Last weekend, I traveled to Barcelona. How does one afford to spend a weekend in Barcelona in this economy with the dollar at $1.40 to one Euro, one might ask? Points, my friends, points. When you travel enough, it’s possible to build up quite a few of these delightfully-useful but quickly-diminishing-in-value “perks,” and that’s how I got there.
Because it’s “Vacation time in Europe,” numerous hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions offer nice packages for a reasonable number of points, and because I’d never been to Barcelona or anywhere in Spain for that matter, it seemed like a good plan. Albeit brief, my 4 day journey into yet another culture was almost worth the pain of traveling. Of course, if you remember my Serbia, Nigeria, Bosnia, Netherlands and Italy blog posts, you know that I’m all about “experiences.”
The longer I live, the more interested I am in how other people live. Many years ago, probably 20 or so, we had an exchange student, Monica, from Barcelona who used to stand in my family room, look out the window into the rolling fields and proclaim, “Nick, Nick, I am sooo bored.” Truthfully, I was, too.
So, why Barcelona, VAT and the “A” word? I fell in love with the city. I loved the ambiance, the food, the wines, the architecture, and the people. Maybe it was the fact that there are two million souls living there, and I never felt uneasy even once. Unlike my last trip to Chicago, where I couldn’t sleep all night because of the continuing chorus of sirens from emergency vehicles, Barcelona’s street in front of our hotel erupted in the wail of those distinctive, European sirens only
about four times, from Friday until the following Monday.
Some of the little things that captured my attention included the walk/don’t walk sign on the streets that actually allowed you enough time to cross at your leisure without being hit by an oncoming car. The people and cab drivers were polite and, most importantly, there was a feeling of helpfulness and respect in the shops, restaurants and architectural wonders.
Of course, by Sunday evening, we had visited nearly every architectural work of Antoni Gaudí, and toured and listened to a great concert at the inspiring Palau Música Catalana. Barcelona is today one of the world’s leading tourist, economic and cultural and sports centres, and this all contributes to its status as one of the world’s leading cities.
But what about the rest of the title of this blog post? Every time we purchased something material there, the VAT tax was applied, and when I asked someone to explain it, the answer was simple, “It’s how we pay for healthcare.” Consequently, when we walked the streets over that entire weekend, we saw a total of five beggars, and three of them had a Starbucks Cup to catch the falling Euros.
The other things that we saw everywhere were dumpster-style recycling bins. And not just any bins, either. Very fancy, clean, able-to-be-picked-up-mechanically bins, that were specifically color coded for every imaginable kind of recyclables. Not rocket science, but a comment on community pride, sustainability or climate change, perhaps.
So, we’ve taken care of the creation of a pleasant ambiance on numerous levels with extraordinary architecture, beautiful tree-lined streets, recycling, healthcare, low crime and compassion for fellow human beings. We didn’t see many Mercedes, but we also didn’t see much evidence of poverty, either. The beaches in town were public, and not controlled by exclusive beachfront hotels. Barcelona’s public transportation was a pleasure — clean, comfortable and efficient, with a train to Paris that delivers you there in about three hours…and the Tapas, wine and customer service were all simply amazing.
Nationally, Spain’s unemployment rate hit 21.3%, and they are listed as one of the PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain…i.e., economically-unsound EU countries. In spite of these huge challenges, Barcelona was a great city, a great experience, and a great setting with world class arts. So, should we charter an Airbus 380, load up our U.S. Congress, and fly them to Barcelona?
Nah, it wouldn’t help.
Hmm. Maybe we should fly them to Somalia?