There are things that are always difficult when you’re a guiri (what the Spanish call foreigners), especially when your grasp of the language leaves so much to be desired.
Written circa summer 2016.
I walked as close to the walls as I could, hiding in the cool of the shadows. But it was still unbearably hot. I was late for my appointment, about three hours late.
It’d been another sleepless night, tossing and turning like a snake shedding its skin and I woke up in a daze, before rolling over and falling back into a sultry slumber. It was 11.30am by the time I realised I had missed my appointment.
I tried to open the door but it was firmly shut. I put my face up to the glass to try and peer inside but as I placed my weight against the door it opened.
Raquel greeted me: “Hola, bon dia!” Although I didn’t recognise her at first. Her hair had grown about two or three feet in length since I’d last seen her three months before. Funny how hairdressers’ hair grows so quickly, I thought. She was busy with another client and I awkwardly apologised. “Lo siento sobre esta mañana.” It came out long and painfully slow and I felt like a child apologising for being late to school. I’d have to do some work on my Spanish, I thought.
“Tranquila,” – relax – she replied.
A red-haired women approached me and said, “Hola! Hello!” She had a warm smile and the freckles up and down her bare arms were evidence that her hair was natural. It was the third time in two days I’d heard perfect Spanish flow from the mouth of a red-head, which is not the norm in Barcelona.
She gestured for me to follow her over to the wash basin, where she stood on her tip toes to throw a thin plastic gown over my shoulders. I sat in the chair and felt the cold water rushing through my hair, my veins contracting as it hit my skin and dribbled gently down the back of my neck, shivering between my shoulder blades.
“The water’s OK?” she asked.
“Perfecto,” I answered.
Raquel buzzed two elderly gentlemen into the salon, kissing each one of them twice as they entered. Red left me for a moment to she could do the same. “Hola Pa-Pa. Hola Manolo.”
Pa-Pa and Manolo sat themselves down on two purple swivel chairs in the corner of the salon and got the conversation going with a few observations about the weather. I could see beads of sweat rolling down Manolo’s bald head, droplets falling onto the heavy gold hoops that hung from each of his giant ears. “What heat, what heat!” he groaned, waving a hand through the air as if trying to fan it away.
Red cut my hair slowly whilst talking to Pa-Pa and Manolo, listening intently to their stories and giving me the occasional comforting smile in the mirror. Raquel was excited about the summer holidays. Her friends, she explained, liked the city beaches of Barcelona, but she argued that they were too busy during the summer and that she’d rather get out of town, to “Blanes, por ejemplo.”
They’d be closing the salon for most of August and Red wouldn’t be back until the second week of September. They both held their index fingers to their thumbs and raised their arms and hands above their heads, doing a little dance to each other and saying, “Vaya vacaciones, eh?!”
I smiled back at them both gratefully. I felt so excluded from everyday life in Barcelona that I was always eager to show my appreciation when someone made an effort to include me.
Raquel continued yacking away to her client. I struggled to understand anything at all and then realised that she was speaking in Catalan, not Spanish. Another level of defeat and resignation washed over me. Why even both?
I watched Red chop away, running a few possible phrases I could say over in my head. Perhaps I could ask her if Pa-Pa was her father, try to get a conversation going that way, but it felt desperate. What I really wanted to ask was how come she, a Spaniard, had such flaming red hair, but it seemed rude in front of her father.
And besides, it’s a fallacy that all Spaniards have dark hair. The Catalans in particular can often be quite fair-haired and blue-eyed. I ended up saying nothing at all, as did she. I felt realised my hands were gripping the arms of the chair with great force, as if I were in a rocket ship burning its way through the atmosphere.
I’ve always found it awkward enough going to the hairdressers. I don’t know why, I just find the intimacy of it all so unnatural. To have a stranger so close to you, touching you, their bodies stroking against you as they work around you. The personal questions you can’t avoid. I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy getting my hair cut.
Red indicated to me the she’d finished by showing me the back of my head with a mirror. I smiled and said “Gracias, esta perfecto, gracias!” I mean, what else are you going to say? But she had done a great job to be fair and I did really like it.
I paid the sixteen euros and said “Adeu!” to everyone before finding myself back out in the blistering heat. Again I followed the shade, and when I looked into the distance I could see the hazy distorted light as the heat funnelled up from the baking concrete. It was too much, I decided, not the kind of heat you can do anything with. Too hot to sit on the beach or do any form of exercise outdoors, too hot to sleep at night, too hot to eat.
I headed home to my little rooftop hideaway on Carrer d’Hurtado and opened the double doors that led out onto my terrace. I turned on the ceiling fans and took a litre bottle of ice-cold water out of the fridge. I had a seven emails that I needed to reply to: one from an editor in London who wanted me to pitch her a bunch of ideas for August, one from a book publishing company in Singapore who wanted to know how much I’d charge to write their Barcelona guide for them and one from another editor who had a writing project for me.
I sat down and drank the water and replied to the emails whilst looking out over the Collserola mountains and bathing myself in the breeze that bellowed in through the huge doors. I listened to Jackson Brown again and found that I could focus well with his music on.
After replying to one email I picked up my guitar and started playing, obsessing over the tone dials before deciding that I really did like the new setup.
I cut up two giant wedges of melon and put it on a plate. The plate was hot, as if it had been in the oven for two or three minutes, which was strange because it had been in the cupboard all day. I ate the melon along with some olives, slices of ham, chunks of cheese, and a can of beer from the fridge. I poured it into a glass but realised it too was hot from the cupboard.
It often felt like only cool beer could relieve me from the heat. I drank another one, straight from the can this time, and finished my emails.
It was time for a ride, I decided, and I put on some clothes and sunscreen before getting my bike out of the stairwell where I kept it.
The seat and black tyres were hot and sticky, like they’d been in the oven.
Maybe I’d just have another beer.