Barbara Brooks: Four Months in Barcelona 

August in Barcelona

Four months in another country begins here: Barcelona Airport, August 2000, a hot wind from Africa. It feels a bit like Brisbane – heat, humidity, palm trees and bougainvillea, the airport in the flatlands near a river estuary. But not for long. A taxi driver with a Che Guevara badge on the dashboard takes us into the city at a speed that must be illegal. We are staying in L’Eixample, the modernist area of town, only a few blocks from the Bari Gotic in the Cuitat Vella, the medieval city with its narrow alleys and paved squares. Tim’s friends have a small flat, but there is room for us for a few days. Anna and the children are on holiday at the beach while Josep Miquel is doing bricolage: this sounds like an art installation, but means small renovations. Day 1: we spend our first night in a room with nothing in it but a bed, and French doors onto a balcony above a busy street. Day 2:  J-M paints and moves furniture; he takes the piano apart, we carry it down the hall and he re-assembles it, by numbers, in the dining room. We walk around the old town, watching people on their balconies talking across the narrow street, eating in bars. Day 3: our room is full of books and we sleep next to the Encyclopaedia Catalana. We are tunnelling our way into the Spanish language and J-M discusses philology and grammar enthusiastically, climbing down off the ladder, paintbrush in hand, to consult the dictionaries when I ask about the expression, dormir como una marmota.

The Catalans are mostly bilingual, speaking Catalan and Spanish (which they call Castilian). The languages come from the same root, but Spanish has absorbed Arabic words, and Catalan French. Language means identity to people whose language and culture were suppressed by Franco for many years; they are fiercely protective of it now. Like Per, a teacher who, as a political statement, refuses to speak Spanish. We speak only Spanish and mine is halting. When we talk about Aboriginal people in Australia, Per is captivated. He wants to talk about minorities and marginalisation, about women, gypsies, the refugees from Africa who arrive at Cadiz in leaking rubber boats, if they’re lucky, or drown on the way, if they’re not. He tries French, but my French is too weak for the passion of these subjects. When he gives in and bursts into Spanish, his friends applaud.

Diego and Durruti

Now the flat is renovated, Anna and the children are coming back; our room is full of books and furniture.   J-M takes us to meet Diego, who has a large flat in Gracia, which Tim says is the Balmain of Barcelona. As Abel Paz, Diego, a 70 year old hero of the anarchist movement, has written accounts of the anarcho-syndicalist struggles and a biography of Durruti, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist hero who died during the civil war. This is the country where anarchism, which is almost everywhere else a joke or a pejorative term, meaning chaos, confusion, inertia, was a viable possibility; this is the place where anarchism as a philosophy of equality and participation became a reality and perhaps is still embedded in the way of life as well as the hopes and dreams.

Diego speaks fast guttural Catalan from behind a thick haze of smoke. He asks me what I intend to write while I’m here and instead of saying I don’t know, I get flustered and say, maybe a travel article. Oh Barbara, he says, shaking his head. He throws us a key and invites us to use the front room. Leaning over the balcony, we look down on tables lined up along the middle of the street. It’s the local fiesta, and everyone has carried their table out and the tables are lined up down the middle of the street, and for this week, they will eat there, together, every night, talking and laughing. Around the corner they’re building carnival figures, like a figure of a woman with a huge skirt made out of cunningly arranged, brightly coloured packets of food.

Diego has just chain-smoked his 40th unfiltered cigarette and when we stagger out into the street I’m breathless; I’d need an oxygen cylinder to live here. We say goodbye and muchas gracias, very generous, sorry, can’t breathe… Diego, J-M tells us, wrote the Durruti biography in the 1960s while he was in a sanatorium recovering from TB. He has had cancer of the larynx for 15 years. Durruti: The People Armed was translated into English, German, Greek, Norwegian – and Spanish. Diego writes in Catalan, the language of 7 million people in this part of Europe. In Catalonia, most people understand the language but less than 70% can read it.  Under a subsidised publishing program, they publish four times as many books per head as the US.

Medinaceli, the city in the sky

On the verge of homelessness, with the hotels full of tourists, we ring Oriol, who works for the anarchist bicycle couriers. Oh yes, he says, didn’t I tell you? My friend Miguel’s mother has a room. At ten o’clock that night we’re in a room that floats above Barcelona harbour in the hazy polluted dusk, talking with Margarita and her daughter Pino. Margarita speaks no English, but communicates across languages with food and goodwill. We eat chorizo and look out the window at the lights of Maremagnum, Barcelona’s answer to Darling Harbour.  She shows us the room, large and airy with a cool tiled floor, yellow walls, a bed with a blue and white spread at one end, a table and chairs at the other. I’m in love with the flat, with its balcony facing the water and its marble kitchen benches and shallow marble sink (later we learn to wash up in a plastic bowl so we don’t chip the plates). We are charmed by the large sleepy cat and the umbrella rigged up over the toilet seat because the roof leaks when it rains. Here we sit down to eat with the dictionary on the table.

We are in Plaza Medinaceli, poised between the old town and the harbour, a barrio of artists, backpackers, and long-time residents with a small community of Pakistanis, who run tiny supermarkets selling coconut milk, chat masala, and Birds Custard Powder. The street of the Pakistani supermarkets follows the line of the old Roman walls. In the mornings we skip the tostadas y marmelade at the backpacker cafes, and go to Bar Paulino for breakfast, along with the workers from the union office, the CNT or Confederation Nacional de Trabajo, a confederation of anarcho-syndicalist labour unions, upstairs. They represent workers, students, unemployed people, but not the police or military. Durruti was their most famous member. Almodevar filmed parts of All about My Mother in the bar, and in the building where we now live. Two blocks away, the Ramblas ends at a statue of Columbus; Picasso painted Passeig de Colom from the balcony of a room around the corner where he fell in love with Olga Khoklova, an Ukranian dancer, who became his first wife. He hung out in Calle d’Avinyo around the corner, and painted the sex workers, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The Picasso museum is ten minutes’ walk away in El Born; the first time Tim came to Barcelona he went there every day to look at the exercises in drawing and painting Picasso had set himself, then went home to do his own music exercises.

Around the corner is Place de la Merce in front of the church; nobody much goes to the church but people come out of the shadowed streets and sit in the sunny square in the afternoons. There’s more activity downstairs at the Registre Civil where the pigeons eat the rice and rose petals after weddings, and the man who sleeps on the back steps spends the afternoon sweeping them.

In Spanish I am too baroque

Pino’s boyfriend Ricard works in IT and speaks English because that is the international business language, especially in the IT world, and German because like many young Catalans he worked in Germany for several years. He also speaks Catalan and Spanish, or Castilian as they call it here. Margarita, despite her English mother, hardly speaks any English, and we learn each other’s language in the kitchen, where she shows me how to cook Cuban Pork, and I demonstrate Laksa (from a packet). Pino puts the dictionary on the dining table when we arrive; Pino with her sense of organisation and order has coped with this before, because Margarita lets rooms to students from England or Germany regularly.

Most Australians I know are monolingual, apart from learning another language for a couple of years at school, perhaps French, or now Japanese; while it’s common for Europeans to speak several languages. Merce writes poetry in Catalan and English. Ricard says he prefers to speak English, because “in Spanish I am too baroque about my emotions.”

Tim is the negotiator; he speaks good Spanish because he spent 6 months learning on his first visit. I live in a masala of language, reading Salman Rushdie in English, listening to TV in Catalan (linguistically incomprehensible but visually absolutely familiar, clothes, hair, smiles, the on-screen style and manners), trying to speak Castilian (badly) and then trying to write in English. Weird. But enjoyable. Like being taken out of your frog pond and shaken up in a cocktail, maybe.

Internet is challenging. T is trying to work remotely but everything falls apart when the transformer blows up on his new laptop and the warranty doesn’t cover Europe. He finally gets the laptop working again after six weeks of angst and struggles with Compaq Australia, and many visits to ID Grup, the Compaq agents in the suburbs of Barcelona.   When the new transformer arrives from Korea, we don’t believe it will work, but it does. Meanwhile he’s been using our friend Merce’s computer. Email accounts here work via telephone numbers, the provider is free and you pay for the telephone calls, but here at Plaza Medinaceli we have agreed that we don’t use the telephone. We’ve been doing Hotmail in the e-shops. Igor, a friend of J-M, an archaeologist from Belgrade who left a year ago and can’t get a job here, set up an internet shop in a room painted white with straw matting and his girlfriend’s paintings on the wall. We drop in to check email and discuss what Milosevic will do next. Or we go to Easy Everything, open 24 hours a day, the MacDonald’s of email, with 500 terminals and coffee and sandwiches, roving assistants in orange shirts to help out, and special cheap rates between 3 and 6 am.

Dancing the flamenco with Thelonius Monk

We’re at the Palau de Musica Catalana, an art nouveau building with a huge stained glass skylight, graceful spaces and mosaic columns, designed by Montaner who employed artists and artisans to add style. We’re high up in one of the balconies looking down on the stage. We’re watching Chano Dominguez, a pianist from Andalucia who plays jazz and flamenco. The flamenco trio arrive: they are gypsies, men with long dark hair and tight black trousers.  The singer has that vibrato, duende, that haunt in his voice, then there is the man whose role it is to clap, to express rhythm through his body, and finally the dancer, a dervish, a mystic, when he gets up and dances briefly it makes my heart sing; words can’t express the joy, courage and grace of this skinny darkhaired man dancing in white shirt and tight black jeans, who dances only for a minute or two then stops. He’s dancing the flamenco to Thelonius Monk.

A hot wind from Africa

We are living with history. Every day we walk past the Roman walls. Medinaceli’s name comes from the Arabic, and reminds us of the Moorish presence in Spain after the Romans left. Moorish Andalucía fell to the Catholic monarchs in 1492 and the Moors were expelled; then the Catholics expelled the Jews who wouldn’t convert to Catholicism. Many Jewish people from Barcelona went to Italy and Istanbul; there are stories about families in Istanbul who still have the key to a house in Barcelona. We walk through Placa Orwell, and read Homage to Catalonia, about Orwell’s time in Spain during the Civil War; he said he would never forget being in Barcelona during the time of socialist and anarcho-syndicalist influence. Franco won the war and ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Under Franco, the Catalans were not allowed to speak their language, nor were the Galicians or the Basques. Catalan writers and intellectuals smuggled their books and papers across the border for safekeeping in the southern, Catalan speaking, part of France, the Languedoc. Picasso would not allow Guernica, his painting of the Basque town that was bombed by the Germans in 1937, to come to Spain until after Franco had gone.

Eating in Spanish time

We adapt to local time and eat la comida, the main meal, at 3pm. The evening meal, la cena, is late, maybe 10pm. Eating is fine, but the complications of doing necessary tasks and maintenance in another language take up much of our time, like the way we flail around looking for the entrance to the right Metro station because we don’t know the way. But then we find a new restaurant, or a new square to sit in, or we discover olives stuffed with anchovies.

We walk around the Barri Gotic in the mornings and stop and eat when we feel hungry, and only once has the food not been good. We eat pan con tomate, tortilla, salad, versions of paella, we eat Gazpacho, pimientos del Padron and mushrooms in season, we eat tapas like potatas bravas and albondigas, and a soup made from potatoes and turnips (muy autentico but boring). We eat fish and prawns and sardines a la plancha but avoid Bacalau, dried salted cod. Once while we eat lunch we watch four Filipino men manhandling a giant TV set into the kitchen.

I am confused about the siesta: does it exist? Are places going to be closed from 2 till 5pm, or do they follow the global 9 to 5 hours? After a confusing afternoon of trying to do business and shopping, and, the last straw, being cold shouldered by the local women in the local supermarket queue because they don’t like tourists (and who can blame them), I come back to the flat and sleep for two hours. When we go out again at six, there’s a buzz in the streets, everyone’s out shopping and making phone calls, sitting in the bars, riding noisy motor scooters (Honda Yupy) too fast down narrow lanes, and another phase of the city’s life is beginning.

At night, we walk through the Barri Gotic; we cross Placa George Orwell and look at the bullet holes in the walls. In the Place del Pi, we sit and drink cervesas under the orange trees while local buskers play Catalan gypsy music, and the Filipinos sing Bob Marley songs and pass the hat around. Then we eat in the smoky, noisy, happy bars and restaurants. The narrow streets are buzzing; the sky is luminous dark blue.

Grey November

Grey skies in November. The old town begins to look dingy. Grey walls, stained pavements, dark windows.

The light is draining out of the sky the way the warmth has drained out of the year.

Inside the small bars, at night, there are a few people with yellow faces, empty chairs and a TV. The tourists have left. The tabac has run out of stamps; the English newspapers don’t arrive on time; the bar on the corner of the Ramblas no longer puts out chairs at night, and the toast and marmalade signs have gone.

But at 7pm in Avinyo, the bread shop is open; the supermarket is full; people walk up and down, and gather to talk in the narrow street warmed by the light from shop windows.

We go back to Medinaceli. There’s a moon in the sky and palm trees in front of silver-grey water.

These are our last Barcelona nights; soon we will leave. I remember all this, but nothing about the flight home.

 – Barbara Brooks


Barbara Brooks is based in Sydney. She has published a small book of short prose/ essays, a large biography of the novelist Eleanor Dark, and edited a collection of women’s experimental writing with Moya Costello, Anna Gibbs and Ros Prosser.




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