Jan 14 2008

Barcelona Beatdown!

Published by at 9:04 pm under Barcelona,Spain

The plan was simple enough: spend the daytime hours of New Year’s Eve taking in the architectural accomplishments of Antonio Gaudi, and celebrate the ringing of midnight in Barcelona’s version of Times Square, Placa Catalunya. In the city that some call the best place in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve, this was a can’t-miss recipe for holiday success. But by the end of the night, my family would be questioning if they ever should have boarded the plane from Virginia. How could this happen?

IMG_3279First things first, let’s not blame Gaudi. From apartment buildings to public parks to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, his nature-inspired architecture is unbelievable, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Which reminds me: why haven’t I ever seen this stuff before? All of my days, I’ve been under the impression that architecture need conform to one of several chronological movements, all of which seemingly adhere to the guiding design principle that buildings should bore me. But Gaudi’s buildings aren’t just not boring; they’re mesmerizing, evocative, and most importantly, FUN. Why make a middle-class urban home look like a middle-class urban home, when it can look like a floral mystery cave?

IMG_3284And in the case of the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia, why make a cathedral look like a cathedral, when it can look like a redwood forest? My favorite detail here had to be the bases of some of the outdoor columns, which look not like the interchangeable column bases of any classical order, but like load-bearing turtles. Amazingly, the Sagrada Familia is still years from being completed, and construction was begun back in 1882! Current official estimates put the completion date at 2026, but our cathedral tour guide confided that many insiders believe there’s no way the project will be finished in the first half of this century. Gaudi’s final design plans look mighty impressive, but will we live to see them realized? Stay tuned, because I’ll be implementing a betting pool here in the very near future. And they said this blog would never make me a dime!

For my mother, the highlight of this day was probably losing my father to the merciless grip of the Barcelona metro system. I guess we took a little too long to get off the metro at one particular stop, because my dad, being the last one of us in line to disembark, ended up on the wrong side of the metro doors when they slid shut. Heroically, he gave Brittany a “save yourself!” type of push through the closing doors, and we all turned back to watch, through the metro window, as he wiggled his hands free from the closed doors just in time to give us a goodbye wave before the metro sped him off to its next stop. This, of course, induced riotous laughter in not only our party, but in every passenger who was around to notice what had happened. In a stroke of good fortune, Brittany and I had been telling my family that very morning about our long-standing plan for reunification if such an unlikely event were ever to separate us. The person who gets unwillingly carried away should simply get off at the next metro stop, and the other will board the next metro to meet them there. My dad must have been listening, because when the four of us arrived at the next metro stop several minutes later, we found him, all alone, patiently waiting on a nearby bench.

That night was going to be one of the highlights of our stay in Barcelona, and, in an uncharacteristic turn, we’d done enough research to be prepared for everything. We knew the place to be at midnight was Placa Catalunya, where everyone in town would be gathered for the midnight countdown. We knew the pre-midnight tradition of eating 12 grapes during the final 12 seconds of the old year in order to guarantee 12 months of good luck, and we knew the post-midnight tradition of toasting the new year with a proper bottle of cava (think Spanish champagne). What we didn’t know, was the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.

En route to Catalunya Square that night, we picked up a craftily overpriced bottle of cava from a market on Las Ramblas, and sought pre-party sustenance in the form of chocolate covered waffles. Good Luck Grapes were looking like the most difficult necessity to procure in the (literal) eleventh hour, especially after Brittany was screamed at for climbing on furniture in a nearby restaurant, in an effort to grab some grapes that lay tantalizingly out of reach. Turns out they were placed out of reach for a reason, being that they were reserved for the wait staff´s own midnight celebration. I could see the owner kicking himself for placing the grapes in sight of this climbing American tourist, and I tried to comfort him with my knowledge that even if he´d buried the things underground, Brittany would have sniffed them out. But I didn´t know how to say that in Spanish, so I just ushered her out the door, while explaining for her behavior by her pointing to her head and loudly whispering, “loco.”

Grapes seemed a lost cause until Brittany smelled an enterprising youth selling plastic cups of grapes on the street for two euros a pop. Any hope of negotiating the price down was lost when he heard her ear-piercing squeal of delight, but Brittany is never one to get any less than her money´s worth: she actually made the salesman pour the contents of one of the cups onto a plate, and count out proof that there were indeed twelve grapes inside. My pride runneth over.

As midnight approached, Placa Catalunya became a scene of free-flowing cava, amateur fireworks, and scattered tribes of young European men, segregated by nationality, competing to see who could sing their country’s beloved football songs with the most fervor. It´s hard to say for sure, but from where we stood, I think the Italians won.

I want to tell you what the last few moments of 2007 were like in a Barcelona, but in a curious twist, there was no countdown to midnight in Catalunya Square. There WAS a clock on one of the department buildings in the square, but it seemed to lack a second hand, which made the prospect of identifying the exact stroke of midnight a dubious one. Without a common concept of time, different sections of the crowd celebrated the new year at different moments, as determined by the first beeps you heard from someone´s nearby watch.

IMG_3313I suppose it is possible, but highly unlikely, that we ate our twelve grapes during the actual last twelve seconds of 2007. Come to think of it, I was the only one of our group to finish my grapes at all. Abby spewed the first one with the accompanying warning, “the grapes have seeds!” and if this wasn´t enough to deter my parents and Brittany from eating theirs, then the lack of a true crescendo to midnight killed off what remained of their spirit. Which was fine with me, because I had been feeling hungry anyway, and now I got to eat many more grapes than expected. While most people in Catalunya Square that night are now in line for 12 months of good luck, I am looking forward to 38 or so.

Shortly after the last stubborn holdouts in the crowd conceded that it was probably midnight, the amateur fireworks grew more frequent, and my confidence in our safety quickly flew. Across the square, we could see the glow from a fire that looked neither intentional nor contained, and the final straw fell when one poorly aimed firework ricocheted off a building, and its radiant core began to parachute down in a trajectory that looked to end at, disturbingly, our position in the street. Fireballs raining from the sky was an unforeseen development, and I´m not ashamed to say that I was leading the charge of shouting party-goers forced into mortal flight.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire. We chose poorly when selecting our escape route, a fact that should have been evident when we noticed that some terrified looking Italians were running past us, coming from the very direction that we were headed. But all I could see ahead were police, and as all white people from America know, the police are our friends. So I marched confidently ahead, leading my family into whatever situation was developing down the street, because, hey, what could be worse than fireballs from the sky?

The answer, my friends, is the Spanish police. Now let me be clear: most Spanish police you see are the friendly variety, and can be easily distinguished by the same harmless neon vests that we Americans associate with the neighborhood crossing guard. But when the crap hits the fan, I´m sorry to be the one to tell you that there will be no smiling faces to hold your hand. Some sort of riot had erupted in the Barcelona streets that night, and the cuddly neon vests had run for the hills. In front of us, a vocal group of men with questionable intent surrounded a parked car in the street, and although we didn’t know exactly what they wanted, we knew we didn’t want any part of it. But by the time we got close enough to the action to figure this out, we had unwittingly become part of a crowd that was prevented from orderly dispersement by a series of temporary fences, presumably erected for purposes of crowd control. Surprisingly, angry mobs don´t like being fenced in against their will, and as the crowd surged against the fences, carrying us unwillingly along, I found myself unable to keep my thoughts off of the deaths by crowd stampede that seem to befall European soccer matches.

As the throbbing of the crowd grew more intense, we quickly found ourselves being pressed, with growing force, against the yellow fence gates. But then, suddenly, at the hand of some unseen benefactor, the fence gates were flung open! As the pressure was mercifully released from our pen, we were among the first to spill out of its confines. Was the horror over? Were our neon-vested friends here to save us? Naive hopes. Distracted by thoughts of how I hoped my obituary would read, I had failed to notice that during our period of confinement, the streets had been seized by Barcelona´s finest. And not the shiny, happy police we knew and loved, but a terrible new breed of Spanish cop. Genetically engineered to be taller, stronger, and crueler than any law enforcement specimen that has come before, these ultracops sport full black riot gear, battle batons, and a meticulously bred hatred of logic and reason.

The crowd continued to spill violently out of the fence gates, and the wave carried me, unknowingly, directly into one of the ubercops´s line of sight. When I noticed the black boots approaching me with aggressive speed, I quickly looked up to find the face of their owner. At first I could see only a tinted face shield, but as my predator moved closer, I squinted into the darkness of his visor, and saw the reason for the mask. His eyes, if you can call them eyes, did not possess the spark of humanity we all display, and that I urge you to never again take for granted. For when this spark is absent, there is in its stead a terrible void, which is not a thing that you gaze upon, but a place that you go. A place where I will always regret that I have now been, and can only describe to you as a black hole for hope, and the place that love goes to die. It was here that I spent the longest moment of my life.

When I snapped out of this evil trance, I immediately knew I should have taken my chances inside the pen of endless crushing. I tried to back-pedal, but with a crowd of thousands directly behind me, I found that there was nowhere to run. With his prey now trapped by a human fence, the villain pulled his riot stick from its sheath, and quickly advanced. I surrendered both hands into the air, with pleas of “Si! Si!”, in hope of conveying a promise of compliance in exchange for the ability to walk away from the encounter under my own volition. As the Italians who we´d originally seen running from this scene had known, such hope is grossly misplaced. The demon shoved me in the chest, and as I stumbled backward, delivered a crushing blow with his riot stick to my left leg.

Reeling in disbelief, I signaled to my family that they needed to RUN. But since they´d witnessed my encounter with Super Shredder with their own eyes, I think the message was redundant. As we struggled to push our way back through the mob, one unlucky fellow attempted to escape the massacre by ducking between me and my mother. Cowering on the ground must be an even worse crime than trying to reason or plead with these police, because the same cop that attempted to cripple me now grapped this guy by the hood of his sweatshirt, and, riot stick in hand, began raining down blow after blow on his back. I would have liked to intervene on his behalf, but I like my spinal column more, so I continued to push my family through the mob, and as far away as possible from the terrible consequences of irresponsible biogenetics.

Since you´re reading what is quite obviously a retrospective account of our Barcelona adventure, I find it impossible to infuse with any drama the announcement that we survived our New Year´s Eve. All things considered, I would still consider recommending Barcelona as a New Year´s Eve destination (now who´s loco?). But to ensure a successful evening, make sure you do as the Italians do: travel in herds, sing for your beloved sports team at the top of your lungs, and in the event that you become faced with the Spanish police, run like hell.

NEXT: The Aftermath: New Year´s Day in Barcelona »



4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Barcelona Beatdown!”

  1. Hollyon 15 Jan 2008 at 10:41 am

    Worth the wait! Glad you’re all still alive! :)

  2. Spanish Policeon 16 Jan 2008 at 2:51 pm

    you deserved it.

  3. mikeon 18 Jan 2008 at 10:51 am


    i’ve been reading for a while now and you guys get my vote for a great job of writing!!!! maybe we’ll encounter each other, as my wife and I are now in europe. Adios, mike

  4. Scotton 27 Feb 2008 at 4:59 pm

    WoW! That is crazy. We had our parents visiting us too in Barcelona for New Years. We were on Las Ramblas but in a restaurant for midnight. The aftermath in the streets was telling. I was unaware it was that crazy though.

    I really enjoy your blog. We are also on a traveling adventure. We’re based in Barcelona for a year and traveling throughout Europe. Your title sums it up. Our budget a year ago looked a lot different.

    Have fun fellow travelers.

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