Just two days ago, I returned from two weeks in Catalonia. I spent the majority of that time in Barcelona, but after Faith joined me, we travelled to El Port de la Selva (on the Costa Brava), Figueres and Girona.
Some of you may want to ask me, “Hey, how was your trip to Spain?” Here is why, even after only two weeks, I might bristle at the question:
Yes, my passport has a boring Schengen area stamp with an encircled ‘E’, but I could probably count the number of Spanish flags that I saw during those two weeks on one hand *.
Even among the non-Spanish flags flying from windows and balconies, the official Catalan flag might have been outnumbered by the Estelada — the Catalan stripes with a blue pennant and star, which is a symbol of Catalan independence.
One of our CouchSurfing hosts told us that she wasn’t sure if Catalonia would be better off if it were independent from Spain, but that she wanted independence anyway.
And declarations that “Catalonia is not Spain” were not just written and spray-painted in Catalan — which might be a way of trying to rally comrades to the cause — or in Spanish — which might be a warning to Madrid that Catalonia is not to be messed with. But even on the top of Montserrat, I saw it in English — apparently, even foreign visitors need to realise that they are in a place called Catalonia which, again, is not Spain.
SO, if I answer a question such as “How was Spain?” with something like, “I don’t know, I haven’t been,” I am not just being a smartass ** I really was made to feel that I was in a place that had a unique identity that could not be conflated with Spain.
Catalonia is indeed planning to hold a referendum on independence from Spain next year, which the central government in Madrid considers illegal. I’m just an outsider, and of course, I was only hearing one side of the story. But when you’re dealing with a people that suffered under a fascist dictatorship for over 30 years, and endured attempts to have their language banned, it’s difficult not to take sides.
Of course, right now, all of Europe seems a centrifuge, with ever tinier statelets breaking away; Kosovo, Abkhazia and South Ossetia might have seemed like little pawns in a vestigial Cold War game between Russia and the “West,” but they might have been harbingers of the new European nation: smaller and less internally self-sufficient. This is what Europe used to look like, at the beginning of the Reformation. Indeed, a friend in Catalonia pointed out that next year’s referendum is impeccably timed as it will mark 300 years since the last time Catalonia had an independent state.
Maybe the fracturing of Europe into a more complicated political cartography is just a return to the days of yore.
*(Quick vexillogical lesson for those of you who need it: Here is the flag of Spain; here is the flag of Catalonia).
**The key word is “just.” I, of course, am being a smartass, but there is, this time, more to my response than just smartassery.