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Remember the movie “Biutiful?” Javier Bardem’s dark character runs a group of Senegalese immigrants who sell knockoffs of famous designer goods on “La Rambla,” the main drag of Barcelona. The immigrants are always ready to run from the police, who descend on them with sirens blaring and haul them off to jail.

The other day, Julya and I were walking La Rambla when she spotted the very characters. They stood in front of a collection of handbags and wallets laid out on a square of canvas. In one hand, they held a collection of ropes leading to the four corners of the canvas. With one quick pull, they are able to collect the goods inside the canvas and toss it over their backs and be on the run. As we approached, they glanced about nervously, and objected to their photos being taken. Julya negotiated with one fellow, but they were unable to reach agreement on a price for a “Gucci bag.” Suddenly, as if on signal, they pulled their ropes up, tossed the bags over their shoulders and hustled off down a side street.

Barcelona is startling beautiful, with incredible architecture and winding narrow streets and hidden shops and restaurants. But it is still a big city, teeming with people from everywhere. You have to negotiate your path on a sidewalk.

After our three weeks in San Miguel de Allende studying Spanish, we were anxious to try out our new skills on the Spaniards, although I fully expected our “Mexican” Spanish to be subject to some teasing from the locals. Imagine my surprise when on arriving in Barcelona I was unable to understand what the people were saying. I caught a word here and there, but the words seemed almost Italian. Garden was jardi, rather than jardin. Palace was palau rather than palacio. Goodbye was adeu, not adios.

Was I not in Spain? I finally got it. We were in Catalonia, a province of Spain that had hung on tenaciously to its own culture, including its language, Catalan, which was a mixture of French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. It wasn’t as bad as it might seem; they all can speak Spanish, and when I tried my Spanish they answered pleasantly. It did serve to remind me Biutiful.

how little I actually know of the rest of the world.

We are now in Tossa de Mar, a small town on the Costa Brava, north of Barcelona. The village sits on a beautiful bay and hosts a medieval town and castle pretty much as it was in the 1200s. In a few days we leave for Gerona, and then Madrid, where I hope everyone speaks Spanish.

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