Here is the first in a short series of blogs about my time in Barcelona.
So I’m standing in a park outside of the Sagrada Familia and I’m watching a quiet nonchalant group of old men playing a skittles style game where one has three attempts to throw a skittle underarm at a bunch of other skittles. It would seem from the hushed ‘Zero’ (pronounced zerro) from a passing gentleman when one of the players had hit a strike, knocking down all the pins, that the score revolves around having as low a score as possible. Like a blend of darts, golf, bowling and kubb.
It was nice watching these old guys do their thing – their thing being throwing blocks of wood at other blocks of wood. Being a fan of the Scandanavian lawn game Kubb, where blocks of wood are thrown at other blocks of wood, I was totally on the same page. I enjoyed the laconic, Mediterranean camaraderie. During my time in Barcelona the Catalan people struck me as good humoured, stoic and poised. As I watched I itched to join in. But it would never happen. Here I was a hipster Scot on the sidelines literally and metaphorically. This was their show, their little spectacle, a place of prestige where their sport could manage to drag a few watching eyes away from the stunning basillica (I will post again about this beautiful building) for a few moments. I leaned on the fence and watched as these dignified, effortless gents casually ambled up and down in the dust, soaking up the November sun and I’m sure the attention.
Then it happened.
One of them stopped and turned towards us. A small, square man who looked like a Catalan version of Carl from Pixar’s ‘Up’, pointed at me. Me! I felt like Courtney Cox in a Bruce Springsteen video. I couldn’t process it initially so I followed his lead and also pointed at me. He pointed at me again and gestured for me to come over. It was happening.
I was being allowed in the inner sanctum.
I opened the little gate in the fence and prepared to leap across the language barrier and across the wider gulf between me and my hand eye coordination. My heart was pounding. Now I was part of the spectacle. My fiancee (I love writing that!) was left holding my coat wishing me on. This was it. My beautiful senorita left back in the crowd, it was down to me now to step up. I knew I needed to be respectful, this was a big deal them including me. There we stood, Catalan and Scot, shoulder to shoulder, across borders, across generations, watching as time after time the pins
The first shot was way off. That’s okay. Can write that off. The second was closer. The third, sickeningly, bounced end to end straight over a skittle. I heard the intake of breath as (let’s call him Carlo) Carlo shared my pain.
Carlo asked where I was from. It took me a while to work out this is what he was asking me. Before going to Catalonia I had memorised several key phrases as I am desperate to get into language learning again. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing as I found myself several times during the trip launching confidently into conversation, getting into character, able to mimic the local tones and inflections and then realising I have nowhere to go. I was like a crocodile who has no teeth and has to let his prey stumble back out again (sorry, eh, I mean, I would have eh, crunched you, but eh, don’t take this personally I…). I walked into a restaurant on our first day and confidentially stated, ‘Hola, una taula per dos si us plau.’ And the waitress responded with a flood of Catalan. I had no idea what she had just said. I looked wide eyed and confused. Luckily we were able to build from there with pointing.
When I processed that Carlo was wanting to know where I was from, I proudly declared ‘Escossia’ to him and his friend. Being a Scot in Catalonia is a big hit. The people of Catalonia, like Scotland, have faced much hardship and adversity over the years. Both have spent the last 300 odd years in complex unions with dominant neighbours that often misunderstand them. But in the face of these and other challenges there have been many successes, inventions, John Logie Bairds, Antoni Gaudis. There is a great affinity between Scots and Catalans, a fiery stoicism, a passion that’s not flamboyant tie to a solid work ethic and enjoyment of a good party. Both nations want referendums on independence in 2014. A Scot speaking broken Catalan in Catalonia (rather than Castilian Spanish) goes over really well with the vibrant, engaged people of Barcelona.
Missing those shots led to a great moment of solidarity with someone who had seconds before been a complete stranger. I know that if he had spoken Scots Carlo would have said after my last shot, ‘Aw pal, you were robbed! Pure robbed!’ Carlo has no idea what the word scunnered means but upon hearing the definition he would identify completely. We’ve all been there. It was a nice moment of connection.
But there had to be loss.
I had to embrace that loss. I couldn’t insure myself against it by saying or implying I was just mucking about or clowning, or my heart wasn’t in it or blaming it on jet-lag or the sun being in my eyes (it wasn’t). I wanted those pins to fall.
I wanted them to fall so bad. It was really disappointing. I had blown my chance. And yet, the moment of solidarity, the handshake with Carl and his friend, was an earned moment in the inner sanctum of proud Catalan male society. It was priceless. It was a privilege and it only happened because I had cared and lost. Oh I cared.
Bad. I cared bad.
The fact that those pins didn’t fall means they still taunt and inspire me this evening while I write this. They live on as goals to be accomplished, challenges to face. If I had larked about or acted up for the crowd or excused the loss or claimed that I wasn’t really bothered, then all they would be would be lumps of wood. As it was they were so much more because I stepped into the arena and made my claim, I announced my desire to join in and to win. The caring, the staked claim, meant more than whether or not the pins were vertical or horizontal. I showed respect, gave it my best (albeit not that great) shot and was shown respect in return.
This little episode was a thrill. I loved that they threw me a bone so I could throw a pin so I could throw my hopes at something. Because that’s what’s important about life. About giving it a go. About trying, about surprises and getting involved. From my short time with the Catalan people I can say they are dignified in their success and dignified in their losses, people of character who are not ashamed to try and boy are they a stylish bunch. But more on that later…