It was 10.45am when I woke up to Barcelona’s brilliant winter sun glaring through the huge doors and windows that opened onto my terrace.
Normally I had bed sheets attached to the frame, hung up with wooden clothes pegs to block out the sun, but I’d taken them down because I was soon to move out of the flat and my landlady would be showing it to agencies and various other carousers.
It was a beautiful piso with white walls so fresh that I could still smell the paint in the summer heat. But it was January now and, as it transformed into a sauna in the summer, it was ice-box cool.
It was an old attic space, used for little else apart from being a rooftop storage space for the well-off residents who lived in the flats below. But my landlords, who lived in the vast apartment on the floor beneath mine, had had the foresight and capital to transform it into a luxurious one bedroom apartment.
Actually, it was more of a studio than a flat, with just one big open space partitioned by a huge Ikea wardrobe that cordoned off the bedroom, and a small but ultra modern bathroom. It was cosy, about 45 metres squared, but it had two terraces that were each an additional 45 metres squared, giving it an air of light and space like I’d never experienced anywhere else I’d lived. I loved it.
As I did every morning I cursed myself for waking up so late and glanced sideways and upwards up at the sky. It was a clear blue sky, almost turquoise, and beams of light ricocheted between the tiny holes in the thin black blinds.
As a Brit, it felt almost sacrilegious to still be lying in bed on such a beautiful January morning. And as a freelancer, it was outright self sabotage.
I flung my legs out from beneath the covers and pushed myself up onto my feet, my shoulders and back tight and stiff, aching beyond what I considered normal for a thirty one year old. Shit, I thought as I shuffled my way into the bathroom, and I’ll be thirty two in a couple of weeks.
I looked in the mirror at my newly shaven sideburns and tutted at the sight of myself. It was like a looking at my father, if he’d been stretched taller by about a foot and had lost a third of his body weight.
I put on the radio and listened to BBC Radio One as I did every morning, boiled the kettle and toasted some bread. The bread popped out perfectly brown and caramelised on one side and completely un-toasted on the other. I buttered it anyway, but skipped the jam. I’d bought a thousand different strawberry jams in Barcelona, but none of them ever really tasted like they did back home.
And so the day started, as it seemed to be doing more frequently of late, somewhat against me, with almost-perfect toast and a body that tortured me with every move.
By the time I sat down to write it was almost midday and I already felt fed up of it all. I wriggled in my chair. I checked emails compulsively, hoping something would come through to distract me. I flicked between tabs and wrote a few long emails. I danced around my biggest and most important writing assignments – important because they paid well, as opposed to them being important because I cared about them. Then I played guitar, refreshed my email another thousand times, checked my blog analytics and boiled the kettle again.
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The Internet stopped working for some unknown reason and I spent about twenty-five minutes looking at screens that never loaded and emails that I’d already read five work-avoiding-times. It was exactly what I didn’t need: a legitimate reason to down tools.
Then, to my horror, I realised that one of my assignments, a thousand words on Antoni Gaudi, the architect, was already prepped and ready to go. I had everything I needed, more or less, to write the article saved on my computer. No excuses.
I took a few photos of the view from my window, considering with a sense of irony how I’d always thought the view would inspire me to write but had in fact become a source of constant distraction. How can anyone ever focus on anything knowing that the whole of Barcelona and all its grotty goodness is literally on their front doorstep?
I put down the camera and picked up my guitar. I went and stood in front of the mirror and tried to remould my nose. Surely I’d broken it at some point, but the only time I could remember bashing it was when I was on holiday in Greece, or maybe it was Turkey or Spain, with my father and his wife, who was his third wife, and my new little brother Josh.
I would have been around nine or ten years old. Josh is six years younger.
The villa was built on an old farm and clad in grey concrete. Looking out of the windows, the terrain was flat all the way to the horizon, but verdant and rich with an abundance of vegetables. The memory I still have to this day is of me and Josh in our room. Josh was sat on his bed reading a Rupert the Bear book, his bleach-blonde centre-parted mop of hair falling down low over his brown eyes and tanned skin.
I was playing with a stick that I’d found in the field outside our room, so close you could smell the dusty soil and acrid pesticides. It must have been a beanpole or something and I can still remember the feeling of the dry soil crumbling in my hand as I whipped it, revelling in the sound of it cutting sonically through the air with that sword-swinging whoosh that I’d heard in the films.
Then, startled by the sound of approaching footsteps and the sudden realisation that I was swinging a weapon, or a at least someone’s prized gardening tool, in what could be considered a threatening manner in front of my little brother, I ran towards the sliding doors that led out to the agricultural land outside to dispose of it.
As you’ve probably guessed already, the door was in fact closed and I can still remember the sensation of the glass bending as my face sank into it, blood spurting prosaically against the verdant landscape before me as I bounced backwards and landed on the stone-dashed tiles.
Enter my father’s wife, screaming in horror as she discovered me motionless and bloody-nosed on my back, with a stick in my hand and her baby boy, Josh, casually turning a page to find out what Rupert was up to next.
Despite the fact that I can remember the experience as if it were yesterday, I still don’t really know whether or not it ever happened. I never spoke to my dad or his wife about it again. But one thing that I’m certain of is that my nose grew subtly but surely to the right from that day forward.
Anyhow, where was I… Ah, yes, procrastinating in paradise, that was it!
The Internet was still but I wrote a few lines: “Barcelona is world renowned for its diverse and vibrant architecture, but it’s unquestionably the magnificent mind of one man that truly put the city on the map.”
I wasn’t happy with it. I never really was happy with whatever I wrote, but I had somehow come round to a certain way of thinking, that anything I wrote for money would always be compromised in someway or another anyway.
I wrote about how Gaudi had transformed Barcelona with his architecture. I needn’t bore you with this information now – you know it already – but his really is quite a story. Born and raised in Catalonia, he began designing buildings at a very early age, but more importantly he entered the world of architecture at a time when Barcelona was suddenly awash with wealthy industrialists, many of whom made a ton off the back off of the textile trade, the factories of which can still be found in the neighbouring Poblenou (new town) district, which is now part of the city proper.
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So Gaudi entered the world of architecture at a time when people were desperate to show off how rich they’d become. Akin to the way footballers tend to display their wealth in the most grotesque ways, Barcelona’s newly-rich had a habit of hiring architects to build them ridiculous homes.
In the end, fed up of waiting for the Internet to return, I decided it was time for my daily bike ride up to Collserola. At least I could go without feeling guilty for not getting work done. I’d written so much about Gaudi in the past that I probably could have strung an entire article together about his life and work, but I still needed Google to help me with the dates and Catalan spellings.
I listened to a Bill Bryson audiobook on the way up the mountain and learnt about the problem of bats and mosquitos, rats and fleas – and everything that ensued.
I took a couple of photos once I got to the top and then nearly killed myself on the dusty tracks back down because l still hand’t got used to breaking with opposite hands. The break levers in Spain are in reverse positions compared to the UK, with the right break stopping the rear wheel and the left the front. I’d jam on what I thought was my rear break, only to be launched over the handlebars. I have a broken finger as a result.
I got home and cooled down with a beer. The Internet was still off so I decided the best course of action was to go to Ben Tips (my local bar) and drink beers whilst enjoying their Wi-Fi and finishing off my piece about Gaudi. There I researched more of about his death, of how he lived in La Sagrada Familia while it was a construction site, before getting knocked over (and killed) by a tram.
What’s funny is that, although Gaudi was known as something of a dandy and a local celebrity, he’d let himself go so much that no one recognised him as he lay there dying after being struck by the tram. Passersby mistook him for a bum and I’ve even read that the taxi drivers who refused to take him to the local hospital were fined – and possibly imprisoned – for the way they treated him.
Alas, by the time they got him to the hospital it was more or less too late and he didn’t last much longer. His body is now buried in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction today.
Leaving home after living alone…
On the way home from Ben Tips, I became distraught as I realised my life in the Zona Alta was coming to an end, that I wouldn’t see my Indian friends in the shop anymore, that I wouldn’t smell the pines as I stepped out of the Metro station.
I wouldn’t walk past ‘Tony Shin Splints’, as I nicknamed him due to the bloodied bandages that seemed to hold is legs together, who sold sweets, comics and magazines six days a week from a little kiosk in the street. No one has ever worked as hard as that man, nor enjoyed their work so much. He knew every person who walked past (apart from me of course), and enjoyed the moments between by talking to his little birds, who chirped back to him from their little cages.
I wouldn’t be able to swing into the Chinese supermarket where the staff served their customers (or not as was often the case) while strolling their baby prams up and down the isles or battling fictitious baddies on their smartphones.
But there was time for one last visit to the local corner shop to buy beer, pickles, mustard, bread and cheese, as I seemed to do more often than I would like to admit. I noticed the shopkeeper’s burning stare as I leaned deep into the fridge in search of the coolest cans.
He’d never struck up a conversation before, but now that I was leaving the area he seemed to acknowledge me as something of a regular customer. Such a shame that I would never see him again.
Isn’t it funny how we rarely acknowledge how embedded we have become in a place and its eccentricities until the moment we decide to leave it.