La chute de Barcelone

What you are about to read is no April Fool’s joke.

March 24, 2015, 148 people boarded Germanwings A320 in Barcelona, Spain. Forty minutes later, the co-pilot deliberately crashed the airplane in the French Alps, never reaching its destination in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Sunday, March 29th, Air Canada A320 had a “hard landing” and skidded off the runway when landing in Halifax, leaving more than 20 people injured and some of the 133 passengers terrified.

However, according to NBCNews and the Garudian, Airbus A320 may still function as one of the world’s safest planes, with about “0.14 fatal accidents for every million takeoffs”.

It is a heartbreaking news as the story of Germanwings A320 unfolds: considered as a suicide of the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, this crash has one of the gravest fatalities on the list of accidents intentionally caused by the pilots since 1976, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network.

This is the news, seemingly far away. Yet, not for me.

I was in Barcelona for winter break, a month later, 150 people left the same place and crashed in the French Alps, which is about two hours of drive from my home.

Want more? Four days later after I left Paris for New Year, two terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo. One day later, they took hostage of people in a kosher marker in the same district where my hostel was. Five days after that, I witnessed part of the history-making demonstration in Marseilles. A week later, I got up at four o’clock and bought a copy of the “Tout est pardonné” issue of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

These are the things that make my study abroad experience ever more meaningful, standing in the chaos while history is being made. I do want to be a tourist and see what all the other people see, but I would rather bump into unexpected events and see how they change me.

The trip I made to Spain during winter break changed my limited view of people and the world, a lot.

Sculpture of "Barcino", the Roman name of Barcelona, in front of Roman wall
Sculpture of “Barcino”, the Roman name of Barcelona, in front of Roman wall

It all started off well.

I arrived in Barcelona at 5 o’clock in the morning; met up with a couple friends; tasted the “best sandwich of the world” according to NYT; had a few inexpensive but delicious sangria and mojito, walked along the coast and enjoyed the nightlife.

Pictures of Barcelona
Clockwise from upper left : street light in Barcelona; sangria and sherry; graffiti art.

As one say Spanish people are enthusiastic and spontaneous. I do agree. People also say that Barcelona is a very touristy place, I also agree. Hearing all different languages walking down Las Ramblas or any of the famous sightseeing sites, eating at “authentic” restaurants ran by non-Spanish. But if you have the time and patience, you will discover the true Barcelonés spirits.

People of Barcelona
Counterclockwise from upper-left : “Marilyn Monroe” on the balcony; traditional Catalan dance, la Sardana on Sunday mornings; free hugs given on Las Ramblas; improve flamenco dancer in Park Guell

However, I fell in love with the city when I saw the preserved Catalan culture and its influence on this city — the Catalan independence flag flying outside of people’s windows, signs saying “stop the noise” to the tourists, and the amazing architecture that Antoni Gaudi had created paying respect to his Catalan identity.

No words can express my respect and admire for Gaudi and his works in Barcelona : Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Park Guell and many more. He combined lines, colors, light and bricks in the best and most efficient way and created some breathtaking pieces. Pictures don’t do a just job. You will have to go and see it yourself.

Catalan culture seen in Barcelona
Clockwise from upper left : Casa Mila; sign that shows ancient and present profession; Sagrada Familia; sign with “stop the noise, respect” and Catalan flag on the wall; mosaic terrace in Park Güell

Then it went downhill the day when I was leaving Barcelona to Madrid — maybe it didn’t want me to leave.

I wanted to see how buses run in Spain so I chose it rather than metro. Curiosity killed the cat. Unfortunately, I was the cat.

The bus was late and I was a bit anxious. A sudden knocking sound came from behind made me startle. It was a man knocking on the metal part of the station. Then he walked across, pushed me away and said “excuse me” — I was blocking the bus schedule. I said “sorry” and moved couple steps away. Another man on the other side of me came forward, taking out a bus pass and started speaking Spanish. He pointed at the bus pass and tried to push it in my hands. I said “I don’t understand Spanish. Sorry I can’t help you.” But he kept trying. Finally he seemed to give up and then walked away. I was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t help him, not until I turned around and found my luggage gone.

Yes, I was stolen or rather robbed, as my mom called it, by two professional thieves in Barcelona at a bus station, because I was being too nice and naive.

What happened afterwards? You wouldn’t imagine. I went after the man who asked me for help. I grabbed his arm and asked him where my luggage was. I said I would call the police. At that moment, I felt like drowning and holding onto him as the last straw. All of a sudden, he said “don’t you touch me like that”, with a coarse voice and fierce face. I was scared and let go of his sleeve. It’s not until later that I realized he could speak and understand English. I watched him cross the street among the cars, thinking there is no way I will ever find these two people again.

I think I should call the police. So I went to the newsstand around the corner. I asked the young man there for the emergency number. He told me and offered to call them for me. Then I waited. When I got really impatient, he said the police in Barcelona are “very lazy”. How comforting.

He asked me what was in my luggage, for a second I thought maybe he could be with the two thieves. That would explain how he spoke English so well and reacted so fast. Maybe the police cooperate with the thieves as well, and that’s why it’s taking them so long. All the detective stories that I read came in my mind and then I thought that’s crazy.

The police car pulled up. A man and a woman walked out. One spoke English. I explained what happened and they told me to go to the police station to file a report. What I imagined that the police would act fast to find the thieves never happened.

I asked if they could accompany me to the police station. They told me it’s really close, “shouldn’t take more than five minutes”. It took me 20 minutes. Thanks to the similarity of Latin languages, making “estación de policía” understandable to me. I went in and told them what happened. They gave me a piece of paper to fill out and told me to wait for the translator. I looked around — five other people were in the station. None of them seemed as anxious as I was.

It was past ten; the translator should be there already. So I asked, and they pointed to a lady who came in 15 minutes ago, got coffee and water and was reading a book at the moment. I said what happened, for the fourth time. She took my form and told me to wait.

So I waited, waited and waited. Turning my phone screen on and off, didn’t know whom to call or text. Finally, another police officer came and gave me two pieces of paper, said “sign here, and here”. I looked at the paper and found two of the only words that I recognize on the form, my name, were incorrectly spelled. I signed the new forms and waited for further instructions. He looked at me and said “It’s finished.”

So what happened next? I walked out of the police station, and the sun was a bit strong. Everything seemed the same, yet everything has changed.

I know there are still good people around the world. Just like the lady who blows her whistle when she sees thieves who prey on tourists in metro, trains and stations in Barcelona. At that moment, I still couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why are there bad people like them in the world?”

“Darling, then you are learning this lesson a bit late,” My mom said.

The world is vast and there is much out there to learn. There is no “what if”s in life. I will have to learn the lesson and carry on. I continued my journey to Madrid and the most valuable lesson I learned there was that I could still trust people around me. The people whom I met at the hostel were very nice and their accompany helped me a great deal to carry through the hard time.

Madrid views
Clockwise from top : tour group organized by hostels in front of the Royal Theater; churros and hot chocolate at Chocoloteria San Gines; center point of Spain; flamenco dancer

Till today, more than a month later, I haven’t heard back from the police regarding my lost belongings. Just like 300 other people or 6,000 (estimated including unreported cases) who might have been pickpocketed that day, and about 160,000 (UN Office on Drug and Crime) or 591,000 (United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security) each year in Spain.

If you are travelling somewhere in Europe soon, here are some tips I have for you.

Tip 1 : Take the free tours (tip-based).

In many big European cities like Barcelona, Paris, Rome, etc., there are free tours given in English. These volunteer tour guides make money based on tips. It’s a great opportunity to get to know the city within a short amount of time (2-3 hours) and in a very personal way. You will also meet make friends on the way. Hostels usually have detailed information regarding time and location.

Tip 2. Avoid travelling alone if possible.

More people means more minds to be cautious and more eyes to watch out for each other. If anything happens, there is someone there to hold on to. However, accidents still happen. I heard the exact same thing happened to Korean girls: both of their luggage were stolen by two men at a bus station in Barcelona. So the main thing is : be careful at all times.

Tip 3 : Learn some simple words or phrases of the foreign language.

Not just know how to say “Hello” and “Thank you”. You might also want to learn “You’re welcome,” “Excuse me.” and “Help” among others. In the case of emergency, know the emergency number would be helpful, too. In Europe, it’s 112.

Tip 4. Don’t panic when accidents happen.

Don’t run after the criminals. The most important thing is to make sure yourself is okay. And after that, do not lose your confidence. It’s necessary that you don’t blame yourself for it. I know it’s easier to say it, but life goes on and this is just one unpleasant episode.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy travelling. It’s through these moments I learn and grow up.

Main image : on top of Montjuic in Barcelona ; with friends in Parc de la Ciutadella; met a Chinese girl in front of Sagrada Familia; posing at the Royal Theater in Madrid
Main image : on top of Montjuic in Barcelona ; with friends in Parc de la Ciutadella; met a Chinese girl in front of Sagrada Familia; posing at the Royal Theater in Madrid

One last story. Last weekend, I was in Marseilles with a couple friends. When we were crossing the street at the Vieux Ports, one of my friends screamed: her cross-body bag was half open. She saw a girl’s hand in her bag a minute ago. Luckily she had all her important things in her pocket. The girl dressed quite fashionable and very young. When we left the port, we saw her with others in the middle of the square. Maybe looking for the next victim.

I hope these stories don’t scare you away from travelling, but just be cautious.

Also the same day, I saw an airplane flying cross the Mediterranean sea into the Alps mountain. Wish the victims of Germanwings A320 rest in peace.

And hope the world be a better place.


The roses for Antoni Gaudi in the crypt of Sagrada Familia
The roses for Antoni Gaudi in the crypt of Sagrada Familia

2 thoughts on “La chute de Barcelone

  1. Great post, Kelly. I am glad you are safe and am sorry that people are plain selfish. I am traveling alone at the moment and well, this makes me nervous. However, I already got tricked into paying 50 dollars for a “3 day” metro ticket. ugh. I will definitely be more careful. these thieves do work in teams..

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