Sagrada Familia’s taciturn shadow casts a long and languid image of a black hair of a woman too nonchalant about the day. It collects within itself Gaudi’s genius and lunacy of a vertical homage to God whose spires are too magnificent and bewildering to our distinctive thirst of artistic expression. Inventive and striking beyond our own congested thoughts, the shadow does not care for all its selfish intents and insidious gaze. It relishes in its own perfidious existence. Darkness only reveals its permissive presence, as a swathe of the world’s incomplete approximation of black holes and lurking mysteries in a seaside city as Barcelona. “Mystery, mystery” as the playwright Federico Garcia Lorca intoned, “makes us live”. This city undoubtedly is impatient to be mysterious.
“This city is too beautiful!”, I commented in a carefully thought out Spanish hoping the elegant lady in her early sixties would respond. She sat near us in a bus that took us from a station in Sagrada Familia to one of the stations near Passeig de Gracia. Maybe I got this idea of expressing yourself spontaneously in a situation like that from the renowned contemporary Spanish writer Javier Marias. Expressing an innocuous statement like that, yet full of genuine appreciation in a bus of strangers, digresses the train of thoughts of everyone within hearing distance. It brings about a fresh air to an otherwise stale atmosphere circulating in the fog of everyday routines. This creates an opportunity to open a new route, thus Marias’ system of literary writing imbues “I progress as I digress”. Here he discovers, that what seems anecdotal at first glance has become actually part of the story with echoes and resonances because of that small decision and courage to establish connection.
Fanning herself profusely on a mid-morning, she responded to my unabashed expression of admiration. Earlier, we decided that after three hours marveling in front of this masterpiece that symbolizes man’s attempt to reach out to God in a leap of faith, it was time to go as bus loads of tourists were already arriving. We had to proceed to the other works of art of the 21st century’s iconic Gaudi like Casa Batllo, Torre Bellesguard and Casa Pedrera and the museums of Miro and Picasso.
“Yes, this is a marvelous city”, she responded with an exuberant smile, maybe amused that someone commented it in Spanish although I am sure if she is a local, Catalan is her language.
“I love this city, even if I know that I may not have been to other cities outside Spain that much,” she continued slowly afraid I will miss a word after waiting for my bated awe to slowly subside. I guess that pride and bravura coupled with a sense of realistic step back are necessary ways of language game you conduct with people coming from different backgrounds in a cosmopolitan city washed by the Mediterranean breeze. She was a resilient traveller in these labyrinth of obfuscation and linguistic’s inadequacy.
“And what is it that makes you get attached to Barcelona?”, I asked in an excited voice, finding someone who wants to engage with me, whose few stolid Spanish words need to be emphasized with exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions. At the back of my mind, the economic hardships, the political imbroglio Catalan is engaged in with the central government and even the cuts in culture and education spending, were the underlying themes of my question.
“Everything, the colors, our passion, the crazy people and our food!”, she enthused that made my wife seated beside me smile at her sensing the former’s loud response and dramatic emphasis on the mention of crazy people and food.
I smiled generously too with her infectious zest and brave declaration. Happy, is the weak description of how I felt engaging with a woman who has witnessed the glory and splendour of this Catalan city which rose to become one of the world’s most enchanting city. It was a feeling of being granted entry into the mystery of Spain that Lorca wants his audience to inhabit in his searing plays as the curtain rises. I can only surmise then the journey that she may have taken; most probably studied in one of the old universities in Spain, maybe in Murcia or Valladolid; had travelled by hitching rides to the far-off region of Galicia or had slept in a slow-moving train watching the mountains described by Hemingway in Extremadura on those long summer afternoons. She could have drunk splendid wine in Navarra, or maybe even cheap sherry in the bars of Malaga. Maybe in her younger years, she may have watched several bullfights in and may have been in loved with the proud bull fighters in Sevilla and Granada. She may have stayed a whole day looking at painting at Prado until closing time, wondering Diego Velasquez’ wild thoughts and chiaroscuro. She may have prayed in Avila to St. Teresa or had walked with co-pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela earning a scallop shell from camino. Yes, she is a woman full of life. She had lived a life when Spain experienced Franco and the civil war and when it came out from the yoke and dark years of fascism. Sensing the warmth and curve of her eyes with Moorish tinge, you know that she had loved savagely. If she had then she could have been hurt profusely several times too. Most probably she stood courageously for advocacies of the voiceless she felt worth her while. At the same time, she may have patiently experienced the erosion of their standard of living in the EU community, the plight of the unemployed, the seeming apathy of leaders and the loss of communal solidarity. She had prayed to the Virgin, she had danced, smiled and had re-read and re-read Cervantes. She had eked out a vacation for the family and frolicked in the sands of Mallorca.
Maybe, right now, she lives in an apartment in the neighborhood of Sagrada Familia, which is quieter though crisscrossed by geometric grids, with green parks like Gaudí Park, Jardins de la Industria and Jardins d’Antoni Puigvert and modernist structures such as Hospital de Sant Pau. Maybe her children have settled now in other European cities like Strasbourg or are working in Stockholm or Rotterdam. In her room, most probably, she would still have the poetry books of Jacint Verdaguer, Carles Riba or Salvador Espriu, During weekends and siesta time, she may remember those times she danced flamenco to her heart’s content in Andalusia or had partied hard in Palma in the Balearic Islands. Maybe her husband has retired already from his work in a shipping company in Barri Gotic, the medieval city center near the old port. Maybe the couple continues to be faithful to their weekly dates in one of the old bars in Avinguda de Gaudi sharing their favorite tapas, shying away from the noisy and even the Michelin restaurant of Alkimia.
I struggled profusely. There were just so many thoughts in my mind I wanted to ask her. There were many thoughts I had wanted to validate with her so her poetry will elaborate the time of remembrance past. If only I can create those bridges of communication that quick and that sturdy to break barriers and big blocks of unprocessed raw thoughts. I let silence simmer, I knew it has power. Maybe not words are needed then. Yet, it could also be words that poets utter, universal, ephemeral and solitary in its own trajectory yet multi-layered in its meaning. Here I remembered the poem I was so enamored in my college days, lines from Romance Sonambulo by Lorca.
“Green, how I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship out on the sea
and the horse on the mountain.
With the shade around her waist
she dreams on her balcony,
green flesh, her hair green,
with eyes of cold silver.
Green, how I want you green.
Under the gypsy moon,
all things are watching her
and she cannot see them.”
“And what do you do here in Barcelona?”. I tried to break the reverie yet the words that came out were blatantly banal. Why did I ask that question and how will it land in the woman’s train of thoughts, I wondered. Waiting for her reply, I repeated my question. Maybe, stupidity comes twice in a loop, I realized. Finally, she replied with more enthusiasm and fervor. I sighed in great relief.
“Ah love, I love and continue to love life with freedom. I continue to sell the fans like this one in my own boutique,” her shapely hands with silver bangles flinging while her orange floral-patterned scarf flew like the bird’s wings trying to escape a claustrophobic cage and fate. She referred to her struggling business of selling traditional Spanish fans from hand-painted ones trimmed with lace to screen printed fans. Abanico, or Spanish fans is her business. She is a cultural intermediary of this tool of communication of Spanish women used for centuries. Aside from protecting women from the summer heat, abanico is a means of transmitting secret codes among lovers. Interestingly, to hold it on the right cheek means yes, to hold on the left cheek means no, to fan quickly means I am engaged and to hold it open covering the mouth means I am single. Such is the intricacy of the language of love that her world is intertwined with. There are secrets of the past. Tall and clear whiteness of a myriad of secrets that will remain such. Is this her freedom, I indulged. Maybe it is Javier Marias who could sentientially provide the meanings in the gaps when he said, “nothing that happens happens . . . and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable.”
Beneath that flash of jubilation from her though, I sensed a tinge of sadness. Later I learned that the sad existence of small businesses like hers are being edged out by the onslaught of big rowdy commercial establishments. Barcelona is fast evolving and the claws of globalization is eroding the unique spirit of the artists and old Catalan traditions. The threat of extinction is real and profound. Every time she boarded this bus that ply the route, most often with the same old people riding and alighting on specific bus stops, there is fear that envelops her like a sibilant cobweb which continues to thicken with dust and the elements of time. There is that clear whiteness in heart that stirs. In this beauty of Barcelona, there is a flaw, a white flaw. Circles that constantly turn into circles, gazes that may have frightened the eyes of Joan Miro’s surrealist renditions or had driven Picasso to the edge of madness because there is just so much beauty and whiteness of it. There is no exit, as Sartre succinctly put it.
As our bus moved forward passing through the residential area, my eyes were focused on the colorful flags or Estelades with the lone star that were proudly draped on the balconies of 5-storey building apartments. Sensing my silence gazing at those flags, she said in almost a whisper, “freedom, I long to see it happen in my lifetime.”
The following day, our bus was rerouted as there was a big march near Placa Catalunya. I wondered if she was one of those who joined the peaceful march. I would have wanted to say a proper goodbye to her since, our small conversation was cut short by the entry of passenger children off to a park. I even forgot to ask her name. I resigned to that fact that she was a woman with a heart so white.