Elizabeth, Jesus Christ, and the 10,000 francs in Budapest

7 Apr

On the intersection of Calle de Vilamari and Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, I passed a little old lady sitting on the pavement against an electricity box and sewing.

I walked past her and wondered. Then wondered some more. I turned around and went back.

She greeted me with a friendly smile. Her name was Elizabeth and she was from Switzerland.  Talking to Elizabeth was a process of sifting through several layers of sanity, three different languages and several layers of trust.

Layer 1

She claimed she didn’t speak much Spanish or English, but after a few more questions she spoke to me in a mixture of English and French. At first she told me she was a tourist visiting Barcelona and she was in the middle of a tour of Europe. She had the usual assortment of plastic bags and granny trolley stacked with the stuff of a rough sleeper. I didn’t want to offer her money if she didn’t want to admit she was homeless, so I asked her if she had eaten. She said she had had some bread and she had plenty of water. I offered to get her some food, but she turned it down with an embarrassed laugh. I decided to get her something anyway.

I returned from the shop.

Layer 2

“You’re back!” She clapped her hands in glee. This time she was more willing to talk. She pulled out a sheaf of papers on which she had written a mixture of her life story and the crazy stories which lived in her head. Each page is carefully cello-taped inside plastic sleeves. She was born in Switzerland in 1943. There was some reference to Catholics. There were the detailed instructions to find the man in the house in Budapest. Knock on his door and tell him you have come for the money, and he will give you 10,000 francs. She looks at me eagerly. “It’s for you. Go to him and ask.” The man in Budapest, his name is Jesus Christ.

I try to ask her where she normally sleeps. “Oh yes I have a place where I usually sleep. It’s not sure I always sleep there, but I try. Do you want to come and sleep too?” I try to explain about the soup runs done by Esperanca, but she doesn’t understand. She can’t or won’t tell me her usual spot. Part of me is relieved; she’s a crazy little old lady alone on the street, who giggles like a little girl, but she’s still got her guard up. Part of me is scared I’ll never find her again.

Layer 3

Then she brings out another paper. This one she’s written in Spanish, detailing money the bank took. She’s trying to claim this money back. I ask her if she has any family living in Switzerland. She doesn’t. I ask her if she has any family here, any children. Her smiling face crumbles. I backtrack hastily and distract her with a bit of Bank bashing.

Layer 4

The last paper she brings out has a drawing of three houses in a row. The one in the middle is the house she grew up in in Switzerland. Under the flanking houses she has written the names of the neighbours and their families and their occupations. She had three sisters and she was the oldest. She dissolves into cheeky laughter when I ask if she bossed them around.

Eventually I have to go. She has short cropped hair. Someone must have cut it for her right? Someone must be keeping an eye on her. Although she did nothing but laugh and giggle throughout our little encounter, Elizabeth has left a shadow. There’s a sick feeling in my belly and it’s not from the questionable bowl of free tapas my local chino bar provides.

Somewhere in the city there is a little seventy-one-year old lady with a sewing box and paper records of what’s left of her memories, sleeping on the street.

Today we’re young, our minds are intact and we stand tall and walk the earth like giants. What happens forty years from now, when the world is unrecognizable and so are we?

 

swiss hotel

Overheard on the street

29 Mar

It’s 2:30 a.m and I’m on my way home. In any other city this would mean the end of a big night. In Barcelona it means, I’m still mostly sober and I left the party early.

Three young American men are walking ahead of me and talking. Loudly.

Boy A: Look! Let’s just go to a club. And if we find some drugs near the club we DO THEM. Okay?

Boy B: Why don’t we go with my journalist friend?

Boy C: Where?

Boy B: She was going to meet some friends in Placa Reial and do drugs.

Boy C: What? Why didn’t we go with her?

Boy B: I don’t know.

Boy A: Dude she didn’t want us to come.

Boy B: No, no, she invited us. She did.

Boy A: She never sat with us in the bar.

Boy B: She was smoking outside okay.

Boy A: Like all the time dude! She did not want to be with you.

Boy B (in a subdued voice): I don’t think she was avoiding us….

Boy A: She was NOT IN TO YOU. You have to learn to read the signs, I’m telling you. Let’s just go to the club and FIND SOME DRUGS OKAY?

 


 

Ah youth! So what are the likely outcomes of their night? In ascending order of cost and danger, I think they are:

  1. If extremely lucky: They don’t find anyone selling drugs outside the club. Go inside, and are ripped-off buying 8 Euro glasses of nasty beer.
  2. If slightly lucky: They try to buy drugs from an undercover cop who busts them and takes them down to the police station.
  3. If slightly unlucky: They get robbed by one of the dealers or pickpockets outside the club.
  4. If extremely unlucky: They don’t find anyone selling drugs outside the club, go inside and under minimal encouragement from some pretty young thing, start buying 160 Euro bottles of crap cava.

 

21-And-Over-Movie1

 

 

Return of the body snatchers

27 Mar

This isn’t about Barcelona, but it’s one of the most fascinating talks I’ve heard this year.

Watch it if you like zombie body guards and mind control. I particularly like the brain surgeon wasp who unchecks the ‘run away’ button. Horrific beauty and ghastly tales!

 

 

 

sticker,375x360.u2

Howling at the wind

4 Mar

Step out on to the street tonight and the world has gone crazy.

Wooden shutters are smacking against balcony railings while plastic bags fly circles overhead. Pollen dunes are chasing my feet down the street and a hundred wind chimes are shouting silvery-tuned excitement.

A strange creature of a wind is rattling the city tonight, pushing over bins and breaking granny’s flowerpots. A low moan follows as it hurls itself down narrow stone pathways. The old buildings complaining at the manhandling.

Yet even as I’m staring open mouthed at this otherworldly spectacle, zipped into an arctic defying jacket with a scarf wrapped around my face, a man in T-shirt and shorts jogs past me. Oblivious to the madness raging around him, or simply determined not to interrupt his routine. The night seems populated with the normal side of humanity, and I seem to be alone in my wonder.
Where are all the feral people tonight? Tonight isn’t for sitting in and drinking tea. It’s a night for howling at the wind!

windy_night_by_hochuliya
Painting by Hochuliya.

Seeking a good-looking man in his 40s who rides a green Honda scoopy

1 Mar

HTC, the Taiwanese manufacturer of mobile phones and tablets is looking for a friendly local man who helped their CEO Peter Chou get to the Mobile World Congress on time.

On the 24th of February, Peter Chou jumped out of his taxi stuck in a traffic jam and asked the motorist zigzagging through the cars if he would take him to the conference. He very nicely agreed, and dropped the CEO off, refusing all offers of money and telling him he’d better run to catch his appointment.

It’s small. It’s trivial. Yet, it’s sweet. An act of kindness from a stranger.

If you are the motorist, or know someone who drives a green scoopy with a yellow licence plate, Peter Chou would really like you to get in touch. Email them at info@htc-one.es . 

 

scoopy_green

 

More on the story here.

Congratulations to Barclays Bank and the Mossos of Barcelona

20 Feb

Starting at 12:00 yesterday around 25 vans full of riot police (reports put the number of police at around 300) with the help of an extremely-cheap-to-fly helicopter invaded the squat and social center La Otra Carboneria and evicted its residents. The operation went on into the night with small groups of residents putting up resistance where they could and hundreds of protesters gathering outside the building.

It’s a relief that the operation was finally completed successfully and Barcelona will never again have to deal with an iconic landmark of community spirit and art. We don’t have to be shamed by the availability of free workshops on skills such as drawing and tailoring, educational talks and debates, space to hold dance and music classes, and even free food. This was a serious problem for the city, and frankly the city had supported it by doing nothing, for far too long. We are talking  about people living under shelter, being independent, holding their heads high and doing things for free because they believed society should be more human and giving. It’s enough to make your stomach turn.

The building had been occupied by La Otra Carboneria after it was abandoned by the estate agent FBEX Promo Inmobiliaria which went bankrupt. Since then the space has shown alarming signs of thriving and engaging local residents. The vice president of the neighborhood association of Sant Antoni, Toni Sanchez, had the gall to say that he actually liked the squat which provided an important free and open community space. Clearly a man of low principles and poor judgement.

A spokesperson from Barclays said, “What this beautiful city needs is more buildings with bricks in the doorways and more hollow-eyed people sleeping in those doorways. Barclays has always felt deep concern for homeless people, and we provide luxury sleeping accommodation for them by leaving our ATM booths unlocked during the night. This is provided absolutely free of cost by Barclays.”

Some misguided people who object to this eviction and destruction will be gathering to demonstrate at Placa Universidad tonight at 20:30. I may be there. 

My intelligence was a bit off, the demonstration in Placa Universidad happened yesterday but the usual Thursday community dinner is happening tonight outside the building.

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Residents suspended themselves from the roof of the building to protest their eviction. Photo courtesy of Thomas Tully.

Soap, toothbrushes and art school: surprises from the homeless of Barcelona

16 Feb

Last weekend, I met a homeless Indian man in Barcelona. He was bedded down with several other street companions in an ATM cubicle on Parallel. He thanked us for the food and jumpers in heavily accented but perfect English. He was from Delhi.

Another night we came across an attractive lady with a very cultured English accent who had attended art school in London. The streets are also full of middle aged working and middle class people, who have lost their homes to repossession. They’re desperately trying to maintain their dignity, and are often shy and slow to ask for things, only coming forward when it’s offered.

We were out as part of the efforts of Esperanca, a group started by some like-minded women who make sandwiches and soup for the homeless, and distribute it to them once or twice a week.

The group started in October, and has grown to 176 members with two groups who cover the Raval and the area around Estacio del Nord. Volunteers cook soup, make sandwiches and buy or donate warm clothing. Along these walks, we’ve discovered a few things:

  1. Having nothing doesn’t make people greedy: People frequently decline our offers of food or clothes. They’ve got a jumper and just eaten a sandwich. It’s enough for them.
  2. They share: Volunteers once watched a man take his cup of soup over to sleeping friend and hand it to  him. He didn’t come back and ask for another for himself, but was thrilled when they offered him another.
  3. Soap and other toiletries are in high demand: Faces light up when you ask them if they’d like a bar of soap or a tooth brush and some toothpaste.
  4. There are other groups of friends doing this in the city. Food for smile is one such group (mostly Spanish speaking) who go out distributing food five days a week.
  5. Walking around the city for a couple of hours is a surprisingly social activity and a great way to catch up with old friends or meet new friends. A little recovery vino at the end of the walk also helps.

The beauty of Esperanca is its emphasis on action. There were no meetings held, no committees formed, no over-thinking of the situation. A few women made some sandwiches, loaded up the granny trolleys and went out on to the streets.

If you’d like to get involved, there are many things you can do:

  1. Donate clothes: Any old warm clothes, socks, gloves, hats and jackets (all for men). Any unwanted blankets or sleeping bags.
  2. The next time you’re buying something at a clothing store or Decathlon, add in a pair of man size gloves or socks (1.50 – 2 Euros) to your shopping lot. It’s a donation with a small price and a big impact.
  3. Donate or better still make the food for one night. It costs around 10 Euros to make almost 27-30 little sandwiches, and around 5 Euros to make the soup.
  4. If you can’t afford to donate money how about helping with your time? The walks all last about 2 hours starting at 20:00 and are currently on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Newcomers are most welcome.
Esperanca

Two Esperanca groups enjoying an after walk drink together

the homeless of barcelona

Cycling: An inner dialogue

8 Feb

Hmm, doesn’t feel that heavy coming down the stairs. I must be growing stronger.

Hold it away from the tights. Maybe blue suede shoes weren’t such a good idea. Damn it’s heavy now. Last landing, hold on….and down.

(Wheezing)

Tights: undamaged. Tyres: still fat. Adjust clothes. Awkward wrestle through the heavy swing door onto the street. Right, you’re in the outside world now. Try to look like it’s easy.

Ha, it is easy! Not scary at all.

Please! Who do they think they are. Stupid racing bikes. I can catch up.

Jeeze where did they go?

Oh my thighs hurt. Slow. Slow. No need to cycle so fast. We’ve got a long way to go.

Which way should I go? Shit, I never know which is a one way street.

Oh no! Oh no! It’s a freaking one-way street.

Now I’m one of those jerks who cycle on the pavement. I’m so sorry!

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

Aghh slow people. Get out of the way! Where is my bell?!!

No bell. Shout a warning. Shout what? TO LATE!!!!!!!!!

Sorry!

Oh no, kids. DO NOT KNOCK OVER A KID. YOU WILL GET LYNCHED.

Oh god my thighs hurt! I can’t do this. I have to get off. I can walk the rest of the way.

Other people walk with bikes right? When they’re walking with pedestrian friends…..

No! Stay on the bike. Just across the road. Slow and steady.

Slowly, slowly. Stay on the bike!

There’s the cafe, OH THANK YOU SWEET JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

cycling-propaganda-posters-L-W6ssox
Poster by Melody Stone.

4th Day of Happiness: A generous flatmate

30 Jan

Already slipping on this one, but I’m fighting back. My fourth day of happiness is thanks to my wee flatmate who donated his shoes to a homeless man he hasn’t event met.

For his art project last year, titled ‘shelter’, he spent a night sleeping in a door way with a cardboard box and a blanket, and nothing in his pocket apart from his apartment keys. He’s walked a night in that other man’s shoes, so I suppose he knows better than many.

The shoes were taken to the homeless man by a network of friends called Esperança, Hope. More on them tomorrow.

 

Andreu donating his shoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#100happydays

Flowery decadence #100happydays

25 Jan

Getting crowded off my tiny desk by a bunch of unruly flowers.

Yes all my paperwork is now stacked on the floor, but it has been a long time since I had flowers in my house. It’s a first in Barcelona and I love them. A lot.

Flower indulgence sm

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