My first and only time at Las Fallas was March 2003, during my semester abroad in Barcelona. We spent the day admiring the elaborate monuments that each neighborhood had built. Fresh off a Greek homecoming that fall, I knew how hard it was to build something like that. And our tissue-paper-puff floats were nothing compared to these: thirty feet tall, beautifully painted. All but professional. They looked too beautiful to destroy.
But at midnight that night, that’s exactly what they did. Every single one of those beautiful monuments burned down. We wandered the neighborhoods, drinking with locals, watching the fires. Giant bonfires in the middle of the city, one on every block. Fantastic masterpieces up in flames. People rejoicing.
We were college kids. All we wanted was to have a little fun. We pretended that we knew what it meant for these people, we pretended that we understood the history and meaning of this for the people in Valencia. We pretended we knew everything.
Then we went back to the hotel. The middle of the night, drunk, my memory trips me up: the flames, the cities on fire, linked more closely in my mind than they were in reality. The images more powerful than the facts.
We sat in front of a tv in our small, cheap, college-kids-on-a-budget hotel room and we watched the city on fire.
But this time, instead of Las Fallas, fires burned by residents in celebration, we watched Shock and Awe: fires started by bombs, dropped by our country, in “pre-emptive self-defense.” The flames seared into my mind, layered over the flames of Las Fallas. Linked forever in my memories.
We sat in that tiny hotel room and I felt the certainty of youth drop away. I didn’t understand the people of Baghdad any better than I understood the people of Valencia. But we had been told this was necessary. We had been told by people who knew better than us. By people who had information we didn’t. By people we trusted. So we sat in silence and we watched the flames.
Back in Barcelona the next day, I sat in my host family’s living room and watched the bombs on the BBC. The sound of the bombs was drowned out by the sounds of the demonstrations outside. Thousands of people demonstrated; they banged drums and shouted, chanting slogans in Spanish that I knew I didn’t really understand, even if I knew the literal translation. I didn’t understand them any better than I understood the flames of Las Fallas.
And there were more fires: burning flags, burning effigies of George W. Bush. Burning effigies of everything that America represented. Our study-abroad program told us to be careful on the streets. And we were.
But I watched those flames in Baghdad and I knew: the embers would linger long after the fires were out. We would never be safe on the streets again. Not the way we had been once.