Diary

Colm Tóibín

Towards the end of November 1975 I was doing my shopping in the Boquería market off the Ramblas in Barcelona when I bumped into Bernard Loughlin, with whom I worked in an institution called the Dublin School of English. To mourn the passing of Generalissimo Franco on 20 November we had all been given ten days off. I had spent them in the city, wandering around in search of riots, old bars and potential sleeping partners. Bernard, on the other hand, had been in the Pyrenees: I listened to him carefully because his tone was full of wonder. He had been in a village full of enormous stone houses with slate roofs, most of them abandoned. They all faced south, each one a different height and shape, and the view was of a fertile valley, with rolling fields and poplar trees in the foreground, and masses of snow-capped peaks in the distance. It was spectacular, he said, awesome. It must once have been rich; but now nobody went there – it took five or six hours to get there from Barcelona. It was more than five thousand feet above sea-level – and you could rent a house there for next to nothing.

I didn’t want to rent a house there. I was having too much fun in the city. I was 20 years old and discovering the joys of cruising the Ramblas for the first time. For much of the day and most of the night I was laden down with desire. In those days if you started at Caneletes and you hadn’t hit the jackpot by Carrer Carme, then you were having no luck. I had a lot of luck.

But still I wanted to go to the mountains and see this place. I went there first with Bernard Loughlin and his girlfriend Mary Rogan on St Patrick’s Day 1976. I remember that we missed the early bus because we had the most vile hangovers. In those days, on the eve of the Irish national feast day in Barcelona, the native Irish and a group known as the Wild Geese – the descendants of the Irish earls and lords who had fled to Spain in the 17th century – had dinner together. The Wild Geese, after three centuries of hard graft, had become posh Catalans; the native Irish remained themselves and got drunk on the free whiskey which the consulate doled out. The Wild Geese grew more and more appalled as the native Irish sang songs and then forgot the words or, even worse, remembered them.

It was dark when we first arrived in the village. We were feeling fragile. I remember the biting sharpness of the cold and watching the wheels of the jeep we had hired to take us up the mountain spinning on the ice. And in the morning the pure blue sky, the snow on the distant peaks glinting in the sun, and the sound of water flowing from the hills above us down into the valley.

The village was at the end of the world; no traffic passed through it because there was nowhere else to go. In the Eighties, however, the Catalan government got control of road-building and gave us dual carriageways, tunnels and paved roads where we once had dirt tracks. Thus on a Sunday or a summer’s day, as the roads improved, an odd car would appear in the village, the driver hesitant, unsure whether he or she had reached some point of no return, the passengers looking out at the abandoned houses and the mountains with bafflement, and at the natives with caution.

Then, as now, only three of the houses were inhabited by Catalans who were born in the village. Most of the other houses were empty. Vast cavernous barns stood vacant on the bottom storeys, and above in the living quarters there were still old photographs on the walls and old furniture, as though those who left were not sure whether they would come back or not. One big house, Ca la Maria, was where Bernard had stayed before and where we stayed now. It was inhabited by people from the city, hippies, idealists, drop-outs. Some of them went on to make their lives there.

Sometimes now I meet someone I have not seen for fifteen years. Fellows who used to have really long hair and always smoked dope have become fathers of three, bald, balding, or grey. One night in the summer I sat opposite a bloke I could not place; he assured me I must know him, he had been around all the time in the first years I went to the mountains. It was only the next day I realised who he was. This ageing business will be the death of us all.

In the summer of 1976 Bernard and Mary rented a house in the village. It cost about £40 for the year. The habitable part had a long dining room, a kitchen with a huge fireplace and two bedrooms. The rest of the house was shut up and remained unexplored for years. We never knew what was down there. They had to work hard all summer to get enough firewood for the fierce winter. In December they got married and it was the first wedding in more than half a century in the village church. It caused a great stir. Now, when I meet some of the old people in the village, they talk on and on about the wedding. After a reasonable period, Mary had a child. She gave birth in the upstairs bedroom of the house they had rented, and that event, too, is mentioned with wonder in the village.

Visitors were divided into two categories. Those in one were known as starvos: people who came from Barcelona with nothing but a big lump of dope, which daily lessened in size, who had nothing to say, had no money, hung around Ca la Maria and generally gave us all the creeps. At the time of the famous wedding there were two especially despised starvos hanging around the village, and they were not invited. Bernard and Mary often wonder how they could have done this, left two starvos out in the cold, and feel that God, or the great starvo in the sky, will punish them for this when they least expect it.

I still prowled the city, but I travelled to the mountains whenever I could. It was only years later I realised how much the place had affected me, stayed with me. Bernard and Mary left after a year and went back to Ireland, where they set up the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig. I remained in Barcelona for a while more, but I couldn’t face teaching English as a foreign language. I could not handle another year with a book called First Things First, where you had to ask students questions like ‘What colour is your dog?’ and make them ask you the same question in return. And there were other reasons for going home. The right to vote had transformed the city – the way people walked in the street and kissed each other, the way people spoke to their children, everything changed. Friends joined political parties, developed radical views on the new constitution and argued all the time. It was their country; they wanted serious debate and were prepared, most of them, to make wonderful compromises to ensure stable politics in Spain. I couldn’t vote and once certain companions grew tired of daubing slogans in red paint on the walls of the cathedral, I had no function in the political life of the city. But daubing graffiti on the walls of a public building in a fragile society is perhaps the best training you could ever get as a novelist. The fear, the excitement, the economical prose style. In Spain, as things stabilised, friends suggested that I should stick to the private page and leave the beautiful old stone of the Gothic Quarter alone.

I went home to the living death of the Dublin winter. The village was an adventure we’d had. Mary and Bernard went back there for holidays once or twice but I never did. I had other things to do on holidays.

When I put the village and the landscape of that place into my first novel, I wrote as though I would never see it all again. I tried to write as though I was dead and making a desperate effort to conjure up this strange part of the world I had once known. I saw no possibility of returning.

But in the spring of 1988 I went back to Barcelona to write a book about the city. The day after I arrived I was crossing the Plaça de Sant Jaume when I bumped into Bernard Loughlin’s brother Michael, who had recently arrived in Barcelona to work as an engineer. He and the woman who would later become his girlfriend had found a magnificent flat near the Picasso Museum in the old city. Soon I moved in. I love other people’s lives.

That summer we went to the mountains again with Bernard and Mary. I remember a Sunday when everyone else went to a village below to watch a sheepdog competition, in which one of our old mates from the village had several dogs competing. I stayed in the village, sat for the whole afternoon on the balcony of Ca la Maria looking at the house-martins flitting in the air over the village and watching for buzzards and other birds of prey over the higher peaks in the distance.

Later that year Bernard began the long battle to convince the owner of the house he had lived in, where his daughter was born, to sell it to him. Catalans take business very seriously; money is God. But nobody knew how much these houses were worth; none had been sold for years. It was a huge house, where three or four families had lived, and it came with two fields. Phone calls, letters, long silences, further offers went on and on. Eventually, the owner gave in and sold. This summer he came to visit. He seemed cheerful, and mildly interested in the work Bernard had done, but his teenage son seemed to understand, if his manners were anything to go by, what had been lost. This property had been in the family for hundreds of years; they now lived miles away in a modern flat. I watched the son looking back at the huge house as they walked towards their car.

Two years ago we took a good look at another empty building in the village. This one was smaller, easier to decorate, had magnificent views and a walled-in courtyard. Michael, Bernard’s brother, and I set about trying to buy it. This, from my point of view at least, was a really good idea. He is good at putting up shelves and fixing electrical objects. I can do nothing, but I had some money. We spent ages trying to find out who owned the house and we began to visit her in Barcelona, smiling at her slyly, until she gave in too and sold us the house.

My Catalan vocabulary had begun with words I needed in the dark. I learned to say ‘Don’t come yet’ before I mastered the present tense. Now, I had to learn the words for ‘tongue and groove’, for ‘beam’ and ‘crossbeam’ and ‘supporting wall’; I had to know which plasterer was the most reliable; I had to follow rumours that there was a place making handmade slates some villages away.

In the winter you have to be careful. The snow can suddenly start and go on for days, blocking off the village. You have to make sure that you have enough firewood, enough food and some cheerful companions who will not take to reading your diaries or telling you what they really thought of your last book. This year, to mark the feast-day of Santa Eulalia (or Eularia, as she is called up here), we took the risk and went to the mountains in December. Bernard Loughlin came, accompanied by his 16-year old daughter, who was born in the village. She had just read my novel, in which her own birth in the upstairs room of her parents’ house in the village is described in some detail. She has been eyeing me suspiciously ever since, as if I am waiting to pounce once more.

The days in early December in the mountains were clear and warm. Last week, I could sit on the balcony reading as though it were the summer. Even at night it was not too bad. On the eve of the feast of Santa Eulalia we walked over to Alendo to a friend’s house, where there was a huge dinner in honour of the saint (who was, in olden times, placed in a barrel full of spikes and rolled down a hill) followed by a visit to the disused church out on the promontory after midnight. Men, women and children walked in procession carrying candles. The sky was full of stars.

As is traditional, we had written out our requests to the saint for the year to come. These are called goigs; they are four lines long and they rhyme; they are sung in the church in front of the statue of the saint. During the day I had worked hard on a few goigs of my own, but I discovered later that you cannot ask for personal things from Santa Eulalia on this occasion, only for communal and civic favours. Thus there was no point in asking her to keep me out of harm’s way and stop me sleeping in the afternoon. I will have to do this on a more suitable feast-day, I was told.

The following is a good example of a goig:

Santa Eulalia de la neu
envoltada de rosers
feu que a tot el Pirineu
pugin el preu dels corders

which means:

Saint Eulalia of the snow
surrounded by rosary beads
make in all the Pyrenees
the price of lambs go up.

This was used in 1992, but, it must be said, it was not effective. In Ireland such an occasion would always be used to make comments to the saint about absent friends and neighbours. But all my efforts to ask the saint ‘to incapacitate’ (it would have rhymed perfectly) certain absent persons – there is a small but perfectly formed feud going on in the village – were ruled out of order. We sang our hearts out to the statue and then went back to the house for whiskey and then walked home in the dark along the dirt-track between our village and Alendo. And the next day we set sail for Barcelona once more.

Soon, we will have electricity in the mountains, a telephone, a fax machine, a wood-burning stove and radiators. We spent three hours recently trying to buy the garden beside the house from a recalcitrant Catalan. I tried to imply – in the nicest possibly way – that if he did not sell soon for the right price we would kill his dog and perhaps some of his children. And then the real terror will start: I will have to live in this house we have remodelled and dig the garden. There is no bar, no shop, no Ramblas, no coming – except the usual, solitary sort – nor going.

Even after a few days in the mountains it is such a relief to come back to Barcelona, which is always changing, offering new delights such as the brand new Häagen Dazs shop between the Plaça del Pi and the Ramblas, or Baron Thyssen’s collection of early Renaissance paintings in Pedralbes, or the Christmas market around the cathedral. Today, so far, I have bought an English newspaper on the Ramblas, had my breakfast in a café full of old yellow and blue tiles, bought fruit in the market, had my lunch in a xarcutería which is shaped like a cave, and had coffee in the sun in the Plaça del Pi. I have looked up and down at hundreds of people; a few of them were beautiful beyond belief; perhaps I should mention especially an Argentinian at the table beside mine in the xarcutería.

In the mountains there will be no such sights, no possibilities; there will only he distant snow-capped peaks, pure air, a walled-in courtyard, prayers, a few old friends and a lot of sheep. Who needs it?