Barcelona, August 17
En aquest món tothom plora / In this world everyone cries
tothom plora dia i nit / everyone cries day and night
si no les penes passades / if not for the past sorrows,
les penes que han de venir / then for the sorrows that are to come.
-Jacint Verdaguer, Catalan poet, 1845-1902
Yesterday afternoon I was getting impatient. My partner and I had just finished a late lunch at home and I wanted to get out of the hot and humid city center where we live and get up to what I call “the mountain”: the hills due west of Barcelona. There the air is fresh, not to mention much cooler, and a fragrant breeze blows that smells of the lush vegetation growing there. And it’s all accessible by a 15-minute subway ride.
So we set out walking, shortly after 5 pm, to catch the train at Plaza Catalunya. I chose a shortcut through our neighborhood which would get us to the subway in about 10 minutes.
As we walked through the narrow streets of the neighborhood, I noticed something different. There was something strange about the people. There was something wrong with the energy in the air. I saw no one running, no groups stampeding, no crying or screaming. I just noticed people walking at a pace that was a little too fast for regular Barcelonans, a tense body language that corresponded more to the U.S. or other stressed-out, workaholic cultures where uncontrolled capitalism rides its citizens like beasts of burden.
In short, they weren’t acting like Barcelonans. Where was the calm, peaceful, secure demeanor that emanates from the people of this city, that energy that I found so inspirational after I emigrated here from Los Angeles?
The change was barely perceptible, but I noticed it. That and the traffic pattern: we were walking on single-lane streets with barely any cars on them, but there seemed to be an inordinate amount of people coming from the Ramblas, and nearly all were preoccupied with their phones. Texting, browsing or talking; all had the same grave expression on their faces that set off an alarm in me.
I walked past a young man walking alone, talking on his cell phone in catalan. I listened a little closely and heard he was saying something about the Ramblas. His voice trembled.
“I think something’s happened,” I said to my partner. “I don’t know what, but it seems like something’s wrong.”
We continued walking. In just a couple minutes, we hit Pelayo Street, a busy thoroughfare that crosses Las Ramblas. We stopped in front of a clothing store, waiting to cross the street. It was then that we noticed the security guard posted in the doorway of the clothing store. That was nothing unusual; however, we saw him instruct some people who were leaving to stay, gently pushing them back inside. Their faces registered surprise and fear. The sliding doors closed in front of them while the security guard stayed outside, legs spread in a defensive stance, his eyes vigilant.
Just then, we noticed that the normally traffic-clogged street was nearly empty. The only vehicles present were the dark blue paddy-wagons of the Mossos d’esquadra, the Catalan autonomous police, parked in the middle of Pelayo a block down, where it met the Ramblas, along with the various other police and emergency vehicles that went screaming by.
I heard helicopters roaring overhead.
I felt a sickness in my stomach. A familiar, bad feeling.
“Excuse me sir,” I said to the security guard. “What’s going on?”
“A car ran over people on the Ramblas,” he said.
Oh no. This can’t be happening here. Is this really happening?
I pushed the word “terrorism” aside in my mind like the security guard had pushed those people back inside. Maybe it was an accident. A freak car accident… Maybe one or two people were run over. We don’t know.
But then: why the helicopters overhead? Why the people shut inside the shops? Why was the entire Pelayo closed off?
And now, above Pelayo, the Ronda Universitat, the busy street parallel to it. Also quiet.
I suddenly realized how empty all the streets were around us. And the masses of people walking away from the Ramblas, towards the direction from which we came.
Many on their phones. All looking dazed, lost. Many, many people who looked like tourists. One teenaged girl walking alone, crying.
What should we do?
We decided to stay and try to see what was going on. Our metro station was right next to us, but we began to walk toward Plaza Catalunya, only a block away.
On our way, we passed the big FNAC department store, right across from Plaza Catalunya. Masses of people standing there, shut inside behind the glass doors. Emergency vehicles were clustered on the opposite corner, at the top of the Ramblas.
We crossed the street to Plaza Catalunya. A uniformed cop, visibly upset, yelled at us to leave, vigorously gesturing westward with both arms.
“Go, go, get out of here!” he shouted. And then, with frustration, he added, “Everyone needs to be on Gran Vía, dammit!”
So we did what he said, all the while observing how the cops shooed away pedestrians, urgently but without brutality; redirected traffic; cordoned off streets; wrapped police tape around bus stops and dumpsters; and communicated amongst themselves on police radios.
It was like clockwork. We saw no panic, no chaos. They worked with such efficiency, rapidity, precision, and self-control, in spite of the visible anguish on their faces.
We saw anguish, but not anger.
“Do you still want to go to the mountain?” I asked my partner weakly.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do anymore. My energy was gone. The sickness in my stomach had grown more intense. I felt fear, sadness, dread for what we would be finding out later: that night, the next day, and the next. I felt sadness for whomever was hurt, whomever was dead.
I felt sadness for our adopted city, wonderful Barcelona, beautiful on so many levels: wise, kind, humanitarian, cultured, and profound. A city valiantly struggling to maintain its identity under the crushing weight of globalization, rampant capitalism, and mass tourism. Our city, our home; and also the home of Catalans old and new, Spanish, South American, Middle Eastern, Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans, British, Americans… A city that opened its arms to the refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, that clamoured to the Spanish central government to do more, to fulfill its obligations towards the refugees; whose citizens time and again have taken to the streets to march against racism, xenophobia, exploitation, corruption, illegal and immoral wars.
This is the city that I love. The city that I chose… though strangely, when I first arrived here in late 2003, it felt like it chose me. Because in that moment of my life, I was feeling sick and beaten from the post-9-11 paranoia, war-mongering, hatred, and authoritarianism I’d experienced in my own country.
And the people of Barcelona opened their arms to me. Their gentleness, their intrinsic rationality and kindness, soothed my wounds. Through their actions, through the way they are, they showed me how to be a better person.
And so, slowly, over the next 14 years — without them even knowing it — these people have been healing me. I would like them to know that.
“Yes, let’s go to the mountain,” my partner said.
So we walked around in a large triangle, doubling back almost to where our house is, in order to reach the metro stop that we’d originally passed by. The streets near our house were, by now, also cordoned off and closed to traffic.
We finally got to the metro. The iron gate was shut tight. Of course it would be.
So then we walked another 10 minutes out of the area to find a taxi. I finally flagged one down and the driver, an elderly man with messy white hair and bushy eyebrows, was listening to the news on the radio.
“Buenas tardes. Take us up, please, to the Provença station,” I said.
The car got stuck in the middle of a crossing. Police cars sped by, honking at us. “Right,” the driver said, “because today, the only way is up!” He laughed ruefully.
When we got out of the cab, a young Catalan woman approached the car. “Here, it’s yours,” I said. She stopped us and said in English: “Something has happened on the Ramblas, so please be careful, avoid that area.”
She’d assumed we were tourists. It happens to me often because of the way I look, which is exactly like a tourist. Touched, we both thanked her for her kindness and concern, absent of any kind of hate, hysteria, or self-interest.
Then we looked at each other and said, “You see? That’s how people are here. So kind, so good.”
And then the sickness in my stomach moved up to my heart, and I wept.