It was mid afternoon on Monday October 22 when Zo and Randall’s beat up old VW van, having survived the thorough going over by Spanish customs, finally entered the eastern port city of Barcelona, my travel partner Steve’s and my destination. Our hosts for the journey had picked us up about 100 kilometers south of Paris and given us the longest single ride I had had to date hitchhiking. With lots of hugs and emotion, our two fellow traveler hippieesque Canadians parted company with us there, with their plan to continue down the coast to the south of Spain for an intended crossing over to Morocco in North Africa.
Zo wrapped her arms around my waist and pressed her short stocky body against mine for a long hug, her wild explosion of red hair, somewhat constrained by her ever present red Canadian flag headband with the white maple leaf, again gently and now familiarly tickling my chin and cheek. She glanced up at me and ever so subtly shook her head and grinned, the reason for that minuscule head shake tantalizingly unknown, her eyes now not heavy with fatigue like they’d been last night when she suggested we sleep, not “together” in a sexual sense, but next to each other. As we momentarily held the embrace, it struck me how connected I felt to this person that I had only known since yesterday, and how much I was going to miss her company. 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, with our clothes on and sandwiched between our travel companions. I realized my trepidation really was in initiating the physical intimacy, but if circumstances led obviously in that direction, or my partner initiated it, I had no problem being intimate, and really enjoyed it. If only we were in a world that was not so male driven 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, grabbing my shoulders, studying me for a moment, and then pulling me against him. It was as heartfelt as hers, and seemed much more appropriate than the less intimate hand clasping, given the circumstances and the “peace, love, joy” rules of engagement of our cohort.
He looked in the eyes, his eyes gray and thoughtful, and without any of that typical male jauntiness said, “take care of yourselves”.
The two of them climbed back into their beat up van, fired up the engine and headed off. As I watched them depart I felt that same deep sadness I had felt after the last performance of every play I had participated in back home during my teens. Thinking of Zo and Randall, I thought about Angie and me, and what our relationship might have become if we had stuck this whole thing out together. Sharing cheap hotel rooms here in Spain, maybe even sleeping in the same bed when that was all the room had. Becoming comfortable with that physical intimacy, and maybe leading to something more romantic between us.
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. HE was not leaving me behind. I had briefly fantasized about continuing south with Zo and Randall, though they had never offered and really had no reason to. 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. At the suggestion of the city’s visitor center, Steve and I wandered about the old Gothic Quarter of the city and found a little pension on an alleyway just off a small plaza. The older woman who ran it was short and thin with dark eyes and long straight black hair tied in a tight bun on her head. She had a solemn countenance and did not seem to smile, but was very gracious and welcoming. She spoke 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 just $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 “500 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 cozy with two single beds and a view of the little alleyway below through a narrow window. It was nicely decorated with stained wood dresser, nightstands, and molding, and pinstripe wallpapered walls hung with El Greco prints.
At her suggestion, we had dinner at the little restaurant across the narrow street from our lodging, splitting a big serving plate of “Paella”, apparently a signature Spanish rice dish with fish and other meat on top. When I inquired, the topping I did not recognize turned out to be some fish called “calamari” (which I probably would have balked at eating if I had known what the word translated to in English, or had seen one whole specimen first). After dinner I had the rare pleasure of taking a shower, a long one even, and letting cascades of very warm water caress my naked body. And I actually washed my hair, no easy task given how long thick and curly it was, not even able to remember the last time I got it cut. And doubly so because of 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, plus the fact that I had no shampoo and just a bar of soap. After that shower, and doing my best to dry my thick mane of hair at least partially, I slept soundly, though fantasizing again about Zo and Angie before nodding off.
After a breakfast of pastries and coffee at the pension, Steve and I spent most of the next day on logistics, walking around our neighborhood shopping for a bank with a good exchange rate to cash a travelers check and exchange remaining French francs. We also found a post office, where Steve wrote and posted an aerogramme home, and I did the same with my postcards to my mom and dad, plus Avi this time as well, to maintain those important connections 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 dried sausage, cheese, bread, grapes and cucumbers to eat. The place had literally hundreds of stalls. Many with fruits and vegetables, many others with meat. And then there was an entire section of the giant market devoted to a huge variety of fish and other sea creatures, a place unlike anything I had ever seen before. Big eight foot square tables, each piled high with every sort of standard fish, plus shrimp and lobsters and more exotic sea creatures. There was one table full of ugly looking big flat fish with horny bodies and those huge gaping long sharp teeth filled mouths. I stared at the name “rape” and it did not compute, until I heard some random shopper call them out as “rah-pay”. Another table with a huge pile of octopi, in Spanish “pulpo”, a creature with no bones, so in this glistening fleshy mound they 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 long body contained in a shell like a humongous shrimp. How much more appetizing their Spanish name than the English “squid”.
After lunch we finally found a bank with what looked like good exchange rates, where I cashed a traveler’s check and Steve traded in his remaining French francs. At a little grocery store we bought a plastic bottle of Rose wine that cost 30 Pesetas, just 55 cents U.S. Sitting on a low wall in a fairly private alleyway, we passed the bottle back and forth and downed the thing, and though it’s container was humble, it was actually not too bad. Joyfully buzzed on the wine, we continued our hunt for a restaurant, walking all through the Gothic Quarter with its small, old, stone or brick streets. It was like a maze really, and we laughed at how lost we kept getting. Little streets, alleys that only pedestrians could walk down that cut around the backs of buildings. Some were dead ends, just like a maze. Everywhere there were old street lights, with the occasional cafe, restaurant or little store. All this jumble of narrow streets and walkways built around the huge cathedral and encompassed by the old city wall. You could wander through this relatively small area for hours and not walk down every street or alley.
We window shopped the restaurants, checking out the menus (as best we could translate the Spanish) for prices, courses, and whether they had Paella, the featured cheap dish here in the big seafood rich 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, you might even say 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 out of the kitchen and up to us cradling the menus and presented them to each of us with an exaggerated hand motion. We used the “point and pray” method and picked our three courses, including of course Paella. Our first course was some sort of soup (“sopa”), and he reemerged with the soup bowls on a round metal tray, and with grandiose flowing arm motions set them down in front of each of us. After we had quickly consumed every last bit of our soup, which was 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 mounds to each of us in turn.
We hungrily devoured the Paella with our big soup spoons, then our third course, 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, sour and acidic, the worst I’d ever tasted. But as intensely frugal as we both had become living on a few bucks a day, we drank it, making faces with each gulp. At least it gave us another nice buzz. Despite the shitty wine, the whole meal was a great experience way beyond our expectations for cheap restaurant food, and it had only cost us about $1.50 each.
Loosened by more 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 at least I had been before that. My experience with Giselle and having a thing for Laurence.
“And Zo”, Steve noted, surprising me that he had picked up on that, “You certainly seemed to have a thing for her”.
We shared the letters we got from our moms at the Paris American Express office. We recalled smoking that killer hash in the funky little Citroen and getting so fucked up, and then Steve desperately trying to make polite conversation with that older French man who picked us up after, though Steve could barely think straight. Then the Spanish customs officers and their dictator big boss. The piles of pulpo, calamari and those disgusting looking “rape fish” which, god only knows we might have just eaten some of on top of our paella. And finally, being compatible and comfortable with each other and how having a travel partner made it all a lot easier and more fun.
On this last topic he said, “You are always in a good mood and have a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I get a kick out of hanging with you!”
When we got back to the pension it was really late, we were kind of drunk, and the door had already been locked for the night. When we had checked in yesterday, the lady had told us that if that 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 could see us. 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 several minutes looking around apprehensively. The policeman reappeared and we hid again just out of his view in the alley. When he finally disappeared again we clapped again, but he reappeared and again we hid.
Then we saw someone else walking across the square with a cane, not looking like a police officer. He did not see us, but approached a building nearby us and clapped three times. We walked towards him thinking maybe he was the guy to let us in, responding to our clap with his own. He finally noticed us and you could tell by his body language he was apprehensive, and he clapped again, louder this time, the claps echoing off the buildings. The guy that we had taken for a policeman appeared again, walked over to the old man, and opened the door the old guy was standing in front of. The man thanked him and gave him some sort of tip.
We realized we had been summoning the night watchman with our clapping but then hiding when he came around, thinking he was a policeman instead and might want to hassle us for being young longhaired foreigners out late and drunk. After the experience with the customs officers entering the country, we were gunshy about anyone wearing anything resembling a uniform. 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. We clapped again and the night watchman, pretty much an old man himself, came over and politely greeted us and opened the door of our pension to let us in. Our Spanish lady host came out to the door of her apartment behind the front desk and nodded at the watchman who nodded back. I gave him a 25 peseta coin and he tipped his head and wished us a “buenas noches” and headed back out, locking the door behind us.
Before getting to sleep, we decided the next day would be our last in Barcelona, before hitting the road again to hitchhike south to Granada. We agreed that the first thing we needed to do tomorrow was figure out how to wash our clothes. Then we would decide what to do for our last afternoon in this intriguing and sensuous city.
In the morning as we had our breakfast of pastries and coffee, the latter I had never really drunk much, but was beginning to enjoy, particularly as a bitter counterpoint to something sweet. We asked our host 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 establishment, she seemed to have taken a liking to both of us, though she conducted herself with a controlled somberness all the time and we never heard her laugh or even crack a smile. She told us gravely that “sadly” there was no such laundromat, at least not in this neighborhood, but she would wash our clothes. She wrote “250 P” on the small pad of paper on her desk, brought it over and placed it on our little table. “For both”, she added.
That amount was actually more than the room had cost for one 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 the front desk and reappeared momentarily with a large empty rectangular wicker basket. She said if we put our clothes in it outside our door in the next fifteen minutes, she could have them washed and dried for us by 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 two other pairs 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.
Standing there by the hamper I was reticent, imagining if some emergency happened while our clothes were in the wash requiring us to leave our room. I shared that with Steve.
“What’s going to happen”, he scoffed, flopping down on his bed, “the building going to catch on fire? It’s made of brick.”
He looked at me a bit dismissively, “You’re the one that’s always saying ‘life is an adventure and no more so than this whole Europe thing’”, imitating my at times sing songy vocal delivery and flinging around of my arms to gesticulate.
Though we had seen each other in our underwear in passing a couple times getting into and out of bed the last couple days, this was explicitly coordinated, face to face, and would be for several hours duration. I felt just a bit uncomfortable, ruffled by his mocking me if nothing lese, though the thought of disrobing was also exciting actually. I hadn’t really gotten nearly naked with my peers, other than a few brief moments changing costumes backstage during shows, since several years back with my three YTU theater comrades before we all slept in the same big bed.
“Well?” he asked, grining, invoking 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.
“Sure”, I said, doing my best line reading to try to just sluff off the utterance and scoff at the significance of the whole exercise. With me standing and him sitting on his bed, I felt like I was on stage, in character even, with an entire audience waiting for me to strip. I unbuttoned each button of my shirt with a measured, assured even theatrical cadence. At the bottom of the shirt that cadence continued with belt buckle and then the buttons of the fly of my bell bottom jeans. Steve was captured by my performance, not starting his own undressing yet. Watching his delay while he watched my little performance, I fired back.
“Well?”, I said, mimicking him and letting my unbuttoned pants easily fall to my knees revealing my white briefs as I wriggled out of my shirt and pulled my t-shirt over my head. Still in my heels, I towered over him seated.
I could see his eyes linger checking out the lower half of my body before returning to match my gaze, and he more matter of factly proceeded to remove his own shirt, t-shirt and jeans. Still in performance mode, I flopped back on my bed, pulled off my shoes and socks and lifted each foot out of my crumpled pants, spread my legs and reclined against the wall behind the other side of my bed, watching him complete his more routine undressing.
All our remaining clothes in the hamper, other than the pairs of white briefs we were each still wearing, he opened the door to the hallway a crack and peeked 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. I assumed a similar position on my bed across from him. 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. His head now turned towards me, I saw his eyes again check out the full length of my body before returning to my face. I wasn’t uncomfortable with that now, and well aware of how good my body looked.
In his more alpha male pose on the bed, legs now crossed, he grinned and asked me where I thought we should go this afternoon. I got our local guidebook, supplied by the visitor center, and sat on the side of my own bed and paged through it – markets, museums, cathedral – a lot of choices. With every passing moment I felt more comfortable being nearly naked with him, though noting that I was not aroused in any sexual sort of way. I was really 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 and exploration were either cloistered inside the big clumps of lilac bushes in the park which provided ample cover, or sequestered down in the walk in closet in our basement, with my dad out of the house 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 when your penis or bottom got touched.
Steve and I 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 said he was planning on heading back to the States in a couple weeks when his money ran out. He’d go back to his parents’ place outside Des Moines, find a job, get his own apartment, and decide whether to go to graduate school to study business, though he didn’t seem very excited about it. I said that I was planning to continue my own European odyssey for another maybe five weeks or so. (Wow, I thought to myself, was I actually almost halfway done?) Then I also would be returning to my parents’ place, finding a job and and then planning to return to my second year of college in the fall studying theater. I realized that my excitement level with this plan, even the return to studying theater part, was not that high as well.
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. It worked just about as well as a good dose of alcohol. (Imagine being both naked and drunk!) It was 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 the couple of romantic and near romantic experiences with women I had been in plays with who had come onto 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 hadn’t 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 and sent to fight in it.
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. 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, the proper Spanish lady, pulling each pair of our now clean briefs out of the hamper, holding each up to examine it and shake it out, and then carefully folding it.
Steve, now sitting on the side of his bed facing me, reached into the basket 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”, and quickly proceeded to pull down the pair he was wearing, revealing his rather ample genitals, and then finally covering them again as he pulled up the fresh pair. It had been several years since I had seen another guy’s penis, balls and pubic hair. I was curious to look, but of course did not want it to look to Steve like I was lingering. So I took a quick glance at those parts between his legs and then looked down in the hamper to find my own pair of folded underwear.
Although I had had that history of getting naked with my peers at age eight and nine, I still had gotten completely traumatized having to do so again in gym class in seventh grade in junior high. Since I had skipped kindergarten, I was a year younger than virtually all of my classmates, none of them I really felt safe around, so there I was at age eleven showering after gym class with a bunch of other male peers who were twelve. Being late to go into puberty as well, I had a tiny penis and little or no pubic hair, compared to the other kids, or at least the cool kids that I felt I should be one of.
And it got much worse the days when we held class in the pool. Our gym teachers didn’t really announce ahead of time the days we’d do class in the pool. Or if they did, I didn’t remember. We didn’t routinely bring swimsuits to school, so we ended up doing class in the pool naked, by design pretty much because the school didn’t want our wet suits hanging all day in our school lockers. It was obviously by design, because my seventh grade art teacher convinced me to do my poster project for class on this subject. I did a big picture of an open locker with swim trunks hanging from a hook dripping water, with the caption, “Skip the drip, swim suitless”. It was a little creepy that he had suggested it actually, but I had done it.
So instead of the brief moments in the shower at the end of class, we spent the WHOLE class naked together. When we were actually in the pool it wasn’t so bad, but we invariably had to do a lot of standing around outside of the pool listening to our adult teachers, who were fully clothed in polo shirts, shorts and gym shoes. Or when we were learning how to dive, watching our naked classmates, one at a time, mount the board and attempt this or that dive based on the teacher’s instruction. Their body and all their naked parts on full and featured display.
That meant the fat kids and those of us with tiny dicks and without sufficient fuzz between our legs were targets for any bored bullyish kid that wanted to relieve their boredom with a little snickering. And it only got worse if the teacher barked at the snickerers to stop. This issue continued and was worse actually in eighth and ninth grade, as more of my classmates transitioned into puberty, with their pubic hair sprouting and their dicks getting bigger, but me always on the trailing end of the developmental curve. By the time I got to high school, to keep any shred of self esteem, I stopped showering after gym class completely and just was sweaty and even stinky for the rest of the day.
Then in my theater productions in high school, those of us who had to quickly change costumes backstage, were nearly naked for a few moments, sometimes female and male types together, and even assisting each other with taking off or putting on clothes. But these were my comrades who I spent every day with in rehearsal. We were a troupe working together to put on a show, and I was completely comfortable with all of them and stripping my clothes off in front of them. Hell, if we had somehow been allowed to do the musical Hair, I would have even gone out on that stage naked with them at the close of act one and belted out “beads, flowers, freedom, happiness”.
So back here in the present, with Steve already having gotten completely naked in front of me, now the spotlight again 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 he was more comfortable showing his stuff than I was. But I did not want to cede that ground to him, and be perceived by him as that sort of more timid person.
So without looking at him I sighted a clean pair of my underwear in the basket, 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, though I did in fact enjoy it. The exhibitionist nudist in me enjoyed the metaphor of stripping away all conceit that clothing represented. As I sat on my bed, I did not look at him while I was completely unclothed in front of him. He was silent but I could feel his unseen eyes on me, sizing up my own parts, less ample than his, though respectable enough now, particularly in the pubic hair department, that I was no longer uncomfortable at how they looked. I felt a rush of energy throughout my crotch and excitement through my whole body, briefly freaking out that I might actually start to get an erection. But nothing like that happened and I pulled up the fresh pair of underwear over my briefly exposed parts.
Soon both duly clothed again, 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 to get there. 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 itself was as stunning in its design as the work it showcased.
My mom, the artist with extensive academic training in art history, loved Picasso’s work. She had talked to me on several occasions about him 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 those lines and forms in interesting and compelling ways. He used 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 Picasso’s craft. But when I entered the galleries of the 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 recalled my mom telling me that his signature became so famous that people who he bought things from and paid by check would never cash that check so as to keep this artifact with that signature.
I read the museum’s summary of his life. 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 rebelled against the more conventional representational art of his father, who was an 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.
As I worked my way through the galleries in the Barcelona Picasso museum, I was finally getting that whole thing at a more visceral level. I was resonating with that transformation of art in the early 20th century, of which Picasso was a key figure and perpetrator, and how it was metaphorical for a larger effort to reinvent all of human culture. To deconstruct the essential pieces of how human society was currently constructed and controlled by an elite, and reconfigure those pieces into a completely transformed model of society. Someday I and others in my own cohort, inspired by the visionary ideas and ideals of the hippies of the previous generation (as 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 mostly heterosexual male with his libido always percolating, I was also taken by some of Picasso’s 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 undergarments to give a peek of pubic hair below her belly button.
And then I came upon 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 were in her vagina. I had never seen any sort of representation of an erect penis before, only having seen my own looking down at it. It was something you wouldn’t see in the raunchiest of porn magazines at the time that I used to sneak peeks of in the dark aisles of the Blue Front newsstand in my hometown of Ann Arbor. Yet here it was displayed in this public high brow gallery in Franco’s Spain!
The piece was full frontal unabashed nudity, which was initially shocking, doubly so in semi-public museum. But after absorbing the shock, I realized that I had absolutely no problem with it, bring it on even, and I was quickly fantasizing about such sexual encounters and what they could be like, now that I was seeing the rendition of at least one scenario. So in this moment, furtively looking quickly around to ascertain that no one was noticing and judging me some sort of pervert, I was really quite excited to gawk at the piece in relative privacy. As I stared at it, a deer in the headlights of sorts, Steve managed to sneak up behind me, and when he whispered in my ear I startled.
“Wouldn’t that be fun!” he said, chuckling as I nearly jumped out of my skin, “Don’t embarrass yourself getting aroused staring at it for too long!”
I could muster no reply, still starting at the thing. Steve walked off chuckling to himself, and I figured I better move on
Though I liked the nudity and was even not uncomfortable with the sexual explicitness of the picture, 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 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 some female type 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, particularly “Suffragette City” and “Hang onto Yourself”. The former with its quick summation of a sexual encounter…
Wham bam thank you ma’am
… and the latter with the portrait of a sex focused groupie…
She wants my honey not my money
She’s a funky thigh collector
Layin’ on electric dreams
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 a novice 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 picture of a sexy woman in a bikini or underwear from a standard magazine or a catalog, or perhaps even the remembered nude woman seen in a Playboy or Penthouse magazine that I had clandestinely peeked at earlier in the Blue Front news stand. Backpacking through Europe, sleeping mostly in shared quarters in hostels and using more public bathrooms, masturbating was only occasionally possible (having done it no more than a handful of times since I arrived in Europe six weeks ago) when circumstances provided me with some private space.
So after my provocative encounters with Picasso, and penises real and rendered, our sojourn in Barcelona was coming to a close. We planned in the morning to hitchhike south towards Granada.