Different kind of culture, European-style 

Ranger Rich

BARCELONA — They came in great surging waves of humanity, a million people or more, disheveled many of them, walking shoulder to shoulder as heavy smoke filled the air, old and young, laughing and jostling for position as giants walked among them and fireworks filled the air — and then they formed a human tower nine stories tall with a child at the top.

Here you might be thinking, "Oh, City Council held another public hearing on medical marijuana?" and I would say no, this was the festival of all festivals in this overwhelming city on the coast of Spain. And I, somehow, was in the middle of it all a few nights ago and I can't wait until my boss at the Indy gets a load of this month's expense report.

It has been a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, from the coast of Spain to Monaco and Rome and Florence and then to Athens and Istanbul, too, but on this particular night we were locked in human madness in downtown Barcelona among jugglers and concerts and a circus and floats honoring the presence of Satan and fire, lots and lots of flame-belching machines and people in the costumes of Beelzebub himself. And oh how you wished the folks back home at Focus on the Family (motto: Laying Off Workers Left and Right, Just Like Jesus Would Do) could have been here in Spain to see the fire-belching Satan floats.

It is called La Mercé, the festival of Our Lady of Mercy, four days of craziness that shuts down the heart of the sprawling city and oozes outward until most of the metro area is alive with singing and dancing and heavy, pounding drumbeats from a hundred drum bands, a pulsating, steady roar of music and fireworks and, even without a public hearing on the matter, the smell of marijuana smoke hanging thick in the Mediterranean air.

In the morning we would trade the residue of the festival for a sobering tour of a spectacular work, a church that has been under construction, nonstop, since 1909, the simply amazing Basilica of the Sagrada Família (Holy Family), the work of now long-dead Antoni Gaudi. And I think I speak for all of us back home in our own village when I say, "We have something that seemed like it was under construction for a hundred years, also. We call it the Woodmen-Academy interchange."

But the Sagrada Família was beyond even our road project in its magnitude, a church with an interior 90 meters long and 60 meters wide, every inch an ornate design of sandstone and marble and other stones that were spelled in Spanish and so I do not know what they are because I am an American and, well, they speak pretty good English, most of these Spaniards.

The towers of the church rise into the sky, 18 massive bell towers or domes, eight of them now finished after 102 years, each depicting a scene from the Nativity, the largest a spectacular, 170-meter-high dome over the church's altar. We toured the gigantic church along with tens of thousands of others on this bright autumn day and my wife, who is generally in charge of telling me to shut up when I make lame jokes at inappropriate times, didn't have to say much on this day. We just walked and stared and then stared some more.

They say Família will be finished in about 2026. I'd like to come back to see it.

But the festival of La Mercé might have been even more powerful, a sea of people moving and dancing and blowing things up and honoring Our Lady of Mercy along with acknowledging Satan and his work, too, an annual gathering of most of the population of Barcelona and, Good Lord, on a school night, too.

The hammering drumbeats that had an entire city dancing into the early morning light have, I think, earned a permanent spot in my mind.

Our ship sailed a few hours later, off to Monte Carlo and other magical places. We later stood, for crying out loud, in the Coliseum in Rome, on the very spot where the lions mingled with the early Christians. And they say the lions in some of Italy's zoos are actually the direct descendants of those Christian-gnawing lions.

I wonder if I can get one of them in my luggage for the trip home.



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