When a Travel Writer Broaches a Controversial Subject (Like — Barcelona?)
|Are these Barcelonans Spaniards, Catalans, or both?|
By Rick Steves
I enjoy reporting on complex cultural issues that travelers find challenging and give meaning to their trip. When I get into complex waters, I've discovered that I'm often appreciated by some readers while being despised by others for the same article. My blog entries generate an exhilarating amount of back and forth — a recent article on Barcelona and Cataluña generated a lot of feedback. (I misspelled some of the proper nouns relating to the Catalonians...though there were deeper issues that mattered more to me.)
Here's some of the reader emails we received (my original article appears afterwards). The first one is from a Spaniard; the second is from a Catalonian; the rest are from all over; and the last is from Jose, my Barcelonan guide friend who was my source while I was there:
* I just finished reading your article "Barcelona: Leading a Stateless Nation" in cnn.com and it is pretty obvious that you write the article with no knowledge and understanding of the politics of the area and Spain.
The Catalonians are a separate breed of people, with some exceptions, of course. There is nothing creative and independent about their spirit, but more of a selfish and separatist nature (much better terminology to describe them) motivating them.
The group of "Stateless Nations," as you refer to them, includes the Basque and the terrorists that support the extreme nationals, ETA. Something to be proud of and to really identify with, isn't it? Solidarity is not what makes them have Euskera or Gallec on their ATM, but the law that says they must offer it if they want to have Catalonian as an option as well.
Teaching Catalonia, a language so "irrevocably tied to the history", as the first language is not only stupid but irresponsible. I agree that it is important to teach and keep alive your culture, but don't make your kids second citizens by limiting their ability to live and work outside your small area.
These are just a few things I wanted to point out. Please learn the history and understand the politics of a place before writing articles about a specific area. Otherwise limit yourself to the foods to eat and sights to see.
* I just read your article on Barcelona "Barcelona: Leading a Stateless Nation" at cnn.com and I just wanted to say I am gladly surprised by how well you depict our national reality. Catalans are used to see our capital city described as a "lively Spanish city" in most travel guides and tourist brochures while it is extremely rare to read about our own traditions, culture and language.
I just wanted to let you know that people here appreciate this as it helps send out the right message about our country to the world. Your article is being discussed on this forum (http://www.e-noticies.com/actualitat/la-cnn-reconeix-que-catalunya-%e9s-una-naci%f3-25196.html) and will probably get referred to on several blogs.
* I read your article about Barcelona on cnn.com today. Of all the cities in Europe we visited, I liked Barcelona the best, and am glad we spent a day before and a day after the cruise there. I truly loved the people, places, food, and flavor of Barcelona. Your article really nailed it on the head.
* After having lived in Barcelona for a year, I agreed with most of what you wrote in your article on the city on CNN.com. However, I'm disappointed that you denied the existence of the African prostitutes lining Las Ramblas and propositioning potential johns almost constantly at night. If you are still there and go out in the evening, walk alone from the statute of Columbus up the paseo — the roving groups of African women shouting out in various languages to passing men aren't just being friendly. It's one of the shames of the city — that and the disproportionate sentences given to sellers of alcohol and "soft" drugs on the streets, who tend to be immigrants, but not to the buyers, who tend to be white locals and tourists.
* Mention the huge drug trafficking problem in Barcelona. And the whores are still there, around the Barri Gotic as elsewhere, though perhaps aging eyes no longer recognize them. And if you have been to Plaça Orwell recently, you would have seen the telescreens that he predicted, but because of the gangs and violence, and not Big Brother.
* The Catalan flag is actually the "barras de Aragon," which was NOT prohibited after the Spanish Civil War because it constitutes part of the Spanish coat of arms. No Catalan language ban — 1640, 1714, 1939 — ever stuck, and by the early 1960's Catalan dictionaries and grammars proliferated, as did Catalan schools. I graduated from the American High School of Barcelona, 1968. Salud.
* I thought that you forgot one very important part of Barcelona — La Sagrada Família, Gaudí's legacy to his homeland of Catalonia. It's an important part of Barcelona for many people. Even though it is not technically finished, it should not be overlooked when visiting the city. It should be seen for what it is, a great achievement, though still in progress, for the human race. Although I criticize your article, I hope you can understand the issues a former frequent visitor to the city of Barcelona would have with some parts of your article. However, the rest of the article was highly informative, and a great beginner's guide to the city
* In your article entitled "Barcelona: Leading a Stateless Nation" you state that: "Even Barcelona's ATMs are in solidarity with the European family of "Stateless Nations." They offer the correct choice of languages: Along with Angles, Frances, and Castellano (Spanish), you'll always find Gallec, Euskera and Catalan."
In reality, you will find ATMs like this in any part of Spain, including Madrid, or parts of the country like Cádiz where you're least likely to find people who use those languages. However, you should also mention that travelers who go there who speak Spanish may encounter problems, as I've frequently run into Catalonians at bars and restaurants who will outright refuse to speak to me in Castilian Spanish, but having no problems with Spanish or Portuguese. But, I've only encountered this in Catalonia, and not Valencia nor the Balearic Islands where Catalan is also just as widely spoken.
* I was born and raised in Barcelona. I have been living in the Seattle area for almost 12 years now and you have no idea how much I appreciate your article. My only regret is that since you know firsthand how proud Catalans are of their language, among other things, you could have used the word "passeig" instead of "paseo" at the end of your article.
* Catalonia doesn't have its own distinct language. Catalan is also spoken in the Valencian Country, Andorra, North Catalonia, Balearic Islands, the Aragon strip, and the city of Alguer (Sardinia). Except in Andorra (maybe), in these other Catalan-speaking lands, our language is in worse shape than in Catalonia and struggling for survival.
Because of the common language (and origin) all Catalan speakers can be considered members of the same nation, the Catalan Countries. But this is more controversial, but is good to keep it in mind when talking about national feelings. In addition of the language, also the flag (and part of the history) is shared with rest of the Catalan countries.
It was the Catalan Crown (or Aragon Crown) that was the maritime power in the 14th-15th centuries, not only Catalonia. The Crown is, again, more or less equivalent to what the Catalan countries are today. In any case, congratulations for a good article.
* Hi Rick,
I've read the emails from your readers and in my opinion they reflect the different positions that people hold on the Catalan subject. Some people here talk about the Països Catalans and envision a future country that would include Pais Valencia and the Balearic Islands. That clashes with the feelings of many Valencians that want nothing to do with that. (For example, you were able to watch TV3, the Catalan public TV in the "Comunitat Valenciana," and that's ending.)
With a touchy issue like this you unavoidably will get that wide array of responses. The woman who had so many negative things to say I didn't understand, though. She would like to be able to call us terrorists, I think. According to her, are half the people in Quebec terrorists? And about Catalans not being creative, maybe, but great artists like Gaudi, Dali, and Miro are all Catalan. There's no other Sagrada Familia, Dali Museum, or Palau de la Musica anywhere else in the world and the world's most creative cooks are now in Catalunya....
Anyways, tonight I am going out for dinner to Cafe de l'Academia (before some author in the US makes it too popular.) Feel free to call me anytime you need to discuss Catalan things! Of course, mine is just one opinion. There are 7 million of us now.
Here is the original article I wrote:
Barcelona is Spain's second city and the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya. With Franco's fascism now long gone, Catalan's creative and independent spirit is on a roll. Many visitors find this to be Spain's most cosmopolitan and vibrant corner.
In Barcelona a local told me "Catalan is Spain's Quebec." Traveling here you see how the people of Catalan have an affinity for other "stateless nations." Locals don't like to call their corner of Iberia a "region" of Spain...that's what Franco called it.
They stress that they are a "nation without a state." And they have an affinity for other people who didn't get their independence when they drew the national boundaries. They live in solidarity with other stateless nations — finding Basque or Galacian bars a little more appealing than your run-of-the-mill Spanish ones.
Barcelona has a rich history: Roman colony, a dark age Visigothic capital and a 14th-century maritime power. And beyond its great sights, be sure to appreciate the city's elegant sense of style and Mediterranean knack for good living.
The city's main square, Placa Catalunya, is the center of the world for 7 million Catalan people. It's a lively people scene throughout the day. The square is decorated with statues honoring important Catalans. Catalunya has its own distinct language, history and flag — which locals fly proudly...next to Spain's on government buildings...and all alone from their apartments.
Catalunya has often been at odds with the central Spanish government in Madrid. Back in the 1930s this area was one of the last pockets of resistance against the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When Franco finally took power he punished the region with four decades of repression. During that time, locals were prohibited from flying their flag. To show their national spirit, they flew the flag of the Barcelona soccer team instead.
Even Barcelona's ATM machines are in solidarity with the European family of "Stateless Nations." They offer the correct choice of languages: Along with Angles, Frances and Castellano (Spanish), you'll always find Gallec, Euskera and Catalan. Even though there's likely not a person a year who would speak only Gallec (from Galacia in northwest Spain) or Euskera (from the Basque country), they give them the linguistic respect they would hope for in a foreign land.
Each Sunday Barcelonans gather in front of their cathedral to celebrate their community by dancing the traditional Sardana. Traditional instruments — which evoke the struggle these people have waged through the centuries to keep their culture alive — sound sweet (I think only) to Catalan ears.
The Catalan language is irrevocably tied to the history and spirit of the Catalan people. Since the end of the Franco era in the mid-1970s, the language has enjoyed a huge resurgence. It's the language of the local schools and these days children here speak Catalan first...Spanish second.
A recent affluence has elevated the city. There's barely a hint of danger in the once frightening Gothic Quarter. I remember the city's main boulevard, the Rambla, when it was rich at the top and very rough at the port. Lurid prostitutes would line the street where it finally hit the harbor.
Today the Rambla is rich at the top and rich at the port and the only thing left of the prostitutes are holes ground by anxious high heels into the stone thresholds of brothel doorways that once faced the boulevard.
The toughest thing surviving on the Rambla are the roving gangs of thugs who run the high-energy, extremely twitchy shell games. With spotters uphill and downhill, and a full team of shills, nervous men scoot their dodgy peas. It's amazing there are enough fools on the streets to keep them in business.
While souvenir shops and crowds of tourists have diluted the Rambla's former elegance, it still offers an entertaining place to see the carnival of Barcelona life. But pay attention. Wherever people stop to gawk, pickpockets are at work. I think you're as likely to be pickpocketed in Barcelona — especially here on the Rambla — as about anywhere else in Europe. If you stop for any commotion or spectacle, put your hands in your pockets before someone else does.
My highlight with this Barcelona visit was less exciting — Pimiento de Padron (or in Catalan: Pebrots de Padro)...lightly fried peppers salted and served piping hot. They're a kind of Russian roulette for the taste buds as the eager eater knows that every once in a while you hit a super spicy pepper. Munching through a plate of peppers while watching the paseo filling the street in front of my little table, I was starting to understand the passion people have for this great city.