The next day, our last in Barcelona, dawned clear and bright; the girls went to see museums, while Carlos, Chenbl and I took the subway downtown and walked around a food market. Outside the door was a duo playing 1920’s jazz, with old Pepe on the trumpet and Russian Mikhail on the stand-up piano. Both were very good, and we bought one of their CDs before sitting down to have lunch while listening to the music. Pepe’s trumpet was a very old Schilke, the original silver plating gone, revealing the brass. “We played at a beach for a while,” said Pepe. “That was when that happened. I used to have a Conn, but it was stolen. This is just as good.” I asked him if I could have a go on it, but he would only let me play if I’d brought my own mouthpiece, which I hadn’t. “It would be like letting you kiss my wife,” he said. Fair enough. The group also included a banjo player, but their permit for the market space was only for two musicians. After their allotted time was up, they packed up and left, Mikhail shoving the piano down the street. The next act was a heavily tattooed duo who played the same song twice. It included a lot of shouting, so we kept walking over to La Rambla, where I saw a black man being pulled over by police. Thankfully he wasn’t shot or beaten as might have been the case in the U.S.
The girls Lined us and said they were going to see the Picasso exhibit, so we tagged along. It was located in the old family palace of the Aguilars (I think?), and was nice except that it jumped over four decades of Picasso’s work. I was interested in seeing his progression from a formal artist into a far more abstract and surreal one, but the jump from 1917 to 1957 was abrupt and somewhat disappointing. Afterwards we walked to the nearest train station, where you could apparently just walk onto a train. I thought this might mean trouble when we tried to exit at our destination, and sure enough, the Filipina manager there took personal offense at our transgression, and detained us for a far longer time than it should take for people at a train station to find out the price of a train ride.
We packed up our stuff at the hotel, which was actually pretty nice, and boarded the high-speed rail back to Madrid. Chenbl watched the Phantom of the Opera on his tablet while I dealt with more ear pressure problems. I’d caught a cold earlier on the trip and was all stopped up.
The best thing about our hotel in Madrid, the “Sleep ‘N”, was that it was quite near the train station. Somewhat worse was the fact that they disregard requests for double beds and just give you whatever they have. “It’s just the way we do it,” the clerk said. I suppose, then, that giving bad reviews to such behavior on online review sites is just the way I do it. The rooms were also tiny, the wifi unworkable, and the walls paper-thin.
Chenbl, Carlos and I had a big breakfast the next morning at a corner cafe with a classic boomerang-shaped counter. It was good but salty. After that we saw Carlos off at the airport bus station. I was dizzy from cold medicine, so we resorted once again to the tourist bus, riding around the route three times before I spotted a sign familiar from my childhood: Steak ‘n Shake! When we got off the bus and entered the store, however, we were disappointed to find that the kitchen was broken, and all they had were shakes. We went to the Five Guys burger joint on Gran Via instead, and I counted far more than five guys in there. It was good, but I was expecting a bit more after watching the “Oh My Dayum” video.
The tour bus people had said that service stopped at six, but the bus just ordered everyone off at a random point on the tour at around 5:40, so we had to take the subway back. The airport bus was late, of course, this being Spain. But traffic was light, and we arrived in plenty of time. When we tried to get a tax refund that everyone had told us could be done at the airport with receipts, they told us that they needed special paperwork from all the vendors, so…Spain again. The China Eastern flight was late again as well, of course, and the plane was full of rather rustic types who propped their bare feet up on the seats, shoved their way into bathrooms ahead of people who had been waiting, and planned excursions to sneak into first-class for the night. The cold medicine helped me sleep, however, so I didn’t really care about any of that. When we got to Shanghai, the other passengers rushed the bus to the terminal like it was the last flight out of Saigon. We had time to take the subway into Shanghai to walk along the Bund and turn down many offers of fake watches. Dinner was at Yershari, a Mongolian affair with lots of lamb. The subway ride back was interminable, and I kept nodding off. Before we retired, we had a midnight snack at a roadside stall off the highway. Fried noodles, at last.
The next day was the last of our trip, but our flight wasn’t until the afternoon, so we caught cabs to the subway. Our driver, a plumb middle-aged woman, couldn’t figure out how to put the Volkswagen Passat into reverse, which was slightly alarming, but she got us there in one piece. The sun was out, but the smog cast a pall over everything. On the subway, we stood and watched as any available seat was snagged immediately.
In Shanghai we got off at the Qinghua University stop and met one of the girls’ friends, an old classmate apparently. She took around looking at the old houses of the foreign concession quarter from old colonial times. It’s now very ritzy. I thought that I’d spotted the same foreigner, a middle-aged skinny white dude with a beard, several times before I realized that that area is (once again) mostly foreigners. It’s more Tianmu than Tianmu ever was. Rich, affluent businesspeople, trendy joggers in shorts and sunglasses. Fast walkers discussing stock options and answering each other in loud, clipped declarations while their golden lab sleeps on the sidewalk beside a salad dish of filtered water.
It was interesting, but I would have rather sought out any of the few remaining old hutongs and wandered around there. But perhaps those have vanished as well; they were being torn down right and left the last time I wandered around the city in 2006.
That afternoon at the airport, the Chinese immigration officer asked if I was mixed. I said yes, not wanting to include the fact that I am not actually ethnically Chinese. It was good enough for her, anyway. Although my ears were giving me hell on the flight back, I was delighted to see the lights of the Taiwanese coast appear on the horizon. This trip has been eventful, but I am quite glad to be back home.