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On Barcelona, City Content with Conflict

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When visiting Barcelona, I get a singular sense of tranquil convulsion. I have never experienced a place that carries such an air of revolution and chaos with absolute ease. When exploring its streets, you can’t help but notice some of its innate contradictions.

Many cities contain contradictions. But typically, these contradictions are jarring. I think of the homeless populations in uber-rich Vancouver and San Francisco, Montreal’s antagonistic-yet-dependent relationship with English, or the gruff-yet-friendly demeanour of New Yorkers. In Barcelona, contradictions abound, but they feel utterly natural.

It starts with the city’s dual Catalan/Spaniard population. For Catalans, the issue of independence appears deeply important yet non-urgent. Catalan flags line seemingly every second windowsill, often next to separatist proclamations like “Llibertat presos politics”. But outside of the protests, which are apparently pretty explosive, I could observe no tense air or social distance between Catalans and Spaniards. All people seem to live their lives at that famously European pace, with short days broken up by long breaks for football, siestas, and conversation.

The city’s graffiti also reflects its unique nature. Barcelona is drenched in it. It comes in many flavours: political, cartoon, crude, Arte Moderno. This clearly isn’t the planned street art of Mount Pleasant, but the city seems to ignore or even embrace it. It reminds the visitor that that Barca is not a series of model sculptures (excluding Poble Espanyol), but a vital, complicated organism.

Local graffiti

The city’s architecture reflects this sense of convulsion as well, starting with Gaudi. As James Michener said in his book, Iberia:

“Architects [in 1900] in many parts of the world were getting fed up with old formalisms and fake Greek temples, but [only] the Barcelona architects had had the courage to do something about it.”

James Michener

Gaudi’s work embodies this. He and his contemporaries have splashed acid-soaked whimsy onto an otherwise somber, ancient city. Their naturalistic style contrasts directly against the city’s famously rigid grid design.

But even side by side, the styles never feel anachronistic in the way they do when attempted elsewhere in the world. And the constant construction, including on Sagrada Familia, serves as a reminder that this not a phase but a constant truth of the city.

The residents of Barcelona are completely at ease among the chaos – to even notice these contradictions makes me feel like a visitor. It reminds me of being a child and visiting a friend who has relatively lax parents. He plays whatever video games he wants, his room is a mess, and swears in front of his mom, but everyone seems perfectly happy. The uncomfortable energy it creates forces me to ask myself, is this as crazy as it seems, or do I need to expand what I think is normal?

Much like I felt about those kids in school, I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get it, but I’m grateful for the new perspective.

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