Writers on “House Calls” A Gathering above the Rambla

Endlich wieder in Barcelona: David Wagner mit seinen Gastgebern Dietrich und Montse auf deren Dachterrasse
© Albert Bonjoch

David Wagner writes about his “House Call” in Barcelona. The project by the Goethe-Institut brings ten European writers together in conversations with private individuals in more than 15 cities from Brussels to Turin and from Schwäbisch Hall to Porto.

Our hosts are named Montse and Dietrich. Although we’ve never met, through the mediation of the Goethe-Institut, they ask us into their home. There will be something to eat. Will they be nice? Anyone who invites perfect strangers from a foreign country to their home can’t be a bad person, right? Montse, as far as I know, once ran a small theatre here in the city. Her husband Dietrich has lived in Barcelona since 1979 and was once a dancer, now he is involved in opera productions. They have a son who lives in Berlin.

The two welcome us at the door to their flat up on the fourth floor and I know immediately we are the guests of the friendliest people around. Montse is glowing. Dietrich gets the conversation going. And although we have really tried not to arrive too punctually, Albert and I are still the first guests. We are led through the living room to the huge terrace that stretches right out to the Rambla. Amazing. Isn’t this great! It even goes up another storey, says Dietrich, who is originally from Ludwigshafen, but who only once, much later, exchanges a few sentences in German with me over the course of the evening.

The realm of seagulls

He takes us through the staircase up to the communal roof. In the old days, he says, this is where the laundry was washed and dried. The few metres more in altitude offer views over the rooftops of the whole city. How densely built is lies here, wedged between the mountains, the Montjuïc and the sea. Dietrich, in whose lithe movements I now think I recognize the former dancer, tells us about a rather sizeable hemp plantation that a neighbour once cultivated on the roof next door and how the plants emitted a sweet odour to their bedroom. Today this is the realm of seagulls.

A diverse group of people met at the House Call above the Rambla: a puppeteer, a French teacher, a dancer, filmmakers… A diverse group of people met at the House Call above the Rambla: a puppeteer, a French teacher, a dancer, filmmakers… | © Albert Bonjoch Back down on the terrace, Montse introduces me to Manuela Aznar, a very friendly elderly lady who was once her French teacher. And then, much later, funnily enough, she was also the teacher of Marta, a twenty-four-year-old film producer, which has by now also arrived. Montse tells the newcomers that today we will speak Castellano (the language Germans call Spanish) and not Català. If not for me, this evening would, of course, have been held in Catalan. I am now almost a little embarrassed. If only I had learned Catalan...

Of dead olives and sardines’ relations

I try some of the black olives and anchovies set out on a small table. Wine glasses are filled. Olives are good for good dreams, says the former French teacher. And the anchovy is a cousin of the sardine. I learn that in Spain black olives are also called olivas muertas, dead olives. And that in Spain olives were once served as a dessert, which is why, explains Montse, in Don Quixote it is written when someone will be late for dinner that “he’ll arrive for the olives.”

Well, then we are probably a little too late, I say, popping another dead olive in my mouth. They taste delicious. Only now do I notice the many blossoming flowers and their scents on this terrace; it is a little forest of potted and climbing plants. And am I really seeing a hummingbird darting to a flower? A hummingbird? Above the rooftops of Barcelona? Or am I already dreaming, from the wine or the olives? No, says Dietrich, I was right, it’s a hummingbird.

Above the rooftops of Barcelona

Gradually, other guests trickle in and the terrace fills up. Victoria Bermejo, the writer and filmmaker, arrives, then Toni Rumbau, a puppeteer and puppetry researcher, he also once directed a theatre. And they all speak Castellano for my sake. The wine is cool and good, and I tell them, quite a few times at that, how happy I am to finally to be back here after seventeen years. I have not been in Barcelona for so long, far too long. In 1995, 1998 and 1999 I spent one or two months here and I must have passed this house hundreds of times without even noticing that up here, hidden behind a balustrade, there was an almost tennis-court-sized roof terrace. And tennis-court-sized is just a tad exaggerated.

Toni and I are now standing at this balustrade, looking down on the Rambla, the always-bustling corridor, Barcelona’s Grand Boulevard. The fortress wall that once stood there was not pulled down until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Toni, born in 1949, is a friend and neighbour of my hosts and lives just a few doors down in the flat where he grew up. He is not only a puppeteer; he is also a puppetry and Punch and Judy researcher. The next day when I visit him in his flat he will give me a copy of his book on European puppet theatre, Rutas de Polichinela, and tell me that to write it, he visited puppeteers and archives all over Europe.

Long winters in Berlin

I could stay here forever looking down at the world passing by. When I ask Montse how long they have lived here, she says she only ever lived in two flats, both in Barcelona, that of her parents and this one. No, wait, she interrupts herself, in between she also lived in Berlin for four years, in the early nineties, in an always-cold apartment on Ackerstrasse. The winters were too long, she says, and Berlin looked different from today. Dietrich was studying Cultural Management at Hanns Eisler Conservatory and worked for the Komische Oper.

Barcelona has also changed, however. In 1987, when I first came here, there was still a wall around the port, the city seemed gloomier. Or did it just seem that way to me, the West German child from the newly built suburbs, at that time? The 1992 Olympics brought a first major change, the boom at the turn of the millennium brought another. And now? Is it still in crisis?

Good vibes in Castellano – the stories that the Europe-wide House Calls generate will be published as an e-book in six languages in 2017. Good vibes in Castellano – the stories that the Europe-wide House Calls generate will be published as an e-book in six languages in 2017. | © Bettina Bremme “What are you going to write about us?”

As we, when the clock strikes ten, sit down to eat I wonder how the past two hours passed so quickly. Who have I already talked to and what about? Will I be able to remember it all? Am I already a little drunk? And what kind of white wine is this that tastes so good; shouldn’t the name of the white wine that I’m drinking be mentioned in the text that I intend to write about the evening? I sadly forget to look at the label.

“What are you going to write about us?” asks Victoria, the writer and filmmaker. And I answer, “I’ll get drunk, and I’ll forget everything that was said and done here, and tomorrow or the day after or in five weeks, I’ll invent a completely different evening.”

We abridged this article with the kind permission of the author. The original version appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 2 July 2016.