In this post I want to tell you about a neighbour who lived in a flat below me when I worked in Barcelona, over twenty years ago now. She was, I think, in her early eighties. I shall call her Montse here. I never got to know her well as I moved to another part of the city after a little less than a year. I know nothing about her previous life, but she has always stayed in my mind because she seemed to have a serenity that I aspire to.
This was 1986/87, before Spain entered the European Community and the post Franco welfare system was very meagre. If she had any pension it would have been a tiny amount. Family was the main means of support then and she never mentioned contact with any relative in our talks.
Our flats were in a crumbling tenement block in a poor part of the city, the Ribera, down towards the Port before it was redeveloped during and after the 1990 Olympics. It was just like the four storey blocks you can see in the photo on the left from Veclus Heritage. The Picasso museum was just two or three streets over towards the port, but there was no reason then for tourists to wander down our street with its small shops and down at heel bars.
Montse had lived through turbulent times during her lifetime, including civil war and a dictatorship, and here she was, living alone in a part of Barcelona where, in those days, you did not walk the narrow streets by yourself once all the small bars had closed (I found that out the hard way – by being mugged on my way home from work one evening). But she always greeted me with a warm smile, and I never heard her complain, unlike the woman a good twenty years younger than her, who lived on the first floor, also alone.
She didn’t travel anywhere in the time I knew her. Every morning she would go down to the street and come back with a small bag of shopping. This old tenement had no lift and she lived on the third floor, beneath my flat. When I first moved in I would be severely out of breath by the time I had climbed the narrow flights of stairs to my door. My neighbour climbed them slowly, but calmly.
In the afternoons she usually came up, past my door and on up a short flight of stairs to a door that led her out, past a plaster cast statue of the Virgin Mary in a small alcove, onto the roof and into blue sky and sunshine. This is where I met her. Up there, there was a Gormenghast panorama of the surrounding city; a vast jumble of flat roofs , washing hanging on lines and spiky television aerials everywhere, spearing the sky like a ravaged forest of dead trees. From the front roof you could see up to the Gothic cathedral, with the bigger buildings of the city centre in the distance. There was an occasional shapely curved roof and well built wall, but the overall impression was of dusty red brick chaos.
The flat roofs of these buildings was an extra space for the tenants, and ours were full of pots of plants; lining the edges, on spindly plastic tables and fixed to the roughly whitewashed brick walls. You can just see some of these in the photo of Montse on the roof above. I soon learnt that this improvised garden was all her work.
That’s why she went up there most afternoons, to tend to the plants. These were humble flowers, mainly brightly coloured geraniums, in rough terracotta pots or plastic containers of different kinds that she turned into plant containers.
They made this utilitarian space into a ‘place’ to come up to, somewhere to perch on a bit of wall, mug of tea in hand, and let your mind wander with the high clouds. A place to chat with your neighbour. A place of light and colour in stark contrast to our dark flats, closed in by the walls and balconies of the buildings that surrounded us.
This was my first flat in this city and I was happy there once I got fit enough to manage the stairs. However, coming back to the flat after a couple of months back in England in the summer I found my flat had been burgled. So had the other one on the top floor where another English tenant lived (it was through him I got to know about my own flat). The other flats were untouched. These people had climbed down a steep well from the roof, despite the four floor drop, and forced a window into the other flat, and then into mine. There wasn’t much to take from my flat, just a TV that a friend had lent me, and a few items off clothing. But they also took my peace of mind. I would lie awake listening for footsteps above me on the roof. So I found somewhere else to live and said a reluctant good bye to Montse.
The building was demolished a few years after the 1992 Olympic Games. I was still living in the city then, but in a different area. It was one tenement blocks at the end of the street that were pulled down, probably because they were too dangerous by then. Their demolition was part of the wider regeneration of the poorer parts of Barcelona initiated by Mayor Maragall. My English neighbour, who had also left by then, told me that Montse had been re-housed by the city authorities further out from the city centre, in a much newer building. I hope there was somewhere she could continue to grow plants.
When I left I probably promised that I would go back and visit her. I would have had good intentions to do this, but, to my regret, I never did. It took me quite a long time to feel established with my work, with new friends, and in a new city. I moved again during that time. Montse stayed in my mind, but I was too immersed in my own challenges to make space for her then. She lived by herself, but did not appear to be lonely. I don’t wish to romanticise her here. As I did not get to know her well I did not experience her foibles – the weaknesses of character we all have. She will have had her own regrets. I felt, though, that she had come to terms with herself and was open to what life brought her. She has given me something to work towards.