Friday, 19 August 2011

World Youth Day / Jornada Mundial de la Juventud 2011

Over the last four days swarms of Catholic youngsters from all over the globe have descended on Madrid, kitted out with brightly coloured WYD hats, backpacks and fans, clogging up the metro and generally taking over the city. The main effect that this has had upon me is to make me feel instantly more madrileña, very much removed from this tourist event, and just as displeased as any local at the disturbance to my daily routine. As we were being subjected to a third consecutive song (they ALL love to sing. Constantly.) from a rowdy French group, a local man stepped onto the metro, shaking his head. Seeing the equally pained look on my face he exclaimed, "They are everywhere! Line 4 is full of chinos, here it's los franceses" [more head shaking, this time I joined in]. After such a bonding moment with a local, I had to bite my tongue to ensure that I did not start humming along to the terribly catchy song the Frenchies had just launched into...

The unmistakeable backpacks take over the city...
Not being remotely religious, this event and all it encompasses is entirely foreign to me. However, after close observation (I had no option, there is no escaping the Catholics this week) it would seem that the main priority of these groups is not to reveal their deep and unshakeable faith, and not even to bow down to the Pope, but in fact it is to be as loud, face-painted, conspicuous and outwardly patriotic as possible, thus proving that your country is The Best. The Spanish stick to their beloved refrain "Yo soy español, español, español!", the French often step it up a notch and go for their national anthem, while the United States contingent, fans of the simplistic chant, rarely veer away from "USA! USA! USA!" The whole thing has the vibe of a school trip on steroids.
Aside from the irritation that the crowds of religious youths have caused me, I must admit to also being impressed by firstly the sheer scale of the event, and secondly the range of nationalities represented; people have travelled huge distances to be here, waving the flag for Australia, Canada, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa, not to mention numerous flags that I have never even seen before.

Flags from all round the globe

Getting a better vantage point
Last night the celebrations came to a head as Pope Benedict XVI took to the stage in Plaza de los Cibeles in front of what can only be described as a pulsating ocean of elated pilgrims. We passed through the area, with great difficulty, about three hours before he was even due to arrive at the Plaza, and the size of the crowd was already incredible. People were climbing on traffic lights, lamposts and wheelie bins to get a better view, setting up camps at the side of the road, filling up every side-street as far as the eye could see. And they were still singing. A roar erupted from all around us as one compare implored the crowd to raise their right hand up in the air and scream, to prove that "los católicos, no somos aburridos!" (us Catholics are not boring!).

Of course the event has not passed without controversy, with heated clashes between police, pilgrims and anti-pope protesters on Wednesday night in the Sol area. The term 'anti-pope protesters' is actually somewhat misleading; in fact, the majority of those taking part in the protest were not explicitly opposed to the Pope or even his visit per se, but instead were voicing their fears and anger at the estimated cost of the event at a time when Spain's economy teeters on the edge of complete instability. The main problem seems to be a lack of clear information about projected costs and, just as importantly, revenue generated by the influx of pilgrims to the city. Some figures suggest the taxpayer has been burdened with a 25 million euro portion of the bill, others put the figure closer to 100 million. Some point to the wealth of the Catholic Church and ask why it cannot fork out for its own celebration. Event organisers claim vehemently that the profit for the city and its citizens will far outweigh their initial financial stake in the proceedings, while protesters highlight the reduced cost of travel and accommodation for the international pilgrims as evidence that they will not, ultimately, be 'paying their way'. With strict austerity measures currently being pushed through by the governemnt, it would hardly have been difficult to predict that this kind of largesse being put on display on such an enormous scale would rub people up the wrong way. In the interest of serving all citizens, religious and secular alike, the government and event organisers could have appeased the situation with some simple transparency and an honest set of figures.

TG xx

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