Walking Against the Light


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

With 6 Others

“The usual?” The question is done mostly with the eyes and a slight informal moving of the lips. I nod. I smile and instead of saying “yes”, I ask “Como va todo?”. “Todo bien” says the café owner.  He looks at the counter. He is busy pouring a cappuccino. I move on.

9:10am. I have dropped the kids at school. Now working from the café. I open my laptop.  Emails. I read the important ones,  check the news, and start with my agenda for the day. Xavier brings my coffee.  I thank him. I take a new breath and look around. The music is playing. And I smile.

The same people are around the café. The same people I see every morning at 9:10am. Men in suits, men in polos and women.

Back to my plan. Writing. Writing and humming the song that is playing. Sounds familiar. I probably have been humming it for a while now. Another sip of coffee. Somebody else is humming too.  The dark blue barn jacket is folded on the chair next to me. The man is reading the newspaper and humming the same song. He is here every morning.

Two men in suits discuss something over their iphones. They laugh and joke with the café owner. He jokes back. His joke is not directed towards anybody in particular, it is for all of us. To share.  And some people look up and smile lightly.

The girl with a bluish nail polish is reading a book. She is done with her breakfast; the croissant crust crumbs look messy on her plate. She is wearing a beige cardigan.  Skinny girl with long hair.

All our feet are reflected in the mirror in front. From left to right: a pair of white snickers, moccasins, wedges, ballerina shoes, two black business pairs and one brown.

Seven of us at the café. Every day the same people spend with me the first thirty minutes of the day.  If I ever decide to tweet about my 9:10am experience, I will say “at Doctor Coffee with 6 others”.

I get out of the door. The music is left behind. The morning air is fresh. The touch of sunlight is weightless.  And the next 15 busy hours of the day do not seem hard.

Barcelona, October 8th, 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

Notes from Rome: weddings, cars and a deer head with a cross

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Saturday. In every church we passed by there was a wedding going on. I wrote before how elegant and beautiful Italian people look. Well, that was their everyday look. On Saturday they and their children looked gorgeous. Dark and skinny Italian women were all in short silk dresses or beautiful red or black gowns. All men in suits. All kids in white outfits. Girls looked like little bridesmaids. Everybody is sweating in their attire under the hot Italian sun. Still the crowd around churches looked wonderful. There you hear only Italian. The non-tourist Italian. Harsh, straightforward and melodic. Most of the men are nervous, women are stressed out calming down their small children. All parents getting their kids cold water from the ice cream vendors and asking them to be patient. Men standing outside of the church. Talking. In black or grey suits. Using white fans. Church stairs adored with some fresh flowers. White flowers. Nothing else. All of the people are elegant, nervous, sweating under the afternoon sun and still looking simple and spotless.

Cars. Cars are small. Much smaller than in any other country. Mini cars and Vespas is all you see on the streets of Rome. Old cars next to the new cars. All of them are small and easy to park. Italians drive chaotically everywhere, not following the road, but rather the direction they want to go. I saw cars turning around in the middle of a busy street, cars zipping through narrow cobblestone paved roads that you think are not drivable, cars sliding among buses and tourists on the crowded plazas. I like the driving style in Rome. It is fast, chaotic, but it is ‘a style’. I would not mind driving in this city.

When we looked for the best coffee in Rome, we were directed to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè. It is located on a small plaza half way between Pantheon and Pl. Navona. The café looks everything but chic. Very simple and everyday. Few metallic tables outside on the cobblestone paved plaza. Yellow bags of coffee beans and amaretto cookies wrapped in yellow tissue paper on the counter. Coffee liquor bottles with yellow labels. Men and women, Italians and tourists are crowded inside the café. Old men in suits with cigars, young men in shirts and sunglasses. Women wearing dresses and high heels. The coffee is amazing. When you sit outside and look up you see the roof of the church entrance with a deer head and a cross on the top. And the birds flying around it. And the coffee is very thick and soft. When the coffee is rich you skip the food. After two cups of Americano you are not hungry. And you love the coffee smell around the place and the sweet velvety taste it leaves in your mouth. Really good coffee is sweet without sugar. And you carry away the taste with you. As well as the feeling of looking up and seeing a deer head with the cross on St. Eustachio church and the birds flying high in the sky.

Rome, July 7th, 2012

Notes from Rome: coffee in front of the Coliseum

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Gelaterias, they are everywhere. All the restaurants start with a gelateria. When you go along the streets it seems that there are only ice cream parlors, but then you see that behind the ice cream, there is a restaurant, pizzeria or bar.  And, yes, it seems like everybody is eating ice cream all the time.

Italian sounds very nice. It is a beautiful language. Rome is full of tourists, thus, you mainly hear English, Spanish, Russian and very little Italian. Once you sit at the cafe or a restaurant it is nice to hear waiters speaking italian. Just because of the language I think I would like to live in this country. Their talking is almost like music. Less emotional and more romantic than Spanish, softer and more flexible than French it makes the content sound exquisite.

At the restaurants, waiters would only talk to me when asking for the food order. It is a funny contrast with Spain, USA or Norway, where they would expect any of us (my husband or me) to order the food. The whole day the only thing I heard was signiora, signiora, signiora. Ok, they brought the bill directly to my husband.

Italian restaurants in Rome do not look very different from North Beach restaurants in San Francisco. Here they are a little bit messier and less polished, however more elegant, which makes them look authentic.

Around 11pm we had coffee in front of the Coliseum, and there were no empty tables outside, thus we were invited inside the drinks bar to have our coffee there. With blue neon lights and faint smell of alcohol, it was a great place to have a coffee. In US they would never let the kids inside a liquor bar…. Our 5 year old really liked the place and the view, our 2 year old climbed everywhere and danced a Pocoyo dance in the middle of the floor. We enjoyed the coffee!

Rome, July 4th, 2012

What is it that I like about coffee

It is the sharing part. It is not so much about the flavor, taste, beans or how thick the foam looks in my cup; it is about all these short moments when I shared a cup of coffee with somebody. I just had one cup at Trondheim airport, before boarding on my plane to Spain and it tasted exactly that: moving to Spain for a year, with all the dreams, ideas and insights it encompasses. Its flavor was about that midnight glass of wine in some dim bar accompanied by olives and ham, it included lots of hours on the playgrounds with the kids, hours under the sun on the beach and many more hours that I will work on our newly founded startup. It had it all and was just perfect. It also tasted like this year that we spent in Trondheim, Norway; it had its snow, wind, rain, northern lights, and how I froze 2 fingers, making pictures of the lights show, and how I then could not start the car and go home because my hands hurt and made it impossible to get the keys out of my pocket and to drive. It had the peach colored lights of Scandinavia midnight sun, that I enjoyed as it let me work 3 or 4 hours more per day. You never know what it is to be living 22-hour days before you have experienced it. And then you know it is great and you do not want to leave this county just because of that: because of how the light falls and changes you. This cup of coffee also had this weird landing I had in Oslo in April when the wind and the snow made it look like the land was covered by millions of white cables; thin, cold, parallel lines, an optical illusion of Nordic winds, falling snow and high plane speed 50 feet above the ground.

Each cup of coffee I drank, I enjoyed it with somebody. It was sharing, not drinking. In Spain it were people on the tables next to me, talking about their lives and me overhearing their talk. It was the French man in the Amsterdam airport who invited me for a cup of coffee and I did not know how to reject it politely, thus I accepted and listened to his French talk and drank my coffee and nodded and smiled. It were the two old men with cigars and straw hats in Portugal, that joined me on the beach terrace in Cascais and were half sleeping, half talking with the shirts half open. They told me about their daughters, sons, families and the sun was very hot, the wind was strong and their words flowed like the waves over the sand when they wash away the footprints somebody left there. And it was great. In Portugal the coffee was also about the carousels where the kids ride, with its happiness and about the love words of an old shoe storeowner to my son, when he bought his first leather sandals. Yes, that day we had to buy him sandals and I showed him different pairs of Crocs and he rejected all of them. Then later in the day walking on a narrow stone paved street under the afternoon sun he run into a small shoe store and picked his sandals. Dark blue leather sandals that cost 26 euros and I bought them for him. And the storeowner, the big old lady dressed all in black, like many Portuguese older women are dressed, hugged and kissed him and told him something about ‘amore’ and many other words in Portuguese that were all about love. And we all were happy, and couple of minutes later drinking coffee outside the shoe store, we knew it was all true and sincere and that love belonged to us like the sharp shadows on the white walls, like the blue tiles, like the sun that left its touch on our skins. And that coffee was about all that.

Then there were coffees at Doge, now café Venetia, in Palo Alto, USA. We have been going to this place for years, morning, day, and night. The coffee was always good because of the people that were around you. Because people talked to you and you talked to people and got to know some of them. I knew where the 66-year-old man standing in line behind me was born, because he just told me so. He was born in Boston, and then moved to NY, and then to Bay Area. I also knew that extravagant Russian lady, who sometimes talked to an old man with a walking stick with a lion head handle. I met there many of the people who later became my good friends. We just saw each other so many times at the cafe that it would be weird not to exchange words and smiles. This is how I met the people I love. Talking to them over a cup of coffee. And coffee acquired the tint of love. Many of my business ideas came to me when talking to somebody over a cup of coffee. When I would argue about something and then realize that I am not right, and still keep arguing but take a different perspective at the same time. This is how coffee became part of my work. And this is why I love it. It tastes like talking to people, like sharing my life with the person next to me, like listening to them and hearing them and loving absolutely all about it.

We are going to Rome in two weeks and what I am really looking forward to are all these cups of coffee I am going to drink there. In small cafes, in large restaurants, on the sunny and hot plazas, wearing shorts, jeans, dresses, heels and sunglasses. It will be about my kids chasing the doves in front of the cathedrals or 14th century churches, it will be about all these men and women I will get to know for that couple of minutes while we will be sharing our cup of espresso or Americano. And I will tell them something I have not told the people I see every day, and they will share their views, their dreams, their worries with me. And it all will have the taste of the best coffee in the world. Coffee in Rome will be about music, dusty warm pavements, fountains and words in Italian and in English or may be just smiles between people who do not know each other but share the moment. Smiles with the eyes over the rim of the cup are the truest ones; you cannot fake them. You either smile with your eyes or you do not. And this is all I know about happiness. It is somehow related to coffee and the smile over the rim of the cup.

The father of a very good friend of mine from Mallorca told me years ago that the best coffee he ever had was in Mexico. It was in a house of a very poor woman who offered him a cup of coffee and he then realized that this was the last coffee she had left for that month, and still she offered it to him instead of making it last for couple of more days for herself. And it tasted like the best coffee ever for him. And this is what coffee is about: sharing. I would be honored to share my last coffee with any of you instead of making it last for myself. It is not a physical act of drinking that enchants me. It is a purely emotional one and it is also about life and love.

June 20th 2012 (flying from Trondheim to Barcelona)