The Olympic Torch Lights A Fire

The first thing this resident of Milan noticed when he got to downtown Barcelona was the traffic: It moved. Without horns blaring. Civilly. Indeed, it turns out that most things move well in this city of 1.7 million: the subway trains, the waiters at the outdoor cafes, the waves on the beach, the barmen offering beer and tapas. Barcelona prides itself on its industriousness in a country known for the four-hour lunchtime siesta, and with less than a year to go before hosting the 1992 Olympic Games, the city has put its foot on the pedal--and the jackhammer.

Olympic fever permeates Barcelona, be it from dust kicked up from the 300 construction projects for the games or the omnipresence of Cobi, the pudgy dog mascot, on T-shirts and Coke cans. But old Barcelona survives. On bustling Creu Coberta street, a few hundred yards from the ultramodern Olympic press center, dozens of chicks swarm in a store window. The stench oozes out from a shaky wire-grated wooden door, behind which a tiny toothless couple sells the brood at $1.25 a head. Next door, screaming movie-house posters display severed human heads to promote a chop-'em-up Western called Scalps.

Such sights remind me how far Barcelona, and Spain, have come since the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco ended in 1975. Freed from fascist censorship and economic and intellectual stagnation, the country has become a favorite of international investors and manufacturers, with a budding fashion industry whose colorfulness--some would say gaudiness--mimics Italian chic. The Sunday newspapers are only slightly less chockablock than The New York Times weekend tome.

GOOD RIDDANCE. The 1992 games will be the symbol of Spain's catharsis. "Franco is not even a point of reference any more," says Adrian Liman, a Spanish journalist. "My daughter learned he ruled a long time by looking at coins with different dates."

But while they have bid good riddance to authoritarianism, Barcelonans still want to hang onto other parts of their past. Fretting that the games might overwhelm the city's maritime character, they point to the replacement of salty old wharves with a park-like esplanade reminiscent of Baltimore's touristy Inner Harbor.

But the narrow streets and bustling seafood restaurants in the old fishermen's area, Barceloneta, remain largely untouched. The tough seamen's quarters in the Old City has fewer brothels than in days past, but the grimy, dark streets, no wider than a switchblade lunge, offer a cacophony of loud TVs, parakeets, laundry-line chatter, and the occasional thwack of a garbage bag being dropped out of a window for pickup. "There's crime and drugs, but these are working people," says a cop who had stopped to ask me if I were lost.

A few streets--and decades--away are the "designer bars," large dance clubs often designed by the city's hippest architects. Since Spaniards begin dinner around 10 p.m., the bars don't start to fill until around 1 a.m. and overflow around 3. At 4, a slew of other bars open. They are fashionable, but not in the least exclusive, and teenagers mix with professionals in the vast dins of La Fira, Nick Havanna, Psicosis. At Nick Havanna, where 24 TV screens shine with the latest videos, a trim manager rushes off to find me a brochure when I begin to ask a few questions. Entertainment, I am reminded, is big business here, as I fork over $10 for a whiskey.

MIDNIGHT NAPS. Perfectly responsible adults, I am told, take a nap after dinner, then hit a bar at 2 a.m. for a couple of hours of fun before resting up in time for work. Many of the designer bars are in the fashionable central area known as L'Eixample, where Spain's newfound wealth and liberty flourish along wide streets flanked by Antoni Gaudi's famous art nouveau buildings. The tree-lined boulevard of Passeig de Gracia exudes more elegance than the Champs-Elysees. And, particularly comforting to a Milanese, prices on Italian-styled clothes are lower than in Italy as many items are made in Spain, where labor is cheaper.In fact, I couldn't help but compare Barcelona and Milan, which, in early July, announced that it too had Olympic aspirations--for the year 2000. That's self-delusion of monstrous proportions, given that Milan came nerve-rackingly close to blowing the deadline on rebuilding the stadium slated for the opening match of the 1990 World Cup. That was followed by a comical rush--as if four years weren't enough warning--to lay down turf that lasted about two goals.

SLOWER PACE? Both cities pride themselves for being the industrious workhorses of their countries. But when it comes to how these cities function, we're talking Secretariat vs. Old Dobbin. Just for starters, almost a year in advance, most of Barcelona's Olympic sites are ready. And although Italians, and Milanese in particular, are a good bit wealthier, it is Barcelona that has an acceptable phone system, a very good subway system, coherent traffic, and efficient bank tellers. Milan has Versace and Armani, but few hints of the 21st century.

Granted, some of Barcelona's modernity and efficiency is a bit misleading. "If it weren't for the Olympics, which set a date, the public sector may not have been as quick" to complete new projects, admits David Mackay, a British-born architect and partner at Martorell/Bohigas/Mackay, which has the lion's share of the Olympic projects. Mackay arrived in Barcelona in 1958, when, he notes, "I didn't have to look before crossing a street."

Even now, the foreigners--architects, journalists, and free-lance anythings--who are here to get their share of Barcelona's $2 billion Olympic pie are wondering what will happen after the games end. Most expect the city to settle back to a slower pace. "Maybe after, I could go to Atlanta," site of the 1996 Olympics, says Rudolph Stepanian, a Soviet who hangs out at the press center seeking interpreting jobs--English, Spanish, French, German, or Russian.

Nor does Barcelona's zeal appear infectious: Seville, host of the 1992 World's Fair, is well behind schedule.