The reign in Spain is thought of mainly after getting off the plane

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    We got back late Sunday night in one of those whirlwind airport marathon days where you start out in Barcelona at 8 in the morning and then to Paris to change planes and on to New York where you change planes again and then a final leg to Los Angeles. With the nine-hour time difference, you arrive home exhausted and punchy and god awful tired of airplane food. I now consider myself an expert on the nuanced differences in the airline cuisine, which goes from blah to very blah. Even flying part of the way on Air France didn’t seem to make much difference. Whatever the legend of French cuisine, it certainly doesn’t extend to airplane food.

    But Spain was a totally different experience and a sheer delight. Karen and I took one of those Renaissance cruises, which starts in Lisbon and ends in Barcelona with stops at Cadiz, and Malaga and Palma de Mallor and some interim stops at Tunis and Casablanca and then Gibraltar. Normally we don’t do cruises, but this time we wanted everything taken care of, sort of your baggage stays with you and your hotel moves, which is exactly what it turned out to be.

    Spain has changed, but it’s also the same. I remember it in 1968 when Franco was still in power, and the Guardia Civil wore those tri-cornered hats, and all carried submachine guns and look eager to use them. You could smell the lingering, sour aroma of fascism wherever they stood. They’re still there but now they’re all older men and pot-bellied, and their uniforms don’t fit quite as nicely, and that lean and hungry look is gone, and no one seems to pay them much attention, and Spain seems happier and more prosperous.

    Karen and I walked everywhere the ship stopped. What I began to notice is that there doesn’t seem to be the poverty we see in our country. I’m not sure why, but there just isn’t.

    The Spanish live life with style, and it’s absolutely contagious. They do everything wrong, and yet it works for them.

    At 2 p.m., the country closes down and everyone goes to lunch, which is usually a two- to three-hour affair. We walked into restaurants at 2 and no one was there, other than a few other Americans, and then by 2:30 it was packed.

    They claim lunch is their big meal, but I never noticed them eating any less at dinner, yet they don’t seem to be as fat as most Americans. It’s unusual to see a really obese Spaniard, and we simply couldn’t figure it out.

    They eat dinner at 10, which every weight watcher knows is absolutely wrong. They never seem to deny themselves dessert, they drink wine with their dinner, and they eat their share of fatty foods. Then they drink very strong caffeinated coffee and still don’t seem to have any trouble sleeping. It makes you wonder how much of what we believe about all those things is just hype.

    The Spanish appear to enjoy life. They don’t appear as harried as Americans. Even in a large city like Barcelona, where the pace is noticeably faster, it’s still not L.A. or New York, and yet business goes on, and they appear to get everything done.

    They do something we could copy, and they do it everywhere. They have public spaces, with small gardens, benches and outdoor cafs, and there is a very long tradition of having the cities, even the small cities, very people oriented. It’s not just a recent development. You see it in the fortress built by the Moors a thousand years ago, which have been restored and have terraced gardens and benches and small water fountains. The original Moors had it, and the country has kept the tradition, which may tell us something about the quality of their life.

    The people were very polite and helpful and generally treated each other graciously. I saw one guy take another’s parking spot, and, except for a few words and a fleeting gesture, it ended quickly. In L.A., they’d still be cursing at each other. In New York, one would have shot the other dead.

    But the most amazing thing was when we went to visit the Gaudi cathedral and buildings in Barcelona, built in the early part of this century. There they are, curvy and whimsical, and world famous and filled with tourists from all over taking snapshots. And, I must admit, all I could think of was, “How in heavens could he have ever gotten those plans through the Barcelona planning commission?”

    It really is a good idea to get away from Malibu from time to time.