Postcard from Barcelona


The only person I correspond with anymore using paper and ink (i.e., with envelopes and stamps) is a great uncle who is doing a life sentence in one of Pennsylvania's penitentiaries. To my knowledge he is the only Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado in the Pennsylvania DOC, and, at age 85 and ailing, his health care costs alone are testimony to the the craziness of the "life means life" mantra is central to Pennsylvania penal policy.

I bring him up because I sent him a postcard from when I was in Barcelona. I mistakenly deleted his address from my phone, so I put his name and the fragments of his address that I remembered on the postcard and sent it off. Apparently, it wasn't enough as the postcard never got to him. So this morning I put another card in the mail to him, which will have the right address but a Philadelphia postmark.

I'm sort of doing the same thing in this blog entry. My last entry was just before I left, with the family, on a vacation built around a conference in Barcelona. That was about a month ago, but one of the small unintended consequences of Catalunya's secession movement is that it extends the shelf life of my report back. In effect, a virtual postcard sent after I've been home.

Barcelona is a great city to visit, especially with small children. I have not heard anyone say an unkind thing about the city, and I will add to that chorus. If anything, the city is too much of a magnet for tourists and thus has a domesticated feel. But all the while the city hangs on to a regionalist identity was in full display when I was there, about a week before their referendum for independence. Flags waving, impromptu chants, and street demonstrations abounded during my time there.

There was a big demonstration of the Friday of the conference, the FEANTSA European Observatory on Homelessness Research's annual conference, 9 days before the referendum on independence was to be held. It is my favorite of the conferences that I attend. It's small, though growing each year, and I meet up and catch up with a group of European colleagues who are very smart and great fun. The conference invariably bleeds into dinner and into a night out. This year the conference was held at the University of Barcelona, which dates back to the 15th century and whose buildings give higher learning the exalted air of wise, bearded men huddling over a globe.

I took the cover picture for this blog entry with my phone just outside the conference rooms. The building we were in also encompasses a series of courtyards, which were promptly taken over that Friday by demonstrating students. They had the air of a soccer crowd, with lots of red and yellow, flags waving, and loud chants and songs. The latter drowned out the conference sessions at times. Like a parallel universe colliding with ours. We conference goers took it in stride. To be in college with a cause.

For the sessions this year, I attended those focusing on homelessness among refugees. In the better off European countries, rates of homelessness among locals is extremely low (by US standards), but is supplemented by migrants both from other EU countries and, to a small but growing extent, from influxes of refugees and non-EU migrants. This leads to a host of practical, policy, and ethical dilemmas and conundrums which have not counterpart in a US context. I got to take this all in and ask lots of stupid questions over several sessions on different aspects of this topic. Nicholas Pleace, from University of York in England, had an excellent presentation on the topic, based on a monograph he and several colleagues wrote that is worth checking out if you have any interest in the topic.

But, when looking back on that conference, the demonstrations will be most memorable. They were, in hindsight, but a warmup for the more contentious events of the election and their aftermath, which are still in the news as I write this. Don't expect to ever see anything like it again.

Stephen Metraux