Barcelona, Spain – January 2013
Walking Towards Ourselves
I made the decision to send our son Henry to boarding school back in 2008 when he was 16. Whilst this decision was unquestionably good for his education, it put enormous strains on our relationship. Now it was 2013 and Henry was in his second year at Kings College London reading Law. Various tumultuous events in both our lives had meant that from the time of sending him away (and that’s how it felt ) up to the present we had spent very little time in each other’s company. Now he would soon to be 21, and, rather nervously, I booked a mini break in Barcelona for the two of us. We had never travelled like this before and I was both excited and a little anxious at the outset……
The first surprise was the hotel. Hotel Majestic. Somehow it was far more, how can I put this?……..majestic than I expected. I don’t normally stay in hotels like this. The foyer was a vast, stone and marble pantheon with gold chandeliers dripping on every corner and lush red carpets leading the eye to secret nooks and crannies.
An enormous Christmas tree dominated the entrance. My own Christmas tree still boasts the green faced angel my daughter Beth painted when she was at brownies plus other family ‘treasures’ going back years. This tree however, was resplendent with perfect gold decorations placed symmetrically on perfectly balanced branches. “Go Booking.com – you’ve done us proud here” I mused as we approached Reception. At check in I was momentarily phased when a very smart porter took my case (although Henry seemed to take this in his stride). Then the receptionist asked ‘Sir’ if he wanted an upgrade to a de luxe double suite at no extra cost. Whilst I was double taking at hearing my son called “Sir” Henry’s lower jaw was dropping to the floor faster than a broken elevator as he processed what was being implied. When my delayed reaction finally kicked in, it was difficult to say which one of us was more embarrassed. Both momentarily speechless (an extremely rare occurrence) we regained composure and, loudly and in unison spluttered, “NOOOOOO! A twin room is fine thank you!” as we beat a hasty retreat towards the elevator.
What an idiot I am! It never occurred to me to book two single rooms! I didn’t even think about it. Just keeping costs down. It’s Henry for Christ’s sake – my son! I guess he has changed physically and yes – I suppose he does look like a proper grown up man now. The bum fluff has gone.
Definitely not the sulky teenager who used to slouch in the back of the car on family holidays. He has muscles. He wears great clothes. I guess he is quite attractive. Jeez – what a thought! My son is an attractive young man. And worse, some concierge thinks that I might be the kind of woman who would actually come to a hotel with an attractive young man! What is happening to me? Bloody hell! What am I projecting? Please God Henry does not get too embarrassed by this…..
“Hey Madre – Step into the bat cave!!”
Apparently unphased, Henry opened the door and stepped to one side as I entered the room then, very manfully, proceeded to organize it just as he wanted. It was not long before he was cracking jokes and arranging his extremely expensive clothes in neat rows on his side of the wardrobe (he’s a Capricorn) whilst simultaneously throwing his shoes, bag and coat to the other side of his bed.
Our room was, quite simply, stunning. The bathroom alone was cause for celebration. Built completely out of marble it had a power shower that could re-hydrate a small drought-stricken country and a tub you could drown in. The soap and shampoo products were all ‘Bulgari’ and we got through several of these with each ablution as our increasingly dry and flaky skin testified ! There were mirrors everywhere, when the room got hot and steamy the mirror above the sink had a little oblong bit that stayed clear, where you could admire your beautiful reflection, presumably thanks to some kind of magic convector hidden behind the walls. Marvellous!
The first time we ever took the kids to a hotel they must have been about 9 and 7. It was in Marlborough and we were visiting my Dad and Granny. They were so excited. The first thing they did was jump on all the beds. Then they got the pillows out of the wardrobe and had a pillow fight. The room was a mess! And when they found the fridge…. They made their own little picnic out of its contents and we had to knock on the door before we were allowed in. Now? I listened, swallowing the lump of emotion in my throat, desperately trying to be casual as I heard my son pick up the phone and smoothly order room service.
“Yah – how many varieties of meat do you actually get in a ‘house selection’?”
Tempting as it was to spend most of the first day mooching around in a white dressing gown, eating salami and olives and alternating between bath and shower, we did, eventually manage to venture out and explore down town Barcelona.
Over our four days we packed in some serious sight seeing. Immediately outside our hotel we bumped into a Gaudi designed building. It’s difficult to describe the impact of these buildings on the streets of Barcelona. In some ways they are extremely dramatic – bold colours, dynamic shapes, the kind of designs that children draw in their first colouring books. And yet here, in this city, they seem quite at home, nestled behind plane trees, bordering traffic and shops, passed daily by citizens and tourists alike. Functional, you could say. And of course, that was exactly what Gaudi intended… A man who was both spiritually humble and passionately committed to the Catalan way of life, you could say Gaudi’s work is utilitarian. Henry was fascinated by these buildings –I had had a hunch he would be.
For Henry’s 13th birthday, we took him and his sister to Paris on Eurostar. Imagine, a cold miserable January day, getting up at Stupid O’Clock and arriving at Waterloo with two grumpy teenagers……I don’t know what I was thinking of! And yet I will never forget watching Henry as he stood at the front of a boat on the River Seine in his little brown suede ‘Next’ jacket completely absorbed in looking at the buildings around him and listening to the audio guide. We skirted Notre Dame, ducked under bridges, passed stunning buildings and ordinary Parisian streets on the river bank – he hardly said a word so engrossed was he in absorbing every last detail of his surroundings. I knew then that my son was a deep thinking, passionate and sensitive young man.
Following the main street down to La Rambla, the Christmas lights and decorations were still up. La Rambla, the place to see and be seen, was full of life and colour. I set about introducing Henry to tapas. We last traveled to Spain as a family 7 years previously. We had a wonderful holiday in Seville. Then as now, Henry has always been something of a foodie. However, then he was a porky little pre-pubescent eating anything in sight with scarce a pause between breaths.
Now, he was a serious food connoisseur and indeed, an excellent cook having spent most of his student life working in restaurants in various capacities from washer-upper to sous chef. So it was an absolute delight to watch him carefully read the menu then cooly look around the room to check what the dishes looked like, and finally call the waiter over with complete confidence. He chose. And over the course of the evening, Gambas al Ajillo, Bacalao and Calamares was followed by Espinacas con garbanzos and Patatas bravas then Jamón Iberico, Albóndigas and others that I can’t remember. We drank Sangria. Then beer. And we chatted and had fun……
The next morning began with a bus to another Gaudi treasure, Parc Güell one of the most visited sites in Barcelona.
It did not disappoint. Originally designed as a gated community it’s a bright, stimulating place with funky, chunky stone/concrete/tile work you can sit and stand on. You also get a great view of Barcelona from here. After this, La Sagrada Familia beckoned, Gaudi’s spectacular cathedral – surely there is no other cathedral designed like this in the world? For the second time in my life (I came here on a Geography trip last year) I walked round the outside of it. We marveled at the design. We were amazed by the pictures of the interior in my guide book. Then we gasped at the length of the queue to get in and agreed that since this building would probably still be here in a few years we’d save it for another trip.
After this came the harbour, always a real pleasure followed by another queue, this time for the Picasso museum. I tried. I really tried but there is only so long you can stand in a queue with your (nearly) 21 year old son before you start to lose the will to live. Thus, before you could say, “Tapas” we were strolling through the Barri Gottic (what a delightfully atmospheric district this is), heading for a bier and a few more of those tasty little morsels – why would you eat anything else in Barcelona? Another little siesta back at the Magic Majestic was followed that evening, by a Flamenco show in a great bar, Los Tarantos . I loved it. Not sure it was Henry’s cup of tea but he made a good effort. Decided I like hanging out in cool bars with my son.
The 21st Birthday itself was a blast. We did most of our travelling by the (highly recommended) tourist bus which takes you everywhere, including Camp Nou, home to Barcelona FC. This was my second big surprise of the trip. I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed it!! Although we didn’t get to see the team training we got to see a hell of a lot and it had a great museum with more info in it about Catalonia’s history than anywhere else we’d been to so far.
I had no idea the growth and political development of the city and region was so closely linked to this football club nor how much it was and remains a focal point for Catalan pride. Mind you, apart from my knowledge of Lorca (an excellent playwright) I knew virtually nothing about the politics of Spain/Catalonia at all. I DID read, an excellent novel called ‘Guernica’ by Dave Boling for my book club recently and this really helped my understanding of the Spanish civil war. In any event, apparently, in 1925 Franco banned the use of the Catalan language and the football stadium became one of the few places people could express their dissatisfaction. Amazing eh? Who says sport and politics don’t mix….
Henry loved it and we’ve decided to try and get tickets for a game one day.
Later that evening post yet another siesta (how cool are siestas?), we took a taxi to the cinema complex by the sea and went to see El Hobbit (loosely translated as, ‘The Hobbit’) which was great, although annoying that during the elf-speak bits we didn’t have a translation – only Spanish sub-titles. Still we vaguely got the gist of it. It was fairly clear when a white ork got cross and Galadriel was so beautiful and empathetic we knew instinctively what she was saying to Gandalf, the old scally-wag, by the tone of her voice!(self – doubt? Gandalf? Surely not?). So that was all right.
Post El Hobbit we headed for El Plaça Reial which has become a bit of a favourite haunt for us. Our night ended at ‘Oçana’ a fabulous Tapas bar that I read about in an Easy-jet magazine .(All those flights came in useful after all).As we walked in, all heads turned. We nudged each other,
“Everyone’s looking at you, Henry”
“No Mother – everyone’s looking at you! Remind me to fix you up with one of my mate’s divorced Dads when I get back to London”
And after another slightly weird but very real transition (the one where we both had to adapt to the fact that we were in this really cool place but with our mother/son) we made our way to a table in the centre of the bar. It was lively, buzzy and we both loved it.
Tonight we started with Mojitos before diving into the tapas. We caught the attention of a couple of transvestites who lavished us with attention, keen to know all about us. When the waiter found out Henry was 21 we were spoiled rotten by all and sundry!! The whole bar finally sang Happy Birthday to him. They even brought him a cake – a perfect end to a perfect day.
Our time together was not without periods of getting on each others nerves. For Henry, some of the things that annoyed him about me included:
- “I don’t get you sometimes Mum….. You can go through a divorce; manage being a Mother and Grandmother to 3 of us from a different country; hold down a full time job; cope with running 2 homes and 2 cars in 2 countries but you can’t choose a seat on a bus, you run out in front of traffic and you lose tickets at airports!”
- “Stop walking like a crab”
- “Stop. Just stop talking now.”
And for my part:
- The random spraying of deodorant on my neck
- The alacrity with which hotel products, including toilet rolls disappeared into the student suitcase.
- Comments such as,
“Well we’ve been here 2 days now and I still haven’t seen one fit bird. I want a rebate now.”
“How much Flamenco can any one person actually see?”
(this to my complaint that the show was only 30 minutes long…..!)
Having celebrated this rite of passage together we now return to our individual pursuits. Him to studying, me to teaching.
It’s clearer to me than ever that Henry has more than survived the changes in our family – he has adapted and is thriving, with many fine qualities that I am very pleased to see. And we had so much fun! I’m under no illusions of course. I know he still hurts very much, about lots of things. And there’s still a bit of anger there. But only time and an open heart will heal this. I cannot, alas, heal him myself. And whilst I had expected that there would be some changes in him, I had not expected to become aware of some changes that have happened in me. This precious time together as mother and son has reconnected us in time honoured fashion but it has also given us a tantalizing glimpse of an entirely new relationship – two adults with lots of things in common who not only love each other very much but who have so much to give to one another. And that makes me a very proud and happy Mum who can sense all kinds of new possibilities.
Post Henry’s Departure
January 5th 2013
Sat here, on my glorious own-some in the little square I spotted with Henry the other day, just off Place de Jaume. It’s called Placa de Sant Miquel. The sun is
shining and there are a few guys sat on the piazza behind me, strumming away at the guitar, Spanish style. I am coming to love the sound of the Spanish guitar. I’ve got the sun full in my face. It’s so warm. Most of the tourists are elsewhere. It’s peaceful and quiet. On my way here, I had to pass the Cathedral (the ‘ordinary’ one –Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia) and, to my utter surprise, it was open. I went in and had one of those moments that creeps up on me now and again – a sense of peace, of utter well-being, a strong moment of faith. This time in the side chapel of Saint Lucia. Thank you God for being with me. I feel your presence so strongly today. In fact, I have felt it all week.
(Thank you, thank you thank you God for this time I have had with him………
PLEASE can we spend more time together again soon…………………)
I have time now. A different kind of time. Time to myself. Time to think. How fortunate and blessed am I. Here in this beautiful square in sunny Barcelona in January 2013. Just ordered myself a Cava (poured beautifully and sensuously by the waiter, from a bottle at my table).
OMG: in my perfect square with the perfect waiter and the perfect sunshine there has only just appeared a clarinetist and accordion player. Could today get any better?
It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –
A sunny day with leaves just turning,
The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play
Your first game of football, then, like a satellite
Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away
Behind a scatter of boys. I can see
You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.
That hesitant figure, eddying away
Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,
Has something I never quite grasp to convey
About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching
Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.
I have had worse partings, but none that so
Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly
Saying what God alone could perfectly show –
How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
By Cecil Day Lewis