On May 31, 2015 I woke up strangely unenthusiastic about spending a relaxed day in Barcelona – a feeling that melted away as soon as I stepped out of Liceu metro. The continuing euphoria from Arsenal’s record FA Cup win from the night before suddenly shone through all the cracks, crevices and narrow streets of old Barcelona. I walked past the muted pastel red, green, violet, gilded structure of the Opera, past the intricate carvings, pillars and delicately crafted yet solid wrought-iron balconies on the buildings that lined Las Ramblas. All around me were the half-open shutters of a lazy Sunday morning on all accounts. Everything still appeared hazy around the edges, a real-life tilt shift; a city and its people slowly coming back to life and in focus. My original plan was to go to the Starbucks, but for a reason I cannot explain, my feet carried me in the other direction towards the harbour.
Black and white Paris was the reason I met him that morning. The postcards were neatly, almost fastidiously categorised in stacks wrapped together with a rubber band – small enough to firmly bind them, yet big enough to not bend or crease them. I had stumbled onto a weekend market in Placa Reial where the slanted rays of light and the salty ocean air that drifted in from the marina pooled on the cobblestones and mingled with the palm trees, the fountain, the cafes in the square and the aimless wandering that led me there.
The owner of this vintage cards stall was a friendly, old man in his 70s with a bit of a beer belly. He wore a white vest top, loose trousers and one of those retro cloth caps. He asked me where I was from and when I said, Mumbai, he told me about his trip to India in 1979. New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Goa and Benaras. But he hadn’t been to “Bombay” as he still called it. As I continued to browse, he kept up a steady patter of facts and tidbits about Barcelona back in the day – even showing me a stack from the 1960s when there had been heavy snow throughout the city, and some rare, vintage ones he kept for the serious collectors.
He told me about the building in front of the fountain built by Gaudi and pointed to a small inscription on a stone in front of his stall that had commemorated it. He told me about how all the Japanese tourists seemed to revere and adore Gaudi, and how I should go to Placa San Felipe Neri, a small, underrated square behind the Cathedral in El Barri Gotic which still retains marks and bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War. His enthusiasm was so infectious that I didn’t feel like telling him that I had already been there, already walked much of El Barri Gotic and El Raval even before going on the Shadow of the Wind tour. About how San Felipe Neri was the place where Nuria Monfort lived in the book.
In the end, he showed me a postcard from 1963 of where we were (which had been written and posted in 1964) and I decided to buy it. The 2 Euros that I paid after a discount seem insubstantial in front of the memory it created, for the moments I spent chatting with Rafael who was friendly and polite without ever being overbearing, and seemed genuine when he said that I had a really nice smile, that I generated happiness and that he had enjoyed talking to someone in English.
Barcelona has a special spirit, a very distinct soul that marks it out from most of the other places I have so far been lucky enough to travel to. But what I will remember from that day is the unchartered sense of possibility, the whiff of adventures yet to unfold and people still to meet in a city hidden behind history, behind layers of stories, of voices long gone that peek out and call you before disappearing again.
Waiting for an hour and a half at the Starbucks for my friend wasn’t a very novel experience, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of that fleeting moment now perfectly preserved for all time, when a stranger made me feel truly free yet irrevocably connected – to myself, to the universe and to a city where a part of me will always be waiting, back in Placa Reial on a soft spring morning.