Matt Pucci - This is Barcelona

An Exercise In Perception

All, Barcelona, Sitting, Words, Writing

The first thing I saw this morning as I walked out of my hostel was a guy on a bike, riding up the middle of the street on one wheel. Just a kid, sitting back with a big grin on his face, front wheel high in the air. And not just for a second, either. I stood and watched as he rode all the way down the street like that. Brilliant. What a way to start the day.

This is Barcelona.

Four days now, I’ve been back here. The first day I just walked. Alone. Trudged the streets in the baking heat, from the Raval to El Born. Down to the port, where the seagulls are as big as eagles, and dirty as the water by which they strut. Like me, they seemed to be searching for something… Halfway up to Barceloneta, I stopped and sat on a bench and watched a skater in tight black jeans and no shirt doing tricks, while his girlfriend rode behind him on a bike, filming it all on her phone. I didn’t go any further after that. I went back, wandered ’round the Raval for a bit, but called it quits at around two, beaten by the heat and the weight of memory.

Today is different. Today I feel better. I’m back into the swing of things—back into the groove of this city. After watching the guy wheelie all the way down Calle Hospital, I put on my sunglasses, turned left, turned left again, walked a couple of blocks, and there—on the corner—was a café I’d never seen before. A perfect little place, with wooden booths, and sunshine streaming in through the window…

This feeling I have right now, it comes from another place. A place that I seem to be able to access far more easily when I’m here. Here, in this place, I feel more open—more susceptible to the beauty of it all. And it seems to me that by perceiving the beauty of it all, of our surroundings, and of the possibilities they present… well, one can’t help but marvel at it all. The light, the colours—even the little things, like this bowl of sugar before me. Sugar so brown and rich in its brownness I want to pick up the little wooden spoon and eat it straight from the bowl. I don’t do that, though. Instead, I look to my right and there above the bar, above the shelves of jars containing teas and other infusions, is an array of wooden blocks, each one with a letter on the front, and each letter has been fashioned in a different way. Carved into the wood, or stencilled on, the letters spell out the name of the café.

It looks kind of like this:

C o c t v 0.

The people who come into the café, they all say hello. It’s a general hello to everyone—even me. I don’t respond at first, but then I do. “Bon dia…” Do people do this in England? I can’t help but think that the reaction would be less receptive… “Why are you saying hello to me? I don’t fuckin’ know you…”

I want to tell you about what happened the other night. Walking back from the restaurant, cutting across Calle de les Floristes de la Rambla, and two guys passed me. They weren’t running, but they were out of breath, like they had been. Running, I mean. They were talking, muttering to each other in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Anyway, a minute later (less?) I round the corner, into the plaza that backs onto the mercat, and I see a man in construction gear, standing with his neck craned, looking past me. Behind him, a couple—tourists, clearly—and they look distressed. The woman is crying, panting, struggling for breath. Immediately, I understand: they’ve been robbed. I stop. Shit. The two guys that passed me, a matter of seconds before. Surely. The construction worker, he’s trying to help, seeing if he can spot the culprits. What can I do? They’re long gone. I didn’t even see which direction they went. I start to walk over to the couple, but they are already retreating. The woman is literally howling. I hope the guy will hold her, comfort and reassure her.

Today is a new day, though. A good day. Today is all about the light, as it comes through the leaves and branches of the trees. Leaves and branches that make shadows on the stone, and the shadows shift with the breeze, gentle and pleasant. The light here is so bright, that even under the shade of the trees—these giant chestnut trees—sunglasses are a necessity. I’m in Gràcia, now, sitting on a bench in a square. On my way over I saw a notice. Hand-written, stuck on the side of a building on C/ Verdi: “Apartment for sale: a duplex, with three rooms and two bathrooms, 180 square metres. 450,000 Euros.” Cripes. People cross the plaza before me. A family of tourists. A hippie lady with three dogs. One of them cannot walk properly—it has wheels attached to its hind legs, and it scoots along, behind the others. My eyes roam over to the tables outside the café in the corner of the square. There’s a man, watching me. I know he’s watching me, even though he’s wearing sunglasses. In fact, that’s how I know he’s watching me. That’s why anyone wears sunglasses: to watch you as you sit and write about them. Of course it is. This guy who’s watching me, he’s wearing a t-shirt with the name of a band. The band is Flipper. I know Flipper, but I wonder: would anyone have heard of Flipper if it weren’t for Kurt Cobain? I doubt it. So what, though? That’s okay. No-one cares. Not here! This is Barcelona…

I’m now sitting in the exact spot where the guy in the Flipper shirt was sitting. The place is called La Cafetera. On the table in front of me is a bottle of Voll Damm—the double malt beer that comes from the same brewery as Estrella, which the Brits pronounce: “estrella”. As opposed to “es-tray-ah”… which would also be wrong, the way I pronounce it. I prefer Moritz, anyway. Whatever. It’s not important. On the bench where I was sitting a few minutes before, there are two old guys. They’re Spanish (as opposed to Catalan) and one of them strums a guitar with his thumb, singing a song that sounds like that one by the Gypsy Kings. His hair is grey, his teeth almost all gone, and he has a voice that crackles from too many cigarettes. I think maybe he’s Andalucian. His compadre is tall, dressed in a smart shirt and old, ill-fitting blue jeans. He sits and rolls a joint, discarding the cigarettes from which he has just pinched the tobacco, chucking them on the ground. A few yards away, sitting on the stoop of a store with its shutter pulled down, is another guy, smoking a cigarette and glancing across, kinda shiftily. The tall guy starts bawling at him, his voice as throaty and hackneyed as his guitar-strumming amigo. The guitarist cackles: they are taking the piss out of the stoop guy. The stoop guy tells them to fuck off, basically. They laugh. These men remind me of the men on the cover of that copy of Hemingway’s ‘Men Without Women’ that sits on my bedside table back at home. Where do they live, these men? Maybe they live in that duplex. The one that costs half a million euros. What? You don’t know.

You know nothing, Jon Snow…

This is true. Here I know less than nothing. It feels good, though—like being given a clean slate. I can feel my insignificance increasing every day, and with it goes my fear. My worries, my regrets… Oh, but this is a wonderful spot! The buildings, with their tall, rectangular windows and faded green shutters, and the balconies enclosed by iron spears, black as an oil slick. They’re barely wide enough to stand on, those balconies, but still. To live in one of those apartments… fabulous! Luxury beyond luxury. One day, baby. You and me. I watch the guitarist stand up and stretch and smoke his joint, before picking up his guitar and slowly sauntering off. Kinda bow-legged. He nods at a woman eating from a carton of stir-fry, bids her bon profit. She nods in acknowledgement and carries on, hoisting noodles and fried egg and spring onions into her mouth with chopsticks. Mm. I’m hungry.

It’s time to move on…”

Underneath The Orange Trees

All, Barcelona, Creativity, Sitting

“Underneath the orange trees I sit, in the grounds of the biblioteca. Shielded from the midday sun, by the branches of the trees—branches teeming with fruit. Bunches of three or four, clustered together, their bright orange peel mottled brown like the skin of a leopard. No way these oranges would make it onto the shelves of a British supermarket. No way! I’m not even sure they’re oranges. Perhaps they’re tangerines. Satsumas, or clementines, or something else entirely. Perhaps they’re apples. Why not? You can’t be too sure these days. You can’t be too sure of anything.

Underneath the orange trees I sit. I sit alone, but there are other people here. There’s a man, to my left, old and bald, in socks and sandals, with earphones in—the white ones you get with Apple products. I wonder what he’s listening to. Mozart? Or Megadeth? Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, perhaps, translated into Spanish. Over to my right there’s a woman, in a white blouse embroidered with flowers of pink and blue, leafing through papers in a plastic yellow file. Her face is hidden behind the trunk of one of the trees. I wonder what she looks like. I don’t want to know, though. I just want to imagine.

What’s this now? A small child—a toddler—escaped from her parents’ clutches, stands and stares at the fountain a few yards away. She points and smiles, the water dancing and twinkling in the sunlight. More people wander over, take photos on their phones. This toddler, in her pink shorts and little pink sunhat, she’s shown them. She has shown us all. Look, she says—and now I cannot stop. I sit and watch the fountain, spurting and splashing unendingly, the water overflowing and trickling down the sides of the stone bowl. I watch the sparrows come to drink. Dip their heads and tilt them back, and then fly off, chirping. A sign at the base of the fountain says that the water is not for drinking, nor swimming in, and one should not place fish or turtles in the fountain. It seems unlikely that anyone would do that, but I suppose they have to make sure.

It’s peaceful here, underneath the orange trees, like a pocket of tranquillity inside the chaos of the citadel. A place where people can sit and read, or sit and listen, or just sit. Everyone respects the norms here. The unwritten rules. Every so often, though, the peace is broken. Someone enters the grounds from behind me, comes bounding past, whooping and hollering. A guy with a mane of long black hair; his dog—unleashed—jumps into the fountain, and the man yells at the dog but carries on walking and the dog eventually follows him and then they’re gone. Out the other side. There’s always someone wants to disrupt things, bring attention to themselves. That’s okay, though. Perhaps one day I’ll be the crazy guy. Or the old man in the socks and the sandals. Or even the dog. Unleashed. Unbound. Free to roam, and jump into fountains, and chase the sparrows. Go up to strange women and lick their hands…

How long have I been here? Underneath the orange trees. The days go by so slow, and yet this trip will be over before I know it. Soon it’ll be time for me to go… though there’s nowhere I need to be. Just sit a little longer. Why not? This ain’t reality, but it’ll do for now.

Teaching Writing, Part One

All, Creativity, Sitting, Teaching, Words, Writing

For the past three weeks, I’ve been going to a small primary school just outside Bedford and helping one of the teachers with a group of boys who want to improve their writing. It takes me about forty minutes to drive there, and I’m only with them for a couple of hours, one morning a week, but even after just three sessions, I’m psyched about the progress they’re making.

There’s still a lot of work to do, of course. It definitely helps that they’re all attentive, quick to respond and fairly well-behaved. Ahem. Their “problems” vary, from child to child: one boy, for example, has absolutely no confidence in what he writes; another cannot see that what he writes invariably ends up as one long string of independent clauses, completely devoid of any punctuation whatsoever. Rudiger*, meanwhile, is obsessed with the word therefore. He wants to use it all the time. It drives me fucking nuts, and I’ve told him so (minus the f-word, of course, because, er, hello?). I have, therefore, banned him from using it more than once in each piece of writing he does.

By the time they’re in Year 5, most children have had it drummed into them so often that when you ask them what their writing needs to include, you get a monotone chorus of: “Capital letters and full stops… time connectives… interesting vocabulary…” Which is all true and good. But boys—I’ve noticed this, being one myself—can get pretty obsessive, and this often stops them from just getting something down on paper. They’re constantly thinking, I’ve got to use conjunctions. Or, I’ve got to use technical vocabulary… whatever that is. And that leads to a kind of writer’s block, which we all know is worse than anything to afflict mankind in the entire history of its existence.

One of the techniques I use is getting them to free-write. How often do kids get to do that? Not very often, I’ll wager—and it shows. The first time I tried it, some of them really struggled with the mere concept. “But, I don’t know what to write,” they say. And sometimes that’s true. More often than not, however, they’re under the illusion that what I want them to write has to be perfect. Perfectly punctuated, in their neatest handwriting, and no spelling mistakes… the works. Because, somewhere along the line, this is what they’ve come to understand “writing” to mean. And yeah—ultimately, that is what we teachers are after. But not all the time, and certainly not straight away.

Sometimes you need to give them a topic, or a prompt. Sometimes not. I’ve often done it by giving them the opening, “Mr Pucci has asked me to write for ten minutes, but I don’t know what to write about so I’m just going to write about…” Either way, once you get ‘em going, you’ll probably find they use “connectives” and “interesting vocabulary” without even thinking about it. At some point, of course, you have to stop them and get them to look over what they’ve written. To begin what I call the translation process. That’s when we start doing things like reading aloud, checking for repetition or overuse of the same word, and choosing where to put a full stop. (As an aside, it’s interesting how many of these techniques I need to remind myself to use, or encourage my clients to use). For this to work—certainly with a group of nine-year-old boys—you need to establish a culture of trust and respect. Make sure they know we’re not judging any mistakes, but at the same time saying it’s okay to laugh at something that sounds silly. Watch how fast they reach for their pencils in order to make those corrections, or to put in those missing full stops. Thus begins the process of editing and re-writing… but more on that next week.

*Not his real name.

Dear Writing…

All, Hate, Sitting, Words, Writing

Dear Writing,

Don’t take this wrong, but… well… sometimes I really hate you.

For a start, you force me to get me up, every morning—way earlier than anyone in their right mind would want to get up—sniff through the pile of clothes by my bed, get dressed and walk to a nearby café, where I’ll spend the next few hours in your company. You make me sit down, which is bad for my health, apparently. You make me drink coffee, which stains my teeth and sends me a bit loopy if I have too much. (Okay, you don’t make me do that, and compared with the other vices on which other writers depend, coffee’s hardly the most malignant). You do make my back ache though, as I become more and more engrossed in you, forgetting about the importance of sitting up straight and maintaining correct posture…

Damn you, Writing!

It’s bad enough you made me commit career suicide—not just once, or twice, but three times. You had me leave a stable, well-paid job, with prospects and a pension. And for what? Now you keep me awake at night, as I try to find solutions to problems you’ve created, teasing me with new ideas when I haven’t even finished fleshing out the ones you gave me last time. Oh, and that thing you do, when you wake me up in the middle of the night, to tell me, Hey, that sentence you were struggling to put together earlier today? Well, here it is. Cheers, mate. I mean, not to sound ungrateful or anything, but do I have to hear it right now? It’s three a.m…

You bastard.

My memory’s a little hazy sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I was doing fine before you came along. Now you distract me from other, more worthy endeavours, such as swimming, making money, having sex, and checking Facebook. And yes, you’ve taken me to some interesting places—literally and psychologically—but they were places I really didn’t need to go. Uncomfortable places. Places that have allowed me to discover who I am. Worse still, you’ve given me a sense of purpose—a goal, an ambition—when all I want to do is sit on my arse and watch old Simpsons episodes, or whatever’s on Sky Atlantic HD. On occasion, you even—whisper it—give me a sense of hope, when, really, we all know that hope is futile, and that we’re all doomed. And for that, I really hate you.

But I think the thing I hate most about you is that you know, in spite of my desire to do other things, and my dalliances with other art-forms and creative outlets, that I’ll always come back to you. No matter how many dead ends you lead me down, how many rejection slips you get me, how many glazed looks of disinterest you’d have me receive. You know I’ll be back…

Oh, Writing, you smug old git.

So, yes, sometimes I really do hate you. Savage Garden-style—truly, madly, deeply. Lifelong-partner-style. For all the early mornings, the backache and the deteriorating eyesight. For all the pain you cause me. But the truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. No siree. Not in a million years. Because—to paraphrase the great Mr. Gregory Porter—even the worst days with you are better than the loneliness I’d feel without you.

Yours (hatefully)

Matt Pucci