I recently received an email from some friends asking me if I would attend their forthcoming wedding. He is Norwegian, she is German, I am Australian. I met them in Paris when he was working in the French office of the American company I used to work for, and they have since moved to Frankfurt. A lot of my friendships go like that; I have friends of many nationalities, in many other countries, doing many different types of jobs. I love the diversity, but it becomes difficult to keep them all close. They asked me if I would be able to attend, but unfortunately I will be on the other side of the world as it will be held on the day before the Canadian Grand Prix. My parents have their fortieth anniversary on the day of the Japanese Grand Prix. My sister's wedding will be held in Scotland in the middle of the week after the British Grand Prix, in part so that I can attend. Birthdays constantly fall on race weekends on the other side of the world.
Formula One doesn't leave a lot of time for personal relationships outside of the paddock. Formula One is a jealous beast. Formula One wants us for herself, wants our sole attention.
I recently received an email from another friend of mine telling me that he would be in Barcelona for the Grand Prix; he found a cheap flight from Ireland, he wanted to lead me astray, and he was really happy about coming over, whether at the thought of seeing me or drinking Spanish beer - I'm not entirely sure. Either way, Sean has worked out the best way to see me is to come to Formula One and wait; he has been to a number of races now, and apart from the resultant damage to my liver every one of them has been great.
I stayed in a just large enough room in an apartment block turned hotel with Will and Bira in an area of Barcelona near la Sagrada Familia, an area of the city that begins to calcify into suburbs within blocks of our hotel. A hotel room on a race weekend is half baggage storage, half bed, and with Will away at a function Sean, Bira and I started the damage to ourselves before she retreated ahead of our offense, which was a metro ride away at Las Ramblas.
The life of a Formula One journalist sounds impressive from the outside; following the circus around should give us all an opportunity of seeing the grand cities of the world, to experience lives lived by others, to see all that we miss by living somewhere else. The reality is more prosaic. So many of the races are held in the middle of nowhere, in a field far from the cities everyone has heard of but never seen. So when a race is held somewhere close to something interesting, an extra effort needs to be made to avoid missing it entirely.
Bira has a saying that she uses a lot: yom asal, yom basal; which loosely translates from Arabic to 'some days are honey, some days are onion'. Seeing these grand cities, seeing them with my friends, is the honey. I just wish she'd use a bigger spoon sometimes.
Sean and I walked all the way up Las Ramblas and then all the way back, swapping text messages like pizza slices on a hungry night with Will until we found him. We followed the instructions on his phone from bar to bar, searching for the fun that was already there, that was inherent in our being together in the first place, that didn't need yet another venue but merely more lubrication for our already moist tongues.
"I'm going back to the hotel," I stated in the fifth bar, the one that looked like the others but different, the one that had the misfortune of welcoming us in at three in the morning. "I've got an interview in the morning."
"No you're not," Will indignantly slurred, "we've only just got here. I'm getting you a drink, and then you and I will work out the questions you've got to ask tomorrow."
"I'm going back to the hotel now; I can be either tired or hungover tomorrow, but I'm not going to be both. You should really come back too, given that I have the keys."
"You are staying here and drinking; the interview will be better if you're still drunk."
Arguing with a drunk is like wading through a tank of molasses; mildly amusing at the time, but slow going and messy.
"Don't ye have to work tomorrow?" Sean asked, not unreasonably, at four.
"I give up - I'm off. Can you look after Will and tell him I'll leave the door open for him?"
"You're not going anywhere – I'm buying some more drinks."
Barcelona works to my timetable; no one goes out until eleven at night, then they stay up until the sun rises, and they can't understand why the rest of the world doesn't understand them. Barcelona doesn't know what nine in the morning looks like. Barcelona explains why no one did anything other than drink bad coffee and chain-smoke when I used to come over for work in my past life. Barcelona doesn't work to a Formula One timetable.
I walked back up Las Ramblas to Placa de Catalunya to find a crowd of people waiting for the taxis that weren't there. I moved on, headed in the rough direction of our hotel; it gave me time to sober up, it gave me time to think. Barcelona fell noisily out of bars and restaurants all around me, hugged itself and moved on to the next one, yelling to itself all the while.
Vamos al bar al que fuimos la semana pasada, el de la camarera tan mona.
No, quiero ir al otro lugar; ése era un asco.
John One wasn't in Imola because his wife was ill, and he stayed home to look after her. Imola was a bit onion in his absence; it was faintly blurred around the edges without our usual chat; no-one makes fun of my flat cap quite as well as he does.
Formula One doesn't have friends. Formula One is its own social life. Somewhere between the two is everyone in the paddock.
John rang me during the week before Barcelona to reply to my email, to talk about work, to see if I'd had a haircut, to shoot the breeze and to catch up with each other. When he saw me in Barcelona, he just smiled and waved me over.
"How's your wife?"
"Oh, she's fine now, but she was annoyed at being in hospital on her birthday."
"But everything is okay now?"
"Sure, no problems at all. Did I miss anything in the paddock last week?"
"We decided not to hold the race; there seemed little point doing it without you there."
"It wouldn't have made much difference to our results lately."
I wish I'd asked what had been wrong with his wife, but I didn't know how. I think he wanted to tell me, but didn't want to start it up in the conversation. I was just happy that she was okay now, and that he was too. Formula One doesn't like us to get too personal; Formula One doesn't do emotions. John is one of my Formula One friends.
No me puedo creer que ganara el Valencia; el entrenador del Barcelona es un burro.
Al menos por una vez no ganó el Madrid.
The damp boulevards of Barcelona dully shone, the gloom stirred slightly by the Gaudi designed streetlights suspended well overhead. Like so much of the city the lights were designed to be beautiful rather than functional, but with light seemingly spilling from every window it didn't matter much. I walked north until I reached Casa Mila, turned right and continued until I found Casa Batllo, and then headed north again. Antoni Gaudi left an indelible mark on his city, was more influential in Barcelona than any architect in any other major city in the world.
I'd been talking about Gaudi earlier that day in the paddock with Bjorn. One of the stranger aspects of my job is it allows me to talk to people I never would have met in my former life, back in the days when I thought Grand Prix drivers were untouchable gods who lived a life of unimaginable privilege and plenty. Bjorn is a smart, shy, thoughtful person who has a foot in the door of Formula One and is growing in himself to fill the frame, and helping him write a column has given me an insight into the workload required to do a job that I had previously thought required little more than the ability to steer well.
Bjorn doesn't get out much; his team has his every movement logged and accounted for before he moves. Sometimes I wonder if they put a barcode on him for ease of movement. When he talks about driving his eyes look up as though he is seeing the lap again and marking it for content, but I can't help but think about how many of his future memories pass him by unheeded outside the gates.
"Have you been to la Sagrada Familia?" I asked as he worked through the bland chicken, pasta and broccoli lunch that accounts for every meal I've seen him eat.
"No, I haven't had much time to see anything actually. Is it good?"
"It's one of the most astonishing buildings I've ever seen, and it's still not finished."
"How long have they been building it?"
"Well over a hundred years."
"That's amazing! Why has it taken so long?"
"Well, it is the Spanish building it. And the architect was run over by a tram, which slowed things up a bit. But even so, it's is an amazing building."
"I'll have to try and see it," Bjorn replied, knowing as he spoke that there was no way his timetable would allow it over the weekend.
Bjorn and I are opposites in so many ways; he is younger than me, and his life has been focused on performing increasingly better in a collection of cars as he has made his way through the junior ranks with an eye permanently fixed on getting to where he is now. My life has been completely unfocused, with a number of different interests and avenues somehow allowing me to end up sitting next to him in his team's motorhome. His movements are deliberate, with purpose, even if it's just to pick up the pepper; I sometimes feel like a random collection of ill fitting bones and flesh.
He knows that he has missed a lot, but he also knows that his focus has to be absolute if he wants to go further in his career. I've seen a lot of things in my time, but have always wished for some of the focus that he has in spades. He's got plenty of time to do the things I tell him about when we chat in the paddock, but for now he always laughs at the increasingly ludicrous stories I tell him about our nights away from the paddock. I could already imagine the wry smile he would have on his face when I tell him about walking across Barcelona at 4:30 in the morning.
Hey nena, ven aquí un minuto.
Lárgate borracho idiota; ¿Qué te hace pensar que quiero hablar contigo?
I had entered into a cramped area of Barcelona, the buildings looming into the streets, bending over the footpath as if to block out the inky sky. A theatre had finished its play and the patrons were mingling with those from the overflowing bars in the already cramped streets, everyone trying to talk over the noise of everyone else.
The streets no longer ran straight, preferring to mix with each other, mirroring the patterns of those walking on them. I had no idea where I was, relying instead on heading in the approximate direction of the hotel and relying on luck. There were few suggestions that there was a Grand Prix being held in the area; one desultory poster showing Alonso driving through what looked like mustard gas apologetically taped to a window was the only sign that it may have been a different weekend to any other.
The only place I did see any overt publicity for the race was at the Baha Beach Bar. The walls were covered in posters and images from the race, and they had signs in Spanish and English welcoming race fans. The location was picked because McLaren had held a function there the year before which Will remembered fondly, and walking in we spotted a few team members sitting at one of the bars, as though the team bus from last year had forgotten to return for them.
Will and I met up with Sean there the first night, with Bira having sensibly chosen an early night ahead of the weekend; she often worries about the balance of our relationship between editor and friend, and I think on occasions like that she defers and lets me get on with my friends, as though I wouldn't want her to be with us, as though they're not her friends as well as mine.
The first night back with friends you haven't seen in a while is about remembering the patterns that re-emerge, the jokes and the routines you use with these people and how they differ from those with others. We worked our way through the cocktail list as we drew each other in to the conversation, telling increasingly outlandish stories and trying to out do each other. Words spoken among friends are not as important as the way they are relayed, as the way that Sean will pull his mock outraged face before bursting with laughter, the way Will slightly smirks before pulling a dead pan face and then comes out with yet another outrageous comment, the way Sean will take off his watch before launching into yet another tale, waving his hands in illustration.
We ended up trying to sneak into a darkened hotel room, me ahead with my hands out in front of me like I was staring in a zombie film, and Will holding on to my belt to pull him along, banging into furniture and loudly shhing each other while Bira pretended to sleep and tried not to giggle.
The night took its toll on me; the next morning, after an hour or so sleep, Will was standing over me yelling to bring me back to the world. The shower was no help; there was only hot water for one person, and Will had helped most of that find the floor all the way out past the kitchen before mopping some of it up with Bira's t-shirt; and by the time I found myself downstairs choking down some Spanish coffee with the consistency of mud I was turning various shades of green.
"You look like crap," Will smirked, looking like an ad for a Swiss health tonic, a look he maintained all weekend until he filed his last report on Monday and then promptly passed out in a cafe over a cup of coffee.
"Shut. Up." I syllabled, slowly.
"Look, just go back to sleep, will you?" Bira stated as she bought me some water.
"No. I'll. Be. Fine."
"Seriously, get some sleep. You've got nothing planned at the track for this morning – I'll come back into town and pick you up after lunch."
"Yeah, yeah. Go on." I'd like to say that I thought about the balance between being a friend and being a boss. I'd like to say that I realised that she got the balance right, as usual. I'd like to say these things, but within two minutes I was back in bed and sound asleep.
Te digo que le gustaba; no me puedo creer que me hicieras irme.
Afronta la realidad; estaba hablando contigo sólo porque su amiga estaba hablando conmigo.
I was back at the hotel, sober and tired and happy. Walking a city is always the best way to see it, and despite thinking I wouldn't get a chance to do so I'd managed to squeeze a walk into a busy weekend, at the cost of mere sleep. I walked past yet another bar, the one that Bira and I had gone to the day before.
We'd been to a karting event put on by Bridgestone, and on the way the traffic was reduced to a 2km/h crawl that made Silverstone look like most organised circuit known to man. A few hundred metres in Bira said "just so you know, this has absolutely nothing to do with you," and began sobbing silently. It must have been the onions.
We missed out on the start of the karting race, and after hours in the cold she sat in the car and quietly fumed. At the end of it Will brought another journalist who took the death seat and offered Bira driving directions in overabundance while she glowered and sped off into the night.
"I'm going to the hotel," I told them as we stopped on the corner near a jazz bar, keeping my eye on Bira all that time.
"Oh, come on, join us!" Will demanded while Bira stared straight ahead.
"No, it's okay; I'll see you later."
"I wish someone would ask me what I want," she finally exploded, tears streaming again before suddenly pulling up to a halt and demanding "you drive!"
"You lot always expect me to be the responsible adult. I always have to look out for you – every time any of you have a problem, I try to fix it. I'm pigeon-holed as the mum. Well I'm not your mum! And what happens when I need someone to take care of me? Has anyone asked me if I want a drink tonight? Does anyone care?"
I flailed silently, uselessly, as the silence of her brooding descended on us while we circled around the hotel, looking for a parking space in a city full of double parked cars. "Maybe if I moved that road block we could park the car just here," I said, pointing at the construction barrier in front of a skip that was blocking a minute parking space right in front of our hotel.
"There's no way you could fit the car into that."
"No, I couldn't. But you could."
All elbows and shoulders behind the wheel, she conducted the car back and forth, a mantra of "excess damage waiver!" issuing forth each time she nudged the bumper in front until the car was sitting snugly inside a space that was just a couple of inches longer than the car itself.
"Nice job. I couldn't have done that."
"Thanks," she beamed. "I guess that's one thing I'm actually good at."
"How about we grab a drink in that bar across the road?"
"Yes... Thank you. That would be nice."
We sat in there for a while before Will and Sean found us from across the road. The drinks flowed; loud talk and rolling laughter ran with it. It took a while, but eventually the unhappenable happened – the owner asked us to leave, as he wanted to close the bar. We finished our drinks as the shutters were being pulled down, beaming with pride – we finally broke Barcelona.