IN THE PALMS OF BARCELONA

by  Lily Michaelides

As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2013

June, 2013

IMG_1999 The day I landed in Barcelona the sky foretold of fair weather and the breeze carried the sound of bells far, out of town. When I later entered the Cathedral, I discovered that technology had entered long before I did and taken the place of candles. A switch turns on an electric candle that burns equally to the donation and the faith.

*  *  *  *

Beginning of June at Plaza Catalunya. All the benches occupied. I walked around. I walked among the pigeons; perturbed, they flew upward. I sat on the molding of the fountain. The clouds concealed the sun. Beginning of summer, yet the breeze cooled leaves and faces. The sidewalks weary. The people noisy. I followed the flow of human traffic. There are exits where their thoughts escape, downhill thoughts without punctuation.

*  *  *  *

At Plaza Real the palm trees spread out charmingly above our heads. The square with the arched rotundas, the large fountain, the sculpted lamp posts with the helmets. I sat on the cornice of the central fountain. I was surrounded by a multi-ethnic hum that pushed history away and allowed the smell of paella to invade.

*  *  *  *

At Plaza España I boarded the line for La Barceloneta. I sat next to you, even though you were not there. I brought you close with the light jolting of the cars rolling over the rails. Our faces wore the glass eyes; to see the smooth face of life. I disembarked at La Barceloneta. You did not. You stood there looking at the dock. At that moment I felt, what the underground feels daily, at the mercy of the same journey that follows me with a glass gaze.

*  *  *  *

IMG_4881At Santa Maria del Mar the flames are not electrical. I lit a candle for you, for me, for what keeps us alive. It smells of lilies, incense and wax. It smells of instant faith and hypocrisy. The church organ stands proud and distant, high between the arched columns. Perfect Gothic architecture; untainted, intact, pure and eternal. The chandeliers simple and silent. Few lights. Just enough. Daylight is refracted through the stained glass into all the colors of the rainbow. The crucified Christ, without exaggeration or ornamentation, in deep devotion, patience and pain, looks at us noticeably puzzled and troubled.

*  *  *  *

I went downstairs, two or three storeys underground. He was sitting next to the enormous posters, like every day; body bent, dog by his side. Dust devouring his tattered clothes, arms crossed on the floor, eyes fixed on an impenetrable void. I dropped a coin into the cup and the sound lifted his eyelids. I watched him fly like a dove and perch in his nest up high, far away from people.

*  *  *  *

With his lapel raised he was crossing the boulevard with the tall plane-trees. His hair and long scarf thrashing in the wind. Shadows of leaves dancing on his face. Original choreography. His pace to the rhythm of seconds; a haunted stride; a smile; a conquest. I followed him with my eyes. He was moving away like a cloud, shape-shifting on the blue of the horizon. All the buildings had the windows open.

*  *  *  *

The freedom of isolation. You look, observe, think, listen, record, delete without distraction or restriction. In the beginning I could not follow my thought freely. It would escape from me in the palms of Barcelona. Then I compromised, because freedom is a compromise. A lifejacket for you to be saved or lost.

*  *  *  *

I am surrounded by framed smiles. I unite mine with the smile of the city. She looks at us from the tall windows of buildings and wonders: Why are all these people running around my feet, camera flashes obscure me, the indifference for my future, the violation of the present…

*  *  *  *

At the Picasso Museum the halls were divided into periods and photography was prohibited. Yet the painter was photographing us, observing us suspiciously. The paint strokes toward the end of his life were eccentric and the expressions on the faces of the women he had loved were torn. Should they smile or cry?

*  *  *  *

IMG_4882The city sees us, listens to us. But who cares? Everyone wants to fill their time and bellies with delights. The sea to the east and the hills to the west delineate what the eyes can reach without distractions, just like the underground. Yet there is something in the air. Something that I still cannot define. Perhaps because a city like Barcelona keeps the gates of her heritage open; she has a present and a future. Perhaps because she is built in the correct proportions. Not the old one, however. There, the narrow streets oppress with buildings glued to one another; suffocating you amid the thousands who walk them. You raise your head to look at the sky through the clotheslines. But the smells compensate; they do not repel you. On the contrary, they tempt you to taste and have your fill of nationalities, languages, faces and colors. Then again, it was perhaps Gaudí that left an unexplained, even today, legacy. Imagination and art reach and exceed their limits…

*  *  *  *

Their union makes the air creak. At first she takes his hands and brings them to her eyes. She examines the veins, the scars. Her hair is pulled back. She does not hesitate to lean on his shoulder. He likes to feel her close, her breath on his face; the lips taste the skin; a promise.

Suddenly she sits up and grabs the pen. She tills the words, the hours, enclosing time within the pages. The reconciliation ceremony was complete; they returned silently to the fog.

*  *  *  *

I watch them through the glass. He embraces and kisses her; his fingers become entangled in hers; he caresses her hands. Her cheek on his shoulder. Her hair rustles, conquering the air around him. They are not young, frenzied or impulsive. It’s just that they have abandoned themselves to the lure of the landscape, to the images and to time, traveling to something that memory brought back, inadvertently.

Yet the impulse of my gaze ended abruptly; rain clouded the windowpane.

*  *  *  *

In the arena; without bulls, bullfighting or Olés. The conquest of the modern era. In the place of the arena a huge shopping centre. The underground is full of shops and restaurants. The arena is active again. But the bulls are replaced by people and the bullfighters by multinationals.

*  *  *  *

I transform into a bull that refuses to fight. The lances are already nailed into my body and the blood flows out, writing the epilogue. Red cloth, nightmare. I transform into a bull that fights himself.

*  *  *  *

On the train from Colonia Güell; they are sitting next to us, dressed for a night out. One in white lace, like a butterfly, the other in red and black, like a ladybug; rings, earrings, trinkets rung around their necks, painted eyes and lips, blushed cheeks to emphasize the desire to be kissed. False teeth try to subjugate the gum bobbing in their mouths. They talk incessantly and laugh like little girls. One thing is certain: the total of their years adds up to more than one and a half century.

On the train to Barcelona. Clad in all the essentials for a formal outing; fingerprints, identity, age; strained veins ready to erupt, coloured nails; thinning hair fastened on their heads with decorative combs. The jolting makes their movements even more fragile; like the memories they carry in their handbags. The train stops. They get up, fluff their wings, preparing to disembark and fly.

Translated by Irena Joannides

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