My Hometown's Surprises

Living on the streets of Barcelona

I was seventeen years old when, in 2010, social inequalities started to arouse my interest. I could not understand how it was possible that some people were sleeping on the street while others could comfortably sleep in a bed. Rafael was a gypsy man of fifty years old and the first person that allowed me to consider this reality. He used to live and sleep on a bench in front of the Santa Catalina convent of Barcelona. Over the years, we have come to know each other better and I occasionally brought him a new shirt, a hot coffee with a lot of sugar, and I always expected to listen one of his best songs or a new story of his earlier life. He was lame and often sick. Once, I photographed him near a dog grooming shop for a personal project because I was outraged to observe this social contrast between this shining and luxurious place and a homeless. In 2013, Rafael was interned in the same hospital where his wife was treated. His condition was critical and despite my searches, I never heard from him again.

 

Few years later, in september 2014, I sought an organization in Barcelona where to help disadvantaged people at a local level. I explain through this project which relation I always had with the Casa Solidaria NGO, a very well organized group of volunteers who cooked and provided food to those who need it the most. At the beginning, my job was to bring thirty bananas every Sunday evening and during the food distribution I started to observe shyly over two hundred people walking in front of me to get their hot meal and to share a brief conversation with us, night workers. It was very hard. I remember to be crying coming back home because many stories gave a slap to my good student's cheek. Ignacio was a smiling man of forty years old, who told me once that his children were living in a foster family. It was difficult to bear. He did not ask for help to his brothers because he was just too proud but he continued struggling as he could to get out of this unstable situation. "The first few weeks, I slept on the bank cashiers and I was afraid of it. But over the years I had good and bad relationships that helped me to endure this situation. You can’t imagine what we live on the street. Come sleep with us and you’ll understand what it means to don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow.” Soon after this conversations, I remember Ignacio sleeping under a bridge of the North Station park of Barcelona with other fellow travellers. From time to time he did not recognize me and I started to see him increasingly weakened. But he was still smiling, making jokes to his closest friends and thanking each of the hugs he received from them.

Ignacio has been the first person I met at the NGO, along with Santiago, a Chilean man of forty-two years old who always slept at the entrance of the Sagrada Familia library. He used to come every night to our food distribution because he knew he would be welcomed very warmly. He lived in Chile and in Sweden with his family, but according to him, he had not been well accepted in any of the two countries for being an homosexual catholic. I enjoyed visiting Santiago once a week, after school, because he needed much affection. We used to walk together and discuss about crucial life controversies although he was suffering a mental disorder, constantly haunted by evil women who wanted to attack him. By that time, he was admitted to the Clinical Hospital of Barcelona, and I continued my visits there to make him feel encouraged and in confidence. I still remember the visitor’s common room, in which he held my hand like a child fearing to be mistreated. He told me his secrets, his favourite pop and rock songs, his way to admire ballet dancers simply because their penis were marked in their tighty pants. Santiago was a sensitive man. Someday, he will no longer hide and disguise his fears. I remember when he said: "I want to help people without treating them as slaves or business articles, but just as human beings. When they need help we must help them, just as people helped me. I would like to offer my advices to other gay men.”  For months now, this Chilean traveller has left Barcelona. He wanted to get Israel the soon as possible because God told him to go there. But his physical and mental states were already worrisome. I hope he fulfilled his desires. He deserved to live elsewhere than on the street… such as many other people.

According to the Catalan organization, Arrels Fundació, “One person ends up living on the street for different reasons, like problems with family, mental health and alcoholism, but also for structural reasons, such as few chances to access dignified housing or poor social policies. Losing a job and a partner are also important factors and in many cases it’s the sum of all these problems and the personal incapacity to manage them that lead a person to the street." (cf. Arrels website). During the time I worked with Casa Solidaria, I had more reasons to talk with people living on the street, which I used to see every single day in one or another corner of Barcelona. Few directed interviews allowed me to produce the Some.where project in 2015. Although I had encountered more than sixty men and women, most of the talks approached me a bit more to these lonely people who, sometimes, just need a friendly partner close to them. Moreover, after all these experiences, Mateo is the person who taught me how to better communicate with people living on the street, listening and understanding their personal backgrounds. Nowadays, Mateo remains a Congolese coach of martial arts, living and sleeping in the North Station park of Barcelona. He keeps being a perfect example for others in his own way to give importance to our environments or to consider life as a path defined by simplicity and transparency. According to his words, “all the elements of our environment have their value. We should learn to love them as well as we love a person”.

We should try to better listen people as Mateo, and our pride, our violence and our lies would break down into pieces before his noble personality, full of positive energy. When I was sick, Mateo used to call me to make sure that I was better whilst he was freezing below his blankets and recycled cardboards. He always will be a wise and curious man full of noble principles, training everyday since six o’clock in the morning. “When I train and I do sport, I feel joy. Sport helps me to be disciplined, to isolate myself within the nature and with animals while I fight the negativity of my mind. My desire is to convey the art of sport to others and to give good advices around me”. The last time we talked, he told me his entire journey since he left CongoRDC in 1995 due to the civil war, until his arrival to Barcelona in 2002. An adventurer’s life! Notwithstanding our opposite routines, I always have tried to be present for him, as well as many other volunteers who respect and love him as a brother. Mateo used to tell us: “I wish to better discover this world. That means to understand people by how they live, how they communicate, how they respect each other. I do not want envisioned riches in my life. I just need to belong to the simplicity and to the beauty of things”. Currently, Mateo’s dream is to teach martial arts to people who might need his advices. At that time I needed those ones. I will miss my black brother.  

When I interviewed persons living on the street, I tried to create an environment of trust. Thus, I wanted to discover their values and to reveal a part of their personality, always keeping in mind ethical issues. I was curious to get a memory of their childhood and another one of Barcelona; to understand what they value the most from others; what are their hobbies; what do they like to do every morning; which is the person who inspired them the most; what would they like to learn and, finally, what would be their dream in this life. Amongst the most interesting conversations, I remember well the crazy thoughts of Sebastian, an Argentine artist from Santa Fe. He used to draw and philosophize near the MacBa museum, without seeking any rewards or recognitions. “I am developing a project of graphic philosophy that explores a new syntax of the language of symbols. It then becomes an infinite game of chess that abstracts me from the reality. We could say that my illustrations are part of my mind in the material world”. Sebastian enjoyed the present moment as well as simple and novel things that could remove him from his daily routine. Mentioning Sebastian thoughts, I also need to describe my relation with Rafa, another artist from Valencia and a former florist. Between smiles and laughs, Rafa told me once: “I would like to convey my sense of humour through my drawings. I am not a painter. I am a drawer. Sometimes what I see makes me laugh and I decide to draw it”. Rafa was funny. I always knew him in a happy mood, drawing and observing his surrounding nature. I remember the day we were both deeply touched by a conversation about the devoted affection he had towards his mother. That day he offered me symbolically the template that held hundreds of his drawings. Rafa was a person who laughed for a gesture, an encounter between people, a nice joke. We unfortunately lost contact during months, and these days, I do not know if he could return to his hometown. I will end talking about Alessandro, who he is still very present in my memories. He and his old dog Otto. I still remember them sitting on the floor of a street, in the centre of Barcelona. Tourists tended to hide in a corner to take a picture of his written message, being afraid to directly talk to him. Alessandro wrote on a craft paper: “Life is beautiful”. He was friendly, sensitive and when I asked him whether he wanted a sandwich, he answered: “bring me a book”. Even if he was Italian, I bought him every two weeks Spanish books purchased new. He also told me that his wife left him and she denied to let him visit his son. My last memory of him was to see a lonely and sad man lying on the floor of Plaza Cataluña without his old dog Otto.  

Walking across my city, I have met many different people from whom I cannot remember the names. Rather, I will always remember their faces. I remember to have interviewed a man who had a small mobile library during the day and slept inside a bank at night. I have known and often visited a Turkish man who created aluminium geometric shapes, an Irish man who drew bicycles in a sketchbook, a very shy woman of sixty-five years old who has been an eternity begging at the same place, a young man who prostituted himself in public baths of train stations, a German couple camping in a park, an electrician who has been frustrated with wine and women, a man who had lived on the streets of Argentina and has travelled to Spain to simply get a better life, a Romanian guy with a big moustache who has always sold me a pack of tissues, a girl who has spent years singing in my town’s central squares, a Czech guy who used to play a detuned guitar, a waste picker of steel who obtained 8 cents of euro per kilo, etc. Many people who felt better when someone spoke to them and held their hand. I highly recommend to make time and to participate in an organization (NGO) to discover those sincere and emotional experiences given that good intentions are gathered and reinforced. Over the years, I learnt that each face tells a new story, and I believe that after listening all these people who have lived and still live in poverty, our life experiences can be mainly different but at the end, we all share a same great heart and purpose of life.

Currently, in May 2016, I have kept contact with Mateo and other people living on the street or who endure some difficulties, such as Manuel. This old man is my Colonel and I am his lieutenant general who always give him a bigger bag so he can come back home with enough food. He has an apartment provided by the City Council. Don Manuel has suffered several heart attacks and his physical disability works against him. When he was a young policeman he had been shot twice in the back but he is still a great joker. We shared hilarious moments together. I also had nice discussions with Juanjo, an old man who enjoys a lot talking about his weekly routine. Recently, he got a job as a Catalan tour guide. Besides, they invite him every Tuesday to spend the whole day in a convent. He must be seventy years old and he has the energy of a young man in his twenties. Finally, I would like to mention Antonio, a man in his forties and with whom I had much pleasure to talk of our Barcelona in the early 80s. His life has been hard due to his diseases. But he is still living with hope, moving from time to time to a new flat along with his small pension. Thus, he falls passionately in love of men and life. He is a dreamer and a wonderful person, always ready to help others…and happy to see them smiling back. Once, I gave Antonio some chocolates and this nice gesture touched him. He did not expect to receive a gift. Definitely, it is incredible to share with people who live excluded of the city due to their condition, appreciating with emotion these small touches of friendship and affection coming from others.

 

Of course, in this context there are many anecdotes to share and to tell about. In the meantime, I would like to thank Paqui and Juan Carlos, coordinators of the new association called Amasdés, for leading me passionately across this pathway and make me better understand social exclusions. Together with your charitable partners (Ricardo, Raúl, and all our friends), a small candle has now been lit, creating a light of hope for many people, volunteers and non-volunteers, men and women, foreigners and locals, young and old people. All together. There are not so many differences between us. Everyone needs the same: a hot meal, a smile and a lot of affection. And that is the reality on the street as everywhere else. Emotional communication is the substantial base that allows us to move forward with our lives, as well as beyond each person may be discovered a hidden world full of fantasies. During two years I have helped people in need, and all of them have helped me too in their many different ways, far beyond what they could imagine. They are the forgotten anonymous of our society, which always will remain very present, between pain and happiness, on the street and I hope that someday, in a place to which they belong. In a few years from now, memories will change, but I will always keep in a corner of my mind these little inspiring moments, full of deep emotions, that encourage me to come out every day and walk the streets of my hometown. 

Posted: 29th of May, 2016

We wish people to remain free, and to have what they desire at the same time. Our purpose is to know they are happy, helping them to remove suffering from their lives. 

Paqui & Juan Carlos

I have interviewed many times Paqui and Juan Carlos. They always taught me that even when conversations and experiences with people living on the street are unusual and enlightening, 'these social encounters make us reconnect with our purest emotions as human beings and we might relearn the values of our everyday environments'. In my NGO experience, I learnt that people living on the street are many more than we usually see in Barcelona. Food distributions became meeting places where to better know each other and where to be part of a nice conversation. Further, I realized that these daily encounters were considered as drivers to establish trustful relationships with those diverse people. After that, we could start to help them in our own way, becoming mindful of each one's life and listening from the heart the stories that they might tell us. Paqui and Juan Carlos made me understand the meaning of volunteerism as an act of respect, honesty, compassion and love. For them, people deserve to get access to basic needs for living properly (shelter, hygiene and food), together with emotional needs (a hug, a smile, a moment of conversation). My NGO experience was a continuous learning where it was important to not judge people for their condition, but to observe them, listen them and take a step forward to help them the best as possible. Finally, attending food distributions with Paqui and Juan Carlos became a natural and human experience that broke the structure of prejudices that has sown our own fear and personal pride. In this challenging reality, they will become two humble and wise masters creators of hope, and they will always be my trustful friends.

1/3

Posted: 26th of September, 2016

© 2014 2020 thomasverbal