Thick walls constructed in the 19th century separate us from the noise of the neighbours within the building itself. It would be easy to imagine we were the only ones living here if not for the rare occasion we see another occupant tramp up or down the crooked stairs towing grocery bags or dogs of varying miniature breeds. They are usually very quiet – both dogs and neighbours, with the exception of last night. In the wee hours, I recall footsteps clattering on loose tile, a drunken voice bouncing around the stairwell and the urgent “shhhhh” of a companion.
Each morning I wake to the metallic thunder of rolling doors flung upwards on the backs of trucks and loading bays. The deliveries begin around 7 a.m., bringing fresh produce, meat and fish for the market, which opens at ten and closes at two. I don’t resent the early wake up call; I’m a lark, not a nightingale. I greet each day with much anticipation, and the knowledge that I have no knowledge. I have a vague idea of where we will go but I can’t begin to imagine what experiences we will have and as entertaining and peculiar as my dreams are, the blank slate before me is too enticing to keep me in bed once I’ve woken up.
This afternoon, five days after our arrival, I am looking out our bedroom window watching life unfold below me on Carrer de la Flor
Movement attracts my eye and I watch a curly haired boy in shorts and a bright yellow polo shirt step from the sunny street into the shadow of our lane. Each hand grips the blue plastic handle of a four litre jug of water. He places the jugs on the ground and a round gold tin appears in one hand. My initial thought is snuff? When I describe the scene to my husband, he makes the same suggestion. Perhaps when in a foreign country your mind looks for less than ordinary options. The boy, who can’t be much older than eight, pries the lid open, rummages in the foil and pulls out a sweet covered in powdered sugar. He pops it into his mouth rearranging the foil with great care before closing the lid and tucking it into his pocket. Has he liberated the sweet from the tin his mother asked him to buy, or did she tell him to get himself a treat with the change when she sent him off on his errand? Hoisting the jugs by the handles, he continues on his way shuffling along the stone to the end of the alleyway. He presses the building’s buzzer, hollers into the speaker and shoulders his way through the door.
If I were brave enough to stand on the narrow balcony and test my weight against the aged wrought iron railings, I am sure I could easily lean forward and shake hands with someone standing on the balcony opposite me. Kitty corner across the alley and one floor down, they are renovating. Two men have been sweating it out all week. Normally businesses other than cafés and restaurants close between 2:00 and 4:30 for a siesta, but there is no rest for these two. When we come home for lunch or a change of clothes, we casually check their progress, listening to the music of hammers and an electric saw, of heavy lumber hitting the floor, and a male voice singing snippets of flamenco and opera along with the radio. Through the pale raw pine of an open balcony door, we watch a puzzle of mosaic tiles come together piece by piece.
The doors are an ingenious and remarkable layering of wood, glass and wood that allow you to open everything at once, open them with glass still in, protecting you from the elements, or close indoor wooden shutters over the glass creating instant darkness. I watched them fitting the wood “window” layer into the folding doors. It takes some time and requires some adjustments, some grunting and perhaps a curse or too. My understanding of Spanish swear words is limited but something about the delivery is universal. The younger of the two men, pants riding down on his hips, holds the wood patiently in place as the older man grumbles his frustration.
They count the floors differently here. We are on the 2nd floor, according to our address, but in
we would call it the fourth floor. Nothing much on the ground or floor, just mail boxes, then the Principal floor above that, then the first, then the second with four more above us. I decide to head down to street level for a closer examination of the lane. Stores, galleries, and studios occupy the ground floor levels. It’s late afternoon and the sky above is bright and free of clouds, but the tall buildings and narrow alleyway provide no room for sunshine. The artificial light feels both odd and familiar to me, like something from a recurring dream. Canada
My first stop is a travel agency specializing in trips to Africa and the
Middle East. The sign overhead reads “Cultura Africana y Viajes” African Culture and Travel I think. I have some rudimentary Spanish, but this is Catalan, kind of a French/Spanish combination. I pretend to read the brochures and write-ups pasted on the windows while I peek into the store. There are beautiful photographs of golden orange sand dunes with sharp wind blown edges and smiling children with liquid brown eyes, glowing skin and beatific smiles. Out of the corner of my eye, I see pale strawberry blonde hair. A woman focuses on the computer screen in front of her, fingers hovering over the keyboard. She looks up and I continue on my journey. Across from her, there is a hairdresser, one of several in the area. My attention is drawn to the sign offering hair colour for 10 euros…tempting…..
“Showroom RecDi8” farther down the street draws my attention with tall glass doors that don’t have a metal cover-up at night. I wonder how they avoid being broken into. The contents are enticing with beautiful art works - vases, sculpture, wall hangings, knickknacks, displayed on tables and shelves in minimalist décor. Lighting is subdued and the creations seem lit from within. In the loft at the back of the store, a handsome man with a crew cut sits on a chair chewing his nails, staring intently at the computer screen in front of him and I walk past unnoticed.
The “Be Organic” shop is open despite the fact that it’s siesta time. On either side of the door, shiny white onions, bumpy orange squash, organic and blemish free, peek out of wooden crates. Picture perfect tomatoes on the vine fill one cardboard box, and cherry tomatoes colour the bottom of the one beside it. Wooden shelves display bottles, jars and cans that proudly announce their pesticide free goodness. A blackboard hangs on the concrete wall and curving pastel letters proclaim “Tienda Ecólogica”.
I walk past the Showroom again and the man from the loft has moved to the main floor. He is more relaxed now, leaning back in his chair, arm casually thrown across the table in front of him. A contagious smile lights up his eyes while he listens to someone on his cell phone. He looks very appealing and I imagine the talker is someone he’s very fond of. I’m smiling myself at the thought and when our eyes meet he quickly looks down as though embarrassed to be caught in an intimate moment.
It’s now 4:00 and people are slowly returning from their siestas, checking their watches and opening doors. Two women stand half way down the alley, one is the travel agent, the other wears an apron with the Be Organic logo. They laugh, and speak to each other in English with German and Spanish accents. I wonder if they see the irony of smoking in front of the health food store.
I walk back to my end of the alley and I stop to lean on the wall. I’m holding my notebook at chest level and I write furiously, trying to describe everything around me, to record a memory of this world that is both so old and new. I’m filled with regret at the thought of all the opportunities I've missed to transcribe the life surrounding over the past few days. Until today, my attempts to capture
have been with my camera not my pen. It seems that sometimes a thousand words are not enough. Barcelona
I hear the jingling of the tags on a dog collar and raise my eyes to see another neighbour who resides somewhere above me. He leads his twin schnauzers into our building. My gaze turns to a couple at the end of the alley, one holding up a camera. I look back to my book and continue writing as the flash goes off. I wonder if she’s taking a picture of me as I write about her, smiling, blissfully engrossed in my task. Or perhaps she taking a picture of the quaint Barcelona street and will later wish she could have snapped one without that crazy writing woman in it.
High heels click along the cement drawing my attention to the opposite end of the lane once more. My eyes sweep over the slender silhouette of a woman walking up the middle of the alleyway. Her purse is slung across her body and she carries a bouquet of flowers. I can’t tell what variety they are, only that they are a vivid profusion of pinks and yellows and blues. A bright white piece of paper surrounds them. In the dusky lane with late afternoon sun and artificial light bouncing off brass coach lamps and store windows, with her hand clutching the tissue covered stems, the effect is so stunning I imagine I will request white paper around all future bouquets that I buy. She is striding confidently in my direction, in heels and a short denim skirt. Her arms extend out to the side with elbows bent, the bouquet in one hand and a plump red mango resting on the other. She carries the mango as though holding a tray with her hand at a right angle to her wrist. She walks past me but turns around before she reaches the end of the street, then doubles back. She seems to be looking for something in particular. When she reaches the Showroom she stops and peers through the window. I wonder if she’s looking for the handsome man. Was she the source of his blissful smile? The woman stares into the showroom for a minute or two and then walks to the end of the alleyway. She hesitates, seeming unsure of which way to go; steps tentatively one way then strides off in the opposite direction.
I’m dying to know what her story is. The fear that I’ll be mistaken for a stalker if I’m seen again, doesn’t stop me from casually strolling by the store with a quick glance over my shoulder at the last minute. I spot him back in the loft, staring intently into the computer screen, chewing his nails once again. I’m limp with disappointment. What if they were meant to find each other and didn’t connect. I saw you….He: handsome nail chewing artist, She: Dark haired mango toting beauty.
At the end of the street, I hear footsteps running down stairs. The apartment door swings open and the young water carrier bursts out of the building. He is wearing the same yellow shirt but has traded shorts for a pair of jeans with flared legs and fraying hems. A woman’s voice bounces around the stairwell and he pushes the heavy door back in just before it slams shut, shouting back into the building impatiently, in a tone that says: I have man’s work to do now woman, let me on my way.
They volley back and forth in that musical rapid-fire tongue that has become so much a part of my world that I dreamed in Spanish the other night, but when I woke I had no idea what I’d been saying. The boy’s mother, if indeed it is his mother, has received a satisfactory response and he bounds away from the building, veering right at the end of the lane, no hesitation, his destination as mysterious to me as my own.