A stroll through Can Fanga
Writing about Barcelona is a way of recuperating it. This form of resistance has inspired a great deal of literature, be they collections of oral stories, memories or articles on specific areas of the city. One of the most recent attempts is Diumenges a Barcelona (Sundays in Barcelona – Comanegra), a collection of the chronicles Xavier Theros has been writing for the Sunday edition of Ara newspaper.
“Looking on is always a little sad, and to do it you need a certain amount of strength. Walking, mingling with the world, is easier and more joyful”, wrote Josep M. Espinàs in Carrers de Barcelona (Streets of Barcelona – Selecta, 1961). The motor that inspires him draws near to the idea of the flâneur, the walker, the individual who roams the streets of the city with no destination or set bearing. Often, we take more care in walking through foreign cities than in exploring our own. Lugging papers one way or running late the other, always in a hurry, reluctant to take the long way or to run into tourists, we natives often forget where we live.
Among other noble and necessary pursuits, writing about Barcelona is a way of recuperating it, of preserving specific stories about it. This form of resistance has inspired a great deal of literature, be they collections of oral stories, memories or articles on specific areas of the city. One of the most recent attempts is Diumenges a Barcelona (Sundays in Barcelona – Comanegra), a collection of the chronicles Xavier Theros has been writing for the Sunday edition of Ara newspaper. It also includes illustrations by photographer Jordi Nebot.
Theros has already published several books on Barcelona, and this time he offers short articles on specific routes (like Passeig Maragall, an artery that changes its name five times), neighbourhood initiatives (like the clandestine Ràdio Pica) or forgotten objects. Other pieces are more like guided itineraries that make you feel like cutting them out and carrying them in your pocket. Theros pays special attention to the scars and stains on walls, and discusses tools like the boot scraper (which some buildings still have), a mud-removing implement from when the streets weren’t yet paved. In the early 20th century, a stroll outside the old city would get pedestrians so dirty that Barcelona was given the nickname “Can Fanga” (Muddy’s).
Here, the city is portrayed as the chaotic accumulation of eras and meanings, all stamped on the skin of buildings and in the memories of generations.
Well-documented, rigorous, Theros moves freely through the city, interpreting the historical baggage of each building. His chronicles take on a more human air when they move away from excessive documentation to focus on individual anecdotes, like when Theros analyses the day-to-day of a young gravedigger on Montjuïc, accompanies a group of necro-tourism enthusiasts or talks with a participant in the old waiters’ race, where restaurant professionals competed tray in hand. On this last topic, Theros speaks with Albert Figueras, a waiter who took part in the race for the first time in 1983, the last year it was held openly, with waiters showing their skill by running down La Rambla, dodging pedestrians.
Here, the city is portrayed as the chaotic accumulation of eras and meanings, all stamped on the skin of buildings and in the memories of generations. Plus, since geography and memory are permeable, matters like education, urbanism or religion trickle in. That’s how we discover that Barcelona was one of the first places in Europe to open a school for the deaf (the first was inaugurated in 1800), that La Mercè (our Lady of Mercy) was named patroness of Barcelona after having saved the city from a plague of locusts, or that the idea of storing and transporting refrigerated blood was born here, thanks to Doctor Frederic Duran i Jordà.
A thin line separates stories of the past and nostalgia, and the book lacks articles that draw it closer to the Barcelona of today, now that it’s so badly needed. Espinàs referred to this in the collection Carrers de Barcelona. In the prologue, Espinàs defended a new point of view, stating “if the chronicler from 1800 had been a historian, we’d now be left without any written testimony on the Barcelona of 1800.” Espinàs’ chronicles focus on the Barcelona of the ‘60s, and the city’s change in rhythm can be noted in the difference between his prose and Theros’. Espinàs places himself at the centre of the chronicle and strolls calmly, adjectively savouring everything he sees. In his book, the streets have a pulse, the stores throb, the signs give life: it all invites you to stroll, and to stop and have a drink. Truth is left in the background.
Though both are necessary, Theros’ vindicatory, documentary serenity contrasts with Espinàs’ almost childish joy. However, in both cases, the same ambiguous relationship with Barcelona appears, a to-and-fro between possessing the city (seeing it as your own) and separating yourself from it (letting it run on its own).
Both books encourage us to reclaim our city, to fight for it. If, at any point, we need to put ourselves in the hands of fate, we can always pray as Espinàs did (way back in 1961!) for poor Carrer Escudellers: “may God have mercy on this street, which once welcomed the strolling marquises of Castelldosrius, whose palace was here, and today vibrates shrilly, pathetically, like a guitar, smelling of fried oil and spilt wine, tired and disgusting.”
Diumenges a Barcelona
Author: Xavier Theros
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