Tuesday, 3 March 2009

"I'm sorry. He's from Barcelona..."

The Main Entrance to Parc Güell, one of Antoni Gaudì's many masterpieces

Barcelona! City of Catalan Splendour! Host of the 1992 Olympic Games. Birthplace of lauded actress Margarita Xirgu; footballer Cesc Fàbregas; writer Laura Freixas; patriarch of the Bardem film dynasty, Rafael Bardem (whose grandson, Javier, played tortured artist Juan Antonio to Penélope Cruz's jealous, mad bitch of an ex-wife, María Elena in the recent film Vicky Cristins Barcelona, set in the city); and spiritual home to possibly the greatest Art Nouveau architect Antoni Gaudì.

weekend break.Cosmopolitan, metropolitan, and internationally renowned for its architecture, climate, and strong sense of history, culture and identity, you can do far worse than to pick this place for a weekend break. And yet, this week, I came back from this same city none too impressed.

Why? The answer has already been given: Barcelona's "strong sense of history, culture and identity" is too strong.

Let me give those of my readers who are unaware of Spanish history a little bit of background context. The nation of Spain is made up of several Autonomous Communities (think States if you're from the US, or counties - but with more devolved power, like Scotland and Wales -if you're from the UK; apologies to other nationalities, but you probably know what I mean, by now). Not all of these communities originally spoke what we non-hispanics call "Spanish": there are in fact five idividual Spanish languages, the most common being Castellano, spoken by all native Spanish Speakers. The others, Catalan, Valenciano, Euskara, and Gallego are the original respective languages of the communities of Cataluña, Valencia, País Vasco (Basque Country) and Galicia, each with their own special literature and history. Like other modern European countries, such as Italy, Germany and the Baltic States, several attempts at unification have been made and subsequently unmade. Unfortunately, also like Italy, Germany and the Baltic States, Spain suffered terrible suppression under the fascist dictator Francisco Franco during the mid-twentienth century, throughout which much was made of Spanish "unity" by stamping out any elements of non-castellano dissent. After Franco's death, and the transition to democracy, autonomy was restored to all the Communities, and the other four languages became officially recognised by the 1978 Constitution.

Now, put yourself in the place of someone from one of these non-castellano communities. Imagine being forced by the state to not recognise your history, culture, heritage and language for forty years, the legal penalty being a spell in prison. Then imagine the liberty afforded by the end of such a regime and the attempt by a democratically elected body to appease you. You're naturally going to want to make as much of your right to expression as is possible. I'm all for this, but there is such a thing as going from one extreme to the other. Is it right to go from having all road signs and street names in castellano to catalan without any compromise (ie putting the two languages up)? Is it too much to ask of a local shopkeeper to speak to a non-hispanic visitor in castellano (spoken by 322 million people worldwide, ranking as the second/third most spoken language), when he has spent most of his life learning that language as "Spanish"? Or should the shopkeeper belligerently speak catalan (spoken by 9.9 million and ranked 88 in the world) because he has that right? After forty years of being told not to speak your regional language, you're going to want to at least play with it when democracy says you can; but do you run the risk of excluding those who can't? On the other hand, is it right for the rest of Spain - specifically those from the capital, Madrid - to speak disparagingly of catalans, just because historically the two cities have always been rivals? Furthermore, is it fair to call someone born in Barcelona Spanish or Catalan, but not both?

This is, of course, part of the age-old debate over identity: what defines us, how it is expressed, and whether it gives us the right to include or exclude. Yes, it is true that the Catalan and Basque people suffered greatly during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and the subsequent oppression under Franco, especially when one considers that such vehement oppression was directed at these people because of their strong regional identities. And yes, these people do have a right to celebrate twofold the victory of liberty and the true sense of unity discovered by sharing and expressing their language. However, I have been to both the Basque Country and Cataluña, now, and I can tell you this: for all the press coverage given to the Basque separatist group ETA in national and international news, I never once had trouble reading a street sign, or asking for batteries in a shop. In Vitoria, a small city in País Vasco, everything was in Euskara, Castellano and English; in Barcelona, capital of Cataluña and second largest city in Spain, the only place I found even two of those languages were on the metro and in the tourist spots, along with French, Italian, German and Chinese. If I approached a local, they spoke to me in English (if possible), or Catalan, before grudgingly consenting to speaking Castellano!

Not one to feel excluded, I had a short conversation on the matter with Nacho, a friend of mine from Madrid with connections to the city. It turns out that all classes, from infancy to university education, are taught in Catalan, with Castellano as a second language. All official documents are written and submitted primarily in Catalan. Job interviews are conducted in Catalan. Working in the public sector is credited on a points system: if you have a professional degree, you have a certain number of points; if you have been working at a place for a certain number of years, you receive a certain number of points for every three years; if you are able to speak Catalan, you are automatically awarded 15 points. Therefore, hypothetically skeapking, a student wanting to leave his pueblo in Andalucía (the southern, Castellano-Speaking region) and study in Barcelona would be studying in his home country, but in a second language; also, the best surgeon from Madrid would be hard pressed to find a place in a Barcelona hospital, let alone compete with the best surgeon from Barcelona in a job interview, who would automatically have more points than him anyway. Finally, considering that Barcelona is the most popular tourist spot in Spain, and up until a few years ago boasted the best local economy in the country, such inward practices and ideals seem like protectionism on the worst, most dangerous scale. As someone who now finally considers Spain to be "home from home", I felt I was visiting another country, not another city.

Even so, on La Rambla, Barcelona's main tourist street, one can't move for seeing souvenir shops selling crockery, posters, t-shirts and other assorted tack adorned with bulls, bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and even Real Madrid Football Club insignia! For most non-Spaniards, Barcelona is Spain, not Cataluñya, and the vendors are willing to exploit this as much as any other from towns up and down the country.

For a long time, Cataluña has flirted with the idea of total independence of the Kingdom of Spain, and every time it has been fought and contested in the Parliament, the debate has either been defeated or dismissed. Now, though, it seems like there is no need for such debates. The catalan language dominates the government, public life, and everyday culture. Cataluña has gone from being part of the diversity which makes Spain so interesting to a place which has distanced itself entirely from the rest of the country, while receiving the economic benefits of protection by the a constitution which cared enough to recognise its local sovereignty: it is an independent nation in all but name.

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudì's other masterpiece


  1. Very interesting - I know next to nothing about Spain, so I've gots a lil ed-u-cation today.

    ("Imagine being forced by the state to not recognise your history, culture, heritage" - I grew up in Northern Ireland, I don't need to imagine...)

  2. That's what I'm all about, you see: education to promote understanding.

    Also, as if it wasn't bad enough having to grow up in Northern Ireland, "forced to not recognise your history, culture, heritage", you were then dragged all the way across the planet to Australia, a place with no history, culture, or heritage of its own, but filled with the descendants of those who were perfectly willing to eradicate the history, culture and heritage of the indigenous peoples. Geez, ka-os, you've had it tough...