Barcelona 1966: Working Women

It is Barcelona, 1966, Francoist Spain. In the Barrio Gotico, Tony, lately jilted by his American girl friend, groaned after tapas and too much peseta-a-glass wine, “I need a woman.” So we, a couple with sex guaranteed, followed him here, to what is known as the Barrio Chino, to the notorious Calle Robador to support his search for a paid partner. Robador is narrow, and from the balconies above, laundry banners it, signalling with sheets, shirts, and children’s clothes that families live here too, that women do laundry here, keep house here.

Tony leads the way; we stumble in his wake. After the darkness of Robador, the light in the bar is blinding. Inside men perch on bar stools, drinking, jabbering, and gesticulating with their hands to add direction to their conversations while the jukebox pours out Lola Flores and her flamenco pop. Thrust into short, tight dresses, the women, some with their hair bleached an unnatural blonde, stand along the mirror–lined wall. On the wall above the bar opposite, the mirror displays their fronts and the mirror behind, their rears for the drinkers to browse. Tony walks the line, greeting the women in his California Spanish. If he stops, one reaches over to give his cojones a free-sample caress. My husband lurches back as a hand goes for his. I move to his side, grab his arm and smile an apology. We are here with the giant—“con el gigante”. I nod toward six feet five Tony negotiating his “date”.

Tony walks the line, greeting the women in his California Spanish. If he stops, one reaches over to give his cojones a free-sample caress.

Freeing ourselves from Tony’s transaction, we escape to the bar stools. It is a hot, humid night but the men all wear jackets, including my husband, who would blend in except he has blonde hair. Me, I am all dressed up for the night out, high heels, lots of make up and sun-streaked hair backcombed, accepted by the men as no classier than a puta, one more easy northern European woman, a Swede maybe. Swedish women have introduced the bikini to beaches in Spain, an astounding and enticing sight to Spanish men as if these sun lovers lay stark naked on a city street. Swedish girls go the limit. Spanish girls go no further than handholding, even with their fiancés, but “suecas”, the Swedish holidaymakers—all on “the pill,” and primed, so the gossip goes.

Some 30 years after the Civil War, Catalans itch for a glimmer of similar independence in Catalonia. Brave old-style believers have painted this slogan on a wall, CATALAN BISHOPS FOR CATALONIA! Young wags have slashed out the “CATALAN BISHOPS” to squeeze in “SWEDISH NUNS FOR CATALONIA!

The blonde serving bar is young, but with drooping breasts and a heavy tired-out look. After a day’s teaching, I’m tired too, but I don’t want to be deserted in our apartment on a Friday night by a husband drawn to the Barcelona street life, eager to try new tapas in new bars, and see people parade on the Ramblas. Already he lisps away in his university Castilian to the man next to him, underlining points with Spanish body language, using his hands to frame every phrase.

I tell the bargirl he is my husband and the giant American is my horny colleague. She crosses her arms to lean on the bar and listens. I gabble on in the broken Spanish I have learned from friends and colleagues. The American and I teach at the International School. My husband teaches at the university, but after the strike and demonstration, the government shut the university. The professors’ salaries continue to be paid, so he’s quite happy at home all day. I don’t tell her he cleans the apartment, shops, cooks (which is women’s work) and he writes (likely to be dangerous work in Franco’s Spain if he writes about the strike)—so I just say he sits at home all day. “Ay los hombres!” She raises her eyebrows to me and scans the clientele for any orders. Confidantes now, she pours me another drink. I tell her I’m on “the pill”. She thinks it is a pill to make you abort. This ultra-Catholic regime bans sex education, the promotion and sale of contraceptives. Even in an establishment like this, her ignorance makes sense.

“If you take the pill,” I whisper, “You don’t get pregnant. It’s fantastic! I brought my supply. Enough boxes to stop getting pregnant for a year or more. I want a baby. But not now. Not in Spain.”

She nods her head.

Often cars or taxis speed by in the streets, the driver honking the horn while a white handkerchief waves out the back window, the signal for a woman in labour being taken to hospital. Rumours from the women in the International School say she gets no painkillers, no sympathy, especially if the nurses are nuns. She will scream in agony and pay her price for original sin. Tradition requires her to scream. A teacher, Barbara, married to a Spaniard, vows she’ll go home to England to have her babies. When my time comes, I too want some gas and sympathy.

“If you take the pill,” I whisper, “You don’t get pregnant.”
The young woman says she has a baby at home in her village. She’s not married, and, with her honour lost, no work there for her. Every weekend she leaves the baby with her mother, comes to Barcelona by train and works in this bar. She pours me another glass of wine, and I expound on the wonders of la piladora, how I went on the pill when I was an unmarried student. This must confirm for her that all foreign women elect to be sluts and drunks.

She leaves me and saunters to the other end of the bar to tend to regular customers.

Spain, 1966, two kinds of women are in circulation: foreign sluts and fallen women; good Spanish girls stay at home. When good girls go out, a relative chaperones to guard their reputation, their “little treasure” for a future husband. Because we are a married couple, and presumed to be devout Catholics, we often get requests from my husband’s male students for us to chaperone a young man and his novia, his fiancée. This includes an all expenses paid outing, and a chance for us to practise our Spanish out of the classroom. Some Sundays we go to the monastery of Montserrat, a pious and favourite excursion to see the Black Virgin, the patron saint of Catalonia, and a chance for my husband’s student to cuddle and kiss his own Catalonian virgin in dark corners while we marvel at the rock formations and relish the mountain air. They whisper their love talk in forbidden Catalan.

Catalan lives in the Ramblas market, but recent memory of beatings and repression censor where, when, and with whom Catalan may be spoken. In the fountain–filled Plaza de Cataluňa, men gather to chat and escape stuffy apartments and wives. They converse in Catalan, and switch to Castilian Spanish if a pair of greyuniformed Comisaría police happen by or a solitary man (who might be a government snoop, a “spic”) pauses to light a cigarette.

When we first came to Barcelona, we asked our landlord, the bank inspector from Andalusia, about Catalan.

“The sound of barking dogs,” he sneered. “People with education don’t speak that stupid dialect.” This, the opinion of an old Fascist, whose qualification for his job was that he had fought for Franco, and who pored over work that he brought home from the bank, re-reading and dragging his finger over everything he read with the baffled concentration of the semi-literate.

My husband has a private student, a French teacher in a fancy school, a Catalan who wants to learn English, his plan to emigrate to Canada. He takes us for coffee, where he babbles on about English, French, and his dream of Montreal, and when queried, tells us Catalan has a grammar and is a language, but unlike the official Castilian Spanish it can no longer defend its place with guns.

“Hey, Jordi!” Tony, calling on my husband in the Catalan for George, pushes his wallet at him for safekeeping. “I won’t be long.” He exits into Robador, arm around the puta as though he were escorting his date to the prom.

“Americans,” my husband sighs. “Terminal romantics.” Having grown up in the toughest part of west Belfast, Barcelona’s red-light rough end’s commerce doesn’t faze him. He puts his arm around me and whispers in my ear, “I have to go to the baňo. Wait here, will you!” He goes to the back of the bar. My new friend, the bargirl, has tired of me and I am alone.

I smell lemon-fragrant aftershave and a warm, damp hand grabs my bum. I’m being propositioned. I’m flustered. We were drunken idiots to come here with Tony. I point at the blonde Irishman, bursting as he waits his turn outside the occupied aseo. My luckless client is as young as one of my husband’s students and embarrassed by his mistake. But is he ever handsome! To me in the Spain of 1966, it seems all Spanish men look handsome, except for Franco. They know they are, and it translates to their walk, their talk, and their swagger.

Before I worked at the International School, I slaved in the Berlitz on Calle Pelayo at the top of the Rambla de los Flores. In our breaks, we teachers went to the Baviera Restaurant for coffee and huge, buttery croissants. The teachers sat at the bar because it was known that the elegant women posed at the tables were soliciting. Cecily was a fellow Berlitz slave, and like me, just out of university. A tall, fair-haired English beauty, she could turn heads anywhere, but here in Spain she made men’s heads spin like roulette wheels. Cecily had a Spanish boyfriend, “mi guapo piloto.” The handsome pilot was married, alas, and the affair died; however, Cecily’s taste for Spanish men did not. One day as we counted our paltry Berlitz pesetas at the bar, Cecily snapped her purse shut, made a decision, left the teachers and crossed over to sit at a table in the Baviera.

A while later, walking home up elegant Paseo de Gracia lined with the glitz of affluent apartments, cafes and cinemas, I spied Cecily at the table of a very posh restaurant, sitting alone on the sweep of its sidewalk patio. She waved me over, invited me to sit down and, in her English upper class jolly-hockey-sticks way confided that she was doing “it” for money, money she had become accustomed to with the pilot and the expensive apartment he left her to pay for on her own.

“And, Angela, I rather enjoy it.”

Franco’s Spain prohibits contraception, abortion and divorce, but permits prostitution to keep the natural instincts of the Spanish man from the unnaturally chaste, Spanish woman. A vigorously censored cinema also protects the Spanish woman from anything unwholesome. All scripts undergo “correction,” foreign movies dubbed, scenes cut, and stories distorted with ridiculous results all to suit the censor. In the John Ford movie, Mogambo, Mrs. Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) and Mr. Nordley are siblings in the dubbed version so that Mrs. Nordley is not seen as committing adultery in her affair with another man, but consequently in the movie, she exhibits more than a hint of incest with her “brother”―Francoist Spanish censors left in one scene where the siblings share a bed. We go to the latest James Bond, Thunderball, and wonder what Bond girl will turn into 007’s sister.

In the bar, sitting alone among working women and very much in need of a husband, I look around for Jordi.

Bowels relieved, he emerges from the aseo. More men crowd in off the street, the bar gets noisier, the air stuffier with a mass of cigarette smoke and sweat. Along the wall the women appear as lively and provocative as ever, but their feet squirm in their high heels as they wait for a client and a lie down. No tables for them to sit at on Calle Robador, and not all clients are gallants like Tony or my prospective client. Staggering sailors and clumsy, little Franco look-alikes enter, enjoy their free samples and step on the women’s toes.

I have to go outside. My stomach churns with the mix of drinks and stale air. Just in time I reach the doorway of the apartments next to the bar. My husband grabs me around the waist, and I vomit the night’s drinking into the hallway.

“Let’s go”, he says. “Tony can walk home on his own. We’ll give him back his wallet tomorrow.”

Hand in hand we stroll up Robador, my naiveté like a new glass cracked but not yet broken. The street night watchman’s glance registers two tourists in the wrong part of town. “Buenos Noches Seňor Velador!” Our politeness confirms his observation quicker than a passport.

Moving out onto the Ramblas, “Buenos Noches” to the grey Comisaría policemen, “Buenos Noches!” to the blue-uniformed traffic cops and, “Oye! Taxi!

Barcelona, 1966 is safe for us pillars of respectability, my sex life sanctified by the church, so long as we hold our tongues, and I hide all my liberal political views under a sober, black mantilla.

Born and educated in Northern Ireland, Angela Mairéad Coid emigrated from Barcelona, Spain to Port Alberni, Canada. Her work has appeared in Boyne Berries (Ireland), Canadian Woman Studies, The Antigonish Review, The Windsor Review, GEIST, WordWorks, The New Quarterly and the zine, Vancouver Weekly. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, George McWhirter whose book, CATALAN POEMS shared the Commonwealth Poetry prize with Chinua Achebe.