The digressive amplitude of life
Merry Christmas from Barcelona
Greetings from Barcelona —
This city is magical at Christmas. The city hangs lights over the big streets in each neighborhood, each getting a unique design. Move from neighborhood to neighborhood at night, and the lights add a feeling that each part of the city is special in its own way.
As a city reporter in my youth, and in the years since I’ve heard a thousand ideas for “placemaking.” That is, how to turn a particular stretch of urban landscape into more than just its assortment of streets and street corners, apartment buildings, and public spaces. But of all the think tank generated, public input solicited, and nonprofit suggested ideas, these lights are something special.
I don’t know who thought of them or how they came to be, but whoever it was, I say: well done.
I’m coming on five months living abroad, and the more I think about my new life here, the more I think about the phrase from Kieran Setiya, which I quoted a few weeks ago:
Don’t let the lure of the dramatic arc distract you from the digressive amplitude of being alive.
It’s easy to focus on the part where we are lured to place the events of our lives into a grand narrative arc. But it’s the second turn of phrase that I’ve realized I’ve been neglectful about: the digressive amplitude.
I am speaking of course of the lights over the neighborhoods, which are reason enough to put on your coat and walk the streets of Barcelona at night.
I am speaking of the pizza and wine in El Born with my Spanish class, with whom I have formed an unexpected bond of friendship. They were compeñeros in the beginning, but now, after months of shared lessons, learning, frustration, and laughter, they are much more. Friends who I would like to share a two-hour meal and a table with any day.
I am speaking of the chalk dust in the climbing gym when there are a lot of people there. And the messy, broken Spanish I’ve learned to practice with the climbers there. And the expanding community of climbers who spread out every weekend from the city to drive into the mountains in every direction, and the deep friendships I’ve formed with some of them. Deep enough to feel real loss when one has to move back to where they were before.
And, I am speaking of the city in all its messy, International, provincial, complicated, historic glory. The graffiti on the walls, the festivals and marches, the narrow Gothic streets and the wide urban boulevards, the bike lanes, the traffic, the taxi drivers and their strikes. The activists and artists, the city workers, and the restaurant owners. The prickly old Chinese couple across the street who are closing their small shop after the New Year.
The very visible homeless, ubiquitous in Raval and overflowing into the Gothic Quarter and Sant Antoni and parts of Eixample, some with heads bowed and supplicated, others pushy, grabbing, others asleep on benches and in nooks of street corners, their possessions heaped into a pile inside cardboard boxes next to them. The one asleep on the crowded bus to Sants, who smelled terribly, and who was roused and shamed for not giving up his seat to an elderly woman standing in the isle.
The man with cerebral palsy who is rolled in his wheelchair to the bus stop outside my apartment every weekday morning—I always know he’s there because he can do nothing but moan: painful, inquiring, frustrated, excited moans, more than loud enough to penetrate the large, thin, single-pane windows leading into the living room two stories above. I’m usually just having my first cup of coffee when he gets there, and my son is getting ready for school. There he is again, I think each morning.
The dogs being walked at all hours of the day and night, their owners picking up the poop and spraying the spots of pee, but the smudges and smells remaining, until it all eventually dries out and an overnight deluge washes it away, and then the cycle starts again.
The pastries in every window on every block, all across the city—the digressive amplitude of the kinds, sizes, and freshness of the pastries. The croissants de xocolata o de crema, the Napolitanas, Joanetes, en bombo, blanc, o amb lett, the xuxos, the minis.
The Catalan mixed with Spanish mixed with everything else. The way some have adopted merci as the default way to say “thank you” when they know they’re speaking to a local.
The €12 haircuts. The €130 a month parking. The drab Catalan cantinas and the glowing Gracia bodegas. The always-packed plaças. The cafes con leche caliente. The beers at 9 am and the vermuts at midnight. The drought, the beach, the Mediterranean sun, the cool December nights.
And everything I have missed, forgotten, or failed to write down.
I have been a bad chronicler these first few months. But then, most of us will miss most things.
This is the thing about digressive—we stray, life drifts, and we get distracted. If we could only focus, pay more attention, perhaps we could break our collective obsession with dramatic life arcs. They are cheap and easy, and digressive amplitude is messy and confusing.
And, I would posit, more interesting, in the end.
Merry Christmas everyone. Until next year.