Sketch from Barcelona

Crises bring out both the best and the worst in people. Two days ago I was robbed here in Barcelona – an example of crisis bringing out crime. But the following day I witnessed a bizarre scene in a local bookshop as I was interviewing the clerk, something that inspired hope.

The Clerk and I sat behind the desk, talking about the economic situation in Spain as he rang people up and sent them on their way with a complementary bookmark and a smile. He was informed on the current events and he was proudly telling me about ways that local people were coping with the pressure of the crisis.

“Take a look at this,” he said, pulling up a webpage on the store computer. “This is an old leper colony on the outskirts of the city. It’s been abandoned for decades. A couple of years ago, when people started getting kicked out of their homes, a band of urban farmers went up there and took it over. In a short amount of time they’ve been able to build up a thriving collective farm within the city limits of Barcelona, all of which is based upon local organic farming techniques.”

Then a middle-aged woman walked into the store with a big folder of documents, and paused before the cash register, smiling at us. The Clerk paused and asked her how he could help her.

“Hello, I’m the Customer Service Representative from Movistar [Spain’s largest telecom provider, repeatedly voted the most unpopular company in Spain for it’s poor customer service, hidden fees, and high prices]. I’ve been told that you have registered a complaint with our company, is that so?”

The Clerk stiffened up a bit, and adopted a somewhat sassy attitude.

“Yeah, that’s right. We complained because suddenly our internet stopped, saying that we hit some sort of data limit when this certainly wasn’t the case, we couldn’t get online for a week and we don’t see why we should be paying for a whole month’s service when we can’t even get the repair guy to come out for over ten days…”

They had shifted from Spanish to the regional language of Catalan and I struggled to understand what they were saying. But the gist of the problem was clear – the small business felt it was getting hammered by the big, impersonal company during a time when they needed as much help as they could get.

I looked away and tuned out, trying not to eavesdrop on the financial particulars of the situation.

Then something remarkable happened.

In the midst of the Clerk’s diatribe, just as his frustration was reaching a crescendo, the Customer Service Representative dropped her folder onto the desk, removed her spectacles and leaned across the table to us.

“Listen, I understand what you’re telling me,” she paused, elbow on the desk, nodding her head. “Trust me, I get this all the time. Do you think I actually enjoy working for these guys? This job is a mierda.”

She placed one arm on her hip and searched the clerk’s eyes for compassion.

Joder, five years ago, I was a real estate agent,” She continued. “And, well…we all know what happened to the real estate business in Spain. It went to the shitter. I had no job. No one would hire me because I was too old. The only people that would give me a chance was Movistar.”

The Clerk nodded his head, and it seemed that his initial hostility had melted away in light of her honest confession.

“Now I’ve been with this company for two years, only because they give me just enough to get by and they help me save for retirement. I live alone in an apartment I can barely afford. I’m embarrassed to tell my children how hard I’m struggling. Who knows what will happen in two months. Perhaps they fire me. Then, what would I do? Move back in with my mother, who now has seventy six years? I’d be running around the streets of Barcelona selling whatever I could. Hell, I don’t know. Shining shoes for businessmen, selling waters to tourists, selling fucking marijuana – anything!” She laughed, and her face had shifted from fear to disbelief to something resembling a detached amusement with her fate. “¿Sabes?”

Si, si, ya lo sé.” said the clerk. For a moment, nothing more was said, she simply stared directly into my eyes with that hand on her hip, biting her lip, her eyes open, disarmed, and totally vulnerable.

As a tourist with a fresh paycheck I was limited to being an observer to her situation. I felt I had to say something. “Así es la cosa,” I muttered, trying to understand how she felt, a middle class family woman suddenly humbled by invisible forces beyond her control.

She smiled at us and straightened up, seeming to collect herself. “Si, así es. Anyways,” she picked up her folder and put her glasses back on, “Cosas de la vida. So, yeah, we’re sorry about the delay in addressing the problem. We’ll send someone over first thing next week. You guys take care, ok?”

“We will,” said the clerk, offering her his hand. “Have a good weekend. Cuídate,

And with that she opened the door and left, walking uphill to her next appointment.

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