A post-pandemic homage to Catalonia

Barcelona, for me, represented an illusion of permanence – until it was fully undone by the coronavirus pandemic.

[Belen Fernandez/Al Jazeera]
'When in 2013 my parents moved to Barcelona, the Catalonian capital became the new epicentre of nostalgia' [Belen Fernandez/Al Jazeera]

Twenty years ago, in 2003, I left the United States with no particular agenda aside from leaving the United States – which despite being my country of birth I found to be a terribly psychologically unsettling place. That same year, the US military had gone about pulverising Iraq and its people under the guidance of President George W Bush, who had subsequently found the whole affair to be highly amusing.

As a young child in Washington, DC and its environs, my envisioned future had entailed living with my parents forever, and I had beleaguered my mother with worried questions about how old she would be when I was 20, how old she would be when I was 25, and so on.

As things shaped up in adulthood, however, any potential for a sedentary existence was quickly swept away in favour of extended international hitchhiking expeditions and general continuous movement between countries – a frenetic itinerance that was of course only enabled by the privileged passport provided to me by the nation I was avoiding at all cost.

Eventually, my haphazard travels became interspersed with regular stopping points, among them Beirut, Sarajevo, the town of Oria in the Italian region of Puglia, and the southwestern Turkish city of Fethiye. Somewhere along the way, I acquired a fortune cookie whose fortune featured the verb “to return”, which took up residence among the mess of stuff I kept at my Turkish friend’s Fethiye apartment.

Upon each return to Turkey, I would sort through my possessions and happen upon the fortune, an encounter that would inevitably occasion a melodramatic interlude as I set about wistfully recalling all of my former visits to Turkey and everything in between.

When in 2013 my parents moved to Barcelona, the fortune migrated there along with a heap of belongings, and the Catalonian capital became the new epicentre of nostalgia.

The term “nostalgia”, coined by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in his 1688 dissertation at the University of Basel, is a combination of the Greek word nostos – meaning homecoming or return – and the word algos, meaning pain. A 2013 Atlantic article notes that, for centuries, nostalgia was seen as a “psychopathological disorder” that required treatments ranging from leeches to “warm hypnotic emulsions”.

Objectively speaking, my own nostalgic propensities were probably ripe for psychopathological diagnosis given that I regularly experienced painful homesickness for a bazillion different places, none of which technically qualified as home.

And diagnostic opportunities only increased with my parents’ establishment of a home in Barcelona, which I thenceforth utilised as an intermittent platform to re-enact my childhood, making my mother tuck me in at night and read me The Polar Express at Christmas.

My parents would cook, and I would smell the smells passed down from my Cuban great-grandmother. In the evenings my father would sit in a rocking chair in the corner reading and rereading Don Quixote. I would go on endless walks through the streets of Barcelona, making notes in a notebook for some article or another as I went, such that the city’s layout became subconsciously programmed into my person even as I ignored the street names.

Whenever it was time for me to dart off again to Bosnia or Kyrgyzstan, my dad would accompany me on the bus to the airport, where he would hide all of my extra luggage from the check-in people, fiddle with his worry beads, and prepare whatever apocalyptic fatherly warnings were deemed necessary for this particular trajectory.

We would then partake of cheap wine in the airport lobby along with some preemptive nostalgia for the present moment.

Looking back now on the Barcelona years, it seems that the city for me represented an illusion of permanence that was only fully undone by the coronavirus pandemic, most of which I spent in the minuscule coastal village of Zipolite in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. I had departed Barcelona for El Salvador in December 2019 with the intention of returning in May of the next year, but pathogens and human malfeasance precluded such an eventuality.

Having just arrived in southern Mexico in March 2020, I got to experience a pseudo-lockdown that consisted of having a coronavirus checkpoint installed directly in front of my house to keep folks from entering or leaving the village. My world having thus shrunk to a matter of kilometres, I would clock numerous hours lying in a hammock mentally transporting myself to the boulevards of Barcelona and other such pre-pandemic luxuries.

My parents, meanwhile, were under rather more literal lockdown, and my mother would send me fast-motion videos of my father marching in circles around the kitchen table.

A little over a year into the pandemic, they made the decision to move back to the homeland. The “to return” fortune presumably went with them, although I have yet to come across it in any of my visits.

I did not return to Barcelona until May 2023, three and a half years after my departure. On the bus from the airport to Plaza Catalunya in the city centre, I did not feel the waves of nostalgia I had expected. Instead, it appeared that my entire emotional apparatus had been amputated.

It was only when I began walking that there was a recuperation of some sort of sentiment. I passed my parents’ old front door, the corner shop where my dad had taken up an unofficial apprenticeship in the art of wine and cheese-selling, the fabric store where my mom had acquired hedgehog-imprinted material for handkerchiefs, and the row of benches where an assortment of elderly men and I had endeavoured to absorb vitamin D on winter days.

Then, taking out my notebook, I lost myself on the sidewalk, my dad’s voice in the back of my head all the while telling me not to get run over and killed by an electric skateboard.

Now, several hours later, I suppose I can say I have returned to Barcelona.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.