If I could
draw a dream, I would draw the roof of the Casa Milà. I would draw the dark eye slits of the centurions that glare out over the city, the disjointed noses and mouths of the immense brooding bishops, or whatever in the name of God those hulking things are. Through each of these orifices you would hear the low hum of wind running in off the Mediterranean.
"Do you notice there is no pigeon crap here?"
I turn around. Someone is speaking to me. I'm standing in the middle of this dream, staring out at Barcelona.
July 21, 1992
"The birds are afraid of this roof. They refuse to come near it."
Everyone else on the roof has vanished. The guide is waiting for me to leave, too. These haunting figures that surround us, these sculptures of fragmented glass, pottery and marble with gaping eyes and mouths . . . are chimneys, ventilation outlets and stairway covers, the merging of the sensible and the crazed, the blood and bone of Barcelona. "Seny and rauxa," the guide says.
The first person who tried to explain Barcelona to me used those two words. So did the last, and almost everyone in between. "The people north of us in Europe have seny," they said. "They can make buildings and mathematics. The people south of us have rauxa. They can make poems and bullfights." Their eyes gleamed with pride. "But ours is the place between north and south. We can make poems and buildings. We have seny and rauxa."
Seny is pronounced SEN. Rauxa is RAU-cha. The words are Catalan, the language spoken in northeastern Spain, but they have no precise equivalents in English or Spanish. Seny is something like shrewdness, Catalans would tell me, something like good judgment, something like counting backward from 100 before doing anything. And rauxa . . . well, that is something like the opposite.
The guide on the roof gives up on words. She pinches her thumb and forefinger together in front of her forehead and zips down to her chin: seny. Then she puts her finger next to her car and rotates it in circles: rauxa. Then she sweeps her hand across the entire cityscape, across the zoo with the world's only captive albino gorilla, across the eight mammoth dripping towers of the unfinished, century-old Sagrada Família temple, across the boulevard where a thousand canaries warble from cages and a man leaps through a hoopful of knives, across the tall, gleaming bank buildings surrounded by bars where topless women coax clients to buy $50 glasses of champagne, across the park with the gingerbread houses and the multicolored mosaic lizard straddling the stairway railings, across the big church on the mountain with the roller coaster screaming by its doorstep.
This is seny and rauxa. This is Barcelona, and these are five people who walk its streets. . . .
are filled with young women wearing designer jackets, black crushed-velvet shorts, black nylons and $200 shoes; with men wearing suits and carefully audited haircuts. The shops are filled with courteous, efficient clerks. Barcelona is a city of professionals and pragmatics, people who roll their eyes at bullfights and flamenco, who prefer barter to conflict, who count the cash in the register twice at the end of each day and then, when no one's looking, count it again. "They sweep in" is the broomstick metaphor that Spaniards living south of Barcelona apply to Catalans. 'Africans" is what Catalans sometimes call all Spaniards south of hem. And yet, beneath Barcelona's cool varnish, something smolders, something rubs. It's like the plate of Peppers that some of the city's restaurants serve: four of every five are prudent, well-mannered green peppers, but one. . . .
Five times, the city has gone mad and torched its churches and convents. As recently as 1936 the half-mummified corpses of priests and nuns were ripped from their crypts and used as dance partners in the streets. Once an anarchist launched a bomb onto the floor of the city's lavish opera house, the Gran Teatre de Liceu, shredding tuxedos and satin gowns, slaughtering 20. And then, there are those buildings. . . .
When I reach the Sagrada Família, I cup my eyes against the sun. There are giant stone frogs and chameleons clinging to this church, pelicans and snails and snakes and alligators and tortoises and bees and clouds and ears of corn and a big green Christmas tree covered with doves. The moldings ooze like melted wax, and 300 feet up, the spires begin wriggling, splintering light off ceramic shards of yellow and orange. The central tower, yet to go up, will be nearly twice that tall.
No true artist could walk in the shadows of Antoni Gaudí's buildings and return to his easel or drawing board to create the conventional. No eyes could look up at the cowled chimney sculptures and wavy walls of the Casa Milà, the gingerbread houses of Pare Güell, the balconies like sharks' jawbones and roof like the back of a scaly dragon upon the Casa Batlló, and a dozen other inspired lunacies around the city, and ignore the new window of possibility Gaudí has opened.
Inside Gaudí's church there is no church; a stranger might guess the Sagrada Família has been bombed. Instead, there are weeds and tomcats, rusted scaffolding, a massive crane, columns holding up thin air, drills whining and cement mixers roaring. The religious fire that forged the monstrous cathedrals across Europe flickered out a century or two ago. But here are the Catalans in 1992, still building one—a zillion pounds of rauxa rising into the sky.
Around me Japanese circle the temple and click. A small man with sad eyes and dark, thick-framed glasses moves about with a purposefulness that cannot be a tourist's. "I am looking for Señor Subirachs," I say.
"I am Señor Subirachs," he says.
He's a pale, powdery-gray man, the color of obsession under a workshop roof, the color of limestone and granite dust flying off mallet and chisel. At night, when the tourists leave and the purple-pink light pours through the unfinished windows, he often walks alone through the church, waiting for his intellect to let go of him, waiting for rauxa to happen. Gaudí lived here as a pauper during the last eight months of his life, going out each evening to ring doorbells and beg alms to fund his church, until he was killed by a trolley at the age of 74 as he crossed a street in 1926. Now it is Josep Maria Subirachs who both lives and works here.
Two years ago demonstrators placed a podium in front of the Passion Facade of the church and took turns launching insults at the sculptures that Subirachs has added to the Sagrada Família since 1986 to illustrate the story of the death of Christ. The contrast with Gaudi's luxuriously ornamental work on the rest of the church startles the eye—Subirachs's figures are stark, angular, disturbing. "Look at Jesus on the cross," an Italian tour bus driver says, wincing. "He looks like an electric guitar!" Conservatives were infuriated by Subirachs's naked, faceless Jesus; intellectuals by the stylistic collision his figure created upon a building that Subirachs himself had demanded, in a petition published in 1965, be left unfinished as a monument to Gaudí. Should an unfinished Stravinsky symphony be completed by someone else? Could an agnostic like Subirachs continue a work meant to inspire godliness? Most of Gaudí's drawings and clay models for the Sagrada Família had been destroyed in a 1936 spasm of rauxa by anarchists who also were going to dynamite the towers until a quick-thinking disciple of Gaudí's convinced them that the towers would make perfect machine-gun nests from which to chop down Franco's army.
"Subirachs, there are no longer trolleys," cried one of the protesters at the demonstration two years ago. "A pity!"
Subirachs stewed inside his simple, one-bedroom brick apartment-workshop as the insults flew outside. "Cultural hooliganism!" he fumed. "I plan to continue, with more force and anger than ever. . . . The figures on this side of the church must provoke. They must create anger and feeling. The scandal that my work has caused is the success of my work."
He invites me into his quarters, where he lives alone—his children grown, his marriage broken years ago, his friendships with many other artists smashed by the controversy. A drawing of Gaudí's head by Subirachs hangs on a wall. "It is interesting," the sculptor says. "I was born exactly nine months after the day Gaudí died. Interesting. . . ."
He remembers the day more than 50 years ago that his father, a poor textile worker in Barcelona, let him scramble up the stairs of the towers. Now Subirachs is 65, only halfway done after seven years of work on the Passion Facade, the labor somehow both giving him life and sucking it away. "I am tired," he says. "I am always tired. I do not sleep well, and I feel constant tension. People are awaiting a failure. This is a constant war, but I prefer to be at war. It is rare for an artist to know that he is doing the last work of his life. I know. I am impassioned. I moved into the church because I want no separation between my personal life and my work. Everything I do now must be as good as I can possibly do it. It is almost as if I am working to convince myself of the reality of Christ. Almost as if, if I do it perfectly, maybe I can make myself believe."
He looks at his watch. He's losing time. He takes a deep breath. "I understand how Gaudí gave his whole life to this work," he says. "It is so fantastic, this building, it is a seduction. A magic place. When I walk around it alone at night, I have this feeling that anything can happen here." His hands rise and clutch both of his gray temples. "A feeling that I am awaiting something transcendental . . . but I do not know what it is."
Perhaps the medieval walls that ringed Barcelona until the late 18th century, limiting the city to a clenched maze of streets known now as the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) . . . perhaps they help explain Barcelona's need to create audacious buildings and surrealistic "designer" bars, to hold Universal Expositions and Olympic Games, to flex its width and breadth. Or perhaps the explanation lies in the metaphorical walls imposed by the Castilian government after it conquered Catalonia in 1714, or in the attempts by the Franco regime to snuff out the region's traditions altogether, banning its language as the tongue of dogs.
"Everything they do here now has to be more than the last, it has to make the Guinness Book of Records," says Nazario Luque, a Barcelona cartoonist born in southern Spain. "The record for the world's highest church tower, the world's biggest paella. It is some kind of inferiority complex. What Catalans have is never good enough. They feel superior to Madrid, but the power is all in Madrid."
Art Nouveau, anarchism, industrialism, fashion—whatever winds blow from Europe, Barcelona leaps to embrace them to distinguish itself from the rest of Spain, to catapult the walls and become European, hip, un-Iberian. But those centuries of confinement have had another effect. Incongruities rub elbows in Barcelona, incompatibles have learned to live side by side. I stand amidst a thousand pigeons on the Plaça de Catalunya and gaze at the architectural collision of its five major buildings, hike a few blocks up the Passeig de Gràcia to gawk at the Modernist free-for-all of styles on the Mançana de la Discòrdia (Block of Discord). Then I take a taxi and a funicular up Mount Tibidabo to grin at the queerest dissonance of all.
Planted on the mountain are the new 850-foot telecommunications tower that connects Barcelona with the outside world; the Sacred Heart church, with the ivory-white statue of Christ looming upon its 225-foot pinnacle; and Tibidabo amusement park. The ticket booths at the entrance to the park virtually crawl up the church's front steps, the Ave Marias of the 48-boy choir wash over the House of Horrors, the rap music from Tibidabo's loudspeakers—Too hot to handle, too cold to hold—and the screams of the roller coaster-riding teenagers make the gigantic Christ seem to be spreading his arms in astonishment rather than radiant grace.
At my side as I enter the amusement park is a nine-year-old boy, who, like any self-respecting child in Barcelona, regularly begs, drools and pulls his mother's pinky and forefinger in opposite directions to make her take him to Tibidabo. Víctor Luna's eyes run right past the merry-go-round—"That is for little ones," he scoffs—and up to the highest-reaching ride in the park, Atalaya. "That," he declares, "is where we are going."
Easy for Víctor to say. He's one of the little boys who will climb seven or eight tiers of people and wave to the world in the opening ceremonies of the '92 Games, a member of the latest generation of Catalans who build human castles. Three nights a week he bolts from his family's apartment in the Clot section of the city and races to the old grain warehouse that the Castellers of Barcelona have converted to a clubhouse. There he joins the 100-plus members of his group to practice this ritual Catalan act of community, believed to have been started centuries ago by peasants trying to climb closer to God and to coax the plants to grow higher.
At nearly all the fiestas around the city you see the Castellers, clad in red shirts, wide black sashes, white pants and polka-dot bandannas, coming together in a massive knot of uplifted, interlocking arms to form a base called a pinya (pineapple) upon which the castell is built. To eyes that watch it rise for the first time, the castell is an act of sheer madness, but when they watch a second time and a third, they see all the hours of coaching and calculation that go into it, all the seny.
Each new tier of humans that goes up consists of up to five men or women standing barefoot upon the shoulders beneath them, locking arms for balance and to support the next tier. At last Víctor scrambles up, using the backs of knees, the hips and the shoulders of others for footholds, climbing over people whose eyeballs stare deep into some faraway place where there aren't 400 pounds of human flesh digging into their clavicles and two stories of air between them and the street. The higher the little boy goes, the more he can feel the tower sway, his stomach move, his heart race. He never speaks of the fear. He's a geyser of energy from Monday through Saturday, climbing every sculpture and railing and playground apparatus he passes—da-da-da-DAAAAAAA!—wiggling and mugging and spoon-drumming to every Bruce Springsteen song he hears, squawking and screeching like a big jungle bird. But on the Sunday morning of a performance he grows quiet and still and hugs the young woman who ritually carries him to the pinya, as if he were an infant, to begin his ascent. When it's over, when his mom and dad clutch him and cry, "¡Fenómeno! ¡Fantàstico!" he often bursts into tears.
"Call me Xiquet," Víctor orders as he pulls me by the sleeve toward the rides. "The others all do." Xiquet means little boy. "Write this in your magazine. Xiquet's favorite color: yellow. Favorite food: spaghetti. Favorite drink: lemon soda. Favorite girl: Susana."
He scoffs once more at the merry-go-round and dashes onto the platform of Atalaya. Up, up, Atalaya begins to rise. "Oiiiiiiiiii!" cries Víctor, his eyes popping. Once, on the beach at San Sebastiàn, he fell like a rock from the top of the castle, cracking skulls with his father, who was in the pinya, but somehow escaping with just a big bump.
Now the platform pauses as it reaches its zenith, 150 feet up but seemingly 1,500 because of the mountain's sharp drop-off directly below. All of orange-roofed Barcelona is spread out before us, from the castle on Montjuïc on the right, where Franco's henchmen executed Catalan dissidents, to the beachfront Olympic Village on the left, with the gigantic goldfish sculpture and the new 44-story skyscraper that—shut up, and maybe the world won't notice—leans, and beyond that to the achingly blue blue of the Mediterranean. From here, on days when the wind scrubs away the pollution, there are no limits for a Barcelona boy; he can see the Pyrenees pimpling the horizon to the north and the Balearic Islands blurring the skyline to the east, the distant reaches of what was, in the 14th century, a rich empire named Calalunya and Aragon. Víctor flings up his arms and shouts, "Ooh-la-la-la-laaaaaaaa!"
We come back to earth. "How long until you are too big to be the boy at the top of the castle?" I ask.
"Until forever," says Víctor.
"Until he is 10," says his mother.
He shakes his head no and races onto the merry-go-round, spinning himself 'round and 'round on the teacup. All at once his face blanches and he staggers away, one hand covering his mouth to hold back the vomit.
The traffic light
blinks red. The cars stop, but the motorcycles behind them keep surging, shimmying through three lanes of traffic to reach the front. They form an exhaust-spitting phalanx, curb to curb.
There are students and messengers on grimy little Vespas and Mobilettes, grimly waiting for the light to go green; career women on Honda Scoopys and Derbi Savannahs, jaws set hard, legs straddling black leather seats, tight leather skirts straining to contain them; businessmen wearing tics and sunglasses that hide their wandering eyes, gunning massive, glittering Yamaha XJ 600s, Suzuki GS 500Es, BMW K75s, Honda NS-1 Liquid-Cooled Super Sprints, Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200s and Triumph Trident 900s. Because this is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, a place where a man can squander his siesta looking for a place to park a car, Barcelona is Motorcycle City. One hundred twenty-five thousand cycles prowl its streets, the name brand upon each gas tank a signal of the owner's status as surely as the label on the backside of his pants.
There are three socially acceptable ways—besides building a church, a sculpture or an otherworldly apartment building—for the Barcelonian to shed his seny, to let loose the shriek of his Mediterranean blood. The first is to throw all his old furniture into a pile on the night before the Feast of Sant Joan (June 24), soak it with kerosene, light it with a match, build up a head of steam and then leap over it. The second is to buy one of the 120,000 tickets to an F.C. Barcelona soccer game, where anyone can become a hero during any game against Real Madrid if he has a cigarette lighter and a Spanish flag. But the third and most common way is simply to lift one's leg over the scat of a motorcycle. Motorcyclists in Barcelona dart like rabbits and slither like eels, goosing rear bumpers and cuffing side-view mirrors as they go.
Now the pedestrian signal is blinking, signaling that the traffic light is about to turn green. The phalanx of motorcycles guns its engines—RAUXA, RAAAUXA, RAAAAAAAAUXA!—and off they roar. The last off the starting line is a small, dirty red motorcycle driven by a handsome old man in a leather apron and a blue smock.
He pulls over at the next corner and pushes down the kickstand. From his smock pocket he pulls out a small panpipe and runs it across his lips, left to right and back again, producing an odd little tune. A restaurant door opens nearby, and a chef walks out carrying a bucket of knives. Then a woman carrying a plastic bag full of knives emerges from the adjacent apartment building. The old man revs the engine of the motorcycle. Two stone wheels behind his seat, which are attached by a belt to the whirring engine, begin to spin. He takes a knife into his thick, dark, callused hand, the palm creased by scars that curve as gracefully as the life lines. He bends and presses the knife edge to one of the spinning stones. Sparks shower his stomach, neck and chin. "My father was a sharpener, and his father, too," he says. "My nephew, my cousin and two brothers-in-law are sharpeners. You do not learn how to do this. You suckle it."
Los de las Chispas, they are called in Spanish. "Those of the Sparks." About 30 of them, mostly old men and all from Galicia, in northwestern Spain, putter around the streets of Barcelona each day, playing the little pan flutes they call pitos to alert Those of the Dull Knives. And when people see them pass, they turn to each other and say, "Tomorrow it will rain," because in Galicia the mountains are green and furry with pines, and the rain clouds rolling across the Atlantic cannot resist them. The afiladores (sharpeners) were part of a massive influx of immigrants driven by poverty into Barcelona from villages and farms all across Spain in the 1950s and '60s, serving Franco's purposes by diluting the gene pool of the recalcitrant Catalans. Today only half of the city's 1.7 million residents are considered true Catalans. They are the movers and shakers, the suits and ties, but it is the sons of men from Andalusia and Castile who pave the new ring roads circling the city and rivet the steel beams of the gleaming office buildings and Olympic sites; it is old men from Galicia who sharpen the knives for restaurants and bars where Catalan executives sit until one or two in the morning of a working day, fueling the night with coffee and cava, the local champagne.
In '51, when Antonio Gómez first arrived in Barcelona, he was so poor that he and three other afiladores sometimes poured half a bottle of wine onto a round piece of bread, quartered it and called it lunch. In those days Antonio pushed a cart through the streets, pumping the grinding stone into action with a foot pedal. In the '60s he progressed to a bicycle, in the '70s to a motorcycle, and today, at 62, he owns an apartment on Montjuïc and a home in his Galician village of 10 people, where he spends each August. "Why stay for the Olympics?" he asks. "Will the people who come bring knives?"
He walks the bucket of sharpened knives back to the chef in the restaurant, limping from an accident seven years ago in which a car shattered his leg in three places. He doesn't even glance up at the medieval and Modernist architecture.
"Only three things interest me," he says. "Family, work and eating. Nothing else. My life is making sparks. I know everyone in the street—it is like my house." Antonio's grin widens his mustache; his whole face glows. "Everyone is my friend. I always have a knife in my hand."
is going to the oldest place. The place where the streets become so narrow that a tall man might stretch his arms and almost touch the houses on either side. The place where underwear and socks hang from clotheslines on every balcony and bushy ferns spill between the wrought-iron railings. The place where shadow and light play upon colorful ceramic tiles set into the walls, telling picture stories of characters who once walked the streets of the Gothic Quarter.
Enric, 48, is a bank administrator for 5½ days a week, but now, on Sunday morning, all the tension of his job, all the numbers in his head, are leaking out of him. Traditional Catalan sardana music is pouring through his car speakers from the tape cassette he smuggles into his bank on Saturday mornings and pops into the stereo in place of the Monday-to-Friday Muzak. He parks as close as he can to the Pla de la Seu, the big plaza in front of the city's massive, gloomy cathedral, and steps out. To the oldest place in Barcelona he goes, to the walls of the church constructed on the site of the first Christian basilica, built by Romans 1,500 years ago. To the oldest place inside himself.
The plaza outside the church is filling with people who clutch plastic bags containing flat-sole matweed shoes called espardenyes. Enric remembers how, only a few decades ago, people like these used to make fleeting eye contact on Sundays like this, five minutes before noon. He remembers how they used to lower their voices and say to one another:
"No se." ("I don't know.")
"Què diu?" ("What's up?")
"A veura . . . a veura." ("Let's see . . . let's see.")
He remembers them all peering around for any sign of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish police who enforced Franco's whims. Hesitantly, on the days when they were certain no guard was around, the musicians would materialize, and the people would form a circle and join hands. With fear and defiance trembling in their hearts, they would begin their great-great-grandparents' dance, the sardana.
Enric remembers the evenings when too many sardana-less Sundays had passed, and he would walk into a library, pretend at first to read, then slip downstairs into the basement, where a cobla of 13 musicians was waiting. There, too, they would dance the Catalan dance in secret, one ear lost to the music, the other cocked to hear the warning from the watchman at the door should a stranger approach. "Impotente" Enric says now. "I remember feeling so impotente. This dance had been ours for generations, and we could not do it. Why?"
But now sunlight is flooding the plaza, and the geese on the pond inside the cathedral cloisters are honking, and all those who have come to dance are chatting or changing from their street shoes into their espardenyes, waiting for the 13 musicians in suits and ties to finish clearing the throats of their instruments. Every Sunday at noon and most Saturdays at 7 p.m., the locals gather here to perform the dance whose roots go back centuries to Catalan peasants in the Pyrenees. Enric is telling me about the file system he has made listing every sardana song, its composer and year of composition, and how he's converting it all from index cards to a computer program. He's telling me about the album of his own photographs of Modernist buildings in Barcelona, each complete with architect, address and date of construction.
"We Catalans are collectors," he says. "Even when we come home from work to relax, we keep working. Our culture has been threatened so many times, we are in a state of alert to protect it."
Around him circles are forming. Some are groups of teenage competitive dancers here to practice, their trainers barking criticism if their hands are not all held at the same height. Some circles consist purely of white hairs, others are a mèlange of young women in short, tight dresses and old men who have put aside canes, of children and of tourists who will soon discover that the steps are far more complicated than they appear.
Enric lives for this moment. Once he drove 250 miles to dance sardana, got back in the car and drove home. During vacations he checks the newspaper listings and travels to towns as far as 80 miles away to dance—one locale in the morning, another in the evening. It is no sweat for him to lose five pounds by dancing six hours of sardana on a Sunday. "It is a dance of brotherhood," he explains. "We hold hands. We do not separate for the entire song. We are a wheel, but an open wheel. Anyone may join. I am realized when I do this dance. I feel Catalan."
Twelve years ago he tore the cartilage in a knee in middance but continued bouncing for the last five minutes of the song; the sanctity of the sardana could not be violated. Nor could he go to the doctor afterward, for he had tickets to attend a sardana concert at the ferociously ornate Palau de la Música Catalan, another of the city's astonishing Modernist buildings. It was only when his leg instinctively began tapping to the music in the theater that night, and his knee screamed, that Enric surrendered.
"Pot?" he is saying now. "May I?" This is the etiquette of the sardana. The people around him nod, and he lays his jacket in the center with theirs, forming a hub for the circle. The dance must start—and end—with the left foot. The dancers must remain silent. Each song contains a specific number of short and long steps, backward and forward steps, little jumps and big jumps, requiring a precision that the soul of other Spaniards would howl against. "Look at you Catalans," one of them once told Enric. "Even when you dance, you count."
"Dos dosos i un tres!" ("Two twos and a three!") calls Enric. He is the counter for his circle, calling out the changes in steps. Every face around him is composed, every gaze inward. "It looks like we are not having fun," he says later. "But we are."
On the 41st step, he calls, "Al tres, salt petit!" ("On three, little jump!") The 12 circles keep widening as new dancers join, the piles of bags and jackets in the center of each wheel growing taller.
"Salt fort!" ("Strong jump!") Enric calls on the 63rd step.
The whole plaza rises and ebbs. Enric's eyes go far away. On his lips there is almost, almost a smile. "We are recovering," he says. "Recovering all that time when we could not dance our dance."
On the night of St. James
In the year '35
There was a big dust-up
Inside the bullring.
Out came three bulls,
Every one of them bad:
And that was the reason
For burning the convents.
—Catalan street ditty
Once upon a time
there was a riverbed. It went dry when summer came, but when the rain clouds returned, the gully filled with puddles, and then the puddles became a stream, and sometimes the stream gurgled and rushed to the sea: a river.
On the edge of the stream the king built a wall around his city. The riverbed became a moat, then a sewage drain for the crowded city. Centuries passed, and the city outgrew its walls. People began filling in the gully, first with dirt, then with cobblestones. The riverbed became a street. Las Ramblas, the residents called it, for rambla means riverbed in Arabic, and centuries earlier the city had been occupied by the Moors. Tall, lovely trees lined the street, growth spurred by the dung of the people's ancestors.
Convents also lined the street; one of them was named Sant Josep. In July 1835, when the people were in ill temper with their leaders and the clergy that supported them, a bullfight was held to celebrate the queen's birthday. The afternoon was hot, and the bulls were bad, and the people began throwing benches and trash into the arena. Someone jumped into the ring and knotted a rope around the horns of a dying bull, dragging it and the mob to the convents of Las Ramblas. There were speeches, then stones, then flames. When the dense veil of smoke cleared weeks later, the convents and churches were ashes and rubble.
In the empty place where the nuns of Sant Josep once lived, the people began selling fruits and vegetables, cheese and meat. Soon the market became so popular that the city built a vast roof over it, with color-spangled stained glass around the roof's edge, and called it the Mercat de Sant Josep, but the people called it La Boqueria, after the plaza of the same name nearby. La Boqueria would become more than a market, it would become a city unto itself. Today it contains nearly 1,000 stalls, 20 bars, a restaurant, an automated teller machine and the entrance to a bank. Laundry hangs on the second-floor balconies of the apartments that line two sides of the market. The local authorities have declared La Boqueria a city monument. Sacrilege is not always such a bad thing.
Baskets bursting with the bloodiest red tomatoes, the greenest green beans, the purplest plums; vats heaped with lentils and grains and nuts and seeds and olives; hooks heavy with flayed lambs and pigs and rabbits and with bulls killed in the arena on Sundays; aisles frantic with tattooed men rolling crates of lettuce and eggs and mushrooms and mangoes and mussels through the slush of melting ice; air ripe with the smell of raw meat and old cheese and fresh fish hacked by the hmmffff knives striking gristle and bone and wood.
At the heart of it all are the fish stalls. In number 793 stands a dark-haired girl, one of the youngest fishmongers, wiping fish guts off her hand with a receipt and flinging it to the floor. No time to waste—the fish are rotting. Nuts and grains last a month, fruit and vegetables a week, meat four days, but fish . . . whewwww—two or three days, and even the one-eared tomcats wrinkle their noses.
Ana Chicano gazes at the battalion of bottle blondes selling fish all around her, their earrings and hair clips and rings glinting in the fluorescent light, their mascara and eyeliner melting in the heat, their painted fingernails flying from squid to sea snails, their frilly aprons freckled with blood. She's daydreaming about Richard Gere.
She's only 21. She had wanted to become a hairdresser or a secretary or a masseuse, not what her mother and her mother's mother and her mother's mother's mother were; how did she end up in this salty, squawking sorority of fishmongers? The meat vendors aren't wearing makeup or earrings or flowery aprons. The fruit sellers aren't chirping, "What do you want, queen?" or, "Why don't you ever buy from me, handsome?" at every customer who walks past. The egg and cheese and nut merchants aren't blondes. Only the fishmongers. Seny, seny, seny. Sell, sell, sell. It's like Ana's mother says, "We have to sell quicker than anyone else. We have to work more hours than a clock. We have to have charisma and look good for the customers. We cannot have gray hairs. The fish are rotting."
"Christmas trees," says Francisca Sibera, the old fishmonger a few stalls away, batting her blue-lidded eyes. "We fish vendors have to look like Christmas trees. How do I look? Be careful, I'll cut off your ass with this knife."
Picasso used to stroll through these stalls after a day of painting. A fishmonger would squawk, "Why aren't you buying, handsome?" and he would squawk back, "Because your fish are rotten," and she would spit, "No, it's you who is rotten," and then it would get truly serious, and everyone would try not to laugh.
Ana sighs. She's daydreaming about Carnival in Rio, the women shaking their bodies, the handsome men writhing around them. She won't dye her dark hair like the rest of the fishmongers, she swears she won't. A kilo of bream you want? Bream's the enemy, its scales prick Ana's fingers, but no time to wince now, the fish are rotting and the customers are coming in waves—restaurateurs to select the evening special, housewives to fill their husbands' bellies, businessmen to clean the computer screens out of their heads, because there's no better place on earth to smellhearseetastetouch, to do everything but think. Tell me, prince, what do you want? The fish are rotting.
Ana hates this job. That's what she'll tell you when her mother rushes off for a smoke and a coffee. Ana likes this job. That's what she'll tell you when her mother rushes back. Somehow the two of them yo-yo around each other endlessly, from cutting block to scales to change box to fish, without ever bumping. Wet the fish down. Make them glisten. Make them sell. Somehow Ana's mother can hack and sweet-talk and keep watching the boy who's watching her daughter; there's no hiding that body of Ana's, even under that gut-speckled smock.
Ana checks the time. It's Saturday evening, nearly closing time. Her hands are swollen from the ice, her clothes reek of fish, her body sags from five straight days of awakening at 5:30 in the morning and working until nine at night. But tonight's her night to dance. Ana begins shoveling the ice off her table with a dustpan, fisting the octopus, hake and haddock back into the wooden crates. With a scrub brush and a bucket she begins disinfecting the table, the cutting board, the knives and the floor. Tonight her mother doesn't have to growl at her to clean up. She's going to race home, dash into the shower to suds off the smell, dry her hair while her mom irons the outfit that will make Ana shine like the shiniest hairdresser or secretary on the dance floor. Ana will put on the clothes, shout goodbye and pound down the steps, leaving her mother standing at the doorway feeling proud because her fishmonger has turned into a princess and uneasy because her princess won't come back until dawn.
They finish the cleanup. Ana's mother lights a cigarette, sticks it in her daughter's mouth and lights a second one for herself. They walk out of La Boqueria like two soldiers leaving a battlefield. They call back "Adèu, adèu" to the few remaining fish vendors and walk onto Las Ramblas, looking for a cab.
Dusk is falling over the street. No, this is not a street, it's a paved circus. Cars whip down either side, but the wide tree-lined center, 11 football fields long, is for Rastafarians, bankers, Dutchmen, Japanese, hookers, the homeless, the dignified, the deranged, the depraved. Not far from Ana, the Statue Lady is maintaining perfect stillness, the Loco of Las Ramblas is bopping kids on the head with a plastic caveman's club, an acrobat is diving blindfolded through a small hoop bristling with knives, a guitarist is playing acid rock, a harpist is playing classical. Men stare at the armada of naked bodies on the magazine covers in the giant news kiosks, parakeets screech from the cages of the bird vendors, lovers line up at the flower stalls to buy orchids and roses. Cops in bulletproof vests, clutching machine guns, scan the crowd for terrorists.
In a few weeks, just before the Olympics begin, 10 ocean liners will dock at the harbor at the bottom of this street, and thousands of passengers will debark and surge up Las Ramblas every day. The street will be a river again, swollen, gurgling, overflowing its banks. Ana looks down Las Ramblas, trying to imagine it, then shakes her head and hops into a cab. Let the fish rot. Let the rauxa roll.