Ewan McDonald on why he'll keep collecting passport stamps despite the latest atrocity

Friday morning. Throw on dressing-gown. Pad downstairs towards the kettle. Pick up the remote and click into BBC News. The bad news is all too familiar. Another atrocity. Stop, bemused, kettle in one hand. I know that street. I have eaten in that cafe.

Waken the laptop. Facebook comes up: this is a photo of where you were two years ago on this day, it tells me. It is the Barri Gòtic in Barcelona.

I write because my heart cries. For I am Everyman. I am you; you, if you travel, are me.

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Gulp. Gulp again. Breathe deeply. For this is not the first time this has happened. Some months ago, Facebook reminded me of a magical night in a Christmas market. Again, it had been two years before, to the day.

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I remember that night in Berlin. I remember the morning when the photo turned up on my timeline. I wrote: "They would not, could not, have known what was about to happen.

"It was a typical December night in Berlin — crisp, clear, windless. Above all, cold: heavy overcoats, brightly coloured scarves and mittens or black leather gloves, hats. Several layers underneath.

"It would have been dark since 4.30; at 8.15, Breitscheidplatz square was ablaze and aloud and alive. Myriad coloured, flashing, strong white bulbs from the carousels, sausage and bakery stalls, mulled-wine bars; carols and familiar tunes from the children's rides and the buskers, perhaps a choir; hundreds if not thousands of locals and visitors of all ages.

"The square is to one side of Berlin's main shopping street, Kurfuerstendamm or K-damm; think of Broadway, Newmarket, in Auckland; George St in Sydney; Bourke St Mall in Melbourne, then think of them a week before Christmas. The stores, the window displays, the giant frost-white lit Yule tree; all is, if not calm, all is bright.

The Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz was the target of a terror attack in December 2016. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Arild Vågen
The Christmas market at Berlin's Breitscheidplatz was the target of a terror attack in December 2016. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Arild Vågen

"At first glance just a few blocks of brutalist concrete in the teeming city, the 'square' holds a special place in Berliners' hearts. When the city was divided in the 1960s, those on the Western side lost their traditional meeting and shopping and partying places; they were on the Eastern side of the wall.

"Crammed between tower blocks and multiplexes and $2 shops, and the historic church dedicated to Kaiser Wilhelm II, its spire bombed in World War II, the only place that wasn't built on became the centre of their besieged community.

"The Christmas 'market' isn't so much a market as a place to gather, chat, gossip, have a hot spicy wine or beer, take the kids or watch other people's kids run around in that sheer, unbridled joy that every child deserves to have at this time. Funfairs and dozens of wooden huts selling food and drink, toys and kitsch.

"It's at its busiest around 8pm. Families have come to K-damm by bus and metro to Christmas-shop or enjoy the decorated windows; met up with the other half after work; office workers have given up for the day and gone to the square for an after-work noggin before the commute to the suburbs.

"There are more than 60 Christmas markets in Berlin every December; this one is said to be the largest and the most beautiful. I don't know if that's true: I've seen only a couple.

"But I do know how it would have felt to have been in that jam-packed (or sausage and mustard-packed) square with locals and tourists of all ages. Because on 20 December 2014, two years ago to the day, I was one of them.

"They would not, could not, have known what was about to happen: a lorry would plough into the crowded Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring 49 more."

Candles, flowers and a sign with the German word for 'why' at the site of a terror attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016. Photo / 23RF
Candles, flowers and a sign with the German word for 'why' at the site of a terror attack on a Berlin Christmas market in 2016. Photo / 23RF

And now, this morning, La Rambla. On the morning that photo was taken, I woke in a cheap hotel behind La Boqueria market, showered and dressed and left my suitcase with the office guy to pick up before I flew home that afternoon.

Sauntered up to El Corte Ingles department store at the top of La Rambla and bought presents: for myself; to take home to a friend; postcard, stamp. Sat in Placa de Catalunya and wrote that postcard, found a postbox and mailed it. Walked back down La Rambla, got my suitcase and a cab to the airport.

I do not write, anguished, as though this latest tragedy in an all-too-oft-repeated roll-call of tragedy — Nice, Paris, London; cities I love — has anything to do with me.

For people have been killed, have been maimed, have been scarred inside and out. And I am simply a traveller, someone who has been privileged to roam those streets.

The closest I have come to an "incident" was walking among the burning buses and tear gas of Gezi Park in Istanbul.

I write because my heart cries. For I am Everyman. I am you; you, if you travel, are me.

Just as I remembered that night in the Berlin market, I remember that day in Barcelona, and I could have been there last week.

I, or you, could have been ambling down La Rambla. We could have seen that vehicle leaving the street and ploughing into pedestrians. Bodies on the boulevard. Screaming and streaming across social media, the ghastly realisation that this was a deliberate act with an evil purpose. Repeated, repeated, replayed again and again on endlessly looping news channels.

People dine at restaurants on Plaça Reial in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. Photo / 123RF
People dine at restaurants on Plaça Reial in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. Photo / 123RF

What do we do? What can we do? Can we do anything?

Oh yes, we think. We can cancel that trip to Barcelona, to Istanbul, to London. We can go to Fiji or Norfolk Island and shut the world out. Can we? Where will the next assault occur? Who knows? When will it happen?

What should be our response to this? There is only one possible reply: keep travelling.

If we accept the notion that no destination is safe, there is no reason to go anywhere. There, we have given up our freedom. And who has won?

Remember, millions visit Spain every year. Most visits are trouble-free. The same largely applies to Europe and most certainly the ratcheted-up states of paranoia that are America and, to an increasing degree, Australia.

To paraphrase Churchill, in a similar era, we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the boulevards, and we shall fight them in the cafes. You know the rest.

Ewan McDonald is president of Travcom, the travel communicators of New Zealand, and contributes to the NZ Herald Travel section.