Saturday, June 24, 2006

Berbena de Sant Joan

Only when living in a foreign country can you be blindsided by a national holiday. Even when you live on a fairly normal day-to-day basis, when you speak (or have someone speak for you) fluently, when you pay bills and run errands and negotiate the minutia of getting around and making it work, you can find yourself standing in the middle of the beach at 4 a.m., surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who are throwing fireworks wildly into the sky and at the sand all around your head and feet.

Yesterday was the Berbena de Sant Joan, St. John’s Night, the biggest celebration in Spain—particularly in Barcelona—besides New Year’s Eve. It ushers in the Dia de Sant Joan on June 24, the feast of St. John the Baptist, and celebrates the summer solstice, the shortest night of the year. The day is marked in an unusual way: besides the expected feasting, where people apparently eat a pastry called the coca de Sant Joan, everyone spends the night—the whole night—setting off fireworks they’d stocked up on during the week. By fireworks, I don’t mean sparklers. I mean flashy, rocketing, apartment-shaking fireworks, so many of them that Andrew and I felt like we were in a war zone as we drank gin and tonics in our bedroom at midnight.

From our balcony, we watched some young boys setting off fireworks on our street. Unconcerned, they lit the fireworks in their hands and threw them; lit them on the ground then doubled back to reposition them; lit them and let them explode under their shoes. One of the boys was having trouble lighting one, and he stooped over it, studying the sparks and the meager smoke, then grabbed it to light it again. A man approached them—the boy’s father. I expected the man to yell at the boy, to instruct him angrily to stand well away from the firework, but this was not the case. The man took up the firework in his own hand, lit it with his cigarette lighter, and, with a smile of pure happiness, threw it into a storm drain. The explosion shook the whole street, maybe the whole block. Andrew and I looked at each other, open-mouthed. “He threw it into the storm drain,” we kept saying as we ventured into the streets and made our way to the beach to witness the festivities firsthand.

Like so much else about this celebration, the firework thrown into the storm drain was something that, as Americans, we simply could not make sense of. Living in a foreign country means growing adept at quickly assembling cultural clues to figure out unfamiliar situations: if an empty café table on the sidewalk is yours for the taking or if people are actually waiting for that table inside, for example, or whether you order at the counter or let a waiter come to you. When you see the same kind of espadrille in every shop window, you know it’s the right shoe for summer; when you see everyone gripping their handbags when a seemingly cute small child walks through a café, you know that child is going to grab whatever’s not pinned down as she walks past. But with St. Joan, we didn’t even recognize what we were seeing as clues. All week, occasional fireworks would go off, which we could hear from our apartment. “Who is setting off those fireworks?” we’d say, annoyed. Early in the week, a kiosk selling fireworks was set up near the metro entrance. Great, I thought. These fireworks will go on all summer. In Spanish class on Thursday, I heard something about Friday being a holiday; but Andrew didn’t have the day off, so I didn’t think too much about it. Eventually, we pieced it all together, what the celebration was and what to expect that night. Later, under siege in our apartment and dodging fireworks in the streets, we finally understood the essence of the holiday completely.

This isn’t to say we understood. Fireworks are illegal in the United States. On the Fourth of July, fireworks displays are set off by professionals, usually from boats situated well away from any spectators. Americans are raised with a simple understanding: if you set off a firework, you risk losing a finger, a hand, a toe, or an eye. Fireworks, like snarling Dobermans or leering men in pickup trucks, are something we are culturally wired to avoid. On the beach last night, it was impossible for me to relax. Fireworks were being thrown under dumpsters, into crowds, and into narrow streets so the sound would reverberate dramatically. Children were setting them off with little regard to where the firework might fly once lit. Everyone was drinking. There wasn’t a policeman in sight. There were thousands of people on the Barceloneta beach, drinking, dancing, skinny dipping, smoking pot, and—of course!—setting off the fireworks, and it was understood that this would go on all night. It was a scene that could never, for so many reasons, happen in the United States.

No one seemed concerned. No one ducked when fireworks sailed over their heads; no one flinched when small children ran around throwing ridiculously loud cherry bombs into the middle of crowds. When a group of people rigged a fire-filled balloon out of a large cloth and let it drift over the crowd, making a fiery landing in someone’s lap, I was the only one giving the group dirty, incredulous looks. Everyone seemed to be certain that nothing could possibly happen, that fireworks in the hands of children and drunk people couldn’t possibly be dangerous.

I tried to point out that they were wrong. In my Spanish class that morning, a girl from Norway was late, showing up limping fifteen minutes into class, her foot wrapped in a bloody bandage. She’d been at the beach that morning, and she stepped on an unexploded firework with a bare foot—blood was everywhere, she said; people were throwing gauze at her from windows; and the beach security gave her three stitches. I told this story to a Catalan friend of Andrew’s, who dismissed it easily. “That could only happen to a Norweigen,” he said.

At 4:30 a.m., though the party was nowhere near slowing down, Andrew and I headed home. As we walked to the metro—open all night in honor of the holiday—we noticed shattered phone booths and smashed-up manholes, evidence, surely, of inventive places people found to put fireworks. Women were passed out on benches and steps. If they had handbags, they were gone now. A man in front of us had an open wine bottle in his back pocket; there were still, somehow, fireworks going off. When we got home, the sun was just beginning to brighten the sky. Our neighborhood was finally quiet, and we instantly fell asleep.

Now, drinking coffee on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, my eyes and fingers intact, my skin and hair unsinged, I wonder how many people spent the night in the hospital with severed digits or burns. Such a night couldn’t possibly pass without casualties—if you touch a firework, after all, you risk losing a finger, a hand, a toe, or an eye. I understand that Americans are fearful and obsessed with safety; I understand that the extent to which Americans go to avoid or eradicate danger can be extreme. But it also seems like common sense that fireworks + crowds + alcohol + children equals disaster. I’m almost certain, however, that I was the only one with disaster on my mind during the celebration of St. Joan.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Good Student

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I’m a Good Student. I’m always done first. I always do my homework. I always get the answer right, or look appropriately interested in the teacher’s correction if I don’t. I sit up straight in my chair, show up on time, take notes, follow instructions to the letter. I always get A’s.

In my Spanish class, now two days deep, I realize my native Spanish teacher sees me as a a strange blend of New Yorker and Good Student. Yesterday, we learned vocabulary for character traits, and she started us off with a little game. “Tear a sheet of paper into six pieces,” she said. (She said it in Spanish; it’s all in Spanish; but she also demonstrates her meaning with broad gestures and miming, so I understood what was required.) Dutifully, I tore a sheet from my notebook and, after careful, exact folding, tore it into six perfect squares. I tidied them into a small pile in front of me. I was done first, of course.

To my surprise, once the lesson began, the teacher revealed that this had been a “psychological test.” She then pointed to my small stack of squares and began mocking my speed and tidiness. “Margo es rapida, si?” she said. “Margo es efectiva. Margo es ordinada.” She mimed again my speed and neatness. I realized that, after almost five years out of a classroom, I’d automatically returned to my Good Student role, set apart from the others in the class, who were “tranquila” and “indecisa.”

Later, as we practiced number words, the teacher stopped me on my pronunciation of “treinta,” thirty. I couldn’t quite get the “tr” sound right. She said something that I roughly translated as “You sound like a New Yorker trying to speak Spanish.” Si. Si. Claro. The fun of language lessons has truly begun.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Mallorca: Part III

Mallorca is not a large island, and in three days we managed to see a great deal of it. On Thursday night, we drove to Cala Figuera, a fishing village, where we walked around the sloshing, stony docks in the cool, damp air, stepping around piles of fishing nets. Small homes jutted from the cliffs around the port, and as darkness fell, small bright windows lit up among the rocks. We had dinner in this sleepy town, sitting outside but still protected from the rain. Afterward, we looked down at the boats and the water, shrouded by fog now, hearing only the spooky knocking of boat on stone.

On Friday, we drove north to Arta, where we had a late lunch in what seemed like a deserted village. Our only company was a small white cat wearing a huge collar, who visited our table several times and even joined us on a chair. On Saturday, we drove to Alcudia, then on to Pollenca, where we ate lunch at a café of a charming square. We peeked into a church, ornate and impressive even in this small, quiet village.

Continuing our journey, we drove up a precariously narrow mountain road to reach Cap Fomentor, the northernmost tip of Mallorca. There are stunning views from the lookout point at the top, but reaching that point involved walking up and down several precarious sets of narrow stone steps, with no railings, guard rails, or other barriers to keep us from toppling to the water and rocks below. The views were beautiful; but the height and lack of imposed safety measures made us both feel slightly sick. We could have driven up to an even higher lookout point, which we couldn’t even see because a cloud had settled over it, but we opted to return to sea level instead.

This woozy, terrified feeling continued throughout our drive, which took us up and down the mountains down the western part of Mallorca. The roads were impossibly narrow, just barely wide enough for two cars. There were often no guard rails, and, from the passenger window, I could see the sheer drop-off just beyond my door. At times I couldn’t even look. We scaled mountains this way through Deia, which looked beautiful but which was overcrowded on this particular day because of a bike race, and on through Valldemossa, where Chopin and George Sand once lived. Here, we stopped, bought Sand’s book, A Winter in Mallorca, and had a café con leche in view of the monastery where they stayed. We finished our drive in Palma, arriving at the airport just in time for our flight home.

Mallorca: Part II

The seawater in Mallorca was, like the guidebook pictures promised, clear, turquoise, and sparkling. We could see the water of Cala Santanyi from our hotel room balcony, intensely blue through the leaves of the cliffside trees. As we drove around the island on perilous mountain roads, we could often see the water far below us, beckoning, deeply blue. The water was not, however, always perfect for swimming. Mid-June, the water was still chilly. At Cala Santanyi and the even more isolated beach at Parc Natural de Mondrago—which required a short hike through a forest to reach—the water at the shoreline was thick with bark-colored seaweed. Beyond this, the water was clear; but reaching it meant high-stepping through the knee-deep porridge, with seaweed strands wrapping themselves stubbornly around ankle and calf.

There was no seaweed at Cala Torta, a stunningly beautiful, pleasingly hard to reach cove on the northeastern part of the island. Getting there meant driving down a narrow, unpaved, pothole-strewn road and praying no cars would come the other direction. But the sparkling water, white sand, and the dramatic, rocky cliffs that sheltered it made the lurching drive worthwhile. The beach wasn’t deserted, but it was quiet, with just a few couples and families—and, at one end of the beach, several naturists. The water was clear, blue, and enticing. No one, however, was swimming. A few people dipped their toes in the water, but they’d stop short of actually submerging themselves, pointing things out to one another in the shallow water by the shore. Pebbles made up the seabed for the first ten feet, and I assumed they were pointing at those.

A bit later, as Andrew and I stood looking at the water, we understood why no one was swimming: there were tiny, purple, moon-shaped jellyfish—and a few not-so-tiny ones—drifting everywhere. Still determined to swim, we walked to a far end of the beach and clambered over some rocks until we were well away from the shore. We didn’t see any jellyfish. Andrew decided to swim back, certain the movement of his arms would ward off any jellyfish in his path. I opted to return the way I came, by rock; my love of the sea is tempered by a low, low threshold of bravery when it comes to actual sea life. Sadly, Andrew was stung twice on his swim, once on each arm. But the jellyfish were small, and the ugly red splotches faded after an hour or so.

We did find a perfect swimming cove on our last day, during our long drive around the island. We drove north to Alcudia, disappointed to find that the beachfront part of town was overrun by large resort hotels, overstuffed souvenir shops, and fast-food restaurants. We drove on, unsure exactly where we were headed, and soon saw a small cove below us. A sign identified it as Sant Joan; it was absent from our maps and books. We stopped, walked down to the beach, and spent an hour swimming there. No seaweed, no jellyfish—just clear blue water surrounded by rocks and cliffs, with an unobstructed view out to sea.

Mallorca: Part I

In Mallorca, we felt we’d dropped off the edge of the earth. This was unexpected: in all our research about Mallorca, we read again and again about the hordes of package tourists and the marring of Mallorca’s stunning natural beauty. When Andrew and his sister visited Mallorca a decade ago, they hated the ticky-tacky shops and crowds in the area where they stayed. But Andrew and I shaped our trip carefully, with all this in mind. We stayed in the southeastern part of the island, in a hotel overlooking a less-touristy cove. And we rented a car, which meant that when we weren’t on the beach we were traveling through the island’s interior—a wild, almost entirely uninhabited expanse of pine trees, mountains, and fields full of overgrown wheat and scrub. On our last day, we started out early and drove around the whole island, first to the north, then down and around toward Palma, the main city and the location of the airport. We did see some of the terrible, package tour havens, but we simply drove through without stopping. It didn’t take long to leave these small sparks of civilization behind.

When we did see people, they were German. In Cala Santanyi, where we stayed, our hotel and the small cafes around the cove were full of Germans. We heard no English and almost no Spanish, and menus and signs were in German—sometimes exclusively. The owners of a nice café where we had dinner were German. At the airport, the lines at the check-in counters for the Germany flights were unbelievably long; our Barcelona flight was almost empty. We already felt like we were in another world in Mallorca; but the unfamiliar language and our twice-removed minority status—not only from Spain, but also Americans—made the disjunct even more acutely felt.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Step Forward

Finally, after much talking about how I really--no, REALLY--need to learn Spanish, I've signed up for three weeks of intensive Spanish classes at a language school not far from our apartment. I start in a week and a half, and the classes last for four hours per day. I hope I learn something. I hope I learn enough to at least get by at a bakery or in a restaurant, perhaps even in a shop. I hope, but I do not assume. I've long believed I lack the ability to speak or understand a foreign language. It never clicks; it never opens up to me. In college, I took enough French classes to be one class short of a minor in French--yet I struggled, struggled. I got A's on my written work, but speaking was another story. After class one day, my French professor called me aside, visibly frustrated. "You slaughter the language," she said.

Looking back, I see that perhaps this rather counterproductive observation was unwarranted. Regardless, I'm determined this time to actually learn words, capture speech, work hard, pay attention. To be unashamed to try my new language skills in the real world. To--this time--slaughter incomprehension and not dissolve into silence and linguistic humiliation.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

No. It Won't Fit. No. No. No.

We had a little Barcelona adventure today when we went to FNAC, a giant electronics and media store, to buy a television. Having gotten by so far without one, we finally decided to make the purchase since we want to watch the World Cup matches here at home; and Andrew’s upcoming birthday made it perfect timing. At FNAC, we passed up the attractive, thousand-euro, flat-screen televisions, which make up almost the entire FNAC TV department, and headed to a dusty, neglected corner where the non-flat-screen TVs sit, abandoned, on a few feet of shelving. We chose a TV with a nice-sized screen and began the elaborate process of buying it, which involved, first, leaving the store, since FNAC requires a passport to make credit card purchases; my passport was at home. Then we paid, showed our receipt to a person in another part of the store, and were then directed outside and down the block, where we’d pick up our TV from the cargo-loading area.

The box was huge. The TV hadn’t looked that big on the shelf, but the box was almost too big to lift. Fortunately, a taxi passed by at that very moment. Unfortunately, the TV didn’t fit in the trunk or the back seat. I’m certain the box would have fit if the overly hasty taxi driver had just turned it another few degrees, but no matter. We walked to a busy taxi stand next to Plaza Catalunya, Andrew carrying the enormous box.

Surprisingly, a slew of taxis were at the taxi stand, waiting for fares. This was shocking, since in Barcelona you’re lucky to EVER find a cab, let alone several free cabs in one place. Sometimes, free cabs will sail by, heedless of the desperate, hailing people on the curbs. The taxi situation is endlessly frustrating—but I digress.

We approached a cab. Instantly, the driver began shaking his head. He got out of the taxi and stood over our box, shaking his head angrily. “It won’t fit,” he said. (All of this was in Spanish, but it wasn’t hard to get the gist.) “No. It’s too big.” He crossed his arms, still shaking his head. Andrew pointed out that we hadn’t yet tried to fit it in. “No,” he said. “I know it won’t fit.” Many other drivers got out of their cabs and gathered around, and the discussion grew animated and fervent. They gestured violently to the box and waved their arms around. “No.” “It’s far too big.” “No. It won’t fit.” “It won’t fit.” “No. No. Claro, no.” They were talking to each other now, forming a united front. They hated us.

A larger taxi pulled up. The driver tried to put the box in the trunk, despite Andrew’s calm protestations that it wouldn’t fit in the trunk but would certainly fit in the backseat. The driver, outraged, joined the group. “No. No. No. It is not possible.” He refused to let us try to put the box in the backseat, giving no good reason. “No. Absolutely, no.” The other drivers nodded their approval. “No.” “No.” “No.” We didn’t have a chance. It was probably around now that Andrew began telling me to “Tranquilo,” which unfailingly makes me anything but tranquilo. Taxis—fares—making a living—it’s their job—Again, I digress.

After many more minutes of waiting on the curb with our box, a taxi-van pulled up and took us home, our TV nestled in the trunk with space to spare.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Santiago de Compostela: Part III

Our weekend in Santiago de Compostela was littered with charm. We slept in the attic room of the Hotel As Artes and had a view of a Cathedral spire through our skylight-window. In the morning, we woke up to music from church bells and bagpipes. We had our café con leche and breakfast of tarte de Santiago at the Café Literarios, on a plaza nestled between the Cathedral and a monastery-turned-convent. Bar-covered windows dotted the wide, plain wall of the convent. Some of the bars had rose vines entwined around them, so I think these windows indicated the rooms where the nuns live and sleep. Vagrants loitered and slept on the steps near the Cathedral during the shady hours of the afternoon; they looked like they should be on La Rambla in Barcelona. But they were harmless, part of the town’s interesting mix of tourists, pilgrims, and locals, passing the time with devil sticks, idle chat, and bongo drums.

Lunch was caldo gallega, a soup made of cabbage and potatoes, and Galician empanada, a kind of pastry stuffed with fish or meat. Dinner, eaten late since the light didn’t leak from the city until nearly ten, was, one night, tablas of cured meats and local cheeses; the second night was our mariscada de casa. One afternoon, we went to hear the nuns singing Benedictine chants the monastery chapel. The next, we wandered into a park in the hills of the city, lost among lush green grass and trees. Churches were everywhere in town, the dark dampness inside a shock after the hot, bright sunlight.

Santiago de Compostela is a town to go back to. It offered such immense, intense enjoyment—while at the same time opening up new possibilities for other trips, other places. Galicia is a region I want to explore; and this is just one of many other parts of Spain I’ve yet to see. Maybe one day we really will go on the pilgrim trail, soaking all of it in, step after step, mile after mile.

Santiago de Compostela: Part II

We ate barnacles in Santiago de Compostela. We didn’t mean to; we didn’t know. By the time we’d figured out what percebes were—the only explanation our waitress had given Andrew when he asked what they were—we’d eaten them. Though they looked like chopped-off lizard legs, with what looked like thorny, clawlike toes and leathery lizard skin, the meat inside was soft and briny-sweet.

In Santiago, restaurants along the cobbled streets display fresh seafood and regional foods in their windows, including percebes, huge purple pulpo (octopi), gigantic fish, heaping platters of shrimp and large shrimp-like creatures, mesh bags of fresh clams in their shells, and teardrop-shaped Galician cheese. All include on their menus a mariscada de casa for two people. On Sunday night, Andrew and I chose the most charming of the restaurants, one with a garden in the back much like the gardens in New York City restaurants, and ordered the mariscada and a bottle of wine. We were impressed with and, briefly, cowed by the dinner that followed.

Our mariscada came in two parts. First was a selection of raw seafood, including mussels, oysters, shrimp, and clams. We ate happily until we got to the clams: they were moving. They were slowly pulsing and breathing in their shells. Andrew prodded a clam with his fork; it recoiled. It was a moment of reckoning, as both of us quickly realized our limitations. Raw seafood: okay if it’s not moving, not okay if it is. Sometimes likes and dislikes are just that easy. We let the waitress take the clams away.

We were then brought a gigantic platter of cooked seafood. It was an amazing selection: the percebes (the identity of which was still a mystery), scallops in their shells, piles of shrimp and shrimp-like creatures, crab legs, clams (cooked this time), mussels, and skinny cigalas (shellfish in long, skinny, rectangular shells). We saved the percebes for last but bravely attacked them too, after asking the waitress how to eat them. She showed us how to peel off the leathery covering and pull out the meat with our teeth.

By the time we were finished, all that remained were piles of refuse on our plates: shrimp heads and cracked crab legs, empty shells and broken claws, bread crumbs and errant drops of wine. It was a perfectly delicious, perfectly Galician meal that left us both happier with Santiago de Compostela than ever.

Santiago de Compostela: Part I

On the streets of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain, pilgrims crowded together with their backpacks, floppy hats, and high-tech walking sticks, sharing tales from the road. Most of them still had scallop shells affixed to their walking sticks or backpacks, which identify pilgrims as they make their way, town to town, across Spain. El camino de Santiago, the pilgrim trail, begins in southern France and is approximately 500 miles long. The route was established in eleventh century as a way for religious devotees to reach the Cathedral del Apostol, in Santiago, which is where the remains of St. James the Apostle are believed by many to be housed. Not everyone does the whole camino, but from the looks of the bandaged, blackened feet of some of the pilgrims—newly relieved of their hiking boots now that they’d reached their destination—they’d traveled quite a distance.

Andrew and I pointed pilgrims out to each other as we made our own pilgrimage from café to café. The pilgrims, male and female, old and young, were dressed virtually identically in rugged shorts, t-shirts, and complicated, heavy-soled sandals. There seemed to be a preponderance of white-haired retiree sorts from Germany and Britain, many of whom appeared to have done the pilgrimage together. As Andrew and I sipped café con leche and ate tartes de Santiago—a kind of large, round pastry with a cross and sword etched into powdered sugar dusted over the top, and served in wedge-shaped slices—we contentedly watched the pilgrims and tossed around the idea of doing the pilgrimage ourselves.

There’s something very appealing about the idea of walking across Spain, stopping each night in a different tiny town and sleeping in spartan pilgrims’ quarters—a way to explore a Spain otherwise invisible, even impenetrable. Andrew is attracted by the concept of a remarkable physical challenge. Our pilgrimage wouldn’t be rooted in religion. Instead, it would be a way for us to have an adventure in the months after Andrew’s graduation, a different kind of adventure than simply buying another set of plane tickets to yet another new destination. We bought a book about the trail in the Cathedral’s gift shop.

Throughout the weekend, we shadowed the pilgrims, enjoying the rituals of the Cathedral. On Sunday, as a crowded Mass was being said, we joined a long line snaking around the Cathedral and behind the altar, where we filed into a tiny doorway and walked up a narrow, steep flight of stairs. At the top, we found ourselves behind the large, gold-plated statue of St. James that hovers over the altar. Following the lead of those in front of me, I put my hands on St. James’s jewel-encrusted shoulders for a contemplative minute. Over St. James’s head, I could see the priest on the altar and the faces of the worshippers in the pews. Then the line snaked into a narrow corridor beneath the altar, to a tiny chapel holding one kneeler in front of a glass-fronted case. Inside was the reliquary holding the remains of St. James. After a brief pause, we were back outside in the Cathedral, surrounded by chants and hymns.

On Monday, Andrew and I returned to the Cathedral, this time heading toward the back, where yet another line was inching toward an ornately-carved marble column flanked by two stone statues. One of the statues is a self-portrait of Maestro Mateo, the architect and artist who created much of the sculpture in the Cathedral; the other is of Hercules. Bumping your head three times on the head of each of the statues will, according to legend, bring genius. When I reached the column, I put my hand in the hand-shaped groove that has been worn in to it; I put my other hand into the open mouth of a stone fish, an action I hadn’t read about in any guidebooks but had seen those before me do. Then I bumped my head three times on the head of each of the statues.

To us, the rituals we followed in Santiago were curiosities; to the pilgrims, they surely held greater significance, or at least greater satisfaction. All weekend, I felt like an intruder, as though I hadn’t yet earned a place at the charming sidewalk cafes and in a pew inside the stunning cathedral. I had simply hopped a Vueling flight from Barcelona—many others had hiked there, walking day after day with the town in mind. The whole town had an air of celebration and victory. It was a place where everyone wanted to be—a place they had dreamed of being. At night, we stretched out with the pilgrims on the warm, flat stones in front of the cathedral and just stared up at the lighted façade, as the spires were circled by ghostly pigeons and the star-specks of flying bats.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

And the Decision Is...Mallorca

To celebrate the end of Andrew’s term as well as his upcoming birthday, we’ve booked a flight to Mallorca for a weekend in mid-June. We debated for days whether we should go to Pisa, Dublin, Sardinia, or Mallorca, just a few places on our long list of places we want to visit, feeling smug about how obnoxious we’d sound to anyone listening in on our discussions. We read guidebooks, looked at websites, and even did a complex, multi-round, blind-selection process with crumpled-up Post-It notes. Mallorca won.

After booking the flight today, we began looking for a hotel, trying to find some possibilities in our TimeOut guide to Mallorca. It’s not the most useful guidebook; what it has going for it, however, is honesty. Mallorca is a huge holiday destination, particularly for Northern Europeans—so much so that one area, according to TimeOut, is called “Blackpool with sun”—and Andrew and I have no interest in spending our weekend amidst large crowds of families and young children. Many of the hotels we looked at prominently featured pictures of activity-crazed children on their websites, an instant indication that those were not hotels for us.

TimeOut, with its sometimes brutal honesty, helped us eliminate even more hotels—and even whole chunks of the island. Santa Ponca, in the western part of the island, is apparently “dominated by a number of characterless hotels, mostly block-booked by tour operators, and some truly hideous places to eat.” Palma is full of hotels that are “all much of a muchness; vast sprawling monsters.” In the south is a “largely flat, hypnotically desolate, sparsely populated swathe of country that is edged by a smattering of unconvincing little resorts.” One hotel in the south is “a sad example of how to blight a beauty spot.” In the east, TimeOut warns, “the coastline, once marked by pristine coves and speckled fishing villages, has now largely been swallowed up by white holiday complexes, low-rise but land-hungry.” Also in the eastern part is a “sprawling holiday villa horror.”

We have been amply warned, and we’ll choose our hotel location very, very carefully. Mallorca looks absolutely stunning in pictures. It’ll be an excellent place for us to unwind for a few days in the sun.