The Woman Who Taught Me How to Walk (Again)

One Euro one, six for six. Very, very tasty, very, very good!”

So went the song of the samosa salesman. He was a youngish guy of South-Asian origin, and I wondered why he sang in English rather than Catalan or – heaven forbid around these parts – Spanish. I normally find these hawkers irritating when I’m relaxing in a quiet park and my instinct is always to turn down whatever they’re offering, but there was something nice about his gentle voice, his undulating melody and the lightness with which he bobbed around with his box of samosas strapped to him. His samosas looked damn good, too. I decided it was going to be one of those days when I said yes to trying new things.

“Hey!” I called to him, waving. “Over here, please!”
“Hello, hello!” he called back, then he launched into another rendition of his song, as if we were customers in a restaurant and that were his way of telling us today’s special.
“We’ll take six, please,” I said.
“Very good!” he said, and carefully he pulled out, one by one, six steaming, bulging, golden-brown samosas, each of which he half-wrapped in a napkin and handed to us. I pulled some change out of my pocket and gave it to him and off he went, striking up his song once more.

You know that feeling when you’re already having a great time and think that nothing could make it better until something does? The samosa was like that – hearty, delicious, and just what the situation called for. It seemed to carry all the serenity and wholesomeness of the moment within its flaky, golden skin. I ate it slowly, savouring every bite, and took in the scene around me. It was a warm day in mid-September, not quite sunbathing temperature but enough to leave your jacket at home. Mums and dads shook the crumbs off their picnic blankets and occasionally shouted at their kids, and students who had turned up with noble intentions of studying left their laptops and textbooks in their bags and, having kicked off their shoes and stretched themselves out on the grass, chatted animatedly over little red cans of Estrella. Rosie, my friend who I’d come to visit for a few days, was as little into tourist stuff as I was, and rather than shuffle around Parc Güell or gawk at La Sagrada Familia (both of which I’d done before) we’d rounded up some of her friends, packed a picnic and taken up a sunny spot in one of Barcelona’s many parks, which was my idea of an afternoon well spent.

Not far from where we were sitting, a cluster of trees created a cool, shaded enclosure in which two hippie-looking dudes had set up a slackline and were taking turns walking across it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, slacklining is where you take a long strip of webbing and attach it to two trees so that it forms a kind of tightrope, which you then try to walk across (it’s more fun than it sounds). Chances are that you’ve seen loads of people doing it on many occasions. No sunny afternoon in a park in a student city would be complete without someone slacklining.

Embracing the spirit of spontaneity that had not only led me into the path of that samosa but had brought me to Barcelona in the first place (I’d originally planned to only visit Italy until I was introduced to the miracle of intercontinental Flixbus travel), Rosie and I asked the guys if we could have a go on their slackline. In all the time we’d been watching them neither of them had made it from one side to the other. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to make it look harder than it was or it genuinely was harder than it looked, but I decided I’d show them how it’s done.

Walking the slackline, as I discovered, requires a tremendous amount of coordination and balance, especially since the moment you get on it starts jerking around and trying to shake you off like a horse that hasn’t been broken yet. The two guys gave us some pointers to get started: start with one foot on the line and then hoist yourself up with the other foot and start walking. The first time I tried, I pushed myself up from the one side with a bit too much vigour and fell straight over the other side, to the great amusement of my friends and a group of kids who’d stopped to watch.

As I was spitting out the last of the dirt I had eaten I heard a voice call out from somewhere. “Get up!” it said, “come on, try again!” I looked around and saw a tiny woman dressed all in black striding towards me. She looked at least 60 and was hardly more than five feet tall, with cropped grey hair and a bit of a scowl. Though she was diminutive in stature she walked with a purpose that made her seem bigger than she was, an image that was helped no end by the sleeveless denim jacket, Led Zeppelin T-shirt, leather pants and one of those spikey wristbands that teenagers wear when they’re going through a heavy metal phase. She had tattoos up both arms and her neck, and her face was pierced in more places than I could count.

“You know how to walk, don’t you?” she said. “You’ve been doing it since you were small: one foot in front of the other. That’s all this is!” Her voice sounded like a V8 engine and from her accent I guess that she was from London but had been living abroad for a while.
I tried again, but once more the slackline kicked me off.
“You’re overthinking it,” she said.
“It’s simple: just get on and start walking. Just like when you were a baby and you learned to do it for the first time. One foot in front of the other.”

I thought of asking her for a demonstration but thought better of it. Even at her size she didn’t look like someone you answered back to. I got on again, hoisted myself up and tried to walk as she had instructed. I managed two steps.
“Good!” she said. “Good effort, but this time don’t stop. You stopped mid-stride. Why?”
“I was losing my balance,” I said.
“Well, you ain’t gonna get it back by standing still. You’ve got to keep walking.”
“Pick a spot ahead of you to focus on,” she said. “That’ll keep you grounded. Most people make the mistake of looking at where they’re putting their feet.”
“That’s what I was doing,” I said. “There’s so little of this thing to land on that I’m worried I’ll miss my step completely.”
“You won’t! You know how to walk in a straight line. You’ve been doing it every day since you were two bricks high. Trust your feet. Pick a spot. That family eating over there, perhaps, or the fountain – you see the one I mean? – straight ahead there, look. Keep your eyes on that and just walk. Don’t stop walking or you’ll fall off.”

I put my foot on the slackline again, but before starting I picked a spot somewhere a hundred metres or so ahead of me to focus on. Once I’d found it – a tree standing by itself – I hoisted myself up with my other foot and tried to just walk as she’d instructed, without stopping. I took one step, then another…then another, and yet another, and suddenly I was halfway across! With my next step I connected with the line at a bit of an angle and it began wobbling again. I bent over and put my arms out to try and retain my balance but it threw me off and I landed on my butt.

“Very good!” she said. “You’re getting it. Did you pick a spot?”
“Yeah, that tree over there.”
“Good. Go on, have another go.”

Same again: I put my foot on the line, locked onto my tree, and hoisted myself up. My knees wobbled as the slackline wriggled underneath me, but I kept walking, kept focusing on my tree, and I made it all the way to the other side.

I was elated. I jumped off and gave my new mentor a high five. Then I got back on the line and walked back in the other direction, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
“Nice one!” she said. “You’ve got it.”
And with that she walked off. I called after her to thank her, and without turning around she raised an arm in acknowledgement. Before long she had disappeared back into the park.

To this day I can’t look at a slackline without thinking of her.

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