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 L e c t i 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…”