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Bringing Home the Birkin
Barcelona on the Brain
I've always thought the use of a ringing phone to symbolize the onset of great personal change was a cheap plot device, and a gross oversimplification of the various factors that inspire human metamorphosis. However, now I know better: sometimes you really can trace it all back to a phone call.
In my particular case, that life-changing phone call came early one wintry Cape Cod day—early enough that my roommate, Kate, and I were still cheerfully ensconced in our morning routine of Peet's coffee, PJs, and Rosie O'Donnell. Neither the caller nor the subject matter was by any means unusual—it was the Boston-based agency that represented me, giving me my newest assignment. A weeklong hair and makeup job for IBM in Barcelona, it had the allure of an escape from the drab and drear of mid-March Provincetown. The call certainly felt routine at the time, but we don't always know our Rubicon when it rings . . .
At least workwise, things weren't so shabby. I had a career that people who didn't know better might consider glamorous. As a beautician who specialized in commercial photography, I had spent most of the last decade trigger-happy with a can of hairspray and a powder puff. And somehow, along my merry way, I had also cofounded a company. Named Team, it was an agency that represented artists who worked, in one capacity or another, in the photography and advertising industries. The concept was both convenience and strength in numbers. Normally, an advertising exec needed to make about half a dozen phone calls to pull together a photo shoot. What mycompanydid was turn those six calls into one. Makeup artists, hairstylists, wardrobe stylists, location scouts, production managers, food stylists—we had it all under one roof. But good as it had been to me, my initial euphoria at being part of the fashion industry I had always worshipped as spectator was starting to wane. I had learned that celebrities were just people with name recognition, and photo shoots were as tedious as board meetings, once you had been to hundreds of them. Ten years of crafting updos and vanquishing shiny noses had driven me to uncharacteristic self-analysis. Was this really how I wanted to spend the rest of my life? Maybe not, but for now I knew one thing: I was going to Spain.
I loved traveling for work, eagerly snapping up what the industry called "go-away jobs." Nomadic by nature, I took the adage "home is where the heart is" literally—a hotel room morphed into home as long as I was in it (with the added bonuses of crisp sheets, fresh towels, and chocolates on my pillow). But lately I found myself becoming more jaded by my globe-trotting. Not because of the silly things you always heard those bridge-club biddies bemoaning in the airport—it wasn't lost luggage or the lack of a proper bagel that had me down. I didn't mind the calculus of currency conversion or the etymology of exotic entrées. No, it wasn't the inconvenience inherent to travel that was burning me out. It was boredom. I had increasingly noticed a sinister sameness about each of these foreign cities. Before my very eyes, every place was turning into every place else. I fervently hoped that Barcelona would prove to be the exception.
I sighed with disappointment andslumped against the hot vinyl seat of the taxi. Other than the flamenco music on the radio and the blinding glare of the Catalan sun, so far Barcelona felt about as foreign to me as Boston. Tacky billboards advertising electronics and cheap hotels flashed by my window at an alarming rate. Was there any place left in the world that didn't look like one giant strip mall? Maybe it was time for me to settle down. Maybe I needed the white picket fence and the Weber grill after all.
A mere five minutes later, my cynicism forgotten, I was as mesmerized by the view as a midwesterner crossing the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. I didn't know which way to look. To my left loomed the impressive bulk of the 1992 Olympic Stadium, capped off by a towering white spire that was an unlikely mating of futuristic space station and computer-generated sculpture. To my right, the Mediterranean. I was dazzled not only by the turquoise shimmer of the sea but by the hundreds of boats lining the docks. Luxury cruise ships, privately owned yachts, behemoth tankers, modest sailboats—somehow, seeing one of the world's biggest ports was far more impressive than reading about it in Fodor's. Suddenly, I was as excited as a little kid on his first field trip.
But it wasn't until we left the highway and entered the city's perimeter that I truly fell under its spell. None of my extensive jet-setting had prepared me for Barcelona's unique urban landscape—palm trees edged the narrow streets, ornate buildings leaned companionably against each other, and laundry adorned nearly every balcony. The architecture spanned centuries of design—gothic intermingled withmodernist, contemporary coalesced with classic. It could have been jarring to the senses, but as I would later learn, Barcelona had a way of turning the incongruous into the harmonious. It looked like the European city I had always dreamed of but, of late, had despaired of ever finding. I was captivated.
My eight-hour days of grooming models and painting faces put a dent in what little time I had to prowl the city. However, even with the constraints of the IBM gig cutting into my tourist time, I still sampled enough of the Barcelona lifestyle to grow ever more enamored. My first instincts about the city's physical charm had been wrong—it was far more spectacular than I originally supposed. With a population of nearly two million spread out over sixty square miles, Barcelona is segmented into dozens of neighborhoods, each possessed of its own particular charm. I was hard-pressed to find an undesirable location; the place was a real estate agent's wet dream.Bringing Home the Birkin. Copyright ? by Michael Tonello. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.