Living statues, buskers and pickpockets all hustle a living and provide the atmosphere in Barcelona’s favourite walking street.
Every city has its street, it seems, that is supposed to be the showcase of the character and charm of the place. London has Portobello Road, visitors to Bangkok gravitate around Khao San Road and Barcelona has Las Ramblas.
On one hand these streets can be an entertaining place to just stroll and ‘people watch’, but they’re also often a curious mix of traditional markets and hasty modern innovations to fleece the tourists. Every guidebook centres its commentary of the city around these main drags and the enterprises that spring up in response can lend an air of artificiality to the place.
La Rambla is particularly famous for its variety of street performance. After all, tourists are the people with the most readily disposable cash and, as all souvenir shops know, when on holiday nothing is quite so appealing as novelty.
The main substance of the street acts are the human statues. Had these performers been born in Asia they would surely have chosen the life of a zen monk staring at brick walls for hours at a time. Here in Barcelona they demonstrate their equally vast powers of concentration, remaining motionless for hours and hours. They make distinct movements only when someone drops some money into their hats.
The more elaborate the costume, the better the response and the best statues must take all morning to prepare their costumes. There’s a cowboy who dresses all in black denim and he´s daubed his skin with the exact same hue. From his boots to holster to his hat he could easily be made from some tarnished metal. Drop him a coin and he draws one of his pistols with a stiff, jerky motion. There are ninjas, angels and harlequins but the most successful that I saw was a man covered in white paint sitting on a toilet. The ceramic lavatory was placed on top on top of a stage and he sat on it reading a book with his trousers around his ankles. The sheer audacity of his innovation guaranteed him a crowd throughout the day. Most of his money came from the tourists who paid to have their photos taken standing beside him.
But whilst one can admire the concentration and endurance of the statues, it´s not like they have any lines to remember. For real creativity I had to walk further down the street where two clowns practiced their act. One was a tall, clumsy-looking man with white face and baggy trousers and his partner was a girl in multi-coloured dungarees and red nose. He stood on a stall while she began to clean him with a broom.
As a few people began to gather, they picked a young man from the audience and invited him to stand on the stall. They exchanged hats and made him the clown by sticking a red nose on his face. Then they attached a washing line to his trousers and began to unfurl a whole series of underwear and lingerie hanging from the string.
Their subject got too embarrassed to continue but for a few moments they had made some real magic on the street. From nothing they’d suddenly captured the attention of fifty onlookers who couldn’t imagine what these clowns could be up to.
In the terrace cafes and restaurants that line either side of La Rambla, tourists had the sometimes dubious honour of listening to the street musicians who came to play. Actually some of these artists were very skilled and had rehearsed their act quite thoroughly. But on the street there´s often a fine line between being considered a performer or a beggar. The hats they passed around appeared a little empty.
Then there were the fortune tellers. Whether or not of true Romany blood, tradition dictates that these women wear exotic gypsy garb with ear piercings and head scarves. The younger ones shuffled packs of tarot cards, plunging neck-lines making the most of their sexuality whilst the older women took on more of a wise, maternal air.as they interpreted the lines on people´s hands. Most of the customers seemed to be earnest young men jilted in love, turing to the occult as a last resort.
I also saw a young English guy sat in front of a cardboard box on which he advertised his service of hair wraps. In clothes that didn´t look warm enough for this windy day, he exuded failure and i doubted if he got a single customer.
The street is a cruel place. Whether you´re selling on a stall, performing or offering some other service, it´s a capricious flip of the coin that determines your luck. It´s just as easy to make a killing in five minutes as it is to end up on your knees in the gutter. You lament your ill luck until the police come to move you along.
You have to be tough. And there were none more tough on La Rambla than the Eastern European guys playing a variety of Chase The Lady. With three small cups they demonstrated their slight of hand with a small ping pong ball on a cardboard box.
“Once, twice, once, twice – now where is the ball, ladies and gentlemen?”
The man asked with a smile that reminded me of a crocodile inviting a bird to sit on its nose. Someone stepped out of the crowd with 5 Euros in his hand. And guessed correctly which cup was hiding the ball. The operator made a big show of paying him his winnings and again began his pitch, moving the cups a little faster this time. An old Frenchman approached and picked up one of the cups with great confidence. It was empty and his 5 Euros disappeared in a flash. He stepped back with a scowl on his face and i couldn´t help but smile.
In the first place, this act had obviously been practiced about ten thousand times before and this guy had not turned up today to make a loss. Secondly, no one was going to run such a risky gambling operation alone and it was more than likely that several of the winning customers were part of the same gang. When I left the Frenchman was still trying his luck and his scowl became more pronounced each time he lost.
Lastly there were the invisible entrepreneurs who made their money off all the other acts. For some reason many tourists choose to display their cash in bulky money belts around their waists. With zip pockets to all easy access, many spectators reach for their money to contribute to the performances – only to find that they´ve already been cleaned out by an industrious pickpocket working the crowd.
The day drew to a close on La Rambla with a host of failures and successes but no one was keeping count. The performers walked away with a kilo of small change and their audiences left entertained. Or else maybe to the police station to file a report of theft to claim on their travel insurance.
I walked away with my hands firmly in my own pockets. It was the only way I could be sure that no one else´s fingers might find their way in.