Despite how healthy this picture looks, these peppers never belonged to me. I lived next door to a storeroom and it stored things like beers and tins of things as well as mountains of red peppers and tomatoes and the like. Once, all the bottles of beer in a crate rolled down the hill on their way to the sea. I stopped them by putting my leg out and then running after them, like a parent chasing after her kamikaze child. Only one bottle got broken and the man thanked me and said that he was the owner of the bar, next to my apartment, and if I ever wanted anything I was to come in and ask for him. I remember thinking how nice that was and I was only doing what anyone would have done in the circumstances.
I found the crate of peppers incongruous, sitting there unattended. There was no one in the street but me, although in the photo there is a suggestion of human activity from the open door on the left. But at the time, there was no noise. This is the street where I lived while I was teaching last year. It is in Sitges, just outside Barcelona.
Up until then, Sitges was a place I had only heard of, and only from a man I once worked with in a delicatessen whilst as a jobbing (unemployed and depressed) actor. He was someone who subtly undermined me as I attempted to slice cured meats, who nitpicked about the way I piled sausages. He was not a very nice man and when he said his tan was attributable to a holiday in Sitges, somehow Sitges became as horrible as him. I never wanted to go there. I would go and sit in the toilet and cry and then have to re-introduce myself to whoever I was serving and weigh the pâté. I’ll never forget the awful feeling of my hands shaking over the digital scales. And his red face bearing down on me.
Also, delicatessens are a strange place to work. Things swimming in oil, the obsession with clingfilm, the smell of cold astringent objects, piles of goo. The colour brown. That weird rind on pâté. People who work in delicatessens are rarely warm – have you noticed? Because they, like the food, must remain chilled otherwise they’ll go off. Just a theory.
My very first exchange, the morning after I’d arrived, was with a waitress with black hair and a black mood who pretended not to understand the word tortilla. I thought – he is here, his spirit has contaminated this place. I never went back there even though her cafe was on the corner of my tiny pedestrian street and I passed her every day blackly sweeping up, looking as though she was still mulling over my ridiculous request. She never acknowledged me nor I her. So my first meal was spent looking at a blank space where a plate should have been and Joe drinking very good coffee.
Then I realised I had locked us out of the flat and had to call the estate agent who was hiking in the hills of Catalunya. Of course he was. He sent a sympathetic slightly cryptic message telling me not to worry and all would be well and because we had nothing else to do, we went and ate lunch – a plate of grilled sardines and patatas bravas smothered in a red sauce – made from peppers. Those red peppers are everywhere in Catalunya, a kind of culinary leitmotif.
I never saw that man from the bar again. I never went in there, preferring the open air restaurant on the pontoon over looking the sea, where the waiters fed bread to the fish. Looking over the side there would be masses of dancing fish and no bread, that’s how quick they were. The waiters were all young and friendly and prone to hand-holding; if there wasn’t a table until 3pm, I would get my hand held. That’s one of the reasons I went back, but also the food was good, with a limited menu written in chalk, always finishing with tarta de santiago, sliced as thin as paper with a rosette of cream.
The food though was not the most important thing. It was the colours of the food, the brown paper bags, the heaps of artichokes, the big orange mounds of mango, the tiny streets where my bike would fit, the sudden sweep down to the sea. The sea. I had my own bit, which had a white wind-break, a kind of fence, owned officially by the yacht club but it’s where I once left my watch (still there on my return), where I left my swimming costume hanging, where I sat and imagined the water before going in. It was near two ice cream shops. It was as ice cream always is, unless it’s Italy circa 1988. Never as good as you want it to be.
Down each of those alleyways, would appear the face, from time to time, of a student. Sometimes, we would go through the polite dance of ‘hello,’ sometimes we would feign ignorance, not see each other. Because Sitges is so small, that work seamlessly blends into all aspects of life. You are your work, and so arguments, wandering out of the sea topless, eating, walking, standing – all will be duly noted. Not going out will be too. Because Sitges is a party town, a drinkers place.
The red sauce I think is, must be, romesco? But perhaps not. In all the time I was in Sitges I never asked. Just nodded and ate it. It was lovely.