Why We Do What We Do


Graffiti is everywhere. The streets are narrow. The shops on the bottom floor are the only source of light at this hour. A man fans himself outside the supermercat, and a woman lines her laundry from her balcony above. I wonder if she’s going to drop a sock on someone passing by. 

I wonder if they know their balconies rest on stones laid in the Medieval Times, that not far away are remnants of a Roman muralla. I wonder if they know the history on which they stand.

Streets of the Gothic Quarter.

I spend a lot of my time in the Gothic Quarter. It’s a twenty minute walk from my hotel and it looks a lot different from the neighborhood in Barcelona I live in, 22@, which is gentrified and known for its nightlife. The Gothic Quarter is the Barcelona I wanted to see. I like how the streets are bustling with people and above, families are watching from their balconies. In the Gothic Quarter, I feel like I’m a part of something greater. 

Every Tuesday and Thursday, a history professor takes us on a tour through Barcelona and other parts of Spain to experience the history that we learn in our classes. It makes me take a second look at things I would normally pass by without a thought. The only downside to these day tours is they tend to be five or six hours in the heat.

Graffiti in El Raval.

This week, the professor took us to the Gothic Quarter and El Born. In the mid-afternoon, I was starting to feel faint. I think we were all exhausted except for the professor. She kept talking enthusiastically about this piece of rock we passed on the street. I started to think about why we study history, or why someone would want to devote their whole life to something in the past. 

The first answer I thought of was “to not repeat our mistakes.” While this is an important reason, it seemed like the generic, go-to answer one would give in a history class. It didn’t seem like a sufficient reason for someone to love and devote their whole life to something. 

Walking through the Gothic Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods makes me see time differently. We tend to see time as something linear, this happened and now this is happening. In the Gothic Quarter, I see remnants of the Roman murallas, old gargoyles which are hidden signs from the street’s history of prostitution, and marks on the stone walls from the bombings during the Guerra Civil. Walking through the Gothic Quarter, the past feels very much present. History isn’t composed of segregated time periods but a fusion of them. Everything is connected and very much still there. 

El Born.

And so I think we study history to make ourselves feel less alone. In the US, we’re so quick to tear down and rebuild. But I think when our landscape retains the characteristics of the people that came before, of their struggles and their accomplishments, life has more significance and purpose. It has much more stake. 

I look at the graffiti that line these centuries-old stone walls and I wonder what a historian would think. Is it a desecration of a national treasure or simply history being written on top of itself? I’d like to think the latter. 

Until next time, here are some pictures from this week:

My friend Francesca and I at Park Güell.
View of Barcelona from Park Güell.
I just really liked how the lights looked inside the Parliament building.
Meeting Catalonia’s Minister of the Interior.