When we came here 12 years ago we explored the city in the usual ways. The Pedrera. Casa Batlló. Getting purposefully lost in the plazas of Gràcia. Getting unpurposefully lost in the Gótic(o). The Sagrada Familia at dawn. The Sagrada Familia at dusk. The Sagrada Familia at noon. The chapel under the Sagrada Familia. The towers of the Sagrada Familia... they used to let you climb them then. The Cathedral and the Sardana in front of the Cathedral and the pile of coats in the middle of the Sardana in front of the Cathedral watched over by the octogenarian dancers who would get excited and let go with a “whoo-hoo!” when the cobla would crank up the volume just a notch.
Of course we sauntered down the pre “Pakistanis selling glow-in-the-dark helicopters and mysterious bird whistles” Las Ramblas and the stands with flowers and chipmunks, canaries and lizards and the human statues and the shell games and the pickpockets circling the shills and the marks watching the shell games. And then the 8th wonder of the food world... the Boqueria.
Back where I come from, fresh fish more or less still comes in a plastic wrapped styrofoam tray and is called either surmi (AKA “Krazy Krab”) salmon or “red snapper”… with “red snapper” standing in pretty much for anything that isn’t salmon. Here there was salmon and... salmonettes, rape that looked like a cross between Edward G. Robinson and Peter Lorre towards the end of his career, sad but vicious looking merluza, dorado, lenguado, sepia, adolescent sepia, baby sepia… chiperones, bacalao… esqueixada, soaked or dry as a chunk of granite, in bunuelos... calamari, atún, mero, emperador, lubina, aringas, sardinas, buey de mar, necoras, bogavantes, tallerinas, mejillones, seemingly 10 other kinds of amejas, ostras, gambas… big ones from South America and smaller, redder and really expensive ones from Palamós… cigalas, navajas, higado de rape, rasca, pulpo, pulpitos, percebes… most of it whole, most of it with its head on and looking at you, and some of with its head on and still kicking.
There were bags of snails and piles of entrails, white fluffy tripe bath towels, tongues that invariably had tales to tell the piles of ears which were listening for the magic phase, “y cuatro orejas y una cara, a que no estar sola ... éste, es muy guapo.” And speaking of tales… of course they had tails... toro, vaca y cerdo. And rabbits dressed in their fur coats hanging by their feet like bats which amazingly they were all out of.
The frontline of paradas was dug in to conquer the waves of snapping, drawling, pushing, gaping tourists all speaking in a tidal wave of different languages but seemingly not one word of “Spanish” or God forbid … “what… they speak another language here!?” Catalan. Ok maybe an “hola” or “si” or a “gra-thee-ath” but the torrent of questions like “What is that thing with a hoof?” or “How much is that in dollars, marks, pounds, yen, kroner, bat?” were delivered just like they were talking to the checker at Ralphs, Tesco, Penny Markt or Monoprix.
Just off to the right and thronged by a huge mass of people was tiny Bar Pinotxo where at the prow stood a short, wirey “well-preserved” guy, enthusiastically greeting customers, pouring cava and beer, helping the newbies into plates of gambas, doing the cuenta on a tiny, narrow pad of paper and cycling the happy diners on and off of their stools in record time. We newly-arrived guiris assumed this whirlwind of smiles and commerce must be the namesake and owner of the joint. It must be the famous, “Señor Pinotxo” no doubt. “En-cantar-do.” “Yo tambien! I have fresch shrimps from Palamos and almejas too-day! We cook for you! OK? Siente.”
As the years passed I began to become jaded about the Ramblas and the Boqueria. I found my shopping home at other mercados and yep the “super.” As beautiful as it was, the Ramblas was for extranjero rubes looking for giant beers, buckets of Sangria, “OK Paella”, Mexican sombreros, fake Barça jerseys and, down across from the wax museum, aggressive low rent putas who if you weren’t careful would tell you how much they loved you by grabbing your weenie, johnson or schwanz. Obviously the mossos were in on the shell game. The Boqueria was a trap for suckers looking for “Jamon Serrano Español” and zumos that got cheaper and better the farther you went into that great beautiful barn.
I gave lectures to naive guests from many countries explaining that the best place for your passport was in the nightstand, if you had to take a day pack it should be slung in the front with both of your arms over it. Wallets should be in the left front pocket with the owners hand resting firmly on top of it for extra good measure and should only contain enough cash for immediate purchases, and all the plastic belonged at home with the passport. Cuidado!!!
Even at the height of my season as the world weary expat “lifer” I knew it was all a ruse. I had seen the Ramblas at dawn. I had watched the crew of Pinotxo quietly and graciously accommodate a six-deep gaggle of confused and anxious putzfraus, notebook-toting foodies, pushy investment bankers and their trophy brides, nintendo-wielding picky niños looking for mcnuggets, still-drunk lobster-red lager louts and lout-ettes, Frenchies looking for waiters and tables and more silverware, Taiwanese salesmen ready to go to the mat over the freshness of the mariscos and of course the local regulars... all while simultaneously dodging butts in a kitchen the size of a walk in closet. Somehow they had time to steer an older couple from Des Moines away from their neighbor’s capipota and into lo mejor de lo mejor estofado or the simple but brilliant garbanzos con cebollas and morcilla or to a single egg fried to perfection in a tiny skillet on bed of a couple of like slices of pancetta of the Gods and a few crispy hand carved slivers of potatoes.
I had seen in a parada just off the main drag, at prices less than at Dia, personally harvested bledes and artichokes from out by the airport stacked like they were the crown jewels by a smiling, sweet-looking woman who couldn’t have been a day under 90. My cynicism was a sham. Like with just about everything in Spain and Catalunya I was in love. Like everything in Spain and Catalunya it was both simple and complicated. And really was paying one or two euros for a watery zumo that much of a surcharge for lo mejor del mejor mercado en todo del mundo? It was time to rekindle the affair. It was time for Bar Pinotxo to take me home.