I brought my car back into the city over the weekend, and succeeded yesterday, on the Feast of the Annunciation, in finding a spot on my all-time favorite parking block. This spot has several things to recommend it: (1) the vigil in the car is only a half hour, as on my second-favorite parking block, but, unlike that other spot, where you have to be in the car at 7:30 A.M., (2) you don’t have to be in this one till 8:30, a much more civilized hour; plus, because the spot is in front of a medical facility (in my anxiety not to create more competition for one of these eight spots, I can say no more), it is fairly sanitary, and the street sweeper passes it by, so (3) you don’t have to move the car at all; also, (4) it has a view of one of the city’s loveliest tall buildings; and, to top it all off, (5) it is located near a swimming pool at a gym where, incredibly, I am a member.
It’s good for people-watching, too. A man in a motorized wheelchair, wearing a black cowboy hat and a poncho, parks on the sidewalk and smokes a cigarette: a Marlboro man for the handicapped zone. A guy with a bicycle helmet fitted with a tiny rearview mirror, like a dentist’s tool, stands guard by his car till nine, then pedals off on what looks like a homemade recumbent bicycle: tiny wheels, loose loop of chain, and a board behind the seat for him to lean back on. After my swim, I stop back at the car, which is doubling this week as a locker, and hang my bathing suit from the steering wheel to dry. If I put air in my bike tires and count parking as a sport, I could turn alternate-side parking into a triathlon.
The Annunciation, I feel constrained to add, is not on the alternate-side-parking calendar, but it should be: both the Assumption (August 15th) and the Immaculate Conception (December 8th) are, and it could be argued that the Annunciation is what started it all. Of course, because March 25th fell on a Sunday, this is all moot, but still. Finding this spot, this parking spa, on that day was something of a religious experience.
Besides, the Annunciation inspired an entire artistic genre. I read recently that an Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci had just arrived in Japan, on loan from the Uffizi. The Uffizi seemed to be regretting the decision to let the painting travel, but I think it was a good idea. When I was at the Uffizi, it was hard to get a good look at the painting, because Japanese tourists were lining up to pose in front of it. The resulting snapshots would be in the tradition of those religious paintings in which the artist has placed St. Benedict, say, at the Nativity, or even painted a worldly patron into the little group at the foot of the cross. I resisted the urge to tell the Japanese tourists that they were not going to fool any of their friends back home into thinking that they had been there with Mary and Gabriel at the Annunciation. Now that the Leonardo has gone to Japan, perhaps the Japanese will get their fill of it.
There were also Japanese tourists at Montserrat, the otherworldly-looking range of jagged mountains (the name means “serrated mountain”) just north of Barcelona, where Benedictines have built a monastery to house the Black Madonna, a wooden statue said to have been carved by St. Luke. I was supposed to have gone with a group of people in Dee’s entourage, but at the last minute the others decided not to go, leaving me a lone, stubborn, idiot pilgrim. The ride in the cable car, over a spectacular gorge, was thrilling, but I looked away from the Funicular of St. John, in which one might continue the hair-raising voyage up into a crevice between serrations. Instead, I made a beeline for the parking lot, as if I knew where I was going, and then backtracked to the entrance to the basilica, where everyone else from my cable car was already in line ahead of me. To get to the shrine, you go down a hall and up some stairs; the statue, called La Moreneta, is up behind the altar, visible to the congregation through a sort of lunette. The Madonna, who has a long shapely nose, is encased in plexiglas, except for the orb she holds in her right hand. People touch the orb and chunk some change into the box provided. When my turn came, I refused to put in any money, but I also refrained from leaning back and taking a picture of the gorgeous mosaics in the vault of the shrine, depicting the Life of the Virgin, in some ravishing shades of blue. Ahead of me in line were two Japanese girls in puffy white jackets, who of course posed with the Black Madonna.
Every time I went into a church in Barcelona, I was assailed by thoughts of the Spanish Inquisition. (Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!) Statues of saints, even on the front of the Gaudí Cathedral, are very militant-looking, like faceless soldiers in medieval armor. I thought of the rack and the screw. I visited the city’s other cathedral, and peeked at the crypt of St. Eulalia, the patron saint of Barcelona, before finding the cloister, which is usually a lovely quiet part of a church but in this case was teeming with tourists and full of geese. (Hail Mary, full of ...) Geese in church were even more unexpected than the Spanish Inquisition, and effectively cancelled it out.
When I got back from Montserrat and showed the others my postcards, the chief Catholic among them said, “But where’s the monastery?” I had bought one postcard of the Black Madonna, a couple of cigarette lighters (one with a head of Mary on it, one with a yellow cable car), and a bar of chocolate. The Benedictine monastery interested me only insofar as it was an excuse to view the topology: the serrated mountain itself. Monks, and also nuns, and also the Greeks, with their temples to the gods, can always be counted on to build in the most spectacular locations.