We considered it an act of grace that every child we saw in Barcelona was wailing. That August, my husband and I left our fifteen-month-old son with my parents, deciding to be irresponsible and use our tax return on last minute, way-too-expensive tickets to Spain. We’d never left our baby for longer than a night, and I was worried that missing him would make vacation painful and decidedly unfun.
But everywhere we went, every child—bless them—was on their very worst behavior. A young girl tripped on uneven cobblestones and had to be dragged, screaming, to the sidewalk by her father to tend to her skinned knee away from traffic. A baby on our transatlantic flight squalled and screeched as his parents hunched over, taking turns letting him hold their hands and toddle up the narrow plane aisle. Sweaty, tired teenagers begged their parents to just let them go back to the air-conditioned hotel, already, ugh. “Those poor kids. Those poor parents,” I’d mutter to my husband, all the while grateful.
When people found out we were going to Barcelona, they either asked, “Aren’t you going to miss your little guy?” Or “You’re going to see La Sagrada Familia, aren’t you?” So on our second-to-last day in Spain, my husband and I found ourselves on a bench at the shady park across the street from La Sagrada Familia, waiting for our ticket window. We had already gotten pink gelatto con fresas and mini Cokes at an open-air shop and took a picture of a printed sign posted inside that read “Fartons,” so we were running out of time-killing activities.
As we sat beneath the redbuds in the shadow of the unfinished church that looked like a giant child’s sandcastle, flanked with cranes and metal scaffolding, granite towers mimicking wet globs of seashore, we wondered when it would be time to try for another baby. As hard as parenting a young toddler was back in the states, the burden felt distant in that moment. Anything felt possible, doable, in Spain. What we did not yet know is that we would bring a tiny zygote home with us across the Atlantic. A stowaway. Our second son.
Catty corner from our bench sat a family—mom, dad, and two middle school boys. My first thought was one of pity, thinking of how much complaining those parents had probably endured. But this family was different. Quiet. Relaxed. The mother, a slight woman with a messy bob, deftly sliced a baguette into four equal pieces. She opened each chunk with her paring knife, carefully filling each section of loaf with cured meat and triangles of cheese she pulled from her hiking backpack. The boys and their father took the offered sandwiches, and silently they ate together. The two boys exchanged mischievous looks as the older one plucked pieces of bread from his sandwich and tossed them to the small crowd of pigeons cooing around the family’s bench.
Barcelona felt rushed for my husband and me, frantically touristing before we had to fly home to our son. Over just four days, we took a tram up the mountain to Montserrat to sample monk-made liquor. We bobbed in the warm Mediterranean Sea, keeping a nervous eye on our belongings tucked beneath our beach towels. We took a cable car across the port to Montjuic Castle, a maritime fortress once occupied by Napoleon’s troops. We headed to Quimet y Quimet, which supposedly had the best tapas in the city, only to find they were closed for the month of August for their family vacation. We strolled through Park Guell, dipping our hands in the mosaic fountain. We wandered the dark, cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter at night before heading back to the balcony of our Las Ramblas Airbnb to drink bubbling Cava on the tiny balcony.
And of course, we saw La Sagrada Familia—Our Lady of Perpetual Construction. Arches that looked like they were made of smooth, bleached bone. Winding spiral, stone staircases. Vaults like sugar crystal snowflakes linked together. The rainbow gradient of stained glass, splitting and contorting light as if the church were built under the sea. Architectural tribute from Gaudi paid to the Holy Family. It is a strange, sobering thing, standing in a place that you know you will never see the likes of again.
And yet, when I think back to our short time in Barcelona, the image I think of most often is that mother on the bench, offering a snack to her boys. I can still see those brothers sidled together, gym socks drooping, spines slumped and relaxed. And the pigeons accepting the offering of daily bread from this most sacred family.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Angie Romines
Angie Romines lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, young sons, and emotionally demanding dog. She received her MFA from the Ohio State University, where she now teaches first-year writing. Her writing has appeared in The Columbia Review, The Bangalore Review, Bookends Review, and other places that don't come from the beginning of the alphabet. More of her work can be read at www.angieromines.com