Barcelona has quickly returned to normality after the appalling terrorist attack on Las Ramblas. Anyone who knows this city and its people will not be surprised.
August is the strangest of months in Barcelona. The Catalan capital is vacated by the locals for much of the month. Shops, bars and restaurants close for a couple of weeks, with the most popular ones shutting down for the full 31 days. Kids are only half way through their 12 week summer break, so schools and nurseries sit empty. During the sweltering August heat, streets that swell throughout June and July find some relief; as if a pressure value has been released.
I am one of those residents that heads off to avoid the heat. And where better than Scotland for that? An increasing number of Spanish people are finding Scotland a rainy, mild, cultural heaven. Thousands of Spaniards flock to Edinburgh for the festival and the flights between Scotland and Barcelona seem especially packed during Edinburgh festival time.
Sat in a bar in during this years early August trip to Edinburgh I overheard a Scottish waitress apologising to a Spanish family. It was “raining again” and she was truly sorry – apologising as if it was her fault. I could tell that the waitress couldn’t quite work out why the family were all smiling as they looked out into the thin, grey, drizzle outside. It’s 30 degrees in Barcelona today and most of central and southern Spain has seen 40+ degrees over the summer. Spaniards visit, not despite the cold and the rain, but because of it.
I was only partly back in Scotland for the break from the heat, as I had a few meetings about our Homeless Hackathon. I happened to arrive in Edinburgh only a few hours before the attack on Las Ramblas and I saw the story unfold on the BBC news channel from the lobby of my hotel, and via social media.
During that evening, my phone pinged constantly with people asking about me and the family. Nice to know people care, but it did take me longer than usual to eat a curry in Mother India in Glasgow. A few friends knew we lived on a Rambla (there are several across the city, we live about two miles away from Las Rambals) and they seemed especially concerned. We hadn’t let anyone know we were OK because, really, why should we? We don’t contact people every week to say we haven’t been one of the 21 people who’ve been killed on a Spanish road. However, as we were still kind of travelling, we had a less controversial reason not to update family and friends.
It is a strange feeling to be away from home when an incident like this occurs. Your heart and stomach seem to merge and an uneasy dull pain takes hold. There’s relief at being far away during any incident, but a need to be close to others at a time of shared grief. Its surprising how long that awkward feeling persists.
Less than 24hours after the attack Barcelona was, amazingly, able to organise a vigil on Plaça Catalunya, the square that sits at the top of Las Ramblas. It was a solemn and quiet affair. There were no political banners, placards or national flags. The only message: “No tinc por!” (I am not afraid – in Catalan). In the crowd of a few thousand, the Prime Minister of Spain, the President of the Generalitat of Catalunya and King Felipe VI stood, for once, united in silence and shared respect.
A few hundred yards from the square, towards the sea, Las Ramblas, that narrow, famous strip, was full of people – including those who rarely visit: most Catalans give the area a wide berth. However typically, the world over, locals show their strength and determination not to be bullied, by returning to the scene of an incident, even if they never normally go there.
Barcelona quickly comes to terms with the terror attacks
During the days that followed other smaller vigils were held across Catalunya and Spain. Perhaps the most emotional took place in the town of Rubi, near Barcelona when the father of the youngest victim embraced an Imam.
On Saturday 26th August the largest demonstration took place in Barcelona, with an estimated 500,000 taking to the streets. Ostensively an anti terrorist demonstration, many Catalans took the opportunity to provide a wider context for the attacks. But you can look at it another way: here’s one view of the demonstration, as a takeover by separatists a theme echoed by other UK outlets. And in a similar vain, here’s an article from a Spanish based commentator in Politico which seemed to deliberately stir up Catalan emotions.
These simplistic views are a typical establishment response to the complex issues in Catalunya. They are devoid of context and seek unity on every issue, were in fact there are large divides. It’s a view that sees people as some kind of shallow cup, easily over filled by emotion, able to only concentrate on one thing at a time. Thankfully, Catalans are normal educated citizens of the world and are able to see the connection and highlight the link between supporting brutal regimes like Saudi Arabia and an act of sickening violence on the streets of Barcelona.
With the attack taking place only six weeks before the Catalan independence referendum, an incident like this was always going to be politicised. To think otherwise is to ignore the after affects of recent terror attacks throughout Europe.
In the immediate aftermath it was highlighted that Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police force that dealt so effective and swiftly with the attacks, did not see free flowing, terrorist intelligence, as it had been denied access by the Spanish Government. Many supporters of independence see this as yet another example of the Spanish Government trying to stymia Catalunya’s attempts to play a fuller, more meaningful role on the world stage.
With a large contingent of Madrid based politicians (who are flatly refusing to recognise the referendum on the 1st October – a massive slight to the democratic process in Catalunya) taking part in the anti terror demonstration, there was always going to be a political reaction from those seeking Catalan independence.
The Monarchy was also a target. Considering the question which will be asked on the 1st October referendum paper is: “Do you want Catalunya to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”, the presence of the King was not going to be unnoticed.
Only eight days separated the attack on Las Ramblas and the massive demonstration in Barcelona. A week is not long enough for feelings to heal or the pain to disappear. However, in Catalan politics it is long enough for people to see through the haze of emotion and pain, and start to piece together cause and affect.