If I could draw a dream, I would draw the roof of the Casa Mila. I would draw the dark eye slits of the centurions that glare out over the city, the disjointed noses and mouths of the immense brooding bishops, or whatever in the name of God those hulking things are. Through each of these orifices you would hear the low hum of wind running in off the Mediterranean.
"Do you notice there is no pigeon crap here?"
I turn around. Someone is speaking to me. I'm standing in the middle of this dream, staring out at Barcelona.
"The birds are afraid of this roof. They refuse to come near it."
Everyone else on the roof has vanished. The guide is waiting for me to leave, too. These haunting figures that surround us, these sculptures of fragmented glass, pottery and marble with gaping eyes and mouths...are chimneys, ventilation outlets and stairway covers, the merging of the sensible and the crazed, the blood and bone of Barcelona. "Seny and rauxa," the guide says.
The first person who tried to explain Barcelona to me used those two words. So did the last, and almost everyone in between. "The people north of us in Europe have seny," they said. "They can make buildings and mathematics. The people south of us have rauxa. They can make poems and bullfights." Their eyes gleamed with pride. "But ours is the place between north and south. We can make poems and buildings. We have seny and rauxa."
Seny is pronounced SEN. Rauxa is RAU-cha. The words are Catalan, the language spoken in northeastern Spain, but they have no precise equivalents in English or Spanish. Seny is something like shrewdness, Catalans would tell me, something like good judgment, something like counting backward from 100 before doing anything. And rauxa...well, that is something like the opposite.
The guide on the roof gives up on words. She pinches her thumb and forefinger together in front of her forehead and zips down to her chin: seny. Then she puts her finger next to her car and rotates it in circles: rauxa. Then she sweeps her hand across the entire cityscape, across the zoo with the world's only captive albino gorilla, across the eight mammoth dripping towers of the unfinished, century-old Sagrada Família temple, across the boulevard where a thousand canaries warble from cages and a man leaps through a hoopful of knives, across the tall, gleaming bank buildings surrounded by bars where topless women coax clients to buy $50 glasses of champagne, across the park with the gingerbread houses and the multicolored mosaic lizard straddling the stairway railings, across the big church on the mountain with the roller coaster screaming by its doorstep.
This is seny and rauxa. This is Barcelona, and these are five people who walk its streets....
The sidewalks are filled with young women wearing designer jackets, black crushed-velvet shorts, black nylons and $200 shoes; with men wearing suits and carefully audited haircuts. The shops are filled with courteous, efficient clerks. Barcelona is a city of professionals and pragmatics, people who roll their eyes at bullfights and flamenco, who prefer barter to conflict, who count the cash in the register twice at the end of each day and then, when no one's looking, count it again. "They sweep in" is the broomstick metaphor that Spaniards living south of Barcelona apply to Catalans. 'Africans" is what Catalans sometimes call all Spaniards south of hem. And yet, beneath Barcelona's cool varnish, something smolders, something rubs. It's like the plate of Peppers that some of the city's restaurants serve: four of every five are prudent, well-mannered green peppers, but one....