A Day in Barcelona

After having lived in Bay Area (California) for eight years we are back to Barcelona. It is a curious sensation to be walking in a city where you have spent your college years. The bars you used to go still exist, the book stores are on the same corners, the food and wine taste as wonderfully as in the past and the streets might remember the passionate words we used to say after the midnight. And you feel young and happy again, and almost at home.

I took my camera to the city and made some shots of the things that still hold sentimental value for me (and make me smile).

Plaza Catalunya. It is much cleaner now than it was eight years ago. It is still one of the most crowded and touristy place in the city.

The Zara stores where I used to buy a lot of my clothing as a student. Even though I am not captivated by the brand any longer I still like to see its stores as I walk through the city.

The fountain with decorative tiles at Portal del Angel. Always was one of my favorite places.

Pans & Company. First as student, then as recently married, I used to love this place. With friends, roommates or my husband we ate there almost every time we came to Barcelona. My favorite was Normando sandwich (Serrano ham and melted brie cheese). I am not sure whether or not they still offer it.

A toy store with toy soldiers. As a kid I had twelve tin cavaliers on horses. I loved to play with them. The store did not have anything similar to my childhood memories, but I still spent couple of minutes in front of the soldier display every time I passed the store.

Gazpacho & wine! The best lunch ever in Barcelona in summer.

It was a coffee place before, right now it is a restaurant. We used to go there with my husband when we were dating and later on when we just got married. We usually invited our friends to meet us at the bar. We sat there for hours, drunk coffee, talked and made tons of fun pictures in 2000 and 2001. One of the reasons we loved this place is because it was hidden between tall houses, in one of which the painter Joan Miro was born. The place still holds a lot of charm for me. It also has a Custo store in front. I always loved their dresses. Being inside the store feels so much like Barcelona. You are in the middle of the store, you touch the clothing, you see the colors and then you say to yourself “This is Spain!”. And you like how it sounds.

At Custo I liked the dresses and tops and was surprised about the sizing. The sizes run from 1 to 4, 1 being 34 or 36 (size 4 in US) and 4 being 44 or 46 (size 16 in US). I observed something similar at Desigual, where the smallest size the store had was 38 and it only carried from 38 through 44 (6 through 14 in US sizes). Things are changing in Barcelona.

Café de la Opera. Well, the place is always open and we ended many times at its tables in the mid of a night walk or after a performance. Later we have been going there a lot too.

La Boqueria (the city market). This is the first time we entered the place. When you live in the city you do not do your grocery shopping on Las Ramblas (unless you live close by but normally you do not), thus there are mostly tourists on the market. Still it is colorful and beautiful.

Last thing to mention about Barcelona is Barcelona in August. Having lived in USA for the past eight years I forgot how dead Spanish streets look in this last summer month. Outside of the touristic center everything is closed, everybody is on vacations. And it is way too hot for the Spaniards to be on the streets before 8pm. Thus, during the day the city looks like a desert.

with love from Barcelona, August 25th 2012

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Walnut Trees For Christmas, Darling

(a short story)

The plane was landing in the Amsterdam airport. It was dark and rainy outside. Almost Christmas. A line of wet trees surrounded by the yellow lights grinned somewhere below. Rain was falling in solid glistering lines, creating an unnecessary link between the clouds and the lights of the airport.

Lara sat with her husband and their two kids in the last row. Lightly pressing her forehead against the small oval window she watched the nonchalant love dialog between the rain and the trees. The flight attendant was saying something in Dutch, which sounded sharp and fresh like the night itself. Lara could not understand a word. A string of unknown sounds flowed joyfully from the young and elegant woman, dressed all in blue and with a professional welcoming smile. Resting on this pillow of foreign words,  Lara drifted in her own thoughts when she was surprised by the phrase “Walnut trees for Christmas” and then after some more Dutch, “darling”. The flight attendant continued speaking Dutch, and Lara realized that the English words she heard were just a string of similarly sounding Dutch words. And that most probably those words meant something completely different.

“Walnut trees for Christmas, darling,” Lara repeated to herself. “It sounds beautiful”. The plane landed. Lara and her family proceeded to the airport building crossing a small triangle of wet asphalt. They still had almost an hour to catch their connecting flight to Barcelona. And while they walked, the cold Amsterdam air, the rain and those five magical words engaged into an obscure and passionate dance, startling to strangers and at the same time so akin to the festive Christmas spirit.

On the New Year’s Eve it was well after midnight when Lara and John got to the downtown. They started walking from the top of Passeig de Gracia and down towards Las Ramblas. They were almost silent. People around were celebrating, dancing, shouting and drinking wine on the streets. People walking. And more people sitting on the benches, on the steps of the buildings, on the terrazza’s, all happy and ecstatic. A man passed by with a cardboard box full of freshly baked croissants. His party was waiting him around the corner, waving, laughing and making faces. Lara remembered how with her friends, while still in college, they used to get those boxes of croissants on Saturday nights, after all dancing places closed at 5am and there was nothing else to do on the recently cleaned streets. On those mornings Barcelona was about the smell of flowers from the street vendors who were opening their booths. It was about the smell of the wet pavements, the cool breeze from the sea and the box of freshly baked croissants. They would sit on the steps of some old building and laugh and eat them before the first coffee places would open at 6am. This was many years ago.

And now she was walking with John through this festive city. Both, her husband and her very silent. Sometimes making remarks of people they saw, of what people said or how they looked. People talking French around them. Lara had never seen so many French people in Barcelona. “This year must be unique, it was never like that before”, she thought. She was already asked twice to give directions in French and she manage it decently with the help of gestures, maps and smiles. She loved France and French, however, at that moment so many French people around the downtown annoyed her. She was feeling tense. Almost like walking through an unknown city. “Besame, besame mucho, como si fuera aquella la ultima vez”. Somebody was singing. Clearly. Wonderfully. Each word perfect and transparent and full of strength of a passionate voice. The group of three people, one of whom was singing, passed  by and walked in front of them for some time. Lara and John, without noticing it, followed the trio, wanting to hear more of the song. And there was no end to it, the man started singing the same song again. Passionately, purposefully, wonderfully. And then they lost the trio in the crowd in front of the opera house and kept on wandering through the streets of the city. Celebrating. Walking.

It was around 2am and the mass was going on in one of the churches, and John wanted to enter the church. So they did. A choir of monks were singing the mass. Lara and John stood at the entrance for some minutes and then John impulsively took Lara’s hand and pulled her out of the church. “Those people really do it because they believe in God, we should not spoil their service by our presence,” he said abruptly and they proceeded through the crowded street. Lara knew what he meant, but she would have preferred to stay in the church for couple of more minutes. May be for the whole mass. Just to stay there and listen. She did not understood the majority of the songs, but the sounds of the chant cleaned some inner routes in her chest and made her feel fresh and unbroken. But they were already on the street and John was making his way to the plaza.

“What do you want to do?” he asked

“Dance. Do you think we can find any of the old dancing places?”

“Well, you have seen it yourself. Whatever we knew is closed. The new places are crowded with French. Do you want to go there?”

“No. Let’s have a coffee somewhere,” said Lara

“Coffee? It is almost 3am. Oh well. Let’s have a coffee. Cafe de La Opera must be open”.

They both knew this cafe very well. They have went there numerous times after the opera or ballet performances. From what they could recall it was always open. It was right in front of the opera house. Sometimes Lara wondered if it ever closed at all.

Now they were walking back. Through the crowd, passed the church, right turn into Las Ramblas and right into the cafe.  They sat at their usual spot, not in the big baroque room deep inside, but closer to the bar. All the tables around were empty. Lara wondered why the place was so unusually silent. “Well, it is passed 3am,” said John, “Besides, people are drinking and dancing now. Or may be going home already.”

He ordered coffee and wine and some olives. They sat next to each other looking at the street through the decorated cafe windows and at their own reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall. Then, before they knew it another couple was sitting at the table in front of them. They were having some coffee and cake. Sitting silently next to each other and looking at the street and around them.

The woman, Lara could tell she was Spanish, looked beautiful. In her forties, dressed in an expensive black suit, with some elegant jewelry and a nice watch. Her hair was black and smooth, her makeup was almost invisible, her pose relaxed and contemplative. The intangible sadness of her eyes only added an exquisite touch to her beauty. A faint smile did not curve her lips, but sparkled in the pupils of her eyes. A moment later Lara thought that this was one of the most beautiful women she ever saw. The woman looked at Lara. She did not smile, she did not acknowledge Lara’s presence. She simply did not notice her. She was drinking her coffee and contemplating the life around the cafe. Life where Lara and John did not exist. The counter. The walls. The mirror. Lara could not take her eyes off that woman. “This is what I will be like in ten years from now,” it suddenly occurred to her. The thought was not appealing. With all the beauty that woman possessed, there was something awkward about her. “Her pupils reflected no spirit. No purpose. You could not hear laughs inside this woman’s eyes,” Lara thought. “This woman would not be able to sing that Besame Mucho song, she had no voice, no rhythm, no passion.”

Then Lara looked at the man who was accompanying the woman. Her husband. They both had wedding rings on their fingers. The man was elegant. Also dressed in a dark suit, with a nice gabardine spread across an empty chair. In his mid forties. Some grey hair added nobleness to his forehead. His hands were delicate and polished. “The hands of a highly sensitive man. An artist, maybe,” Lara thought. He is stunningly beautiful too. Very polite and gentlemanlike. “They are a beautiful couple.”

The man was eating the cake and drinking the coffee. He was mostly silent. Sometimes making some inaudible remarks to his wife. To the beautiful woman with the black hair sitting next to him. And then silence again. You could hear voices of the people on the street, and the ringing sounds of the cash register and the steps of the waiters going up the stairs. Empty coffee cups and wine glasses made noise when the waiter placed them on the counter. Somebody was serving a drink. The door upstairs closed and a woman with a large umbrella walked through the door. And the decorative Christmas bells on the walls danced and clicked every time somebody rushed down the stairs. Click, click, click. Almost like a heartbeat. People were always going up and down the stairs. And the coffee was burnt and it left a bitter taste under the tongue after you swallowed it. “Why do the people always go up and down the stairs”, Lara wondered. Click. She placed her cup back on the saucer and touched the dried coffee foam with her finger. The foam had a beautiful walnut color. “Walnut trees,” Lara thought, “where did I hear this lately?” And a faint smile spread on her lips.

“Have you noticed this couple sitting in front of us all this time. Very beautiful couple,” John said to Lara once they were back on the street. “I think they were like us,” John continued. “I was thinking this all the time we were there. Have not you noticed it?”

“What?” Lara said. She did not hear the exact words, but she knew what he was asking. “Well. May be. I do not know.”

“You are so beautiful. Hundred times more beautiful than the woman at the cafe. You know you are. You just were dressed very similarly to her, this is why I thought you were like her,” and John stopped in the middle of the street, put his arm around her waist and kissed her. “All will be just fine, darling.”

And they walked silently side by side on the busy street of this Mediterranean city. The festivities were still going on, but the first cleaning trucks had already arrived. Wet pavements and the cool sea breeze. The fresh smell of the cold water on the first morning of the year.

“I guess I just do not understand something. And John is right, everything will be just fine,” Lara thought to herself when they were getting into a taxi cab. And she thought of the walnut trees and what could it mean “Walnut trees for Christmas,” that is, if it meant anything at all.

Barcelona, August 17th 2012

Keep silent when you are looking at the stars

While I was fixing our dinner tonight,  it occurred to me that if somebody just popped up out of nowhere and asked me what I find beautiful right now, I would probably name the following things: First, I like the blog my friend Noelia wrote. Specially the last three posts. I like the pictures and everything else about her and her blog. I had just read her last post and it is still in my head, this is why I named it first. Second, I like the song I listened to yesterday, my heart still holds its rhythm and makes me breath one extra time every now and then. Third, I like the Lambrusco Dell’Emilia wine, as it works perfectly well with the hot and humid Barcelona weather. Also, it is amazingly light and it is almost like drinking rose sparkling water. It keeps you lean and fresh. Fourth, I like that my hands and legs are still tired from swimming. I like to swim, athletically, making an effort. And I also like to watch people swim, as I find it highly aesthetic and beautiful. It is as if your whole body became just one single muscle: your heart.  And you feel its rhythm on the tips of your fingers. You have no soul then, or at least you never think about soul when you swim. You think about nothing. You just concentrate all your physical strength on making one solid rhythmic move after another, focusing only on the end of the swimming line, but knowing you will make at least twenty of them. The effort holds the beauty. Fifth, I like people’s faces when they are engaged in thinking. I observed some at the cafe this afternoon. It makes their eyes deeper and their smiles invisible. And it is up to one’s intuition to catch the beauty of this smile through the corners of people’s eyes.

Beauty is not a set of attributes. Beauty is the lack of vulgarity. The more I  think about all the things that I find beautiful, the more I see that lack of vulgarity is what they all hold in common. And I am not talking about all these three million big and little things that we label as beautiful in front of others to make them feel good or to play our role. I am talking about that rarely labeled beauty that we feel with our throats, lungs and skin. When something strikes us as beautiful we forget how to breath for half a second. We swallow our words like a heart shaped ice cube, and it sometimes gets stuck half way in our throats, leaving a cold metallic taste of wishful bravery in our mouths. And only our skin knows the whole story of paying tribute to the beauty. But we rarely follow the intuition of our skin.

We do not say out loud that something is beautiful when we truly feel so. The sounds will be wasted. We fall silent. This silence and the enlarged pupils of our eyes are the only signs that beauty is about to touch the courage of our hearts. Any words would be vulgar. May be music would be able to express it. But sometimes I doubt even that.

Beauty is the lack of vulgarity.  Looking at the stars makes me fall silent too.

Barcelona, August 15th 2012

The Twelfth Kind of Loneliness

(a short story)

Leo went down to the street. It was 8pm. He walked passed by the shoe storefront and the bakery and turned the corner towards the grocery store. His steps echoed steadily on the pavement. Fresh air of the evening did him good. He smiled to his own thoughts and worded one of the ideas that was rounding in his head since he started reading the new book this morning. Wording came easily this time and he felt happy with the result.

“May be happiness does not exist, but I feel truly happy right now,” he thought. “I love the beauty of the people around me. The streets. The quietness of the tall apartment buildings. The kids on the playgrounds. Old people having their coffee outside. All of them sharing their small problems. Talking. The moon. I do like the moon over here. I notice it every night from the balcony. These people do not know how silently beautiful this place is.”

“… and you know, I have her on my mind. Every day. It’s just not going away. What a rotten…”, he did not hear the rest of the sentence. Two men sitting at the coffee table outside were talking. One was sharing his worries with the other. Complaining. Leo stopped and made a puzzled face and looked at them for a second. Just two Spaniards. You see them everywhere. He kept on walking. The grocery store was on the next block.

“Spanish people are always complaining,” he said to himself. Leo has lived in Spain long enough to know all about complaining. He used to complain before too. Then he stopped. He believed complaining never gets you anywhere. And he had a strong enough willpower to change his habits. And he was proud of it. Leo never said it out loud, not even to Lisa, his wife. But he was very proud of himself. Then he was busy too. When you are busy and the things are going well you do not complain. You have enough great things to talk about and not to complain.

But now, overhearing this bit of the conversation filled him with emptiness. Emptiness as heavy as steel. He remembered his old college friend Noah. When was the last time he talked to him? Two years ago. May be less. No. More. More than two years ago. A thin needle stitching years in his chest. He slowed down. The pain washed away with a deep breath leaving three thousand unpronounced words stacked in his throat. Then he clearly felt what he wanted: to be sitting with Noah in some cafe and telling him all the same words he just heard. These and others he never pronounced in front of anybody. Can you really say you pronounce something, if you only tell it to yourself in the darkness of the empty streets? No. Leo did not think so. It makes no sense to lie to oneself.

He looked at his cell phone and found Noah’s number. “Should I call him? I can fly there tomorrow morning and spend a weekend with Noah.” He felt the warm sweetness under his tongue. This is how a well made freshly grounded coffee felt. This is how he thought talking to Noah would feel. He could tell him everything. He could tell him everything and be himself. And not be judged. Be understood. And like the last time they saw each other Noah would tell him “…and whatever you decide to do in your life, I will think that you are right.”. Yes. He will call Noah tonight and get on the first plane tomorrow. It was just an hour flight. He was sure Lisa and the kids would be fine without him for couple of days. At the end, he always spent all his free time with them. And Lisa herself always told him to spend some days with Noah away from home.  He was very happy about his sudden decision. He felt some sort of kind impulse towards these two Spaniards at the cafe.  He almost turned back, wanting to find their table and tell them something nice and smile. But then he knew this would be awkward. So he kept walking down the street feeling a warm cloud dwelling inside his chest. Something he last time felt when he was close to her. Last time. Maybe it was years ago.

Leo entered the grocery store. What was that Lisa asked to buy? Yes, a chocolate bar, apples, cucumbers and sparkling water. August was always hot in Barcelona. They were drinking tons of sparkling water.  He made his way through the aisles. He stood for a while in front of the chocolate bars, not knowing which one to get. He forgot which one she asked for this time. He called Lisa. He took three of the ones she wanted. “Enough for the weekend,” he thought. Then he also picked one of his favorites. Dark chocolate with orange pieces. He looked at it for a while. Put it in his basket. Then took it out, looked at it again and ended placing it carefully back on the shelf. “I should keep myself in shape. I must look good,” he thought to himself.  Some other thoughts were crawling in his mind too, but he stopped himself and instead remembered that on the phone he promised Lisa to tell her something exciting once he gets back home. And the childish happiness of the decision invaded him again, this time with a more powerful grip. Happy he went to the wine aisle and read through the Italian labels. He was looking for that sweet sparkling wine they had in Rome last month. It was a red wine, so mild that it never got you drunk; Fresh and young it woke you up and made you instantly open to the next layer of sensitiveness.

When Leo got out of the grocery store he was empty and salient. The decision was still there and the enthusiasm of seeing Noah has not diminished. But the cloud of cool and calm air pressured him and his silence. The rim of the cold night breeze touched his eyes making him blind and lonely for a split of a second. And he thought about the book. Not the business one he was reading now, but the one he got at the Oslo airport last April. When the runway was icy, and the white strings of cold snow and ice seemed to scratch the dim air and it was scary and fascinating to look at. His flight was delayed and he got this book, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” by Richard Yates.  He sat at the airport cafe, in front of a young woman in a black wool sweater. He read the book and looked at her. From time to time. She mildly reminded him of someone else. Of someone he loved. And he looked at her and wished she would never leave. He wished her flight would be delayed too and they both would just sit on the opposite ends of this small cafe in the snowy airport and read their books. At the end may be they were not that different. May be they could talk and have a glass of wine together. She might agree if he invited her. He looked outside of the window. It was dark and the freshly fallen snow gleamed under the bright airport lights. There were footprints outside of the window. A couple of people must have passed by in the last hour. Still distinguishable, but without their pristine neatness, footprints looked almost intangible. He wanted to think that while he was reading there was a wedding outside and the footprints were that of the bride and the groom. They just got married and walked to the first airplane they saw and flew somewhere. Without guests, food or music. A perfect wedding. Perfect like the freshly fallen snow. Perfect like something that never happens.

The woman in the black wool sweater was gone. Leo stared at the empty chair where she was sitting before. Then he slowly moved his head down, his eyes catching the end of the story he was reading and his fists clenching so hard that his nails left its marks on the book cover, right on the man in a light brown suit.

“I am fine,” Leo said in a low voice. He was walking back home carrying grocery bags in his left hand. He thought about his life. “Amazing life,” as he used to refer to it himself. His lips smiled as he whispered “amazing” in the night air. An old habit of his, the word “amazing” always made him smile. It will be fine to see Noah, and talk to him and tell him everything. Everything he only shares with himself at nights, when he lays in their bed and suddenly feels miles away from everybody. No human soul except himself. And a rye field beneath him and he is flowing in the air, right over it. And he can feel the whisper of the rye, and the light touch of the sun on his skin. And no weight in his body. And he can think about absolutely anything then.  About her, him and about the rest of the world in terms of intact silence, blue sky and immense lightness.

Leo thought of calling Noah from the street before he gets home. He hesitated in front of the door and finally entered the building. “I must talk to Lisa first,” he told himself. The marble floors and polished mirrors in the hall echoed his rightness.

He left the groceries in the kitchen. Poured two glasses of red sparkling wine, for Lisa and himself. Left one glass on the coffee table and silently proceeded to the balcony to call Noah. On the balcony he looked at the moon, drunk half a glass in one sip and started dialing Noah’s number. Then he put the cellphone back into his pocket and leaned on the rail. He clenched his fists, and hardened the muscles on his face, as if he was undergoing some impossible hardship. Leo stood like this for a while not thinking anything.

It was close to midnight when he went inside, kissed the kids and instead of calling Noah, wrote an email to his old acquaintance in California. Leo wrote that the work was keeping him busy, things were going great, the kids were growing and that he has renewed his swimming lessons as he planned to swim a route among different Greek islands next summer.

Barcelona, August 3rd 2012