It is just before the beginning of the summer holidays in Spain, on a sun-drenched afternoon. We have eaten our lunch, let the grandparents fuss over our quiet, much loved girl, all smiles, bubbliness and bracelets. It is the so-called siesta hour, and we are walking back to our flat through the back street of my neighbourhood, my original stomping ground. This is the place where I used to belong, and we have both changed in the last 20 years. Its working class roots have become poorer, as one wave of migrants after another find themselves with no job prospects, but begging or selling cheap merchandise on the streets to scrape a living.
At the top of this long street is my secondary school, site of four years of my life that I sometimes choose to forget, encompassing bullying, academic struggles, close friendships and much self-discovery. Supermarkets and factories stand in place of many of the vacant lots that once were there. I turn around to hold my daughter’s hand and check she is still wearing her new hat.
My parents had gifted her a wide-brimmed, straw, Easter-style hat, decorated with ribbons and a flower. An inexpensive, ordinary, girlie hat, that delighted her and kept the sun away from her eyes (a must for a girl who suffers from sensory processing disorder.)
I turn around to look at my girl and a second later, the hat is gone! An unexpected gust of wind has made it blow away, pushing it further away from us along the pavement, half a block down the road from us, just past a small bar pavement terrace.
It is then that I notice that man. A man standing near the hat. As the hat twirls just past him, he leans forward, picks it up and quickly places it in his well-worn, two-wheeled shopping trolley. And later I will wonder if this was to be an unexpected gift for his daughter or granddaughter. But at that moment, I can only think about my daughter, and I recover my voice.
He chooses to ignore me, I flee towards him. The men sitting at the pavement café intervene and he stops.
‘That hat belongs to my daughter.’
I don’t need to say anything else, he knows he has been defeated. Ashen-faced, he mumbles a half-hearted apology and hands the hat back to me, before moving on. He has forgotten about us before he reaches the corner.
I take the hat and put it back on my daughter’s head, but it doesn’t feel the same. Because that hat comes to embarrass me somewhat. It embodies so much more than a three-euro item of clothing. It is about the haves and have nots of our economy, the distance between our lives and those we’ve left behind. Because that hat, laden with meaning, now reminds me of the opportunities I had created for myself and been lucky enough to access by taking the open road.