I acquired most of my heroes as a young man, when reverence came easy. The older I’ve grown, and the more cynical, the harder it’s become to give my devotion. I meet likeable people all the time, and admirable people often. But in one’s 40s, it’s almost impossible now to elevate an individual to one’s personal pantheon.
Xavier Batalla is my exception.
We met only four years ago, at a diplomatic soiree in Washington DC: he was visiting from his native Barcelona. As journalists and writers on international affairs — he was foreign editor of the great Spanish daily, La Vanguardia, and I was World Editor at TIME — we were naturally kindred. We’d been to many of the same hotspots, met many of the same people: we had just finished reading the same book, Steve Coll’s ‘The Bin Ladens.’ Most importantly, we were both partisans for FC Barcelona, the great soccer club, able to rattle off team lists going back several decades. He seemed delighted by our serendipitous meeting. “This one,” a greatly amused Xavier said to our host, the Brazilian Ambassador, “is just like me.”
As our friendship deepened, I came quickly to appreciate what a brilliant journalist he was. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to get the best out of his writing, but our conversations revealed his great gifts of observation, recollection and analysis. But above all else, they revealed his humanism. Where my travels had made me a professional pessimist (in my defense, I had only recently returned from a five-year assignment in Iraq), Xavier’s journalism had made him think better of people and politics.
And he had done a great deal more journalism than I had: in a 40-year career, Xavier had reported from over 50 countries. He had written for El Correo Catalán, Diario de Barcelona and El País before finding a perch at La Vanguardia. It seemed inconceivable to me that someone with that much experience with the people and politics of the world should be so sanguine about them. I once joked that his optimism came from having survived the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco. He insisted it was the product of reading history, and knowing that things usually get better.
Xavier became more than a friend: I came to look upon him as a mentor. I aspired to his knowledge and wisdom, and hoped he would one day talk me out of being a cynic.
Xavier Batalla passed away in his home on Dec 12, due to a cerebral tumor. Only a week before, the association of Catalonian journalists had honored him with its highest award. He is survived by his wife Edith, daughter Laura and son Oscar.