Barcelona, Temptation City

Temptation acts on all of us. There is virtually always somebody or something whispering in our ear. A city like Barcelona must tempt to survive, in order to attract the forever increasing numbers of tourists it requires to satisfy its tourism dependence. This piece explores temptation as a central Barcelona theme.

Contemporary Barcelona, by which I mean the integrated modern city that has emerged since the 1992 Olympic Games, and which, as is frequently observed here by writers and commentators, no longer has its back to the sea, has an extraordinary capacity to attract visitors. Of this there can be no doubt: 8.41 million visitors in 2012, as such, the 10th most visited city in the world and the most visited in Spain.  The combination of climate, architecture, art, museums, beaches, mountains, food, etc., has seduced the global imagination converting Barcelona into one of the elite cool and sexy destinations. Low-cost airlines and giant cruise liners got in on the act, doing the necessary toing and froing and people pour-in all year round. The world is simply unable to resist! As London-based Marta, in her BLOG says,

Barcelona is one of those cities that once you travel there, you will never want to leave.

Like all great cities, Barcelona leaves you wanting more… and more. In the case of Barcelona however, this seductive and irresistible characteristic is deeply embedded in its cultural and social unconscious. For evidence of this you need only look up. One of the great symbols of the city, which can be seen from virtually anywhere (rooftops or city streets) by simply turning away from the sea and looking up, where, 515 metres up on Mount Tibidabo, the highest point of Serra de Collserola Natural Park, you will see the Templo del Sagrat Cor de Jesús, on top of which there’s a giant bronze statue of Christ. Here is an unsettling and imposing clue to help understand a vital element in the identity of Barcelona, particularly post 1992: temptation.

Whilst I look uneasily at the statue of Christ, this potent reminder of Catholic hegemony, clearly reminiscent of Rio’s (a city with a similar hold on the global psyche) Christ the Redeemer, in my mind’s eye a figure forms alongside the statue, whispering in its ear, the figure of Satan tempting Jesus, saying (and this is the text on one of the stained-glass windows within the temple):

et ait ei tibi dabo potestatem hanc universam et gloriam illorum quia mihi tradita sunt et cui volo do illa

“All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it”. This comes from Luke’s gospel (4:6) and the story of the temptations of Christ by Satan, who, while Jesus is fasting in the wilderness, tempts him on three occasions. During this, the third temptation, on the highest place in the wilderness, Satan offers Jesus (tibi dabo – this I will give you) all the lands about that can be seen, if he will only bow down and worship him. It’s almost as if the statue is responding by saying with its arms wide spread, “wow, you mean all of this”.

I am not religious – although I had a catholic childhood in which these stories colonized my imagination – nonetheless I engage with this story by imagining Jesus feeling tempted, at least beset with doubt, being alone, hungry and needy, in touch with the frail human psyche. This image of Satan alongside Christ and tempting him is one that sometimes comes to mind when working with clients as a psychotherapist, particularly my work with those in thrall to addiction here, here in this city of rich and highly available sources of temptation.

Through the 1992 Olympic Games Barcelona cleaned up its act and changed its global image, having been previously over identified with its principal working class neighbourhood: the Raval, more specifically the labyrinthine and dangerous interior of the city described so vividly in Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal (1949), the “dark and dirty” Barrio Chino, populated by

beggars, thieves fairies and whores…a kind of haunt thronged less with Spaniards than with foreigners, all of them down-and-out bums

This recent dramatic transformation unleashed Barcelona’s seductive potential as a global attraction, suddenly (apparently) singularly well-endowed to lure the millions who came in search of the satisfactions the city so readily provides. Madrid has had to look on with envy, straining three times unsuccessfully to repeat the same winning Olympic formula. However, for many locals the transformation has not been welcomed. See Eduardo Chibás’ excellent, eye-opening, angry and disconcerting documentary Bye Bye Barcelona on the corrosive impact of mass tourism on neighbourhoods such as the Ramblas, Cuitat Vella, Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell (subtitles available in English). Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, a native of the Barrio Chino (literally Chinatown), spoke through one of his most popular literary creations Pepe Carvalho in his 1992 crime novel An Olympic Death in which the character bids good-bye to…

a city that was already dying in his memory and which no longer existed in his desires. What was happening was the death of a city in which compassion was a human necessity, and the birth of a city in which the only thing that mattered was the distance between buying yourself and selling yourself.

The impoverished yet startlingly visible humanity of Genet’s Barcelona was moved on, not got rid of exactly but dispersed and relocated, for example, see a CNN report in July 2011 on Catalan prostitution and the work of the regional Human Trafficking Unit as well as the disturbing April 2012 New York Times report on brothel tourism. There is also a vast amount of pornography in the many highly visible sex shops – even at the bottom of the Ramblas – constituting 80% of Spain’s busy porn trade and film industry.

While the Raval, now by far the most culturally diverse area of the city, occasionally provides hints of its past (for the best possible idea of its past see Catalan photographer Joan Colom’s extraordinary work, some of which is reproduced at the top of this page)  it is now generally much less intimidating. My office is at the edge of the Raval and I have been propositioned on numerous occasions by sex workers plying their trade. Nowadays a stroll down the Rambla de Raval, the main drag of the barrio, which is not that far from (but still off the average tourist’s mental map) and runs parallel to the universally known and completely overrun Ramblas of popular tourism, is a much more pleasant and diverse experience than fighting your way up or down its more famous neighbour.

Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2011 movie Biutiful provides a powerful contemporary view of the Raval’s dark interiors through the eyes of Uxbal, son of an exiled Spaniard, played by Javier Bardem, trapped in an immigrant world in which people barely survive in networks of interdependent corruption. Through loyalty, dependence and a basic need to belong people are drawn in to ways of life habituated by behaviours that are extremely difficult to leave behind.

In my time working as a psychotherapist in Barcelona I have worked with many people from many different national communities who have become entrapped in drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction and corruption. I remember one client who, struggling with a cocaine habit, told me that if he ordered pizza and cocaine at the same time, he knew which would arrive first. Cocaine is Spain’s ‘stimulant of choice’.

A surprising feature, at least initially, of my practice here was the men  from the corrupt boiler house trade, workers in offices (both the Fagins and Artful Dodgers, mostly UK & US citizens) often fuelled by drugs and alcohol, employing high-pressure telephone sales techniques to con and tempt people into buying worthless, difficult to sell or even totally fictitious shares. Despite recent high profile convictions, boiler rooms are still omnipresent in Barcelona (see a Mirror report from 2011 and a 2012 BBC report). This mixed group of young men, mainly in their twenties and their older bosses in their thirties and forties, seemed to me to be seeking to contain their appetites and desires, dreaming of an exit “when I’ve made enough money”, some form of redemption, or, at times, forgiveness for the guilt that inevitably besets them as they become sucked into enjoying riches fraudulently acquired. The psychotherapist’s office at times bears a striking resemblance to the catholic confessional. These are men who have given into temptation and are beset by multiple addictions: alcohol, drugs (usually cocaine and marijuana), prostitution and, perhaps most addictive of all, easy money. I’ve often wondered about my ethical position in working with such clients. I’ve sought to approach them with compassion and ‘positive regard’, like Dr. Malfi, Tony Soprano’s therapist. However, I know that temptation also plays its part and in retrospect I would have wished to have been more like Dr. Krakower, wizened and worldly psychoanalyst (for one session only) to Tony’s wife Carmela Soprano. He says to her,

I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, you can’t either … One thing you can never say: You haven’t been told.

Barcelona has become a city with an insatiable appetite for tourists. This is shaping the kind of place it is. I suppose all great modern cities run the risk of becoming caricatures of themselves and at times Barcelona feels like a disinhibited theme-park, which has simply let too many people in. In addition, as the years go by, as the new 5 star hotels go up and the beds and beaches need filling, it demands more and more. It is hooked on the publicity-fuelled tourist, who, in turn, can’t get enough. Hardly surprising that some who come here get lost and fall into damaging and destructive lifestyles.

All of this you can have, all of this tibi dabo: cool and sexy party city; city of a million wild drunken stag and hen dos; city of art, Gaudi, architecture and design; city of cava and the world’s best restaurants; city of beaches, bars and endless sun-drenched fiestas; city of Barça and tiki-taka; city of ‘coffee shops’ and cocaine; city of sex tourism and porn; all things to all who care to try. Barcelona, City of Temptation.

7 thoughts on “Barcelona, Temptation City

  1. Hi Peter!

    Thanks for this post! It´s like a mosaic of Gaudi’s Park: from cinema to literature, from TV to religion and some serious reports… and all of this from the man/person who lives there.

    Your text also reminds me of ‘Take a walk on the wild side…” But also in my mind and body, I still remember the energy of Barcelona, the thrill of doing whatever we are doing, the possibility of dreaming of doing everything you want… In this sense, it’s also a very light city (at least when compared to Lisbon…) and I miss it very much!

    Hope I can see you again, in Barcelona or in Lisbon.

    A big hug,
    Sónia Malaquias

    1. Sónia,
      Great to hear from you. I like your comments so much! And the warmth (and light) of your feelings for Barcelona. You quote the great Lou Reed, lost to us only 2 days ago, who visited Barcelona on a number of occasions in recent years to take part in poetry events. Talking of Lisbon, next summer (28th July to 1st August) the Group Analytic Society International has its triennial Symposium in Lisbon I hope to be there presenting a project I’m developing with art therapist Carles Ramos called ‘Trencadis: Social Imaging Group’. Actually, ‘trencadis’ is the mosaic technique, using broken ceramic tiles, created by Gaudi that you describe in Parc Guell. Perhaps it will be an opportunity to meet again. I hope so.
      Un abrazo,

  2. I went to Med School in pre-Olympic Barcelona, and I trained as a group therapist in its post-Olympic version, and I love them both, and find them both very tempting. It’s still immensely pleasurable to go back. It’s ever-changing, but its soul remains stubbornly unsold.

  3. The following comment was sent to me by William Lee:
    Very well written, profound and (personally) deeply touching piece. You nailed it, Peter. This is not the first time I’m getting in touch with you, that being some one and a half years ago when I phoned you, kind of wanting to see you and maybe start some therapy. As it went, you were on holiday at the time, which I took as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be.

    Your thoughts on Barcelona are so spot on. I fell in love with it coming here on and off, but after moving here this place, once a gorgeous fairground to me, has become a lame-ass town, a dingy hub of lost souls and people who haven’t made it, whatever their dream was, flushed down after yet another round of Gin Tonics and way too much cheap blow. I’m in Barna because of my job, and so I have a great set of connections all over. I was lucky to come here and have my nest of artists and professionals to hang out with, but even so it feels that this place destroys human relationships, instead of building them. Just add a mammoth drug use from almost everyone I know, and you get the pic.

    Paradoxically, it taught me so much: I feel indebted to this city, and I’m so very surprised of how much I grew and learnt after coming here at 35 years old.

    Moreover, a very young Barcelona girlfriend who drove me out of myself was part of the play, just to find out (by her own admission) that she had been in therapy since she was 16, and went through a failed high school year, some eating disorders (so typical of teenage girls here), alienation and random marijuana and amphetamine abuse. Plus, a not-well hidden bipolar behaviour on her side. But again, I thank her for the eye opening excruciating times I went through after all the break-ups and make-ups.

    So, to close off my note to you, you are a great guy. I could see it just by looking at your pic on the BarcelonaNEST website. Keep up all the great work.

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