I am torn between joining in the party atmosphere of Barcelona’s La Mercè festival…and escaping from it. During the full day off from school, I spend some time on a near-deserted hotel roof-top where they seem happy to have me, even though I’m not a guest.
Maria, from my class, is leaving for Munich after 1 week in Barcelona and is insistent that we visit some cocktail bars in the Gotic area on the first day of the festival, which we do. There is a merry party atmosphere as a stream of dragons and drummers parade through the streets. Maria likes ballroom dancing and met the (now ex-) love of her life while at her ballroom dancing club. He will pick her up at the airport when she returns…and then she will go on to have two dates on the same evening…I wish her luck. My social life was never that busy.
A thunderstorm is predicted for the Saturday, so Valentina, Kristien and I decide to have a tapas lunch at a smallish restaurant and then head to the cinema to see Downton Abbey…which the girls seem particularly keen on – not me…but I go along anyway. Turns out I was right…it’s so good that Valentina falls asleep…but it will have hopefully helped our Spanish – being in English with Spanish sub-titles.
I had tried to get into the Picasso Museum on one of the free Thursday afternoons they have every week, but failed (having not booked on line antemano (beforehand)…so, I decide to go on line, get a bunch of free tickets and see who wanted to come. I get 5. Me, Valentina and Emily from Australia (from Profesor N’s discussion group) decide to go, and once there, I give the two spares to an otherwise disappointed (and now delighted) young couple from Liverpool. During lunch after the museum, Emily surprises us by announcing that after her Spanish course, she will go straight on to a silent Buddhist retreat in France. When Valentina found out I go to church, she gave me a look of such surprise: she was talking to a seemingly rare specimen…a real live Christian..
I am getting to know Valentina quite well now. She is 22 and an English major who’s lovely and very enthusiastic about her country. She’s explains that she is in Barcelona to study Spanish for 9 months before applying to do further studies…and as she does so, it dawns on me that (aside from my adopted Chinese niece), I do not know anyone of Chinese origin.
Valentina is member of the communist party and has decided that it is very important to put westerners right about China. She comments upon the belief that there is no freedom of speech in China, particularly in regard to the firewall around the Chinese web/internet. She believes her government when they say that it is there to protect the population from viruses and attacks from outside China. This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me…but it supports a theory I have: that in many situations there is more than one truth…strange as that may seem.
In China it is normal to have your food really fresh – you pick a chicken or a fish, it is slaughtered at the back of the shop, and you take it home…you can’t get fresher than that, can you? She tells me that the Chinese education system is really fair – everybody has access to it and you get further through the system entirely on merit/by examination. The pressure, particularly in Shanghai she says, is immense, and Valentina lost vast chunks of her hair (now grown back) when she took her exams to get into university. Her parents bought their only child a cat to help calm her nerves. In fact the pressure/competition all round seems huge for young people in China – for education/jobs/partners. Her parents do not take holidays from their jobs at all – in case anyone covering for them while they are away turns out to be better at it. Everyone learns English from the age of about 7, so in order to give herself a USP, Valentina is learning Spanish…she’s pretty good at it…but her inability to pronounce her ‘r’s is holding her back. I give her a sentence to practice – ‘The land is dreadfully dry during the drought’. I hope it helps. Giving Valentina a kiss on the cheek as we part one evening, she is a little taken aback. This is not the custom in China…I explain this strange European habit (where everyone is confused about how many kisses to give)…and she seems very happy to do it on our subsequent outings.
On the evening of the last day of the festival, I have agreed to meet Miguel in the foyer of the Hotel Catalunya prior to going for tapas and attending the Piromusical/fuegos artificiales (fireworks). The Plaça Espanya is packed, but when Miguel does not arrive, it becomes clear that he and his friend are….in the foyer of a different Hotel Catalunya. No matter. I sing along to some Beatles songs with the rest of the crowd, watch the fireworks and walk to a quieter metro station to get home. I feel perfectly safe, but am carrying very few possessions just in case – cities are cities.