As the weather begins to cool, I can’t help but think back to my summer in Barcelona, Spain, where I went to visit one of my best friends.
By that time last August, I had taken Spanish for five years, so the language felt somewhat familiar, yet still very new. I could recognize the lisps of certain accents, but would only be able to make out a word or two out of ten. Understanding the language proved to be futile, so I turned to watching.
There’s a lot to see when you’re unable to comprehend what people have to say, and I’d have to thank my inadequacy in Spanish for granting me this revelation.
Listening to a language that you know, I realized, is quite easy, as your brain seems to naturally grasp the words and then process them automatically. Paying even the slightest bit of attention can cement the information in your mind, no matter how irrelevant or subtle it is.
On the other hand, looking at things — really looking at them — takes a lot more work, as there isn’t any way to passively absorb the scene at hand. It takes a special kind of consideration that requires deliberateness with each glance, attentiveness with each peek.
Once you look closer, you need to actively take all the details in. And this, the sheer amount of effort required to engage with these particulars, is why I’ve come to think that looking is the language of love.
Most people can sense when things are made with love, which is why Park Güell, located on Carmel Hill, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Barcelona. Created by architect Antoni Gaudí, all the structures in the park — from the benches to the walls to the sculptures — are composed almost entirely of mosaics. A closer look at the patterns reveals that each tile holds a different design, all coming from different places and different ways of life.
You cannot fully appreciate Gaudí’s art without considering the labor of his work, which is why I had to put the same extraordinary effort into carefully examining each and every piece in the park.
Gaudí was quite the meticulous man.
My tour guide informed me that he was a practitioner of trencadís — or, as the French would say, pique assiette — meaning he’d scrounge around for discarded pieces of ceramics to use in his work.
Gaudí had a special fluency in finding life in each broken piece and bringing them all together. His observations, his passion and his art were all manifestations of his love. These mosaics, sprawling over thousands and thousands of square feet, make up entire houses, sometimes even blocks. They are scattered throughout Barcelona and are now — with Gaudí’s influence running deep — present all over the world, shared with millions across the globe.
The problem with language, whether it’s read, written, spoken or heard, is that everything we feel and experience can hardly exist within the limited constraints of words and sentences.
Once memorialized in speech, our words are out in the air and up for subjective interpretation — conjuring up different images for different listeners. In this sense, you never really know what’s actually trying to be shared, meaning that words are hardly intimate when passed from one to another.
And perhaps this is the reason why Gaudí, who, according to my tour guide, was a man of few words, instead turned toward observations of the outside to construct his work — you can see this in the layout of his mosaics, each individual piece selected by hand and assembled akin to natural patterns found in the world around him.
While visual perception is also a form of subjective interpretation, it differs from language in the way that it allows us to know exactly what is meant to be shared.
Words that are spoken have already been filtered through the perspective of the speaker. Observations, on the other hand, are based on things as they are externally viewed. They offer us a sense of connection that is both more collective and personal.
Now, two months later, as I make my way out of Healy Hall, I find myself seeing the world through Gaudí’s eyes.
I look closer to see life in the accumulation of all the things around me: in the etched lettering on library desks from decades ago, in the sway of the leaves in the wind and in the streetlamps shaped to resemble raindrops at dawn. I can see it in every worn sole on each shoe, every groove of the bricked walls and every chip, scratch and smudge of paint on the lined concrete below. I see it in the stairways, the benches, the flowers. I see it in a new face every day. I see it in the way the sun shines through the glass, refracting into a million different rays of color and light, as if bent by the hands of Gaudí himself.
There are so many different sources of love in so many different places.
Walking through Georgetown University, I feel as if I’m learning to speak in an entirely different tongue, a language that is readily available to many. As I take my time to listen to the conversations left behind and to read the fine print that is almost too hard to see, I try to make sense of how it all comes together to create a mosaic full of life.
Taking the time to make sense of our surroundings can reveal more to us than words ever could.
In a world overflowing with sensory experiences, we must work to find meaning in the fragments of life all around us. Observations are better when shared. Let us go and bring them all together; let us take it all in with open eyes and open hearts.
To look is to live is to love.
Madison Kim is a first-year in the College of Arts & Sciences. This is the third installment of her column, Don’t Let the Dust Settle.