People from every corner of the globe visit Barcelona for one reason — a taste of the good life. That irresistible energy and aura the city possesses is impossible to ignore.
Days are spent by the sea, cycling through touristic neighborhoods, or wandering up to “The Bunkers” with joints and drinks to catch the stunning view of the enormous city. By night, visitors settle into a taverna or restaurant for a three-hour meal, or head to the infamous Port Olympic beach clubs, and will stumble out of the doors hours later where the neighborhood fairy lights guide their drunk butts home. The city smells like sea salt, marijuana and sometimes, sewers. But still, it’s as beautiful and enthralling as you imagine it to be, and without a doubt works its way into a treasured part of every visitor’s soul.
Generally speaking, Barcelona is a safe, trusting place. Though it has a serious reputation for pick-pocketing and bike theft — if you hold on tight to your belongings and purchase yourself the right bike lock, the most skeptical situations you’ll find yourself in are getting ripped off by the cerveza men on the street selling you “roadie sodies”. Even if someone does happen to snag your wallet that day on the subway, holding credit cards linked to you’re entire life savings…hey man, whatever, it’s all good. You’re in Barca, baby!
The thought of anyone or anything harming this irresistible city was practically eye-roll worthy. It’s Barcelona, for crying out loud! EVERYONE loves Barcelona.
Thursday, August 17th 2017 began as any other Thursday does in the seductive Spanish city. The streets were empty until 10am due to a late one the night before (i.e. hip-hop night at Shoko) and because well, time doesn’t really seem to exist in Spain. Tourists from every corner of Europe were flying in for a long weekend, seaside. People flocked to Barceloneta Beach (where I also found myself that day and everyday), they wandered down the cobblestone streets, searching for tapas and wine, but probably headed the wrong direction because damn, those streets of the Gothic Quarter are a doozy.
And then, in what felt like nearly a flip of a switch, helicopters began circling the skies, sirens were coming from every direction, and the news began pouring through the city. Every single person on the beach was suddenly glued to their phone screens, panicking and trying to receive information about what was going on.
There was a brief moment when some people, including me, thought that the fuss was over someone who probably got behind the wheel of a vehicle after a few too many drinks. Which was an unsettling thought, but no one wanted to believe that our beautiful Barcelona was a city someone would purposefully harm.
But the news was true. A man of a Moroccan decent drove a van onto a median of pedestrians on the biggest tourist block in the city, La Rambla — killing 13 people and injuring 130 others. In a matter of minutes, the attack became the deadliest in Spain since the March 2004 Madrid train bombings, with ISIS claiming responsibility.
It wasn’t long before the beach and streets cleared, and people began to head indoors, completely shaken up by it all, petrified that other public and tourist areas of the city would be targeted next. Authorities must have thought the same, because the next thing we knew, the entire city was going on lockdown.
While making my way from the beach to my apartment in the Gothic Quarter, the scenario began to feel overwhelmingly real. Police patrolled the streets with rifles in hand. Helicopters echoed in the distance. Residents yelled from their balconies, “TERRORISTS! GET INSIDE!” and as I rounded the corner to quickly get to the supermarket for some food, unaware of how long we’d be on lockdown for — I was greeted with a giant black banner hanging between the tall, gothic-style buildings. Spray-painted in white was, “FUCK TERRORISM!”. The supermarket was already closed by the time I got there.
Now, this isn’t an article about how tortuously horrific terrorism is, what it does for tourism, or what sort of sick and twisted people are out there, or that the universe can be downright terrifying. Nor is it an article about politics, religion, ethnicity and other controversies that are mentioned when these tragedies occur.
It’s about the aftermath.
I went to bed fairly early that evening of August 17th in Barcelona. And though I was in complete disbelief that I lived just blocks away from the scene of an ISIS related terrorism attack, there were three other things about it all that kept me awake for days.
The first being the silence.
I learned that night as I lay awake in bed, windows open to the sound of nothing, that silence is the most powerful scream. It has a way of serving as the most definitive reminder of something significant. And with nearly the entire city of Barcelona afraid to step outside after what had happened, the once bustling streets of cyclists, drunk folks and blaring street music, were now deserted and dismal — making it feel as if our beautiful Barcelona was screaming in remorse. And I couldn’t help but to cry and cry myself to sleep that night right along with her.
The second being La Rambla Street, where I found myself the following day, lining up with what felt like the entire city, to lay flowers and candles curbside in the plaza where the attack occurred. The amount of television reporters were unfathomable. At least two in each of the surrounding building’s balconies, armed with giant cameras, shooting them down at the crowd of people crying and shaking their heads. Everyone had their phone out to take pictures of the scene. Why, exactly? I’m not sure, but the aftermath is an incredibly gruesome state to witness. This was reassured when I stopped dead in my tracks there on La Rambla and watched as two police officers held each other and sobbed. To this day I wonder what it was they had seen.
And the third and final thing is how afterwards, the city of Barcelona — and any city that experiences a terror attack — could do nothing about any of it, other than to simply carry on. I didn’t find this to be easy, and so I packed my bags and left Barcelona about a week later.
Here’s the thing about terrorist attacks. They’re contradicting. On one hand, they’ve been happening far too often, world-wide. They are a grueling, horrific thing and every shred of evil in its purest form. Every single human being agrees upon this. On the other hand, they don’t happen enough for the collective society or authorities to prepare for, prevent, handle or cope with them. No one knows what the hell to say or do when they happen. No one.
So we have these moments of silence, we lay our flowers and light our candles, because realistically that’s all we really can do. No one can reverse what happened. And the entire planet just watches, shaking their head and crosses their fingers that it won’t happen again somewhere else. We then go on to repeat those cliche, post-trama phrases because again, it’s all we really can do when we aren’t able to fathom what has happened.
“We can’t let them scare us!” “Don’t let hate win!” “Something needs to be done.” “Tell your family that you love them, life is short.” “This is an act of evil!” “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” “Thoughts and prayers.” “Thoughts and prayers.” “Thoughts and prayers.”
But maybe that’s why these things keep happening? Our “thoughts and prayers” are only occurring when something significant happens. What if we thought and prayed just because? What if we sent our “thoughts and prayers” and love, and kindness, and humanity out everywhere, everyday, to everyone, and especially on the days where there aren’t any tourist attacks? Because it’s gotten to the point where we should be celebrating the days a public space didn’t get blown to bits, or days where there wasn’t a mass shooting at a school, concert, or movie theater.
It should NOT take humans purposefully causing harm on other innocent humans in far away places for us to come together, spread love, be kind, pray (if that’s your thing), or realize that life is too short.
Every damn hour, we are inundated with heartbreaking stories of war, racism, terrorism, cancer, death, you name it. It can become easy to believe that people only know how to treat each other badly. But I don’t believe that’s our true nature. The kindness that runs through, THAT’S what’s genuine, and we need to be practicing it more.
I’d be lying if I said the attack on La Rambla didn’t shake the entire city of Barcelona to its core. But in the aftermath, my beautiful, beautiful Barcelona felt like an entirely different place. “Changed” isn’t the right word, but the optic on our world shifted for the people there that day, myself included.
And I will carry that day with me forever as a constant reminder that pain and the aftermath, it all passes — but beauty always remains. Barcelona, you are still as beautiful as ever, and I love you.
Photos: Emma Cunningham
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