I couldn’t have wiped the grin off my face for anything, not even if we were stepping into a funeral service. After a 16 hour bus ride without a book to read, we were finally standing in Barcelona. There’s something about putting 1,000 kilometers between you and the last place you laid your head that just makes everything seem more significant than it really is. While I may have felt like an Irish immigrant laying his eyes on the Statue of Liberty for the first time, it was less than 24 hours ago that we were lamenting our departure from Seville for lack of a plan.
We were looking for the cathedral square, standing quite lost beside the Arc de Triomf, when Jason nudged me, “I think we were just the subjects in a photo.”
I looked up to notice a large group of tourists following their tour guide, cameras in hand, poised to take the perfect shot of two bedraggled Americans with their oversized backpacks and confounded expressions tracing lines on the same map every other less encumbered tourist was holding. It was another city to wake up to and I was already looking for a story to write about. Jason, as always, was leaping ahead, eager to discover whatever it was the world had been doing without him and I shambled after.
When describing his first moments in Barcelona, then a revolutionary city, George Orwell wrote of red and black flags fluttering in the breeze and his own sense that something beautiful, yet slightly uncomfortable, was taking place before his eyes. We are not in that Barcelona, not by a long shot. However, the Catalan nationalist flag, L’Estralada, seems to hang from every 2nd or 3rd window, anti-austerity graffiti is a regular sight, and I am aware of the growing pro-independence sentiment in the region. I can’t help but imagine that I know a little something about the sensation that Orwell was feeling. I’m in a strange land but I’m excited about what I may be able to observe and learn while I’m here.
Within half an hour of our arrival at the capital of this aspiring nation, we were sitting in a rickshaw. I could feel the burning gaze of the locals, whether real or imagined, in the back of my stupid tourist head. Isaac, our contact here in Barcelona, is a rickshaw driver by trade. He conducts tours of the city for tourists; visitors who don’t have a contact like him. He’s a member of a small but determined socialist outfit called En Luitta (In Struggle). Like everyone we’ve met since Porto, he’s also a purveyor of that overwhelming Southern European hospitality that makes Nathan visibly uncomfortable. It’s out of a fear of taking advantage, though, rather than a distaste for it. Isaac lives in a flat at the Plaza of the Unknown Militiaman. It’s a very fitting location for a socialist tour guide’s residence.
After explaining that he lived on the third floor, Isaac looked back and said, “I’m sorry. There is no elevator.”
“No problem,” I said, “It’s only three floors.”
We follow behind, going past the third floor, onto the fourth, and finally when we reach the fifth floor, Isaac pushes open the door to his flat. I wondered if something had been lost in translation, either that or Spaniards are just as poor at numbering the stories of their buildings as they are at keeping time. Before we could settle in with the Western formality of introductions, the cavalcade of questions, and some lengthy badinage intended to build trust between three total strangers, Isaac gave us the key to his flat and ran off to catch more tourists before the sun went down. Jason and I made coffee, took showers, washed our clothes, and waited for Isaac to get back.
That evening, Isaac took us the University of Barcelona for a meeting promoting the anti-austerity “March For Dignity” to take place in Madrid on 21 March. The speeches were in Catalan, rendering my limited Spanish completely useless. Isaac was kind enough to translate a rough summary of each statement to me while Nathan took photos to send back to the organizers of the event. At least here we could contribute something. Diego Canamaro, who hails from the famed “communist utopia” of Marinaleda spoke passionately:
“We must take all the regional demands to Madrid! Like it or not, the system is centralist, so we must unify all of the struggles and not take them separately.”
He lamented the levels of social mobilization this year (as opposed to last year) because of the growing faith in the political campaigns of candidates from PODEMOS. “Now, more than ever, we must be in the streets!”
The other speakers touched on the double-burden of austerity policies on women by tying them more to the home than before, about the level of police repression during last year’s 21 March demonstration, and on the need to gather signatures for an upcoming referendum for free public education. It was quite a lot to take in, and due to my need for translation, I missed a great deal. Still, it wasn’t a bad start to getting a view into the situation in Catalonia considering we had just arrived and were completely exhausted. By the morning we would be refreshed and in much better shape to absorb everything.
Storm clouds hung over Barcelona the following morning. The narrow streets were relatively unpopulated. Endearing old ladies tucked neatly under umbrellas brushed by us, an English couple pointing at the street placards read them aloud in a desperate attempt to make sense of their surroundings, someone a few streets over was drumming on a gas tank of some kind and hollering up to the windows above, and the young people carried on as the young people often do, plugged aloofly into their devices, cautious to not appear too interested. We met up with Isaac in the courtyard and argued with him about whether or not this was a good day for a rickshaw tour around the city.
He waved his hands as if he were shooing away flies, saying, “No, no, no. This weather…it is perfect. There are no customers for me and besides, I enjoy it.”
The first stop was the Plaça del Milicià Desconegut or the Square of the Unknown Militiaman. Written on the back of a 14th century church was an old piece of graffiti that serves as dedication to an unknown fighter or fighters of the Spanish Civil War. It was covered up when Franco came to power, but was rediscovered when the walls of the Pi church were being cleaned. It is now celebrated as a symbol of Catalan resistance.
Isaac took us down a narrow alley and parked in front of a dimly lit costume shop.
“This is one of the last old shops in the area,” he said, explaining that in 2015, Barcelona had significantly raised the rent, forcing forty percent of the old city out of their homes and businesses. Isaac pedaled on to George Orwell’s Square and explained that after Barcelona had hosted the 1992 Olympic games, the city removed all public seating in order to eliminate an undercurrent of crime in the area. He expressed his frustration with the changes his city has undergone since 1992. Eighteen percent of Barcelona’s wealth comes from the tourist industry alone and the local population has had to make room for each successive wave of tourists.
“How many tourists come here each year?” I asked.
“Last year?” Isaac said, pausing to think for a moment, “Eight and a half million tourists.”
He went on to tell us that the city has done very little keep the tourist industry separate from the local residences. Visitors arrive, rent out apartments in the same buildings as local families, they host raucous parties late into the evening with little regard to the neighbors, urinate and vomit in doorways, and just last year three Italian tourists were photographed running naked through the city.
“They ran through the streets naked during the day,” Isaac said, “And there were children going to school who had to see this.”
As we rolled past restaurant after restaurant, cafe after cafe, and bazaar after bazaar, I began to wonder if we weren’t just making circles around the same block. Every fifth shop was a clone of the first, each following the same formula with identical trinkets and souvenirs shoved against the store front windows. There are shop owners who stand in their doorways all day, glaring at their doppelgänger across the narrow cobblestone walk, pausing only to peddle some crap to the occasional dupe in search of some hollow memento to remember an entire city by. One can’t help but wonder, how many ironic t-shirt shops does one city need?
Isaac continued on, pedaling expertly around tight corners, through narrow streets, and in between eclectic patches of pedestrians who stared at us either in annoyance or envy. We pulled up to a large square where another tour guide was trying to keep the attention of a group of children on a field trip. Isaac pointed to an innocuous brick wall and asked us to find the four bricks with Hebrew text written on them. Jason found all of them in a matter of moments.
“In the Fifteenth Century all the houses in the Jewish quarter were marked with these symbols. The Jews were blamed for the Black Death and that quarter was burned and all the Jews killed. This wall was built with some of the stones from that quarter,” Isaac said and then pointed behind us, “and over here is the Cultural Museum. What most people don’t know is that this building used to be where the Inquisition would torture people.”
The tour continued a bit longer unti Isaac stopped suddenly and asked, “Do you hear that?”
We could hear them but we couldn’t see them right away. The din of the various chants from different sections of the march all blending together grew louder and more welcoming as we approached. This is a relatively familiar experience for me, trying to catch up to a demonstration that has already begun moving from one rallying point to the next. In this case, I had neither a speech to give at the end, nor a contingent in which to march along the way. At Plaça de Espanya we caught up to the crowd and Nathan immediately broke out his camera. After a few shots of the banners we stepped in line with the thousands of university students, unable to join in their Catalan chants, and having only a soundbyte’s worth of understanding of the nature of their strike. It was still an exciting moment though. Ever since we first got to Europe, our conversations with the people around us have invariably turned to the question of austerity and “belt-tightening.” Here was finally some mass expression of the discontent that we’ve been told about.
Upon our arrival at the location of the rally, the Palou de la Generalitat, (House of Catalan Parliament) I decided to approach a group of students to ask a few questions. As luck would have it, they spoke perfect English. I don’t really know what I’d have done if they only spoke Catalan. They told us the strike was called by the Front Estudiantil Unitari (Student Unity Front) to protest a change in the requirements for higher education degrees: from 4-3 years for a Bachelor’s and from 1-2 for a Master’s. They said that this cheapens the value of the former and makes the latter less accessible to lower-income students. I told them that we don’t have student unions in the United States. They were even more startled by my tales of exorbitant student loan debt. I asked if they were confident that they could win their fight. Their response was that the law had already been passed so it was going to take a lot to roll it back. “…and as you can see,” one young woman said gesturing to the crowd solemly, “not many people are here.”
Not many people? But, there were several thousands! What she had meant was that they didn’t manage to turn out an overwhelming majority of current students. She meant that there weren’t enough thousands of students to convince her that their protest amounted to a constructive intervention in the political process. I guess my expectations for a good demonstration are a bit low. With the crowd starting to thin out, either to reconvene elsewhere or go home we didn’t know, we decided to head back to Isaac, taking lunch on his rickshaw, and finish the tour.
After the student demonstration I found it hard to keep up with the rest of the tour. The city of Barcelona is so deeply entrenched in history, that every layer could fill a library. The minute a person thought they had cleared away the final layer, another undiscovered civilization would begin to emerge. There were so many contexts to understand – the clashes of cultures, the politics, the occupations, the battles, the wars, the defeats, and the encroachment of tourism. We had arrived in search of answers and when we left, we left with nothing but questions. I’m reminded of an old high school teacher I had who once said, “Before you can know the answer, you must first fall in love with the question.”
– Jason and Nathan