October 3, 2012

Great day, great day, great day. After a couple of “off” days, I think I’ve finally gotten my stride back.

So, the company that ran those excellent bicycle tours in Paris? Fat Tire Bike Tours? It turns out they also have an outfit in Barcelona. So this morning found me on another California Cruiser, cycling the Barcelona streets on my last day here. The guide was great, focusing specifically on the history of the city, as well as the Catalonians recent call for independence. GUYS — HAD YOU HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT CATALONIA BEFORE TEN DAYS AGO? Because I hadn’t. I didn’t even know it existed. But after exploring Barcelona, not only do I now know a whole lot more about Catalonia, I can also tell you that it is FACINATING and TOTALLY WORTHY OF WORLDWIDE ATTENTION. Spain basically has an exploited colonized nation within its own borders! A nation which HAS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CULTURE and a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT LANGUAGE. (Catalan is not a “dialect” of Spanish — it is only similar in the way that any of the Romance languages are similar!)

You may be wondering why Spain won’t let Catalonia go. I’m not 100% on this, but I think it all boils down to two main reasons:

1) Catalonia is a very wealthy part of the nation, with excellent industry, agriculture, and tourism. If Spain loses Catalonia, it loses a ton of income.
2) The mindset in much of Madrid is that Catalonia is A PART OF SPAIN. Governments don’t like losing parts of themselves. It really messes with the national pride thing.

Oh, and also, 3) Barcelona has one of the best soccer clubs in the world.

Do I think Catalonia is actually going to become an independent nation? I honestly don’t know. Marc (my friend from the pub) thinks it is only a matter of time, that once a formal referendum is called, there will definitely be more than 50% of the population that votes for independence. He also thinks that this formal referendum is going to happen relatively soon. But others I have spoken with think a free and independent Catalonia is unlikely given the state of the bureaucratic process. One thing I do know: if Catalonia is going to declare independence, it’s got to be soon. The young Catalan people have never been directly oppressed (like their parents and grandparents). They may want independence, but many won’t fight as hard as the older generation is fighting now. There are of course many young Catalan nationalists who have passion (Marc being one of them), but are there enough to turn the tide in another ten or twenty years? I’m not sure.

Changing the topic, you want to know something that sucks? When Gaudí sought Rome’s blessing and support to build a church in Barcelona, Rome took one look at the plans and said “uh-uh.” They thought the structure was way too modern and inappropriate as a place of worship. So Gaudí decided to build it anyway, calling it a “temple” for the Sacred Family (la Sagrada Familia). Without Rome’s support, he basically had to finance the whole thing on his own, spending most of his life appealing for donations and putting all of his own money into the construction. (Despite his fame, Gaudí actually died a very poor man.) So then, a hundred years later, Barcelona wins the bid to host the 1992 Olympics, which puts the city on the national stage. Tourism goes through the roof and the world is like, “whoa, check out la Sagrada Familia!” and Gaudí’s temple is all of a sudden making buckets of money, all of which is going directly back into the building to finance its future construction. BUT THEN the Catholic Church kind of sidles up to Barcelona and says, “you know, we’d like to reconsider… that temple really ought to be a church… let’s send the Pope over and make it happen…” So, basically, the Catholic Church was only interested in la Sagrada Familia when it saw how much money it could get from it. And all of the wealth that used to be going into the building’s construction? It’s now going into the Catholic Church’s pockets, with only a fraction of it being put back into la Sagrada Familia. Doesn’t sound very Christian to me…

You want to know something else that sucks? The life of Saint Eulalia. When Rome came into Barcelona a couple thousand years ago, it gave the people two choices: either denounce your Christianity or die. Most people were like, “OK, no problem, we’ll be polytheists now” but Eulalia wouldn’t renounce her faith. The Romans decided to make an example out of her, so they publically tortured her for several days, doing things like stretching her on the rack until all her joints popped and putting her in a barrel full of knives and rolling the barrel downhill (seriously). After each different creative and horrific form of torture, they gave Eulalia the chance to recant. But she wouldn’t. So eventually the Romans crucified her and, when that didn’t work, they chopped her head off. Which is how Eulalia became a martyr and eventually became a saint. It’s also why Barcelona’s main cathedral is in Eulalia’s honor, and has a crypt with her remains. But you want to know the crazy thing? When all of that awful stuff happened to Eulalia, she was only THIRTEEN YEARS OLD. That’s why there are always thirteen white geese in the cloisters of la Catedral. And you want to know another crazy thing? Only a few years after Eulalia died, Constantine became emperor of Rome and then Rome started persecuting anyone who wasn’t Christian.

I took a walking tour of the old city in the afternoon. After having previously walked through the Gothic Quarter and El Raval and El Born, I couldn’t quite figure out what they all had in common, aside from really awesome and atmospheric narrow streets. On the tour today, I learned that these neighborhoods were all originally within the old Roman walls, and comprised the entirety of Barcelona for quite some time. I also learned interesting things like how the Barcelona Jews were blamed for the Black Plague and all killed, and why there is so much HAM in Spain (it was basically a campaign by the Spanish Inquisition to weed out the Jews… one of the ways you could prove that you were a good a good Christian was by eating copious amounts of pork… because Jews don’t eat pork. Crazy.)

Also on the old city tour was a visit to a few Roman columns that date back to the first century BC. They’re in someone’s courtyard in their house. Imagine that. So much history. Cities within cities within cities.

Last night, I finally got the opportunity to take the cable car over the harbor and up to Montjuïc, where I watched the sun set. Beautiful pink hues illuminating the white city. And then a cab to Las Ramblas to see a play in Catalan and then back to the hostel to work on THIS into the wee hours of the morning… (because I know you’ve all been waiting… ahem…)

A Brief History of Catalonia: There have been people on the Iberian Peninsula for a million years. (That’s a MILLION). Then, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years after people showed up, a big group of these people were colonized by the Ancient Greeks. And then the Carthaginians and then the Romans and then the Moors and then the Visigoths and then the Franks. Wow, that’s a lot of colonization. (Throughout this, though, the Catalonians maintained their own unique language and culture!) The Franks organized their colonies into counties, each with its own count (hey! that's where the word “county” comes from!), and this lasted until Catalonia was like, “eh, we don’t want to be a part of France,” and France was all, “OK.” That was in 1258. And then Catalonia joined forces with a few other counties and became the Crown of Aragon! With their forces combined, they totally dominated the Mediterranean, expanding their kingdom by a whole lot. Then the BLACK DEATH came in the 1400s. And so many people died — 37% of the population of Catalonia, leaving only 300,000 Catalonians to carry on the language and the culture! But they did and they had babies and things were looking up UNTIL King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella I of Castile 1469. And this is where it starts to really suck for Catalonia. You see, Isabella wore the pants around the castle, and when Christopher Columbus came back having “discovered” America for the new Spanish crown, Isabella was like, “yeah, actually, America totally belongs to Castile. Suck it, Catalonia.” And Ferdinand was all, “OK.” And Catalonia totally got really poor while Castile totally got really rich. OK, fast forward a couple hundred years, and it’s now the end of the 17th century. Catalonia is not doing so well, what with lots of peasant uprisings and the transition out of a feudalist society and then Charles II (the Habsburg King of Spain) dies when he’s only twenty-four. That's OK, people die sometimes (especially super inbred royalty who have giant tongues and have to wear diapers), but OMG HE HAS NO HEIR. So this one Austrian guy says “I’m sorta kinda a Habsburg! I’m gonna be king!” and this other guy says “I’m a Bourbon, but I still have more claim to the throne than you!” and there is a big war (the War of Spanish Succession). Catalonia backs the Habsburg-pretender and THE REST OF SPAIN champions the Bourbon (whose name is Philip V), so CATALONIA IS TOTALLY ON THE LOSING SIDE. Barcelona, the center of Catalonia, falls in a decisive victory in 1714, and the Catalonians are basically screwed. Philip V and the rest of Spain are like “we’re now going to be really, really mean to you.” So the new centralized Spanish government abolishes all of the autonomous rule in Aragon and basically outlaws everything except the “Spanish” (aka “Castilian”) language and the “Spanish” (aka “Castilian”) culture. Yeah, sucks, right? A few decades later, though, Catalans finally get the green light to visit the Americas and they make it rich exploiting the people and the land just like Castile did. The big difference, though, is that while the Castilian royalty used their American money on themselves, buying big dresses and building castles and stuff, the Catalonians reinvest their money into industry, and so Catalan goes through this awesome renaissance where they have a lot of money and produce a lot of great art. And THEN things get even better when Spain turns into a republic in 1931 and Catalonia gets autonomous rule again! But that lasted for like five minutes, because there was a rebel military coup against the elected government, which only partially succeeded in bringing down the government, but fully succeeded in dividing the country. So then you had the anarchists and liberals in the north fighting the religious conservatives, monarchists, and Fascists in the south. And guess what? The South (aka Francisco Franco the Fascist) wins the war in 1939. And you think Catalonians had it bad before? IT WAS WAY WORSE UNDER FRANCO. We’re talking concentration camps, mass murders, horrible torture, and indefinite imprisonments. Seriously, something like 500,000 people were murdered. You see, the way that Fascists get their way is by preaching strength through national purity. And those non-Spanish (aka non-Castilian) Catalan people were mucking up the “purity.” So Franco forbid anyone acknowledging the existence of anything Catalonian and KILLED THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE who did. Seriously, it was really, really bad. But when Franco FINALLY kicked the bucket in 1975 and then Spain adopted a democratic constitution in 1978, Catalonia had political and cultural autonomy again. Hooray! Right?! Well… Catalonia currently has autonomy “under the law of Spain,” which means that it is still subject to all kinds of subtle quasi-colonial language politics and cultural suppression, as well as a significant tax imbalance (the region gives Madrid far more taxes than it receives back in services). So, in September, 1.5 million people (that’s 1.5 MILLION) marched on Barcelona calling for independence from Spain. And you know what? It just might happen. And then, maybe, just maybe, Europe will have a new country called Catalonia. And most people will be like “what? what's Catalonia? who? wha?” But you won’t! BECAUSE YOU READ THIS.

And now, dear friends, goodnight. Tomorrow: Rome.