Three - Tres - Trois Encounters

Birgit Starmanns 


© Copyright 2009 by Birgit Starmanns

Photo of a street scene in Barcelona.


Armed with a phrasebook that I did not use, a map that I used only marginally, and a camera that got a serious workout, the best way to experience a new city is through the spontaneous help of its locals.

The man at my side, Jose, I think, kept up a steady stream of conversation. Every few meters, he stopped to either hold my hand, or give me a spontaneous hug, before continuing our walk along La Rambla, Barcelona’s main drag for tourists. Apparently, the pedestrian walkway was also popular with many locals.

To listen to us chatting, it would seem that we had a great dialogue. We did, considering that I did not understand a single word he spoke. He did not understand me, either. While Barcelona is bi-lingual, the main two languages are Spanish and Catalan, the local dialect of the Catalonian region. Only the hotel staff and some waiters spoke the languages helpful to me, English or German.

After a business trip to Germany, I needed a long weekend to get away. What better place than Barcelona – a city full of life, where I had never been – and in which I had no idea how to connect to the Internet. Sure, there were friends who wanted to come with me. If only. If only I stayed longer than three days. If only I canceled my 4-star hotel reservation in favor of a youth hostel. If only . . . no one would try to manage my time for me. I went ahead with my plans. Alone.

Immediately after arriving, I set out to explore. In spite of a warm rain in early September, La Rambla was crowded and lively. I wandered from my hotel, near the Plaça de Catalunya, towards the Barcelona Harbor. Merchandise and food stands were everywhere, selling not only tourist items such as magazines, postcards and water, but also hand-crafted items, photographs, paintings, even live birds in their cages.

After walking for three hours, taking detours into the narrow, cramped alleyways of the Gothic section, I finally emerged again on La Rambla with a healthy appetite. I stopped at the nearest tapas bar. Instead of a table, I chose to sit at the bar, directly facing the varied array of tapas dishes displayed behind a glass barrier: chorizo, marinated olives, anchovies, small bread squares covered with salmon, peppers, slices of meat, assorted cheeses. I ordered a glass of wine, realizing after the first sip that open bottles here have turned to vinegar. The half-bottles, on the other hand, are excellent. Calculating, or rather, rationalizing that a half-bottle is about two glasses, I chose one such bottle of Rioja red wine and several tapas, just as a local, dark-haired man sat down next to me. He seemed to know the bar staff, starting a lively discussion in Catalan.

We struck up a conversation. Only one waiter in the place spoke a little English; clearly enjoying being an interpreter, he translated a few phrases between trips of serving customers at the tables in the back of the restaurant. Jose showed me his passport, pointing to his name as an introduction. Having left my passport back in the safe at the hotel, I dug out my California driver’s license, which he clearly could not interpret.

We left the tapas bar at the same time, and somehow walked in the same direction. Jose grabbed my hand, and pointed to the Plaça Reial, a large, open plaza complete with a fountain, lampposts designed by Antonio Gaudi, and another long line of tapas eateries. An invitation? Jose again seemed to know the waiters, but this time had a little more difficulty convincing any one of them to translate, with the crowd of other customers demanded attention. Still, we chatted away, not understanding each other, yet understanding each other.

Two hours later, we headed out towards yet a third tapas bar. On the way there, Jose pointed towards an open-air market that I had seen in passing earlier in the day. In the Boqueria Market, stands showcasing fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meats were just closing down, looking to make a final sale. I was getting a bit of a tour. Jose managed to talk his way into a rose, which he handed me and I placed behind my ear.

As we reached the tapas bar, of course Jose knew the bar staff. This time, they were less interested in interpreting for Jose, but wanted to speak to me directly. A few bites and another round later, Jose motioned me outside, to listen to a band play near the Plaça de Catalunya. The frequency of his hugs had gotten a little out of hand. I made a display of yawning, and headed towards the hotel. Not my hotel, naturally, but the nearest hotel in sight.

This hotel was a far cry from my own. My hotel had an inviting, spacious lobby with a bar. This one had a lobby with only a stairway leading up to the next floor, and bars on the windows. I walked up the stairs, past the reception, and found a window with a good view of the street. Jose still stood where I had left him, staring at the doorway, periodically searching the windows to see if one, presumably mine, would turn on its light. I was amazed at his patience; I had to wait for twenty minutes before he left, and I escaped in the opposite direction to my own hotel.

The next morning, the sun had replaced the prior day’s drizzle. As I left my hotel, I noticed that the well-publicized warnings about pickpockets prompted most tourists to take the extreme approach, carrying their backpacks across their stomachs, holding on tightly with both arms. I chose a less obvious method, stuffing everything into a bag slung across my chest, still hanging securely close to my hip: a city guide to Barcelona, a fold-out, plastic-coated map, a Spanish phrase book, my wallet. And, of course, my camera.

I made my way down to the harbor of Barcelona. Sweeping arches characterized the bridge leading to the aquarium. Halfway across the bridge, I stopped to photograph the cable cars that looked like small ski gondolas, making their way across the harbor, and up to the Montjuïc Mountain. At my feet, enjoying the glorious weather, were the locals, who watched all of us tourists wander by. As I continued towards the harbor, I noticed a tall, slim, dark-haired man, who had grinned at me twice while I was taking pictures, stand up and walk towards the end of the pier as well. It only took about two minutes before he fell into step next to me and began a conversation.

We started our negotiation of which language we could try to use together. As was the case last night, this man, I’ll call him Marc, also did not speak a word of English or German. I did not speak more than ten words of Spanish. As a last-ditch effort, he tried yet a fourth language. It was familiar. Well, as familiar as my high school French can be after so many years of having gone unused. I told him that I only spoke very, very little French. Yet it was the only language that we had in common.

Having reached the end of the pier, Marc motioned towards a bench, where we sat down in front of L’Aquàrium. He was from Morocco, and had lived in Barcelona for four years now. He told me a few other things about himself; unfortunately most of it was lost on me, as my French was not quite up to the task. I told him a little about myself, primarily that I lived in California and was originally from Germany. After a little while, I thought that my extremely limited French was exhausted, and stood up. He stood up with me, telling me that he would show me some of the sights of Barcelona. Why not?

We made our way through the streets to La Catedral, a large gothic church. Marc motioned for me to take my photos, calmly sat down on one of the many benches surrounding the massive structure, and pulled a newspaper out of this back pocket. I wandered around the plaza, looking for the best angle, fascinated by the mix of old and new: the gothic façade in the background, laced with building scaffolding showing active renovations, with tiny vehicles in the front that looked like bikes with motors, drivers waiting for tourists to take them up on a tour of the city. Going inside was out of the question though. On the steps leading up to the entrance, a large sign indicated that if shoulders and knees were showing, we were not welcome inside; while I had a jacket wrapped around my waist and could have put it on and entered, the sun was shining and I preferred to stay outside – and not keep my host waiting.

I searched for Marc, and found him engrossed in his newspaper. He grinned when he saw me, folded the paper, and we continued our trek. He motioned for the map that I held in my hand, and pointed out our current location, and our next destination. As we walked, I was aware of all the motorbikes that made up almost half of the traffic on the roads. Marc pointed out a few buildings along the way that were designed by Antonio Gaudi, probably the most famous of the “modernistas” architects; we stopped next to the colorful, intricate mosaic columns of the Palau de la Música Catalana for a closer look.

As we walked, Marc told me over and over that there was so much that he had to tell me. I nodded, answering each time that I wished I could understand more. I was already happy that the few words that I remembered allowed us to carry on a conversation, albeit a very simple one. Hand motions helped us bridge the gap.

As we turned the corner, a red brick structure, the Arc de Triompf, towered over us. I suddenly felt our choice of language was very appropriate. My camera suddenly warned me that I had no memory left. Marc asked to see some of the photos on the digital screen, then patiently waited while I carefully exchanged my memory cards. We continued into the Parc de la Ciutadella, with its lakes and white monuments. As we strolled along, Marc pointed out different sights within the park, as well as which areas to avoid after dark.

We finally stopped at a café to rest our feet, and order water and coffee. Marc again had more to tell me. While I still struggled with my own spoken French, I began to understand more of what he was telling me. Although I suspect the reason was that he was using simpler words to help me out.

The sun began to descend, causing surrounding buildings to cast long shadows. Marc wanted to continue on, towards La Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous of Barcelona’s tourist attractions, but sanity set in. As sweet as he was, I did not want to end up in the dark in another section of Barcelona. Plus, the lighting would not be conducive to good photos, since I would be shooting directly against the sun. I decided to call it an evening. Although disappointed, Marc was chivalrous, and walked me back to the area around La Rambla, where I knew my way around after the last two days.

What I expected to be a five-minute conversation had turned into a six-hour afternoon. I saw more of Barcelona than I had expected, without needing to decipher a map, with the benefit of a personal tour. I couldn’t have spent a better day in the city.

I stopped for a more traditional dinner later in the evening, where I listened to couples discussing their work colleagues – in English – on either side of me. And here I was in Barcelona to leave work behind for a weekend. I fled to the nearest tapas bar, which turned out to be the one I had visited previously with Jose. The manager recognized me, and tried to turn a small dessert drink of amaretto into a bottomless glass with his continuous refills. Although we had absolutely no language in common, not even my limited French, a waiter translated an offer of a date. This is beginning to be a pattern. I said good night, and wandered the one block along La Rambla to my hotel, by-passing more locals who were offering six-packs of beers to tourists to take back to their hotels.

On my third, and last, day, I set out on my own, and finally visited La Sagrada Familia, on Marc’s recommendation, camera again in tow. Amazingly, once out of the tourist area and the Gothic district, the city was, well, modern and normal, with wide, four-lane streets that were busy with the morning rush hour. As I approached the temple that has been under construction for more than 100 years, I no longer needed a map, since the eight (of seventeen planned) towering pillars guided my way. The modern life surrounding the impressive structure reflected all of Barcelona: the past, the present, and the future, coming together. At least this time, I did not have to worry about the restriction of showing shoulders and knees to enter, since this construction zone is not yet considered a church. Although I did not have a personal guide for this particular destination, the signs finally included at least one familiar language: English!

Later in the day, on my way to the airport, I reflected on the weekend. While I had not seen everything that Barcelona has to offer, I came away with much more: the experience, the spirit of the place and the people. I will certainly be back. In the meantime, I have signed up for a conversational Spanish course. The next time I meet a handsome young man on the streets of Barcelona, I want to be able to have a conversation in which I can actually understand every word.

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