Mercè Ibarz explores the mysterious origins of Alleyway S, a street whose myriad transformations mirror those of Barcelona.
Of all the streets I venture through in the city, none has offered me as much joy as Alleyway S, or as much sorrow. I even think, because sometimes you can say you think at the same time you feel something, that the joy that gradually filled me as I headed there was a prelude to the sorrow that awaited me, that awaits me there, and perhaps always will. The street was invented many years ago, when no one wished to claim the mountain that rises from the sea to crown the city, and at its foot sprang up a fretwork of houses and huts with dark, shrunken gardens, often airless—at least from the perspective of the trees that would be planted there. Such were the constructions and fantasies of laborers. The houses were squeezed in next to each other, until the city was forced to give a name to what was, finally, a street, even if it had not been laid out by the authorities. Right and left and at the bottom of the street, the houses gave themselves numbers, and the passageway appeared in street guides. No one knows who S was or why an invented street was so named.
The houses were built in the evenings, on Sundays, in the early mornings, by pioneers who never knew what it was to have a vacation or enjoy a weekend off. They never struggled for lack of work, something hard to imagine today when sustained employment is so rare. They knew only work, always work. No need to give much thought to the provenance of the building materials. But if you insist, we can explain. They came from construction sites where the men or family acquaintances worked; from the proprietors of stately homes where the wives cleaned; from houses that had been abandoned in the earlier years of expropriations and the owners had fled; from wholesalers the men knew through work. And from quarries along the coast that were mined, day and night, during the days of the Great War of 1914 and further exploited after their own war of 1936. Most of those who built the street had survived this war in other parts, other lands, from whence they fled when it ended, for nothing was left and work beckoned them to the city of the mountain by the sea. They all remember what their lives were like when they first arrived. We know they lived in shacks in the beginning; later a few of them moved to the other side of the mountain when the more daring among them first began to open up the passageway. They built the street on the side of the mountain that had witnessed the death of so many: relatives and friends of old people from neighborhoods both near and far; natives of the city by the sea; nameless people who were executed and buried in the cemetery on the mountain. The houses are cheerful, mischievous, each an ode to its own style. One of the gardens still houses an air-raid shelter.
When I arrived that first day, I stared at the house that was to be like my own—because the person who would live there knew my memories—and I took a picture of it. The garage door was Tunisian blue, the traffic sign red, the tree stunted—a musty shade of green—the sun blazing, the letters of the message scribbled on the Tunisian blue, black: Maria Soledat / do not weep for one / day the flowers / of love / will bloom. To the left and above the message was a yellow paper advertising the sale of an apartment. After taking the picture, I read the painted message again. Flowers of love. Will bloom. One day. Do not weep. Maria Soledat. Farther up the street on the right, Alleyway S awaited me, its cats huddled at the edges, its terraces planted with lemon trees, palm trees, winter cherry, bougainvillea and—I could glimpse it already—the olive tree.
As I walk by it now, the picture comes back to me. The door to the garage is no longer Tunisian blue, the painted message is gone. This is not an excursion I should take; it is painful: things are not as they were when the flowers of love were still expected to bloom. Many tears have flowed since then; perhaps that is why the flowers never bloomed. The anonymous hand that once offered hope and advice knew what it was talking about, but we didn’t believe it. And yet, even now the street comforts me. As I look back at a past that no longer exists—fish-memory is short, and in this part of town we are close to the sea—the present summons me. It does so of its own accord, without warning, quiet and at the same time as dense as the scribbling over the Tunisian blue so many years ago. I am seated by a door. It is narrow and low, as if to offer a secret passage to someone in great haste. In earlier times it must have been the entrance to a warehouse that wished to remain inconspicuous, discreet. The door is open.
Without my noticing it, someone has leaned out and placed a camp stove on the street; the sounds of a conversation I do not understand issue from inside. They do not yell, it just seems that they do. Their speech has the gruff melody of fatigue or hunger, of malicious humor that guards against resentment and infuses air into weary chests. Ancient phonetics that have never been schooled, only trained. Three children come running out, as two tall, wiry young men make their way down the street and duck inside, as if entering a fairytale or a vampire story. For those of us who have lived in this city for a while, or always, or for many years, the streets have become more and more opaque. I do not understand the myriad uses of these houses and streets. If it were not for this moral excursion—let’s call it that—I couldn’t even imagine them; it would be as if this narrow door did not exist. Perhaps a few years from now, several no doubt, as people pass through this door without noticing me, as if I were the one who did not exist, sitting here on the curb, this threshold will open up, yielding a name and a passageway into a street whose movements we cannot imagine. I’d like to look inside, but I don’t.
Right now I would love a coffee—a Coke, even.
No need to make a big fuss, for heaven’s sake; this is how the city has developed since time immemorial. It’s nice to look up from where I am sitting. To the left, opposite Alleyway S, begins one of those lanes—they are rare but still exist—that reminds us that the remote past is not really so distant. You would think you were in the Orient, in the East, Near, Middle or Far, it matters not. I turn into the lane. The walls on either side are of mud and stone, cool in summer, as they are now. There are no houses. The lane curves around, leading up to the mountain roads. One has the impression that the clandestine laborers who settled the side of the mountain spared it precisely because it offered shade in summer. Perhaps they gave it the shape of a curve, or of a tunnel with no ceiling, to facilitate the movement of goods that could flow along its diagonal, straight through the narrow door where I sit, a door to the past and the future.
I am moving farther away from Alleyway S. Not much, just enough to see it in perspective. From here, from this oriental lane—she had traveled in the East and said it was like being in Damascus—I am reminded of our conversations, our meals together, the silences, fears and jokes, our indignation and laughter when reading the newspapers, the surprise of living. We watered the garden while we smoked, and she cooked. There are moments in friendships that are like this street of streets. It is not my intention to resort to pompous images; I’m just being truthful. To visit Alleyway S was to enter and not emerge for many hours, and on leaving you realized you had journeyed through time and across an excessive geography that spanned from the street to the coast, the coast to the airport, the airport to the Orient—far away, where they make tea with burnt sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom—only to end up again in the neighborhood, where, before heading back to work—no escaping that—we would order paella at Elche, near the windmill-shaped cabaret with the neon lights. We can do that some other day, we said, now we have your cannelloni, the spongy crayfish, the tomatoes from the farmer in El Prat, the white wine I remembered to bring today, the chilled champagne that awaits dessert, the cigarette you are already rolling, you shouldn’t smoke so much, give it here. Careful, your asthma.
Ah, if only we had been able to go on like that. Someone knocked at the door and it was the boy who was top of the class at hairdressing school, come to do your hair in the latest style. He gave you the news about high school friends, family, the neighborhood, the job his father didn’t have and his mother invented. He shot me a suspicious glance, you introduced me perfunctorily, we stared at each other with distrust, each ignoring the other. He had an exquisite androgynous look about him, transsexual almost, like a self-reliant animal. What a bore, I thought, her always playing Mother Teresa. If I want delectable treats I must put up with tales from blue-collar suburbia, where only losers seem to live, even if some of them can do your hair. Pleasure drives cynicism, your cooking had that flaw. You realized it, but didn’t care. The pleasure you gave us blinded us. Self-indulgent, all of us. So I would go out into the garden, leaving the hairdresser and the girl from Calcutta to their own devices. The table had been cleared, it was time for dessert—champagne would suffice. I followed the conversation from the garden. I would turn off the hose, sit down beside the bignonia, by the large window, and listen. The loser with the hair scissors had a gift for storytelling. The more he flaunted his gift, meant for her ears alone, the better he got. I too was part of the story, my back to it, ears pricked up; the narrator, happy to be observed by her powerful eyes, her encouraging smile, her sarcastic and benevolent intelligence. He made observations, qualified them, and in all respects she received him exactly the way he needed. Once he finished the story he had gone to tell her, in a flash he would leave her hair looking stupendous, smoke another cigarette she had prepared for him, gulp down some tea whether he liked it or not, drink a glass of champagne, emerge by the garden door, greet me mechanically, and depart. Not for one moment had he forgotten about me, I knew that from previous visits; but he only addressed the rest of us when he arrived or left. She would accompany him to the door and continue to ask him about school, family, friends, the end-of-term trip they were planning to take, whether he could afford it, and that they would discuss it later.
I grew accustomed to the rhythm of the house on the alleyway, though it didn’t always suit me. I knew I would always find someone who had come to visit, or someone would happen to drop by. But if I wanted to see her, I had to go there. It was impossible to get her to come to my place; my cooking (it’s not bad, I don’t want to brag, but I’d like it to be noted) was never good enough, and she said as much, she didn’t keep it to herself; she was a teacher, a good teacher, accustomed to giving grades, and she graded you, graded everything, left and right. She always got involved, didn’t hold back her opinion or assessment. That’s why she was feared by some and idolized by others. Everything was excessive, I can see that now. I’m referring to the manner in which she was excessive, without dwelling on those other moments of hers, the downtimes, which were persistent and cold, with no possibility of rebuttal. They too were excessive.
She did, however, find my opinions about decoration interesting, especially where color was concerned. On this topic she listened to me. But only about that, nothing else, stubborn as a timepiece, a machine, a sick person who knows too much. She agreed when I encouraged her to be daring with the wall color, but when the painters showed up, since they were suburban riffraff—from the fringes—she let them do what they wanted. It was pointless for me to insist that the bad taste and conventionalisms of what used to be known as the “popular classes”—the working class—were abominable and perhaps explained many of their historical plights—and ours, for that is our heritage too. It was futile. The exurban painters were the only oracles she listened to. The colors they chose were, of course, neither fish nor fowl. And they did not suit the house on that invented street.
That was when I told her I’d had enough, it was great to praise my taste and decorative criteria but look at the walls she had allowed to be painted. She was like that in everything, I said. She listened only to the voices she deemed telluric and deep, which often were full of prejudices, lacking in courage; and yet she thought they sprang from the wellspring of history and should be abided by for that reason alone, as if the mother of god had spoken. Imagine that! Who would have expected it from a secondary school history teacher in the urban periphery? So we could agree: the present is not history and she was incapable of accepting that the working classes have adopted market aesthetics and distrust anything that does not appear on television. And often, the more dim-witted the person, the more interesting she found them. In every respect. And perhaps I wasn’t dim-witted enough for her. We were in the garden, smoking and drinking sparkling water, while the cat lunched on a plate of clams I would have wished for myself. She glanced at me over her glasses, wide-eyed, hard and superior, ready for a showdown. Preemptively, so she wouldn’t open the window of her eyes any further, I invoked Pasolini and his conceptual rigor. She too adored the poet. She because of his depiction of the underworld, I for other reasons. What do you mean? she asked, taking a sip of water and lowering her eyes. We need to live out our fantasies and beliefs, she said; it’s true, but it’s difficult. It takes so much out of you. You are left with nothing, no strength, no nothing.
Since she was prone to melodrama, in the ironic bent of the great Magnani, I didn’t pursue the conversation. In order to justify the painters’ choice—the painters from the outskirts who had ruined her decor but nevertheless had a Pasolinian air about them—she was capable of the most ludicrous arguments. Such as saying that life was draining her of every ounce of strength, when all we were doing was discussing the color of the walls. She continued to smoke and I began to water the garden.
The mud and stone alley ends in a curve that runs into a street and a large house with a garden. Behind the house, the mountain. I head there again. I walk down the street, turn to the left and enter Alleyway S.
A few days later, a Saturday afternoon, she phoned. Something she rarely did. So rare was it that I teased her, asked if she was ill, if something had happened. She laughed. Strange as it may sound, I’m calling to suggest we go somewhere, like we used to. To India, perhaps? I asked. Well, I wouldn’t claim it doesn’t resemble one of the beaches in southern India. You absolutely have to see the summer huts on a beach near here, she declared, all seductive-like, as if she were teaching a class. Maybe then I would understand something of the city’s working-class history, the period after the shacks were erected and the street was opened up. You say such idiotic things about the aesthetics of resistance. The aesthetics of resistance, she said. If I had the car, it wasn’t too late to head out then.
The coastal routes are dreadful on the weekend, crowded with cars cruising up and down, day and night. I left the house at once. The traffic was calm: drivers were still having lunch or napping, depending on their age. The sea was to our left. We passed an enormous, impressive quarry of red earth and stones, where so many men and children were made to work after the war. She kept glancing at it, but didn’t say anything. Soon we would encounter one of Gaudi’s lesser-known buildings, and not as well maintained as the others.
She was anticlerical, in the old mold, with a sort of belligerent secularism that she exercised frequently, and with a very sharp tongue. But she admired the mystic who had built the cathedral of the poor, which anarchists and all manner of malcontents had respected during the burning of churches in the first decades of the twentieth century. Even so, she had never visited the cathedral. She hated the name, Sagrada Família, Holy Family. Maybe it was meant to be sarcastic, I said. No, unfortunately, it wasn’t, she responded. But we can be; we can use the name Sagrada Família in a mocking way, as a sarcastic metaphor. No, no we can’t, she said again.
She had sounded so sad that I tried to distract her by talking about the spiral staircase in Gaudí’s cathedral of the poor—which is now the cathedral of the tourists. Climbing up and down it makes you forget everything, you enter a spiral where time no longer flows, it is only present. That’s why I never go there, she said with a laugh.
We exited the motorway to the right, on to a road that led down to where the horizon became a tunnel under a bridge. We waited for the light to turn green and proceeded through the tunnel. The sea reappeared on the other side, and it was as if I had never seen it. Gathered around a large, sheltered cove, dependable, reserved and uncrowded, everything about it was welcoming. I do not remember the first time I saw the sea, I remember this sea.
I parked the car near a hotel, and got out, removed my shoes and made for the beach without waiting for her. I went straight into the water, swam until I could no longer, floated for a long time, and returned, dragging my feet through the sand. She was sipping a red vermouth and talking to a waiter.
That was when I noticed the summer huts. Green and white, wooden, built right on the sand, forming a coronet around the beach. If Dirk Bogarde, Silvana Mangano, and the boy who plays Tadzio in the film had suddenly appeared, I would not have been surprised. She flashed me a sardonic look. I didn’t need to tell her what was going through my mind; she was seeing the same film. The only thing missing was Visconti, not someone easy to emulate. When the movie first came out, we talked about it a lot. I was captivated by the Lido and the cabanas; the characters’ malaise distanced me from them, but it was what most interested her. Their intense suffering. She hadn’t always been like that, not at all. But she was now. And now she was incapable of doing anything to change her ways, her patterns of behavior, so we never talked about those things. She did the same: when she saw I was sad or worried, she tried to distract me. I like to make the most of other people’s words, drink them in when they sit well with me; I could not survive without it, but she couldn’t allow herself the same. When I wanted to conjure a kind of happiness she could accept, we spoke of Pasolini. It’s tragicomic and lucid. It’s not happy, but it makes you happy. Not always, she added. True. But with him, only social evils make you suffer. She laughed when I told her, yet again, that I was so affected by his last film that, when I came out, I went straight into a bar and devoured a tin of huge clams, like I used to do as a child.
A boy emerged from one of the green and white houses. He descended the wooden steps and entered the open basement on the sand. In these spaces, above which the houses are raised, people store sea and beach equipment: boats, bicycles, motorcycles. His was a well-stocked summer garage. There was a powerful new car. What do you think? I asked. Now explain to me why these shacks are part of the history of the aesthetics of resistance. I really want to know. She asked the waiter at the hotel restaurant for a menu and she ordered black rice, and white wine and cod fritters while we waited for the rice. I noticed they had a good-quality pomace brandy. I’d have a glass at the end of the meal.
Her face lit up when she began to speak and she kept the glow for quite a while. I could again see in her the face of a Circassian Begum, and I let her know by quoting Omar Khayyam, her favorite among all poets. A beauty that exceeds the bounds of memory and reverie. She knew the boy we had just caught a glimpse of, or rather she knew his grandparents; they were the same age as her parents, who still lived in the concierge’s ground-floor apartment in a neighborhood not far from the mountain. The boy’s grandparents had left the neighborhood when the car factory had begun to offer good jobs, lots of them; to work at the Seat factory was a big deal, I knew that much. The 1960s. The 1970s. The boy’s grandparents and her own parents had arrived quite young from the same village in Aragon, during the wave of migration of the 1920s, when the city held the 1929 World Fair at the foot and along the breasts of the mountain. They all lived in shacks for a short while, but were soon able to move to an established, solid, proper urban neighborhood. Her parents would never have imagined that their daughter would end up settling in one of the old squatter houses at the foot of the mountain, which at the time still lacked water and electricity, though not now, not since it has been regulated by the city and no new buildings are allowed. She smiled. I didn’t. Both of her parents were anarchists, two sharecroppers who had never known anything but manual labor. Her arrival wasn’t until much later. She was born when her parents were old, two people wasted and despondent after losing the war, confined in a concierge’s room, with neither the energy nor the age to work for Seat. I had always known this, and she didn’t rehash it now.
The little beach houses, she said after a calm silence, were the property of the first families that had worked in the car factory and their descendants, and also of nearby residents. She shot me a defiant look, her eyes feverish. They built them themselves; her father had helped the family of the boy we had just seen walk by. They built them all the same. Beneath the houses, a space for the Seat 600, and room enough to share the Sunday paella, to chat in the early morning when the temperature dropped or to sleep off hangovers and failed love affairs. Above it, a kitchenette and two bedrooms. At the backdoor, the latrine, the water closet. UNESCO had just included them on the World Heritage List, and now no one can sell them to build apartments, or even paint them differently. That’s why we’re here, to celebrate, she said.
The string of little houses, a beach tiara in the sand, dozed like an exhausted child after running and eating.
The rice arrived, black and thick, fragrant with cuttlefish, potent and delicate, we both said in unison as we tasted it. I ordered more wine. The time passed easefully as she offered details about the holidays of the working-class aristocrats of the Franco years, anti-Francoist at times, often disoriented or de-classed, uncomfortable with their unexpected welfare. The village chosen by the factory and the workers for their summer holidays did not approve of their arrival, much less of the wooden houses erected on the sand, which the locals would never have dared to imagine for themselves. The idea and the place—in short, the launching of the settlement with the little houses—capped a year of negotiations between managers and union leaders, following the example of the Fiat factory in Turin, Seat’s experienced parent company. Over the years, more than a few local villagers had wanted to buy one of the houses. She made a gesture of satisfaction, pushed her chair back from the table and gazed out at sea. But no one has ever sold, not one of the houses. If the owner dies without any descendants, someone from the same group of homeowners will purchase it, according to the stipulations in the first deeds.
An interesting story, I said. I ordered the glass of brandy, she a Marc de Champagne. It was past five in the afternoon and the beach was beginning to awaken after its nap. The boy we had seen before emerged accompanied by a young woman and an infant in a tricked-out, nicely coordinated stroller of the latest model. The young woman was wearing a stylish swimsuit.
The two of them made their way to a great umbrella planted in the sand, in front of the restaurant terrace, close to us. Beneath the parasol was another family of the same age, with another baby in another designer stroller.
The end-of-June sun wasn’t strong, but the young couples were careful to protect their little ones. They also flaunted for anyone who wished to see—us in this case—an extensive, no doubt costly sample of equipment and clothes. They had perfect bodies, with even tans that would be difficult to obtain if only at the beach. Toned muscles, flat stomachs, hair expertly cut and conditioned. The men dressed in black and work-smock blue, the women and children in bright colors that reminded one of the color-blocking of the sixties, with an added touch of elegance. The colors of India, don’t you think? Yes, she replied with a hesitant tone. They certainly seem to have it all, don’t they? I added, hoping to provoke her, I admit. The parasol and the towels are definitely cool, the beautiful children—straight out of a TV commercial—charming. What more could you say about them? She gave me an ill-humored look and lashed out as expected: What’s the matter? Aren’t they allowed that? Should only people from uptown neighborhoods be able to go to the gym? You didn’t know, señorita, that stylish clothing can be found everywhere in blue-collar suburbia, in all the little shops and market stalls? she asked sarcastically. You think only you can use face creams? She said it softly, seemingly calm but fast as a machine gun. I laughed. She was capable of contradicting herself, pretending to confuse a plebeian design with something from a boutique. She could certainly tell the two apart, but she never spent a penny in the shops uptown. She spent it on food and drinks, on smoking, reading, and laughing. On her friends. On her students. On trips.
The girls were sunning in silence, the babies didn’t stir. Only the boys were talking under the umbrella. The two were promising soccer players. At the youth academy run by Barça, a team that had built an international name for itself and had star players who drew huge salaries.
The guys talked, showing off their voices, not exactly yelling but as if wanting to stand out, a legacy of their ancestors that was reinforced by their status as would-be soccer stars. Their Catalan was mixed in with Spanish and English, the two languages they grew up with at home and at work. I started listening without paying attention to what they were saying, merely to the sounds they made. I enjoy hearing the Catalan that is the special, intimate language of children of migrant families; I find it a moving, ambiguous act of historical restitution. It must be for them too, I imagine. Their distorted and imprecise phonetics, the dissonant music of the words, that blended history as much as these beach houses or their grandparents’ past. And, like the music of the sixties, I thought to myself, it’s here to stay. They never take the initiative to speak Catalan in public, but like the indigenous population during the Franco years, they speak the language when they are alone, among friends, or, like now, when they find themselves back in the realm of adolescence, when they wished to learn the language their parents could not speak.
They are expressing a desire that perhaps they don’t even recognize, one that wants to be represented, I said. Or a frustration, she said.
They didn’t mind that we could hear them, they spoke without inhibition. The newspapers wouldn’t believe it, I said. Maybe because they never take an interest, she ventured, the papers don’t know what people talk about, nor do they want to know. We live in apartheids, she added as she watched them attentively.
The two soccer players were now discussing a party they had had the previous night on the beach.
Enough of this cheap sociology, she cautioned me, anticipating my decision not to listen to the boys any longer. We need more than that.
“Papa,” one of the girls under the umbrella called out.
She was holding her designer baby and addressing her husband, who was heading into the water. He ignored her.
“Papa,” the wife repeated.
The young soccer player turned around.
“Aren’t you going to say anything to your baby?” she asked, speaking in Spanish.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Which one do you think? You don’t even talk to me anymore . . .”
We packed up our things in silence and headed back to the city, the car windows rolled down. We stopped for a cigarette at the lookout above the beach that borders the motorway. So when are you taking me on another excursion? I asked. The sea isn’t good for my asthma, but if we don’t overdo it . . .
But she never did. She had tired. More than usual. She never called again, never picked up the phone, or responded to my emails. She took sick leave from school. She didn’t give up smoking. She gave up on us.
On the street, in Alleyway S, the olive tree still grows.
© Mercè Ibarz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Martha Tennent. All rights reserved.