When in Rome

Anti tourist-apartment protest on the Barcelona waterfront
A protest on the Barcelona waterfront calling “for the abolition of all tourist apartments.”

Barcelona’s public space is yet again being hotly contested. Protests against the many illegal tourist apartments in this city, sparked by last week’s publication of photographs of naked Italian tourists walking around the popular waterfront neighborhood of La Barceloneta, have started to take place every evening on the waterfront. Neighbors are fed up with constant noise, public drunkenness, and unruly behavior on the part of foreign visitors who probably never unleash such behavior in their own neighborhoods back home.

Why is it that seemingly decent and educated people start to act funny the minute they arrive in Spain? Is it the summer heat or the intense sunshine? Maybe it’s the availability of cheap, under-taxed alcohol, or the relative ease with which drugs of all kind can be bought and consumed? Yes, it’s probably all of the above, but there’s another factor; one that nobody here likes to admit: the local population.

As the expression goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans. And to some degree, that’s exactly what these tourists are doing. One only has to look at the way we Spaniards behave when we go out, whether it’s for an entire night out on the town with friends, or whether it’s to clash with police into the wee hours during a labor strike. We Spaniards are not exactly a model of quiet, law-abiding, civilized behavior ourselves (not even the Catalans are!). Perhaps most of us don’t strip down to our birth-suit when we walk the streets for a few hours, but in fact, until recently, that’s exactly what a handful of local men used to do regularly, until the city officially banned public nakedness in 2011. Look at the official public fiestas that polka-dot the Spanish calendar. San Fermín is only the most famous among thousands of wild street parties held annually throughout Spain since God knows when. Nobody here would even dare to suggest that these be banned because of noise and rowdiness. No, these fiestas are a traditional celebration of regional culture, and therefore sacred. Of course, a town holds only one week-long fiesta per year, ostensibly to honor its patron saint. The problem with tourists imitating fiesta behavior is that it goes on year-round, and that becomes quite hard to take even for most Spaniards.

These tourists see it differently, of course. They’ve come to party-down in party town, letting it all hang out, as it were. For them, Spain (and yes, this is “Spain” as far as tourists are concerned) is the after-nightclub of the world (just like China is the factory of the world or the USA is the police station of the world). The problem is, then, not restricted to the proliferation of hundreds of tourist apartments, legal or illegal. The problem is much larger: a globalized economy in which countries are ‘zoned’ for single uses. Unfortunately for us, we have been zoned as the place for the world to come and have illicit fun.

How does that other expression go?  Oh yeah, now I remember: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”


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