Barcelona Travel Log: On Bubbles

By Noah Franklin

Barcelona is finally cooling off politically (and meteorologically). For those who understandably are not following this revolutionary blip thousands of miles away, I offer this brief rundown: The Spanish region of Catalonia was done being exploited by their country and made moves to declare independence. Madrid squinted back quizzically and reminded Catalonia that they can’t just do that. Catalonia taunted Madrid to try to stop them and Madrid absolutely did—with great force. The high-ups in Barcelona have now fled to Belgium.

My nonacademic analysis of the Catalonian independence movement is that at the core is not a political sort of energy, but a sociological one. In other words, this is not a clash of ideology but a clash of identity.

Back in Evanston, Illinois, when I was writing my essays and completing my interviews to apply for study abroad, I repeatedly swallowed and regurgitated the perhaps clichéd desire to “escape my bubble,” because I still tasted in that a kernel of truth. It seemed to me that the call of scholarly world travel was to ram myself up against the invisible film of some giant bubble dome and burst out liberated. I would open my closed-off viewpoint to a wealth of new perspectives.

But I think when I touched down here in Barcelona, I landed right on top of a much firmer, much larger bubble than any of my own. The fact that here in my sleepy neighborhood and daily commute I have barely encountered anything close to the international headlines (that have certainly caused immense parental panic) is the tangible face of a deeper truth: everything I’ve witnessed here has been through pressing my face up against the bubble of Catalonia, deaf to the cultural context inside. This bubble's membrane is strong. The culture here is built from heavy cables of DNA, of language, of values that stretch far into the ground and far back into history. As such, Catalonians needn’t look far for something to grab onto in a frightening, fractured world. And together they build a comforting blanket of communal identity. Their bubble thickens.

There may be solid political or economic reasons for independence. I don’t know. But the majority of the Catalonian flag-waving masses I see in the streets are not following rational separatist arguments; they are energized by the tuned orchestra of vibrations in their bones that define themselves. The crisis is a clash of cultures, not individuals. The very next day, the Spanish loyalists (I don’t know the actual term) flood the same streets with a different flag on their backs. And they say, “No, don’t close yourselves off in your smaller bubble. Come be a part of our bigger Spanish bubble! It’s nice in here!” They’re all cliques though, no matter the size. They may not be trying to be self-important bullies, but they will certainly feel better about themselves by drawing a clearer line in the sand (read: Catalonia wants to form a cool-kids table in the lunchroom).

In a candid discussion with a Spanish professor of mine, I tried to articulate my lack of familiarity with patriotism or nationalism. I’m from Maryland, I told him, but I have never felt a twinge of emotion towards whatever crab-eating, bayside culture my state is meant to imply. Fair enough, but what about my country as a whole? America throws around the word patriotism just as much—in fact, probably more—than your average country. But true American patriotism is not a pride for one culture; rather, it is a pride for multiculturalism. Yes, the Trump-supporters in the belly of our country found there what they claimed to be a singular American culture of which they could grab hold, define a bubble, and fend off the rest. But the real feeling associated with American patriotism should not be one of uniformity or exclusivity. True American “patriotism,” in a sense, embodies the exact opposite sentiment of what is meant by the word elsewhere in the world.

That’s the ideal, of course. The reality is that in the US we just look beyond our country for our identity. Our bubbles are not the same as our borders. They take other forms, but are just as limiting. These are cultures that we are either allowed or denied access to. Whether our culture is our religion, our ethnicity, our hometown, our sports allegiances, our university, our clubs and Greek life, we collect these entrance tickets to forge an identity. It’s easy to see. When elsewhere, you’ll be asked “What school do you go to?” When inside, “What are you involved with on campus?”

As for my time here, too often this (exotic) ticket collection is what the mission of studying abroad becomes. Aesthetic experiences are captured and pasted into an ever-bursting scrapbook of selfhood. A search for liberation and perspective ends up entrenching your individualism even more.  You can don another warm layer of identity. When you get home, you’ll give the time a glowing review, because how could you not? It’s now a part of you. And in all, escaping a bubble is meaningless if you slip right back in again after your travels. After accruing another ticket or two.

One true grace I’ve found in studying abroad is in witnessing and noting the poisonous exclusion and violent strife that occurs when huge bubbles bump up against each other. It’s not pretty.

I don’t believe that identity should be formed by collecting or by consuming. I don’t believe it should be formed by extra coatings of paint. The best things in the world happen when we do the reverse: when we strip these layers. When we dissolve bubbles. That’s what candor is. That’s what authenticity is. That’s what genuineness is. Who can say that they had a more meaningful experience during a stale ice-breaker, finding out they shared allegiance with a person to the tiny bubble of mint-chocolate-chip-ice-cream-lovers, than when they later on had a 3-AM conversation where they spoke simply as human beings? The former connection is easier, so it naturally happens first. But while these identifications seem to make sense as entry points, they are not who we are. They are shallow.

The accurate metaphor for what I now know I want, therefore, would not be one of getting out of a bubble and exploring another; it would be one of complete dissolution, of letting go of artificial bubbles as much as possible. At their most harmless, bubbles weave banal networks of mutual friends. At their worst, they cause wars. But they all serve to put up walls. We would do better to resist the compulsion to look outwards for a sense of self. What we sculpt around us will be chaotic, fragile, and hollow. The bonds we establish will be ultimately unfulfilling. The beauty lies somewhere under it all. We would find we share something much more profound in common with every single other person we meet if we would only look inwards.

Steven Norwalk