We look at these sprawling metropolises of Europe and wonder how anyone even living there could truly find a grasp on their respective cities. And that’s not because of size. Los Angeles and New York are endless. But European cities have hundreds of years of culture on top of any that the United States has built in its 241 years.
The more I think about it, the more it really is baffling that, for the three cities I’ve visited in Europe — Madrid, Barcelona and London — I only spent three days in each. Thankfully, the first two Spanish hubs were curated. In high school, I took a trip with my AP Art History class to Spain for a week — three days in Madrid and three days in Barcelona. But my time in London was alone.
Upon my first step in each, I could feel time. In the United states, the furthest back one can feel is about 100 years. America eradicated most of the rich Native American culture and complex native institutions and built on top of that, sadly leaving little of that culture to feel on the wide scale.
But after a 24-hour travel day of flight delays and cancellations, the Madrid air weighed heavier with time. I’m fascinated with our infinite journey down a linear, nonreversible path of time, so to inhabit a space that, if only for a moment, defeated time for more than 1,000 years is a visceral experience. In our first hour in the city, we went down into a cellar-like restaurant and had traditional Spanish vegetable dishes with glasses of native wine. There’s tangible history in that kind of practice.
Barcelona was a strange combination of the weight of the past as well as the lingering presence of the future. Even though the city is older than Madrid and host to towering Gothic architecture, there’s a stamp of the modern and contemporary. The buildings of famous architect Antoni Gaudí, of the 19th and 20th centuries, suggest history while also suggesting progress.
The wondrous spectacle of the currently unfinished La Sagrada Familia changed my life. Its construction began in 1882, and Gaudí worked on it until his death in 1926. Since then, architect after architect has taken over and continued the construction under his vision, but also inevitably touched it with their own style. The church now sits at approximately 70 percent completion and will finish in the 2030s after 150 years of construction.
I don’t think there are any other buildings in the world that exist in the past, present and future. Stepping inside, I felt the weight of religion’s history. I’m not religious in the slightest and follow the church of science, so much so that I have trouble understanding religious belief. But for a moment inside of La Sagrada Familia, I understood. I felt a connection to the thousands of years of Catholicism.
But then, there’s the invisible presence of the future. The building will grow in height, and after exiting our tour and looking up the hundreds of feet, I could almost see material in where it will extend to. I turned to my friend and said, “So we’re coming back when it’s done, right?” She nodded.
London felt like a middle ground between the future-looking Barcelona and the ancient Madrid, dressed in iconic landmark after iconic landmark in a way that suggests history but also showcases modern tourism to a degree that the Spanish cities didn’t.
Without guides or others to travel with, I found myself waking up at 7 a.m. to layout a thorough journey each day. But there were only two full days and two half days. London Eye, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Big Ben and many more were relegated to simple observation and a picture. I was able to tour the National Gallery and the Tate Modern, but even those were stunted by time. Rushing through the National Gallery, I was looking for the famous Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck,because my class had recently studied it. The security guards closed in as I darted from room to room, taking mental snapshots of every painting I saw. Eventually, I was kicked out before I found Arnolfini.
As I look back, I realize that the synthesis of these three trips is my interaction with time. Three days will never be enough to truly experience any city’s art and culture. But the time intrinsic within that art and culture allows one to have a deep connection to those cities’ space. Each city holds an overwhelming weight of the past. All exist in telling and integral ways in the present. And sometimes, especially with La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, there’s a presence of the future. Time defines culture.
“Arts Abroad” columns catalog Daily Cal staff members’ arts and culture experiences while studying or traveling abroad.