A Vision for the Future

This was my first evening in Barcelona — in the heat, enjoying the bustle and chatter of the people at the bar, the lights in the esplanade in front of us… the pleasure of the novelty and familiarity of our surroundings became near perfect when the waiter served our large cold beers, and put down a large plate of patatas bravas. We all replied merci! and not Gracias! for this was Catalonia.
We were sitting at a pavement café in Barcelona in the latter half of July 2016, a memorable year for many reasons. My pleasure at being first in Spain then in Catalonia was made bitter/sweeter by the undercurrent of sadness that perhaps future years would not be the same. I was a British person sitting at a table enjoying beers with European friends, two French and one Catalonian/Spanish. Firm friends with different voices, many interests and countless shared jokes. Firm, international friends and as good as friends get, how can I put it otherwise?
We had arrived at our French and Spanish hostesses’ apartment that lunchtime, enjoyed a large salad, dried meats, cheeses olives, and Catalonian wine. Within the first half hour of our arrival we had gone over the Brexit issue, and I had been assured of and comforted by our hostesses’ sympathy. But I didn’t really want to talk about it even though “it” was constantly on my mind as a low-level worry. I regularly made myself remember that as worries go, Brexit was not the biggest worry to be had in the world. I would not mention it again and hoped Brexit would leave my thoughts for a few days.
The scooter trip around Barcelona once lunch was finished proved the perfect distraction. Against all my rigid health & safety principles, we toured around the esplanades, boulevards and squares of Barcelona with (apart from the obligatory helmets) just flimsy tops and shorts to protect us from any potential impact with the hard tarmac. The thrill of the skilled scooter driving, the warm air, the ever-present risk, was exhilarating — what an elegant city! How energetic and well kept! How easy it is to park with a 125cc scooter!
Having at one time studied (superficially) Art Nouveau and Modern European History (and with that avowal I come across as a Metropolitan Elite, but well, a little culture is so interesting), I could see how wonderful Barcelona was, clogged with beautiful buildings and awash with History and as we saw continually throughout our stay, wealthy with constantly evolving civic pride, projects and initiatives.
I am always inspired but get a pang of envy when seeing such expressions of civic and public action in towns and cities on the tired old basket-case of the European continent, as my visits to the UK to see my family have made me increasingly aware of what a libertarian “monetise everything” ethic does even to social fabric and basic infrastructure, let alone to civic amenities. The notion shared and civic is almost extinct in England, and it shows.
Aside the Sagrada Familia and dozens of other famous Art Nouveau buildings were many vestiges of Ancient Rome (and in several days we’d visit Tarragone wooppie!) and more poignantly there were of course traces of the Spanish Civil War. I remember in particular a church façade pock-marked with holes on averageat chest height, holes made by the bullets of Franco’s firing squads. What a screed of intense interest Barcelona has to offer. I had no idea it was so impressive, and am ashamed to admit as much.
Scooters only go so far so we also did kilometre after kilometre of walking. Understandably our sit-down mid evening for beers and patatas bravas was timely and welcome, especially for Armelle and me who are used to somewhat northern european, granny-ish evening meal times. Normally at home, we have taken on sustenance and are drinking our herbal teas by 19h30. The time now, as we first sipped at the Estrella and scoffed several patatas at this pavement café, was 21h45. So being spent and hot relaxation came quickly.
As we chatted and looked about, I suddenly unrelaxed as I saw a sight coming along the pavement towards our café. Sticking out from the many people milling about came a family of sun-burned large folk, (large as in both tall and moderately wide) mother, father and two late adolescent sons closer they got, their bodies tense with attitude their faces reflecting the same wary, aggressive expression. I was no longer hearing what my friends were saying but with falling spirits watched the four awkward, lumpily dressed people approaching the pavement café.
Had they just been robbed? Aggressed? Spat at? On the moment I was puzzled, because their glaring continued and they were now projecting hostility at the group of old ladies at the furthest table, then at a dog walker going by, then at the young couple with their baby and toddler sitting just next to us, then at the cyclist locking his bike nearer the road, and finally at our table as my friends yacked and laughed in our common language French. Surely these big, chunky people didn’t feel threatened by such mild people at this corner of the street?

Finding physiognomy fascinating (not in a nazi eugenics way rather I love portraiture) I had at the first glimpse of them thought “Brits!”, and as they passed I was proved correct as I heard the English midlands accent.
”Oh the poor English!” my mother used to and still does intone, most recently this is a comment she fires off following news items on British obesity or binge drinking. But this lamentation originated from our annual family holidays in France, when (to my perpetual annoyance) she would make bigoted unfavourable comparisons between the peoples of our host nation and our compatriots. ”Oh the poor English!” rang in my ears now, as the English family plodded past the café, muttering and glaring at all and sundry.
That moment at the pavement café in Barcelona still haunts me. On the moment it was only sad, now the memory is chilling, a cypher for the hostility to foreigners widely felt in the UK walking aggressively and away from a completely different world.

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In Confidence #2 the flight of the kite

When In Confidence n#2.

“Ah!” I said. I know “ah!” doesn’t really mean anything but it was a handy silence filler. My companion was unusually quiet, the silence of a busy mind before some important announcement.

My mind raced, and while waiting for what-ever-may, I leaned back in the faded deck chair, sucked a sip of Kro and directed my distracted gaze over the fluffy hay field rising up to the brow of the hill way above the caravan. Some hundred metres away, a dust devil threw bits and scraps up the air, it ducked down then sprang up again further up the slope, twisting and shaking, scattering about anything loose in its path. The grimy tired elms, oaks and ashes along the top of the ridge shimmered in the early evening heat. A goat bell jangled. A sheep bleated.

“You know some things are very very important to me” Rambo announced.

Ah. Of course I stiffened, it sounded like some sort of life-relationship ultimatum was about to be made, which I would have to turn down while avoiding as much damage as possible.

Rambo folded and unfolded her arms and wiped her mouth and cleared her throat. “This country,” she continued, “is very, very important to me.”

What?

“And to tell the truth, and this is very very important to me, there are many people who shouldn’t be here, they’ve no right.”

Ah… I now knew what this was all about. A moment before, I had simply been relieved (immensely and selfishly) that she wasn’t proposing to me or demanding that I commit for-ever-and-ever. But this relief was forgotten as she then started banging on about criminal lazy job-stealing immigrants and that it was time people stood up to them and really “saw” to them.

The trees at the top of the field shimmered, a couple of the goats cantered a few strides up the slope, the goat-bell jangled, the sheep all stared in unison at something and I took a sip of beer which no longer had a taste. Oh dear. My thoughts were a-jangle.

So, to cap it all, not only was I in a weird liaison, but in one with a white suprematist. I could have found this out earlier, but something had always held me back from discussing politics and general attitudes towards society and national and world events.

Throughout the brief three weeks or so before this evening, as her guard dropped, Rambo had increasingly been emitting rage, Rage when she would curse her car, curse other drivers, curse the skies for the rain, curse the dogs, curse the goats, curse and shake her head at some outrageous idea was roaming loose in her head. All that anger, frustration and ferocious energy I had witnessed over the last month were now showing me their true home. Or rather, one is allowed to yell at the sky for raining, but one has to be careful when yelling about immigrants, it is officially not well thought of.

The “Criminal lazy job-stealing immigrants” exposé continued through varying permutations, ever since I wish I had remembered more of what she said, though frankly I have heard similar in the past. While it is always interesting to hear what people say, right there, alone at the foot of a rural valley far from habitations, escaping the situation was more pressing than making enduring mental notes.

She paused in her pacing and expounding and came and sat on the edge of the wooden bench next to my deckchair. She took a sip from the bottle of water that she always made sure I noticed she was drinking when she had just offered me a beer. She took a sip and made a serious throat-clearing noise.

“You remember that pin I showed you back at the flat?”

I did. Rambo was referring to a lapel “pin” badge, a rather nice pale yellow/golden enamel cloisonné representation of the Fleur de Lys, and I remember her holding it gently, both before and after she showed it to me – as if it were a precious, fragile treasure. It was just my sort of trinket – until now.

“That pin is very very special.” She coughed again, her voice lowering into intimate secrecy. She told me – and I had to concentrate to hear – that the pin was the symbol of … her group.

“Your group?” I asked, which seemed to please.

She explained she was part or a group of Royalist, patriotic Christian aristocrats (not necessarily in that order) and that she was an aristocrat herself. Her elevation to the nobility was fresh news to me but hey, why not.

I asked the name of the group but only got a narrowing of the eyes and a snort/snicker by reply, suggesting it was classified information. Instead she started another paragraph about how Christians in the West were in serious danger because of “them blabla” and because “they blabla”, then it all petered to a halt.

“Well?” she asked sharpish following the dumb-faced silence on my part.

Here I was being handed the string of a large and energetically soaring kite. What reply could I give? My confused thoughts only suggested I argue the Christian point. It is up to Christians to be Christians, not to moan about immigrants being Muslim, and the Africans are often Christian anyway. My naughty thoughts also suggested I ask if she was really Christian? She had never proposed that we go to Mass nor had I ever seen her pray. and anyway, don’t Christians best gain Grace through suffering and martyrdom under persecution as did Our Lord? And to cap it all, I had never heard Rambo express The Love that Holy Mother Church teaches us that we must give as does Our Lord Jesus Lamb of God, and obedient to His Word, every Christian should love everyone. So there.

Of course I thought better about voicing any of that. But while I lacked the moral spine to confront her head on, I was timidly determined she would not seize any psychological handhold, nor any satisfaction – and I decided the best course was to go limp.

“Well? Ha ha??” she repeated laughing with incredulity at getting nothing, no enthusiasm by return, and laughed again as if I had lost my marbles.

I pulled a doubting face, shrugged, and said I had never given it any thought. This brought her up short for a moment. To get such a reaction she might as well have been chatting about what films were on at the cinema.

She stared at me then asked if I had never – ever – noticed – “them”???

No I hadn’t I said. She gave a real snort that time, and quizzed me a little more, like about all the jobs “they” were taking – Nope, I hadn’t noticed. All the houses? nope, hadn’t noticed that either. and taking heart at a cowardly tactic that seemed to be working, I deflected all the insinuations, direct or indirect, reducing each probe she made to as insignificant and humdrum a level as possible. Nothing to do with that was important, I hadn’t noticed anything.

It seemed to work rather well!

-:-

I was due to go back home the next day after doing some shopping – with Rambo – in town. No more mention had been made of Arabs Africans blabla, nor of Christian aristocrats nor of patriots. But she was in a mood.

The uneasy truce continued until, turning left out of a shop (as one does), we were then immediately following close on the heels of a black woman and her two children. For many people this would have been a matter of benign, unremarkable fact, but Rambo saw them and froze for an instant – a foot hanging mid-stride in the air for a split second – then she carried on walking but turned walking almost backwards, and this is where she made The Sign.

She looked pointedly at me, swelled her eyes and pursed her lips, wiggled her head, raised an eyebrow and jerked her head back over her shoulder indicating the innocent family walking just ahead of us. Well that was a clunky summation of fleeting bodily and facial gestures that so succinctly conveyed “oh look black Africans in front of us, you know what I think of black Africans, and I am enjoying witnessing your resulting discomposure.”

She held my gaze a moment more, which meant I had to make a return un-gesture, which I did by way of an ingenuous shrug of the shoulders and dumb-faced look (gosh this is complicated). Then she turned away to walk as normal, a smug sneer deepening in reply to my blank-ish expression.

The poor heedless Mum and children in front of us soon went off in a different direction, the racist signalling was over for the day and then I was homeward-bound away from my latest experimental tryst, and not sorry for it to be over.

The weekend that followed, I managed to engineer The Rupture, Rambo giving me the excuse on a plate, when she proudly told me how she has stollen cosmetics from the local organic cooperative. (That’s another story.)

The Car that got us there

Dad was very proud of the Austin 1800 which lasted us some eight years thereabouts until in my 16th year the electrics went intermittently bonkers. And when they did, the electrics really did go bonkers, things such as the brake lights coming on instead of the left indicator, and if one indicated right, all four indicators would come on flashing frantically or hardly at all, blinking on and off lethargically like a lighthouse lamp showing through the fog. Continue reading

Planning French gîte holidays

Dad was always dreaming of attending scientific conferences over in the USA and would let us know as much, enthusing regularly about glittering California or Space Age Dallas. But every year he would have to forego one of these wonderful electronics congresses for the boring old Stephen family summer gîte holiday in dull old Europe. Continue reading

Nearly My Last Swim

All the same, being next to the foot of the cliff path anyone could arrive around the edge of the stair-turn at any moment and in the teeth of that nasty wind, our priority to do was to change very, very quickly :
Off came my left shoe and sock (if I start with the right shoe I fall over) on the right leg only I put the sock in the shoe and stood on them did the same with the right then still wobbling on Continue reading