One of the great perks of my job (we call them “salary extension strategies”) is that I get to ride the school bus to school every weekday morning. It picks me up at a busy intersection in a posh district (or neighbourhood) about five minutes from our apartment. This is not just any bus… it is a sleek air-conditioned coach with lights and air-conditioning controls located on a console above each passenger’s head. Sometimes we watch a few minutes of “Friends” on the large video monitor. But I am getting ahead of myself…
One of my favourite parts of the day is the short walk to my bus stop and my 10 to 15 minutes of quality people-watching time in the small plaza (a small area or “square” with seats) nestled beside this intersection. As I always leave our apartment building at 7:55 a.m., take the same route through our neighbourhood, and arrive at the bus stop at exactly 8:02 a.m. (such a creature of habit), I frequently fall into the company of the same people also starting their day. The café at the corner is buzzing with the staccato conversation of office workers who have dashed in for a quick café con leche and a croissant. Billows of smoke (still legal in some Barcelona restaurants) envelop me as I pass the open door.
Once every couple of weeks, my route intersects the cleaning rotation for streets in my neighbourhood. The street cleaning is done by a branch of the city government or “ajuntament.” Our cleaning crews are known as “BC Neta” which is a fantastic pun; BCN is the short form for Barcelona and the word “neta” means neat or clean. They are, quite literally, keeping Barcelona clean. Typically, I encounter a team of two workers decked out in yellow hip-waders, rinsing the street down with an enormous hose. One worker moves ahead, picking up trash along the route, while the other directs the blast of water back and forth across the street with a miraculous degree of control. Imagine the well-heeled pedestrians, scurrying away from the high-powered spray like little children.
Sometimes, I arrive at the plaza to find a homeless man asleep on one of the benches lining the avenue. It seems that people in Barcelona do not get their knickers in a knot about the homeless. No one tries to wake the man, or thinks to give him a lecture about getting a job; they just accept that this guy is part of their community. We have seen evidence of this tolerance elsewhere in Europe. When DP and I were in Paris at Christmas last year, we overheard a very amusing conversation between a French woman and, perhaps, an American man at a little restaurant on Rue Cler. (I say “perhaps” because the man was speaking so quietly that we could not make out his accent). The French woman was explaining how tolerant the French were of the homeless… and how that was one of the many things that distinguished the French from the Americans. And she was YELLING about her degree of tolerance at a level that I would reserve for the evacuation of our school building.
As I wait for the bus, a small girl with long golden hair whizzes by me on her sleek silver scooter and, a minute later, her father rolls by, coming to a stop beside his daughter. Her school uniform is a navy blue pleated skirt paired with a yellow shirt and matching knee-high socks. This particular yellow falls somewhere between mustard and the sun. It’s hard for me to say exactly what is so charming about the scene of the little blonde girl and her father as he carries her heavy knapsack and escorts her onto the bus, greeting her little friends with two kisses, one on each cheek. perhaps, because the citizens of Barcelona are so famously cantankerous, the bus-boarding moments between this father and daughter allow me to see a side of this man that I would never witness by simply sitting near him on the metro. The adults of Barcelona are particularly sweet and goofy and demonstrative with their own children and the children of their friends. I often see fathers and grandfathers playing soccer with the kids of their clan. Other parents, pretending to be airplanes, zoom around their kids on busy sidewalks making all of the appropriate jet plane noises. With their children, it seems that the parents and grandparents of Barcelona are not afraid to be joyful. Or vulnerable.
I am not at all sure where this Barcelona crankiness comes from; it is hard to know if it pre-dates Franco or not. But there is no denying it; they are an extremely grouchy people. The exception to this, of course, is that with their circle of intimates, the people of Catalunya (the province of which Barcelona is the capital) are affectionate and open. Strangers, however, are of little value. No time or energy is wasted on a person not already known. A foreign teacher-friend from school was telling me that as she waited at a bus stop one day, an older woman started chatting with her in Spanish. In the eight weeks she had been in Barcelona, this was the teacher’s first casual conversation with a stranger and she was both surprised and delighted with the encounter. When the teacher asked the older woman if she was from Barcelona, the woman laughed aloud and said, “No. I am from Andalucia in the south. If I were from Barcelona, I think I would not be sitting here talking with a stranger.” This is exactly what the teacher has been thinking.
The emphasis on ones circle of intimates was also a fact of life in Monterrey but, because the national personality of Mexico is much friendlier, it was easier for a foreigner to feel accepted on some level. I remember, when I taught in Colombia, a grade 10 student commented, “What we don’t understand is why you Americans (as in North Americans) are so friendly to people you don’t even know and SO cold to your friends and family.” Perspective is a beautiful thing. Finally, I am beginning to understand how some Mexicans and Colombians felt about me: SO uptight… so worried about the little things. I actually find myself yearning to whisper into these Barcelona ears, “Lighten up! Why are you taking yourselves SO seriously?” This would not go well… I promise that I shall refrain. With time, I will understand more.
Every morning, I see a 40-something man and woman walking their dog. The dog is short and round but, not being a dog person, I have no idea what breed it is. What does catch my attention, however, is that these people seem to be practicing a strange new brand of EXTREME couples’ therapy as their dog scratches and pees its way along the grand avenue. They are always talking about their relationship, analyzing every single word that has been uttered and discussing what was actually meant. Last Friday, as they neared the bus stop, the woman began sobbing uncontrollably; tears streamed down her face and she did nothing to stop them. The dog was off pissing on a tree. The woman’s partner pulled out his newspaper from under his arm and began reading. Today, they weren’t talking at all which may be a new stage of their therapy…
These are some of my morning people.