“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Behind me I could hear the girl screaming, her cries bouncing off the walls of the narrow streets. The man was a few metres ahead of me, both of us running flat out, and it seemed as if I would never catch up to him. But then he suddenly stopped and turned. He stared at me and slowly bent down, gently placing the phone on the ground, never losing eye contact. In that moment it felt as if someone had hit the pause button. I saw him. And then he ran off.
I didn’t see a robber. I didn’t see a wrongdoer. I saw him. I felt this overwhelming feeling of connection. He didn’t have to gently place the phone on the ground, he could have flung it down or continued running, I don’t know if I could have caught up to him. But in that moment the so-called ‘wrongdoer’ did something entirely unexpected and it was in that moment that we connected.
I had been walking back home in Barcelona and it was about 10:30pm. I had passed a girl dressed up for a night out, something which stood out in a city then largely in lockdown, with no bars or cafes open to dress up for. A few seconds later she had begun screaming ‘ladrón’ (thief) and a man hurtled past me. I gave chase, and as we were close to my house I was able to easily navigate the familiar labyrinth of streets of the old town. And no, I wasn’t being brave. Bravery is overcoming fear and yet I had no fear. I just wanted to get the girl’s phone back to her and was hell bent on doing so.
Drum roll please. The magician removes the tablecloth; miraculously the plates, cups and saucers all remain in place and everyone applauds. Except this time Corona removed the tablecloth and the only clapping is for the medical profession. Everything still looks the same. Almost. But it’s not actually the same.
This is how I feel about Barcelona, the city I have called home for the past four years, a city which has been ‘the’ destination for decades. The beach is still inviting, but there is rope to cordon it off to ensure that we sheep can be counted onto the sand, to ensure social distancing. The tables and chairs are out, just a little further apart, and the waiter is masked, as much to protect the customers from seeing the pain of the past few months etched upon his face, as to protect the customers from any virus threat.
We can often feel disconnected from the real world, never more so than in lockdown. Even with lockdown lifted I can’t help but feel somewhat of an observer and as if it’s still not quite real. I can go through the same actions, even if it is whilst wearing a mask, and yet it isn’t the mask that disconnects me or is unsettling; it feels like a charade.
Outside my flat the bells of Santa Maria del Mar have just tolled, a helicopter hums above and below there is the din of the square: people’s laughter and cups clanking on the metal tables. The sound of the helicopter has become almost as habitual as the ringing of the bells since not only the Barcelona attacks, but in the lead up to the referendum on 1st October. Last night the bells were drowned out by the sound of pots and pans being banged throughout the city, a ‘cacerolazo’ in support of the referendum and as a gesture of defiance towards the Madrid government.
September is always a particularly patriotic month for the locals, as it is the month during which Catalans commemorate the fall of Hapsburg-supporting-Barcelona to Bourbon-supporting -Spain on 11th September, 1714; incidentally those same Bourbons who today are still Spain’s royal family. It is also the month where they celebrate ‘La Mercè’, the city’s patron saint. These events provide a platform for the ‘Leave Spain’ voters who turn out in their droves, or rather, in their fluorescent green t-shirts emblazoned with the word ‘Sí’ translated into ‘oui’, ‘yes’ and ‘ja’ among myriad other languages, to ensure that all understand the message being conveyed. At such events the mood tends to be upbeat, something helped by the numerous ‘Estrella’ beers being downed and food bandied about. One thing common to all Spaniards is their ability to turn any event into a quasi fiesta.
No, not my being self-deprecating although you may well think it an apt title upon reading, but rather an article about the Catalan obsession with, well, crap or ‘caga’. This comes particularly into mind at this time of year as I am surrounded by ‘caganers’, ie crappers. Visiting the stands at the local Christmas market in front of Barcelona’s cathedral you are greeted by the usual suspects: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, but you will also see stands upon stands of caganers. The most traditional caganer is the one wearing his red cap, however, now you can see anyone from the Pope to Obama caught in a compromising position (and no, not the same one Clinton was caught in). Literally, the figurines are all crapping and a pile of poo behind them is included on the figurine.
It could be said that the Catalans have a bit of an obsession with crap. The most famous (or nowadays infamous) avenue in Barcelona, the Ramblas is the riverbed of the Cagallel, literally stream of shit, in reference to the sewer that it once was. And as Robert Hughes mentions in his book on Barcelona, ‘the pleasures of a good crap are considered in Catalunya on a level with those of a good meal; “Menjar be i cagar fort/I no tingues por de la mort”, goes the folk saying: “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death”. Quite.
Gaudí should have served as a warning. He was left for dead as an unidentified tramp, due to his clothing. And yet a quick walk around Barcelona, particularly the Barrio Gotico and Barceloneta will take you back to grunge not seen this side of the 1990s. No preppy, jumper over shoulder, slicked back hair Madrileños here. All about the scruffy jeans, beaten up trainers, messed up hair, ‘Catalan-glasses-wearing librarian-meets-homeless’ look here.