Songs of a Troubled Paradise

Max Stainton
September 8, 2019

“Ohla! Ohla! Estás aquí?” slam thud thud “OHLA!”

I pop an eye open, face glued to the mattress. “Sí! Sí! Estoy aquí!” I’m still recovering from a rather unsettling dream involving the slow mastication of my feeble body in the web of a million spiders, but I manage to roll over and glance out of my new room onto the patio— sun berating hot red tile, florescent chairs glistening vibrantly, me wearing one sock and a ragged tank top. “Uno momento por favor!”

Still drunk on jet lag, I creak the door open and attempt to introduce myself to my new house mother’s son. Isabella had greeted me with incredible warmth, and her son follows suit. We exchange pleasantries in a muddled mush of two broken languages, and he scurries off to some place somewhere.

Left alone, Isabella and I attempt to get to know each other. A furious avalanche of words tumble from her fluttering lips. I smile real pretty and repeat “gracias” like the stupid American that I am. Flustered from my inability to recollect the pluperfect tense or any one of the hundreds of vocabulary words I memorized during all those years of Spanish class, I search for a way to connect with my new landlord, cook, maid, cultural guru, immediate Spanish reference guide, and welcoming hostess.

Then, I saw it. As decrepit, neglected, and beautiful as any I had ever laid eyes on: a piano. “¿Puedo tocar?” I ask.

Isabella’s eyes light up, “¿Tocas el piano? Por favor! Por favor! ME ENCANTA!” She rushes me into a chair with a few pillows piled on top, pulls out her phone, and starts recording. Gingerly, I smile again and fumble through my worst rendition in weeks of Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor, cursing my exhaustion but praising the glorious God that gifted us with music, the sonority that transcends all languages, that bridges all cultures, that unites two strangers. Her delight was too obvious for even me to misunderstand.

In the following few days, I met my housemate, some program directors, and whole bunch of other helpless students, floundering in a new city and cherishing every second of it. I deciphered the metro map, fixed my ATM card, and even succeeded in buying a pack of loose leaf paper after three trips to the mall.

Every day I venture somewhere new, each place more immaculate than the last—a gargantuan cathedral, a panoramic view of the city, the ornate Royal Palace, a pair of chipped stone pillars still flaunting the power of an ancient Roman empire.


Last night I saw a woman. Middle-aged. Wide cheeked. Frizzled ponytail. Chest, shoulders, hips and pudgy gut all in one straight line. One earbud in, the other in her hand, she pretended to check her phone, glancing up at the strangers who passed her by, not knowing who but knowing one, or rather hoping one, begging and praying one would stop and help her. Help her by hurting her. Help her hurt herself to help herself. Or help her children. Or her sick mother. Or her crippled husband who was forced to leave his job. Or maybe just herself.

It was me she spotted, hoping, begging and praying that I’d be that one. I brushed past her, trying and failing to avoid eye contact. I bustled by the corner she occupied but had to slink back when I realized that it was my turn. I looked onward, mercilessly. But she asked anyway. She asked because she had to, because someone somewhere was relying on her to ask me and to get me to agree to hurt her to help her. With a hushed tone and deafening stare she asked, “Buy me mmhm.”

My manners overpowered my instincts and all the warnings I’d heard about strangers in dark alleys. I slowed my march and gave her a puzzled expression. It was the kindest thing I’d do all night: acknowledge her existence. She repeated her desperate plea: “Buy me sex?” Embarrassed, shocked and not, worried about where I was going and who I was meeting, I shook my head and gave a quiet but firm no.

I arrived at the flamenco bar where I met my friend. We watched an awe-inspiring show. Masterful Spanish guitar. Proud, soulful singing. Dancing, stomping, and clapping that aroused smiles and admiration from all in attendance. I tried to focus on the virtuous art that so easily and completely enchanted the other guests, but I knew what was waiting for me when I left. As we exited the building, I saw her again. And she saw me.

I was more determined this time. I refused to even look on her side of the street. I talked to my friend and stared only at him as we trudged by to continue our carefree night, our idyllic vacation, our quintessential European adventure. But she wouldn’t let me get away without forcing me to know she was there, still.

And I could have stopped it. I could have helped her. I had enough money in my pocket to send her home for the night, alone. I could have helped her. But I didn’t. She reached out with hope, and I let her soft, sad fingers drag across my stoic forearm, never glancing back.


It’s an incredible gift to be in beautiful Barcelona. I’ve seen things this week that most of my friends back home never will, that most people in the world never will. I’ve been given a priceless gift of an international education, a fun and light and peaceful escape from my reality in the United States.

For those who live here, though, there is no escape. They do not see the famous Sagrada Familia, the hallmark of Spanish architecture, the masterwork of Gaudí, the epitome of precision, imagination, and piety. They see the church down the street, the one all the tourists gawk at, the one away from the place their sister asks strangers to hurt her.

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Max Stainton

<p>I'm a nerdy adrenaline-junkie with a guilty conscience. I love reading dusty books and practicing piano, I don't count it as an adventure unless there is a possibility of death, and I volunteer compulsively. Oh, and I'm weirdly good at foosball.</p>

2019 Fall
Home University:
Wake Forest University
Cincinnati, OH
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