Barcelona: City on the Edge of Tomorrow

Barcelona feels like a city on the edge of something new. Yes, the history is here, backed by a rich Catalan (don’t you dare call it Spanish) culture, and yes, there are plenty of museums and sights to take in, but unlike a lot of Europe the story doesn’t quite seem finished yet. It’s unusual to find a tourist mecca with so much tension in the air. “It’s our first time in Spain!” a couple declares, followed by the mythical record scratch from on high, served up in this realm by way of cold glances and stern demeanors. “You are not in Spain,” the faces say, “You are in Catalunya.” Yet at the same time Spanish mixes in the air, from the TV soap operas and the taxi cab radios. Spain is here like a guest sleeping on the living room sofa, tolerated but long overstaying its welcome.

What is this place? The jury seems to still be out. In much the same way that Quebec ain’t exactly Canada, Catalunya/Catalonia most certainly ain’t Spain, at least not fully. I’m no expert on the local politics, which extend back to Roman times (mind-boggling from the North American perspective…our beginnings are “modern times” for Europeans). All I know is what I see, and I see a place with flags out and spirit projecting in force. Whatever this place is, the ink is still damp on the pages of its history books and new lines are being added- right here, right now. Their grand cathedral, la Sagrada Familia, is still a work in progress, slowly building brick by brick in tufts of dust and sweat and fueled by the kind of joy that stems from a deep and lasting passion- much like the city and surrounding countryside itself. The cathedral’s scheduled completion date is sometime in the 2030s. Where will this place be by then? It feels uncertain.

Catalunya rising.

A photo posted by Erik Radvon (@radvon) on

It’s weird how the United States, born out of independent fervor just a couple hundred years ago, is often the first to stamp it out around the world. I saw Obama on the news here saying a united Spain is in the best interest of the world, cold eyes reading off a teleprompter. I wonder what the former community organizer would think if he walked these streets and saw this community? We easily forget that our own American origins seemed completely insane at the time and were most definitely not the safe bet. Again, I’m not an expert on the politics, but with an umbrella framework like the European Union in place, why not let Catalonia be Catalonia? Or Basque be Basque? Or Scotland be Scotland, for that matter? The unions of 500 years ago that form the modern states of Europe are more the historical anomaly than norm. Maybe this is a return to form. What the hell does America know about European history anyways? We can’t figure out how to get a train from Boston to D.C. on time, yet we’re the voice of reason in a 1,000-year cultural dispute? Seems a bit silly.

I reckon it’s got a lot to do about money, and power, and greed, and things of that sort. Or complex geopolitical entanglements that go beyond my street-level view. But as a stranger in this strange land, it’s totally clear to me that this is a unique place. And no matter how the politics play out or what the lines on the map dictate, it is its own place, independent regardless of the circumstances. It’s up to the people that live and work here to weigh what that means in a logistical sense and what shape it takes going forward. The sense I get is that’s all they’re looking for- a say in the matter.

Catalans are coming into their own, with rallies and marches and votes, but also with the energy of their everyday lives, their common language, and all the other quirks that fuel their distinct otherness from the throngs of visitors from around the world who come to play on their beaches and narrow streets. Joe Strummer once famously said “the future is unwritten” and man, do those words ring true here. Forget independence from Spain, Barcelona feels like it’s in revolt against the entire universe. It’s hard not to get caught up in their beautiful sedition.