Mosaic / January 26, 2011

Staring down oncoming traffic: Three months in Barcelona

Travelling is hands-down the fastest way to evolve your life. First, you pack everything you think you’ll need for your allotted time in a foreign land. That by itself forces you to quantify what you actually need in your life, especially with the constantly changing weight requirements for airlines, you’d think your carry-on bag was sitting first class. Should I take two hoodies or one? I know I need my basketball shoes but do I really need those Nike high­—tops too? Probably not. In fact toss out the two extra tees as well; Europe doesn’t need to know how much “I heart New York” or that “I’m with Stupid”. You’ll realize in about a week of being in the country what was a mistake to take and what wasn’t. You’ll be too enamored by the culture to care anyway. I can’t remember what I shouldn’t have packed that I did, but I do remember that I should have planned the first few days of my trip a little better.

While my lack of a plan while abroad has gotten me into more — we’ll call them adventures—than people who worry would like, I enjoy them thoroughly. When I studied abroad last term on the Knox Barcelona program, the story was similar. In order to completely understand why I travel seemingly haphazardly, there has to be an understanding of how I get my tickets. I have a friend who works for American Airlines. She puts me on the stand-by list, which drastically reduces my airfare by about 80 percent. However, it comes with a much larger stress factor than the average flyer because my passage on each flight is dependent upon availability. Since I was unable to fly directly to Barcelona due to a packed flight, I instead flew to London and from there was going to wing it to Barcelona. I had no plans for where I would sleep that night, most likely the airport if nowhere else. As luck would have it, a Rhodes Scholar on her way back from a conference in Boston, discussing her research on penguins, sat down next to me in first class. We talked about our travels, life ambitions and penguins for the entire eight-hour flight. When my plans for the night came up, she was taken aback by my no-plan plan. She told me about the lack of youth hostels in the London area, and then took pity on my unprepared soul and offered the extra room that her flat-mate and fellow scholar had just vacated. Having no better plan and wanting to see one of the oldest Universities in the world, I went with her.

The medieval city of Oxford was beautiful and was the first of many surprisingly old places my American eyes would widen for in Europe. The next day we said our goodbyes and I expressed my gratitude for being saved; we hugged, exchanged Facebook information and I got on my bus. While I was happy to have met such an interesting person, I was disappointed in myself. I had put myself in another difficult situation and was saved by a complete stranger once again. I’d have a great story to tell, but it was starting to become an old story. Travelling is stressful enough without knowing where you are going to sleep, and flights always cost more bought on a day’s notice.

Once in Barcelona, life only sped up. There was always something to do and it was difficult at times to decide between one thing and another. For example, one day, Sept. 29th, school was cancelled due to a general strike that was planned to protest the lack of job creation in the country: unemployment had risen to a high of 20 percent in Spain and 40 percent among the youth. I took this opportunity to explore the city a bit and see some of the older sites worth seeing. My host mother, Polo, told me I should go see Santa Maria del Mar, the oldest basilica in Barcelona. She packed me a lunch and I went off into the city to find this landmark. As I was walking past the University of Barcelona, the original building where our classes were held, I saw a large crowd formed outside its doors. Now, we had been told to stay away from the protests, by the American Embassy and the Knox administration, for fear of being caught up in the possible violence of the day. So, out of respect for both my country and my college, I almost didn’t attend the protest. But out of respect for my curiosity and need to immerse myself fully in what it is to be a Barcelonan, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to see up close how the Europeans deal with their government.

At first it was mild: some speeches by union leaders and firecrackers popping in the background. Then a wave of no less than ten thousand people poured into La Plaza Universidad from La Plaza Cataluña. Dumpsters were overturned. Shop windows were smashed out, making the most expensive Levis™ a euro can buy fair game, and even a cop car was set on fire. Riot squad vans screamed up and down the street, putting out fires all over the city and making their presence known.

All seemed to quiet down as I found my way through to La Plaza Cataluña. I even ate lunch with the occupiers of the largest temporary squat in Barcelona. The riot squad came and pushed us out of the plaza, bringing their nightsticks down hard on anyone brave enough to stand his or her ground and deporting any foreigners slow enough to get caught.

After some thought on that day and what happened (and making a video*), this protest sums up what Barcelona imparted upon my life. When the green man is flashing and you’re crossing Passaig de Gracia, cars are still coming at you, but you have to walk into the road and stare them down anyway, otherwise it’s not your turn to cross. When you’re on the night bus and you want to get off at your stop, you have to press that button and tell them to stop that bus, or it’s not your stop. When you’re playing basketball at La Parque Industrial near Sans Estacio and you get thrown to the ground after flying in for a lay-up and you don’t call a foul, there’s no foul. When your country is ignoring your pleas for more creative job employment techniques and you don’t set some cars on fire, there’s no unemployment problem. Complacency is a killer, and it took a drastically independent city like Barcelona to teach me just how deadly it can be.

John Evan Feeley

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