Walking Barcelona – Avenida Diagonal and Besòs neighborhood
Time for a walk.
It’s wet today. Not the best day to go to the country.
So let’s see some new parts of the city.
The streets are still damp from overnight rain as I walk past Camp Nou (where Barça plays) and the Royal Polo Club.
Several of Spain’s longest streets are here in Barcelona.
I’ve chosen to walk all the way down Diagonal for social reasons: it goes from the richest neighborhood right through to the poorest. About 11 kilometers, all told.
I’ve started on the rich end. Hence the Royal Polo Club.
Number 715 of Diagonal is the entrance to the rose garden at Parque Cervantes, and from there the street heads towards the city center through the campus of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.
It’s a bit windy, and my weather app says the chance of rain is 97%.
This is an improvement over an hour ago, when it said 100% – but what does it mean, anyway? A 97% chance of a slight drizzle later in the hour? Or driving rain 97% of the time? I’m not sure.
For now it’s cloudy, and the Catalans are dressed for Siberian winter – as they tend to do whenever the temperature drops below 18 ºC.
On the left there’s a Royal Palace, Palacio de Pedralbes. I’m guessing the King doesn’t hang out there much. They tend to protest every time he’s in town.
Onward, then. Only 10km to go.
Stop #1: Rad Cafe for coffee and water.
I’m doing this as a tribute to Chris Arnade, who walks across American cities taking photos and writes essays about it on Substack.
Of course, I’ve been taking long, unnecessary walks since I was a teenager out in the desert. The exercise is great, but also, you see things nobody else sees when you’re on foot, going at human speed. And you get a feel for places in a way you never would by driving through.
Walk from one place to another and you’ve really connected points on the map, in a way you’re not likely to forget.
Anyway, Arnade turns his walks into essays about divisions between “front row” and “back row” people, he talks about race and immigration intelligently, and spends a lot of time at McDonalds. I guess I can probably do at least one of those things today.
As I’m finishing my espresso and sparkling water at Rad Cafe (Diagonal, 635) I turn to Google to learn something about the history of Avenida Diagonal. They had a Civil War here, you know. Or so I’ve heard.
In fact, previous to my moving to Spain, I even read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – by accident, it must be said. I had no idea what the “Catalonia” in the title referred to, just that it was a book about some sort of revolution.
So today I try to refresh my memory with a few timeless Orwell quotes about Barcelona. I only find two or three, most notably…
“All Spaniards, we discovered, knew two English expressions. One was ‘OK, baby,’ the other was a word used by the Barcelona whores in their dealings with English sailors, and I am afraid the compositors would not print it.”Homage to Catalonia.
Well, okay, Mr O. No luck there.
(I’m guessing the word was frenulum.)
On the other hand, there is abundant information about the city planning that went into the construction of Diagonal. As the name suggests, it’s a large avenue that cuts across the city at an angle. Street grids are still something of a rarity in Spain, and in 1860, when this neighborhood was designed, they were their own sort of revolution.
Enter visionary architect Ildefons Cerdà, who designed the whole area called l’Eixample as an extension of the old city. Its characteristic octagonal blocks make it famous to aerial photographers and urban designers… and kind of a pain to walk through: there are straight lines for cars, but as a pedestrian, you’re walking around the edges of octagons all the time.
In any case, Eixample was intended to be the city of the future: a city with a plan! Not just built up haphazardly along old sheep trails, like others. Eventually, Cerdà’s plan for a grid system was executed. His plan for green spaces never happened. And what he wanted to be the city center, Plaça de Glòries, is once again (or still) under construction, 160 years later.
More about that in a moment…
Wandering on the right side of the tracks.
The threat of rain has me dressed in all my Timberland and North Face gear – I’m hoping, at least, to stay dry till lunch time. Ruggedly dry, like a middle-class lumberjack.
In places, Barcelona’s got a lot of tourists, and the beachwear brings the fashion vibe down a couple of notches. But here uptown there are guys in blazers. Khakis, a buttondown with no tie, trainers, and a blazer. That’s what counts as formalwear in this city.
The shops are selling all manner of shiny objects one can flaunt as status symbols, and the restaurants all seem to be sushi bars or poke bowl joints. Mannequins in windows are dressed in sleek minimal clothes made out of exotic foreign wools. Everything is glimmering with status, and people stride confidently down the sidewalk, clearly winning at the primate social hierarchy.
In Spain, even your ham sandwich is a mark of status: was the pig free range, fed on acorns, and of the Iberian black-hoof variety? Congratulations! Is that sweater made from wild Mongolian Yak, shorn by nomads under a full moon? Oh really? ‘Cause mine is…
After blocks and blocks of shops, offices, and big glassy towers, I’m at Passeig de Gracia, the main shopping street.
Per capita income on the “right” side of the tracks is around 36,000€ a year, which, in Spain, is a whole metric fuckton of money. Most people I know would be happy to get half that. And that 36K is net. Before taxes, it’s much more.
And here, where Diagonal crosses Passeig de Gracia, they’re building a new glass rectangle: Mandarin Oriental Residences. Exclusive homes for discerning non-arboreal primates.
Over the next few blocks, though, things get much less posh. In a bit we’re in my neighborhood: respectable, but not luxurious.
One of the interesting things about Spanish cities is that everyone is so packed in that you’re bound to meet people with a different lifestyle than yours, every time you leave the house.
And Barcelona’s even more densely populated than most. With a couple million people in a small space between the beach and the mountains, you’re almost guaranteed to live within a few blocks of someone whose lifestyle would shock and amaze you.
The limited space also keeps rent prices up, which keeps many in a constant state of dread about their expenses.
Some blame tourism and AirBnB, but from what I’ve read, the AirBnB effect is minimal, in reality. I don’t know. I’ve been around a while, and it seems like the low salary / high rent situation didn’t start with AirBnB. In Madrid, people have been complaining about gentrification forever. And in Barcelona, tourism has been a “problem” at least since the Olympics in 1992.
Stop #2: Ancestral
My second stop is at a bar called Ancestral, which serves craft beer, wine, designer seltzer, kombucha, organic cola, chocolate Guinness cake, and “hummingbird cake” – presumably with artificial hummingbird flavor instead of actual hummingbirds.
I have a beer and take some more notes.
This part of Eixample has some of the Gaudí buildings I can’t bring myself to be impressed by. Gaudí, a fanatical Christian who was run down by a streetcar. Gaudí, whose masterpiece, Sagrada Familia, is still unfinished, so old on one side that it’s being refurbished while the other side is shiny and new. It might be done by 2026. Or not.
Otherwise, this area is home to a lot of culinary variety. International restaurants of all kinds. The people are looking less Spanish, too, over on this side of town.
Spain’s not exactly a melting pot yet, but someday it certainly will be. A walk past most elementary schools will show you how mixed the next generation of Spaniards is going to turn out. And the nice thing is, this seems to be mostly uncontroversial.
In fact, except for one wacky far-right party, nobody seems to be talking much about immigration at all. I think it has something to do with living packed into small spaces with everyone else: if you were going to be judgemental about other people, you’d lose your shit constantly. So most people, in my experience, just relax.
The radio here at Ancestral is playing some sort of light country song about a guy with limited funds who’s hoping to dance with the pretty girl at the honky-tonk.
Maybe his awe-shucks nice-guyness will win her over, or maybe his skill at dancing. Either way, all he’s got is a quarter for the jukebox… and he’s “trying to buy (him)self a chance” at her heart.
Welcome to the jungle, chimp…
Journalist Will Storr proposes three types of status games us hairless bipedal primates play.
Dominance games, won by brute force. Success games, won by skill and ability. And virtue games, won by… well, being virtuous – or at least appearing to be.
The guy in the song’s got virtue, and he’s got skill. But the girl’s got a boyfriend. And (implicitly) he could beat the living shit out of our light country hero. Because dominance. The song ends before any sort of climax, so we don’t really know what happens, in this hypothetical honky-tonk.
The rest of us highly sociable primates, well, we live our lives within various hierarchies, playing various status games – games we don’t like to lose.
In order to display our status within success games, we acquire symbols. Shiny objects, mostly. We flash these objects in public, which garners us the respect of our peers, and increases our sexual market value.
Within our status games, we try to win, of course. We desperately want to climb the ladder. We want to be the captain of the cheerleaders, or the partner at the law firm. We want the prestigious degree or the Platinum Mastercard or the million Instagram subscribers – or, perhaps, all of the above.
And if you’re hoping to escape from status games, I’ve got bad news: you can’t.
Whether your shiny object is a Nobel Prize, an Oscar or a trophy from your local bowling league, you’re playing some sort of status game, jostling for position at the table and possession of shiny objects with other hierarchical primates.
Even joining a commune won’t help.
Listen to God’s Socialist for more about that. Long story short, in an attempt to get rid of hierarchies, radical groups just create new ones – and often, it ends up being was much, much worse.
Most status games are mixed. Think Pope Benedict XVI on his golden throne: where virtue meets success. The current pope plays up the virtue a bit more, and has a simple wooden chair instead. But he’s still had to fight his way to the top of his status game.
Exchanging four shiny euros for my beer, I leave the bar.
The rest of Diagonal passes uneventfully. There’s Plaça de Glories, which is mostly a giant construction site notable for its giant pickle.
After Glories, there’s a long pedestrian path down the center of the street. More sushi restaurants on both sides, but less and less poke as I go on. Also, more of the typical Spanish bars with the pictures of various sandwiches and plates of squid outside.
A lot of the Spanish bars have been bought up by Chinese families – these days, most of the locals aren’t too interested in working 15-hour days.
Finally, there’s the shopping mall, Diagonal Mar. My journey is nearing it’s end.
Stop #3: Pork and Tuna
The other end of Diagonal turns out to be another 4-star hotel. Barcelona Princess, at Diagonal, 1.
It’s right next to a shopping center that has all kinds of fast food, but for some reason I decide to check out Google Maps. Right around the corner there’s a place called Pork and Tuna. Imagining succulent tataki wrapped in crispy bacon, next to a plate of Iberian ham, I head that way.
I’m already sitting down with my coat slung over a chair by the time I realize my error. The waiter hands me a menu covered in checkboxes and a pencil: I’ve stumbled into some sort of glorified poke bowl place.
I choose the least-disgusting thing, and in a few minutes I’m staring at my bowl of cold quinoa, sadly.
I really should have gone to McDonalds, Chris Arnade-style.
Choking down a few forkfuls of poke, I decide it’s time to go home.
But wait. I haven’t really seen the other side of things. This Diagonal walk was office buildings and poke bowls all the way down. I take a quick look at the map. Besòs is right around the corner.
It’s the kind of neighborhood most Barcelonians have never visited. And will never visit. The best part is, it’s right here, a couple of blocks away.
Several giant hotels later, I’ve found myself on Rambla de Prim, named after a Catalan general who clawed his way all the way up his social hierarchy to become Prime Minister of Spain, only to be assassinated in 1870.
Even the winners of this game end up with pigeons shitting on their graves. No escaping that part either.
But Rambla de Prim is definitely different than what I’ve been seeing all day.
For one thing, most of the shops and restaurants are 100% halal. The buildings look like public housing from the 60s and 70s – boring post-war architecture, badly maintained.
I can feel a bar crawl coming on.
Stop #4: Bar San Martiño 2
Wandering through a few back streets and snapping photos, I’m soon in what appears to be a pretty rough area.
Imagine the neighborhood where Joker lived in the Joaquin Phoenix film. But Spanish. This is definitely public housing from the 70s. Some quick research reveals that I’m in the famous “barrio de la Mina”.
And lemme tell you… none of the bars look particularly inviting. One space between buildings reminds me of the projects in Season 1 of The Wire.
And generally, it looks like they’re not getting a lot of ginger guys dressed in Timberland out here.
I hesitate. Those 4-star hotels are still visible – we’re practically in their shadows – and they have bars, too. But am I the kind of guy who’s suddenly afraid to go to a bar in a rough neighborhood?
Of course I’m not.
I decide to go to ALL THE BARS.
Stop #4 is called San Martiño 2. The bartender, a Roma woman, eyes the bulge in my coat pocket suspiciously, looking me up and down. (It’s my camera.)
I order a botellín, pointing.
¿Qué, un quinto? she says. Ah yes. Barcelona beer vocab – it’s different.
She goes back to talking to the only customer, about how she’d love to have a daughter, but after her son was born with… well, let’s just say, it’s a pretty sad story.
She lights a cigarette. Smoking in bars has been illegal in Spain for 10 years or more.
I drink my beer. Eventually, a blondish woman comes in.
“Can I pay by card?”
The blondish woman slowly counts her change and comes up short.
I give the bartender some more shiny metallic discs and leave.
Stop #5 has no apparent name. The sign has all the plastic broken out, so it’s just a couple of flourescent tubes in a white aluminum frame. It doesn’t appear on Google Maps at all.
I walk in. The bartender has a bad case of vitiligo. There are 4 Pakistani guys playing a very serious game of dominoes at the only table, so I stand at the bar. This time I get a slightly larger beer – una mediana, in Barcelona parlance.
The Pakistani guys have several onlookers for their domino game – one of the players is smoking a cigarette and another a large cigar. After a while I realize they’re mostly speaking Spanish. Maybe they’re Roma, too? I’m not sure. The long black beards threw me off.
A guy in a hoodie walks in and starts speaking to the bartender in Urdu. Or maybe Hindi. But probably Urdu.
The melting pot.
I’ve been taking notes on my phone. I feel strange enough around here, no need to break out the Moleskine. But to be honest, nobody’s said anything to me, or even given me a nasty look.
The most recent news from Barrio de la Mina is about the patriarchs of two Roma clans signing a peace treaty. No more shootings, no more vendettas. In a country where the rate of homicide is about 91% lower than in the US, even the “dangerous” neighborhoods are pretty peaceful.
Stop #6 is called Los Amigos, and it’s run by a Chinese guy. His 3-year-old kid is behind the bar, playing some video game on a tablet.
I’m ready to switch to red wine, but this place doesn’t have any. So I get another beer.
The TV is broadcasting a Chinese channel, and they’re talking about Elon Musk. Apparently, about how ol’ Elon’s lost $50 billion of net worth this week. Speaking of the primate social hierarchy, median income out here is about 19,000€ a year per household. Not per person, per household.
Assuming 3 people per household, which could be on the low end, the average person here in La Mina might make (assuming a steady rate of exchange) those same $50 billion in – hold onto your hat – just a little under 7 million years.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not some sort of class warrior.
But I’d love to live in a more equitable society. And I pay a whole lotta taxes to the Spanish government. To see that this sort of neighborhood exists just 8 tram stops from my house… well, I wonder what the people in charge are actually using my money for.
Probably their own salaries, come to think of it.
The bartender sees me looking at the TV, and changes it to a Spanish channel. They’re doing a gameshow called La Sandía Millonaria – the million-euro watermelon. If a contestant cuts a watermelon into two exactly equal-weight halves, (s)he gets 1150€.
God only knows what they’d have to do the watermelon to get the full million. In the event, the person who tries it is off by 300 grams. Next up, a show in which professional chefs make fun of housewives while they cook.
Dear reader: I wish I were making some of this up. I’m not.
Once you start paying attention, you see these status games everywhere
The book Sapiens, which has my absolute highest recommendation, pointed out some of this stuff.
But for me, what really opened my eyes was the article Status as a Service by Eugene Wei. Over on his blog, he describes, in great detail, how we are…
- Status-seeking monkeys.
- Trying to find efficient ways to increase our social capital.
Social capital is what he calls it. I’m gonna call it status on the primate social hierarchy. And at least 3/4 of what we do day to day is all about increasing that status – about being the head monkey, with the best treehouse and the most bananas. The monkey all the other monkeys wanna hang out with.
The monkey with all the options. Or all the status. It amounts to the same thing.
Now that you know, you’re not going to unsee this. You’re welcome.
Since we’re here, I challenge you to take an honest look at some of your favorite TV shows, movies and music.
What are they about? Well, beneath the thin veneer of “here are some cute characters working at a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania”, they’re all about the primate social hierarchy. All about Status-Seeking Monkeys, trying to increase their social capital.
Really, watch it again. I bet, on some level, that most of the stories are about someone’s quest for virtue, skill or dominance.
Stop #7 is called Cervecería Iron.
This bar is a couple of blocks closer to the tram stop, in a neighborhood that’s a bit more upscale. The woman behind the bar is – who knows at this point? – maybe Eastern European.
She’s never heard of an IPA. But she has a couple of Belgian beers.
Are your beers made by monks and shipped in from other countries? Because some of mine are.
Well, it’s been quite a day, here in the jungle.
I guess it’s time to go home, eat some real non-poke food, and go to sleep.
Tomorrow, Pinky… tomorrow we try to take over the world. Or at least climb the Amazon Bestsellers list. To my simple status-seeking monkey brain, it’s pretty much the same thing.
Crushing my enemies-illy yours,
Mr Chorizo AKA Mr Daniel.
P.P.S. If you’d like to help me to achieve a higher position in my little status game on Amazon, please buy one of my books. This one’s number one in the Language Learning category, at least today: Vocabulario en Inglés – Guía Práctica. Or you could help me in some of my other status games by subscribing to my YouTube channel, listening to my Spain to Go podcast or sharing this post on your favorite form of social media. Everything helps!