Stress. It’s all relative. Last Sunday, Mrs PGD and I were stressed out by news that our planned two-day break in Barcelona would be wrecked by an airport security guard strike.
You know the kind of thing… horrible queues, unhelpful staff, and less time for doing the things we really wanted to do- like strolling along the Ramblas. If you’ve never been, that’s the long pedestrianised road at the centre of the city, stretching from Plaza de Catalunya down to the harbour. Along the Ramblas, there are food markets, cafes and restaurants, street entertainers and vendors, all plying their trade amongst the thousands of tourists and locals who wander up and down from early morning until late in the evening. Quiet, it’s not.
Barcelona’s become a thriving tourist destination, which is fine if like us, you don't live there, but increasingly awkward if you do. Tourism brings jobs- but it also brings higher property prices and rents, congestion on the roads, crowded beaches … and many locals feel they’re being edged out of their own city. So to add to the problem, Mrs PGD, myself and our grandson, dutifully arrived on Wednesday evening, found our hotel along the Ramblas, turned in for the night- and next morning, did some of the city sights then headed for the beach, along with thousands of others. The sun was hot, the surf refreshing. Afterwards, we waited on the promenade for some friends, found a beachfront bar when they arrived, and sat chatting about everything and nothing. Then an ambulance rushed past, sirens blaring. Then there were police cars. A road accident, maybe? A call came in from a worried friend in England. We checked the news on our phones. Oh.
Across the bar, others were doing the same. There had been a terrorist attack along the Ramblas, right by our hotel. A truck? A van? Dozens of people hurt, apparently, and many dead. A hostage situation? Different news sources were saying different things. With our friends, we prayed together in the bar, then tried to work out what to do next. Go back to the hotel? We discussed routes back. The metro was closed. Streets were being blocked by police. We asked the owner of the bar, and realised he was distraught. ‘Madness’, he kept saying, almost in tears. His city was under attack. What do you say?
We hugged, shook hands, said our goodbyes, and headed off in search of a safe place in a foreign city. As we walked along the streets, people were standing in groups, talking, checking phones. News was spreading. Visitors and locals were sharing the little they knew, visitors and locals, French and Americans, Chinese and Brits, Australians and Japanese. One obviously Asian Muslim family were sitting on a wall, by a roundabout, looking rather forlorn. We approached the bottom of the Ramblas, to find everything cordoned off, with tense armed police and civil guards wearing full body armour, telling everyone to stay away. No-one was going in, for any reason. It was the same along the side streets adjoining the Ramblas. Yellow police tape, Do Not Cross. We had nowhere to go. Our hotel was right at the centre of everything, whatever that was.
With a little cash, we found somewhere to sit and eat for a couple of hours, then tried returning. The main street was still blocked, but a side street took us further up, and Mrs PGD managed to sweet-talk a policeman into letting us creep along to our hotel a few steps along. The manager let us in through the locked door, the hotel staff ticked us off on their 'safe' list, and we were back in our room. Finding out more information was still difficult. On the TV, Only Russia Today had English language news. Was it 12 people dead? Footage of other attacks was shown. Westminster Bridge. Nice, in France. Charlie Hebdo. Outside, a drunk in the side street was screaming at the police about whose fault he thought it all was. Fear, tension, restraint, all bound up together. We settled, trying to sleep.
Next morning, there was more news of another terrorist attack, foiled by the police. Our section of the Ramblas was now open, so we headed out- and discovered that the truck had come to the end of its rampage very close to our hotel. Forensic investigations had been made, the debris and blood, cleared and cleaned- and already, people were gathering at places along the route taken by the van. Candles of remembrance and flowers were being laid. Small tokens of defiance and grief. There would be more.
We headed across town towards the Basilica del Sagrada Familia. Many shops were shut, marking three days of national mourning.
Apparently in the main square, the minute’s silence had ended with chants of “No tinc por.” We will not be afraid.’
We arrived back in Britain late, last night, still working at making sense of it all. Somebody out there would have happily killed us with their van if we had been in the right place on the Ramblas. Instead, like thousands of others in the city that day, we were safe, unhurt, and wondering when this will all end. Not for many years, I suspect.