Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The thing about spending two weeks in a blissfully Trump-free vacation bubble is that it's pretty easy to burn up on re-entry.
I've been on vacation most of August — first on a cruise ship/floating music festival on the Mediterranean, sailing back and forth from Spain to Sardinia, then spending a week in Barcelona, all the while doing my level best to avoid work and/or any dispiriting conversations about American politics. It was wondering. Relaxing. Invigorating. The best long-overdue summer vacation imaginable.
Under the stars, from the pool and hot tub, and inside tucked-away venues throughout a giant cruise ship, alongside my wife and 2,000 or so of our new best friends from all over the world, I watched Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura and The Vaselines and Yo La Tengo, as well as younger bands like Japanese Breakfast and Alvvays and Hinds. I went through a meditation session with Stuart Murdoch's Scottish Buddhist guru and got a wine lesson from Ira Kaplan's brother. I toured a 700-year-old church in Cagliari and got flashed by an old Italian man who'd cut a circular hole in his underpants and evidently did not appreciate us wandering down his alley. I discussed Brexit with a loud British finance executive/Jäger enthusiast who seemed as amused by the shitshow as he was worried about its fallout, and watched a private B&S performance of the 2000 record Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.
In Barcelona, I sipped cafe con leche in a public square, surrounded by locals smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and chatting, with pigeons pecking for croissant crumbs at our feet and electric scooters zipping by on narrow streets, unleashed (and almost always unaltered) dogs walking loyally behind their humans, generally indifferent to people's affection. I adapted (quite happily, it turns out) to siesta culture — waking up at 9, napping from 2 to 5, staying up until 2, repeat — as well as to one of the densest and most walkable large cities in the world. I marveled at the endless array of graffiti, looked out walls dating to the Roman era in the Gothic Quarter, and gazed upon the entire city from the heights of Parc Güell — including the famous La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral still under construction after more than a century (I didn't find time to tour it, sadly). I ate patatas bravas and pan con tomate and gelato and seabass ceviche and drank vermut and Catalonian lager and aged Cuban rum, which is both legally and surprisingly cheap.
The latter part of our week there was consumed by the Festa Major de Gracia, an annual neighborhood street festival to end all street festivals that just so happened to be taking place all around our Airbnb rental. Every August, it turns out — really, we didn't know this until we'd planned our vacation — the festival draws tens of thousands of people from all over Europe to Gracia, a bohemian district about two miles northeast of Barcelona's tourism hub. The festival is a competition to make the best-decorated street. Each chooses a theme, using papier mache and other recycled materials, and they take it very seriously: This year, there was a Harry Potter theme, a Hitchcockian Birds theme, a Silk Road trading theme, a Spanish mining theme, and my own street's somewhat quixotic, off-putting and not-quite-so-awesome Native American reservation theme (they put a lot of work into it, though) — all of which were insanely detailed (my street excepted, perhaps) and punctuated by live music (if you haven't heard an extraordinarily loud rendition of "Wonderwall" right outside your window at 2:30 the morning before your very early flight, you haven't lived) and events and, of course, lots of food and alcohol.
Like I said, it was a great vacation. After a few days, my tension headaches subsided. The knots in my shoulders unwound. I felt years younger, able to breathe in new experiences and reconnect with myself. I even caught myself checking Barcelona's residential listings — weirdly affordable for a big city — and wondering what job opportunities existed for someone with a piss-poor handle on Spanish, not to mention its Catalan variant.
Then my plane touched down in the U.S., I started scanning the news I'd missed, and all of that hard-won zen vanished into the ether.
Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in a federal prison, and President Trump had retweeted a conspiracy theory suggesting that Bill Clinton had him murdered. Trump's acting head of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, a birther named Ken Cuccinelli, wants to rewrite the poem on the Statue of Liberty to make it apply to self-sufficient Europeans-only, and the president wants to boot legal immigrants who use public programs. Trump's white supremacist henchman, Stephen Miller, tried to get the Department of Education to kick the children of undocumented immigrants out of public schools; even Betsy DeVos wouldn't go for that. Trump, who has only reluctantly condemned the increasingly violent white supremacist movement that has grown under his watch, is now making noise about labeling antifa — the loose-knit, sometimes pugilistic antiracism, antifascism activists — terrorists, as if being anti-fascist shouldn't be the default in a healthy democracy.
And, right on the heels of two deadly mass shootings, a man in north Philadelphia shot six cops during an eight-hour standoff, though he didn't kill anyone. The Trump administration blamed Philly's Democratic mayor and reformist district attorney, just as the president had previously blamed video games and the catch-all of mental illness.
Last year, Barcelona — a city with a metro-area population slightly less than that of Atlanta and that draws about 9 million tourists a year — had 10 murders. Ten.
And it's not like there's no political tension here. This was, after all, a country under a (U.S.-supported) fascist dictatorship for three decades following a bloody civil war. Two years ago, Catalonia voted to secede from Spain, and judging by the graffiti and posters literally everywhere in its capital of Barcelona, it still wants to. Still, mass shootings aren't something they worry about, even though their kids play video games, and there was a mental health facility right across the street from my apartment.
Coincidentally, the U.S. has nine times as many privately owned guns per person as Spain does.
Thoughts and prayers — and I think my migraine's coming back.
Jeffrey C. Billman is a columnist for Detroit Metro Times.
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