Barcelona, Fred, Barcelona

I don’t remember when I first came to Barcelona. Was it before Fred decided to settle here in late 2000s, or was it after, to visit him? I do remember vividly the conversations we had in London though, which almost always ended with a discussion on where to settle after his retirement. He didn’t want to stay in London; he needed Mediterranean weather, good food and other delights of life – delights which he firmly believed London denied him.

“I have three choices”, he told me once. “Istanbul, Beirut or Barcelona”. Istanbul was out because he didn’t speak the language and as those who are lucky enough to get to know him a little would know, language was everything, the sine qua non of a cosmopolitan lifestyle he devoted himself to. He never believed one could do International Relations or Area Studies without being fluent in at least one of the languages spoken in one’s area of expertise. Beirut did fit the bill in that respect but, “it was too chaotic”, he said. “I am old now, I want some peace of mind.” Barcelona had it all: the sun, the beach, delicious food and more importantly exquisite wine, warm-hearted people, lots of Latin Americans for whom he always had a soft spot, and language (he could lecture in Spanish as he would in English and he had a private tutor to learn Catalan – in addition to 7-8 other languages he already spoke).

So he bought a small, sunny flat at the heart of Barcelona. And that was the beginning of our pilgrimages. I say “our”, because Fred’s students, spanning many generations, were a community of their own. No, definitely not a bunch of acolytes, or a cult of makeshift Fred Hallidays, since the first thing the “grand master” taught his students was to be critical, critical of evertyhing, not least of him and their own beliefs. “At my funeral”, he wrote in one of the aphorisms he composed in his favourite chiringuito in Barcelona, “the one thing no-one must ever say is that ‘Comrade Halliday never wavered, never changed his mind’”.

Each visit was memorable in its own way. It would start with a breakfast or lunch in his favourite local café, Tris Tras in Plaça Molina – a lousy café at that, but Fred had a thing for lousy cafés, restaurants and bars where he felt at home; the dreadful “so-called Cypriot” restaurant Yialousa in Russell Square was Tris Tras’ counterpart in London. After a siesta at his place, the day would continue with cocktails at the beach and end either at the local Argentinian steak house or again in his place, partying until the wee hours of the night accompanied by countless bottles of red wine. In fact, the only thing we were expected to do “as students” was to carry the boxes of empty bottles to the recycling bin the following morning.

Like Fred, most of us fell in love with Barcelona. In my case, I also fell in love with Fred’s friends, the “one of a kind” Carmen (the daughter of the famous Spanish communist historian Fernando Claudin), the omniscient sage Pere, the marvellous Julie Wark, and I am running out of adjectives now, the younger generation Eduard, Lucila, and so many others. If Fred was my second father, then Carmen was definitely my second mother. Using her wide wisdom to correct my mistakes, to remind the perfectionist in me that I am flawed like all others – all with an endless patience, motherly affection and care.

We were all worried about Fred’s health, but we weren’t expecting that he would be hit by his personal demon, depression, first. It was Julie who found him in his flat, in desolate shape (this time, the adjective is an understatement) and took him to hospital… where it was discovered, after some time, that he had a very advanced stomach cancer as well. We wanted to visit him, but he did not let us. He didn’t want his students to witness his frailty, his weakness. We had long been aware of it of course; but he chose blissful ignorance and we played along. Katerina (Dalacoura) and I have decided to “overrule” his wishes at some point and to go there for an extended weekend. I was in Sweden; she was in London. We had arranged our tickets to meet at the airport. Just a week before we could board our planes, on 26 April 2010, I woke up to a text message by Carmen. He was gone. He was 63, just like my father when he passed away five years before him.

I taught I could still visit Barcelona, if only to meet my friends, “my extended family” there. And I did a couple of months later, for a conference. But it wasn’t the same; maybe it was too early to go, maybe I wasn’t ready yet. I never dared to try again. I deleted Barcelona from my personal map. With a few exceptions, I didn’t stay in touch with my friends and family either.

Until three days ago that is. The twisted irony of what some call “fate”, I ended up here fighting for the survival of the most precious thing in my life – that “thing” that Carmen, Julie did not even know existed! But family is family. The love is unconditional, endless. It surrounded me – us – the moment I set foot in Barcelona. It was home after all. A long-forgotten one, Odysseus’ Ithaca, the end point of a long journey.

“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours”, wrote Italo Calvino in his timeless classic Invisible Cities. And I have a question for Barcelona. Will she have an answer to it? I don’t know. And if she does, will I like the answer?

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