Fierce Festive and Independent
When I arrived in the small yet large city of Girona, what captured my attention on initial contact was the red and yellow stripes layering the sepia toned buildings rising high on either side of me. The bright red and yellow streaked up and down the apartment buildings, running from the edges of windowsills and flickering intensely a top the roofs. These stripes are worn by the Catalan flag that represents the Catalonian region of Spain. Spanning four provinces, Barcelona, Girona, Llieda and Tarragona, Catalonia (or Catalunya) is home to approximately 7.5 million people. The flags presence here is very strong. I had known about Catalonia’s wish for independence from Spain for a few years now after my first visit to Spain in 2007 but I have never really felt the intensity and importance of this independence until arriving in Girona this year.
The other notable eye catcher there was that a lot of the promotion of Catalan independence was actually in English. At my hostel there was an English flyer advertising free books detailing the history of Catalonia all in English. The English words “Catalans want to vote” are sprawled across an apartment block in bold and self-assured white letters. It seems there is an important ground swell of movement happening in Spain and Catalonia at the moment and the people of Catalonia want the rest of the world to know about it. They want the rest of the world to care and promoting their independence in English is a way to reach more people and gain their interest. As far as I know their struggle for independence is not something that is particularly well known at home in NZ.
I was lucky enough to stay with a wonderful Catalonian couple in Banyoles for a weekend via couch surfing and here I learnt a lot more about the issue of Independence and the meaning it has to the Catalan people. Banners on the lakeside street reading “Catalonia is not Spain” got the message through very clearly. The region itself has become a great giver to Spain economically speaking and many feel that what the region gives to Spain as a country it does not get back in improvements to the region to aid in a better life for the people. But it is not all about money or economy for the Catalan people here, they are very passionate about their own culture and way of life, they have their own language which time and time again has been threatened in its existence like after the Spanish Civil War when Francisco Franco came in to power and tried to drown its usage.
My friends here seem to think that some non-catalan speakers think that the Catalonians purposely oppose using Spanish or that they turn their nose up at the idea of using the Spanish language but in reality it’s just strange for them to speak Castilian (Spanish) to each other because it isn’t their native language. It’s like people wanting you to speak Chinese to all your friends in your home country that speaks English. From what I’ve learnt from my Catalonian friends I think I have a better understanding of where this persistence for independence comes from. They basically just want the option to vote. This option is a life force to preserving their culture; they want their cultural values, their language and their history to survive amongst a force of oppression that is trying to control or to stop that preservation. I think I understand more clearly now and hey if someone tried to change my way of speaking and my way of learning and my history then I would want my independence too.
From Banyoles and Girona I followed the under current of wishful independence to Barcelona where it is probably less apparent but during the last week or so of September during La Mercé festival the message here is again clear and proud. La Mercé festival happens every year near the end of September to honour the virgin of grace and the patron saint and co-patroness of Barcelona. The holiday was officially recognised in 1871 but its origins date back to 1687 when Barcelona needed the virgin’s assistance to rid the city of a plague of nasty locusts that befell it. Since then the city has celebrated with the kind of festive enthusiasm that only the Spanish and the Catalonians have. Fireworks and gunpowder are used like confetti, dances and parades that involve giant papier-maché people tower over the masses of spectators and the crazy castell competition shows us who can make the highest and strongest tower of people without falling. I am not sure of the origins of the human towers but it is really very impressive to watch the skill of these castellers as they work together to provide a solid foundation for the child that effortlessly ascends the staunch and shaky adults like they are mere stepping-stones.
La Mercé came to a close with a spectacular fireworks display near the foot of the Montjuïc Mountain where the Catalan history and pride was displayed artistically through projection displays that took centre stage in front of what was an explosive spectacle of colour and light that rivaled the patriotic fourth of July fireworks that I experienced in San Francisco this year. Once it is all over life returns to normal in the busy and touristic Barcelona but for that week the whole city is buzzing with crazed enthusiasm and fervour over a holiday that encompasses so many bizarre and wonderful traditions. I missed the first two days which are full of running firework action but I still had my fair share with the parades full of boisterous mock-soldiers firing heart stoppingly loud explosions and the drum bands marching to their own fluid and rhythmic beat throughout the city’s centre. The closing fireworks are not to be missed and it is definitely one to be a part of if you have the opportunity to be there in September.
After spending nearly two weeks in Catalonia I feel I got a great sense of who the people are and what their way of living is about by talking to the real people of the region and letting them educate me on their beliefs and reasoning’s behind their want for independence. I guess for me it doesn’t affect my life in any way whether the people gain independence from Spain or not but I always admire an underdog and you cannot deny the passion they feel to hold on to a culture that is uniquely theirs so for that I high five the people of Catalonia. My personal journey here in Spain is to experience a new way of living and to immerse myself in a language that I have been practicing over the last couple of years, so for me Catalonia was not the place to stay, maybe if I decide to learn the Catalan language I will return for a longer stay but for right now I am surrounding myself by the rapid speaking Andalucían’s in Sevilla and preparing for 3 months of hilariously confusing misunderstandings, frustrating and confusing misunderstandings, siestas in the heat of the day and the experience of the southern way of life. Wish me luck!
¡viva the road to independence!