La Rambla of Barcelona is like a mile-long circus. Thousands of people speaking 20 different languages come and go on the promenade at all hours of the day, stopping to admire street performers dressed as mermaids, Roman statues, and harlequins who smile and blow kisses in exchange for 20 cents. One man, painted and dressed completely in white, sits on a porcelain toilet holding a newspaper and every so often pretends to relieve himself. Flowers, birds, bracelets, Shakira CDs, and “Free Catalonia” t-shirts all try to stop the constant flow of legs down the avenue. In a tourist shop, fluffy red dresses with white polka dots give off a fake plastic sheen, as if anyone who isn’t just passing through on a vacation walks around dancing flamenco!
Under umbrellas advertising Stella beer, tapas gleam on the plates of businessmen and young tourists. I walk over to the menu. Eight euros for a plate of potato salad with olive oil and garlic. Seven euros for queso manchego with bread. I don’t know how much it is in Argentine pesos, but the plates look too nice for bargains. I walk towards the Metro, marked with a big M on a shiny red sign. It’s called Liceu, so the opera house by the same name can’t be far off. In Spanish it’s “Liseo,” but this is Catalonia, and when in Catalonia you must do as the Catalans. “Lee-SAY-oo,” I say aloud. My voice gets drowned out as a moped whisks by.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. A gorilla! I gasp and jump back. The gorilla-suit creature pats me on the back, and a crowd of people in baseball caps and t-shirts with various American sports teams applaud. Some drop change in the gorilla’s collection cup before moving on. Blushing, I cross the street.
A man with the round face and beard standing and reading La Vanguardia in front of the Museu de l’Erotica reminds me of my tutor Francesc, who must be having his afternoon cigarette on his porch thousands of miles away, looking out towards the green plains of the Pampas. Now as I walk up La Rambla in the direction of Mt. Tibidabo I remember how he spoke of the mountains guarding the city, the ancient gray Catalan wisdom overlooking the pot of newer smells and sounds.
Some people develop passions for music, art, theater, food, drink, or fashion, and become experts in every aspect of one of those realms. Francesc was a lover of location. He could visualize the curves of every part of Spain.
“Castilla-La Mancha is like a prepubescent woman, Andalusia is a young woman after she has just bloomed, and Catalonia is the woman who has traveled and settled down after extensive experience,” he told me just before I left for Spain, comparing the adobe-colored valley around Toledo with the lush green hills of Málaga and the old rock of Montserrat. “You leave here as an Andaluza, and will come back a Catalana.”
The harsh yet lyrical Catalan ballad echoes at the top of Montjuic Mountain and as the surf crashes onto the rocky shores of the Costa Brava, he told me. You can hear it in the agricultural rock songs of Tarragona, even though the groups have names like The Farts and titles like “Stupidly Happy.” And in the Gothic Quarter you will hear the echoes of your ancestors greeting each other on their way to synagogue, even though today people use the medieval doorsteps as public toilets at 4 a.m.
Now I am finally here, and I can’t wait to see these marvelous contradictions for myself!
Crossing Plaça Catalunya I come to Passeig de Grácia. This is one of the widest avenues I have ever seen, and the most eclectically disjointed— Louis Vuitton and Gucci intermingled with some of Gaudi’s multicolored houses. I think of Francesc’s sad smile. There’s the cathedral overlooking the city on top of Mt. Tibidabo, as if he had willed it so.
My fingers stick together with the remnants of melted ice cream, and I think about how my mother would scold me for having messy hands. When I was planning for my semester of study abroad in Barcelona, she told me my hands were ugly. “This idea of living in Barcelona has made warts grow around your fingernails,” she said, grabbing my hand and examining the peeling callous-like verrugas. “Cover them with your menstrual blood when you have your period, and speak no more of Spain. My grandmother swore it worked. Just don’t tell anyone.”
When my mother hired Franscesc as an English tutor for my brother Ignacio and me in middle school, she probably never imagined that he would dazzle me with stories of mountains and Roman aqueducts, and teach me Catalan when I had mastered English. It was Mamá’s intention that Ignacio and I would become “competitive citizens of globalization,” and she showered us with bootleg movies and CDs to prove her point. Economic crisis or not, her children were going to be experts in English-speaking popular culture.
“The European Union doesn’t even recognize this language, you know,” she said one day, holding up a Catalan book she found under my pillow. “With English you can speak to almost anyone in the whole world; who are you going to speak Catalan with? Yourself?”
But that’s exactly what I wanted to do: speak to myself. Since I was little I’ve wondered about where my father came from, the father I don’t remember and who apparently has been wandering around the Pyrenees since 1987, when my mother had saved up enough money to take me and Ignacio back to her parents’ house in Argentina and run the family bakery. Mamá once said I cried the whole 20 hours on the plane.
“Can’t we channel that intelligence of yours elsewhere?”
I’m not sure how Mamá could have afforded to hire Francesc as a daily English tutor all those years, except that she gave him a bag of donuts to take home every day and this was sufficient compensation during some of our country’s hardest times.
These are the sorts of questions I started asking myself when I turned 16 or so, when I was aware of how little I knew about my own mother. One day I confronted her about the baby picture I found in the cupboard. The photograph showed a little boy about nine years old with dark skin and Mamá’s stern expression.
“You always want to unbury the dead,” she said, shaking her head.
“Please, Mamá, you never tell me anything! I know more about Francesc than I know about you! Why don’t you trust me?”
“His name is Pedro,” Mamá said, staring at the photograph. “He is my son.”
“Before I met your father I had a boyfriend named Ricardo, and we had a child together seventeen years ago. I left Ricardo because he beat me senseless when the empanadas weren’t soft enough. I planned to raise Pedro alone, but every child should know his biological father, so I started bringing him to see Ricardo every Sunday. With time, Pedro started stealing my money for Ricardo and telling me I was a puta.”
“Why didn’t you punish him?” I asked.
“He wouldn’t listen to punishment; Ricardo taught him to endure whatever punishment I set on him.”
“So where is Pedro now?”
“One day I left him with Ricardo while I worked at the bakery. When I came back at night, they were gone.”
“Disappeared. All of the furniture, the clothes, everything gone, as though no one had ever lived in that house. You know as well as I that this is not so special here.”
As my mother kneaded the bread for arepas, her strong arms tan from the Mediterranean and her eyes slightly sagging, I wondered what other secrets she kept under the meat plates, and all around this house that we inherited from her parents. Was she hiding other children in the cupboards? Was Pedro locked in the basement?
When she went to the bakery the next day, Ignacio and I searched the whole kitchen for more evidence of our mother’s double life, but didn’t find anything except a large iron key too big to open door we had ever seen, and a necklace with a six-pointed star that we had never seen her wear.
One day I asked Francesc. Examining it with a magnifying glass, he found the address Carrer del Sabio 7 inscribed.
“This could be the key to a medieval house anywhere in Catalunya, Valencia, or Majorca!” he told me, a strange smile forming on his lips. “As you know, carrer means street in Catalan, and they certainly don’t make keys that look like this anymore.”
“And this star?” I showed him the necklace. “I have seen this star on the synagogues in Buenos Aires.”
“Yes, yes, this is a Jewish star. It is possible that your family is Jewish!”
“But Ignacio and I were baptized. Mamá and Papá were too, probably.”
Probably. I realized with a start that I didn’t know for sure.
“Ah yes, but many centuries ago there was a huge Jewish population in Spain, filled with many wise scholars and craftsmen. In cities like Barcelona the Jews lived in their own self-run communities within the Christian territory. The Catalan-Jewish people lived relatively peacefully alongside the Christians until the massacre of 1391. Hundreds of Jews were killed, many forcibly converted. And of course you know about the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. If your ancestors lived there then, this could be the key to the house they fled.”
“They must have had very hard lives in Barcelona.”
“Perhaps, but before the Inquisition fever life could not have been too bad. Like I said, Jews had their own nice little neighborhoods and that were almost entirely self-regulating. Some of the great Kabalistic literature and ladino poetry comes from this period. The difference between the Inquisition and the Holocaust is that in the Middle Ages the Jews had the keys to their own ghettos.”
Later that night my mother confessed she had taken the star and the key from my father’s stash of family heirlooms when we left Barcelona.
“He was going to sell them, I know he was. They are for you and Ignacio. They are who you are, and they need to be kept with you.”
“So he was Jewish?”
My mother sighed.
“Maybe. He never wanted to talk about it. We are all a mix, you know. That’s what makes us so damned indecisive.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what she was referring to; as far as I can tell, Mamá and I share an absolute determination to act on our decisions at all costs. I had decided to go to Catalonia and nothing, not even my acceptance to Princeton, was going to stop me. I couldn’t explain it with words, but I wouldn’t be myself unless I could live in Catalonia. If I could go back there I could connect with my roots, maybe even with my father. I spoke the language, and I belonged there. To go anywhere else would mean committing intellectual suicide.
But a plane ticket to the USA was more expensive than a plane ticket to Spain, and Princeton was willing to take up my cause and pay my way. Everything had already been determined for me.
“Francesc, don’t let her do this to me!”
I squeezed my teacher’s slender, tense body. As though we were naked I could feel my breasts against his bones. Slowly he pushed me away.
“It’s okay, Casi, you will get there some day. Listen to your mother now, she knows best. Some day you will go.”
“I will go! I will go for you!”
“No,” he said, walking into the kitchen. I followed. He gave me the iron key and closed his hands on mine around it. “You will go for this.”
My mother didn’t know that Princeton had a Study Abroad program. She never imagined that I could handle all of that paperwork alone, apply for a visa, and secure all of my own arrangements to get the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona through Princeton. Yes, American universities are the greatest. They are indeed the gateways to everywhere and anywhere else in the world.
I wander down a series of twisting narrow streets with clothing shops and restaurants until I reach Port Vell. Jellyfish float under bobbing beer cans in the murky water. So many different types of people gather here! To my left a group of 10 Indian women from Britain sing “Eternal Flame,” next to two blonde-haired Germans with backpacks. A gypsy woman in a tattered shawl holds out her hand to a Chinese couple who shake their heads. To my right, a young broad-shouldered man with wavy brown hair, long sideburns and small, Polish-looking features argues with a small-waisted fair-skinned girl with cropped black hair. I recognized the man’s throaty voice as Argentine right away.
“I’m telling you, it works!” he says, throwing his hands up.
“Gabriel, you are so silly.”
“Ask anyone, anyone! Excuse me, Miss.”
It takes me a second to realize he was addressing me.
“Gabriel, you’re loco!” the girl shrieks with laughter.
“When you look at someone up close, doesn’t it appear that the face has four eyes?”
“Forgive him, he drinks four beers during siesta,” the girl interjects.
“I do not! Miss, I assure you my claim is true. You just have to put your face very close and focus.”
“This is just my friend’s way of flirting with the women,” comes another Argentine-sounding voice behind me. This one seemed younger, with huge dark eyes surrounded by long lashes, and an unnaturally thin body. His olive complexion and pronounced nose reminded me of a Jewish grocer who sold Francesc and me the most delicious apple tart I have ever tasted.
“Pretty lady, don’t listen to Ramón–”
“Ché, boludo! If I went up to girls asking them to ‘get very close’ to see my extra eyes, I’d get four slaps across the face!”
“I’ll try it,” I say. They seem like decent people, compatriots at that. “Come, the eyes.”
Blushing at the whistles and cheers of the others around us, I lean forward slowly until our noses were almost touching. Gabriel’s eyes are blue, a beautiful light blue with a light greenish tint around the pupils, jarring against his tan complexion. And with just a few centimeters between our faces my vision bifurcates the scene, such that I see three of these eyes, one off to the side of his ear.
“It’s true, I see three. Uno, dos, tres.”
“You see!” He gives Ramón a shove. “A purely scientific phenomenon, proven.”
“She said three, not four, moron!” the girl protests.
“Thank you for humoring my idiot friend,” Ramón tells me. “Where are you from?”
“Pergamino, right near Buenos Aires.”
“You don’t say! I’m from Rosario, and Gabriel is from Las Heras in the Patagonia. Judith here comes from outside Tel Aviv, Israel.”
“Really! You speak perfect Spanish,” I tell her.
“Thanks! I have been studying at the Universitat Autónoma for one year, and I’ve picked up a lot of colloquialisms from these guys.”
“That’s where I’m going to study too!”
“Fantastic! Which department?”
“Very nice. I study education. I would like to teach foreign languages.”
“Judith speaks Catalan a thousand times better than we do,” Ramón tells me. “I’ve spent five long years here and I’m still too embarrassed to use it.”
“You don’t need to speak Catalan in school?”
“We aren’t students,” Gabriel says. “I work in computer engineering, so English is much more important than Catalan.“
“What’s your name?” Judith asks.
“We should call you Chana,” Gabriel says. “In Hebrew it means grace, gracious, merciful.”
Chana, like Chanukkah, the festival of lights Francesc said my ancestors may have celebrated illegally with the eight-pronged candelabras…
“Boludo!” Ramón scolds. “Casandra is a very pretty name! If she wants us to call her Casandra, we should call her Casandra! We don’t even know if she’s Jewish!”
“Chana sounds beautiful,” I say. “And I know only that my grandfather’s family was of Jewish origin, probably from Catalonia or Mallorca. Mamá says he spoke Ladino and used to sing romanceros, but we have never practiced Judaism or spoken of it.”
“Hey, Gabriel, you hear that? Just like your ex–”
“Today all over the world there is a small group of people like you who are coming back to Judaism, or at least learning about it,” Gabriel tells me, interrupting Ramón. “They call themselves the ‘béne anusim,’ the children of the forced-converts. They say that their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism at the end of the Middle Ages, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel ordered the expulsion of all the Jews.”
“But there were riots here in Barcelona long before 1492,” Judith explains. “If you want, we can take you to the old Jewish Quarter and show you where people used to live. There is even part of a medieval synagogue that remains.”
“Really? I would love that,” I say.
“But today we don’t have time. At sundown we celebrate Shabbat, the Sabbath, when we welcome the Sabbath Bride. It is the most sacred day of the week. If you want, you’re welcome to join us.”
“Won’t anyone mind? I don’t know much about it…”
“Not at all,” Ramón assures me. “We go to the Reform synagogue, where half the people are one-time tourists, and the other half are South Americans. Then you’ve got a few Catalan people who don’t even know if they’re Jewish. Really, everyone is welcome.”
“Well, okay, sure. Thank you so much.”
As we walked up La Rambla towards the Metro, Ramón ask me all about Buenos Aires and what had been going on in Argentina over the past four years. Next to him, Judith gossips on her cell phone in rapid Catalan, and to my right I swear I felt a magnetic blue-green force pulling my hair all the way to Plaça Catalunya.