In Barcelona the General Strike was two parts civilised calm to one part chaotic unease.
As a Briton, the idea of a general strike is - for better or for worse - something from the history books: the last one in the UK was in 1926 and strikes, when they do happen, tend to be localised and short. They’re also pretty bad-tempered affairs: underground drivers threatening to strike on New Year’s Eve, for example, where disruption to party goers will be at its maximum.
That is the whole point, of course, and I’m certainly not criticising their right to do it. Nevertheless, it was strangely refreshing to see unions sitting down with the Catalonian Generalitat to work out minimum levels of service in the days before the strike. This may be a legal condition of the Strike rather than any sign of largesse but to British eyes it seemed eminently civilised.
Equally, when a friend of mine needed to visit the emergency dentist yesterday on the day of the General Strike he was seen quickly, efficiently and with none of creeping shame of crossing a picket line.
This, however, is not to say that the Strike was a failure: where I live, in the centre of Barcelona, it looked as if around 50% or more of shops were shut and if anyone disagreed with the Strike they kept their views to themselves.
The main demonstration march in Barcelona also took place in an atmosphere of civilised calm. One peculiarity that has always struck me about demonstrations here is how they can encompass thousands of different viewpoints. So, while the target of the demonstration might be budget cuts and labour reform, individual attendees will use the occasion to call for anything from an independent Catalonia to animal rights. The contrast with Britain, where protest marches tend to be about one specific issue (such as the massive anti-Iraq war marches of 2003) is marked.
And such was the march yesterday: thousands of protestors walked from the Placa de Catalunya in good humour, children alongside parents, with banners aloft and voices aloud. The banners in themselves were a lesson in Catalan humour: frequently scatological, full of plays on words and ready to take the piss out of all and sundry. (Rajoy as Marty McFly in a Back To the Future take off was a particular favourite).
But of course, when the public thinks of the General Strike in Barcelona it won’t be these images that come to mind: rather it will be the pictures of agitators burning bins, breaking glass and setting fire to a Starbucks.
I was around Urquinaona, trying to get to the Placa de Catalunya, when the first incidents of the evening took place. Perversely, being so close to the events it was hard to understand what was happening. What seems like a straight narrative from the media reports and YouTube videos unfurled in mini waves of chaos for those on the ground: shots were fired, protestors started to run in all direction and the acrid mix of smoke and gas drifted in the air.
If you strained, you could see fires in the distance and lines of helmeted police, while rumours swept the crowd of shops burned and people arrested. Police vans came and went with the same nervous urgency and fire engines rushed from burning bin to burning bin, adding to the general chaos. Things would then calm down momentarily only for the cycle to repeat itself minutes later, with the disruption coming from a different area this time.
The Catalans are generally a fairly phlegmatic lot, however, and while there was fear among those caught up in the disturbances (particularly from those with children) the general atmosphere was closer to that of unease and disappointment. The march, it appeared, was breaking down into chaos and people didn’t want to lose the chance to make their voices heard.
But, in the end, Catalan pragmatism ruled: after an hour stuck in the Placa de Catalunya organisers struck another route and the march went ahead as planned, banners, drums and all.
One day later and - bar some paint blots and a very closed branch of Starbucks - Urquinaona was back to normal. People were reading papers in the sun and chatting to their neighbours, as if nothing had happened. Civilised calm has returned.
But the question is for how long? With Rajoy today set to announce the most austere Budget in the history of democratic Spain there is a feeling that more unrest is inevitable. The General Strike of Barcelona, then, may be just a taste of what lies ahead.
Photographs All rights reserved by Teresa Forn.