Europe '96: Barcelona: Culture

<<< Prev    Index to Joe Mabel's travel writing    Next >>>   

I am writing much of this from the Café de Internet on Gran Vía in Barcelona. A very good facility, in the morning it is used almost entirely by Americans, mostly in their 20s, talking to the machines on college campuses in the States. Which brings me back to my much earlier topic of cultural homogenization (written before I left the states...)

American and British music are dominant here, and McDonalds, Burger King, etc. are widespread though not ubiquitous, but Spain remains Spain. Firmly. People are certainly infinitely more cosmopolitan than they were a generation ago, but they hold fast to their own culture as well. Especially the Catalans. But by no means exclusively the Catalans. Andalucía holds tight to an identity as well, as do other regions.

Barcelona is just plain wonderful. For the right feeling as you read this, queue up "(Back in the) New York Groove" 🔗. Wrong city, right feeling. I know it from Ace Frehley, one of the ex-members of Kiss, and one of the few songs of theirs I really like, and also from the Squirrels wonderful cover version (never recorded I think) where they mix it back and forth with Led Zep's "Whole Lotta Love". However, my brother Matthew, who lived in London in the 70s and knows far too much about glam rock, assures me that the original [here it is!🔗] is by some unknowns -- two-hit-wonders in the UK -- called Hello 🔗.

Barcelona has as many art supply stores as Seattle (my home, and no mean city in its own right) has book stores, as many book stores as Seattle has good places to get a caffe latte, and as many places to get a good caffe latte, or cafe cortado, or carajillo (with a little cognac in it) as Seattle has houses. Or cats.

Speaking of cats, there aren't so many here. The classic Barcelona pet is a caged bird, although there are some enormous dogs, usually unleashed and remarkably well behaved, even restraining themselves when some yappy little thing on a leash barks at them.

I've said before that Barcelona is the closest any of us are likely to get to Paris in the 20s. (By the way, besides the culture, that includes the bread. Spanish bread in notoriously mediocre, but Catalan bread is like French bread.) Beyond even Paris in the 20s or New York in the 50s, Barcelona has what is almost its own language: a quarter of the Catalan speakers in the world are here in one city, which gives an enormous sense of history and shared destiny. (Another aside: during the middle ages, Barcelona rivalled Venice as a Mediterranean power, long before the kings of Castilla and León were even in the game. Catalunya's museums carry perhaps a few too many reminders of this sort of thing, but it is true.)

[The independent Counts of Catalunya eventually had their lands absorbed into Aragón, which had its nominal capital at Zaragoza, but the latter never rivalled Barcelona as a commercial center and of course it was an inland city and Barcelona, as a port, remained the Kingdom's window on the world. Later, when Aragón was absorbed into Spain, this picture began to change. Still, Barcelona is where Columbus sailed from.]

Mercifully, most Catalan nationalism is not very exclusionary (although there are a handful of real separatists, mostly in a group called Terra Liurre, sometimes - though rarely - violent). Barcelona is actually the world center of Spanish-language publishing as well as Catalan and everyone here is at least bilingual, often more like quadrilingual, with French and English as the runners up (though it's not like Amsterdam where many of the people speak better English than some native speakers. Still, I have met people here who say they read English more often than they read Castillian Spanish, and I believe they are telling the truth).

Catalunya has a very strange role in Spanish politics, often holding the balance of power. (Those of you who don't care about politics will want to skip several paragraphs here.) The center right Catalan nationalist party, Convergència i Unio, which is second in support to the social democratic PSOE within Catalunya itself, holds the crucial votes which give the new national center right Partido Popular government a working majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

CiU has chosen to make a pact of support, but probably wisely has chosen not to actually join the government: none of the Ministers are CiU. The result is a very intricate pact commonly referred to as the "hecho diferencial," which translates roughly as "special thing," or "special way of doing things," or "special treatment," and can best be described as asymmetric federalism (more on that later) and recognition of cultural and linguistic differences.

Joke which may not work in English, but worth a try anyway: "I think it's perfectly normal that the Catalans speak Catalan. The real hecho diferencial would be for them to speak Gallego."

What's most interesting about all this is that the newly dominant center right Partido Popular traces straight back to Franco by way of its founder, Manuel Fraga, basically a fascist and still a key figure in his (and Franco's) native Galicia. Franco was, among other things, the arch-foe of regional nationalisms (except maybe Galician nationalism -- Luis Delgado in Madrid adds "not even Galician nationalism.") and the Catalans, like the Basques, were firmly on the side of the Republic in the Civil War. Also like the Basques, this was true of even the conservatives here.

Obviously, I don't like the new center right government, but I have to admit that its very existence marks the definitive end of an alignment in Spanish politics which dates back at least to the Civil War, almost certainly a healthy thing. This is a government which includes people whose parents and intellectual/political ancestors fought on opposite sides in the war. I view that as much more important than the mere peaceful alternation between a center left and a center right government. It may also mark the end of a tendency to consider the other party as an enemy rather than an opposition.

By the way, to understand how remarkable this pact is, it helps to understand that at Partido Popular rallies, supporters of now-President Aznar were often chanting, "Pujol, enano, habla castellano" Jordi Pujol is the leader of CiU and basically this translates as, "Pujol, you dwarf, speak Castillian." So the accomodation is very recent, even though the two parties have very similar politics in the economic sphere.

On the whole, I think the recognition of regional differences is a good thing. Ultimately, it makes for a situation to which the citizens more truly consent, a country held together more by mutual agreement, less by force. I think, for example, that it will be good if they can arrange to pull the Guardia Civil entirely out of Catalunya and create a local equivalent instead, all Catalan speakers. (Luis D. demurs, remarking that it doesn't matter whether police speak Castillian or Catalan, fundamentally they speak one language: power. There's a lot of truth in that, but I still think it's easier to deal with police when they're from your own culture, not occupiers.) However, there are two potential instabilities in all this. One is the obvious centrifugal possibility, just like the one which could tear apart Canada. The other is the tricky asymmetry of the federal situation.

Catalunya now joins the two Basque regions (Euskarra -- a.k.a. País Vasco -- and Navarra) as a region with major autonomy (it already had quite a bit in cultural spheres, like schools, but this is taxes, police, almost the whole sovereign ball of wax). Now what happens when Andalucía says, "Hey, wait, we don't have enough linguistic differences to justify a separate cultural policy, but we've got unique economic concerns. Shouldn't we get a separate system of taxation?" And then maybe Murcia says, "Well of course we're not different the way Catalunya is, or the País Vasco, but we deserve as much autonomy as Andalucía, don't we?" Already, for example, there are demonstrations by nationalists of León (I kid you not) who want a separate entity from the current Ayuntamiento of Castille and León.

Back to culture, and high culture at that.

I went to the Picasso Museum for the first day for the Futurist exhibition. I'd been only minimally familiar with the futurists and tended to accept the commonplace that their archetypal contribution to the world of art was in the realm of manifestos, not actual artistic achievement. After having seen the exhibit, I tend to agree, but now with some basis for my belief.

For those who may not know, the Futurists were early 20th century Italians (mostly) who were much influenced by cubism and impressionism and who in turn influenced the surrealists and, to the undoubted detriment of their reputation, the official art of fascist Italy. It's not hard to find a proto-fascism in their manifestos (oh, no, politics again!), which often praised war and always praised high technology (at that time the airplane and the automobile).

Much of the best futurist work is very close to cubism, though generally more polychromatic and (programatically) more dynamic: a lot of representations of movement, probably their greatest technical achievement. The best -- Umberto Boccini, Giacomo Balla -- are very fine, although only Balla seems to have the technical mastery and confidence of line that we would usually associate with a great painter. Some, especially Luigi Russolo, seem downright technically mediocre. Frankly, I think some of his pieces look like the work of a none-too-gifted art student (although some are better). It is no surprise to read that he ultimately became more successful as a musician.

<<< Prev    Index to Joe Mabel's travel writing    Next >>>   

All materials copyright © 1996, 2021 Joseph L. Mabel
All rights reserved.

"Copyleft": With appropriate notification and appropriate credit, non-commercial reproduction is welcome: contact me if you have any desire to reproduce these materials in whole or in part.

Originally written: 1996

Last modified: 26 February 2021

My e-mail address is Normally, I check this at least every 48 hours, more often during the working week.