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Traveling South By Laurence L. Murphy, Illustrations by Deirdre SheeanGo Back to the Table of Contents
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There was a festival that night in the border town, but I never saw it. I thought I would because it was evening and the road to Barcelona had to cut through the densest part of the Pyrenees. Enthusiastic, closer to the paintings, I decided to try for a ride even though it was late. I wanted to see my painters by morning. A Spanish family who lived in Barcelona stopped. They were a young husband with a truly beautiful wife, and his sister.

We had a happy time together crossing the mountains, joking and partying just with our conversation as the Spanish do, my speaking French and English, they speaking Spanish, though the husband spoke excellent English, he translating at a rapid rate and trying to keep an eye on the guard railless road. It was raining, and the road coming out of the mountains was lined with heavy traffic as the weather worsened. When we left the mountains, however, everything changed.

Around Barcelona at this time highways were being constructed and we were on and off them constantly. One minute on the whoosh of freeway and then the next off in a muddy road backed up with cars; there was a truck in front of us, people sitting in the back drinking wine and partying and waving to us - then we were really on freeway with exit signs and streams of candy red tail lights traveling uniformly through the night. They asked me what part of town I was headed for and I told them the Ramblas: the ancient boulevard that winds down to the harbor. They brought me to the circle where the Ramblas begin a long amble to the sea.

I had not been in Barcelona for years, but I remembered it, and out of memory I began looking for the same hotel I had stayed before. Finally, I found it. I wanted to go to all the old places again, and after having gotten a room that was about the size of a large closet, I set out into the excitement of evening.

At night, there is some of the tradition in Barcelona of the Tampas sampling of Madrid, and much beer drinking, crowds lining the street, pretty girls walking with linked arms down the avenue to where the sea soaks the city’s mood and atmosphere. An American Aircraft carrier was in and some the sailors were on shore were looking for girls and drinking too much. They told me that Barcelona and Piraeus were, at that time, the only ports where they could look for fun and let off steam. The streets were lined with cafeterias that advertised themselves as Snack Bars, and the sound of pinball machines and jute boxes filled the air in a mad electronic rush that was tempoed by the crush of people. From the snack bar lined Ramblas I walked out into the section of town that had been destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt in the turn of the century urban renewal style that is like the sections of Paris built by Hausmann. There is real architectural innovation here, and searching along these large wide tree lined boulevards, now in the chic part of the city, I found the restaurant I had been looking for. I had eaten here on a birthday years before. I must have looked strange eating there then, alone with a bottle of San Miguel Beer, but it was fun to be there alone with a memory - and I slept that night happy that I had made it south and filled with the anticipation of going to the Picasso museum in the morning.

The museum was in the old city. Upon waking, I went directly there.

The first painting I saw was of the Ramblas itself, and then a painting of the harbor with the Pillar of Columbus, commemorating his voyage from Barcelona to blunder into America. There were painting of all the quarters of Barcelona, always the color which made early Picassos transform all life into a carnival. There were, as well, the paintings and drawings I wanted to see: the drawing of the Bull Fights, Science and Charity, and the nude of the short man. There were some Rose period paintings, the weight of pathos liquid in color and form. The ink drawings of Don Quixote were like Rorschach blotches which revealed a sad traveling along roads of design and ideas in some ancient and early Spain. Still, although I had wanted, in fact traveled here, to see these works, I did not find the key I had come for.

I had wanted to find that stage before the Cubist revolution, before Les Demoiselle d’Avignon, in which Picasso’s vision had strayed first to the primitive-and then the designs of fractured light which splintered time and searched for an appearance behind the appearances of the world which we knew and took for granted. I had wanted to see the Barcelona pieces because they had been the work of Picasso when he was still an art student mastering form, and I had wanted to see the suggestion of what was to come while he was establishing himself as a master. I could not find it. I knew something in this change from the world of the apparent to the refracted world of interiors and altered abstraction grounded in slashes of stratified light, was very important about the contrast of north and south, and also about something inside us.

All I found, however, was the fresh vision of youth that gave not the slightest hint of what was to come. There was only the clear light of the south, revealing form naked and beautiful in sun and shade, but not the dimensions of light and mind he would later paint. Picasso’s breaking up of light into a spectrum of perspectives and dimension was a mystery to me about time and seeing time, and being unable to resolve this mystery annoyed me.

Frustrated, I sought out the catharsis of the marketplace for solace and forgetfulness in the activities of buying and selling.

The market was a carnival, sandwiches being vended on hard bread and soaked in the juice of the tomato, the sandwich maker will rub the tomato onto the bread and then throw the skin out. No one slices the fruit as they do in America. Here you eat while milling in the crowd, buying and selling, the teeming life of trade overwhelming. Finally, I left the old town and crossed the Ramblas and came to the Pillar of Columbus, which I had just seen painted, its image at another time was now quite tangible before me. A park runs up a steep hillside here and overlooks the city, the sea, and the harbor. You can take a cable car up the steep slope. I decided to climb the slope instead, and search out time and perspective over the shades of Mediterranean.

The earth was clay and crumbled and it was almost sickly hot, the smell of the dirt and clay fertile to grow tangles of weed and plants thick with stickers and insects. At the top of the hill, dirty and bleeding from where my forehead had hit a rock, I went to sleep in the deep green of a small meadow.

I dreamt of going to Ibiza over the sea and there I would fall in love again in the hot African sun of the south, and we would live like savages in the sun with nothing but seaweed around us. We would live like a witness, which was what we were meant to be. We would only witness the world unfolding around us, and not think about it, but simply live circling a star, and we would know everyday that all that might not have been, in fact, simply was. When I woke for a second I did not know where I was, then seeing out over the city below, and the white and brown of the harbor, now feeling my face sunburned and the scratch of dried blood on my forehead and looking down to the slide of dirt, I knew, and I laid on my side and looked out over the ocean. The sky was unbelievably blue - and I felt lost not only in place, but in time - lost in other languages, cultures-and history seemed a horizon of time unresolved transforming into millenium, epochs, eternal evolution, human beings a transitory repetition of flesh and appetite. And all of this was in the sea, and more. The sea was its witness, and so much had happened on the Mediterranean it was like time itself, surrounded by nations, languages, races it belonged to none of them in particular. Continents surrounded it and it was near land locked except for the two taps at the shoulder of Gibraltar and the Canal. East, West, Europe, Eurasia and Africa bordered it in land, the cultural fruits of civilization in time. It was odd to see it, and truly believe that it was the same sea sighted by Ancient Egyptians, or that it had formed the outer parameters of the earth for the Greeks, or that ancient Rome had defined it as the earth’s girdle. Like geology, history seemed stacked up on itself, only in light, rather than earth, and time dissolved into and endless evaporation of illusions of stratified ether. Down below, Columbus would set sail for the Indies and instead run into some forlorn Bahama as waves of time and history colliding would insure that nothing, ever again, would be the same.

I climbed down the hill to the waterfront and bought a ticket for Ibiza. I wanted to be on the sea rather than just look at it, to see if that kind of engagement and participation might change the way I understood it, and too, somehow I believed my dream of savage love and splendor and understanding the mystery of time would translate into form and substance if I traveled far enough south, if I searched hard enough.

That night on the boat I made my way to the prow where there was a small step up over the sea with no sound of engine and the silent slice of steel prow cut through the waters. It was cool and the breeze was in my hair, and I lay down in the prow in a sleeping bag with the salt of the Mediterranean coating me, looking up at the sky. Sun’s light hides the stars behind the glow of day. It is night’s drunken darkness which makes clear the presence of other lights hidden by the proximity of the sun. The night sky shows off all the lesser lights -

- and amidst the mystery of time we travel with our lives’ stories concealed inside us - and then perhaps setting out, encounter so many others, with their stories, all moving about in time - we are all like those stars which only reveal themselves at night, standing out against an absence, we become an appearance of after-light, influenced by unknown attractions, perhaps no longer there by the time others see our reflection -

Thunder woke me and I felt the sea rain. Standing in the prow I saw a storm in the distance, the sky lit in a black light over the turmoil of ocean, lightening flashing and the sky bright gray when lightening struck. Then a crack of thunder was loud and the ship rolled with the sound - All At Once - lightening struck the sea lighting the horizon like day, in multi dimensional flashes, slicing light with great speed, dividing time, and driving a column of water up in a leap that splashed down into a whirlpool on a horizon that was suddenly lost again in darkness.

I almost ached for our star to show itself in morning, to hide the other lights, displace the darkness, and I felt sad that I would have to return to northern cities, where the earth was often disguised by the dark artifice of men and preoccupation, where the sun was often hidden behind the world we made, where somehow the earth got lost. The spirit of the northern cities easily is imported south, but the pure beauty of sun on earth is not easily taken from its home.

On the island, there was to be interesting evenings of rabbit cooked with Pois Chic, and wine and cool well water and the cool of evenings spent inside Fincas half built into the earth. There was to be the gaze of black robed peasant women who seemed otherworldly, and the always-suspicious eyes of the policemen. Even amidst the raw physical beauty of this place which held hidden waterfalls and woods giving way to cliffs that dropped you toward the sea and into the aura of other continents; and even after I had stood on a high cliff, looking far out to sea directly south past Formenterra toward the African horizon - Even then, for a second, I knew, on the horizons of mind, we can, for a moment, see ourselves in profile - looking back - at ourselves in time-

- in Carolina, almost out at sea on the Outer Banks, in the wind and fury of this place, there was amazement and grace looking out over oceans; although even then, I had learned only a bit of what I had sought to know traveling south when I was younger. It is not through traveling over land that one learns this, but only by traveling through one’s life--even as we pass on to other things, other people, other places, other ages. But when one is young, there is reason enough in song and, thankfully, there is an age of innocence.

-

I would return to Paris eventually, by train this time. I never did fall in love in Ibiza, although I did not know then that love, if one is lucky enough to find it, is not what I expected. The French call love le petite mort: the little death, because, like us, at least for now, love is very fragile and mortal and knowing the little deaths in life only comes after ages of understanding. Like things fragile and mortal, love can be easily lost.

When I was young, however, I could not find what I did not know I was looking for. I could only find, and therefore know it, once I had lost it. In the search for ourselves in time we are both the beggar and the thieves of our own lives.

Nor did I know then that the world we think we see and know is the world we create, and which creates us, and is in its true form only rarely remembered or recognized. Perhaps only in the coincidence of light, memory and dimension that artists see in time. I did not know time moves us through our lives, as we move ourselves through space, and sometimes, rarely, they coincide to show us the nature of the journey. Returning to Paris there was only the slow rhythm of trains moving through the night. Yet, as one gets older, progressively, life is less and less about what we seek to find, and more and more about what we may have lost, or misplaced, or forgotten, in the searching; an eidetic, or an after image, of ourselves in time. Memory becomes a vertigo of perception changing its vision as our lives are slowly internalized to mind: life, like art, is transformed in a meditation and mediation of insight recorded in gradual stages of age and refracted light. All else appears, and disappears, in time-space-although, if we are lucky, time and meaning may touch us before all the little deaths become too overwhelming.

I did not know this then, but back in Paris, I would be once again young and poor and free, and like all youth, somehow necessary. The exuberance of youth would transform inevitably into disappointment, but when I too was disappointed, I did not respond with vindictiveness, nor did I blame the world for its unfairness, nor keep mindlessly busy to disguise or forget--for traveling south when I was younger had revealed that that which we do not see around us is as important as that which we think we do, for inside we are both -


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