What I should have been least surprised about is, this being Barcelona, nobody is going to do anything in a rush.
First, before you do any kind of protesting whatsoever, you have to eat. And when I say eat I mean eat properly. Now I don't want to suggest that when I was at the height of my protesting days back in the 1980s when my fellow students and I boldly stood against a whole load of Thatcherite policies which went through anyway that we didn't eat. Of course we did. But we ate Mars Bars or Pot Noodles snatched during toilet stops at grimy service stations. We didn't gather for convivial home cooked lunches with wine and erudite conversation. We were too busy not shaving, wearing beanies and pretending to be working class.
But lunch is how protests begin in Barcelona. If it is General Strike this lunch must be served at someone's home with all ingredients bought the day before because on no account are you allowed to buy anything on the actual day because then you'd be a scabby strike-breaker and wouldn't be allowed seconds. The lunch will start around two or so and once pleasingly filled with rioja, coca and croquetas you will head off to the protest sometime after five. It should be acknowledged that the lunch often lasts considerably longer than the demonstration.
It is then that you will come across the second surprise. The places where the marches start and the times that they do so seem to be mainly established via a combination of rumour, whim and the Passeig de Gracia. In Britain, in contrast, one can always be sure where to go because every union/organisation will provide countless marshalls who will officiously direct you and if you're unlucky call you comrade while they're doing it. And if unaccountably the march is stewardless you can just ask a friendly policeman who will be lining the route ready to kettle you later. The police are always glad to help early on because if nobody turns up they miss out on the overtime.
The Catalans obviously regard this kind of start time and start place thing as overly prescriptive and permit protesters to start the march from pretty much wherever you like. Just find a largish group of people and stand by them until they begin walking. You may occasionally find that you have inadvertently joined an extended family gathering in which case they may look at you oddly when you start following them home.
But otherwise you can assume, especially if you're somewhere around the Passeig de Gracia, that if you're looking for Catalan trouble you've come to the right place. Passeig de Gracia is Barcelona's grandest street and all marches use it in one way or another. Some go up it and some go down it. Do not worry if you don't know which way is the correct one because you will move so little it usually won't matter.
That is the next surprise. For those of us who cut our teeth (Ouch!) on British marches we assume that when a march begins there will be some form of forward movement. This not the case in Barcelona. When a march begins in Barcelona the participants usually continue to contentedly stand still. Often for up to an hour. The more philosophically minded among the protesters may take this opportunity to ponder whether a march is a march if it doesn't actually...er...march and having resolved that thorny dilemma may further question whether a march can be said to have really begun if it is not actually advancing.
Nevertheless at some point some form of movement does just about take place. It won't last long however. If you move more than twenty steps before halting again you can count yourself as doing extremely well.
Eventually you will stumble on explanations for the inertia. For example, last week, we encountered motorists who had foolishly continued to use the Gran Via (which crosses the Passeig de Gracia) until the moment when the march began. At some point the tide of strikers had simply overwhelmed the cars and the motorists were trapped. Unfortunately for everyone, their cars created a semi-effective barrier which the demonstrators were forced to file through in ones and two slowing down the marches already minimal progress and guaranteeing that the trapped drivers wouldn't be driving home anytime soon.
Next came the photos. Every little group (and this being a general strike there were an awful lot of little groups) wanted a photo of their big banner (and every group had a big banner - I think it's mandatory). Unfortunately obtaining a sufficiently all-encompassing wide shot, one which gets everybody in so that nobody is disappointed not to be tagged on Facebook the next day is difficult in a throng. But the dogged photographers refused to be put off. They simply stopped moving entirely until the group in front had progressed far enough forward to create enough space to allow a satisfactory photo. But with the group ahead moving at the average speed of a sluggish glacier this could and did take a very long time. Indeed I am sure I would be marching yet had it not been for the discovery of what I will term the Demonstration Bus Lane. This doesn't mean it has buses in it obviously. Don't be so literal-minded.
The demonstration “bus lane” was on the right of the main march and here people were moving at a much rapider pace. To be clear when I say rapider I'm not talking about anything which would trouble your average tortoise. Nevertheless by joining it for the first time we experienced sustained progress and without even the need to be motivated by tempting bits of lettuce. Looking over at the main march one became aware of further explanations for the lack of movement. Some protesters aboard lorries souped up with sound systems had stopped entirely and decided to turn the whole thing into some kind of DJ groove type event thing (I'm out of my depth here, can you tell?) combining thumping beats with youthful jumping. This certainly added to the general fiesta atmosphere of the whole occasion. But on the other hand it did throw up yet another obstacle and slowed things down even more.
I hope my disappointment with this is to do with my cultural expectations of protest (rather than a middle aged dislike of synthetic dance/pop and Catalan teenagers whooping). In Britain we expect to march from Point A to Point B where we will mass together and attempt to make out the odd word of speeches given by politicians and union leaders who will sell us all out the moment they achieve power. In my day, the best we hoped for really was that the police would get bored enough to charge at us and we could run away pretending like it was Paris in 1968 all over again and then delightedly castigate them for gross overreaction in the pub afterwards.
Ah, the police. If anything has disappointed me about protesting in Barcelona it is the police. I expected a thuggish hangover from the fascist days of Franco. And what did I get? Pretty much nothing. You never see them. At least in Britain the police do protesters the courtesy of standing along the route with their riot shields looking menacing thus participating in the creation of the sensation that we're engaged in some kind of disobedience. That the state is at least vaguely interested in what was going on. In Spain nada. It's a poor show. In the Mossos' (Catalan riot police's) defence I should point out that they did once nearly tear gas me but it was such an isolated incident that I'm simply not prepared to credit them with the level of black clad intimidation I'd been expecting. One swallow does not make a summer.
By now we had been marching for almost two hours and had travelled a distance that would have normally taken ten minutes. The main demonstration was totally gridlocked and in the “bus lane” most people were now walking in the opposite direction to the correct one. Myself and my fellow manifestees concluded that enough was enough, If the march was going to cease to resemble a proper protest in any form at all ( forward movement, agreed direction, aggressive police presence) then we could no longer be expected to continue in it.
Agreeing we had shaken the status quo, stuck it to the man, and kept on rocking in the free world quite enough for one day we headed home for a light supper.
So that's protests in Barcelona for you. You can bring your kids. You can bring your granny. But forget the missiles and the Molotov cocktails. Shuffle this way to the revolution.