Romancing a flame could get hairy


July 25, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA, Spain -- The Olympics are upon us, and you're probably asking yourself, "What does that have to do with Wilfred the Hairy?"

Well, everything.

No, he's not a central European shot-putter, although that's a good guess. Wilfred's a ninth-century national hero. And by national I don't mean Spanish, because, as you may know, Barcelona -- the site of these Olympics -- is not exactly in Spain, unless your imagination is bound by some lines drawn on a map. They don't rely on maps here, which may explain all the traffic.

Quick facts on Barcelona: They eat dinner at midnight; forget Hemingway -- bullfighting is passe; and you've got a better shot at an air-conditioned apartment (there are approximately none here) than seeing a Spanish flag.

What you see are the red-and-gold striped Catalonian flags. You see them everywhere. They hang from balconies. Kids wear them as scarves. They're the local version of X caps.

Barcelona is part of the region of Catalonia, which, like every other former European country, once ruled a grand empire. You never heard of it? Well, that may be because Catalonia hasn't been a separate country for about 600 years. But they've got long memories in these parts and a thing about lost causes.

And so one night I'm walking down Las Ramblas, the crowded pedestrian thoroughfare that is a cross between Times Square and Fifth Avenue, when I come across hundreds of people dancing and singing and waving Catalonian flags.

They're dancing and singing for independence from Spain. It's a demonstration. It's a movement. It's Paris in 1789. Well, not exactly, because they're dancing and singing and waving flags and then they go have dinner.

(By the way, when they do have dinner, they need to bring money. These Olympics are meant to make Barcelona a world-class city. One resident told me that, in preparation, they introduced London-and-Paris-level prices, hoping the level of service would follow. Maybe soon.)

Before dinner, this young man told me: "The whole world is watching, and they will know what has been done to us. We are not Spanish, and we do not want to be Spanish."

I listened. I sympathized. I bought a Catalonian independence T-shirt. I went to dinner. Spent $45 for soup, chicken and a peach. Heard about Wilfred the Hairy. Remember Wilfred?

In 898, the great warrior, fighting the Saracens, who were very tough back then, was wounded by an arrow. The king, who figured the troops needed some inspiration, instead of kicking the water cooler took some of Wilfred's blood, which had apparently seeped through all the hair, and dragged it across his golden shield. Producing: red and gold stripes.

I'm a sucker for romance. Give me fountains and wide boulevards and sidewalk cafes and a legendary hero and I'll march off to war in a Catalan minute.

Dali was Catalan. Picasso learned to paint here. And Gaudi, the famous architect, died broke building an enormous cathedral -- it's either gorgeous or hideous, depending on your tastes -- that he never finished. It's still unfinished. Come on. Romance.

OK, so there aren't many boulevards in town. And there aren't many fountains, either. They do have the Barri Gotic, which is the old quarter, featuring the kind of obligatory narrow, winding streets to give a city charm. They've also got air pollution to die from, and it gets hot a lot.

In Barcelona, where the dream of independence is really more a desire for autonomy than for separation and more a source of dancing than of action, they remember that Franco (yes, still dead) banned their language and their dances. All of Spain still gets the blame.

The biggest day of the year is when hated Madrid brings its hated soccer team to town. That's the beauty of sports. You get to substitute them for wars, and nobody gets hurt. They're not bomb-throwing Basques here. But the imagination can be dangerous. Wait till you see the opening ceremonies. I can sum them up in four words: Are these people nuts?

An archer is going to light the Olympic flame by shooting a fiery arrow 231 feet into an invisible ball of gas rising from the torch towering over a stadium filled with 70,000 innocent, would-be victims.

Does this sound like a good idea to you? Or does this sound like shooting a flaming arrow through an Exxon refinery, but only after you've invited 70,000 of your closest friends to watch?

According to the literature, the archer has attempted the shot 1,000 times. Nobody kept score, however, on how often he hit.

Drama? Romance? Fire-code violations?

You take your romance where you can find it.


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