Study Abroad Student Accidentally Wanders into Political Crisis

But it’s my BIRTHDAY!!!!

By Andrew Millman

Foreign Correspondant

When your flight gets cancelled because of civil unrest in your destination city, there are two options. First, as any rational person would do, accept the refund on the flight and try to get the Airbnb cancelled too. Or, second, use the logic of a drunk girl draped in a tiara and pink sash at Barnyard when her friends want to leave, “but it’s my birthday!” The latter is the path I choose two weeks ago, when I received an email from Vueling Airlines (the slightly more respectable Ryanair) informing me that all flights in and out of the Barcelona Airport would be cancelled on October 18th (my birthday), because of a general strike.

At that point, there had been protests bordering on riots in the city for several days after Spain’s highest court sentenced a dozen Catalan separatist leaders to long prison sentences for trying to secede from Spain following an unauthorized referendum. Catalonian separatism is one of those issues that can get super nuanced and complicated, so I won’t get too much into it.

Basically, Catalonia is the region of Spain in the northwest of the country that has wanted to become its own country, primarily because it is significantly wealthier than the rest of Spain.

This reasoning itself would be complicated as seceding from Spain would also mean leaving the European Union, and Spain could veto Catalonia’s attempts to join the EU, singlehandedly wrecking their economy. And no one would be crazy enough to want to leave the world’s largest trading zone with no future planning, right?

While all of this is surely important, in my mind, celebrating my birthday was of the utmost importance. During the general strike that Friday, much of the city shut down. There were mini-marches throughout the city, often impeding any hopes of traversing main thoroughfares. Protesters even shut down Sagrada Familia that day. Instead, my friends and I went to the beach, which was nice, but also totally empty, as most sensible tourists had cancelled their trips on first sign of trouble. The Mediterranean was beautiful, but the whole thing had a “fiddling while Rome burns” vibe to it, as the city slowly descended into a chaotic scene mere blocks away.

Incredibly, we still thought it would be a good idea to go out drinking that night. Again, I was using Barnyard birthday logic. Sensibly, many bars had closed up for the night, and the ones that didn’t were mostly filled with other panicked visitors. The riot police were using rubber bullets and water cannons to try to quell the crowd, but the result was mostly just changing the direction the protesters were heading in.

For the most part that night, we were on the periphery of the action, but at one point we were about two blocks away from the epicentre of the protest, where rioters had set fire to trash bins and cars in the middle of the street. After the sound of rubber bullets rang out in the night, the crowd momentarily stampeded towards us and we, including one of my friends who was in heels, had to suddenly run to avoid getting trampled. Our rented flat was on the other side of the protest, so we ended up having to hustle through the gothic quarter to get back, which was relatively calm except for the occasional sprinting protesters in masks.

So, that was how I spent my 21st birthday: navigating a tumultuous situation in a foreign country and obnoxiously pronouncing it Bar-th-lona like Noah Galvin in Booksmart.

I write this article now in the hope that I won’t be inclined to constantly reference “my study abroad experience” when I return to the Bronx.

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