The Dumpster-Fire Politics of Living Abroad

The inevitability (and responsibility) of getting swept up in another country’s politics.

A Catalonian Independence protest/general strike. Photo by NOTAVANDAL on Unsplash

Two years ago, I stood on my apartment balcony in Barcelona, Spain, and watched a group of 40–50 young people with dark clothes and bandanas tied around their faces as they dragged every nearby dumpster from the sidewalks to the middle of the crosswalks and set them on fire. Within minutes, three massive dumpster fires blazed, sending up plumes of black smoke that forced a woman on her own balcony across the street to retreat inside.

As the flames grew, police vans stormed the intersection and the fire-starters ran in every direction. Several vans clipped the flaming dumpsters themselves in what looked like an attempt, not to catch, but to actually run down the fire-starters. I didn’t see anyone get hit but, by then, it was too hard to see through all the smoke. Having moved to Barcelona from the United States, I felt a familiar rage rise in my gut towards the police and their blatant escalation of every situation.

The fires on the street kept growing after the fire-starters and the police were long gone. I could hear sirens throughout the city, but the fire departments appeared to be too busy elsewhere to make it to our street. I could feel the heat from my second-floor balcony as the fires inched toward the trees on the sidewalk. That’s when my elderly grandmother opened her own bedroom window next to mine to see what was going on.

“Go back inside, Nana,” I instructed her, just as she caught sight of the fires and felt the wave of heat herself.

“Oh my goodness,” she said and, maybe for the first time in my life, heeded my instructions. I watched the flames grow for another minute before ducking inside myself and meeting her in her bedroom.

“Put on some clothes and your shoes,” I said, trying to think how I was going to get a fragile, barely-mobile, 83-year-old woman with severe osteoporosis and dementia out of a burning building and away from all the chaos on the streets.

It most likely wouldn’t come to that. The dumpster fires were being deliberately set in the middle of intersections to keep them away from buildings. And the stone and concrete buildings themselves were fairly fireproof if the yearly fire-festivals and street fair fireworks displays were any indication. The intention clearly wasn’t to hurt anyone, only to make a very strong statement.

I just needed to stay on high alert in case that statement somehow found a way to jump over to our building in the time it took for someone to attend to it.

A Catalonian Correfoc or “fire run”, a form of street entertainment where devils and dragons spit fire and explode fireworks. Image by Ajuntament de Vilanova i la Geltrú on Flickr.

Ok, let me see if I’ve gotten to a place where I can explain the politics of this succinctly for those who aren’t in the know. I feel like I need a disclaimer, though, so I’m going to steal one from George Orwell — another outsider who got himself involved in Spanish politics:

“Beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Protests in the region of Catalonia were sparked when a referendum — to decide whether Catalonian citizens approved of proceeding to an official vote for/against independence from Spain — was declared anti-constitutional by the Conservative party in charge of Spain at the time.

When semi-autonomous Catalonia held the referendum against the orders of the Spanish government, Spanish police from outside the region were sent in to stop the vote. Things got violent. Organizers of the referendum were convicted of “sedition” and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison, an act that’s been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Spanish government was ordered to release their political prisoners but a Supreme Court stacked with conservative justices has, so far, refused.

The vast majority of the protests have been peaceful. Some of them have included the destruction of public and private property. Some of them have been ramped up by the police and neo-nazi groups. (We Americans know the drill.)

Catalonia is a region with thousands of years of history and culture, its own language, and its own semi-autonomous government. Many citizens here don’t identify as Spanish and have plenty of reasons to resent the Spanish government — a lot of it still fresh and continuing from Francisco Franco’s violent regime, which only “officially” ended in 1975. There are people still alive whose loved ones were murdered during the Spanish Civil War and are buried in mass roadside graves outside their villages. There were murders on both sides, obviously, but only one side saw justice.

Spain, on the other hand, which has since been re-democratized, has legitimate reasons to not want their country split up. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions in the country and would be a massive loss. Some see Catalonia’s push for independence as a Brexit-level mistake at best (though they want to stay in the EU) and treason at worst. If you go down south to regions like Andalucia, you might encounter people who hate separatist Catalonians and pity you for living there. “Terrible people,” they’ll say, while you shrug awkwardly because you can’t tell the difference yet between a Catalonian and an Andalucian …not that you would ever admit that to them.

Catalonian Independence flags hanging outside windows. Photo by Zosia Korcz on Unsplash

For almost two weeks, I barely slept. Night after night, Nana kept her shoes on and a bag packed. We tried to watch TV to distract ourselves while, outside, fires blazed and police shot rubber bullets into crowds. I was itching to go down and help but I knew my broken Spanish, my lack of any Catalan whatsoever, and my complete naivete would only confuse the situation more. All I could do was watch, knuckles white on my iron balcony railing, as injured people threw an arm around a friend and limped away.

I also couldn’t leave Nana alone. Normally, my parents would have been around to help out, but they happened to be out of the country and couldn’t get back in. The airport had been shut down by peaceful protesters, at least two of whom had already sustained serious rubber-bullet injuries from the police. High-speed rail lines were blocked too. My parents called multiple times a day to check in on us but, in the end, Nana and I were a confused, alarmed, and uninformed American island in a sea of accumulated pain and rage that was older than the country we were from.

It wasn’t our pain, but it was certainly made known to us. And as I gazed at the dumpster fires hemming us in on both sides of our block, more than fear, more than irony, I felt shame. Shame at how little I knew about the politics of the country I’d chosen to move to and the region that had treated me and my family so well. Shame that I was in the middle of a conflict and couldn’t articulate who the players were or how to help.

Catalonian Independence protests. Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

My next-door neighbor was a Catalonian in favor of staying in Spain who, nevertheless, thought Catalonians should have the right to vote on it and decide their own fate. While we stood on our respective balconies, she yelled down at the fire-starters in Spanish and Catalan. Just past her, I could see multiple Independence flags hanging in other windows as people’s lights turned on and they came outside in their pajamas. When I asked if she thought we were in any danger, she rolled her eyes.

“Might as well go back to sleep,” she said. “There’s no stopping this. Either I wake up tomorrow and my motorbike down there is ashes or it isn’t. We can’t leave.”

One night, a tourist couple ran down the street with their rolling suitcases rattling along the concrete panot tiles, desperately trying to find their hostel as fire-starters and police ran past. I still have no clue how they’d even made it there in the first place if the airports and trains were all shut down. I could see the man’s hands shaking as he searched his phone for the code that would get them into the building.

I didn’t know where these tourists were from, but I winced at the thought of fire and riot gear being their first impression of Barcelona. I remembered when my parents and I first came to the city to determine if we wanted to live here. In the time it took for us to get from the train station to our Airbnb, we’d already seen the fresh produce on every block, the stunning architecture, the friendly greetings and cheek-kisses between friends, the kids climbing trees, the elderly sitting leisurely on benches, the walkability, the wealth of green space, the outdoor cafes, the mom-and-pop shops, the way every neighborhood was set up with their own necessities…

My parents and I didn’t even have to say anything to each other. We just smiled and knew we were home. We knew Nana would be safe and happy here. And that was before we’d even gotten a taste of the healthcare and transportation systems, which, speaking as an American, are *chef’s kiss* just spectacular.

We’d known the BBC summary version of the political situation before we moved, but it started to come to a head after we arrived and that’s when I realized I actually didn’t know anything.

It started with the flags, marches, and signs I couldn’t read. The songs everyone else knew, their voices all rising together in a way that gave me goosebumps. The times I got stuck in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of protesters while I was on my way to lunch with a fellow ex-pat. The nightly cacerolazo protests, where everyone went to their windows and banged on pots and pans. The way the whole city’s mood shifted when there was a “development”.

I should stress that I never, ever felt unsafe in this politically charged environment. Just woefully uninformed. For a long time, despite the rising tide of unrest and revolution surrounding me, I kicked my Spanish and Catalonian political education down the road in favor of… literally anything else.

My family has always been extremely political. But, in Spain, I found myself listening to U.S. politics podcasts. I knew I would continue to be concerned and invested even after I left, but I had no idea how much I would cling to my own politics when I was away. Pod Save America and (ironically) Lovett or Leave It got me through the Trump administration and made me feel connected to back home. They helped me figure out how to volunteer and get the vote out from abroad. Getting Trump out of office and processing/responding to his every act of hatred and oppression felt so all-consuming, I didn’t feel like I had room in my heart for anyone else’s crises.

Even those of the country I now lived in.

Black Lives Matter protest in the United States. Photo by Corey Young on Unsplash

No home is without its history and internal conflicts. This is such a white person revelation to have, but you can’t just plunk yourself down in someone else’s home and partake in all the amenities. To say that there’s a discomfort to being an outsider in the middle of a complex political situation is an understatement, but it’s a lesson every U.S.-centric citizen, raised to believe our dysfunction is the greatest dysfunction on Earth, could use.

The silver lining of this past year of confinement, if we’re allowing ourselves a silver lining, is that I’ve been forced to focus my attention almost exclusively on writing about Spain and Catalonia. “Developments” in the story have slowed way down since the whole planet was forced to stay home, so I’ve had a bit of time to catch up on my history. I’m nowhere near an expert, but I feel more grounded.

Back in 2019, just before the Catalonian independence leaders were sentenced, I wrote a piece where I lamented not yet feeling connected to the history of Barcelona. Back in San Francisco, I’d been a tour guide and a member of the historical society. I prided myself on being able to resurrect the ghosts of San Francisco’s past for visitors.

“Here,” I wrote, “the ghosts speak to me through festivals and architecture, but they do so in a language I’m not yet fluent in, with a symbolism that isn’t always familiar. Their faces are fuzzy and, if they can find someone who better understands them, they float right past me.”

What I can say is that I’m starting to see ghosts again, and that’s a good thing. That’s progress.

Monument to Rafael Casanova, mayor of Barcelona and commander in chief of Catalonia during the Siege of Barcelona, 1714. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I get my love of history from my mom, who woke me up early on a Saturday, months after the independence protests, with a massive grin on her face. She told me to get up and get dressed. She had a surprise for me. Assuming I was going to be fed, I let her drag me across town to the base of the above statue, which she gestured at with the flourish of Will Smith showing Jada off on the red carpet.

“So… no breakfast?” I said.

I’d passed by this statue many times on the way to Parc de la Ciutadella. My eyes had always slid over it the way most people’s do when walking around a city with a million statues. My mom might be the only person I know who never passes by a statue without reading the plaque, taking a photo, and buying a book on the subject.

She’d recently acquainted herself with Rafael Casanova, mayor of Barcelona and commander in chief of Catalonia during the War of Spanish Succession, and she wanted to introduce me. On the last day of a siege on Barcelona, September 11th, 1714, he was wounded in combat, fighting for Catalonia’s right to self-governance and democracy. To this day, Catalonians celebrate National Day of Catalonia every Sept. 11th, leaving flowers at the base of Casanova’s statue and celebrating their unique culture and surprisingly ancient voting traditions, despite the celebration having been banned under several dictators in recent centuries.

(The two women at the bottom of the statue are apparently meant to represent the personified Pain and Grief of the city when it lost the war for their autonomy. Like Ladies Victory and Justice all over the world, they’re so busy being concepts, their hands so full with meaning and symbolism, that they simply can’t pull their dresses up. Casanova up there’s been shot, but he’s still got the wherewithal to keep his multiple layers on. Just sayin’.)

Some people will point to the War of Spanish Succession as the spark-point of Catalonian separatism, but you can actually trace it way back to the 1490’s when Queen Isabella of Castile married King Ferdinand of Aragon and Catalonia was, unwillingly, included in the merger. Some would say they’ve been dragged along in Spain’s marital monarch drama ever since.

What learning about the history of my new home has taught me is that it was never about shifting my focus from one country to another. Learning the politics and history of my new country has given me more context for my own, much younger country’s struggles. It’s helped me to see the inherent contradictions, the humanity and the divinity in all of our attempts to create societies worth contributing to.

The whole world’s a dumpster fire. Crazy how much love we can still have for it, huh?

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark. www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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