From the moment of landing at
Barcelona airport it is apparent to the traveller that they have not arrived in Spain, but in . Sun seekers, in their haste to reach the beaches of the Catalonia Costa Brava, may take a little time to register this fact, although one hopes that it does eventually sink in before they board the homeward-bound flight.
Airport signs are in Catalan, English and Spanish. Flags, if any are flying, will be multi-striped red and yellow Catalan, as opposed to the three horizontal stripes of
. Bar menus will confound those who have spent the winter taking Spanish conversation classes. Instead of café con leche, there is café amb llet and, rather than ensalada, amanida. Outside of tourist destinations, restaurant menus are increasingly published solely in Catalan. Then there is the accent. We are a long way away from the somewhat melodic Andalusian lisp; words are truncated and many locals sound like they have a mouth full of marbles when they speak their native language. Spain
These are just the trappings of a society that is fiercely proud of its identity and this is evident in many of the conversations I have held with friends and acquaintances in
. The Catalan question inevitably crops up in its various forms, either in a discussion of the language, the traditions, the food or, more commonly, in relation to Tarragona , in other words, defensively. Since I have lived in Spain before, this comes as no surprise to me. The difference is that years ago, in my determination to learn Spanish, so that I could move on to “my next big adventure”, Catalonia South , I saw “the Catalan thing” as an add on. A sort of extra or a bonus that came along with the experience of living here. Beyond a few token phrases I didn’t make any effort to speak the language – because I always had the easier option of communicating in Spanish, aka Castilian, America
Now I regret my perception of “this Catalan thing” as an added extra. I didn’t register that the language is an open invitation, a doorway into this society. Not having walked through that door and learned to speak Catalan back then (although I came to understand it) has placed me in the position of “eavesdropper.” I listen to conversations just a couple of steps away from having my foot fully inside the door. When my Catalan friends and acquaintances kindly switch from their own language to Spanish for my benefit, a slight - but unintentional - distance opens up between me and them because this is not their language (or mine, for that matter). The gap doesn’t really close when – in response to my pleas – they address me in Catalan and I have to reply in Spanish because the words in my head just won’t be marshalled into sentences in Catalan.
A few English-speaking friends who, in their early days of language learning, made a conscious choice to give priority to Catalan and place Spanish on the back burner do not have this problem. Because they saw Catalan as something to be valued in its own right, as opposed to an extra, they now switch effortlessly from Catalan to Spanish and to English. Their Spanish seems to have been absorbed in a process of osmosis and through encounters with non Catalan speakers, so that along the way they have become fluent in the language. I’ve missed the boat. How I envy their trilingualism.
Fluency in Catalan would doubtlessly have given me a sharper perception of what it is to be Catalan. I ask my students if they are Catalan and uniformly they respond that they are. What does that mean, that you are Catalan, I inquire? The question evokes thoughtful expressions, furrowed brows.
“Well, we’re different.”
“In what way?” I probe.
“We have imagination. Just look at Picasso, Gaudí and Dalí. Great Catalan art.”
“Er … Picasso was from the south…”
“Yes, but he lived here.”
I return to the question of difference. Marc, a banker, mentions efficiency as a Catalan attribute and links it to a word that others have spoken fondly of: seny, which they assure me has no direct translation. Seny, they argue is about the very essence of being Catalan and it means to be clear-headed, rational, cautious, without “the interference of passion.” Dolors laughs when I mention seny to her.
“Yes, a banker would be fond of that particular attribute because seny makes us into a nation of savers, estalviadores, and small business owners. We are also known for being tight fisted but maybe that’s the disagreeable side effect of seny …”
An exploration of the question of what it means to be Catalan generally relies on the introduction of difference to the discussion. Although most don’t say it, what they mean is different from the Spanish. Local cuisine is held up as a strong example. All the people I talk to, without exception, mention bread with tomato, pan amb tomaquet, as the crowning glory of Catalan cuisine.
Marina admits that impoverished immigrants from Murcia in the south may have brought the recipe to in the 19th century. Now though, the ritual of a slice of farmhouse bread, rubbed with half a tomato, followed by a sprinkling of top quality olive oil and a little salt, is a daily occurrence in most Catalan households. Catalonia
“Calçots, now they definitely are one hundred per cent Catalan,” she says with a smile.
Calçots (pronounced calsots) look like a cross between a slim leek and a fat spring onion. There is no translation of the word into English.
Marina tells me that they used to be thrown on to the compost heap until, during lean times in the 19th century, a farmer from the nearby town of roasted them over an open fire. The resulting meal was so delicious that calçotadas (calçot banquets) have become a very popular tradition in Valls at this time of the year. Catalonia
Food is a topic that all Catalans delight in discussing at length but, before we get waylaid, I steer them back on to the path of what it means to be Catalan. Traditions and folklore are our next encounter. Marc inquires whether I am familiar with el caganer (the figure taking a crap in the corner of the Nativity scene*).
“Yes, and with the caga tiò too.* You seem to obsessed with defecation as a nation. Are you all stuck at the anal stage of development?”
“We might well be. But the point is that Catalans have a very earthy sense of humour; we are irreverent and we like to believe we’re not shy about those topics that others might regard as forbidden.”
Marc brings the Catalan national dance, the Sardana, into the discussion and asks if I have seen it performed. I nod.
“I doubt whether you hurried back to see it again.”
He’s right. Watching the Sardana brings to mind a ring of constipated dwarfs performing to a tune played on one of those annoying instruments that children blow repeatedly at parties. Ignoring my smirk, Marc suggests that the power of the Sardana, like the tradition of the human towers, rests in its symbolism.
“Look at how the participants hold hands to form a circle throughout the duration of the dance. They are united in their efforts, as are the teams who build human towers. They physically support each other in a collective endeavour. It’s all about cooperation and solidarity.”
argues, we couldn’t have survived as a nation. Repression down the centuries has been part of our shared experience as Catalans. Together we have had to endure and to salvage what we could of our identity, which is, above all, the language.” Marina
Cristina, who has a scientific background, sighs when I raise the issue.
“The rational side of my brain tells me that this is nonsense. To be Catalan … I can’t see it or touch it, But when you ask me about it I feel it and it won’t go away. Any encounter with our folklore, the Sardana and the human towers, evokes it. So does awareness that we have a very powerful neighbour that has spread its empire and its language – Spanish – to over 300 million people. We are a small and vulnerable nation in comparison.”
Discussion of identity often puts people on the defensive. Attempts to define what it means to be Catalan are overshadowed by very real political and historical issues of colonisation and Franco’s repression, as well as “a lack of understanding” on the part of the current conservative government in
. This is the context within which Catalans’ sense of themselves as having a common identity has been forged - through the dynamics of repression and resistance. But, as Marc indicates, the common identity is not a cast iron shield; closer inspection reveals chinks which hint at a certain lack of integration. Madrid
“There are around seven million of us in
and many have come from other parts of the peninsula. Ask them where they’re from and they generally answer with the name of the town or village they or their parents, or perhaps their grandparents, were born in, even if they have lived in Catalonia for all or most of their lives.” Catalonia
Guillermo is a sculptor and artist from a village in the south of
. He’s been living in Spain for over twenty years. He understands Catalan perfectly but doesn’t speak the language. Tarragona is his home now and there are no plans to move elsewhere. In his opinion the language, the traditions and the cuisine all make Catalans different. Tarragona
“You can look high and low for evidence of their difference, and certainly you will find it. However, for me the crux is this, they are different because they want to be. And that’s good enough for me.”
* See my earlier Christmas blog.