This was something I had written on spec for another publication in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Barcelona. The news cycle moves fast--frighteningly so, these days--and the world is in the middle of August vacationing. My editor and I couldn't get it to publish in time before yet more tragedy occurred elsewhere in the world, so we killed the piece as it was no longer timely. So, I'm publishing it here. It hasn't had a final edit, but it made my husband cry on the first read. If it had made it out of edits, there's a bit that would have been cut and trimmed up. But it didn't, so I'll let it all hang out.
Earlier this summer, my husband and I jolted up in our bed in the hilly El Coll neighborhood of Barcelona. It was 5:15 AM and we were wide awake, thanks to jet lag. Our friend’s apartment looked out onto a green hill that obscured the rest of the city in front of it--that hill is the backside of Antoni Gaudi’s famous Park Güell. In the morning twilight, we scrambled over makeshift trails and eventually ended up in the main section of the park, where the view of Gaudi’s famous tiled balconies and buildings jut into view with the mountain-hugged city and Mediterranean sea as its backdrop. It was empty, save for a few Brazilian teenagers who also got the memo that you could sneak in before 8 AM. In just a couple of hours, the park would be brimming with selfie-stick wielding tourists, so we knew this was a special moment.
Eusebi Guell tapped Gaudi to be the park’s architect in 1900. He built the park during his naturalist phase, drawing inspiration from organic shapes and including whimsical elements that represented both his strong beliefs in Catholicism and Catalan nationalism. The park was eventually made public, so teenagers like my husband was--he is Catalan and grew up just a few blocks away from it--could take their morning runs in one of the world’s most beautiful spaces. Since late 2013, the “Monumental Zone,” the part with all the Gaudi structures, has been closed off for ticketed entry due to high volumes of tourists.
We climbed a small hill to sit at the foot of a cross that mark’s Park Güell’s highest point. From there, we could see everything. The Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece cathedral that dominates the skyline. Montjuic--where the Olympic stadium was built alongside civil war-era cannons still pointed down at the city, a memory of what can happen when your countrymen turn on you. He squinted and started pointing out more personal monuments--where he went to high school, where his mom went to high school, our favorite bar. We saw a giant, tree-lined boulevard and I thought instantly that it must be the famed La Rambla, but he cut me off and said it was Passeig St. Joan. La Rambla was the smaller, barely visible gap in the grid in front of the funicular.
It was heartbreaking but not surprising to hear of the August 18th attacks, when Younes Aboyaaqoub, who is now dead, rammed a Fiat Talento into over 100 people from 34 nations--many of whom were enjoying August vacation by strolling on La Rambla. Between that and an attack in Cambrils, 14 people died. Over the years, Spain uncovered many plots and managed to foil many would-be attacks, but my husband and I always wondered when it would finally happen. By the time it did, we were back in the United States after staying in Barcelona for a month, working and visiting family and friends. Many of our American friends asked if everyone we knew was OK--we frantically texted and called, but in the back of our minds, we knew our people were fine. It was August: locals weren’t hanging around La Rambla, and the terrorists knew that.
Though tourism has been crushing the city, it is also responsible for 12-20% of its economy. 2017 has been a difficult year for Barcelona, with violence, protests, legislation and strikes addressing the growing masses of people that visit the city each year. Uber has long been outlawed and Airbnb is under fire for rising rents across the city. In the year since I last visited Barcelona until this summer, several of our friends and family had to move out of the city because their rents became untenable. Our friends who remained in their old apartments had unique situations: one was rich, another inherited an apartment from his dead father and another convinced the son of the landlord to give him a break. Another family member had to move to an expensive-for-what-you-get one-bedroom apartment, where she shares a bed with her four year old daughter to get by despite having two good jobs and a college degree.
Barcelona also has other immediately pressing matters, exacerbating the strain it feels from mass tourism. The 2008 financial crisis has only recently abated in Spain, though its fallout is palpable. Some people we know haven’t had non-black market jobs for almost a decade. What jobs there are don’t pay well according to how costs have risen in the city. There is also a strong separatist campaign, the supporters of which want Catalonia to separate from Spain. This isn’t new news, but the flames have been fanned by the financial crisis, with both sides using the other for political gain and finger-pointing. And now, the city must contend with a horrific terrorist attack that killed innocent vacationers and hit people in Barcelona where they had already long been hurting.
I try to spend as much time as I can in Barcelona. It’s a big reason I pursued freelancing with such gusto--so that I could have a flexible schedule allowing me to set up shop for longer periods of time than a standard two week vacation. I know why I love it: how casual the city is--even if it’s too casual for a neurotic New Yorker sometimes. The love of literature, art, music, food and other sensory pleasures that have become a birthright of anyone within city limits. That it created my husband: a brilliant scientist with a genuine love for enjoying being alive. That even during the worst years of la crisis, people were still socializing and living with gusto. That it has grit--it isn’t as squeaky clean as Madrid is. The buildings aren’t as polished and neither are the people. When I first started meeting Catalans, I used to think they all, at best, didn’t really like me. They can be a bit closed off. But then I kept showing up, and I watched my new friends become family before my eyes--in Catalan culture, once you’re in, you’re in for life. I love Barcelona’s self-imposed fixation on its supposed “otherness--” that they are just diferente than the rest of Spain; somehow more cosmopolitan and yet more tribal at the same time. Improbably, I have also grown to love the city’s signature gintonics with giant ice cubes, in large goblets with as many herbs, fruits and bells and whistles as possible.
The last night of my visit this summer, I met up with my friend Lucy for dinner at a new Lebanese restaurant. Afterwards, we headed to the bottom of the El Raval neighborhood, where we closed out my stay with the iconic cocktail of Barcelona, gintonics. As we ordered drink number three of the evening, I asked her how Barcelona has grown up over the years.
Since Lucy is a producer for many food and travel-related productions and an on-camera fixer for Anthony Bourdain, she has had a role in showing off the city to the world. She instantly brought up the former mayor, Pasqual Maragall, who is credited with bringing the 1992 Olympic Games to Barcelona. One of the Olympics’ success stories, the games transformed Barcelona on the world stage. It gave a legitimate microphone to Catalan nationalism. It developed and essentially invented Barcelona’s beachfront, which didn’t exist before and it started a wave of mass tourism that continues to this day. Maragall, who has Alzheimer’s, recently had a touching photo opp with Ada Colau, the current mayor, who is leading the charge against that wave, signaling that philosophies of many kinds have a home in this city.
After being quashed by Franco’s dictatorship for decades, Lucy says locals embraced the Olympics with open arms, that it ignited a pride that still endures today. That is something that always endears me because, who actually cares about the Olympics? It’s always cooler to be against them and yet, this city that often gets chided as being too cool for school by other Spaniards remains genuinely stoked on it decades later. To me, it speaks to the sincerity and earnestness of Catalans, as well as the love of their home. It also speaks to their resilience and strength after having their language and culture outlawed for so long, only to bring it back with a vengeance.
It remains to be seen what kind of city Barcelona will shake out to be. Can it gracefully accept tourists or will it become a living museum? One thing I know for certain is that this terrorist attack was a feeble attempt to capitalize on the city’s current woes. Spaniards and Catalans live their lives in public--on the streets, in the squares. It’s where you play as a child, socialize as a teenager and where you bring your kids back to play once you’ve grown up. To have attacked what they love and struggle with--public life and tourism--in one fell swoop, is particularly sick. Terrorists striking at Barcelona’s tourists, while trying exacerbate what ails the city, have only revealed that it’s not people locals dislike. Everyone in Barcelona is devastated by what happened. They just hate when people attack the very things that make being human worth it. When people are disrespectful, take what is not theirs and ruin it for everyone. All are welcome here, people in Barcelona say, but don’t be an asshole. After all, they understand better than anyone why someone feels compelled to be in the special city they call home.