Described in the 17th century as, I think, “a most cantankerous race”, the Catalans have a tradition of radicalism and urban violence, with riotous hat-makers stabbing fishmongers or decorators to death for usurping their spot in city parades.
Today grimy youths have set up camp on one of the city's green roundabouts (a can's throw from Louis Vuitton) to express anger at war and, you know, things. They have lived in these tents for weeks and weeks, emerging only to denounce Bush, sunbathe or go home to mummy for lunch.
The Spanish authorities, busy with the protests, continue to ignore my movements. That's unless the concierge downstairs told them. (Khello? Iss that Mr. Vassigh in flat 2, he's always on khalidays…” “Heh?” etc..)
I have been a model of courtesy and gallantry with the concierge so far. “Well aren't you gonna help me carry my shopping?” I told the 78-year-old lady the other day. “Come on you old baggage,” I said cheerfully, “you take the melons and beer cans, I'll take the crisps.”
I believe she loves my inner beauty: patience, kindness, an ability to face life's hardships with fortitude and a banana split.
“You need to see my therapist Barbara,” a friend recently told me. “Heh?”