Be careful what you wish for
Last week, I took a walk on the Ramblas after not having been there for several years. Before the pandemic, the tree-lined pedestrian street with its sidewalk cafés, souvenir shops, hotels, bars and restaurants was so swamped with tourists that, like most other Barcelonans, I would go out of my way to avoid it.
But now, because the pandemic has restricted travel, there were mostly locals on the Ramblas, just like more than forty years ago when I first visited the city.
During that visit in the spring of 1979, I enjoyed wandering along the newspaper kiosks, the flower shops and the stands where brightly colored birds were sold. I spent hours sitting on the iron rental chairs watching the city pass by.
In Mediterranean countries the street is not just a way to go from one place to the other; it’s the stage where life unfolds. Elderly men sat on the terraces drinking small cups of coffee. Unlike under Franco, who had died a few years previously, they could now talk openly about politics and often did so in Catalan, which was prohibited during the dictatorship. The kiosks sold magazines with photos of bare breasted women, and cross-dressers sashayed over the Ramblas until the early hours of the morning.
At one of the many sidewalk cafés I wrote in my journal how that sense of freedom resonated with me. I too experienced a new beginning after meeting my now husband Felipe when I moved to Mexico the year before. Just as the Barcelonans did, I felt the promise of something good to come even though, like them, I wasn’t quite sure what form that new phase of my life would take.
When years later Felipe and I moved to Barcelona, I’d buy my newspapers at the kiosks on the Ramblas, we’d have our “paseo”—our Sunday stroll—with the other locals, and I continued the habit of writing in my journal at one of the cafés.
Over the years the hordes of tourists swelled and finally the Ramblas became so inundated that it was all but impossible to get through. The bird sellers disappeared, as did the rental chairs. The restaurants served hamburgers and fries instead of arroz negro and escalivada, and the newspaper kiosks sold tiles with images of the Sagrada Familia and dolls dressed in flamenco clothing.
I cursed the tourists and hoped that one day the Ramblas would be ours again.
But seeing the boarded-up hotels and the graffiti on the closed shutters of restaurants and shops last week was a shock. What was once the bustling heart of Barcelona felt desolate.
Ironically, now that my dream of regaining the Ramblas has come true, I dread going there again.