Some of my most powerful memories from 2020 are of the post-lockdown reunions with the owners of my favorite bodegas and grocery shops in Barcelona. After such a long period of confinement, it felt dizzying to move beyond the borders of my neighborhood and visit bars and restaurants again, which had newly reopened for takeaway. It was hard not to hug my friends – you know, we hug a lot in Spain.
On one particularly ridiculous day in May, I remember sneaking a glass of vermut in a paper coffee cup at one of my local bodegas. The coffee cup was a disguise – any police patrolling the streets would think that I was just buying a takeaway coffee (permitted) and not having a drink inside a bar (forbidden). I wasn’t the only one: many of the “coffees” being served in paper cups were actually cava, beer or vermut. Regulars would pop inside for a few minutes, long enough to say “Hola qué tal?”, and then take their cups out to the street, loitering around the bar.
It was somewhat absurd. We could easily buy a bottle of vermut or wine to enjoy at home, on the sofa. But no, we preferred to go to a bar that is open only in “shop” mode and stand outside, on the street, with no chairs, stools, tables, nothing, risking a fine not just for ourselves but also the bar, with weird paper coffee cups in hand. Directionless and trying to maintain social distancing while fidgeting with our newly acquired masks, we spoke as quickly as we could, starved for conversation. It’s proof of the magnetic attraction of Barcelona’s neighborhood establishments, making us behave imprudently and in bizarre ways while also providing a moment of happiness, at a time when regulations were still confusing and everything was so surreal.
I remember one night in October, when dine-in service was permitted and we could remove masks to eat and drink, going to a local spot with my boyfriend. It was packed with customers of all ages, and as the evening went on, social distancing started to become more elastic than chewing gum. There were several small groups, mainly regulars, seated at tables (always within the permitted number) and even more people on the street, smoking and waiting for one of the few spots inside; the waiters struggled to cope with the service and the sanitizing and the constant ring of the telephone. Tapas of patatas bravas, Iberian ham, stews, croquettes and Padrón peppers were coming and going in a delicious, warm, friendly and – I have to confess – wonderful atmosphere of false normality. Beer and wine bottles were floating over our heads on the waiters’ trays, full and empty, moving in all directions. We were laughing and talking loud, like a regular Friday evening. But it was a Wednesday. And despite all attempts to be prudent, the situation started to inch a bit too close to normal – it was glorious and terrible at the same time. (This feeling of being on the edge is one I will always associate with 2020.)
This was not a regular occurrence in Barcelona this year; in fact, it was incredibly rare. The hospitality sector has been vigilant in adhering to safety conditions throughout the pandemic. I often saw owners kick out customers, regulars included, for not wearing their masks properly or not maintaining social distance. On this particular October day, however, we learned that all bars and restaurants would have to close again in two days’ time. We collectively cast aside our strong sense of precaution to have one last beer in our favorite neighborhood bar or bodega. I’m not saying it was a good decision. But it shows the strength – and foolishness – of our love for these local spots. A mad love that is essential.
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