Monday, August 29, 2016

A Walk Down Bitter Street

This is why I travel.

On Sunday afternoon, Mary and I took a walking tour of the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, in Barcelona.  The streets are narrow, and paved with stone.  Some of the buildings here date back to the 12th Century, or earlier.  There are remnants of a wall and an aqueduct constructed by the Romans when they founded the city of Barcino around 15 BC.  Some of the buildings, like the Church of Santa Anna, (12th C.) retain their original look.  Others, like the Cathedral of Barcelona appear as a patchwork of styles built over centuries.  The old coexists with the older, and all of it coexists with the new - the bars and restaurants, the tee-shirt shops, the tourists with their iPhones - though if these buildings could talk, I suspect they might wish we would hurry up and be replaced by whatever comes next, since they have seen, and mostly survived, everything for hundreds of years.

At one point, early in the afternoon, we closed our guide book and, instead of returning to the main thoroughfare and the next site to see, we followed the narrow, winding street - Carrer de Montsis (“Carrer” is Catalan for “street”, like “Calle” in Spanish) - just to see what was ahead.  After a few steps, we reached the point where Carrer de Montsis met Carrer de Amargos.  Hanging on the wall at the intersection was a sign made of painted tile.


We stopped to read it, and were attempting to translate, when an old man approached us.  He was wearing a bright red shirt and carrying a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, like he was returning from the market with a bottle of wine for dinner.  He spoke first, and it took us a few brief exchanges before he switched to English.  He guessed that we were trying to understand the words on the sign and said, “It’s Catalan”, indicating the regional language of Catalunya, “I put it there.  And another one down there.”  He pointed at a spot on the wall down the Carrer Amargos where another sign hung.

“I have lived on this street my whole life.  I was born in #7 and now I live in #12.  And I’m 91 years old.”  He said something that I didn’t understand about the Queen of Spain.  I think she
 was the inspiration for the signs.  He struggled to find the right words, telling us that the sign said something like “the street will embrace you”.  

His English was halting, but far better than my Spanish.  I asked him his name.  He told us his name was Emile, and that he had been a photographer, working over 40 years in a small shop at the other end of the street.  He said he had spent many nights developing film, making and developing prints, holding them up in the red light of the darkroom and marveling as the black and white images appeared on the paper.  He told us that every day he wrote two or three letters and sent them to friends.  “Not the rat a tat a tat”, he said, mimicking the motion of typing on a keyboard.  “I write like this”, and his hand moved as if gliding over paper with a pen.

We told him that this was our first visit to Barcelona and he told us he hoped we would enjoy it and come back again.  Then he shook our hands, with a grip stronger than any I have encountered in years.  He smiled, kissed the back of Mary’s hand, and walked off down the street.

When we returned to our apartment late in the day, I was determined to understand the words on the sign.  I leaned heavily on Google Translate to get the basics of Catalan to English.  Then I used a bit of poetic license to capture the meaning that I think Emile was trying to impart to us.  The street name, Carrer Amargos, translates literally as “Bitter Street”.  His sign, I believe, means this:

  “Pedestrian, do not stay long on Bitter Street, for you will find it to be not bitter, but a place that will embrace you.”

A place that may embrace you for 91 years.  A lifetime.  I think we are all looking for our home on Bitter Street.  It’s nice to have met someone who lives there.

This is why I travel.