I’m in an illegal bar and this man points out the dog in the hallway, ostensibly kept away from the clientele by a child safety gate. I assume the man lives here. Juan is telling me that this bar is as dodgy as it gets, which doesn’t seem that dodgy given that everything is draped with fairy lights. The man sits down on the other side of me. What’s the dog’s name? I ask, for the sake of making conversation.

Is it important that you know the dog’s name? Do you think the dog cares about its name? Do you think the dog cares about your name? Would knowing the dog’s name give you a greater connection to it?

Oh, god. And we’re off. Well, that’s put me right. Clearly it was presumptuous of me to think that asking the name of a dog might pass as an inoffensive, friendly remark. He’s repeating himself now, just to drive the point home, about how much more evolved dogs are for not needing to know the names of anything. I nod and agree, contemplate the dog as if I’ve never seen one before in my life, which is perhaps the man’s reading of the situation. I wonder when whatever he’s taken will wear off. I wonder why Juan has not rescued me yet. I consider being abrupt and rude, but reluctantly reject the option, since I’m too tired to defend the bad vibes I would undoubtedly be bringing to the encounter.

The man tells me he’s here with a friend from work, who is unfamiliar with this environment, and I get hopeful that he’s going to go check on the friend, but my hopes are dashed when he reaches the conclusion that his friend’s social awkwardness is his own problem. Goddamn flaky hippies. He asks me my name – I could counter that with a lecture, but I’m too weary – and where I’m from, and then switches to broken English, largely to sing the praises of Barcelona and the techno scene. Fresh panic washes over me that I am going to have to tell him that I don’t care for the techno scene, and then maybe he will try to convert me to it by expounding its virtues at great length. At least when he was talking about the dog I was able to look on the whole godforsaken exchange as language practice, but I guess it’s his turn now, in the democratic spirit of the unrequested intercambio.

Look, said Holly when she phoned me for a pep talk last week, Soon you’ll be in Spain. You love Spain. You’ll be going around speaking Spanish and feeling smug.

I mean, it’s not like Friday was all bad or anything, okay? I was in the company of a bunch of men whose use of the word maricón did not send me scrambling for the emergency exit. Other than the goddamn hippie lecture at the end of the night, all was well.

After a few hours’ sleep – I never sleep much here, but it’s okay – I go to a beach an hour north of Barcelona. I swim in the sea for the first time in twenty years. I left my swimsuit in Berlin – when I packed up in a hurry, my bi-annual swim was the last thing on my mind – so I swim in my boxers and a vest top, which makes me the most over-dressed person on the beach, but I don’t feel under scrutiny, I feel happy to be wearing something in which I feel comfortable. Later, sprawled on a towel reading Searching For Zion by Emily Raboteau, I plunge my hands repeatedly into the sand, feeling the tiny pebbles slip through my fingers. I eat croissants that are baking in the heat. I think about how it’s three weeks since I left the life I’d established for myself in Berlin; how three weeks is both a lot and a little, especially when everything you thought you had is now gone. I tell Juan some people think I’m running away; he says no, it wasn’t your home, leaving was the best thing you could do. I think he’s right. I try not to analyse too much, try not to think about what might have been. I’m here now and I’ll be somewhere else soon.

The Raval never stops. Volem un barri digne, plead banners on residents’ balconies. Women work on the corner day and night. I hear shouts and songs and sirens and skateboards rattling past. Cannabis smoke wafts up from the neighbour’s place. Hashish, offers a man walking past us on La Rambla. Juan’s place got broken into recently and the door’s still fucked; I hide my laptop under a bag of laundry like that’s going to fool the burglars. And I know this place, not like the back of my hand, not like I’m a goddamn expert on how everything works, but I know it and it’s where I feel good.

3 responses to “Intercambio

  1. I would sarcastically say that it sounds like hell on earth, eating croissants on a Spanish beach, but the whole thing with Very Serious People who say animals are too intelligent for names just freaks me out.

    BTW, you’re not running away, you’re just moving forward

  2. If animals have no need for names, why can a dog recognise it’s owner’s name? eh?

    This was incredibly well written. Have you published a book recently? You should


  3. fresh panic. i relate to that.

    good to read you again. (a la carnival of languages)

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