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.