Travel Essays

Finding the Center

On the hour-and-a-half drive from Barcelona to the poble (“town” in Catalan), Ana and Marta bickered. It is a symptom of their age, 11 and 14, but uncomfortable for all parties when said bickering occurs in a tiny European car. I never thought I would miss the clunky minivans of America.

We drove farther and farther away from the city, and tall buildings turned into trees, metro lines into rivers. The town Sant Joan de les Abadesses is along the ruta del ferro, the iron route, where a train used to bring coal from the mines in Ripoll. Today, the old railroad path is enjoyed by hikers and bikers exploring the rolling, wooded hills.

I walked between the groups of adults and children who were chattering away in Catalan and was content to take in the fresh air and beautiful views. The scenery in Catalonia always reminds me of California, which makes me nostalgic for home and yet so glad to explore a home away from home.

After sauntering through the woods, we descended into the little town to stop at a café and wander about. I am always shocked by the antiquity of these pobles. After visiting Rome two years ago, I realized that as an American, my concept of “old” was severely stunted; the oldest thing I had ever seen that wasn’t locked away in a museum was a redwood tree. But the pobles in Catalonia had history that I could hardly wrap my head around. Because most of Catalonia was settled by the Romans, the historic city center is very distinct: two main roads cross into a plaza featuring the city forum, a market, and later, a church. Some of the family friends asked me if there were little towns with a historical center in the United States. “America doesn’t have enough history to have historic centers like that,” I responded. Another family friend remarked that when she went to the United States, she was shocked by the immense, sprawling cities that seemed to have no center. How could such large cities not have a center? It was like being permanently estranged, indefinitely marginalized from the hub. Yet even the little pobles out in rural Catalonia had a center; even these isolated towns had centralized activity. Perhaps this is why Americans always end up in Europe to find themselves.

After walking around town, we ambled to the river, striding down streets barely wide enough to fit a car. Every other window hung a Catalan independence flag, red and white stripes with a white star inside a blue triangle: this was català, català, the real Catalonia. We crossed a 9th century Roman bridge and went to a family friends’ house that was owned by their grandparents. From the balcony, I could see the Pyrenees mountains in the distance and smoke curled from the chimneys as the sun set in Sant Joan de les Abadesses. I was 115 kilometers from Barcelona, and after spending but five hours in the town, I could orient myself from that little balcony.

On the way home, I solved the bickering by sitting in the middle of the feuding sisters. As the cramped, old car sputtered down the highway, the girls’ heads slowly fell onto my shoulders, much like my own sisters used to make me their pillow in the car. As a middle child, it was nice to be in the middle, to be someone’s center. After that, the tiny European car didn’t seem so bad.

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