Rafel Royes Lopez
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Lee Ray has become a neighbourhood fixture in his block
On Travessera de Gràcia, near the gleaming new Llibertat market, the sound of blaring horns from the constantly starting and stopping cars and buses is a sobering reminder that the relaxed Spanish way of life goes out the window when people need to get somewhere. There is a palpable sense of haste, as people desperately try to get to and from work, schools and out of town. The pedestrians are no different, struggling over the narrow pavements toward their destinations, looking straight ahead, focusing only on the next cross-street to negotiate, or person to circumvent.
There is one place, however, where people do tend to idle and converse. On an otherwise busy corner Lee Ray, a 37-year-old New Zealander from the North Island, runs a newspaper kiosk providing a loyal clientele with their daily periódico, revista or occasional packet of cigarettes. He engages in dialogue both in Spanish and English, as people discuss the day’s news and events, and update him on their lives, both good and bad.
Ray has been in this spot for six years. “I had done a bit of travelling, and ended up in London, like many New Zealanders and Australians do,” he told Metropolitan. “That’s where I met my Catalan wife, who I’ve been married to now for nine years. I came over here seven years ago and spent the first year learning Spanish, doing odd jobs and trying to settle in. Then a friend mentioned that the kiosk’s previous owner was looking for some part-time help, and the rest is history.”
In the past six years, Ray estimates he has had conversations with hundreds of people, some famous, most not, but all with something to say. “My wife has lived here all her life, but I know far more people than she does, which is a bit strange for her. It sounds funny, but I walk around Gràcia and nearly every five minutes I get someone saying hello, or stopping for a chat. I’ve met a few celebrities and a couple are regulars. [Catalan film director] Isabel Coixet who lives nearby tells me all about her latest projects, and why she recently turned down working with Spielberg. You become a regular part of peoples’ lives.”
The person in a Barcelona newspaper kiosk sometimes fulfils the same confessional purpose as a bartender or a cab driver, someone to whom people feel they can unburden themselves. “Some people never really get beyond small talk, whereas others tell you their problems, things that have happened to them and so on. But also I find that a lot of Spanish people, especially Catalans, keep themselves to themselves. I have made a couple of good friends through the job, friends that I see outside of work, as well as when they buy their paper.”
Even though his customers keep abreast of the local, national and international news, many do not talk about their political opinions, and seem reluctant to discuss politics with a stranger, he said. One issue that he does notice playing its role between himself and his customers is that of language. “I don’t know why, but in general I meet a lot of staunch Catalans. They refuse to speak to me in Spanish, even though they know I don’t really understand much Catalan. I guess it’s a way they can have one over on me, but then I just respond in English, and play along with the game.”
All in all, Ray feels privileged to watch the world pass by from the viewpoint of his corner kiosk, to provide an oasis for news and conversation in his neighbours’ comings and goings and to be a regular stop along the route of their daily lives.