Friday, February 25, 2011

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
seen @ Gateway Film Center, Columbus OH

One bright day in the spring of 1993, when I was still in college, I came home to find a letter from my school informing me about a summer art program in Europe that they offered. One could choose from a variety of art classes held in different European cities which one would get credit for. I looked it over. The only one that appealed to me was the painting class in Spain, but I wrote it off as being too expensive (college was expensive enough as it was). I set it on my desk and forgot about it. By chance, my mother came upon that same letter and asked me whether I'd be interested in going. I said "Sure, but are you willing to pay for it?" She said, "Consider it a graduation gift." (I was a junior at the time.)

And just like that, I took my first step towards one of the great adventures of my life - the summer I spent in Barcelona. I could go on and on and on about that summer - it changed my life in so many profound and vital ways - but I'll attempt to limit my recollections to a handful of highlights.

The painting class was offered through the school, and it was open to undergraduates as well as continuing-ed students, but we had far more of the latter. As a result, I would be spending this trip with a bunch of adults way older than me. I was, in fact, the second youngest person in the group of about 25 - by a considerable margin. That almost was a dealbreaker for me. I didn't fancy the thought of hanging out with a bunch of old people. Nor was I comfortable with the fact, as I quickly realized once I got off the plane and met with the others, that I was the only black person.

I needn't have worried in either case. It wasn't all senior citizens; the average age of the group was 35, so I didn't feel the generation gap as profoundly as I had feared I would. And our common bond of art brought us together, despite our many cultural differences - indeed, our group represented a number of different countries, not just America, so I didn't feel quite so isolated.

Our painting class was ridiculously easy. We had three different instructors - more like advisers, really - and there weren't any strict requirements as such. For three hours a day, five days a week, we painted what we wanted, and they offered critiques and encouragement when we needed it. I've never been all that adept with oil paints, and the stuff I ended up doing wasn't all that memorable, but then, that wasn't entirely the point as far as I was concerned.

We also went on group outings to museums, parks and buildings that showcased the distinctive art of Barcelona, learning about artists like Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali and others. Some of us spent a weekend in Madrid to see the Prado, or a day in Figueres to see the Dali Museum, or a day in Montserrat to see the religious iconography. It was all part of our art education, and I took to it eagerly. It helped that many of the natives spoke English, though my English-to-Spanish phrasebook did come in handy many times.

I've mentioned before about some of the friends I met there. Shawn was my roommate in the hotel we stayed at. We were the two youngest members of the group, me being older by a couple of years. He was a tall, skinny kid who liked to come across as tough. We hung out with Jessica, Betsy and Sherry. I'll never forget the first time I saw Jess; it was on the plane. A drop-dead gorgeous redhead like her was easy to spot from the opposite side of the plane, though at the time, I thought she was just another passenger and didn't think I'd see her again. So you can imagine how shocked I was to discover she was part of our group, too! I don't think I ever had any serious romantic designs on her or the others, but it didn't matter. We all had fun together.

Amanda was an older woman from the West Coast. I remember talking to her a lot, even writing her letters long after we came back home. She was an excellent painter and a bit of an eccentric. I remember one group dinner where she claimed to be able to read tea leaves. Margaret was from Minnesota. She was kinda shy and quiet, but very sweet in a girl-next-door way. I remember flirting with her on several occasions. Lisa was a tall blonde from Wisconsin. She and I got lost in the old historic section of Barcelona once. Jeff was this laid-back dude with long curly hair. He was there with his sister Christie. Steve was the adventurous type. He ran off with a couple of local girls for a weekend. Kathy was a country girl, another terrific painter.

And then there's Vija. My earliest memory of her was the day she and I went to see the Sagrada Familia, the great unfinished church designed by Antonio Gaudi. I was desperate to go with someone that day but everyone else had other plans. Finally I asked her, even though I didn't know her that well yet. She agreed, and we spent the afternoon seeing not just the church, but walking around most of uptown Barcelona. I remember liking her paintings; they were abstract, though I can't remember too much about them. I do know that she paints different stuff now than what she painted over there. I liked her well enough, but I didn't hang out with her much, even though she was friends with Amanda. An incident on the last night of the vacation, however, forever changed the way I regarded her... but that's a tale for another time.

A year or so after I came back to New York, a new film came out called Barcelona. By that time Vija and I became pals, so I called her up and asked if she wanted to see it. She did, and we went with another fellow traveler from our group, a Greek dude named Anastasios. I didn't care that it was an "art house" movie; I just wanted to relive the experience of being in Barcelona again. I wasn't that impressed with it (I don't care for Whit Stillman films in general), but ever since then, I've kept an eye out for films set in Barcelona, and Vija and I have seen a few (among the many other films we've seen together). We were gonna see Javier Bardem's Biutiful with others from our group that we recently found on Facebook, but mixed reviews and the grim nature of the story quelled any enthusiasm we had for it (yes, Bardem got nominated for Best Actor, but that didn't seem to matter either).

I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona when I was living in Columbus and though I liked it, I was sad that I couldn't see it with Vija. I even remember telling her about it the first time I had read about it, and I had no idea at the time that I would leave town before it hit theaters. Not that it matters anymore now that I'm back in New York, but at the time it did.

My memories of that summer in Spain are among my most precious. I hope I never completely lose them.

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