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The International Writers Magazine: Life in Spain

• Mathew Sterne
On a rundown street in Barcelona we sit on our balcony and watch the prostitutes go by. Elderly men with walking sticks emerge from their siestas and enjoy the last of the afternoon sun. As the day cools to a tolerable temperature for the first time since morning and our sweat slows to a trickle we monitor the streetwalkers.

Raval We judge their looks and approaches and assess their chances with each passing man. The same haggard prostitutes with old clothes and smeared lipstick that we evade in the street we encourage from above. We have been in our small apartment in the neighborhood of Raval a week. Jobless and idle the three of us, friends from our home country, spend most afternoons on ‘prossie watch’.

Shopkeepers go about their chores, the odd scooter coasts by and the shadows lengthen. Just as we are losing hope we spot a casual encounter, a few quick words and a nod of the head. We scurry to the railing and cheer with genuine excitement at our first witnessed success. We see them walk directly below us and then quickly turn into our very own building. This comes as a surprise. In the ensuing silence we slowly process this information and look at each other in stunned, mutual understanding. We live above a brothel.

We arrived in Barcelona one month ago on a trip around Europe with only the vaguest of plans. Young and idealistic, we dismissed plans as limitations and so we made none. We believed that fortune favoured a positive attitude and our instincts were to be trusted. So we behaved accordingly, impulsively, believing that whatever happened we would be able to spin it our way.

Recently released from the shackles of studying we envisioned ourselves working our way around Europe, making enough money in each place to get to the next and just keep on going. With this notion of inevitable happiness and guaranteed luck we rolled into alluring Barcelona, thinking we would pass through in a week.

We wanted to be swept away by Barcelona and so we were. It was so spectacularly foreign; live music on every street corner while savvy pensioners danced arm-in-arm, the hustle and bustle of La Ramblas, the sticky nights drinking one euro beers from illegal Pakistani street vendors and La Boqueria market with its dynamic range of food and colour. The Gothic streets added to our romantic fascination with the city and Gaudi’s architecture bewildered us. We merrily embraced everything that we perceived to be typically Spanish; the siestas, the sangria and the street loitering.

It was at night that we were most enamoured. Through our sangria-tinted eyes we saw the city as a playground of endless possibility. We would go out into the night possessed with the idea that whatever we do, we must do something; something fun and daring and reckless.

We desperately wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to explore the vibrancy and energy of not just the city but also our youth, this bubble in time when we were absolutely liberated of commitments or responsibilities. We were blissfully footloose and burden free. We could do anything, go anywhere and Barcelona, the ultimate host, embodied this spirit perfectly.

Our impulses told us to stay. We could see our future in Barcelona; lounging in cafes, snacking on tapas, casually acquiring Spanish and having affairs with gorgeous local woman who adored us purely for being foreign.

We thought moving to Barcelona was the ultimate expression of our newly realised freedom. It played perfectly to our ideal of living with absolute abandon, to go where we wanted to go and dealing with the consequences later. What was most important was to be true to our impulses, to never deny our desires, to never defer a dream. We were staying. It took us two weeks before we found a place that was affordable, central and came with the perk of our own rooftop and our very own doorman. We said yes on the spot. Our doorman would turn out to be a pimp and the building a brothel. So it goes. Ramblas

We also found out that the street, Carrer d'en Robador, is one of Barcelona’s most notorious streets and translated as ‘Thieves’ Alley’. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that we were running out of money. Fast. We were jobless, had no connections, no experience and didn’t speak the language. Simple facts we had conveniently overlooked when we spontaneously decided to relocate. We half-heartedly searched for work but made no process. The days and weeks went by in a hash-induced blur. Things quickly began to look dire. As our funds dwindled we barely had money for food. I ate so little that I was constantly hungry. At night while tossing between brutal dreams and depressing reality it felt like I had rocks in my stomach. I would wake in the morning fearful of another day where we would go to bed poorer than last.

It was not supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be easy and fun. We thought we were untouchable and, at the peaks of our most euphoric nights, even invincible. We slowly realized, however, that we were staring down the barrel of destitution. No one was going to reach out and save us. We needed to do something, anything.

With the last of our money we invested in a mojito venture. The plan was to offer mojitos to late –night revelers in the street. The idea was simple but we didn’t realize just how enticing the mojitos in our backpacks would be. Our nights started with us having one mojito each to build ‘salesman confidence’. One of us would reach for another and so, not to be outdone, we would all reach for another. It did not matter that this was our last chance and our last pennies. What mattered was that we stayed true to the spirit of our journey. We were strangely, stupidly, proud of our impetuousness. Our impulses still ruled and we ended up getting blind drunk somehow forgetting our morbid circumstances, overindulging probably because of our morbid circumstances.

We blew it, in a rather extravagant manner. Suddenly that blasé travelling attitude had backfired. Our tryst with Barcelona was over, our options were up. We had nowhere left to turn but make a sheepish exit from the city and move on to other more reliable cities in Europe.

Years later I still feel a tinge of disappointment from the Spanish dream that turned into a quixotic fiasco. Despite the experience I continue to want to have faith in that instinctive zeal of shooting from the hip, making quick decisions and riding your luck.

We had aimed for a Spanish Shangri-La of endless parties, wild romances and transcendent bliss and fallen short. That blind faith in traveler’s luck may have been misplaced or unwarranted but I do not regret it. We may have lived over a brothel in ‘Thieves’ Alley’ and experienced the despondency of mild poverty but we at least tried. There is no “what if” for that because the three of us know what happens when you give yourself completely over to chance, to trust in traveler’s providence. On those inspiring first nights in the city, ignoring our sensibilities to chase a whimsical dream, we said yes. We have no lingering doubts. We know how it turns out and I suppose that was the whole point. Now we know.
© Matthew Sterne January 2014

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