All semester, I’ve looking forward to going to Barcelona. It wasn’t so much because of La Sagrada Familia or Casa Batllo or Ed Sheeran or the Cheetah Girls or any other significant cultural landmark. I was looking forward to Barcelona because my girlfriend, Genna, would finally touch down in Europe to meet me there over Thanksgiving break.
As dreamy as meeting up in Barcelona is, I couldn’t help but be concerned about the recent political turmoil that was apparently taking place there.
Barcelona is located in Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. Like any municipality within a country, it has its quirks and distinct culture. For example, most people from Barcelona speak Castilian Spanish. Even still, a fair amount also speak the Catalan dialect. Unlike most municipalities, however, Catalonia has been seeking to break off from the rest.
On Oct. 1, Catalonians took part in an illegal referendum to secede from Spain. Government officials from Catalan reported a 90 percent vote in favor of leaving Spain.
Former Catalan President Carles Puidgemont triumphantly declared, “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form a republic.”
Still, it all came to a violent head when Spanish police shot rubber bullets into the crowd of pro-independence protesters.
Trigger warning: blood
Demonstrations continued. And in the following days, the Spanish government gave Puidgemont an ultimatum to return Catalonia to “constitutional order.”
As a precaution, SU London advised students against traveling to Barcelona in an email on Oct. 5. Still, the students who have visited Barcelona in the days after the vote have not run into great trouble.
One of my friends, Kate, had been nervous about the unrest as well. But once she got there, she said, she realized that the protesters were peaceful.
“No one gave us any trouble when we passed through. When we were near the giant park where the government building is, the police had all the entrances and the roads closed around the park. A very large protest marched toward the park. When the police told them they couldn’t enter through, the crowd very quickly turned around, picked another route, and was on their way,” Kate explained.
She visited on the weekend of Oct. 27, right when the conflict was fresh. Kate went on to speculate that media representations of the violence make outsiders jump to conclusions.
My friend Kenzie noted the same in the first week of October: peaceful civil disobedience, “different from what was circling around.”
“The protests were grand and so moving. You saw these heards of people walking the streets singing their region’s song.” Kenzie also noted that it was sung at the football game she went to in Barcelona.
“Even in their sports, they want to be separate as well.”
And lastly, Haley, who got a taste (literally: hot chocolate, sangria and paellas) of all Barcelona had to offer in the first weekend of November, described a similar scene.
“Lining up to go to the tapas tour, there was some marching and chanting. And part of the way when we were walking around for the tapas tour, we saw down one of the streets a big crowd of people,” Haley explained.
“It really wasn’t violent either, because there were kids nearby. Not a lot and they weren’t super young. Young people were nearby, too, who weren’t necessarily participating.”
At worst, Haley saw some posters and graffiti.
“Really, it wasn’t super noticeable.
Not to be too cheeky, but the worst trouble Barcelona gave us was its confusing airport terminals and marked intolerance for bad Spanish. I did pick up on the flags that varied from bannister to bannister.
Which, as messy and shady as it is, is quite a calm and safe way to disagree with your neighbours.
This unrest isn’t new (it goes back to the 12th century) and isn’t exclusive to Catalonia. Rebecca Farnum pointed out how Europe alone has met many an independence movement: Scotland, Ireland, and parts of Turkey, France, Germany and Greece. Apart from mere cultural differences, it’s a matter of pride.
“Maybe one good analogy is: if you ask an American where they’re from, some people will say Michigan, by the state. Some people will say the U.S., some people will say their city,” Rebecca said.
“The general Englishman will say, ‘I’m from Britain or I’m from the U.K.’ And generally, a Scot will say, ‘I’m from Scotland.’ We cling to the parts of our identity that are most distinguishing or the most differential.”
Rebecca also highlighted how Catalonia’s bad example, as some might see it, can cause even more problems moving ahead.
“I think it’s a conversation locally and globally, with the Catalan movement in particular and other movements, that is going to keep going. How do we deal with these requests?” Rebecca asked.
“How does the rests of the world deal with these requests? Who recognizes them? Who doesn’t? It’s obviously very political.”
As for media representations distorting the riots, Rebecca wishes there were better overviews of the Catalonia independence movement. Human-interest stories are separate from financial perspectives. And of course, opinion pieces abound.
“When we have these pieces of the puzzle, it’s like one small fragment of the story. That creates reader biases. Is it really fair to talk about how Spain is shooting into rioting protesters, while not acknowledging this referendum is illegal and that there’s a lot of confusion?” Rebecca questioned.
“But then you also want to mention the fact they’ve been denied what they see as a political right for a long time.”
The rest of Genna’s and my weekend trip was not nearly marked by the level of turmoil, conflict or tension I was expecting. We were in town for 24 hours, give or take, so we:
1) strolled around our neighbourhood and
2) ate a Spanish pub / café / bistro / food spot that was playing 2000s American bops.
As was the case with Paris, I was glad we chose an Airbnb. We really, then, got a taste of residential Barcelona: the dedicated walking their dogs, weekend warriors loading up their cars for errands, mates calling beer summits in the soft, Spanish sun.
But of course, I would definitely love to come back to Barcelona to see more of the city and the stereotypical, Catalan tourist-y things.