When showing our friends the extensive six week travel itinerary very neatly printed on one of Harry’s spreadsheets, with each day assigned a suggestion or five, we explained that we had left a four day gap open for exploring the Costa Brava. On seeing a potential opportunity to help us fill in the missing blanks, our friends emphatically advised, “You have to visit Barcelona. You’ll love it!”
Change of plans
Even though we felt dead with fatigue the previous night, collapsing on our beds in the Hostal Cap d’Or, Harry, Mike and I are happy to find ourselves reborn with a hunger for adventure. With a spring in our step and chatty conversation, we make our way to the hotel’s breakfast room: but the grey skies and drizzling rain dripping on the street outside the beachfront resort of Tossa de Mar thwarts Plan A: to swim in the blue waters of paradise.
“What’s plan B?” asks Mike helping himself to his second chocolate croissant and orange juice.
“To visit the centre of Barcelona.”
During our trip through the Pyrenees, it had surprised us how many warnings the French gave us about visiting the Catalan city of Barcelona. Not only did we hear stories of casual theft and the likelihood of being targeted by pick-pockets, one hotel porter seemed to delight in retelling a story where a tourist had been tricked by a thieving duo. One bandido slashed the car tyre on the freeway overpass while the other came up to offer help. Distracted by a stranger who appeared to be offering genuine assistance, the tourist failed to notice that the first bandido was merrily looting the back seat of the car.
With warnings such as these, Harry and Mike feared the worst, prompting a change of plan not to drive into the capital. They appoint themselves as my bodyguards and as we stand by our car, preparing to catch the train to Barcelona, my paranoid companions order me to empty my handbag and hand over anything of value so they can hide it in our boot.
“Excuse me, guys. Let’s not panic.” I clutch my bag tighter. “If we think we are a target, we will become one. I’m not putting that vibe out there.”
Harry is not convinced but closes the car boot, Mike takes up close bodyguard position on my right and in total silence we set off to buy tickets at the lonely station. The train into the centre of Barcelona crawls along the rickety coastal track and after an hour, Harry wonders whether to save time, we should have taken our chances and driven into the city.
One mistake leads to another
After one and a half hours of rocking and swaying and banging shoulders, the train pulls into Barcelona. Standing on the grey streets in the heart of this bustling city of over five million inhabitants, a sense of culture shock sweeps over us. The overwhelming busyness of people and traffic rushing in every direction leaves us motionless and dumbfounded on the pavement, looking this way and that, our feet glued to the grey cement.
“Looks like it’s too late to do an afternoon bus tour,” Harry informs us, pointing to the row of tourist buses pulling away from a nearby kerb. “What do you want to do now?”
“I don’t know.” I pout, annoyed we have missed the opportunity to be driven around this hectic city and to find myself suddenly appointed as the blind tour guide.
“We should have driven in,” grumbles Mike.
“So what do you want to do?” Harry prods again as drizzle turns to rain and the greyness of the city clouds our thoughts.
“Well, where are we? What can you see around here?” I ask, eager to get us out of the rain.
“A lot of shops”
“What sort of shops?” I ask with instant curiosity.
“Um, El Corte Inglés over there on the left.“
“Oh my God! El Corte Inglés?” I squeal and tug at Harry’s arm. “We’ve got to go in there. I can’t believe it.”
Mike and Harry throw a worried glance at each other. Harry had really opened a can of shopping worms by telling me we were standing just outside the largest department store in Spain.
“Not a good idea, Harry.” Mike teases. “We could be here all day!”
‘We always hold hands…if I let go, she shops’
I nudge my bodyguards, impatiently tapping the cane on the wet pavement.
“Come on. I used to shop in El Corte Inglés when I lived in Madrid for a year with my family – the store has everything. You’ll love it.”
“What about the Gaudí architecture we came to see?”
I smile at Harry. He should have thought of this five minutes ago. El Corte Inglés had taken precedence over architecture – silly man.
“Yeah. We can do that once you guys help me find the perfume counter,” I reply, encouraging them to inch closer towards the open electronic doors.
Once inside the store, overpowering fragrances of Chanel, Madame Rochas, Lanvin’s Arpège and many other European perfumes, dissipate any sense of logic I may have possessed outside the store. After half an hour and with the purchase of my favourite perfume tucked away in my bag, a deep desire to explore neighbouring counters leads us round and round as I urge Harry to find the department of leather goods.
What are you looking for?
“I thought you said you only wanted perfume?” Mike reminds me as he drags behind, rapidly losing interest as my bodyguard.
”We won’t be long,” I trill, the white cane tapping with a jolly rhythm. “We might as well look at handbags while we are here.”
“A Spanish leather bag.”
“Are you crazy?” pipes up Mike. We are in a frigging shop FULL of handbags.”
In his haste to curb the onset of a mother-son argument in public, Harry steps closer to Mike, displaying admirable solidarity by resting a calm hand on my son’s shoulder, saying to me, “Now, Maribel. You have to understand. We don’t mind helping you to find a handbag among this minefield of bags, but you have to tell us exactly what you are looking for, or we could be here all day.”
I hold back my response of, fine by me…but I sense the fire-breathing teenager by his side is about to explode if we don’t exit this consumer maze and reconnect to reality very soon.
“Well, maybe a brown one – or…no, red would be nice, I love the colour red. But maybe a black one, black goes with everything,” I add, trying to be concise.
“Which is it? Brown, red, black?”
“I don’t really know until I feel it. It needs to feel right.”
“How about this one?” Mike thrusts a brown bag into my hands.
“No. It’s not the right shape.”
“But you said brown?”
“Yes. But I don’t like that shape. It’s not me.”
Mike looks up at Harry. “She said brown?”
“Or red or black,” I hiss, sensing busy shoppers milling around us, picking up bags and placing them down again. I can’t bear being parked to one side without being allowed to touch one single item so, unguarded, I move towards a shelf and plunge my hands into the confined space – accidentally scattering bags onto the floor.
“Mum!” scolds my son, picking up the expensive leather debris all around us.
“Darling.” Harry grabs my arm, speaking slowly through gritted teeth, ”Just explain what colour bag you prefer. How big you like it, what shape and texture. Please – just let us help.”
While my helpful companions spend the next hour looking on my behalf for just the ‘right’ bag, I learned one important fact: that men and women really do come from different planets when it comes to making choices. A bloke wants to know all the engineering specifications up front (size, shape, colour, texture, width and diameter) whereas a woman is open to the seed of possibility, the initial idea growing organically as her choices grow (which is strangely misunderstood as changing her mind), to see what takes her fancy, choosing something completely different to her original idea. A woman follows her heart, a man is led by logical deduction.
So when my repeated rejection towards the leather bags offered as meeting the specifications failed, Harry and Mike were completely stumped.
“Sorry, no – no – and NO! Too small, too big, too stiff, too fake, too squat, too cheap, too expensive…”
“I give up,” says Harry.
“I’m starving,” glares Mike.
I’m over it too. My loyal menfolk and I had drifted onto different planets. The shopping anaesthetic had well and truly worn off and only a comforting plate of food and strong café au lait could restore the harmony required for us all to remember why we had come to Barcelona in the first place – to see the brilliance of Gaudi’s most famous work of architecture, La Sagrada Familia.
© 2013 Maribel Steel