This was going to be easy to write: an essay about watching Barcelona FC in Barcelona. About a tepid soccer fan (me), who doesn’t really know or understand the game that well, watching one of the world’s most famous soccer clubs with its native fan base. Maybe I wouldn’t end up understanding the game any better, but perhaps I’d learn something about sports fandom, or about Barcelona the city, or about myself. The thing would practically write itself—I would just need to supply some idiosyncratic perhaps even humorous anecdotes from my experience.
This isn’t what ended up happening.
As I much as I wanted to watch the Barça-Arsenal Champions League match at a raucous local bar, I also hate raucous local bars. I just can’t do the crowds and the noise (I’m not 25 anymore). So I ended up watching the match in a low-key Lebanese restaurant in the Gràcia neighborhood where the half-liters of Estrella Damm were so served so cold that ice chips were floating in my beer. (If you’re going to drink the Catalan Budweiser, it’s best to do so at temperatures approaching absolute zero).
The locals weren’t all that into the match. Maybe it was the pouring rain or the circumstances of the match itself: Barça had won the first leg of the match in London, 2-0, which meant that Arsenal had to win by a three-goal differential. Or maybe it was my fault for hating raucous local bars. The match was not without its excitement, though: Barça won 3-1 (so 5-1 aggregate). Neymar, Luis Suarez, and Messi all scored, and the Suarez tally was especially wonderful: a volley launched perfectly into the upper-right corner of the goal.
The passivity of the locals, I later learned, could be attributed to more than just the circumstances of the weather or the foregone conclusion of the match. As my gracious host Diana, a friend of my friend Jess (who I’d come to visit)1 and a devout Barça fan, remarked the next day, Barcelonans have become spoiled by success. As the club has become a dominant force in both La Liga (the Spanish league) and the Champions League over the past decade, local enthusiasm has waned.2
So I decided to go see what the locals apparently were taking for granted. The next day I visited the site of the match for what they call the Camp Nou Experience—a museum and tour of Barça’s stadium. If the natives had become blasé about their soccer team, such an attitude certainly hadn’t trickled down to the masses crowding in along with me for the the Experience.3 A fascinatingly curated exhibit of the relationship between soccer and politics, the museum immediately presents the club’s extensive trophy case along with illuminated panels that trace the history of the club–and few clubs around the world have the same kind connection to national politics that Barça does (see: Spanish Civil War).4
After reading the history of the club in an erratic, non-linear fashion because the throng of visitors apparently misunderstood how chronology works, I came to what’s known as “Messi Space.” Consisting of Messi’s five Ballons d’Or (the annual prize given to the world’s best player) and his three Golden Boots (the prize awarded to the player who scores the most goals in a league season), the space is rather underwhelming. I thought it would be filled with more Messi artifacts and memorabilia, including perhaps the famous contract drawn up on a napkin in which Messi’s father agreed to send the then 13-year-old Lionel from his native Argentina to Barcelona with the stipulation that Barça pay for his hormone therapy (at age 10, Messi was diagnosed with a deficiency of growth hormones). Or perhaps the ball from Messi’s first goal at Barça. But I was the only one unimpressed: a mob immediately crowded around to see these trophies. Here’s a picture that I had to take quickly of this rather disappointing “Space,” lest I be trampled:
And here’s the crowd of Messi worshippers who seconds before seemed only too happy to violate my very treasured sense of personal space:
The Camp Nou Experience took a fascinating turn as we walked through the players’ tunnel on our way to the pitch. Tucked into the right side of the tunnel is a tiny chapel. It sneaks up on you because huge pictures of the players decorate the tunnel walls, and then cut out of this display is an actual hole in the wall with a crucifix, stained glass windows, and six pews that Pope John Paul II blessed during his 1982 visit to the city.5 They ask you not to take pictures, and because I have an overdeveloped superego I obliged. I didn’t want to get kicked out just before I got to step foot onto to pitch. So here’s the chapel from someone else’s perspective:6
The prayer on the left side of the altar is in Catalan and reads: “The Lord works wonders in me. Blest be his name.” Located no more than a hundred feet from the pitch, the chapel only added to the curious mixture of sacred and profane so prevalent in Barcelona.
A few days prior, I had visited Barcelona’s other most sacred space: La Sagrada Familia. I have no words to describe Gaudí’s cathedral other than to say it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. But you have to be on your toes: the transition between sacred and garishly profane happens quickly, as evidenced by the KFC located kitty corner from Gaudí ’s magnum opus. Obviously this isn’t unique to Barcelona—there’s a Banana Republic on 5th Avenue directly across from St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York—but it becomes apparent especially in unfamiliar surroundings and especially when you’re so moved by a cathedral that your eyes well up for reasons you can’t identify (I’ve been a lapsed Catholic for decades) only to walk across the street and be dragged down from the ether by the stench of mass-produced fried chicken.
I was trying to wrap my mind around this mixture of sacred and profane, sports and religion, on my connecting flight to Istanbul. I had a 14-hour layover on my Turkish Airlines7 flight back to JFK and wanted to go into the city and at least see Hagia Sophia from the outside or something (since its interior would be closed by the time I got there). I figured I would use the 3½ hour flight to do some research and find a tour bus that could take me around when I arrived at 5 pm local time. But there was no wi-fi on the plane.
When I arrived at Ataturk airport I found out why: Jess texted me to let me know that Istanbul had been bombed a few hours earlier, and that it was probably best just to hangout in the airport (which is an insane and entertaining airport: two hotels in the airport proper, swanky lounges, shops everywhere, a mosque. It makes O’Hare look like a bodega). The tour buses I contacted weren’t making trips into the city and had been advised to suspend all tours of Istanbul for three days. So I texted Diana, since her boyfriend Koray lives in Istanbul, who let me know surprisingly that now it was fine to travel within the city. I took the metro to Taksim, where I could eat at a restaurant they both highly recommended.
Unfortunately it took me an hour just to figure out how to get out of the airport so that when I finally got to the restaurant, it had closed. A few blocks away, though, I found the James Joyce Bar, reportedly the only Irish bar in Istanbul, which is a bit incredible because Barcelona has—and I’m not exaggerating—more than 15 Irish bars.13 (For comparison’s sake, Barcelona has 1.6 million people; Istanbul has 14 million people). I wrote my dissertation on Joyce and Ulysses is my favorite novel. This seemed serendipitous, so I went in and had a whiskey and a couple Efes (the Turkish Budweiser, served at a much more reasonably cold temperature).
I decided to read more about the bombing and discovered that it had occurred just down the street, but Istanbul is huge and I’d been there for a grand total of five hours, so I wasn’t exactly sure that I had my bearings straight. The bartender confirmed that the bomb went off on Istikal Street, the main thoroughfare in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, about 100 yards from the bar: “I heard the explosion and knew: that’s a bomb. You don’t forget that sound.”8 Having grown up in Ireland during the Troubles, he was well versed in the sounds of explosives. I finished my beer and walked out to see the site.
About 20 other people had gathered around, most were alone like me. A news team consisting of a female reporter with a microphone and a cameraman reported from the memorial. The rest of us observed the display of Turkish flags, red and white roses, and signs, and signs read (pardon my internet translation of Turkish): “We’re not afraid. We’re here. We won’t get used to it. The shopkeepers of Beyoğlu.”
I wasn’t sure if I should take a picture: it seemed to violate the sanctity of the scene and no one else was taking pictures. Then a few people came and snapped some picture so, as surreptitiously and quickly as I could, I did likewise. I felt weird. After taking hundreds of pictures over the last week as a tourist, this felt different, like I was an interloper violating the lives of those lost—not qualified to take this picture and have others look at it. I wanted to remember this, but I felt queasy for doing so.
In the aftermath of bombings we see statements of universal belonging, “We Are Charlie Hebdoo,” “We Are France,” “We Are Belgium.”10 But I certainly didn’t feel like I was Istanbul. Turkish. I felt like I didn’t have the context to properly mourn or to empathize, since I had no idea what business or storefront existed here before the bombing. It’s a strange feeling: to be profoundly moved by a memorial and yet not feel warranted to feel moved. I stood and absorbed the memorial for a while longer before calling a cab to the airport.
La Sagrada Familia, and the chapel at Camp Nou, the “Messi Space” are all deliberately sacred spaces (for those who doubt whether Messi should be included in this series, visit the museum or watch some YouTube highlights—he’s the closest thing to holy there is). The memorial on Istikal Street11 was impromptu, but one that seems all too well rehearsed by now. Turkey has experienced five bombings and 200 lives lost in the past eight months alone. Such memorials seem to be constructed almost daily after each new bombing or mass shooting.
The memorial on Istikal Street made the complicated relationship between sacred and profane in Barcelona somehow less jarring. Sure it was weird that a KFC was located across the street from La Sagrada Familia, but at least a boundary existed between them. In addition to human lives, bombings destroy these barriers: what were commercial spaces become sites of mourning almost instantaneously. These divisions between private and public, sacred and secular—flimsly though they may be—help us make sense of modern life.
Terrorism in whatever form—bombings, mass shootings—transforms how we experience city spaces, since any place could become the site of a memorial. It seems to take away the power of citizens to separate what’s sacred and what’s secular. Instead, we become forced to turn these places of business, these office complexes, these places of residence, into memorials to honor the dead.
But as I think more about the memorial, the signs take on a special meaning. The flowers were there to remember the victims, but the signs expressing fearlessness and the unwillingness to accept these tragedies as just another part of daily life demonstrated a different kind of power in confronting terrorism: the power to maintain a sense of history in the face of loss. These were not signs that promised to defeat or eliminate terrorism or to exact revenge; they were simply statements of resolve. Yet the subtext of these signs articulated a profound response to the acts to terrorism that have continued to afflict the people of Turkey—an acceptance that these acts of violence will probably happen again but that the response will be the same: they will continue to memorialize the dead, and continue to transform these commercial spaces into sites of mourning no matter how many times they have to do so.
1 I mention some of the the dramatis personae here because much of what made Barcelona such a wonderful vacation were the extreme–almost ridiculous–displays of hospitality of which I was the beneficiary. Diana had never met me before I visited and still invited me to stay in her spare bedroom. Jess shepherded me around each night: we ate and drank well. (I watched the game by myself, though, because Jess wisely decided to give her liver a well-deserved rest for the night.) In retrospect, Gràcia seemed like a more than fitting name for the neighborhood.
2 Diana is also an insightful analyst of Barça players. She likes Messi fine and respects his talent, but also expressed doubt that he could string two sentences together. Andrés Iniesta, however, was her favorite not only because of his considerable midfield prowess but also because of his intelligence and humility. As Diana made evident: Messi scores beautiful goals but Iniesta is the captain as well as the head, heart, and soul of the team.a She knows her shit. (Incidentally, when legendary Barça player and coach Johann Cruyff died recently, it was Iniesta to whom the press turned to put his death in some kind of context
a I, too, like Iniesta but for a very different reason: because he’s a balding athlete. He and Manu Ginobli of the San Antonio Spurs are idols for the follically challenged. Hair-transplanting Wayne Rooney, on the other hand, can pretty much go fuck himself.
3 Over 1.5 million people visit the Camp Nou museum every year, which the FC Barcelona website seems to enjoy pointing out are more visitors than the Dali and Picasso museums attract.
4 The closest analog to an American sports team would be the Green Bay Packers. Barça, like the Packers, does not have a private owner and is instead run by the supporters, the upper echelon of whom elect the president of the club. So it’s best not to get too seduced by socialist principles–to which I’m always vulnerable–there’s still an aristocratic tenor to both the Packers and Barça.
5 Obviously, American sports mix in religious devotion with their pre-game rituals as well, usually in the form of a pre-game prayer. But that’s usually done right in the locker room—there’s no separate space.
6 I’m not sure about the painting on the left. It seems to depict three Barça players carrying the UEFA Champions League trophy out of the city, while Catalans dressed in yellow and red—the colors of the Catalan flag—seem to follow behind. But the others might be other Barça players wearing alternate jerseys inspired by the Catalan flag.
7 Turkish Airlines needs to get a lengthy shout out here. I flew from New York to Istanbul to Barcelona (and back again, of course) and kept wondering why I was being treated so well because the flight was so insanely cheap that I don’t even feel comfortable mentioning the cost. Sure there’s the unlimited free drinks that helped assuage my pathological fear of flying, but that’s only the beginning. You also get intermittent hot towel and Turkish delights and seriously comfortable blankets and pillows as well as slippers and eye covers and lip balm. There was a corporate tie-in with the Batman vs. Superman movie (which I understand is an atrocity) that was unseemly, but sometimes it’s really best not to look gift slippers in the mouth. And I haven’t even talked about the food yet, which was seriously impressive. I don’t recall ever looking forward to an airplane meal. In this case, I fought against the good work being done by my anti-anxiety drugs and alcohol to make sure I caught every meal.
8 This seeming anomaly made perfect sense after I talked with Jess’s friend Elia—an expert in Catalan history and a group tour guide at the Museu d’Història de Catalunya. The Catalan are the Irish of Spain; the proud losers of history. Both Ireland and Catalonia lost horrific civil wars in which they were grossly underprepared and undermanned. Both have experienced waves of emigration, with many fleeing from the stifling and oppressive conditions imposed upon them (incidentally, France has served as the traditional refuge for both Irish and Catalan rebels). While I was there I saw thousands of flags draped over balconies; never once did I see a Spanish flag—they were all Catalonia flags.
9 Security cameras recorded the actual bombing. I’m not going to post a link here for obvious reasons but you can find it if you want. All I’m going to say is that it’s fucked up and disturbing for all the reasons that you’d think it would be fucked up and disturbing. It’s also unreal: it looks like a magic trick—there’s a guy, and then there’s an explosion and a cloud of smoke and then the smoke goes away and the guy has vanished. Of course, he’s taken five innocent people with him and injured three dozen others, but the fact remains that watching it on screen makes it feel like an illusion, like some kind of sleight of hand.
10 Well meaning though they may be, these sentiments, it seems, are only for other European nations. I’ve yet to see a Facebook profile or Twitter avatar that declares, “We Are Ankara” or “We Are the Ivory Coast” or “We Are Pakistan” after terrorist attacks in those nations.
11 Molly Crabapple wrote an informative article for The Guardian about Istikal Street and its place within Istanbul—and why ISIS might want to bomb it.