Chapter 31: A Spanish Gentleman

We enlisted the help of a waiter next morning in finding Calle de Fontanella, the address of a gentleman named Señor Eduardo Frias, which had been given to us by the Belgian people who were going to take us to Morocco. We didn’t stop to think that after the fiasco with the elusive Dr. Preditch, it might have been better to forget all about Señor Frias. The business of the bar stopped while the customers gathered around to read the address I printed in big letters on the back of a menu. An old man volunteered to take us to the tram. He paid our fare and asked the conductor to put us out at the stop nearest to Fontanella.

The elderly woman who opened the door of Number 19 was clearly mystified. We gathered that Señor Frias would be back soon and that we should wait. She carried our bags into the hall. Just as we were wondering whether we should write a little note and gracefully withdraw, the front door opened and a very genial little man stepped inside. He welcomed us so effusively we assumed we were expected. It wasn’t until later we found he had never met Veronika and Emile and barely remembered Gaston Jaubert, the Belgian lawyer who had passed on his address.

Señor Frias ushered us into the front room. He poured three generous glasses of sherry, and sent Clará, the housekeeper, out for food. He telephoned several pensions for accommodation. Apparently they were either unsuitable or unavailable, and when Clará returned with walnuts, cheese, and bread, she was commissioned to take our bags upstairs and prepare a bedroom for us.

Señor Frias told us he had to drive into the countryside that afternoon to attend the funeral of a hunting companion. He asked if we would care to accompany him, adding ‘It is something I think you will find quite interesting.’

We drove in his small black car to a village an hour from Barcelona. It began to rain, and the unmade road quickly turned to mud. We joined the procession following an ornate carriage drawn by a pair of plumaged black horses. In the carriage lay the coffin of the dead man, covered with a silky black shawl held down by an enormous crucifix. The top-hatted driver sat on a high seat with the reins in his hands. Another top-hatted attendant dressed in knee-high boots and a long black coat rode on a little step at the back of the carriage. Men walked close behind the cortège, followed at a little distance by a group of women supporting the widow, whose face was hidden beneath a heavy black veil. The women wore high black mantillas held in place by large tortoiseshell combs. The men put up oversized black umbrellas when the rain became a downpour. No one thought to offer an umbrella to the women, not even to the grieving widow in her long black dress and muddied high-buttoned boots.

The bedroom we occupied for the next five nights had been the bedroom of Señor Frias’s dead mother. It was large, high-ceilinged, and furnished with heavy dark furniture. There was a crucifix above the bed and a little red lamp on the mantelpiece under a framed picture of the Virgin and Child. The big brass bed was made up with monogrammed linen sheets and lacy pillows from a long-ago bridal trousseau. Given that it was entirely free of the Spanish bedbugs we had already encountered, and would encounter again and again, it was pure heaven.

Around nine the first morning there was a discreet knock on the door and Clará entered with a jug of hot water which she poured into a large china bowl on the washstand. She opened the blinds and withdrew. This became our morning routine, followed by a walk with Señor Frias across Parque de la Ciutadella to Café Zurich, where we drank glasses of milky coffee and ate ham rolls. Then he was off to his legal practice in the Plaza de Cataluña and we were left to our own devices.

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Each evening he would ask what we had seen that day. What did we think of the Temple de la Sagrada Familia? One look at the riotous decoration and the four grey steeples like factory chimneys was enough. We thought it bizarre and ugly, even verging on the mad. The best I could say was that I thought it looked like something from a Grimm’s fairytale. Senor Frias murmured politely ‘Many people think that Antonio Gaudí was a genius, but his church is not to everyone’s taste.’

He urged us to walk up to Parque Güell, designed by Gaudí, to see a different aspect of his surrealism, one which he felt sure we would find more accessible, more ‘playful.’ He was right. A stroll through the serpentine pavilions was full of surprises, not least of which was the sight of a multitude of little children dressed in turn-of-the-century clothes, parading among the mosaic arcades with their nannies and maids. It was like a scene from another era, and we were enchanted. That night we were able to tell our gentle host that we thought Parque Güell must be one of the loveliest places in the world. We would definitely go back and have another look at the weird church we had far too quickly dismissed as ‘Gaudí’s Folly’.

We soon came to know the higgledy-piggledy Gothic quarter which lay beyond Fontanella, where washing crisscrossed the sunless streets and mothers yelled from the balconies of dark six-storey houses to their children screaming below. The tiny shops lining the arcades were filled with exquisite children’s clothes, the kind we had seen worn by the children in the Parque Güell. There were toy shops selling wooden hoops and stuffed golliwogs and monkeys which ran up and down a stick at the pulling of a cord. Other little shops sold painted fans and tasselled shawls and ornamental tortoiseshell combs in all sizes. Many shops sold nothing but religious trinkets. One window was full of holy babies, naked little dimpled models of the Infant Jesus, complete with halo, lying on straw among a variety of crucifixes and delicately coloured saints and angels.

At the top of a wide flight of steps was the Cathedral. We were about to stroll inside when there was a hiss from an old woman in black, who pointed to her head and waved a lacy handkerchief. It appeared that, in order to enter the Cathedral, we must cover our heads. We had nothing resembling a lacy handkerchief, and Kleenex had to do. She apparently approved, because she was waiting for us inside. I felt a hand under my elbow and found myself being guided through the gloom toward a peculiar object hanging under the organ. By the light of dozens of flickering candles I saw it was the carved wooden head of a turbaned Moor with painted cheeks and real hair in its beard. She held a firm grip on my arm while she told me all about it. What a pity I couldn’t understand a word.

We heard the sound of music coming from the cloisters at the side of the Cathedral. Around the fountain sat a trio of musicians piping a repetitious tune, while a circle of people performed a kind of group-version of the Palais Glide. Someone told us it was the Sardana, the national folk dance of Catalonia, and that it was performed every day by people who came into the cloisters to put down their shopping bags and dance. At that moment a man came into the cloisters with a bag of bread to feed the little community of fat white geese swimming in ponds between the orange trees. He put down the bag of bread and joined the dancing circle.

As we walked through the Cathedral on our way out, we saw our old self-appointed arbiter of decency showing the Moor’s head to another tourist whose head was covered with a Kleenex.

A stone stairway outside the Cathedral led to the Plaza del Rey enclosed by mediaeval halls and palaces built of dark stone, with a rooftop garden where orange trees grew in small squares set into the paving. In one corner a wide flight of steps led into an enormous ceremonial hall, where one wall was completely covered by a mural depicting Christopher Columbus handing the ‘deeds of America’ to Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain who had funded his voyage of exploration in 1492. Barcelona held Columbus in high regard, even though he was neither a Catalan nor a Spaniard. He was an Italian from Genoa.

Down at the harbour was a replica of the Santa María, the tiny cockle-shell vessel on which he had sailed across the Atlantic. Dominating the waterfront was another tribute to Columbus, a towering monument supporting a huge golden globe on which a colossal statue of Columbus stood pointing out to sea.

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We took a little lift up to the viewing gallery of the Columbus monument, 51 metres high, where we could see all over Barcelona. Way below, we could also see the tiny figures of two young men who had followed us all the way down the Ramblas. We descended and walked straight past them into a waterfront bar to order a rápido lunch. By the time we’d chosen a bit of everything from the row of tapas along the counter, and followed this with stew and potatoes, two baskets of bread and a carafe of wine, it was no longer rápido.

Outside, a hurdy-gurdy played and a little boy cleaning shoes worked endlessly around the tables. Still our two young gallants waited. When we finally exited, one of them edged up to me and whispered ‘My fren’, he say he love you.’ By then it was almost five o’clock and we were on our way to the bullring. As we hurried off we heard a little explosion of exasperation, which could well have been the Spanish equivalent of ‘Oh, let’s go. They’re a waste of time.’

We ran all the way to Plaza de Toros Les Arenes at the end of Avenida José Antonio, only to find that the corrida that day was at Barcelona’s other bullring, the Plaza de Toros Monumental at the opposite end of the same avenue. We jumped into a taxi, knowing that in Spain bullfights are the only things which start on time. This was one corrida which would not start on time. The plaza was filled with an excitable mob blocking the entrance to the arena, while a troop of mounted police tried unsuccessfully to control them.

We elbowed our way to the ticket pavilion and were offered the only seats left, the cheapest ones at seventeen pesetas. We soon discovered why they were dirt-cheap; we were in the last tier at the top of the uppermost circle, in full blazing sun. We had been lucky to get tickets at all. Chamaco was the big attraction and was the sensation of the bullfight season. At the age of twenty-four he had risen from bootmaker’s apprentice to fame and fortune as the most famous matador in Spain.

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Hefty old men in open-neck shirts, each with a wet cigar clenched between his teeth, pounded up and down the tiers to show people to their row. We rented flat little cushions for one peseta each, not to throw into the arena, as the locals all around us would do later, but as shields against the blazing sun. We bought beer and peanuts, and were soon sitting in a sea of peanut shells and shouting Olé! as lustily as the Spaniards all around us.

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Chamaco despatched his bulls with such daring and grace that he was awarded the ultimate accolade, the ears and tails of both bulls. He was shouldered around the arena while the band played and the crowd went wild, flinging hats and cushions, and sometimes handbags and cigars, into the arena. Someone pitched a bota of wine at his feet. It was handed up to Chamaco, who squirted a long drink down his throat before the wineskin was tossed back in the direction of the thrower. Chamaco was the man of the moment. The roars of approval were deafening.

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After five bullfights we’d had enough of the spectacle and the blood. We pushed our way through the throngs of Barcelona’s poor, its cripples and beggars and bootblacks, outside the Monumental. Chamaco was their hero. They couldn’t afford to go inside the bullring, but they could press close enough to the bullring to hear the roars of the crowd as he made his passes and despatched his bulls.

As we walked back into town we heard the click of castanets coming from the other side of the wide, tree-lined Paseo de Gràcia. The castanet-clackers quickly crossed over to fall in beside us. ‘With your permission, we will walk with you. I am Paco and he is Rodrigo.’ We assured Paco and Rodrigo that we didn’t want an aperitivo, nor did we fancy going out dancing. They asked when they could see us again. I pointed to nunca (never) in my conversation book. We all laughed, and off they went wherever they had been going when they changed course.

We already had a date. We had tickets for the Xavier Cugat Show, which would take place in Barcelona’s second bullring, the one called Les Arenes. Señor Frias had told us that Xavier Cugat was born in the northern province of Gerona and was considered to be still a Catalán, even though he had been brought up from the age of five in Cuba. Apparently Cugat’s return visits to Barcelona were tremendous occasions befitting his Hollywood celebrity. We had seen him in MGM musicals, and now we couldn’t wait to see him in the flesh. We filled in time at Café Moka and then we set off along Avenue José Antonio to reach the Plaza de Toros Les Arenes in time for the show.

Xavier Cugat and his musicians were fantastic. The crowds stamped and roared for three hours, from the time the show began at eleven until it ended three hours later. The huge stage erected in the bullfight arena was occupied by a big band of musicians, all of them loud and brassy, conducted by the chubby, beaming Cugat. There was hardly a moment’s pause between one rhumba and the next, performed by squads of whirling women in cascades of frills partnered by male dancers dressed in skin-tight suits of light, like the matadors we had seen in the afternoon. As each troupe of dancers exited at one side of the stage, another group exploded from the other.

There was a quiet interlude while a modest young trumpeter named Raphael Mendes played Estrellita. He looked surprised when the audience stamped and yelled for more. He played Granada as an encore, and then, apparently in a spontaneous gesture, Cugat took the trumpet and played The Flight of the Bumblebee, which sent the audience into an uproar.

Suddenly there was a drum-roll, and a voluptuous bombshell in a slinky dress slit to the waist erupted from the wings. This was Abbe Lane, Cugat’s wife, for whom the male-dominated audience had obviously been waiting. It was like being at the bullfights again. There were cries of olé! and the pelting of carnations into the ring as she wiggled around the stage pouting cha-cha-cha into a microphone tucked into her generous cleavage. We strolled home at two in the morning along the crowded Ramblas, high on Barcelona, bullfights, and Abbe Lane.

Next morning Señor Frias asked if we would like to go to the beach for a barbecue. He would come home from the office at noon and we would drive to Barceloneta. We offered to buy the food, and he told us where to find La Boqueria, Barcelona’s main market.

Here, in a lofty iron hall just off the Ramblas, we stepped into a paradise of food set out in patterns which must have taken hours to arrange. Every piece of fruit and every vegetable was displayed in contrasting colours, like precious jewels, or flowers in a tapestry. We chose tomatoes and radishes and avocados, and then we bought some flat little white peaches called paraguenos, which were wrapped in tissue and tied with coloured ribbons.

In the centre of the market were the stalls of the fishmongers, where a vast array of seafood was arranged in the colours of the sea, ranging from green to silvery-grey and deep-blue. There were sardines and periwinkles and mussels in wickerwork trays. Huge fish were laid out on marble slabs among wooden barrels filled with rock-hard salt cod.

We bought a kilo of large green prawns and headed for the meat section This was a different matter altogether. Even Jane, a dedicated carnivore, couldn’t face the rows of tails and testicles hanging on hooks above lumps of bloody flesh which had probably come from the bullring. Back we went to the fish stalls to supplement the prawns with a kilo of sardines, which the smiling old vendor put into a basket of vine leaves with a scattering of ice.

On the dot of twelve Señor Frias arrived home, and we drove off to Barceloneta. We were looking forward to a swim and a leisurely stroll along the beach. Instead, we found ourselves running all over the pinewoods collecting cones and dried sticks for the fire. We ate and drank and had a quick swim in the cold Mediterranean. We stretched out to sunbake and were inundated with an unending assortment of shells and stones and bits of driftwood brought for our inspection and approval by Señor Frias, a lawyer of sixty-plus years, running about the beach like a young swain of twenty.

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It was something of a relief when he looked at this watch and said he had to get back to the office for an appointment at three. We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon on the balcony of the apartment, listening to Clara talking through the kitchen window to the maids on the other side of the building.

Clará was illiterate. Her village had no school, and in any case it was generally considered that girls of her class had no need for education. She had been sent to work for the Frias family when she was thirteen. There were four Frias children for whom Clará was at first nanny, and later, housemaid, cleaner and cook Now there was only Señor Frias to look after, a bachelor who came home every night even later than we did. Apart from her long-distance conversations with the maids on the opposite side of the building, Clará led a solitary life.

We planned to leave for Madrid next day, and we deliberated on what we could give her. I wanted to buy her a caged canary, something she could carry about the apartment to keep her company. We explored the bird market on Rambla dels Ocells. We walked the length of cages stacked with budgies, canaries, parrots and finches. Even with discounts and bargaining there was nothing we could afford.

We ended up with a bouquet of roses and carnations from the flower stalls along the Ramblas. It was gift-wrapped in layers of red cellophane tied with wide red ribbons. We ran all the way home, clutching the bouquet. Clara hugged us and crossed herself and wiped her eyes with the corner of her pinafore. For Señor Frias we bought a bottle of the best Madeira, and presented it to him with a little album of photographs of ourselves taken with him on our walking tours of the city.

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Two Thumbs Out is published in Kindle Format and is available from Amazon.

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