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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?