As Zo wrapped her arms around my waist and pressed her short but stocky body against mine for a long hug, her wild explosion of red hair, somewhat contained by her ever present red Canadian flag headband with the white maple leaf, gently tickling my chin and cheek. As we momentarily held the embrace, it struck me how connected I felt with this woman that I had only known since yesterday. Though I had always been shy about any physical intimacy with women, Zo had made me almost instantly comfortable with her and I had had no discomfort sleeping very close to her last night, albeit not sleeping together in any sexual sense and with our clothes on sandwiched between our travel companions. My trepidation really was in initiating the physical intimacy, but if circumstances led obviously in that direction, I had no problem being intimate, and really enjoyed it. If only we were in a world that was not so patriarchal and women were more comfortable initiating more intimacy, it would be a boon to a shy male type like me.
After the hug from Zo I also got one from Randall, him not even attempting the more conventional guy to guy handshake first, and it seemed as heartfelt as hers, and much more appropriate than the less intimate hand clasping for our situation and the rules of engagement of our hippie-esque cohort. He looked in my eyes and with no typical male jauntiness said “take care of yourselves”. As they headed off in their van I felt that same deep sadness I felt after the last performance and cast and crew party for every play I had participated in back home during my teens.
And I also noted how connected I felt with Steve, having only made his acquaintance two days prior to sharing the journey through the Pyrenees and across the border with our two Canucks. Though I had briefly fantasized about continuing south with the two of them, I figured it wasn’t realistic because I would be a third wheel, and it would not be right to abruptly end my adventure with my relatively longer travel partner.
Everyone had told us that Spain would be significantly cheaper than the Northern European countries, and we found that to be true in Barcelona. Steve and I wandered about the old Gothic Quarter of the city and found a little pension on an alleyway off a small plaza. The older woman who ran it was quite friendly and gracious even speaking passable English, and told us she had a room with two beds, access to a bathroom with shower, and breakfast included. When we asked her how much, she said nothing but wrote “200 P” on a piece of paper and slid it towards us on her little “front desk”. That was about $1.85 each. I had certainly stayed in youth hostels up north that had been more expensive than that. She asked us how long we would be in town and we told her three nights. She said if we were willing to pay in advance she would give us a discount. She took that same piece of paper in front of us and wrote “560 P”, placed it in front of us and smiled. We happily agreed and she led us upstairs and showed us to our room, which was small but nicely decorated and had two beds and a view of the little alleyway below through a narrow window.
We had dinner at the little restaurant across the narrow street from our lodging, which she had told us about, splitting a big serving plate of “Paella”, apparently a signature Spanish rice dish with fish and other meat on top. The topping I did not recognize turned out to be “calamari”, which I probably would have balked at eating if I had known what the word translated to in English, or seen one whole and even alive first. After dinner I took a shower and actually washed my hair, no easy task given how long thick and curly it was, given that I had no shampoo and just a bar of soap, and given how oily and dirty it had gotten since the last time I had done so more than a week ago at the hotel in Brussels. After that shower and doing my best to dry my thick mane of hair at least partially, I slept soundly, though again fantasizing some about Zo before nodding off.
We spent most of the next day on logistics, walking around our neighborhood shopping for a bank with a good exchange rate from dollars to pesetas to cash a travelers check. We also found a post office, where I could send off postcards to my mom and dad, to maintain that important connection with back home and to let them know the good news about having a new travel companion, and how well it was working out.
In between the logistical tasks, we went to the big central market at noon and bought sausage, cheese, grapes, bread and cucumbers to eat. The place had literally hundreds of stalls. Many with vegetables, many others with meat. And then an entire half of the giant market was devoted to a huge variety of fish and other sea creatures, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Big eight foot square tables, each piled high with some sort of fish, shrimp, or lobster. There was one table full of ugly looking anglerfish (“rape”) with horny bodies and those huge gaping long sharp teeth filled mouths. Other tables with piles of octopus (“pulpo”), each of them having no bones so in a pile they kind of lost their physical integrity forming one big gelatinous mass of big eyes and long tentacles. And finally I saw the “calamari”, that I had eaten on top of my paella at the restaurant last night, with eyes and tentacles like an octopus, but with a body contained in a shell like a humongous shrimp. How much more appetizing their Spanish name than the English “squid”.
After lunch while continuing to hunt for good exchange rates at banks we encountered a boxer from Nigeria who spoke English. His name was Joe Babington and he had just completed several successful fights in Spain and was headed by way of England to the States where he hoped to book additional matches. He appeared very nervous and hyper even, and a chat with him revealed that he was worried about whether or not to get his residence visas stamped on his new passport, or just carry the old one too. Steve and I really did not understand what the issue was. Over and over he’d say that he didn’t think he had to, and then he’d ask us if we thought he should.
Finally having found a bank with a good exchange rate, where I cashed a traveler’s check and Steve traded in his French Francs, we bought and shared a bottle of Rose wine that cost 30 Pesetas ($0.55), and though it came in a plastic bottle, was actually not too bad. Joyfully buzzed on the wine, we went out and hunted for a restaurant, walking all through the Gothic Quarter with its small, old, stone or brick streets. It was almost like a maze – little streets, alleys that only pedestrians can walk down and cutting around the backs of buildings. Some were dead ends, just like a maze. Everywhere old street lights, little cafes and restaurants. All this built around the huge cathedral and encompassed by the old town wall. You could wander through this relatively small area for hours and not walk down every street or alley.
We window shopped for a restaurant, checking out the menus (as best we could translate the Spanish) for prices, courses, and whether they had “Paella”, the featured dish here in the big seafood port town. There were places with three course meals with bread and wine for 160 Pesetas, 125 Pesetas, even 80 Pesetas. The 80 Peseta place had Paella as an option for the second course so we decided to try it. It was a little cafe type place nestled (lost!) on a narrow cobblestone street, not quite wide enough for a car to travel down. From my teenage sensibility it really had atmosphere, with a bar down one side and five little tables down the other. The chairs were metal with wood seats and rather uncomfortable. A radio was playing lively Spanish guitar music. We were the only customers. It was late about 10 o’clock.
The waiter was right out of a movie. He strode up with the menus and presented them to each of us with a an exaggerated hand motion. We used the “point and pray” method and picked our three courses, including Paella. First he came with the soup bowls and with grandiose flowing arm motions wiped them off and set them down in front of each of us. After we had time to consume every last bit of our soup, some sort of fish chowder, he came sailing out of the kitchen with big plates of Paella balanced in each hand, presenting the hot steaming plates to each of us in turn.
So we hungrily devoured our three courses – soup, Paella, then beef stew – and finally grapes for dessert. It was all delicious. The dinner also amazingly included a bottle of wine, and in that case we got what we paid for because it was awful, the worst I’d ever tasted. As intensely frugal as we both had become living on a few bucks a day, we drank it, and at least it gave us another nice buzz. Despite the wine, the whole meal was a great experience way beyond our expectations of cheap utilitarian food, and it had only cost us about $1.50 each.
Loosened by the alcohol and the tasty food, we talked about and processed our only five days together since we met. That awful youth hostel in Paris where we had first encountered each other that was more like a homeless shelter, and how lonely and burnt out I had been before that. My experience with Giselle and having a thing for Laurence, “and Zo”, he added, surprising me that he had picked up on that. The letters we got from our moms at the Paris American Express office. Smoking the hash in that funky little Citroen and getting so fucked up, and then him desperately trying to make polite conversation with that older French man who picked us up after though he could barely think straight. The Spanish customs officers and their dictator big boss. The piles of octopus, calamari and those disgusting looking Anglerfish. Even being compatible and comfortable with each other and how having a travel partner made it all a lot easier and more fun.
When we got back to the pension the doors had already been locked for the night. When we had checked in yesterday, the lady who ran the place had told us that if this happened we should walk around the corner and clap three times and someone would come round with keys and let us in. So now, the little square around the corner was dark and ominous looking and we had lurking in our minds that we were in a semi-fascist country. There were still a couple people walking across the square and we were embarrassed to clap while anyone was in eye or earshot. Once they went out of view still there was what looked like a policeman over at the other side of the square who was making us paranoid. We waited for him to walk down an alley and then we finally clapped. We waited a minute or two looking around apprehensively. Then an old man standing across the street clapped five times. Se we went over to him thinking he was the guy to let us in. He actually was also trying to get into the pension, and as it turned out the supposed policeman that we tried to avoid was the night watchman who was the one who would let us in. We laughed at our cluelessness and how we could have been there all night clapping and then hiding from the man in the uniform who would otherwise let us into our lodging.
The next day we decided would be our last in Barcelona, before hitting the road again to hitchhike south to Malaga. We decided that the first thing we needed to do was figure out how to wash our clothes. Then we would decide what to do for our last afternoon in the city.
We asked the woman that owned and ran our pension, who had her own little apartment on the ground floor, if there was a laundromat in the neighborhood where we could wash our clothes. Having engaged us in passing conversations for the last two days of our stay in her little establishment, she seemed to have taken a liking to both of us. She told us that there was no such laundromat, at least not in this neighborhood, but she would wash our clothes for us for a charge. She wrote “250 P” on the small pad of paper on her desk, ripped it off and slid it to us on her desk. That amount was actually more than the room had cost for the night, but we were embarrassed to say no and figured it was worth the money and agreed. We paid her and she disappeared into her apartment behind her little front desk and reappeared momentarily with an empty wicker laundry hamper. She said if we put our clothes in the hamper outside our door in the next fifteen minutes, she could have them washed and dried for us before Noon.
Up in the room we both emptied our backpacks and threw all our clothes we weren’t already wearing in the hamper. None of mine had been washed since I had been at Angelica and Helmut’s a week and a half ago. Besides the clothes I was wearing, I carried just one other pair of pants, two shirts, a t-shirt, three pairs of underwear and two pairs of socks – all pretty dirty and stinky by now. Steve had a similar inventory, and he noted that it would be nice if we could get everything washed, including what we were wearing. I nodded in agreement, and he suggested we strip down to our underwear and let her wash everything else.
I was reticent, imagining if some emergency happened while our clothes were in the wash requiring us to leave our room. But in that sort of older brother younger brother dynamic between us, where I would always try to be as adventurous or more adventurous than my older travel partner, I quickly agreed. Though we had seen each other in our underwear in passing a couple times getting into and out of bed the last couple days, it felt just a bit uncomfortable taking off our shirts and pulling down our pants in front of each other. But after an initial hesitation on both our parts, Steve looked at me and said “Well?” and he proceeded to undress and I quickly followed. He opened the door and peaked out to see if the coast was clear, then quickly put the hamper outside our door and closed it.
He sat on his bed with his feet stretched out, his back against the headboard and his hands behind his head, trying to look relaxed and sort of putting his nearly naked body on display. Both he and I were tall and lean, him a couple inches taller, and both of us in pretty good shape physically from hauling our heavy packs around for the last month in my case and even more in his. I saw his eyes move down and quickly check out my body before returning to my face.
In his alpha male pose on the bed, he grinned and asked me where I thought we should go this afternoon. I got our guidebook, sat on the side of my own bed and studied it – markets, museums, cathedral – a lot of choices. With every passing moment I felt more comfortable being nearly naked with him, though not aroused in any sexual sort of way. I was really kind of a nudist at heart, having had the experience getting completely naked with my best friend Molly at age five, both of us up in her attic bedroom in her house across the street from ours. Then several experiences getting similarly naked with the neighborhood boys my age when I was eight and nine years old. Our venues for this mutual exposure were either cloistered inside the big clumps of lilac bushes in the park which provided ample cover, or down in the walk in closet in our basement, with my dad at work and my mom safely out of sight engaged in chores upstairs. Those encounters, with the boys at least though not Molly, had involved a little touching each other at times as well, which was all mutual, and very fun and even thrilling.
We discussed the possibilities for our afternoon activity, and once we had mostly exhausted that topic the discussion went to the future, near and further on. Steve, who was four years older than me, was planning on heading back to the States in a couple weeks when his money ran out, back to his parents’ place outside Des Moines, find a job and get his own apartment, and decide whether to go to graduate school to study business. I said that I was planning to continue my own European odyssey for another maybe five weeks or so, and then also would be returning to my parents’ place, also find a job and and then planning to return to my second year of college in the fall studying theater.
It was interesting how my near nakedness, along with my high comfort level with him, made me more comfortable revealing my inner self to him as well. Like wearing clothes was a metaphor for hiding your true self from others. He asked me if I had a girlfriend back home. I wistfully said no, that there were a lot of really cool women in the various theater troupes I had participated in, but I was pretty shy about that romantic stuff. I shared with him a couple of my experiences with women I had been in plays with who had come on to me but I had backed off, to their frustration. He said he didn’t have a girlfriend either, and had experiences similar to my own, and shared a couple with me.
We talked about world events, particularly the ongoing war in Vietnam and the more recent conflict between the Israelis and Arab countries in the Middle East. Steve said that he had gotten a deferment from the Vietnam draft by being in school, but he was not sure if he might get a draft notice when he got home from Europe. He said if he did he would probably go to Canada to live. I was interested in politics and the wars as well, but told him that I had not really thought much yet about the possibility of being drafted, but would certainly not serve and would probably go to Canada as well. I told him how my mom had gotten very involved in local politics based on her opposition to the war and her concern that I not be drafted at some point.
The topics of in depth discussion went on through the morning as each of us sat or reclined in our underwear in our respective beds, until a bit before Noon we heard some commotion outside our room door, a knock, then our host calling out that our laundry was done. We waited until we heard her walk away and then Steve cracked open the door and brought in the hamper with our clothes all washed and neatly folded, including our underwear, which I thought was humorous. I got this picture in my mind of our host, a proper Spanish lady, pulling each pair of our now clean briefs out of the hamper, holding each up to view and shake it out, and then carefully folding it.
Steve, now sitting on the side of his bed facing me as I similarly sat on mine facing him, reached into the hamper and grabbed a pair of his neatly folded underwear and said offhandedly, “Well I don’t know about you, but I’m going to put on a fresh pair of underwear”, and quickly proceeded to pull down the pair he was wearing, briefly revealing his rather ample genitals, and then quickly covering them as he pulled up the fresh pair. It had been several years since I had seen another guy’s penis, pubic hair and scrotum. I was curious to look, but of course did not want it to look to Steve like I was looking. So I took a quick glance at his parts between his legs and then looked down in the hamper to find my own pair.
At college we had showers in the bathrooms between our dorm rooms, not one set shared by the whole floor, so we had lots of privacy showering. In high school, being shy about being naked around my male peers, particularly ones that I did not really know (like most of the guys in my gym class), I had made the decision to never shower after gym classes and just be sweaty and even perhaps a bit stinky for the rest of the day. I had always been a year younger than most of my grade level peers because I skipped kindergarten, and given also being late going into puberty, I always seemed to have a smaller penis and way less pubic hair than those peers. It wouldn’t have been an issue except for shared showers after gym class, and compounded tenfold by gym classes held in the pool where at least the boys were encouraged by the gym teachers to swim naked. This to avoid the problem managing all those wet suits left hanging in gym lockers leading to all the mold and mildew. By high school, where the occasional opportunities for ridicule from bullying peers seemed so much more on my radar, I had decided I was done with any sort of group showers with other guys.
Now in my theater productions we were occasionally in our underwear backstage doing quick costume changes with others in close quarters though usually in the dark. It was interesting that that dynamic was completely different and I had no discomfort in those situations. First of all those situations were often both girls and boys down to their underwear, which I found a much more comfortable dynamic than all boys. Second, the people I worked with in theater productions I generally felt a much higher sense of shared respect and safety with, than the array of males in my gym class, most of whom I had little or no relationship with.
So here in the present, with Steve already having gotten completely naked in front of me, now the spotlight felt like it was on me to either go with the flow and do the same, or balk and not accede to the obvious wisdom of wearing clean underwear now that it was available. I quickly pondered that the latter choice would pretty obviously indicate in this situation that I was uncomfortable being naked in front of another guy. I did not want to be perceived by Steve as that sort of timid person, so without looking at him I sighted a clean pair of my underwear in the hamper, and pulled the ones I was wearing down and off. It was a carefully fretted calculation on how long to be naked in front of him. Not so short that I appeared uncomfortable with it but then not so long that I appeared to somehow enjoy it. I actually did enjoy being naked in front of him, that the nudist in me and that metaphor of stripping away all conceipt that clothing represented, but I didn’t want to go there either. After about 15 seconds, and trying to appear as casual as possible, I pulled up the fresh pair over my own briefly exposed less ample parts.
We decided to spend our last afternoon in Barcelona visiting the Picasso Museum, which apparently had a large and notable collection of his work, particularly a lot of the drawings and sketches he did when he was young. It was just a quick walk north of our pension through the Gothic Quarter. The museum complex included a number of galleries on several floors built around interesting interior courtyards with staircases built in traditional architecture with brick, stone and wrought iron. As I have said, I have always had a love of physical spaces, both at the broad macro level of maps and geography, but also at the more micro level of interior spaces. To me, the facility was as stunning in its design as the work it showcased.
My mom, the artist with extensive academic training in art history, had talked to me on several occasions about Picasso and the logic and artifice of his work. To my mom, who painted mostly abstract paintings with no obvious content, a great painting was all about line and form, with color reinforcing those elements, and also about the “negative space” between objects in the work of art. Picasso, as she had previously explained to me, was a master of line and form and the use of color. Taking those lines and forms from the real world – whether from faces, bodies, objects on a table or buildings – and deconstructing and reassembling their compelling lines and forms in interesting ways. He used the bright colors, often completely out of the naturalistic context, to accentuate the lines and forms that he highlighted, and one could say even celebrated, in his work. She had a big heavy art book of his paintings, and she would pull it out and show me examples of his work to illustrate what she was telling me.
I had basically understood what she was saying back then but not quite the significance of the genius of his craft. But when I entered the galleries of that museum, and saw the progression of his work from early more naturalistic representations of faces and bodies to his later more abstract pieces based on those same forms, what she had told me really hit home. I saw youthful drawings where he defined the essence of the physique of a horse with just a couple flowing curvy lines, or the same for a human face. And then his later work with the more abstract faces with their complete lack of symmetry, with one side of the face a different color and shape than the other, never two eyes of the same face alike, or with some facial features shown in profile while others shown straight on. Nudes, particularly female nudes with breasts and vaginas every which way, evocative and provocative rather than strictly representational. As my mom would say, moving way beyond just painting what could be captured equally well by a camera.
I found interesting my first encounter with the very different Spanish naming protocols that were applied, in extreme I thought, to Picasso’s full name. He was baptized as Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, a series of names tacked on to his first name honoring various saints and relatives. Ruiz and Picasso were included for his father and mother, respectively, per Spanish law, and the budding feminist in me noted that it was his mother’s last name that he used in his signature, “Pablo Picasso”.
I read in the museum’s summary of his life, that he was born in the Spanish city of Malaga in 1881, and was apparently an artistic prodigy at a young age. According to the account of his mother, he had supposedly said a version of the word pencil as his first word as a young child, and later rebelling against the more conventional representational art of his father the artist and art professor. Reading his developmental story and seeing it reflected in his work, I resonated with young Pablo’s challenge of the artistic “authority” as represented by his father.
He also came into adulthood at a heady time during the beginning of the 20th century and the abstract art movement which I had learned something about from my mom. At the Louvre in Paris I had seen the work of some of the great painters of the 19th century – including David, Rubens, Rembrandt, Seurat, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Munch – artists whose work my mom had shown me in her art books and taught me about. Their styles moved from realism to the less representational impressionism and expressionism, but still painting content recognizable as human faces, figures, landscapes, and such. But as my mom had also shown me, a whole cohort of painters in the early 20th century had moved beyond any recognizable content at all to focus purely on abstract line, form and color – artist like Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Miro. Though most of his work was still recognizable – as faces, figures, and other things from the real world – Picasso was part of that cohort deconstructing and reconstructing reality, often using shockingly bright colors rather than more naturalistic earth tones and muted shades.
In my mom’s thinking and parlance, great art was about mastering line, form and color to create a piece that “worked”. Anything from the real world that might be represented in that art was just a starting place to find the line, form and color that “worked” in those things represented. As I worked my way through the galleries in the Barcelona Picasso museum, I was finally getting that at a more visceral level.
I also resonated with that transformation of art in the early 20th century, of which Picasso was a key figure and perpetrator. I imagined someday that I and others in my own cohort – inspired by the visionary ideas and ideals of the hippies of the previous generation, naive as those ideas might have been in the context of their times – might play a key role in bringing at least some of them to fruition, as part of our own deconstruction, reconstruction, and transformation of the world.
And of course, being an eighteen year old basically heterosexual male with his libido always percolating, I was also taken by some of his more erotic works displayed. Like “Les Femmes d’Alger”, depicting a handful of female figures in various poses and various states of undress, including one figure in Medieval dress with blouse open revealing big breasts and pulling down her undergarment to give a peak of pubic hair below her belly button. And then the more representational, sexually explicit, ”Angel Fernandez de Soto with Woman”, a color sketch of a naked man holding and smoking a pipe in one hand with a naked woman sitting in his lap. She holding a champagne glass in one hand with her other hand clutching his erect penis while the fingers of his other hand are in her vagina. Something you wouldn’t see in the raunchiest of porn magazines at the time that I used to sneak a peak of in the dark aisles of the Blue Front newsstand in my hometown of Ann Arbor, yet displayed in this public high brow gallery in a semi-fascist country!
The piece was full frontal unabashed nudity, which I had absolutely no problem with. And though it was sexually explicit, which was shocking and doubly so in this public context, I was basically okay with that as well and fantasized about such sexual encounters. And in this moment, I was really quite excited to gawk at the piece in relative privacy, with no one looking at and presumably judging me as some sort of pervert for gawking. Steve’s reaction to the piece was “Wow!”, but then in an offhand aside to me as he chuckled, “Don’t embarrass yourself staring at it for too long!”
What was disturbing to me with my feminist pedigree was the implied relationship between the man and the woman that was hinted at by their props. His pipe suggesting the older more urbane and professorial male with the drunken libertine young woman on his lap like a child might be on an adult’s lap. Perhaps if he had had a champagne glass too instead of a pipe the dynamic would have been completely different, two drunken partners engaged in amorous activity where each appeared to be pleasuring the other equally.
Despite the obsession with sex in rock music (the very use of the word “rock” in song lyrics was often pretty obviously a stand in for the profane unsayable “fuck”) I had never gotten much good guidance from my Greek chorus of popular music on the subject of my own sexuality. Certainly a lot of rock songs were sung from the guy’s point of view, trying to convince his girl on the merits of having sex with him, like Stephen Stills recommending that “if you can’t be with the one you love honey, love the one you’re with”, with presumably love including sex.
And David Bowie’s songs from the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust album, including “Suffragette City” and “Hang onto Yourself”. The former with its quick summation of a sexual encounter, “Wham bam thank you mam”, and the latter with the portrait of a groupie: “She wants my honey not my money she’s a funky thigh collector, layin’ on electric dreams” and “We can’t dance, we don’t talk much, we just ball and play, but we move like tigers on Vaseline”. But Bowie’s allusions to wild sex with a groupie was more titillating (pun intended) than providing any real sound advice on sexual exploration or practice. I mean “moving like tigers on vaseline” did not seem like a sexual practice appropriate for novices like me. And even two of my main guiding musical gurus, Paul Simon and the Beatles, really had little to say in the sex department. Simon justifying sex with a prostitute in “The Boxer” or Lennon suggesting doing it “in the road” were not particularly helpful.
Being a virgin and shy to boot, my own percolating libido and sexuality was a totally private thing, generally explored with little guidance in my bed at night or locked in a bathroom, occasionally with the assistance of a somehow acquired and squirreled away Playboy or Penthouse magazine. Backpacking through Europe, sleeping mostly in less solitary quarters and using more public bathrooms, masturbating was only occasionally possible (less than a handful of times since I arrived in Europe six weeks ago) when circumstances provided me with a private room.
After my provocative encounters with Picasso, and penises real and rendered, our sojourn in Barcelona came to a close. We planned in the morning to hitchhike south towards Granada.
Click here to read the next chapter.