When the projector hums in the middle of class, instinctively I turn to look for a crowd of protesters in the plaza below. At the sound of a car passing, I glance to check if it’s full of police guards. The people of Granada, Spain are not happy—Spain’s financial crisis is reaching its fifth year—and the city’s habitual demonstrations have made the sounds of protest seem like my third language.
When I first arrived, I was not accustomed to protests; I come from the Midwest, where problems are generally resolved with a smile; and I go Bowdoin, where discontent hardly ever reaches a crescendo. During orientation our first week in Granada, we were told about these seemingly spontaneous “manifestaciones,” but were assured they wouldn’t be violent like those in Madrid or Barcelona. At first I was curious about the protests, but week after week of mobs, barricades, and banners lulled me into a very casual relationship with the demonstrations.
On November 14, thousands of Spaniards participated in a countrywide strike protesting the current political policies and disastrous unemployment rate, the second such event this year. The students in my program received an email from the director urging caution, but also reminding us that classes would continue as usual.
On the day of the big strike, the streets were empty and all the stores were closed. Signs in the shop windows exclaimed “¡Cerrado por la huelga general!” “Closed for the general strike!” After I finally found an open cafe, our building manager ushered me inside quickly so that the dangerous protest groups—piquetes—didn’t see from which store I had come.
In the afternoon, an impressive body of protestors spilled out into the main street. I saw signs about doctors’ wages, professors’ hours, and students’ unemployment. After ten minutes, the entire mob turned a corner and disappeared, leaving only the echoing sound of their chants and a lingering disappointment at the anticlimactic demonstration.
Here, protests are like puffs of car exhaust—exhalations of pent up anger that dissipate into regular streams of life within a few minutes.
Hopelessness lives in Granada. It sleeps with my host mom as she worries about her debt piling up. It walks to class with my friend at the university who might not be able to pay next semester’s tuition. It cries with the angry mobs that flock to City Hall. And after more than four years of regular protests in the city, hopelessness feeds on the conditioned complacency of the public.
Amidst all this tension, I’ve been unsettled by how quickly I treat choice as a prerogative abroad—and how angry I get when I’m denied the privilege. I even find myself complaining about simple things like being served for breakfast, however spoiled that may seem. After nearly 3 months of someone else deciding what and how much I eat, I’m full, fed up, and furious at my need for control over something so trivial.
Choice is a privilege I’ve abused my entire life, especially at Bowdoin. When it’s gone, I react irrationally and exert an innate sense of entitlement. The people in Granada can choose to participate in protests or can choose to ignore them, but neither can really change the current economic situation.
When I return to campus, I am determined to exercise my power to choose and effect change. My future may seem limited by many things—good grades or a prestigious internship—but even in moments of despair I’m allowed small choices. A Bowdoin education gives us a right to an individual voice and many opportunities to follow it. Keeping in mind the hopeless roar of the ‘huelga,’ we should all take note of where we fit in the world, and appreciate our situation—even if it’s not exactly what we expected.