Barcelona is a lovely city with hills on its sides and the Mediterranean Sea just in front of it. The old city is surrounded by a fortress and is darker and older inside. The modern Barcelona with a happy, peaceful feeling is romantic like a fairytale basking in sunshine. Yet, according to friends who lived there, there had been a lot of bloodshed in the last century even up to today, due to terrorism.
The daily life in Barcelona is prosperous, dynamic, enchanting, full of contrasts and delightful surprises. One of the surprises was the Chinatown.
Yes, did you know there is a Chinatown in Barcelona? Friends said it used to be a place with dirty, urine-smelling roads, call girls on benches waiting for customers in front of run-down buildings, and even a black woman or an African lady hanging from a window, inviting the passers-by .
The Chinatown in the Gothic quarter that I visited felt different to me. One relic from the past in that same neighborhood was a church with nicely refurbished interior but a dilapidated exterior; yet, still very beautiful, surrounded by carefully restored gray stone buildings. In fact, gray seemed to be dominant on all these cobblestone roads. Such a contrast to the rest of the city!
The gray color here had a shine to it even on the pale faces of the residents. On the narrow, crooked lanes, gray was even better accented by the bridge-like overpasses from building to building. Those ancient cobblestone lanes appeared to be subterranean, as if carved out of one long tunnel, with sunlight coming from above the overpasses. This melancholic panorama of dark against light, shadow against sunshine, eerie yet with poetry appeared as if it came from an artist's charcoal rendering.
On those stone buildings with their rough surfaces sticking out of the facades of the edifices, some of the stones were as big as boulders. The winding narrow lane, which the church was situated on, opened to a larger street with a bar-lounge where, I imagine, many Spanish and French poets and thinkers of the past sat to drink their absinthe, beer, or sangria.
A few steps later, things changed completely, for the other roads of the Barrio Chino (China Town) were comparable to the ones in New York City. Here, the streets were wider with many buildings stacked against each other, hosting many businesses and shops with colorful signs in Chinese, some also in Spanish and Catalan.
One day, I had the honor of visiting such a shop.
"The ice on the moon is much more abundant than they thought, did you know that? Si Senoras, inside the craters to the north of it," he said, folding the daily El Pais.
I was surprised that Pepe, the tall, dark, handsome owner of the interiors store – to where I had accompanied our hostess Delia to buy fabric – would suddenly come up with a remark like that, but then they were acquainted with each other . Delia worked on the same street where Pepe's shop was.
"At the moment, I'm interested in Barcelona but moon may be my next stop," I tried to say with my rusty Spanish, hoping the words did not come out crooked to mean something else. Sensing my hesitation, Delia nodded in approval.
"In that case, I'll tell you about Barcelona," Pepe said, pulling a bundle of folded fabrics down a shelf to reach to the green and blue damask cloth Delia had requested.
Pepe said that Barcelona was built about 200 years before Christ, believe it or not, by Hamilcar Barca, a general from Carthage who invaded the Roman lands by passing through the impassible mountains but failing at the end. I commented about remembering from my school days that the Romans had invaded Carthage and had razed down the city with salt.
Pepe laughed. "Women always like the gossip part of history." After he cut the fabric, he handed it over to Delia. "I held it with my fingertips, so I would not contaminate it for you," he said in a serious tone.
"Cut it out, Pepe," Delia replied, her face changing suddenly.
I did not say anything because what happened between them appeared to be private at the moment.
Pepe had to be interested in churches, since all he talked about were the churches in Barcelona, especially the Gothic Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, the one built as a monument to Columbus. He said another cathedral that was the most enormous but still under construction since the nineteenth century was the Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia but he called it la Sagrada in short.
From the tour bus a day before, I remembered seeing the curvy, ornate, and titanic La Sagrada. To me it looked scary and horrendous like a giant towering over its surroundings with its tall spires; it did not seem to be the fantastic building everyone raved about. Not that there is anything wrong with La Sagrada, but I just prefer small churches. The smaller they are, the cozier they seem.
Listening to Pepe, I had an uneasy feeling. He was not even speaking in Catalan but luckily in Castillian to us; yet, he was talking of something else other than the church's architecture. Probably, he wanted to mention the importance of churches to the city. I have not read the Bible in Spanish but I believe his speech was interspersed by quotations from it.
"Pepe knows so much about churches," I commented to Delia, once we were outside. "He seems to be so religious."
"Almost fanatical, but he was not always like this. Pepe has become a dedicated church goer; he never falters. The truth is, rather than a shop attendant, he is an artist. He works with gouache and is quite famous," delia said. Then, she added hesitantly, "He started up with the churches after the illness."
"He did not look sick to me," I said.
"He has Kaposi's Sarcoma, Sida (Aids) you know."
"Pepe's gay," Delia said. "He, unfortunately, thinks the end of the world came for him. So, now, he is addicted to religion."
To continue …