I could live in Barcelona. There are very few cities I feel I could live in… Paris, maybe Rome, and Barcelona. I don’t even think I could live in New York any more (but it might just be that it’s impossible to imagine my wife living in New York again, and I couldn’t live anyplace without my wife). Of course, the major difficulty with living in Barcelona would be the sad fact that I don’t speak Spanish, but I could learn.
I’ve already written about Barcelona, with its street performers and the winding streets of the ancient city, but there’s one part of Barcelona I haven’t written about. In reality, of course, there are a great many parts of Barcelona I haven’t written about, but Barceloneta stands out.
I don’t think I could live there, but Barceloneta is one of the most village-like urban areas I’ve ever seen. From the minute you step foot into its straight, narrow streets you feel like you’re in an entirely different place. Every city has its enclaves, its little villages. New York is positively littered with them… and no, I’m not counting Greenwich Village, because Greenwich Village is really a bunch of little villages, each with its own feel to it. If you want a real village experience, go to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, or to the various ethnic enclaves in Queens, or to parts of Harlem, or Washington Heights. These, though, tend to have an ethnic identity to them, whereas Barceloneta is just Barceloneta.
Barceloneta is a perfect grid of straight, extremely narrow streets. The streets are only about twenty feet apart, which means the buildings are thin and long, between three and five stories high. They tend to be painted in the pastels one finds on Western Mediterranean shores, and they inevitably have clothes hanging out to dry. Despite this painfully stereotypical image, I’ve never really found Barceloneta to be very charming. It must be seen, by all means, for a number of reasons I’ll get to shortly, but it has never struck me as very welcoming.
I think it’s that it is so much a village. Small villages are often somewhat closed, they can be a difficult nut for a newcomer to crack and if Barceloneta has retained its village atmosphere despite the fact that it sits squarely in the center of one of Europe’s biggest metropolises, you can image just how thick that atmosphere is.
This is undoubtedly compounded by the fact I don’t speak Spanish. I know I should. I feel bad about it. Between French and Italian I don’t think it would be all that difficult to pick it up, and for that matter I can usually communicate with a kind of pidgin Spanish by taking the few words I know in the language and supplementing them with Franco Italian etymological bastards, but that’s no excuse. Anyway, I always do feel a bit ashamed in Spain. I don’t feel ashamed in most other countries where I don’t speak the language (who the hell expects you to speak Finnish? And no, I never wrote about Helsinki, but there not all that much to write about). Spanish, though, is a different story.
Anyway, all this undoubtedly adds to my impression of being an outsider in Barceloneta. I don’t have this feeling at all in the other parts of Barcelona. It’s as if Barceloneta never underwent the “cosmopolitisation” that has characterized the city as a whole over the past couple of decades. The neighborhood has retained its old-time feel, which is doubly ironic when one considers that it’s only about 250 years old—by far the youngest of the “old city” neighborhoods. The neighborhood was only built in the 18th century, when the inhabitants of the Ribera neighborhood were unceremoniously displaced to make way for the Ciudadela of Barcelona, the fortress that protected the city’s sea approaches, along with the Castel de Montjuic on the other side of the harbor. At least, that was the official story. In reality, Philip V probably built it more to keep the Catalans in check than to protect them from anyone else. Anyway, the citadel is gone, replaced with a nice little park, but Barceloneta remains.
Please understand, I don’t mean to put it down or to make it sound foreboding by saying that it seems unwelcoming to me—I just feel a little like a voyeur. You get the distinct impression that people live here, and that somehow you’re closer to their lives than if you were walking down a street in some other neighborhood.
Maybe the laundry has something to do with it. Whenever I walk along a street with clothes hanging out to dry I feel like I’m intruding in someone’s intimacy, and there are just so many clothes hanging out. Just about every window in Barceloneta has a little drying rack sticking out over the street, with exactly five rods upon which to hang out your laundry. Even on the ground floor the inhabitants put out their laundry, either by simply placing self-standing racks on the sidewalk or by hanging the clothes along the building’s walls. Even this accentuates the neighborhood atmosphere, because if you live on the ground floor and you’re putting your laundry out on the sidewalk, you know no one’s going to steal it. What trust! As I was walking along one of Barceloneta’s little lanes not only did I almost bump into one of these racks, but the front door to an apartment was open (no entry hall—the front door opened directly on to the living room) and the television was on: Moe the bartender having an intense conversation with Homer. I didn’t know either of them spoke Spanish. I looked away as soon as I realized I was looking in, but it’s almost as if I had accidentally opened the bathroom door while it was occupied.
And it’s not as though no one walks around in Barceloneta, on the contrary, the streets are always full of people. Little urban neighborhoods often have busy streets, doubly so in Mediterranean countries, but in Barceloneta the traffic is denser yet because one side of the neighborhood happens to sport one of the nicest beaches in the world.
Ah yes, the beach of Barceloneta. It’s rare to find a city with a downtown beach. Rio comes to mind, of course, and theoretically New York has beaches too, but let’s get serious… who would really swim at Coney Island? And even that’s not in the center of downtown. The Barceloneta beach is smack dab in the center of where the city hits the sea and it’s a magnificent beach: it’s broad and clean, with fine sand. It has a long boardwalk running along it, backed with little squares occupied by cafés and bars. During the summer there are always people swimming there, and during the winter months others come to sit in the sand and watch the sea. Why are we fascinated by the sea? I sat and watched it myself for a while when I was recently in Barcelona. I had just passed a group of old men sitting on plastic chairs around metal tables. They were playing dominoes, slapping the tiles onto the metal with a clang as other old men stood around and commented on the play. Still others sat facing the sea, reading the local newspaper. I couldn’t help but think that I had probably just strolled beneath their underwear as it flapped in the breeze hanging from the windows of their apartments.
It’s quite a contrast, Barceloneta. On one hand, you have these old domino-playing men wearing breeze-dried knickers, while just in front of them there are trendy beach bars perched right on the sand… not to mention that some of the best fish restaurants in the city are on this beach (although personally I prefer the restaurants in the Palau del Mar, just at Barceloneta’s entrance). I’m not at all sure how the neighborhood retains its identity, its uniqueness. Why hasn’t it gone all upscale and trendy? The Bari Gotika is stuffed with expensive curio shops and the Ribera, Barceloneta’s ancestor, is slowly moving in that direction, yet aside from the beachfront itself, Barceloneta is still the home of tiny run-down grocery stores and rather dim bars where everyone seems to know each other… and probably each others’ family histories.
I can only skim the surface of Barceloneta, and I feel bad doing so, but I come back whenever I’m in the city. There’s something about the neighborhood, some timeless quality that bears a hint of stability in a pretty unstable world and even if I feel a bit shut out of it all, it’s a comforting thing to observe.