When I first arrived in Barcelona I didn’t know anyone. I had somehow convinced my boss at the time to allow me a 3-week absence from the office in exchange for staying on-call most of the time. I was old enough not to be a backpacker but not old enough to be traveling with a family, which now I know makes for difficult social interaction with fellow travelers. And when you travel alone, you see new places really differently. I wandered the streets all day every day, getting lost, consulting a tattered paper map, winding in and out of museums and cafes and impossibly tiny streets.
Since I didn’t know anyone for most of the trip and deployed my caveman Spanish flailingly, my interactions with locals were brief. Still, my first impression of Barcelona was made by the waiters and service-workers I observed. Every mealtime, I would find the chair with the most visibility and just watch. I watched the city without words to see how people talked to each other. I stalked their movements, their facial expressions, and marveled at their different demeanor from person to person.
Years and what seems like several lifetimes later, Barcelona is where I live. While lines dividing languages, cultures, and perspectives are thick, the intersection is pretty damn interesting. Mezclas of local flavors crowd the streets with an impossible density that is intoxicating. I love this city.
Here you will find local types who work the tourist industry, who want to show you the city and all its “authentic” places where they’ve set up price-gouging monopolies with their amiguetes. Here you will also find local types who are annoyed that their city is special enough to be visited. I know this look because I wore it for 7 years living in New York.
But there’s another type of local that keeps their head down most of the time; the same type I watched the very first time I came to Barcelona. They don’t care much about tourism, but they have a fervent pride and guttural passion for their city, their product, and their customers. This, to me, is the real Barcelona. It’s Barcelona street-level, and it’s my favorite view.
This is the first interview of five. The rest will follow soon.
Spotlight 1: Mercé
Fish at the Boqueria. It’s a corral of fish heads, slow-moving claws, and invertebrate slop atop chopped ice mounds that drip slowly onto cement floors making a soup of guts and ooze. The odors are severe. So much so that sometimes my eyes get watery and I feel a little lightheaded. It’s a magical place.
In the fish pen are dozens of pescaderas, perched behind their stands with machete in hand, catcalling to tourists. Dime guapisima, they say. But there’s something that sets Mercé apart from the others here. She doesn’t seem so eager. She grew up in the Boqueria, and has seen it grow and change all her life, so there’s this calm about her.
Calm though she appears at first glance, once you’ve won her heart as a regular customer, good luck getting in and out of there in less than an hour. Mercé is a charlatana, in the most wonderfully entertaining way. For 30 minutes I’ll patiently smile and wait for her to weigh the tuna I’ve just bought while she tells me what her husband has been making at the restaurant lately (he cooks at an excellent restaurant called Bar del Pla in the city, for which Mercé naturally supplies the fish). Meanwhile tourists and locals gather round waiting anxiously for their turn and Mercé doesn’t even seem to notice. This is the Mercé way, and once you’re on the inside it makes you feel like a million bucks.
Where are you from?
I’m from Barcelona.
How long have you been working?
I started working here (Mercat de la Boquería) when I was 12, so I’ve been here 30 years. My father died and my mother suddenly found herself alone with two businesses to tend to. Someone offered to help her under the condition that someone would help her out and that’s how I got started. We are a family of three siblings. My mom decided that my older brother and I would put in the work, and that our little brother would go to college. That’s the way it goes. It was a special situation, but I’m happy. It’s a marvelous thing to have your own business to earn your living, especially during these times.
Now I do alone what my parents used to do together: I buy, transport, present, sell the fish, and I’m really happy. So that’s life, right?
What do you like most about your job?
The relationship with my clients. It’s the most important.
And the least?
All the photos that the tourists take. But what can I do?
What’s the tradition or party in Spain or Catalunya that you like the most?
The parties of La Mercé, because they are so beautiful and because it’s meant for people from here. I like how it’s done very much and hope the tradition is never lost.
What is your favorite place in the city?
Well the truth is that I like it all. But my favorite is Parc Güell, the area where I live. Now maybe not as much because there are so many tourists, but still it’s so pretty. Now they’re charging to enter Parc Güell. Since I’m a neighbor I don’t have to pay, but it still bothers me that they’re charging because Gaudi left it for all of the city to enjoy.
the secret to the perfect tuna tartar is twofold:
texture and balance.
It must crunch and melt, slide and burst. It must hit notes of umami and sweet, sour and savory, culminating in a grand symphony of flavor (not to mention a symphony of compliments by your dinner guests).
Fresh tuna of course is also paramount. If you can’t get yours from Mercé, visit your local fishmonger and ask for a cut with no fat that is the deepest, darkest, most beautiful purple in all the world.
+ Macadamia nuts
+ Black sesame seeds
+ Toasted pine nuts
+ Purple cabbage
+ Honey-glazed eggplant
+ Pine nuts
Cut tuna evenly into chunks. Add ingredients in moderate quantity at first while constantly tasting for the right ratios. Once you’ve hit that, finish with lemon, olive oil and salt. Serve in the shape of circular disks, garnish with arugula, and compliment with cava.
Katie Barcelona is a graphic designer and wanna-be writer living in Barcelona. And yes, Barcelona is her real last name and yes, it’s just a weird coincidence that she’s living in Barcelona.