It was Wednesday, my last full day in Barcelona, and I had been exploring the boundless wonders of Montjuic. Today’s offering, from this seemingly endless mountain, was hours spent wandering through the dimensions of Joan Miro’s mind and collection in a bright white modern museum that sits atop the city.
The path we chose back down the mountain and through the city was meandering and indirect and ended up taking us through El Poble Sec, a neighborhood that was perceptibly full of Catalunyan pride and political mobilization. There were si flags hanging out of nearly every apartment window, entire floors of balconies draped in red and yellow striped banners, a man sitting at a table with a sign that read, “if you want to know why you should vote yes, ask me” and young people walking around with the Catalan flags draped over their shoulders like capes. The neighborhood seemed united and ignited, preparing for the upcoming secession vote. We couldn’t help but absorb the passion from this spirited movement found on nearly every corner. A few blocks down the road we heard a faint sound, a drum beat, a nearly tribal hum growing louder. It was an unsynchronized cacophony that somehow sounded harmonious. It grew louder. We waited on the corner when all at once a small parade of sorts, a band of misfits yielding makeshift percussion instruments. Drumsticks banging on empty water bottles. Palms slapping wooden boxes. Wooden spoons on pots and pans, drumsticks on drumsticks. whatever tools could serve as an adequate and audible extension to the heartbeats within them. A passionate movement to bring sound and life to a history of oppression, a command to take a stand and an understanding for all of those within earshot.
We marched alongside them, and they gleefully recognized our haphazard following, turning towards us and beating their instruments louder with huge smiles. Which felt both odd and inviting, although they must know it was nearly impossible to resist this form of resistance.
Onward, to the park, we followed along. They entered and descended upon a Wednesday afternoon in Barcelona. They marched into the center of the park, loud and impassioned, then at once suppressing the racket and kneeling down, all of them, silent and kneeling and waiting as one rose from the group like a flame out of ashes, and through a megaphone and in proud Catalan, he sung an easily discernible explanation and plea. We must vote yes. We must fight back. We must move forward. We won’t be silent. And as the noise and people both grew to take a stand, the parade dispersed, placing their instruments in the hands of park dwellers; children on playgrounds, grandmas on park benches. A boy on a bicycle. A dog who playfully jumped at the sound and celebration. Enabling all who were present to share in one heartbeat and be proud and heard. The noise surrounded everyone and became everyone.
Hours later I was in a cab, riding back to my hostel to change before and meeting a friend in El Raval for a drink (and, inevitably, some late-night chupitos). I was turning the corner to my place in the charming L’Eixample neighborhood, when I heard a sound, rising from all around me. I put my window down to be greeted by that same beating, percussion, noise, cacophony, just as I’d heard before. a chorus of dissent. and even in the narrow streets of this historic barrio, it felt like so much more, like this noise carried throughout the city. I asked the driver what was going on. “It’s for our independence,” he said, beaming. “Every night at 10pm we all make noise, until 10:15. that’s it. so we all can feel that we are strong and in agreement.”
I stared out the window, listening with my ears with my hand clutching heart and tears in my eyes. I paid the man and climbed the stairs to my hostel, into my shared room and threw open the window. I saw shadows of people on every balcony on the block, all clutching makeshift instruments, all making noise. This erratic disruption was the beating heart of the city. Pumping and thriving and contagious and from what all of a sudden and finally, I understood.
I’ve lived in both Barcelona and Madrid. Although during my time in Madrid I was older and more immersed in Spanish culture than I was studying abroad at 21 in Barcelona, I felt certain on my position regarding Catalunyan secession. It seemed selfish to deny one’s country to protect some regional identity. It felt unneccessarily protectionist and aggressive, and most of all, it would never work. What I saw and felt last week in Barcelona changed my mind. This region and its people suffered under a 40-year dictatorship during which their culture was completely suppressed. Their flags were hidden, their language was silenced, their identity was a frightened whisper instead of a roar. And I realized that these people are carrying the torch of their parents, grandparents, ancestors, and some are even yielding the torch that they themselves weren’t allowed to burn for so long. And at 10:15pm, when they went back into their homes, the city was still buzzing with pride and passion and my heart and head finally understood.
The next day as I was packing my backpack rather hastily in the common area in the hostel, I was speaking spanish with two Catalunyans who worked there. One of the girls laughed and said “It’s a good thing you are leaving. The US just sent a warning that Americans shouldn’t travel to Barcelona, it’s too dangerous.” and we all couldn’t help but recognize the ridiculousness of the idea. I imagined heeding this warning and not having felt or seen or understood what I had of the Catalan people the past week, something it had taken me nearly a decade to comprehend. I felt jealous of the Catalunyans, even with their suffering, that they are part of a culture that promotes volatile displays of dissension and intention rather than one that encourages its people to be complacent out of fear, to stay put instead of exposing themselves to beauty, pain, curiosity. And yes, there is a danger that can sometimes come from instability, but from such exposure and risk is the only way we will ever grow.
We are blessed to be Americans. However, as a people who stand for freedom, I’m afraid so many of us haven’t felt or seen or heard what that means. Is our own sheltered ignorance not a similar imprisonment to the forced suppression of a dictatorship? At least one was born out of a flame and the other, I felt, out of and into dust.
I realized then that the reason why we travel is for this; to be rather confidently certain of our position yet then to be moved, wholly and completely, to share a different perspective and the hope of a new horizon. To be part of something so beautiful and pure. To be moved by something that perhaps we don’t understand but are fortunate enough to learn from the pain and suffering of others. For Catalunya, for their irrepressible pride and passion. To hear it, to feel it, and to understand it, finally and still. That is why we travel.