Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Field Notes: Barcelona, Spain

Field Notes: Barcelona, Spain

American international relations students know as the capital of Catalonia, a Spanish province, segregated culture, and aspiring nation.  But recently, one American who served a summer abroad discovered more than pristine beaches and paella bowls in the city that hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.  At my request, the student filed a dispatch back to FPRI on his education in poverty, pickpocketing and privilege.

“The biggest issue experiences is the unemployment rate,” wrote Evan Beere, 18, a senior at William Penn Charter High School. “It is around 25 percent. Fifty percent of people who finish college cannot even find a job.”  Similar problems exist here in the United States, where 53% of recent college graduates, according to an April 2012 article in The Atlantic, are unemployed or underemployed. 

But in Barcelona, the solution among many youth to joblessness has been targeting tourists for theft. “Teams of four people split up and each has a big black bag to collect all the wallets they have stolen,” Beere reported. “These people strike at night, which makes it easier for them to hide their identity and move more freely. Barcelona is known for having a great nightlife so pickpockets target this area. I was sure to always carry my belongings in front of me so I was not considered an exposed, easy target.”

As an American student, Beere had traveled to Barcelona through Westcoast Connection, an agency specializing in teen travel experiences.  Wisely, he used his experience as an opportunity to observe Barcelona beyond the packaged tours. “The citizens of Spain are intimidating and a lot of times it was obvious they thought the worst of Americans,” he wrote. “I accidentally walked into another man on the street and said ‘Lo Siento.’  Hoping for a pleasant response I was taken aback by the nasty things he was saying about me under his breath. The citizens of Spain think Americans are living the American Dream, even though that is not the reality we know.”

Although Beere had previously done community service in the United States, he found his time in Spain much different than his initial expectations. “I thought with my knowledge of the Spanish language I would really enjoy myself. Little did I know, these children spoke Catalan, which is a much different language from Spanish.”  The children were also more aggressive, and played sports on rougher venues than Beere had seen.  “As an American, I am used to playing on lush fields and shiny wooden courts. These children were forced to play baseball and basketball on a ground covered in dirt and rocks.”

To understand his experience better, Beere interviewed one of the Spanish officers in his travel agency.  He was surprised to learn the Barcelona native was intricately familiar with the current U.S. president and the American political system.  “If asked, I would be unable to tell you the president of Spain,” Beere admitted.  According to the interview, this Barcelona neighborhood once had a booming economy, lots of money and jobs.  After the 2008 financial crisis, things got bad for everyone.

Evan Beere provided FPRI with a snapshot of life in Barcelona, but his report offered something beyond facts and statistics.  As he traveled, Beere observed the world through local eyes, not just American ones, and wisely put himself in the shoes of others he spoke with.  Although the facts he learned in Barcelona can benefit the public, his fusion of humility, empathy and practicality while abroad reminds all foreign policy scholars of the field’s most necessary tools: an inquiring mind, a patient awareness, and a determined spirit.