Raquel Frohlinger, a 26-year-old from New York, was passing through Barcelona on a recent day when she stopped to chat with a complete stranger under one of the Catalan capital’s landmarks, the Arc de Triomf.
She told the stranger what she was doing in the city and what she does for a living back in the United States. In return, she received advice on what to visit in Barcelona, plus a couple of anecdotes about what it’s like to grow up here. After a while, Frohlinger got up and went on her way, leaving behind two chairs and a sign in large letters that read: “Free conversations!”
The person that Frohlinger talked to is Adrià Ballester, creator of the Free Conversations Movement, which invites people in the city to stop for a while and chat about anything they like. Ballester acts alone, but he calls his initiative a “movement” because he wants to include those who engage with him and who sometimes post their impressions on social media.
In Frohlinger’s opinion, the experience was “very special” because it gave her the chance to listen to someone and “exchange impressions.” This is exactly what 26-year-old Adrià Ballester, a computer equipment salesman, was intending. “The idea is just to have someone there that you can talk to freely for a while,” he says.
The idea came about three years ago when Ballester was having a bad day and took a walk through the city to see if he could clear his head. He walked beyond the Tibidabo hill, in the natural park of Collserola in the west side of the city. All of a sudden, a stranger whom he has never heard from again greeted him and engaged him in a casual conversation. The encounter immediately lifted Ballester’s mood.
In fact, the impact was so great that he decided take the experience and turn it into a movement. He grabbed two folding chairs and carried them from his neighborhood of San Andreu to the Cathedral, where he set them down along with a sign offering conversation in Spanish, English or Catalan. The initiative flopped: some passers-by believed he was there to sell them something. In fact, it still happens to him.
So he did a rethink and used social media to promote his project. A specific day, usually Saturday or Sunday, and a location, generally under the Arc de Triomf, are now advertised ahead of time. “I’m there for six hours, although sometimes it turns into eight,” he says.
He now has accounts on Facebook and Instagram (where he has over 7,500 followers) and posts photos of himself and his chat buddies, reflections on the day, and even illustrations.
But passers-by never cease to express surprise at his initiative. Some give him a sideways glance; others try to snap him secretly with their phones; yet others stand near him and talk about him in Spanish, as if he didn’t understand. “It seems incredible that something so simple attracts so much attention,” says Ballester, whose girlfriend Benedikta does some of the illustrations that are later posted on social media.
“The worst thing though is not the stares, but being moved along,” he adds, convinced that what he is doing is a form of activism. “The Mossos [regional police] come and tell me to move on, so I almost always do it here, at the Arc de Triomf, where they are less strict.”
Losing the art of conversation
There are a variety of types who stop to chat, but Ballester says that they are mainly under 30, like Raquel Frohlinger, the New Yorker, or the Italians Eleonora, Chiara, Julia, Francesca and Irene, who are between 20 and 24.
“We have lost [the art of] conversation,” say two of them, who are psychology students. “And talking is what life is all about.”
Ballester says that when a small crowd gathers, the conversation can be lively but is more likely to be brief. Deeper conversations are best had on a one-to-one basis; he once talked for four hours solid with one person, and the activity as a whole has brought him new friends. “You hear good, positive stories and really tough ones too,” he says. “A lot of people will tell you about some tricky episode in their life, maybe heartbreak or a job loss or a sudden change they have had to deal with.”
He says there was a 25-year-old man who had climbed Everest and a 70-year-old Lithuanian woman who talked about the years she spent in a Russian concentration camp. “There’s a bit of everything,” he says. “Even stories of abuse and rape, awful things. And it’s complicated, because I’m not a psychologist.”
But whatever the topic, Ballester tries to make sure the conversation remains positive. For example, he doesn’t like it when people take him to be religious and start discussing the possibility of an otherwordly being. Or when people insist on talking politics. “I generally start with open questions, but in some cases I stop asking anything to try to keep it brief,” he admits.
Someone approaches; a 21-year-old who is curious to find out what Ballester is about. “This is strange in a good way,” he concludes while adding that he considers it important to “expand the space ” for conversation because while the internet is supposed to have done this, “in reality, it is reducing it.”
Ballester agrees there is a lack of direct contact between people nowadays, but he also appreciates how social media has helped his initiative get off the ground. “People know where I will be and so they come back. Or discussions are generated and that can lead to collaborations,” he says, referring to several people who have helped each other thanks to his online presence.
In the future, he aims to publish a manifesto and would like to see his initiative picked up in other cities: as far as he knows, he is still the only street conversationalist around. That, in turn, would lead to a webpage for the movement and the space to expound on his ideas. “I really like philosophy and communication,” he says. “I feel a certain amount of pressure to write stories about what I’m being told. But I don’t want to make it more important. I prefer it to stay the way it is. ”