The opportunity arose as most opportunities arise by following a whim… or was that a hunch. Let’s just call it happenstance. A happy accident. You see I somewhat irregularly produce a show called “Xpat Stories.” I want to call it a live show but that implies it’s the opposite of a dead show or something involving naked people, pimples and black socks but it is definitely a live show… if you can get the audience of between three and eight people to shut up for 10 minutes while some poor guy or gal pours his or her heart out about just how tiny the coffee cups are. Anyway it’s a podcast too so thanks to this diatribe being on a screen rather than a piece of paper you can zip right over here to check it out. On this blog I will undoubtedly revisit the trials and tribulations of mounting this endeavor but for now let’s just say that it’s a bitch getting anybody to spill their guts to an audience of complete strangers many of whom would really rather be watching Lionel Messi grow a moustache… I am always on the hunt for speaker fodder.
This quest lead me to meet poet, journalist, writer and former New Yorker Karen Swenson who has decided to make her home in a remarkable apartment on Carrer Hospital which depending on who you are talking to might be considered as either colorful or dodgy. As it turned out the schedule for the next Xpat Stories and hers would not be in alignment but what was discussed was her upcoming trip to Berlin and her cat’s need to have a companion for a week. Over the course of my time here I have lived in many of Barcelona’s barrios but never in the Raval and certainly not in a stunning piso like hers. What the hey… she needed a house sitter and I volunteered.
Other than comparing and contrasting the tasteful and reserved opulence of Karen’s digs with the lively surroundings of the intersection of the Raval profundo and Las Ramblas, as discussed in the last installment of this serial rant, I wanted to revise my opinion of the Boqueria and the aforementioned Bar Pinotxo which is just a block away from Karen’s flat. I hatched a plan. Each day I would visit the Boqueria and have lunch at Pinotxo where one plate at a time I would divine a new appreciation for this tourist-battered part of town.
I installed myself in Casa Swenson and having always been an early riser I found my first morning to be no exception. I had been adamantly grilled in the manner in which the cat was to be fed. The system was simple: Place three kibbles of cat food in the bowl. Wait for the cat to eat. Pet the cat while eating. Wait five minutes. Add three more kibbles. Wait for the cat to eat. Pet the cat while eating. Add three more kibbles. Repeat until .5 cups has been consumed. Estimated required time: 1.5 hours. Important: Unless this procedure is followed the cat will vomit. I didn’t follow the procedure. The cat vomited. All over the ancient imported Italian floor tiles. Many times.
The morning was a joyful blur of me cleaning up cat puke and trying to get some work done. Eventually the bells from the what had been the ancient hospital (but is now the national library of Catalunya as well as many other cool things…) from which the street takes its name announced that it was time to implement phase one of the plan. Looking for authenticity I entered the Boqueria from the side the tourists never see… the culo... back by the giant, oloroso industrial trash compactors. I passed by the famous Petras Bolets parada featuring seemingly every non-hallucinogenic fungus known to mankind… and maybe a few hallucinogenic ones if you ask them nicely. Here’s a question for my Catalan friends… mud might be good for you but I just can’t used to eating dirt with my rovellons. I know... use a brush and never wash… but is there a trick I am missing?
I pushed on and into the inner fish circle. Like some sort of hell for aquatic animals the Boqueria’s fish section is set up in concentric rings with the stands for mariscos, bacalao and other preserved fish on the outside and an unbelievable number of fresh fish folks glaring at each other on the inside. I then moved through the “Zona de Offal”… five stands selling nothing but innards, variety meats, menuts… guts. God bless you Iberians and your desire to use up every bit of animales but is there really that big of a market for tongues, brains, stomachs, lymph glands and testicles? I am in general an adventurous eater but not once in my life have I ever shot straight up in bed at 3am with an insatiable desire to consume a pig’s colon.
Eventually I arrived at the Boqueria’s frontline and my destination; Bar Pinotxo. It was as hopping as usual but I was able to plop down on a stool that miraculously had just been vacated. I took this to be a good omen. The Pinotxo crew was in fine balletic form bobbing and weaving to match the rhythms of orders and calmly helping the patrons decide on what to have for lunch.
Confession... For as long as I remember I have been staring at other peoples plates of food. Some people gaze into their partner’s eyes, watch birds, planes and/or various attractive and unattractive people and their various attractive and unattractive body parts. I on the other hand stare at plates of food belonging to complete strangers. On my right a young couple was sharing an order of garbanzos and morcilla and washing it down with cava... on the left a couple of Asian ladies were having beautiful brown and gooey estofado and a whack of baby squids... AKA chiperones... AKA calamarsets. My gaze shifted from the pile of tiny loligo vulgaris to the big brown soulful eyes and wry smile of the waitress (whom I would find out later was named Maria) and who had guessed that this would be what I was having.
An order was placed and within moments I was looking at a plate of cephalopoda niños y niñas snatched from the prime of their lives. Snatched or not all those lightly “planchared” tiny completely intact bodies looked incredibly tasty. The squidlets had been laid to rest on a mound of tiny white beans. Hmmm... could these be the famous... Like I had a rare form of Tourettes that caused me to shout names of exotic legumes the words “Mongetes de Santa Pau!” involuntarily exited my mouth. Suddenly six heads turned as one from their stations at the plancha, the Pilsner Urquel tap, the espresso machine and if memory serves the dishwasher. It was like in that ancient Groucho Marx TV show “You Bet Your Life” where if during the introductory chat a contest would say “the magic word” a model T horn would go off and a rubber duck on a string would drop down signaling that the contestant had won a set of steak knives or a bathmat. Apparently “Mongetes de Santa Pau” was the magic word.
Although there was no rubber duck there was a lot of staring, gesturing and whispering behind the counter. The tribunal made their decision then Jordi, a thin, angularly good looking and prematurely gray haired guy (whose name I discovered thanks to it being embroidered on his chef’s jacket) and who had been working the plancha and the fogons looked me in the eye and said, “What are you doing tomorrow morning?” I looked over to Maria. She was doing that wry smile thing again. “Uh… well… what time?”, I said trying to figure out just what I was getting myself in to. “6:30… You and I will open up and I’ll show you how to make a couple of things.” He raised one eyebrow and without missing a beat I said, “OK. I’m in.” Maria nodded her head as he turned back to rescue the almejas from under the upturned pyrex loaf pan. I seemed to be levitating a few inches above my bar stool. The die was cast, I was going to help open the world renowned “Bar Pinotxo.”