One o’clock in the morning – La Rambla, Barcelona
The Rambla in Barcelona is considered to be one of the ‘must’ places to visit if you are in the city. Publicity pictures and videos will show you hoards of smiling people, brightly dressed, relaxed as they take in the sun at the same time as they take in all the sights the Rambla has to offer. There are cafés aplenty, the human statues (although they were strangely absent when I was there recently), the smell from the flower stalls half way down, the artists waiting to paint your portrait down at the bottom end. But a different form of tweeting now comes from the part of the Rambla where the bird sellers used to be based, the sale of wild birds having been banned since 2010.
I’ve never thought that walking down this crowded thoroughfare was ever a pleasure. If you don’t look where you are going no one else is going to do so and it is as much fun as walking through a crowded underground station in London at the time of the evening rush hour. It gets busier every year and new technology has made matters worse as it seems even women aren’t able to both talk on a mobile phone and look where they are going at the same time, so what chance men? And there are always the ever-present, always watching, continually vigilant pick-pockets who are sizing up who looks the easiest touch as their next victim.
But some people like the atmosphere and will not be dissuaded from this ritual in a visit to the city, much to the joy of all those whose livelihood, both legal and illegal, depend on the limitless supply of willing victims.
As it gets dark the crowds start to thin out but there are still many people passing up and down this tree-lined avenue. It’s only in the very, very early hours of the morning, when the detritus of the previous day is being cleared away by a small army of street cleaners, that tourists are outnumbered by the locals.
With the change in the light there’s a change in the players. Alcohol becomes a more important component as the night draws on and the atmosphere changes.
Fueled by a few drinks (probably in their hotel room) the only complaint from one member of a small group of Welsh tourists (about 8 of them) that one of the women had stolen a bottle of wine from a small supermarket was that the bottle didn’t have a screw top. The alcohol had made them oblivious to the fact that although in a foreign country there were still likely to be many people who could understand their ‘banter’.
As the hands of the clock indicate that it is now the next day the crowds get thinner, the sellers start to pack up and the piles of rubbish grow at the side of the road. Now there are more groups, both male and female, who have left yet another bar in search of new one, something they’ve been doing since the sun went down. Their sharp wit and clever antics amuse all who are lucky to witness the high level of culture they have brought from their respective countries.
It’s likely they’ve been to one or more of the overpriced, dirty and tacky bars that have appeared in the guide books since I first started visiting Barcelona on a regular basis almost twenty years ago. Unfortunately what was then reasonably priced (or even favourably priced before the introduction of the Euro) is a thing of the past and wherever the extra money has gone it has not been invested in the infrastructure of the bars themselves. Pictures are askew, paper is peeling from the walls and ceilings and the colour scheme was dictated by the nicotine that used to be spread over every surface, static or moving, before the enforcement of the smoking ban.
But if you feel that the wallet has been assaulted by these formal bars yet are still thirsty it’s possible to get a warm beer from informal sellers who stand in the middle of the Rambla, cans of Estrella hanging from the plastic that keeps the cans together before they are wrenched apart with a sale. These sellers might be ‘sin papeles’ (those without a formal right to be in the country) they may not, the economic situation forcing many to look for other ways to make a ‘living’.
Other people with something to sell also come out with the setting of the sun. Some of the streets of the Barrio Chino are lined with women from all parts of Europe and Africa who sell themselves. Whatever they thought when they left their home countries it’s unlikely that this was the trade they would have chosen. As the night gets later they migrate closer to, or even on to, the Rambla. Pimps and minders are never far away and as Dutch courage works on potential clients, and as the thinning crowds make such approaches less intimidating, they start to negotiate the terms and agreements.
Bouncers stand outside empty bars, hardly making them inviting places to enter. How can so many bars exist, even in the best of circumstances? Surely after one o’clock in the morning there are not enough people around to fill them all?
Cans and plastic bottles start to pile up in alcoves seemingly made for the dumping of rubbish. Someone else can pick them up and, so far, the area of the Rambla does appear rubbish free at the start of every day. These may be the workers from the municipality or it could be the scavengers who also appear to be more numerous in the fading light. This doesn’t mean to say that this doesn’t take place during the day time, supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels are ideal for transporting items of no value to some but of potential value to others.
Fresh urine gets added to that which had been matured in the sun of the previous day and there are some streets and alley ways that never seem to be free from the acrid smell, however much the streets might be hosed down.
Of course, all this is not just as a result of tourism and the dependence that many, many cities (and countries) throughout the world have on outside visitors but it doesn’t help. Even in the so-called ‘developed’ countries the negative effects of this business is not so far below the surface.
And as this cycle of events is repeated day after day after day do we really want this to be the sort of future for our young people, either behaving like idiots or pandering to the whims of such.