The Dumpster-Fire Politics of Living Abroad

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

Katlyn Roberts
11 min readApr 4, 2021


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…



Katlyn Roberts

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