At Home in This Residential Orgy

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Barcelona is a dense accumulation of small apartments, organized into over-height apartment buildings, crammed into each available centimetre of every city block. Nothing better describes the urban character of the city than this residential orgy, complexly overlayered and interlocked into a jagged puzzle of domesticity. Most Barcelonans have another name for such a place: home.

A visiting urban geographer once observed that most Barcelonans live in a place that is too small for their real needs; too cramped, no storage, no privacy, too noisy—meaning most have gone out and looked for something to their tastes only to cut back 30% on size and comfort and call it a day. He then went on to point out that the middle-classes, with a second residence (usually up or down the coast), repeat the same formula, renting or purchasing a space well below their minimum ideal, to have anything at all. Exactly why folks choose to have a weekend place that cruelly mimics the irritating flaws of the place they are escaping from is beyond me. The working class is uncomfortable in just one home; the middle class gets to suffer in two.

Not having the living quarters they’d dreamed of like makes it even odder that most residents are actually happy about where they live. Happy? That’s an understatement! Most Barcelonans are insufferably proud of where they live, arrogant even, as evidenced by the sacred litany of “mi casa”, “casa meva”, “my house” repeated in everyday conversations.

Proud or not, it’s hard to imagine a worse way to lay out a living space. Every Barcelona apartment has its wooden door staring dumbly onto the landing. There’s an entrance hall that is barely big enough to say “hola” in. Often you veer left or right into dark, unnecessary hallways, lined with inherited paintings. They all have plastered walls, some structurally sound, others thin as wafers. Drilling a hole to put up a shelf is a huge risk, as within the walls there are, more often than not, elaborate networks of water and gas lines and electrical wiring. The most useful home tool in Barcelona is a hand-held metal detector to help you avoid toxic leaks and electrocution.

Then there’s the kitchen, which seems to have been thought up for someone in service to the family. Was mom or grandma locked away in a sound-proof bunker with no access to the rest of the house? It’s a wonder she cooked so well, with the tap dripping and the fan barely sucking and the oven temperature impossible to set. There is only one redeeming feature of traditional Barcelona kitchens: those white marble countertops from Macael, that tiny town in Almeria whose quarries bless the world.

Bathrooms are tight too. The door brushes against the toilet bowl, so close that positioning yourself could be deemed a circus act. No one has a proper bathtub in which you can lay out in full. There’s a sink, but the water takes ages to get hot. No woman has even the minimum requisite space to have any pleasure at her toilette, which may be why female Barcelonans have perfected the art of minimalist make-up and quickly-arranged hair.

Common spaces are barely any better. Entire walls are often lined with massive furniture units sporting fake veneer, into which the TV, an encyclopedia and the kids’ trophies (for participation) have been duly set. And the couch should have been reupholstered years ago. If a CSI team were to spray it with luminol it would light up like a Christmas tree – you don’t want to imagine from what.

Now you may wonder how I know all this, since it is rare for Barcelonans to invite people into their homes. Hospitality is typically done in a neighbourhood restaurant. Some reserve the privilege of entering the apartment threshold for family only, so that distant cousins get to see (not much, really) what close friends may not. Many people are so scrupulous about never having guests that you may wonder what sort of skeletons they must be hiding in their closets – but then you remember no Barcelona closet has enough space for such frivolity. All skeletons, as everybody knows, are kept in a storage locker somewhere in L’Hospitalet.

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At Home in This Residential Orgy

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