A father held his toddler over a small quad of soil while she urinated. Her little feet, encased in roller blades, stuck out like two useless tools. Margot stopped telling me her story and said, “I wish I could pee anywhere.” I suggested that she could. She insisted: “No one can do anything they want anywhere.”
Margot had just returned to Barcelona from a camping trip in Asturias, on the cloudy and cold northern coast of Spain. She and her friends had tested the legality of illegal camping in a recreation area. “Henri told us that we wouldn’t have any problems.” I asked her if that was because they’d found a loophole in a law. She said, “No, no. It is a field for public use. Why wouldn’t we sleep there?” I said that it was illegal. Margot said that it didn’t matter. Laws exist to be broken. To me, laws existed to prevent chaos and anarchy.
“We set up our camp and made dinner.” Most camping stories are a boring variation of: we drove to this beautiful area; set up our tents; ate dinner; slept poorly; and heard a strange noise in the night. Additional information might include recreational activities or the absence of good coffee. But Margot’s story paused on the strange noise in the night.
“Earlier in the day, a man in a nearby village told us that we were crazy for wearing facemasks. He said there was no point. What death did we think we were escaping? The mountains spoke of a hundred more pressing deaths.” Margot stopped at a crosswalk and suggested we walk towards Montjuic. We started to walk up the incline through Poble Sec.
“Camping is scary because you return to a past time when snakes slither near your sleeping bag, bears and wolves lurk in the brush, and lightning threatens from above.” I lunged over a discarded facemask and thought: This is our new snake.
“That night, the police came. They told us that it was illegal to camp there.” I said that they already knew that; what was the gamble? To save fifty bucks? “They left when we told them where we were from. We were lucky.” You were greedy, I thought. “Little did we know,” she went on, “several Ecuadorian families were camping farther down the river. We spoke to them the next morning. Apparently, they’d been fined.” Margot, I asked, don’t you think that you lorded your passport over their passport? Don’t you think that you abused your power. Margot responded, her English rummaging through weighty Parisian pronunciation, or rather, her French adulterated by speaking English: “It is the liberty and right of an individual to sleep where they will.”
I doubted the universality of this statement.
Halfway up the trail alongside Montjuic, Barcelona grew further into the distance. The Sagrada Familia, Tibidado, and small skyscrapers reached into the cloudy evening sky. We were winded because we took our walks at the brisk pace that we’d become accustomed to during confinement. Three hours in the morning. Three hours in the evening. We had a mission built around this limitation.
The smell of hashish drifted across the path. Coughs of sooty air. My eyes met those of three men hidden underneath the bushes, surrounded by luggage bags and backpacks. They stared at my foreignness and we both thought the same thing: Beware of the wolves and bears.
Margot’s French air acknowledged the men then immediately ignored them. I felt guilty for buying a new pair of shoes during the quarantine. I felt ashamed for being American. I felt embarrassed of a president who’d never call theirs a life worth living. I wondered how many people had starved on this hillside; how many helpless drug addicts had ended their lives here; eighty-five years ago, how many people held prisoner in the castle on top of Montjuic had escaped and been shot on this verdant slope. I was never persecuted for my language or my prosperity. I couldn’t relate. But I was trying.
“I guess we shouldn’t have camped there. But we avoided a fine.” Margot stopped to look at the Mediterranean, gloomy and dark, covered by a string of heavy clouds. “That night I left the tent to pee. I crouched in the bushes. Spanish guitar music was on my mind. My midnight reverie was broken by the sound of footsteps.” I knew that she wasn’t murdered, beaten, or worse. In the comfort of recounting a dodged calamity, she continued. “I was, how do you call it, not completely awake. But the sound got closer. Of course, I knew it had to be a bear or wolf. Those are animals that still live in Asturias. It was still possible to die from a random natural cause. The woman at the panaderia told me that there were scary things in the mountains. I thought she was trying to scare me because I was French. Well, this sound got closer; I had no flashlight; but in the light of the moon, I could see the horns of a demon approaching—those curled horns worn by the residents of hell. My pee stopped. I pulled up my pants and thought about running. Then I heard a bell.”
I envisioned the mountain releasing thousands of demons in the night; emissaries warning us to avoid getting too comfortable here; we wouldn’t be long on this earth. Margot stared at Barcelona as it was slowly draped in darker clouds. “It was a goat.” She laughed. I smiled. We both stared at the city as lightning coursed through the sky in the distance and tried to remember if we’d taken our laundry off the lines.