Hello, Mother, I hope you’re well and have got over your cold. I’m in Barcelona, of all places. It’s hot, sweaty and the people are noisy. There is, however, a lot to be said for the city, or, at least, the part of the city I’ve seen – it’s a sprawling place crawling up from dirty beaches into mountains that seem both distant and close at the same time – most strange. The architecture is beautiful, and the food is good. One thing that might be said about it, though, is the atmosphere: culturally, it is fascinating, and I think one of the things that most stands out is the use of Catalan rather than Spanish, at least in terms of the street signs and things like that. Of course, to a poor tourist like me, these Catalans seem more at ease using Spanish or even – the horror – their English on me: it is almost as if they want to keep it for themselves as a sort of secret cultural barrier marking the insiders from the outsiders. Or perhaps it’s just me. Anyway, when they do speak among themselves, it seems to be a faintly exotic mix of French and Spanish, some ancient language still whispered behind closed doors between grandparents cooking dinners. One only has to wander the streets of the Eixample neighbourhood, however, to see the real force and power of the Catalan language – its literature! Gosh, what bookshops they have here, and what books they have in them. Mountains of novels, collections of poetry, historical tomes and philosophical texts from all over the world – and all in Catalan. I dipped in and out of these places in awe of these people – browsing, discussing, even drinking coffee in the cafés attached to these institutions – and I call them institutions as that’s really what they seem to be … A little while later, wandering the old part of town a while after lunch, I bumped into what is known here as an Ateneu – Ateneu Barcelonés, to be precise. It is a literary juggernaut of a place: the kind of place that leaves your heart aching for a bygone era of portrait-painting and large beards. Quite apart from the grandiose building in which it resides, its garden – an oasis in the midst of the faint urinal stench that hovers across the old town – is a place for smoking cigarettes and discussing thoughts, words and deeds with friends. And one only has to take an old lift (one of those with no automatic doors) up to the library on the first floor to really have the wind fill one’s romantic sails. There are displays of antique books by Pascual, row upon row of clothbound titles, and stalls where one might sit to read a newspaper, look out of the window, read or do whatever these quiet people in here do all day. I must admit to being most taken aback by it all. Well, that’s it from me, Mother. Give my best to Father and give the dog a pat from me. I’ll be back over soon, so don’t forget to water my strawberries – I expect they’ve grown since I last saw them. And do tell Father to go easy on the cheese; it’s good for the soul, but bad for his waistline!
Your ever-loving son, Douglas
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