Died and Reborn: One American's Journey to Spain and Back

bsparks By bsparks, 14th May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Personal Experiences

Between the months of January and May of 2014 I lived in Barcelona, Spain for a semester abroad. It being my first time in Europe, I was unsure what to expect. These are the thoughts and experiences that I wish to share with the world - a world that now seems much smaller, but infinitely brighter.

Between Mask and Molotov: A Story of the Spanish Economic Crisis

It’s a tragedy how you can be aware of something so terrible yet care so little until it flares up in your face, waving a checkered flag and clutching a fiery bottle of petroleum. I was there, shamelessly purchasing pot brownies from a local cannabis club when outside the streets of Barcelona were about to be set ablaze. I left the store and immediately noticed my friends that had been waiting for me were not there. A few paces down the street they were standing, amongst several other bystanders, watching as a group of masked protestors, carrying a red and white flag, marched down the perpendicular street. Then there was a BOOOM from an exploding Molotov cocktail and a snake of flames lit up the street. The men kicked over a recycling dumpster and began chucking empty glass bottles behind them, no doubt at the police cruisers heading their way.
People (including myself) had no idea how to react. Cool! Holy shit! We have get to the fuck out of here! They’ll arrest anybody on the scene! Cries like these echoed around as I found myself curious enough to watch more of the anarchy. My curiosity would have to wait as a group of protestors wearing black bandanas covering the lower part of the their faces, turned toward the street we were gawking on.
Everyone ran away from the charging men and women, as they had clubs and broken bottles (I was hoping for the stereotypical pitchfork) and God knows what else. At this point I’m nervous that my friends and I might actually be in harms way so we make a break for it as well. To our dismay a huge parade of what looked like hundreds of other protestors, some in masks, some shouting in furious Spanish, some making funny faces, were all marching and blocking our exit. Not wanting to get in line with these protestors (though my friend Zack was tempted) we had nothing to do but wait until it passed, as behind us was only more chaos.
Eventually they passed and we made our way back to Plaza Urquinaona where a brigade of police trucks were zooming by. There were officers guarding the street and blowing whistles whenever a truck was coming. As we were crossing a voice boomed from the speakers on one of the trucks; I couldn’t understand what it said but the people around us all laughed and clapped so it must have been something cheerful.
Upon returning to my home-stay I received an email from the director of IES, the program I am studying in, that said: “About 15 minutes ago the demonstration became violent when some demonstrators confronted police forces in Via Laietana. There has been a police charge and the violent cohort has dispersed around the Gotic, Born and Ciutat Vella. Please be advised that confrontation may still continue for a while. As a result of these confrontations there have been trash containers set on fire and some spilled onto the street. Please stay away from these areas to avoid being caught in the middle.”
Whoops. The day before I had received a different email warning students to stay away from the Placa Catalunya area as there was scheduled to be protests that could turn violent. Of course I paid no mind to their warnings; this is Barcelona, everyone takes it slow and the living is easy and carefree. If only it could be so simple.
The previous email also explained a little bit of why this was happening. Spain is still recovering from an economic crisis at the moment. People are getting laid off and due to more recent budget cuts, there is an even greater strain on people who have lost their jobs. It is not unlike conditions in the US. In regards to the demonstrations, most of the time they remain peaceful but sometimes outside groups not necessarily linked to the demonstrators choose to act violent and can be more unpredictable.
So I decided to look in to the matter, ask around, find some news articles. Turns out the protest was called “Disobedience 2014,” and they carried a slogan that read: “They can’t control us if we disobey. Let’s stop laws!” The police tried to confront them before reaching the main square of Catalunya, as a result violence ensued and the activists began smashing the windows of banks and burning garbage bins. The people are pissed about the austerity of the government and the laws that are being passed that they feel will only benefit the already wealthy elite, leaving the lower class to decay indefinitely. They are also speaking against other legislations being discussed “that would radically restrict the right to protest and an amendment to abortion law that would allow the procedure only in case of rape or serious risk to mother’s health (rt.com).” Some claim the government is moving backwards towards the Franco era.; they need to change Spain “from bottom to top (rt.com).”
My host mother remembers the Franco regime; she’s lived in Barcelona the past forty years. She has told me stories in her somewhat broken English about life under the regime compared to life now. Back in her youth her and her friends would sneak across the border to France to watch uncensored movies and buy contraband books and music. They would stash the illegal imports under typical goods people brought from France like cheeses and clothes. And because they were girls they could flirt up the cops and successfully sneak through. As badass as that sounds, hopefully the economy does not revert to those times of oppression and censorship.
Now she hears rumors of government spies dressed as ordinary people, placed in random locations to listen to people’s conversations and gather data. “Donde esta mi libertad?” she asks. Where is my freedom.
I can’t answer her because in the States the same thing is happening with the NSA. The governments, drunk with power, obsessive and paranoid, exploit and invade their citizens’ lives and it’s scary to think about how little freedom one really has. The Spanish citizens are at least enraged enough to thrash the streets and take on a few cops, whereas in America if police squads beat activists with batons this would be a huge deal in the media.
What matters here is that Spaniards in all regions of Spain are suffering and are demanding control of their lives and security for their jobs. Also like in the US, the mantra in the media is that the recession has ended and things are steadily back on the rise. However unemployment is still a little over one fourth of the working population with about fifty percent being under twenty-four years old. Many young people are leaving the country for Germany in hopes of finding a job (huffingtonpost.com).
And it’s obvious just walking the streets of Barcelona. Between the wide-eyed tourists (myself included) in the center of Placa Catalunya there are at least ten to fifteen beggars, holding out cups, sitting with signs pleading for help, holding starving dogs, giving out pictures of their children, not to mention the amount of them with physical or mental deformities. They are literally unavoidable in any area of the city. I can recognize at least three by face on my walk to class in the morning. And I must close my heart to them for the sole reason that there are just too many to be so sympathetic all the time. It reminds me of the Louis CK bit about a country girl going to New York City for the first time in her life. She passes a homeless man and immediately is astounded; she takes a knee and asks him if he is okay. Louie then attempts to “correct” her behavior as if she were doing something wrong. The main idea being that these people need our help desperately but because it so commonplace it is not something that even fazes us anymore.
So how do I help? Is my gluttony improving Barcelona’s economy with every eighty-five cent croissant I buy? It is my role as tourist to spend money in the Barcelona economy, it is my job as a student to learn the situation and educate myself on these matters, what then is my next step? How much of a difference could I really make?
One of my classes here called Food as an Expression of Culture required me to volunteer twice during the semester either at a soup kitchen or collecting donations at a local supermarket. In the class we learned a lot about the way the economy is effecting food for families in low-income areas and how many children are malnourished while their mothers fight to have jobs. And so I went one morning to serve breakfast at a local soup kitchen; I handed out bread, poured coffee, and helped clean the dining room. These people are not the beggars you see on the street, they are average looking men and women, trying to support themselves and their families in these troubling times. Sometimes they are shameful when they see people they know but there should always be a sense of respect between the servers and the eaters. It was humbling to see these people, some of them misplaced or misfortunate, a feeling most people can relate to, but I must remember to be thankful every day for food and water whenever I need it.
Also for that class I had to go to a panel discussion where three Spanish women talked about the work they were doing to help feed the families stricken by poverty. Not surprisingly, the local governments did not take the issue seriously until stories and pictures started appearing in the local press that detailed just how bad the situation was. Once these articles got out they had an easier time getting funding for their pantries and other public services. The passion these women had for their work and their commitment was beautiful.
Then volunteering at the grocery store, all I had to do was hand flyers to people coming in with a list of suggested items to donate. A simple task. The amount of donations we received was staggering. One of the Spanish women organizing the event was telling me how it is much better to do this at a smaller, localized grocery store, rather than the giant ones, because the people shopping their will be friendlier with the staff and likely more generous with their donating. They also said that in the flyers they wrote that the food was going to help starving children, which they know will inspire more sympathy. But in reality the food was going to various pantries and churches to feed anybody who came in. It must have worked because there was a record amount of donations, whatever works I suppose.
It was great to see how generous people were and that there were dedicated volunteers willing to give time and energy to support a cause they believed in. The value in these experiences is getting to see all sides of Barcelona life. I saw first hand the unrest, the desperation, the kindness, the excess and the consumerism. I know I’ll never forget any of it. What it allows me is a feeling of understanding and of community. The violent protestors, the volunteers, and those who remember the tyranny of Franco have shared their experiences, their knowledge and their lives with me, if only for a brief moment, and for that I am grateful. That does not mean I am going to go out and join an anarchy group and start bashing windows and knocking over dumpsters; it means I have awareness and a renewed perspective of life in Spain, which of course changes my perspective on life in New York, in Ithaca, in my apartment and in my bedroom. Awareness changes everything and the more concerned we are as a global society, the better our future will look. Spain is only one of example of a country in economic turmoil, and unfortunately masks and Molotovs are a brutally effective way to wake people up from their comatose lives.


Creative Non-Fiction, Personal Development, Personal Growth, Society, Spain, Student Life, Study Abroad, Travel Writing

Meet the author

author avatar bsparks
I am a student looking to begin a career in the lonesome world of writing. I like to focus on the human element of fiction, and what makes people who they are.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
14th May 2014 (#)

What an amazing, and terrifying experience.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
8th Nov 2014 (#)

Nothing like being there and experiencing it in person - siva

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author avatar Retired
2nd Mar 2015 (#)

The discrisption is great

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