Barcelona is a city where people lose and find themselves. For many, it is the ‘bucket list’ selfies in front of the Sagrada Familia, it is sipping cervesas by the beach surrounded by dark, bearded men and trying pinchos in the narrow, meandering passage ways of el Born or the Gótic quarter.
It is this and so much more. Achingly, exhaustingly more.
Beyond the curved Gaudi facades of Park Güell, the gelato shops of Las Ramblas and the sangria fused drunken beach parties, Barcelona is a city of contradiction.
Spain is still holding on to its severe and persistent economic crisis, which discards impacts around the streets as the tourists discard their trash. If we take the time to look a bit further than the Desigual shoppers posing for pictures in front of the fountains of Plaza Catalunya, we see a city struggling to provide for all.
Outside one of the ostentatious shops of Passeig de Gracia sits a woman, painting an image. With nothing but the clothes on her back she goes about her task of painting, plausibly to use it to sell to passing tourists in the hope of making some cash for the day.
In the crevices of shop entryways throughout the city sit the homeless, some in makeshift beds of cardboard, others with trolleys full of collected garbage, hoping someone will spot them a coin. The bins are trawled through on a daily basis, with people collecting anything of value able to be on-sold. Desperation creates efficiency, lack creates resourcefulness.
In the palm lined walkways of the Arc de Triumf tourists drink beer and sit with wallets laden with cash at risk of being pick pocketed – for if one profession reigns supreme in Barcelona, it is theft.
Then there is Las Ramblas in the morning as the new day dawns. Drunks stumble across the street, throw their rubbish into the gutters and mumble incoherently at passersby. Women working the streets are looking for their next client and the street cleaners are busily trying to clean up the urine that inevitably gets sprayed over the doors of shops and restaurants lining the street.
It isn’t a pretty image, but this is the real Barcelona, beyond the hop on hop off tourist attraction buses and 20 euro Gaudi attraction entry fees. It is a large, writhing mess of humanity desperately trying to be something it is not.
While the narrow, tree lined passageways of the old town are indeed exceptionally quaint and the city boasts some of the finest examples of Gothic and Modernist architecture in any European city, the average Barcelona resident does not live in the romanticised luxury the building facades portray.
Apartments are small, stacked high upon one another, with little to no privacy and less peace. Tourism in Barcelona belies belief. Every day hundreds of thousands of tourists (guiris in the local tongue), saunter through the city’s centre, cover its beaches and drink in its clubs. The traffic is insatiable and the noise consistent.
Education is free throughout Spain and whilst thousands of students still pile into university in Barcelona, there are no jobs waiting for them at the end of their own candle lit tunnel. People live at home well into their 30’s and many forever, partly cultural and increasingly out of necessity.
Then there is the question of independence. Underlying the peaceful image of Barcelona is a city who no longer wants to be Spanish. The discontent of the Catalan people, although barely perceptible to the tourists feasting on paella and sangria in the public squares, is undeniably there.
In a 2014 referendum, 80% of Catalonians voted for independence. Last year the Catalan regional government voted to start an 18 month secession process, despite opposition from the national government stating secession is unconstitutional. Catalonians abhor the fact that they pay more taxes than all other parts of the country and receive what they perceive, little in return from Madrid. They want to speak Catalan, not Castellan. They are righteously independent, inward looking and focused on protecting their culture, surely a follow on effect from the years under Franco rule when their language and culture were banned.
All this withstanding, both residents and visitors of Barcelona will tell you time and time again how they love the city. Barcelona is that kind of place. Despite the grittiness, the tourist hordes, the urine smell, the traffic and the inequalities, Barcelona is a city people fall in love with and want to be in. It is the lover that got away. It is the dirty, penniless busker whose music tingles your spine. It is a melting pot of history, chaos, hope, crime, love and betrayal. It is the stuff stories are made from and what life consists of.
And this piece, despite attempts otherwise, is also a love story for Barcelona. It is why I have returned to the city three times and although I try to hate it, I cannot. For I too, like to be swept off my feet and pretend, just for a while, that all is not as it seems.