When I first came to Barcelona, when Spain was still a police state, I taught English at a school in a stately building on Rambla Catalunya, on the floor above what was then the Moroccan Consulate. One evening we heard a commotion outside and stepped out onto the narrow balcony: a handful of demonstrators were straggling down the central walkway, waving Polisario placards (the movement for the liberation of Spanish Sahara). They stopped opposite our building chanting “¡Marruecos asesino!”
“Bah!” scoffed my students. “Són quatre gats.” Few people.
And then flames whooshed up as a Molotov cocktail exploded on the Consulate balcony below. We scrambled inside and slammed the french doors shut. The director’s wife rushed in telling us in panicky broken Spanish to stay put, while black smoke billowed up the stairwell. But quite soon we were able to leave; I freaked out, to be revived in the local bar. A colleague recounted how a demonstrator had burst into his class and sat down, followed by the police. Poker-faced, my colleague – and the rest of the class – had passed him off as one of the regular students. From then on, our building was guarded by a couple of policemen with submachine guns.
And the expression ‘quatre gats’ was indelibly burnt into my memory.
I later learned that quatre is the Catalans’ favourite number for talking dismissively or disparagingly about anything: at best, not a big deal, at worst, pathetic.
- a quatre passes = four steps away = very close by
- quatre duros (o quatre rals o quatre xavos) = four cents = cheap or of little value
- només són quatre gotes = it’s only four drops (of rain) = it’s just drizzling a bit
- només té quatre pèls = he only has four hairs = he hardly has any beard or he’s almost bald
- dir quatre coses = say four things = tell off, give a piece of your mind
- quatre fulles = four leaves = a few bits of lettuce or herbs
Els Quatre Gats is also the name of the emblematic Modernista cafe in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter that opened in 1897, a bohemian hangout for the artists and intellectuals of the time including the young Picasso. Recently it featured as a location in Woody Allen’s film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona. And this year sees its 120th anniversary. It’s also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Puig i Cadafalch who designed the building (the Quatre Gats is on the ground floor).