Even without knowing anything about Barcelona, I knew this was no place for the indie-minded traveller looking for the pristine virginland or the earnest college student bent on “finding himself”. Being neither, I nevertheless found myself fleeing to the English-speaking sanctuary that is the Elephant bookstore, wondering aloud if this jet-lagged, high-strung boy had bitten off more than he could chew by showing up at this tourist mob scene, a linguistically confusing mob scene, no less.
The owner, Ann, was sympathetic but not particularly attentive. “Yes, it was hard when I came here in ’69. Nobody here spoke any English and I didn’t speak a word of Spanish.” She had come from England to marry a Catalan, who she loved enough to brave General Franco for. I glanced aside at the old guy sitting in the far corner engrossed in computer games. “Oh there’s Frank. He’s Canadian, too.” I thought better of inquiring after the Catalan.
Frank arrived in ’89, prior to which he lived in a Toronto apartment five minutes on foot from my own. He left home to escape Brian Mulroney’s Canada. I ran the list of Mulroney era atrocities in my head and couldn’t settle on anything concrete. Meech Lake? The GST? I suddenly realized he came from a generation whose central struggle revolved not around terrorism and war but the introduction of a new tax. People like Frank and Ann had put such a huge gap between themselves and home that they truly couldn’t go back any more.
“It was a lot quieter then. I used to bring my papers to this one and only cafe and sit with other English-speakers in the city and complain all the time. Now it’s just mad.” I was unsure whether I was invited to reminesce with them about the bad ol’ days. It was time to go. I was glad to have met the kind of melancholy, dusty expats that existed in Mavis Gallant’s stories. Barcelona was getting interesting already.
The (in)famous Rambla runs up the length of Barcelona’s old town, terminating at the posh, Haussmannized new town of Eixample. To its right is the pretty Gothic Quarter and hip Born. To its left is the Raval.
The many uncurious travellers mostly stay on la Rambla, hooked by beer and paella; the rest head west to the Raval to check out this historical refuge for alienated people, whose somewhat down-trodden air befits the city’s often traumatic history.
The Raval during the day time felt domestic and unremarkable. Halal butcher shops lined the Rambla del Raval and displayed chunks of red meat rather unaesthetically through smudgy windows. A few cheap (and fantastic) kebab shops managed to squeeze in between. None of these places were run by ethinic Spaniards. The crowd was thin and the few who were out and about didn’t have cameras or backpacks.
Melancholia set in during the evening. One night at two in the morning I stumbled into the wrong street while trying to locate my hostel in the heart of the Raval. The streets were exploding with life. Silent South Asian men and prostitutes in garish outfits lingered uncertainly outside of noisy dives. The doors of the IP phone places were expectantly open with promises of cheap phone calls back home to Pakistan. Kids ran out of one fluorescent-lit variety store into another, making crunchy noises as they stepped over watermelon seeds. Overhead, a jungle of laundry branched out violently, looking as if to drip even though they were dry.
I was probably prone to dramatization and fanciful thinking after a few glasses of wine too many, but as I passed a group of women and one of them pulled up her miniskirt and snapped her fishnet stocking, I never thought laughter and misery could be so indistinguishable.
The days of the Raval being called “Barri Chino” in a parallel to San Francisco’s then-seedy Chinatown may not be for much longer. When detractors snickered at the decision to plop Richard Meier’s godly edifice for the Musuem of Contemporary Art smack in the middle of upper Raval, they probably didn’t see this coming. Soon it was followed by another bastion of cool: Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona–referred to in acronym of course. All this took place 10 years ago. The rest, as they say, is history.
For now the lower half of El Raval remains generally untouched. But genteel Barcelona has already established a few beachheads in the northern end of Ramba del Raval in the form of hip cafe/bars frequented by media types. On this particular morning as I walked near the CCCB, a group of young cultural swashbucklers, clad in bright colours and merticulously weathered shoes, popped into view. As I ducked into a cafe I ran into a woman speaking in a posh English accent to her friend about Parisian apartments. They say it’s all over when a place is overrun by people all decked out in black. Or has it all just begun? I guess it depends on which end of the Raval you live in.
Cool City, or Just Ephemeral?
Joel Kotkin would have a field day in Barcelona pointing out symptoms of the malaise of the post-industrial city–the too-hip-for-its-own-good disease. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Born in the dusk. The winding streets were a parade of comfortably low-key fusion restaurants, charmingly ramshackle bars and design offices with big attitudes, populated by more or less the same people you see in the Lower East Side or Toronto’s Trinity Bellwood. Here at least globalization and an internationalizing culture had run its course.
Detractors pining for the good ol’ days of the industrial city and hardy working-class authenticity should however check one of their fundamental suppositions: that there was indeed these so-called golden days of authenticity. In the case of Barcelona at least, the modern city was born with swagger and attitude; art and culture run through its veins and are as much part of Barcelona’s heritage as its history as a working port city.
This perhaps explains the relative ease with which Barcelona has come to accept its cultural capital status. Locals dodge in and out of gorgeous churchyards, read their papers and sip their mid-morning drinks in the middle of the jampacked La Boqueria Market, apparently unfazed by the hordes of gawking tourists with gigantic cameras. Even on La Rambla, the most touristy section of the city, the facades of the carefully restored buildings give off none of that plastic, fossilized-museum-piece feel.
Many times I’d blatantly pointed my camera at the beautiful people of the Upper Raval and Born, and ellicited from them a slight but jaunty turn of the head that suggested a haughty indifference, as if to say: “I could give a damn about Joel Kotkin.” Indeed, why bother, when good times have finally come to a city that has had more than its fair share of the bad? Barcelona never seemed so at ease with itself.
Tags: Barcelona, Exploring the City, Spain, Streetlife