What’s Wrong with the Women Business Events

cocktails on the business events

Lately I have attended quite a few startup, business and entrepreneurial events in the Barcelona area. And I am learning to avoid the ones that have the word “women” in their headline. I am not saying it proudly. Really, I do not.

However, all the events that carry the word “women” in their title, for example “Women in Business” or “Women and Entrepreneurship”, tend to be mostly about women and not about business and entrepreneurship. During a two-hour presentation you do not hear anything informative, interesting or challenging. There are no references to business growth, to metrics used, no hints how to raise capital or manage human resources. You do not get an insight into the industry they are working in or in how they reach out to their customers. All you get to hear is how those women overcame the guilty feeling of leaving their kids at home or how they had to prove themselves in front of their family and friends for starting a business. It looks more like a celebration of the fact that they are not staying at home with their kids and actually doing something, independently on how good or relevant their work is. I tried to imagine a man CEO doing a presentation like that. And I could not. Really, can you see any man on the stage starting a business presentation talking about his childhood years and then going on how he got married and how his married life was affected by the fact that he also run a business. And how he felt about it.

Until this changes. Until this changes drastically, women will not be in businesses on the same level as men are. I would like to go to presentations where women and men talk about their yardstick as the founders, about how they created their company culture, what metric they focus on the most. I would like to see numbers. Yes, numbers, not dry and boring numbers, as women sometimes call them, but exciting numbers; Because while business is not just about numbers, but without them it would never survive and grow. I want to see numbers that would let me understand the growth of the company in a certain timespan and how different product introductions or marketing tactics affected this growth. Through those numbers and the founder’s vision I would like to be able to picture the future of that industry. This would make an amazing presentation!

At last, I would be grateful if on business meetings and related events people would stop asking me how I manage to take care of our two small kids and run a business. If I would be a man, you would never ask me this question, right? My husband never faces this one. Neither should I. I’d rather talk about business. And I promise it will be exciting, challenging and relevant.

Barcelona, February 2nd 2013

Leaving the Room

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Two days ago I was walking back home after a team meeting. It was raining and, as it happens sometimes, I was thinking whether or not I should just abandon my crazy startup ideas and get a regular well-paying job.

I was struck by the fact that I am committed to my vision and the startup because seventeen years ago I stood up in front of sixty people and left the room.

It was the first day of my student life, the first day of college, the first day of class. The auditory was filled with nervous students and we all listened to the aged professor who talked in general terms about our future. Thirty minutes in to the speech I stood up and asked the professor, if that was the only topic we were going to talk about for the next two and a half hours. The professor admitted that we were not supposed to talk about anything in particular on the first day of school. Then I said that I had more important things to do and could not lose my time in that way. I picked up my backpack and left the auditory. In front of all sixty something students.

I have to give credit to the professor. He turned out to be an interesting man and we had many insightful discussions on medieval poetry and prose later on. That first day of school he was just doing what he was supposed to do: cater to his auditory. Right now I understand that Spanish students did not expect to learn anything on the first day of class.

Since then I followed my path. I worked for others and I created my own projects. Majority of them failed, some of them survived. All these years my motivation has remained the same, my venues have changed. I work to make people more powerful, to show them the chances that lay in front of them, to encourage them to make their lives better. Our latest project BluewordAi is an expression of this vision.

I believe in what we do. Even so, twice a day, I think that I am just messing up with my life and I should get a good job and help within the system. I know am capable of it. I can follow the directions. I run my own company not because I cannot work for others. I do it because I am committed to the vision of a better society and I have the urgency to play my part in *making* it better. And because when I was seventeen years old I stood up in front of sixty people and was able to leave the room as it was boring and not productive to be sitting there.

Barcelona, January 23rd 2013

Walking Against the Light

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Living in Barcelona and loving good coffee you end up discovering the best places to enjoy it. Xavier, the owner of the Doctor Coffee, my regular stop for morning coffee and newspaper, recommended me to try El Magnifico. And I did.

Cafe El Magnifico

I went to El Magnifico for the first time couple of weeks ago. It turned out to be one of the few coffee-roasters in Barcelona, as most places that sell coffee are distributors and do not roast the beans themselves. El Magnifico does. The coffee at El Magnifico smells magically and it tastes even better. It is comparable to the coffee at Verve in Santa Cruz, CA.

The roaster at El Magnifico

The place is very small, and it does not have tables, which is unusual for Spain. However it offers couple of benches to those who prefer to enjoy their drink in the real ceramic coffee cup. I tried it both ways, in ceramic and in paper versions. This morning it was paper and the coffee tasted as good as ever. Walking through the narrow streets of Barcelona with the morning coffee in your right hand is empowering. It means that you will accomplish what you have proposed for that day. It also makes you smile.

Santa Maria del Mar

The cafe is located in the Born neighbor, very close to the church of Santa Maria del Mar. First time I visited the cafe I was surprised to discover that my favorite church was only thirty feet away from where I paid for my coffee. For me, Santa Maria del Mar is the most beautiful church in Barcelona, and it played an interesting role in my life during my student years. Not being of any religion at all, and in my desire to change and to be a better person, I decided to become a Catholic. Crazy, I know. However, the priest of Santa Maria del Mar was able to talk me out of it. He gently told me that he believed, that I would be fine and would follow my path independently of the religion I undertook. I am thankful to him even now for his wiseness. Then I was young, and this was many years ago. Time have passed. Living in USA and in Norway, and being always fairly busy, I got to forget about that church. I have not been there in the past ten years. Thus, three weeks ago, holding in my hand the cup with the best coffee in Barcelona, I felt certain enchantment walking against the light towards Santa Maria del Mar. When I entered the church the bell rung five times. Five o’clock. And the lights were turned on.

At the cafe next to the church I was meeting an old college friend. When the coffee is good the conversation is good too. Both require art, passion and involvement. Life in these simple terms.

Coffee at El Magnifico

Barcelona, January 11th, 2013

Twelve Roasted Chestnuts

La Castanyera is here. It is fall,” said Anton.

Gregori nodded and looked towards where Anton pointed with his chin. When he first heard La Castanyera, for some reason, he thought of a dancer with castanets. But following Anton’s look he quickly realized that the other referred to the woman who was roasting and selling chestnuts on the street. “So, this is how they call them here,” he thought to himself. And he looked at La Castanyera for a while, following her hands, not losing any detail on how she kept the coals burning and how she made the paper cones out of an old newspaper, and how she stacked them one inside the other on one side of the booth, waiting for the rare customers. “Must be a lonely job to be staying like that all day long,” thought Gregori. Couple of school-age boys stopped in front of the coal burner and got a bag of chestnuts. Laughing, they run away.

It was late night and Gregori was sitting in his living room and writing emails. Then it started to rain. First a few heavy drops, and then the rain formed a wall between his window and the rest of the world and absorbed all the sounds that ever existed outside of his living room. He paused his typing and listened. Then he thought about the woman who was selling chestnuts on the plaza. “What did she do when it started to rain like that?” he looked outside of the window, but he could not see the corner of the plaza where he knew the woman would be staying. “La Castanyera,” he slowly pronounced the new word.

Gregori took his umbrella and went down the stairs. It was not cold outside. Just dark and rainy. The raindrops glistered under the traffic lights. He crossed the street and walked around the plaza. La Castanyera was not there. He felt some kind of relief knowing that the old woman was not getting wet under the rain. The clock on the church struck quarter past eleven. “It is probably too late for her,” it occurred to him. Gregori had not realized the hour it was till the moment he heard the church clock strike. He stood for couple of more minutes on the plaza, spinning slowly on one foot for no reason.  He was alone. He touched the puddle with the tip of his shoe and smiled at the ripples his shoe made. Then he slowly went home. Moving his feet carefully, from the heel to the tip, as if he was walking on a wave. It was raining.

And then he knew what he really wanted: to be sitting with Amanda back-to-back and eating roasted chestnuts. They would just sit like that and laugh and eat chestnuts. And the chestnuts, the dark, almost black chestnuts with the cut in the center, would be slightly burning their fingertips.  He imagined that they would sit in some autumn field, with the high wheat around them and it would be about to rain and the sky would be dark blue and the wheat very yellow. And they would sit in the middle of this field and just eat chestnuts, talk and laugh.  Amanda would probably wear one of her long-sleeved wool sweaters and she would hide her fingers in the sleeves and take the chestnuts through the thick wool, so as to not burn herself. And they would make jokes about it. And the words would have no weight at all and the sounds would fly, caught in the wind, as soon as they would pronounce them. The words would barely have enough time to touch their ears and disappear, like the bells disappear from the laughter way before the person stops laughing. And he knew that this would make him happy. And he went to bed. He was laying on his pillow and imagining chestnuts and Amanda, and listening to the raindrops’ heaviness.

When he woke up the next morning it was still raining. At short intervals the rain would stop and the sun would come out. And all the streets would look new and inviting in the sunlight of the morning rush. Walking to his office, Gregori gazed at the elegant silver pattern on the pavements. And with the rhythm of his own steps, through that morning mist, came the memory of his dreams about the roasted chestnuts and Amanda.

Then later on he called her from the office and asked if she wanted to get out for dinner that evening. But she was busy at work, and besides her family had some kids’ birthday party in the afternoon that they needed to go to and then it would be too late anyway. May be some other time.  Gregori was fine with that.  “If she could get out, she would,” he thought to himself.  His back rested on his chair. He bit his lip and threw his head back. He did not think of anything. It was raining heavily and he listened.  Then he smiled with the corner of his lips, and started to bite on his fingernail. Then he stopped. A nasty habit he was getting rid of.  “Ok, she is busy. I need to move on with my work too,” he glanced at the window one more time and turned his head towards his laptop.

His fingers started typing slowly. He wrote one more sentence. It was the new client’s contract that he was working on when he called Amanda. Gregori stopped, deleted the last line he wrote. Then reread what he had so far and deleted it all. “I will start it all anew, it will be better that way,” and Gregori started typing the contract details again.

Later that evening, when he was walking home, Gregori caught the sight of La Castanyera, who was selling the roasted chestnuts on the plaza. He paused his steps for a moment, and then playing with a couple of heavy coins in his pocket approached the coal burner.

“One bag of chestnuts, please” said Gregori and peeked inside the booth with almost a childish curiosity.

The lady smiled at him and started making a new paper bag.

“You have lots of them pre-made,” noted Gregori without thinking.

“I know,” answered La Castanyera, “there are not much people now, thus I will save those for later when the children come.”

“Is that mostly children who buy the chestnuts here?” asked Gregori

“Well, you never know. But yes, mostly, children. Sometimes tourists. Sometimes couples. Sometimes just people like you. Hay de todo,” said La Castanyera

Gregori wanted to ask her what would she do if it started to rain again like the last night, and if the coal would keep burning under the rain or if she had to cover it with a lid, but instead, to his own surprise he suddenly said, “Do you want me to get you a cup of coffee? You must be cold standing here all day long.”

“Thank you. No. I am fine. I am used to it, besides, the coals keep me warm,” and the lady pointed to the coal burner.

Gregori did not know what else to say but he wanted to say something nice. He looked around, at the church behind them, at the people passing by and then said, “I like how the chestnuts smell.”

“Me too,” nodded La Castanyera, ”it is the fire that makes them smell so well,” and she smiled and there was nothing else to say and this was the end of the conversation. Gregori took his paper cone with warm chestnuts, paid the lady three euros, thanked her and slowly walked away.

He did not go home. He just strolled down the street with the warm paper cone in his hands and the smell of roasted chestnuts on his skin. He breathed the smell. It occurred to him that this smell had not changed at all with years. These chestnuts smelled exactly the same as the ones his dad used to buy him in fall in Paris.  “How come the smell does not change at all,” he mindlessly asked himself without really asking. “So in twenty years from now the people will buy a dozen of chestnuts and the smell will be exactly the same as the one that enchants me now. And the same that enchanted me as a kid on the streets of Paris. And they will like it the same way and think about the moments from their childhood, and how they were in love and how they were laughing and kissing when it was raining. And then, later on, they will remember all that and just smile and stroll down the street with the paper cone filled with the twelve chestnuts. And the smell will be always the same. Every year buying the same roasted chestnuts and thinking of all the good memories they bring. And then it does not make any sense that the roasted chestnuts smell the same when you are in love and when you are just walking silently on your own. Even if you smile or sing,“ Gregori was thinking to himself, “and so, this is all there is to it.”

Once at home Gregori opened a bottle of red and ate the chestnuts on the small coffee table in the living room. He worked carefully on the first one to make sure that he peels it right, he bit into it and chewed a small piece and drank some wine. “Well, it is just a chestnut. It is a good one though,” and he finished it. Then he opened his laptop and automatically checked his mail and started writing his agenda for the next day.  He peeled and ate some more chestnuts, not paying any more attention to them, as he was already absorbed by a conversation with somebody from Nebraska, somebody who could give him a few good tips on his business.

Amanda called on Sunday and said they could meet on Monday if he did not have any other plans for that day. Gregori said that he did not have any and asked where they should meet. Finally they agreed that he would pick her up on the corner of her office in the downtown at six. That worked fine for both of them and they talked for a little while about life and small things that were going on. They joked in between of the daily routine questions and light smiles tapped on his cheeks. It was good talking to her. As good as when they just started seeing each other. Gregori was in a very good mood and he sat down on his sofa and typed the metrics report that was long overdue.  This time the work went smooth and easy and his fingers moved on the keyboard like that of a pianist preforming his favorite piece.  “What an amazing woman Amanda is. It will be nice to see her tomorrow,” Gregori thought to himself once the work has been done and he was able to relax. But then it was too late and he was too tired to think of anything else, and he felt the urge to lay down and sleep right there on the leather sofa in his living room. He opened the window, turned off the lights, took his clothes off and lay on the sofa pulling the plaid to his chest. He heard the vespas roaring on the street, and people talking on one of the balconies. Somebody was having a late barbeque on a Sunday night, and then the window flapped, and the voices of two young men were discussing something arduously. Somebody opened a cava bottle and all the exclamations were shisshed and everybody said “brindis” and there was silence. Amanda’s smile flew in front of his eyes and he could not remember how the chestnuts smell. He tired hard to imagine the smell, to recall it from his childhood, but he could not. Amanda smiled to him, the window flapped once again and he dreamt of the waves his fingers produced when he typed. He was sleeping.

He picked up Amanda at six, as they have agreed. He was couple of minutes late and she was already waiting for him on the corner. He apologized and she said it was fine. She never made any trouble out of anything.  It was that easy with her. He touched her hand and she did not pull it away. And they walked like that, holding hands a little bit and talking nonsense and laughing lightly.

“How was your day?” he asked

“Mine was good. Yours?” asked Amanda

“Mine was good too. Was looking forward to see you today.”

“This is nice. It is fun to see each other sometimes, is not it?” said Amanda

And he said that it was and they walked side by side down the street.

“Where are we going?” Amanda asked finally

“I do not know, any place you like. Are you hungry?”

“I am starving,” said Amanda. “Let’s eat anywhere you like and then we will go have coffee.”

“Good,” nodded Gregori.

They went to a small restaurant on one of the side streets and ordered their food and ate. They talked all the time, and his knee touched hers and they laughed and said all the unimportant words, and her crossed legs under the table were along his and it was good to be just sitting like that with her.

“You know what I was dreaming the other day?” said Gregori

“What?”

“Chestnuts. Roasted chestnuts and you. And I thought we just got some roasted chestnuts and we ate them together and laughed. And you were very pretty eating chestnuts.”

“This is a nice dream,” Amanda smiled. “Let’s get some chestnuts once we are done with the dinner. Shall we?”

“Sure,” Gregori nodded

They walked for a while till they saw the chestnut stand on the street. It was getting cold and windy. He could see that Amanda was cold, even though she said she was fine. He put his jacket over her shoulders and passed his arm under the jacket.

“We would like some chestnuts,” Gregori said to an almost angry looking chestnut vendor.

“Three euros a dozen,” said the woman and turned her back towards them, checking something in her booth.

“Ok, we will get one,” and Gregori gave her the coins.

The woman put twelve chestnuts into a paper cone and handed it to Gregori.

“Thank you,” said Gregori. The woman did not reply or smile back. She turned her back to them again and concentrated on something inside the booth.

“Well, this lady was not nice,” Gregori told Amanda when they turned the street corner.

“She might be tired or upset. You never know what is going on in her life,” replied Amanda.

“Yeah, I know.”

“By the way, they are called La Castanyera, did you know?” asked Amanda

“Yes, just was told so couple of days ago. But this was not even La Castanyera, it was just an upset woman selling chestnuts. She did not have La Castanyera spirit. Anyway.”

Amanda smiled. And they stopped to open the paper cone package and Amanda touched his face and kissed him. Gently and almost intangibly, like only she knew how. They stood for couple of minutes on the street kissing, with the warm chestnut package in his hand. Sometimes the wind would blow her hair over his face and he would hold it back with his free hand. Quietly. He liked its touch.

They walked a little bit more, eating warm chestnuts, one by one, together. Talking lightly about what was going on in their lives. Sometimes they laughed, sometimes he kissed her on the forehead, and all the words were weightless and not prone to gravity.  And the wind occasionally blew her hair over his chin and he did not think of anything at all, except that he knew he was happy.

He left Amanda close to her house and took a taxi to his place. It started to rain lightly. His hands were still holding the paper cone with the leftover chestnuts, his face was smiling emotionlessly, and his eyes were not noticing the streets they drove through.  The driver made a comment about the weather, but Gregori only nodded and said, “yeah”. For a while he sat quietly on the back seat of the yellow and black taxicab, his tired back resting on the brown leather of the cushion, his hand touching his chin. Then he slowly closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With the breath came the smell of the roasted chestnuts.

Barcelona, October 11th 2012

Spain: Enjoying It Together

This is the second time that we were fortunate to see Trobada de Gegants (Gathering of the Giants) in Esplugues de Llobregat, Barcelona. And this year the event was as good as the last year.  First of all you see a lot of happy faces. And there are just enough people to feel the spirit of the fiesta and not to be overwhelmed by the crowd. You can move freely, touch the giants, and talk to people who will carry them and to the orchestras accompanying the giants. Each set of giant dolls represents different regions of the Barcelona area and is accompanied by orchestras and helpers. The kids are welcomed to try on the papier-mâché heads, to play the drums and to take tons of pictures.

The event is very well organized and thought through, but what makes it truly unforgettable are the kind and welcoming people. Everybody is smiling, dancing, and following the rhythm of the fiesta. Nobody gets upset, not even when some of the giants sprinkle water all over the crowd.  There are lots of people and the procession of dancing giants spreads out along the entire street, however people do not work with their elbows to get a better place for themselves and their kids. On the contrary, they constantly look around to make sure they are not obstructing the view of others or are not in the way of a stroller or a wheelchair.  If you close your eyes, relax and open them again all you see are happy kids in a middle of their favorite game. The enjoy it!  But what makes those smiles and laughs really priceless and beautiful is people’s thoughtfulness of others. It is the fact that we enjoy it because we enjoy it all together. And that if the person next to you is happy, you enjoy it even more.

Barcelona, October 7th, 2012

Two Different Stories

The First Story:

The first day we moved into our new apartment in Barcelona I got all our family locked out of it. It was September 4th, the first school day for my daughter, and my parents had come to pick her up from school. On our way to the restaurant to celebrate the date we stopped by our newly rented apartment to show it to my parents. Everybody was already on the street waiting for me, and after doing some latest touchups, I thoughtlessly slammed the door behind me, leaving the key in the keyhole. 6pm. Everybody tired and hungry. Great! My dad came to check why I was not coming and I told him what happened. He suggested we call the locksmith. Well, to tell the truth we just had that experience a week before when my two-year-old son locked himself in the bathroom and it took us two hours and 160 Euros to get him out of it.  And as the locksmith had to cut the door to get my son out we also had to replace it.

I got a better plan in my head,  I knew that we had left the office window open, because it overlooked the inside “patio” and it was relatively safe. Our neighbors must have a window overlooking this space too.  The next thing I did was to call the doorbell of the door in front of us. Yes, for a split of a second I thought of the possibility of them getting scared and calling the police or not trusting me to get inside their house in order to get into my own house. We just had moved in that same morning, they did not know us. A friendly lady in her mid sixties opened door and I explained her the issue as clearly as I could in one minute. Yes, I wanted to do it fast, so that I do not get my husband and the kids involved and make everybody nervous. Once the lady got my plan she was ready and willing to help. She called her husband and they both showed me the way to their small room and opened the window for me. Her husband helped me to get from their window to mine. It was not too high, we live on entresuelo (which is a second floor in Spain), but still I was in a short dress and wedges and their help was very much appreciated. I got to my apartment, pulled the key out of the door and successfully met the whole party at the elevator.  We thanked the neighbors for their help and headed to the restaurant for dinner.

Later on we met this couple many times on the street, at the local toy store or talked to them when both of us were doing our laundry on the back balcony.  They turned out to be extremely nice people. They offered to babysit out kids if we needed to run an errand or just wanted a couple of free hours. They brought our kids toys that their grandchildren overgrew; they offered us to use their library whenever we wanted, gave us advice about music schools, invited us for coffee and told us to call their doorbell anytime there is an emergency.  It is the beginning of an amazing story of human kindness and openness to strangers. And we barely have been living in this apartment for a month.

The Second Story:

In August I got an email from a mother of our close friend saying that a friend of her friend got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and will be moving to Stanford, Bay Area this September. She also told us that he will be looking to rent some place to live and if we could help him with advice on housing.  I emailed her back asking her to share my email with her friend and ask him to email me. I also mentioned that I do not live in the Bay Area now, but still will be glad to help in any possible way.

A week ago I got an email from this friend of my friend who got accepted to the Stanford PhD program and was looking for housing in the area. I told him I will ask my friends from the Bay Area and may be they could help. I also sent him couple of emails with the links to sites like craigslist and others where he could look for housing, as well as told him what places to avoid, how to get around and which was the best coffee place in Palo Alto.  I mentioned to him that I emailed almost all of my friends in the Bay Area asking about housing and I would let him know as soon as I hear back from them.

Half of the friends I emailed about housing did not reply. The second half replied directing me to the craigslist.

This story is short and it ends here. Nobody asked to pass his or her email or phone to him in case he had a question. Nobody showed any kind of interest in this new person coming to a new place, to a new country.  Nobody really cared about being open to a stranger.  Or even not so much a stranger.

Barcelona, October 6th 2012

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

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

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

Fresh Bread

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Every day I go to buy the fresh bread to the closest bakery. It has become my morning ritual again. Years ago, living in Barcelona as a student, every morning I would go down the street to get my baguette and walk my dog. The lady at the bakery knew me well and would always offer a day old baguette to my dog. Banga, my dog, would get the baguette in her mouth and triumphantly walk home by my side, making everybody smile. A slim husky dog carrying a long baguette home. It is a funny sight.

After ten years in California I am back to Barcelona now. Every morning my two year old son and me go down to the corner bakery store to get our fresh bread for breakfast. It is the best start of the day. We go down the stairs, then through the hall and into the street. With his small hand my son shows me the way to go. He is proud he knows the way. We walk to the store and look at the bread. The store smells of the fresh bread and the bread crust. Bread crust is the best part of the bread. And we select the bread and receive it from the lady who already remembers us. She gives the warm bread to my son, we pay her and then walk home. It takes us about ten minutes to get the bread. And as we walk with my son from the bakery and I am holding his small hand in mine, I know that these are the best ten minutes of the day.  They somehow structure my day and make the rest of it perfect.

Barcelona, July 14th, 2012