Strip-searched in a Spanish cathedral!

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Although I have other things to write about, I thought I’d begin by recounting an adventure from my youth (well, young adulthood). As readers may remember, many of my youthful peccadillos—a word that always reminds me of a hybrid between an armadillo and a peccary—involved me in various states of undress, including the famous and often mis-cited story of me in Dick Lewontin’s office.

Here’s another in the same genre. Now I may not have been the only American to have been strip-searched in Barcelona’s famous cathedral, the great Sagrada Família of Antoni Gaudi, but I don’t know of another. Construction on the cathedral, still unfinished though it was begun in 1882, came to a temporary halt when Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a streetcar. Construction slowly resumed according to Gaudi’s incomplete plans, and is now scheduled for completion in this decade.

It is a sui generis masterpiece, and a must-see if you’re in Barcelona. (Have a look at a few images here.) It would take too long to describe Gaudi’s style, but I find it immensely alluring. The cathedral is like a giant organism, festooned with organic shapes, weird imaginary gargoyle-animals, and real animals sculpted in stone, like snails, climbing the towers.

Have a gander, and note the walkways between each pair of spires; I’ve circled one in red. These play a crucial role in my tale.


This all happened in 1995, when I was invited to give a lecture on evolutionary genetics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, hosted by Professors Alfredo Ruiz and Antonio Barbadilla. I had a few days before the talk, and checked myself into a hotel on the Ramblas, the Happening Street in Barcelona. Although it wasn’t my first visit, I treated myself to some sightseeing, which included visits to tapas bars and, of course, the various buildings and parks of Gaudi, including the Sagrada Família. I went to the cathedral by myself, and walked up and down all four spires. Each pair of spires, connected with one catwalk, has a separated gated entrance in the bottom courtyard (the nave, which was not covered then).

When I was walked between the left pair of towers on the narrow catwalk, a pair of women British tourists was walking in the other direction, and it was a tight squeeze to go past them. After I went by, I heard a bit of a commotion behind me, with the women exclaiming something, but I couldn’t make it out.

After I’d had my fill of both spires, I went down to ground level to access the other pair of spires, climbed them, and then came down. When I wanted to leave, the exit gate was blocked. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, and decided that there was only one open door to all the spires. But when I went back to the one I’d entered, it too was locked. I was trapped.

I stood by the door, a jail-like gate, and called for help. Eventually a uniformed officer came in and, though I spoke almost no Spanish, I said something like “exit, please” (“Salida, por favor”). The guard said, “Un momento,” and went away.

I was puzzled and starting to get a bit anxious.  After about ten minutes, an entire cadre of police (the Guardia Civil, as I recall) showed up, opened the gate, entered, and then began yelling at me in Spanish. I could not understand them, but it was clear that they were very angry at me.  I had no idea what they wanted, but they begin pointing to my daypack, took it, and began going through it minutely, examining every object. In my fractured Spanish, I tried to explain who I was: “Yo soy professor”, and I showed them a paper on which was written the names of my hosts. This was to no avail; they yelled at me and were extremely nasty.

After they went through my daypack, shouting and manhandling me all the while, they gestured at my clothes. It was clear that I was to remove them all.  What choice did I have? And so I stripped naked on the stairs at the bottom of the cathedral’s spire, surrounded by police. They went through every bit of my clothes, from shirt to shoes, turning out my pockets.

What they were looking for mystified me. All I knew was that I seemed to be in serious trouble. There I stood, a nude American in Gaudi’s masterpiece, and my fate was in the hands of the notoriously hard-ass Guardia Civil.

After a while, an English-speaking Spanish official showed up, and explained to me that one of the English women whom I’d squeezed by had discovered, shortly thereafter, that her wallet and passport had been stolen. They immediately went to the authorities in the Cathedral and reported that I had somehow purloined the items when I squeezed by them.  That accounted for the commotion I heard shortly after I passed the pair.

Of course I hadn’t stolen anything; Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets, and the woman had clearly had her passport and wallet lifted before she came to the cathedral, but just discovered it after I passed them.  Finally, the cops let me put my clothes back on, but by that time I was shaking with fear at the rough treatment I’d received.

When I was finally released to leave the cathedral, both English women were standing in the courtyard (the future nave). As I passed them, one of them said to me, “We know you did it. We just don’t know where you put the stuff.”  How they knew this so certainly baffles me. (Perhaps they thought I’d sequestered the goods somewhere in the spire.)

I was about the most shaken I’d ever been, matching the time when the Moroccan police stopped a car in which I was hitchhiking, suspecting us of committing a hit-and-run murder—but that’s another tale. I was so shaken that all I could do was to find a place to sit down and pull myself together. And that place was the real Gothic Cathredral in Barcelona, a masterpiece from an earlier time. I went inside where it was quiet, and I sat in a pew and tried to recover for an hour or so, but I was still deeply shaken. That was the only time in my life I’ve gone into a house of worship to seek respite.

I was to meet my old friend Andrew Berry that afternoon, who was in Barcelona giving a course of lectures at the Autonoma, and he recounts meeting me after my horrible encounter:

On the fateful day in question, I was teaching at the Autonoma and took the train into town at the end of the day to meet you, as pre-arranged, in the Plaça de Catalunya at the top of the Ramblas.  I found you in the specified location in a genuine state of shock.  Even though some hours had elapsed since your traumatic experience, you were still actively shaking.  They say that people *shake* when terrorized, but I’d never actually seen it before.  You were quivering.

I was to lecture at the Autonoma the next day, and the crowd was pretty big. Antonio introduced me in Spanish, and as part of his introduction he told the audience how I’d been treated in the Sagrada Família; they audibly gasped at the way a visiting professor had been treated (being a professor is a bigger deal in Europe than in the U.S.). Several people told me I should make a formal complaint and write letters to the newspaper about what had happened, but I wanted to put the episode behind me. But even now when I think about that day, I get the willies.

The denouement of my visit was pleasant. My lecture went off well, and then, with true Spanish hospitality, Andrew and I were taken out for an evening of drinking, dining, and dancing. We first went to a restaurant famous for its lamb dishes (I can’t recall the name); our reservations were for 11 p.m.! (To an American, the Spanish dine at ungodly hours.) The dinner was terrific, and then we all repaired to a disco on top of a mountain and danced until dawn. (I was a bit friskier in those days!). Here are some photos from that evening that Andrew took with real film:

Dinner with some of the biology department. If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you may have heard of some of these folks (labels from Andrew):

It was only 25 years ago, but I looked so much younger then, with a bushy head of black hair.  Here I am drinking wine from the communal vessel called the porron, a Catalan device that helps promote sociality while preserving sanitary drinking. You have to be good enough to pour the wine into your mouth without slipping up:


Dancing till dawn in a disco. I’ve only done that once since: at my 25th college reunion.

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