We never split up out of choice, but we both knew it was over when my university exchange ended in June. Believe me when I say it was because I was missing you that I went to Barcelona. It was meant to be a summer fling, but I fell in love with Spain.
The city made me feel beautiful in a way that you never did. When did I ever hear an appreciative wolf-whistle on your cobbled streets? Never. You are much too understated, altogether too stylish for such showy behaviour. But with a disarming lack of discrimination, the streets in Barcelona whisper ‘guapa, guapa’ at you, and every other female, at every turn. And it can be lovely affirmation that you exist, that you deserve to exist in this beautiful city.
I have always said you are a natural beauty, and it is true. But while your beauty is made up from a sum of your quietly manicured parts, Barcelona is a real head-turner because of one man’s vision – Antoni Gaudi. It happened by accident. I was confused in a city which seemed to visibly shake under the intense midday heat, so I ambled along in the same direction that the tourist buses were taking, hoping to stumble upon something, anything, to wake me up from my sweaty haze. But Gaudi’s Casa Batllo was not a mirage; the topsy turvy inner walls of the surreal building really did look as if they were falling into one another – a blue waterfall. And its rooftop statues did not make me think. They made me feel.
My chance find of Gaudi’s seminal masterpiece was not my only reward while aimlessly wandering. Choosing on another day to follow the footsteps of one interesting looking Catalonian each time I stopped at the end of a busy street, I found myself at the campus of Universidad de Barcelona, at 585 Gran Vía Corts Catalanes. Its garden was as lush as its students serious, if a little affected, all thick glasses and heavy books. It was calm and cool, and I wish I’d spent my exchange reading under Barcelona University’s palm fronds instead of Copenhagen’s courtyards. There, I said it. Sorry.
There is something I should have told you before. I have had a crush on Barcelona for years. Ever since I was young, I imagined a life more beautiful, where home was the designer shops that filled the avenues around Placa de Catalunya. But my big return to the city was scarred by a day hot-footing it around the centre, as I tried to slip and skip my way past joyless security guards, in search of any store that would sell me a pair of sandals while barefoot, after my only pair broke. But at some point I realised that this was fun. In its own bizarre way, life was beautiful.
But Barcelona is its people, not its shops. It is the teens setting off firecrackers around the city whenever Spain wins a football match. It is the old men playing backgammon down the kind of back alleys that both entice and intimidate. And its spiky charm comes from the harassed women at La Boqueria market just off Las Ramblas, whose meaty arms jangle, lost among great joints of fleshy ham that sway from the sides of stalls.
Barcelona is the travellers invading the city. A ubiquitous ‘to-do’ on the summer euro-trail, my hostel on Carrer de Sant Pau, or as it became known, prostitute alley, was buzzing with the kind of travellers who asked if you had any “crazy traveller stories”. The kind who managed to mistake a crepe for a doughnut, and who annoyed the locals so much with their schmoozing and spewing outside the hostel, that anyone outside past midnight would get a bucketful of water chucked over them. But I loved the backpackers. I loved the locals. I loved them all.
And I loved the scorching Barceloneta beach during the day, full of Thai masseuses trying to entice Brits into receiving a glorified backrub for five euros. I loved the beach by dusk on San Juan Day June 24, where fireworks, food stalls and tens of thousands of revellers made for one of the best nights I have ever had. I even loved the beach at dawn, collapsed on a pier wall, watching the red sun rise with the eight people I’d danced with for the past five hours. The eight people I’d only the met the day before, the eight people I might know forever more.
I love Barcelona. I love you, I am just not in love with you. Not anymore.
Disclaimer: Since I wrote this piece back in 2008, I’ve read a million too many travel narratives where a city or place is described as a person – always a sensual woman or a handsome man – never a beaten-up, drunken hobo. Now that would be my kind of city! Anyway, I don’t find this style of article particularly cute or clever anymore, but I’m running out of old posts and I’m in Brazil. I can’t write out here, not while there’s so much life to be lived. Soon, surely, I’ll start writing again. Sorry!