By the time we reached the end of the street where we’d find the bar I had been looking for, we had walked through several back alleys behind the opera house. Pakistani shopkeepers ran the shops and cafés alongside the alleys, and one of them curiously called itself a Tandoori House and served pizza.
After another left turn at the end of that alley, we came to the square that was barricaded because the ground was being surfaced, and as we had been warned, we saw several women—their tightest possible dresses tensely hugging their bodies—keen to attract the roving eyes of single men walking alongside us.
And I saw Bar Marsella. But it was closed.
I hadn’t come all the way to Barcelona to see this bar with its shutter down. To cheer my mood, my friend Melissa who had come with me looking for the bar, told me to stand in front of the shutter while she took a picture. As she asked me to smile, one of the charming ladies walking the streets said: “Mister, it opens at 10 o’clock.”
Back-alley boost: (From left) A night view of Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia avenue in Eixample district (photograph by Quim Llenas/Cover/Getty Images); and a glass of absinthe photograph by Eric Litton/Wikimedia Commons.
And then she winked. It felt like a Hemingway moment.
Also read | Salil Tripathi ’s earlier Lounge columns
After a stop at a bar serving tapas and more wine, we decided to head back to Marsella, hoping to raise a glass of absinthe for Papa. Later, back home, I would write to Jack Turner, asking about the bar. He is writing a book on absinthe, and would reply: “The bar is a mandatory stop for all admirers of Hemingway, absinthe, and callow American English majors abroad, impressed by the relevant passage in For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
The women outside had found companions and looked busy as they began disappearing into the blocks of flats near the bar. Marsella’s ceiling was imposing and looked yellowed, like fading newsprint, as if no one had washed it in the nearly two centuries of the bar’s existence. The light was yellow too, looking brighter because of the chandelier that reflected and magnified its reach. Its yellow glow, and the green tinge of absinthe, gave the bar a muted look, as though we had stepped into the Degas painting of an absinthe drinker. The mirrors were tall and faded, the woodwork looked solid and old. In its seedy, melancholy air, it looks like the kind of bar where Hemingway would have found home.
One table had three men, saying little to one another; another had two women, sitting close to each other. The bar had a large floor, but it didn’t seem it had ever been used for dance. This was where you went to sit, brood, and reflect on your loneliness. As the night lengthened, it became a bit more cheerful, as more people came to the café, and the bartender, who had looked morose, seemed to brighten a little.
I watched the waiter place the glass and a fork on my table. He put a sugar cube on the fork and gave me a bottle of sealed, chilled water, with a tiny hole in its cap, asking me to pour it over the cube until it dissolved. The sweetened water would drop on the spirit below, releasing the powers of the green fairy.
Absinthe was banned for some time in the last century. Made from herbs such as anise and fennel and wormwood, absinthe supposedly had magical powers that played with your mind. The French symbolists—Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarme certainly, but to some extent even Baudelaire— credited it with spurring their creativity and grew to depend on it. In 1995 on a trip to the Mediterranean, I had discovered pastis, the “parental-guidance” equivalent of absinthe, and had often wondered what was so special about a drink that tasted like fennel juice.
Turner credits Hemingway for being “almost single-handedly responsible for the American myth of absinthe, namely its supposedly hallucinogenic properties. He was gifted in this respect: what he did for bulls in Pamplona, and daiquiris in Cuba, he did for absinthe in Barcelona. It helped enormously that absinthe was underground, and so the real thing was no longer available. And it didn’t hurt that the drink was so strong. It appealed to both the alcoholic and the sentimentalist in him.”
I sipped absinthe, and it began its work alongside the ambience of dishevelled desolation. It was more potent than pastis. I uploaded on my Facebook page the photograph Melissa had taken: of me and my glass. A friend in London, a novelist, commented immediately, asking me to have one for her, and then another. A concerned friend in Seattle chimed in, warning me of what it did to the French symbolists. Hemingway would have challenged the bar and outdrunk everyone—or, at least claimed to have done so in a finely crafted story, even if he might have sat there, lonely, like that old man in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place who had no one to talk with and had attempted suicide a week earlier.
But I had no cause for despair. A little electronic device had connected me with the friends I’d have liked around our table, and, for a brief moment, created a conversation across continents that collapsed so many worlds into one, cheering me.
We left the clean and pleasant bar. It was well-lighted, even if unpolished. From the outside, I couldn’t be sure, but there were perhaps shadows of the leaves as well.
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