It is February, 1974, a year before Generalissimo Franco’s demise. Things are tense in Barcelona. The angst is muffled by Catalan defiance and big city swagger, but evident all the same in the wary gaze of the locals. At night the wind howls like hungry dogs. The dogs howl too. Their skinny profiles hug doorways, creeping in and out of alleyways, casting wary shadows.
The one-legged night clerk in my no-frills pension, presumably a veteran of the civil war, who sits, watching soap operas on a black and white TV set turned up so loud I wonder if his hearing might not likewise be impaired, insists, much as I try to dissuade him, on escorting me to my room, limping ahead, key in hand, whether out of kindness, duty or distrust it is impossible to determine.
My bed is a virtual suspension bridge, the metal frame sagging low, the ribs of its grid protruding through the thin mattress, creaking and rattling every time I flip over from back to belly, and belly to back, in a futile attempt to get comfortable. The walls rumble whenever anybody above or below flushes the toilet. I try to find a pattern in the silent pauses between flushes.
I am serenaded meanwhile, in my restless stirring by the blind lottery salesman stationed late into the night on the street corner directly below my window, whose toad-like croak: “Pari! Pari!” he has trained to soar several decibels above the sound of traffic. I prop myself up on my right elbow, peer out the window, and watch him straining his neck in all directions like a submarine periscope, as if by a vestigial reflex mimicking the motions of sight. And while I never saw him sell a single ticket, I wonder with the idle logic engendered by lack of sleep, how, if he ever sold one, he would know if he was paid the right amount and manage to return the correct change? Wrapped in multiple layers of clothing and a ratty blanket, I try to assume a semblance of comfort, and finally catch a couple of winks in between flushes and croaks.
Having dutifully done the tourist thing in the preceding days, admired Gaudi’s unabashedly quixotic architectural take on faith in the Church of the Sagrada Familia, Picasso’s grim depiction of maternity and other somber, quasi-realistic tableaux of his blue funk period on display at the museum that bears his name, and tried in vain to get the parrots to repeat “fuck a duck” at the bird market on Las Ramblas, I decide to seek spiritual serenity.
So I set out late the following morning by train and bus to visit an ancient monastery some 40 miles northwest of the city, where the raging current of the Llobregat River carved out the jagged white peaks of the Montserrat (literally serrated mountain), and where mankind somehow managed to insert itself into the ravines of an inhospitable cluster of natural skyscrapers, leaving traces that date back to Neolithic times. The Hermits of Santa Maria savored its solitude in the 9th century. They were followed, in turn, by the Benedictines, who sandwiched the Basilica of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat into a snug pocket of conglomerate gray rock to house La Moreneta, Our Lady of Montserrat, a black wooden Madonna and child. The sculpture was fashioned, legend has it, by the Apostle Luke, and discovered by shepherds attracted by a bright light and heavenly music emanating from a nearby cave where it had allegedly remained safely hidden under Moorish rule.
The mother’s hands and the child’s feet have been rubbed to an eerie nocturnal finish by the kiss and clasp of the devout. (No real live black mother and child would be treated with such reverence in today’s anti-immigrant climate.) The basilica fills daily with busloads of the hobbling and the heartsick and droves of giddy schoolchildren dying to lay their hands on the exposed fingers and toes and rub off as much good luck as they can get. La Moreneta’s touch is said to engender miracles.
Irritable from lack of sleep, I cannot bear the noisy little worshippers jostling with the cripples to rub off a finger- or toe-hold of Lady Luck.
To escape the throng I hop the funicular up to the Santa Cova, the cave in which the Madonna was allegedly discovered, but it too is mobbed, so I hike upwards, oblivious to time and altitude. The Malo Valley looms far below, and only a few crows disturb the perfect peace. Weary after a while, soothed by the silence, I sit down and am promptly overcome by sleep.
When I awaken, the sun hangs low above the craggy hood of San Jeroni, the tallest of the peaks. It gives me pause to see the darkness closing in and to fathom that I am all alone on a mountain top, so I hurry back to the funicular station.
Hopping with holy hikers just a few hours before, the place is now deserted, the windows all shuttered. Outside the door a mule stands tied to a railing, swishing its tail back and forth to shoo away flies. I call out but there is no answer. The mule and I exchange doleful looks. I tiptoe past him and knock at the door. No response. I pound at it with clenched fists and press an ear against the wood to listen within.
My efforts finally pay off. The door swings open, accompanied by a volley of incomprehensible curses, and out steps an unsmiling man with a thick black mustache, cradling a shotgun. His eyes are red, his breath reeks of wine. He is not pleased to see me.
My Spanish being rudimentary, and Catalan nonexistent, it takes my tongue some time to shape meaningful utterances, patching together a hodgepodge of rudimentary Spanish, chin tilts and lower lip inversions. “Por favor, signor, que hora–please sir, what time the next funicular down–abajo?”
“Mañana! Tomorrow!” he grunts back.
I think for certain he must have misunderstood and so I repeat the question, emphasizing the word “abajo,” pointing downwards with a shaky right index finger.
“Mañana!” he repeats, his patience increasingly frayed.
“Fu-ni-cu-lar?” I take pains to enunciate each syllable, plucking out and waving my return ticket.
“Cerrado! Closed!” comes the definitive reply.
“Como abajo? How down?” I sum up my distress, trying to fashion a convincing smile with my anguished cheek muscles and twitching lips.
“Allí!” There!” he says, pointing with the barrel of his shotgun to a sign nailed to a tree indicating a trail, and promptly slams the door shut in my face.
Obliged to ponder my precarious situation, I run through possible scenarios. What if I stumble and sprain an ankle? What if I lose my way? What if I run into a wild animal, a wolf or a bear? What if I am accosted by a bandit or a member of the dreaded Guardia Civil? Anything can happen, I tell myself, whipping up my fear.
The mule and I exchange doleful looks again. I have no choice but to knock again.
Finally reappearing, the man with the mustache is tipsier than before, casting nervous glances at my jacket pocket, out of which pokes the handle of a foldable umbrella, still a novelty at the time, which, I only realize in retrospect, he must in the fading light and in his drunken stupor have mistaken for the hilt of a handgun.
“Por favor!” I repeat, raising my eyebrows and shoulders in dismay, flashing my return ticket.
“Caminas! Walk!” he snarls back, and again shuts the door in my face.
So I saunter past the mule to the signpost, and follow the trail until it divides into a fork, one prong of which leads into the dark woods and the other dips at a precipitous angle down a steep ravine, with no indication of which direction will lead me to salvation.
The sun is setting. Dismayed at my limited options, of either falling to my doom or having to spend a cold night alone in the woods on the mountaintop, I panic, do an about-face and return to the funicular station. Pressing my ear to the door, the only sound I hear is the racing thump of my own heart. I knock, and since there is no answer, pound wildly.
The man with the black mustache, who does eventually reemerge with the shotgun now raised to eye level, is clearly disinclined to patience.
Drawing a diagram with a stick in the dirt, I desperately try to explain that there is a fork in the trail, and plead with him to show me the way.
Walking on ahead, with the shotgun cocked and pointed at the small of my back, feeling like a disposable character in a Spaghetti Western, I am convinced that at any minute his drunken right finger will twitch and tug at the trigger. I direct silent prayers at the Black Madonna. Though a Jewish agnostic, true to my traveler’s credo I always entrust my destiny to the good will of local spirits, figuring her maternal instinct will kick in.
When I come to a halt at the fork in the path, he gives me a nudge with the gun barrel in the direction of the woods. Terrified, I start running without turning around, figuring it is better to risk getting lost in the woods than to land a bullet in the back.
I stumble all the way down and make it just in time to catch the last bus from the basilica back to the train station. The bus is almost full. Climbing aboard, exhausted from running, panting for breath, I scour the vehicle to find the only empty seat beside—you guessed it—the man with the black mustache, who greets me with a grin and passes me his wineskin pouch.
My prayers to the Black Madonna, an equal opportunity dispenser of mercy, paid off. That night I sleep soundly, oblivious to slouching bed frame and flushing walls.
After checking out the following morning, I buy a lottery ticket by way of offering.
Cut to the present. In a heap of papers, inveterate packrat that I am, I discover two snippets folded together, a return funicular ticket and a wrinkled receipt, the digits faded but the memory intact, a souvenir of Barcelona. For all I know it was a winning number.