The perfect bench

It took some time to find the perfect bench.

I’m not hereby insinuating that the bench in question is pretty. Its design is not profound. You would not remark upon it for its comfort. It represents no special sense of history. There is no poetry inscribed upon it.

The metal armrests are dull-pink. The sort of pink you don’t immediately notice as being pink because it shares more with a mucky brown or murky grey than the plastic along the ‘girly’ side of a toy shop. These armrests are lumpy, peeling, and irrelevant to my point. My ideal bench does not require pretty armrests. It’s not chosen for a film shoot.

Comfort I admit is more of a deal for me. If I am going to sit on a bench I want to be comfortable. I have a tendency to stay sitting for a while when I find a spot I like. The numb bum is the curse of being an avid reader (or in today’s case writer). Some comfort is a necessity. Nobody walks into a park expecting the comfort of a plush sofa of course. Should you be looking for a bench I suspect your choice is dictated by the absence of things – broken glass, bird poo, a half-eaten sandwich. And yet, I have risen from benches that are not comfortable enough.

My bench, the perfect one, is passable in this regard. The angle of the back, and the gap to the seat, force me to either slide my bum forward and read, chin to chest, with a strain in my neck, or, as an alternative, to shift my entire body further back so that the excess squidge of my bum hangs off the back of the seat.

Not exactly the perfect situation, but all the benches here are identical in this respect. I suspect the same person went around them all stencilling on the city’s name in white with the flourish of a single yellow stripe in the centre.

You might suppose then that since the benches are all constructed the same that it is the view that has captured my imagination. I can count eleven bins from my seat. Plus a Project Abraham clothes bank. It’s in better condition than its waste companions but could not be classified as picturesque. Two bins hang off lamp-posts. The nine others are those huge, foot-pedal ones that you find clustered together in suburban, apartment-block Spain – getting in the way of every photograph you ever wanted to take.

On all sides I am looked down on by three and four storey apartment blocks. The trees fail to block out their beige bricks or hide the plastic grey of the air conditioning units. To the far right is a wasteland where stray cats wind through rubble and people take their dogs when they don’t want them to dirty the streets (necessitating the use of dog poo bags). The wasteland is convenient in this respect. Beyond the wasteland, in the faded distance are the mountains. There are better views of the mountains elsewhere, but their presence is a pleasant reminder that the wild is not so far from the city streets.

So I lied. My bench is not perfect.

This bench though has something that others in the area, all with similar views, don’t have.

In the short days of winter, when the warm sun hangs so low in the sky, this bench alone defies the long shadows and basks in the sun’s rays all afternoon.

Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

open minds open doors

I live, temporarily, on the side of a mountain, just north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It’s a beautiful mountain. Although I have fallen and scraped my knees on it, it is not a rugged place. Stone markers indicate the boundaries of the villages and those villages take responsibility for the mountain. There are benches to rest on, a cabin for hikers to sleep in and water fountains to provide cool refreshment. Cacti and wild asparagus grow here. It smells of rosemary.


I’ve been away from the village for ten days and have missed the mountain. Living here, I’ve stared out at it from the balcony as I’ve munched my morning cereal, admiring the dark green of the foliage against the bright blue Spanish sky. I have glanced up at it, through the window from the sofa as lightning strikes and a thick mist blurs its edge. I have run, time and time again, up the steep paths, slowly building a courage to push myself. It’s been a safe place to practice self-belief.

My first run back in the village was a gentle one. The footpath weaves up the side of this mountain towards a statue of Jesus – his arms stretch out as if blessing, or laughing at, the village below. For me, he is a touch stone. I reach him; I’ve done a good job. At that moment he and I are equals.

Beside me ran S. We met at the local paella cooking competition and for the next three weeks she has kindly undertaken the job of feeding and providing a home for me. Her wish is to improve her English and for her young daughters to have the advantage of speaking English without thinking about it. My challenge is to instigate a desire in them to master the challenge of becoming bilingual. Being bilingual opens closed doors.

I talked as we ran, providing a conversation that was valued on multiple levels. I rambled a bit as I had to focus on not falling over, again, and try to talk in sentences that are coherent and whole. It’s amazing how difficult speaking slowly is. It’s crossed my mind that clarity of thought may be tied up with the rhythm of speech. I wonder if anyone has tested this? S asked questions, smiled, laughed and on occasion dispelled wise advice. There’s something special and free about talking to someone who is only temporarily invested in your life. Their judgement carries less weight, and they often offer fresh insight. The advice is more likely to be philosophy orientated than results orientated because they know they will never bear witness to the outcome. Our run reminded me how lucky I am to have such a strong network of these temporary advisors.

Family friends came over for dinner and asked me if I am studying.

I laughed and with a smile told them “I’m deceiving you with my face, I’m older than I look.” I explain not only do I have a degree, but also I have been a traditional employee. The question always comes though, what’s next.

open minds open doors

I think of the sugar packets my mother once brought back from Italy in a gesture of acceptance. Each had a word on the back: ‘Think’, ‘Draw’, Love’. At dinner, I explain I will write, in the sunshine and I will be happy. I used to say such things with hope, now I state them with a belief that makes people lean forward intrigued.

And then?

“Be happy.”

I’m told if I’m looking for a job, there in Spain, using my education, to say.

In my life I have been given many open doors. Right now I’m in a great place. Not only am I free from responsibilities, but I have this fantastic combination of education and experience which makes me atypical and therefore able to see in ways other people are not. I have some really great people supporting me, even though they struggle to understand me at times. What’s more, I have faith in myself and my ability to adapt. Despite whatever the future throws at me, I believe wholeheartedly I’m going to be able to smile.

The secret, perhaps, is to embrace the uncertainty of what might happen next. I have to select my doors with care. If I’m walking through, I need to believe it leads somewhere that fits with my values and life philosophy. Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

Originally, I didn’t go looking to move to this village, I was invited here. I was so unsure about it that when the first offer came up I was hesitant about committing to staying six weeks. By the time I go home I’ll have been in Catalonia for three months. It doesn’t feel long at all.

Staying so long was not planned. In this second part of my trip I’m living with a family I met at an event that I went to because a friend I’d made a few days earlier had suggested I came along to see what was happening. There I could have spoken to anyone, but I ended up briefly speaking with S. In the short conversation that we had that day, S asked my thoughts on her quest to find an au-pair. As I was leaving, I suggested we swapped numbers. The chance of everything lining up was slim. If the dates hadn’t worked out right or if I’d already had booked my flight home, I wouldn’t have ended up offering to stay for a few weeks.

Discovering doors is a beautiful thing.  Initiating and nurture the conversations by which you find them takes an open mind. Walking through is a risk. But, if you don’t have the courage to say yes, you stay between the same walls you always have.

open minds open doors

I am so grateful that I have the courage to smile and say, “Yes, thank you.”