El Barrio

In Plenary, Presentation on November 7, 2012 at 10:18 am

This week’s story is a straight-up destination piece.

Destination pieces are often considered passé in travel writing circles, but that’s a failure of the imagination. They are the most essential form that travel writing has because they are the work of a person focusing on a place and together, place and person comprise travel’s most fundamental relationship. It’s all there: person and place. Everything else is fluff.

The current obsession with novelty applies as much to this as to anything else. Our very thinking, it seems, is to be novel if it is to satisfy the demands of our chocolately-chinned, app-building age. “Why We Travel”, “How We Travel”, the titles, or variations thereof, of any number of more recent travel-related essays and articles, have become the questions to be asked since “where” , apparently, became so yesterday.

For me it’s just the opposite. While “how” has thrown up some reasonably interesting, if frequently delusional, reflections on the ethics of travel, the problem with “why” questions is that no matter how fascinating or thorough our contemplations of them may be, they can usually be replaced in an instant, and convincingly, with another well-known and very simple question: why not?

In other words, they’re dull. I’m not in the slightest bit interested in what motivates the middle-class, gap year forward slash arrested development, branded clothing, meticulously messy-haired naval gazers who rampage across the world, critiquing foreign cultures from behind their Oakley shades, referring at each (awesome) step to some mythical travel “community” and bending over backwards all the way to imbue each and every moment with some kind of “meaning”.

Seriously, I couldn’t give a fuck.

I am, however, absolutely fascinated by many of the places they trample through in their Berghaus boots and North Face jackets. The people and things that remain once our friends have moved on, having made sure to exploit their two days in a hostel and a quick mosey round the market to extrapolate life’s larger truths.

So this week’s story is a story about a place.

Tarifa juts out into the Strait of Gibraltar where Spain’s south eastern Mediterranean coast meets its south western Atlantic one. The town has only one tiny Mediterranean beach in fact: the main act is Los Lances, a wild, six-kilometre swathe of fine sand and marsh scrub that starts at the very southern tip of mainland Europe and curves westward, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and by Tarifa’s newer neighborhoods and beach bars on the other.

Looking south one is presented with that rarest of things – an intercontinental view. The dark outline of North Africa’s Rif mountain range looms very close. At night the lights of Tangier twinkle. Up the coast a little, at its port, the eye can make out moving trucks.

Along its northern, landward edge, the beach is backed with a sprinkling of chiringuitos, a no-fuss promenade and behind that some apartment blocks, a couple of schools, a fish processing plant, a football ground and a sports centre. Tarifa slopes steeply to meet the sea; behind one of the schools a set of steps climbs past the tiny bullring and leads into the commercial part of town.

Crossing the high street, which is lined with surf shops and trendy boutiques as well as the usual takeaways, tobacconists and corner shops, the gradient continues – a number of streets point inland and uphill towards the barrios, the residential neighborhoods that have been built outside the old town walls to accommodate Tarifa’s growth over the last thirty years or so.

These range in style from rows of distinctly soviet-looking flats, to high-walled villas, to rows of the kind of house you find pretty much anywhere, although here in Spanish style and colour (white). One of these last is where we live – a newer barrio by the name of Las Gaviotas, or The Seagulls.

I haven’t written about it before in the way I wrote about the old town. We rented a house here because the other one was small and damp, but I was a little sullen to move outside the Napoleonic city walls. We had a roof terrace in the old place where I could look across the ramshackle roofline of antique Tarifa, towards the castle and the sea.

I loved it. I’m an aesthete. It might drive K to distraction but I couldn’t care less, generally speaking, whether there’s a draft or how much storage space we have. I just want views and such. Give me drama, eye candy. What a property person would probably call “character”. I want to smile involuntarily when I pull the curtains back in the morning.

So, I’ve neglected the new place. There are no views here. It’s quite an ordinary house in quite an ordinary neighborhood. What we do have now is space. A private little patio out the back – no good to anyone on this dark, stormy morning but a beautiful spot in drier, warmer weather.

A lemon tree out front, bursting with fruit just now, and a laurel tree for fresh bay leaves. Around the trunks I’ve planted thyme and parsley, sage, rosemary and oregano. Not all bad, then.

And storage space. Places for shoes and a less stressed K. Bookshelves. Two toilets. That’s a toilet each! Because it’s a three bedroom we get an office each too, and we have a large open plan living room so we can sprawl without being on top of each other. We don’t always like to be on top of each other. Not that we use the space appropriately, or even that space means the same thing, these internet days. Last Saturday I wanted her to take a quick look at a paragraph I’d written and she asked me to email it over to her. She was sitting on the sofa, three feet away.

It’s quieter around here – the tourists make the old town a bit of a theme park in the summer. And darker at night, fewer lights. There’s an unnamed little shop that’s just about on the doorstep where the lovely woman is always very nice to me, and a bakery across the street where the strange man isn’t.

For all the beauty of the old town, something good happened when we moved out here. The turning of another page – a deepening of our experience of Spain without its make-up on. A further embedding. When I walk through the barrio these days, on my way to or from the bus, and think about where we’ve come from, I don’t find it ordinary at all.

It’s awesome.

[tweetmeme source=”@RobinJGraham” only_single=false]

  1. I like your no-nonsense, old-skool approach, Robin. And the post, of course – great to get a non-tourist view.

  2. Nice Robin. Only ever driven past Tarifa while on a business trip so couldnt stop…..this gives a great insight through your eyes.

  3. Well let us know when you pass again Paddy and we’ll get the kettle on.

  4. I’ve seen articles where on the one hand the writers pontificate about how on-line readers only want short pithy pieces while on the other extolling the increased sales of e-books. Which is it to be? I’ve never come across a short, pithy ebook yet. Editors both in print and on-line tell me that destination pieces are no longer wanted, instead all we get is the dross of ‘the best five this’, ‘the hottest ten that’, repeated ad nauseam in everything from the Telegraph to Time out and most in-flight mags and travel blogs. Valencia has far more to offer than the same old City of Arts and Sciences (previously referred to as CAC, a most appropriate acronym) or La Lonja, just as Marrakech is far more than Jmaa el Fna. I get asked to write these brain-dead pieces but refuse. I don’t care if no-one reads the articles on my new site (, but they are long, usually destination pieces, and I like them that way. Fortunately, so have a number of magazines.

    • I think a lot of travel writing has been trivialised in the wake of the commoditisation of travel itself. It’s possible to do a circuit of the world these days and not have left one’s comfort zone. To be “catered to” in the most far flung of places in such a way that you couldn’t really claim to have pushed yourself in any way, to have been mindful, or thoughtful in any way. Even extreme and adventure trips come in packaged form and subscribe to preconceived notions of extremity. They often aren’t adventurous at all, in any real sense. No more than a roller coaster in your local town anyway. It’s all about consumption – getting hold of a thrill, an “experience”.
      Similarly with travel writing, in my opinion. It seems to me a ridiculous, and ridiculously shallow, proposition to make that, for example, nobody wants yet another story about Cairo, about its pyramids. The story is an endlessly renewable resource. It is, as I say above, a profound failure of the imagination to think otherwise.
      Editors have a lot to answer for. You get this (metaphorical) gallic shrug that it’s not what people want, but they don’t know any more than anyone else what people want. They’re partially responsible for determining what people want, and that’s a serious journalistic responsibility.
      I find the quasi-philosophical school of “listen to the wisdom I have accrued on the road” stuff every bit as repugnant as the “top seventeen things to do in Madrid on a Tuesday.”…

      • One of the problems I’ve noticed, particularly with in-flight mags, (no names mentioned) is that the reader profile the advertising department punt to their clients bears no resemblance to the actual audience in the airplane. The Rolex-dangling, yacht-hiring people the mags are supposedly targeted at certainly aren’t sitting next to me, and I’m not one of the youthful new rich that are desperately searching for just that special place no-one else knows about – other than the other thousands who have read the same mag. I like knowing about the tatty old caff where I and others who don’t want to run into these naff-heads go, but I’m not going to tell you when I find it.

  5. You’re right; Robin, living somewhere apparently boring is the next step because you’re definitely not there for the view ie. you’re not a tourist (even if Tarifa doesn’t have that many of them) … it’s what happened to me when I moved to Sant Andreu … it’s where (and how and why) I became a Catalan! I don’t know whether you want to become a Tarifeño, but I’d go for it if I were you … storage space is what real life is all about!

    • I dunno Simon – I want to think that life is about more than storage space! Don’t suppose you can do without it though. I’m unapologetic though, about my foolish romantic ways – I’ll take beauty over convenience any time 😉

  6. I think the world is going to get very bored of 400 word fluff travel posts very soon. In fact I may write an article about it. “5 Reasons Why Fluff Is Dead” in 400 words should cover it. Long and high quality work with a personal slant will always have its place and may well be back in fashion sooner than anyone expects. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Alex! I’d like to think you’re right – such a tough call to make, predicting the way things will go. All this talk of attention spans and SEO – sometime it seems to me that a bunch of monkeys have been given a calculator to play with…

      • Don’t expect to get paid more than €3 for your wonderful article, Alex, which is three times what I was recently offered per piece for ‘an unlimited supply’ of two-paragraph, 250-word pieces – and that’s good money in relation to some fees offered.

  7. Hear hear. I couldn’t agree more.

  8. Fab writing, as ever!

  9. I’m a sucker for a great view too!

  10. Would be great to meet you guys somewhere down the line – we seem to have a lot in common!

  11. I’ll be as honest as you have been; for the most part, we just don’t enjoy much travel writing. Format aside, we find that so much “travel” writing has absolutely nothing new to add. One reason I enjoy your posts so much is because – in addition to writing well – I often feel like I am learning something interesting about you, which makes me appreciate your experiences (travel or otherwise) more.

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