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Sunday Sentiments

  • My big time in Barcelona

    Posted On November 21, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    I always look out of the window when the plane is landing. That’s partly because I’m scared but also because I’m anxious to see where I’m headed. However the half empty Swissair flight to Barcelona offered so much choice it was unsettling. As we flew down the Mediterranean coast, just along the littoral, I couldn’t make up my mind which side I wanted to be on. On the right, like a colourful spanish sombrero glinting in the early morning sun, lay the city. On the left the sea.

    It was the colours that helped me decide. Not of the city but the sea. Looking outwards from the shoreline the Mediterranean changed along a spectrum of blues and it happened in steps. Pale topaz, jade green, cobalt, navy and then, towards the far horizon, deep purple.

    “It looked so startling” I told Alexander Thomson, my host at News World, the television forum I had been invited to attend.

    “Startling is the right word” he replied. “And the sea food from the Mediterranean startles the stomach as well. Take my advice : look at the Mediterranean but don’t be tempted by its fruits de mers!”

    It transpires the beautiful Mediterranean is one of the world’s most polluted seas. Alexander had ignored his own sage advice and was suffering for it. He was anxious I shouldn’t make the same mistake.

    “Don’t worry” I reassured him. “I’m allergic to shell fish.”

    “Lucky you!”

    Well, that’s one way of putting it.

    Barcelona is a happy city and the Catalan are friendly, welcoming people.

    “What can I do to help you?” asked the lady at the Melia Confort Hotel reception.

    I wasn’t sure what to say. A thousand possible replies flashed through my mind but I hesitated in case I had misunderstood her. Judging by her smile I suspected I had.

    “What do you suggest?” I replied. Throwing the ball back in her court seemed a wise thing to do.

    “Well Sir” she began, producing a map and a small tourist guide book. “What about a walk through our city? Barcelona by night is beautiful and lively.”

    Thus it was I found myself walking the streets. At the city centre is La Rambla, a wide avenue, brightly-lit, thronged with youthful revellers and elderly post-prandial perambulators. The actual road, a dual carriageway, is narrow and cars pass in single file. But the pavements are broad. The central verge is enormous. It’s full of kiosks selling books, ice cream and birds.

    “Senor, Senor”, a voice rang out. I turned to find one of the stall-holders beckoning me. He was surrounded by cages and their inhabitants were chirruping joyously.

    He tried every language – Spanish, French, German – until he realised I only spoke English. But that didn’t fluster him.

    “Buy a bird. They are beautiful.”

    “What would I do with a bird?” I asked.

    “Ah Sir” he answered. “When a man asks such a question it shows there is something missing from his life!”

    There are three things you have to do in Barcelona. The first is try the local wine. It’s light, fruity, sparkling and mercifully inexpensive. The second is taste Catalan cuisine. The bits I liked were either full of garlic and olive oil or were the longest curliest sausages you have ever seen. But the third ….

    The third has to be seen and is hard to describe. It’s Antoni Gaudi’s incredible architecture. He was either mad or a genius and may be both. His designs are in all colours and shades, dreaming spires, flying buttresses, gargoyles and arches, columns and cascades, windows and sheer walls. The impact is one of awe-inspiring confusion.

    I visited The Temple de la Sagrada Familia around midnight. Against the deep black Mediterranean night it’s illuminated exterior looked haunted and hideous. It was so strange I started laughing but no one noticed. Wandering tourists laughing to themselves as they stare at Gaudi’s masterpiece is a sight the good people of Barcelona are accustomed to. That, after all, is everyone’s first response. Yet stay a little longer and you will soon change your mind.

    As I stood and stared I realised I was looking upon a unique creation. A challenge to tradition and convention and the loudest possible proclamation of individuality. If architecture can scream then this temple was shouting at all who passed by.

    “Look at me” it seemed to say. “You’ll never see anything like this again.”

    Now, believe it or not, Barcelona has taxies that remind you of India and is full of Pakistanis. The cabs are black and yellow but thankfully that’s as far as the resemblance goes. The drivers are polite, they cheerfully point out the sights and they return every peseta of change owing to you.

    The Pakistanis were more mysterious. What were so many of them doing here? North eastern Spain is not a common port of call for the average South Asian immigrant.

    “Spain mein dus hazaar Pakistani hein” Abdul Mohammad informed me. Six thousand of them, he added, lived in Barcelona. He’s from Sargodha but, as he pointed out, “only originally”. Abdul speaks fluent Spanish. His English requires help from his Urdu and probably vice versa too. That’s how deeply integrated he has become in his Catalan surroundings.

    “Jab aye the to paisa kamake lotne ka irada tha” he said. “But who wants to go back now?”

    We chatted for a while at his ice cream kiosk in old Barcelona. It’s just off Placa Reial and the locals seemed to be his friends. When I left I bid him khuda hafiz. His reply?

    “Viva Espanya!”

    The last thing I did in Barcelona was to hunt for a souvenir. Not the conventional picture book of the city nor a little replica of a famous monument but something that I could wear and, whenever I did, recall my visit. Clothes matter to me and most of my memories are associated with them.

    It was at the airport that I found what I thought would be suitable. A dark brown suede belt. Spain is famous for its leather and I have never seen – leave aside possessed – a suede belt. To be honest I was looking for something in black crocodile skin but when I found the suede version I realised that crocodile was far too common.

    I was lost deep in thought when the shop assistant walked up to me. At the time I was standing in front of the mirror admiring myself with the belt on. It suited me. I was determined to buy it.

    “Have you found something you like, Sir?” she asked or at least that’s how I interpreted her Spanish-accented English.

    “Yes, this belt” I answered. “I’ve always wanted something in Spanish leather.”

    “And you want to buy it?”

    “Yes please.”

    So I handed her the money and she rolled up the belt and popped it into the most elegant plastic container I’ve ever seen a belt put into.

    “Thank you” I said.

    “Pleasure” she replied. “If you like Italian things you must one day visit our main shop in Milano.”

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