Writing Retreat

THEME: Travel


by Melissa

This was no ordinary getaway. I had characters without homes, streets with no names, bars without atmosphere. I had to search for authenticity, otherwise I’d remain feeling a fraud.

Fleeing family and jobs, I arrived alone. I had to allow myself this sliver of selfishness. This was me, exhaling.

I had a single bed. Everything in the room was white except the wood floor and a royal-blue chair: the perfect blank canvas. I purchased wine to match artichokes and began indulging, passionately fingering my laptop with oily tips.

I knew nobody.

Day one, tapping friends-of-friends, I met Brit Natasha who sketched crosses on my map to accompany her stories: ‘This lady hand-replicates ceramic tiles no longer in production’. I exchanged a four-way UK plug cable for this information and walked home, elated.

Day two, another Brit, Krystal from Peckham, oozing cool. Her brightly coloured headscarf and English accent drew in every hipster expat from Europe, kissing her cheeks, knowing her name. ‘Once a month I run Brick Lane Barcelona – a series of vintage clothes stalls.’

We eat a menu dia – three courses and wine for ten euros. But our chat extended to coffee then champagne cocktails, then chocolate sat on the steps by the Gothic Cathedral: ‘I don’t walk Las Ramblas at night. As a black woman I won’t risk police confusing me with prostitutes.’ They prefer to rob than fuck.

Day three I lunch with Catalan students, Lara and Isabel. They made traditional food accompanied with astounding facts about the artistic movement of the 1960s-80s: ‘Everything authentic died here with the Olympics.’ There are no longer artists like those who opposed Franco and Spain, serving up psychedelic folk music and anarchy alongside their heroin injections on Eivissa.

I spent day four walking the prestigious parts of Barcelona. The narrow lanes kept the sun from my face but I wanted the sun, I hadn’t felt it in months.

I found my character’s home. He lives on a piazza in Sarrià, opposite a cafè where a lady served me tortilla wearing oversize glasses on petite features. I imagined him watching me from his luxury apartment.

I wandered the high street, gazing at boutique shops like patisserie Foix, family owned since creation, famous for its chocolate covered clam-shaped biscuit.

I continued my walk to where my map states, ‘Super Posh’, courtesy of Natasha, but the map doesn’t need to say it. The huge detached mansions with elaborate CCTV are proof, as are the many men sitting in the shade by dustbins ready to collect discarded paper, which they can exchange for cash.

It was five-thirty in the afternoon, but the schools were only just kicking out. Scores of expensive cars lined the streets and I was amazed at the proportion of both father and mother being present, kissing both cheeks, holding both hands. A luxury I assumed most workers had lost.

As I continued my loop, I noticed the architecture become older until I arrived at a monastery. I could see through the yellow brick arch to steps leading up to a bell tower; in front, an oval of grass with well-fed children playing surrounding by lush flowering hedges. I was in some kind of paradise, overcome with the beauty. I didn’t want to leave but my bladder told me I must. I headed back towards the shops and restaurants.

As I showered, I felt the day’s heat rise from my skin. I put on a dress and smiled at myself in the mirror. We’d fallen in love again: She, who wants to write, and Me, who wants her to do, it but is afraid of putting all those eggs in one basket; the sensible one who pays the rent.

Night fell and I headed out to meet the Catalan ladies at nightclub Marula. En route I chatted to two Englishmen to help me find my way. They were high on drugs and full of swearing. It was the first time I came without my map, but knowingly so. That six euro piece of paper was now much more valuable with the words of all my helpers, their stories and their crosses. I would rather have lost my passport and all my money.

I found the club and tried to dance, but the nightlife soon out-thrived me. In the safety bubble of already being in a relationship, my eyes were fresh, noting the varying methods people chose to seduce: one man slipping his wedding ring into his pocket; the ladies erotically dancing together, slowly winding their bodies to the floor.

It was three in the morning. My feet that had been loyally walking me around Barcelona’s privileged roads demanded to be horizontal, toes pointing to the sky. My new friends protested, telling me Catalans only arrive at clubs now and party until at least six am! My feet throbbed two extra bolts of ouch at the thought of three more hours and I left.

I found myself walking to the night bus, fifteen minutes up Las Ramblas and there they were. The streets lined with clusters of black women, mostly teenagers barely hitting eighteen. One man swayed side to side, delighted by the arm of one prostitute wrapped around him. She hissed at four others to join in. All the time he smiles at his luck, unaware tomorrow he will have empty pockets.

Meanwhile, male pickpockets hide behind the small shops on the parade, away from the slow maneuvering of police vehicles with vigilant officers’ heads hanging out the car windows. One thief blatantly concealed something large and square up his top. I wished I had the guts to unzip it and pull it out, give it back to the owner. But a few things flashed my mind: his friend could hurt me, the police could hurt them, the thing might be a weapon, and material possessions are replaceable, whereas life chances are especially rare once your fingers have been inked.

The final day I went looking for deprivation. The park I walked through smelled like dog feces at every turn, beyond were drunks and men openly peeing; a beautiful young girl smiled, innocently unaware what her black rotting teeth revealed to me. I spoke broken Spanish with her father, originally from Cuba. They’ve lived here four years.

I found the courtyard-come-football pitch I’d Googled for Chapter Two. I saw a lady exit a nearby door – resembling a sheet of metal more than finished object. There was a hole where the lock should be. I pulled it open.

Compelled, I climbed each staircase. The penultimate floor had a door wide open. A radio played. My eyes wide with curiosity, I pried into the tiny kitchen. A small table of paperwork. A net clasping the miniature sink, giving two orange gas cylinders beneath some grace. The cupboards were bare. I wanted to open the fridge, but I daren’t step in.

I continued up the stairs and found myself on the roof, which first looked like a dumping ground for junk. On closer inspection it appears assembled by a very meticulous hoarder, with piles of plates together, mattresses together, screws in a pile side by side with bolts and nuts. Empty plant pots in order by size. Nothing is worthless. Nothing wasted.

An old man emerged, thinking I’m lost. He couldn’t have been more wrong.


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