Barcelona (Spain), 09.11.2014
Ever since I first came to Barcelona at the age of 13, this beautiful city of Spain fascinated me. 25 years later I moved here with great expectations to enjoy life in an international, creative city on the Mediterranean sea. In the almost 10 months from then, with some surprise I must say that for the first time after moving in a new city it has not been a honeymoon from the beginning.
The city itself is indeed a cool place. Although it’s the smallest town I’ve ever lived in, the old and new “barrios” are beautiful. The architecture of buildings, squares and tree lined roads and many districts’ own charm make Barcelona stand out among any cities on the Iberian Peninsula and give it a distinct character, with a very Spanish note. The restaurants and bars in town amaze with fantastic variety and quality. The beach gives the city a relaxed touch, and as a friend once noted it’s very cool to live in a place where so many other people come for holidays. Yes, there are some small city characteristics I struggle to accustom to, like the over-regulated traffic, the completely dumb scooters that circulate as if they were cars. But that is part of the game, every city has that.
What no other city I’ve lived in has, are two separate, parallel universes in it. Here in Barcelona, this seems to be the case. There is the universe of the Catalans, and the one of everybody else, that includes many Spaniards. I live in the second one, and have discovered a lively, international, colorful group of people from all over Europe and the world that come to a city they see as a great place to live in, to mingle, to discover, do business in. This international crowd moves mostly among itself with almost no contacts to the other universe it seems, and is also completely detached from the worries or agenda of the Catalan universe, that it watches with astonishment as this other universe seems en route to split apart from Spain.
This Catalan universe portrays itself as the representation of all Catalans, of a people oppressed by the government in Madrid that is somehow taking essential liberties and money from them. They hang out flags on their terraces, organize demonstrations, have stands on the roadsides at all times to spread their message. When I came to Barcelona I didn’t understand what these people wanted, and got told from the people I met in the international universe that this was not to be worried about, that this whole “split up argument” would never happen seriously. So long, I didn’t care too much and tried not to pay attention. But this Catalan universe creates a lot of friction in everyday live, with the constant campaigning, the insistence to not speak Spanish (one of the world’s three most spoken languages), the focus on Catalonia as a planet separate form the rest of the world. Long story short: separatism sucks. It creates an atmosphere of anger, conflict, nationalism and provincialism.
It is today 25 years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’ve been reading a lot about what happened back then in the international media. During my years in Berlin I lived a few blocks from the former death strip at the Mauerpark, and many old buildings that have survived WWII as well as the pavement of many streets in my former neighborhood still bear the scars of war. I didn’t notice them until one day I saw the same scars in Sarajevo (Bosnia), where local activists had filled the grenade holes in the pavement with red color to remind the population of the horrors of war. Europe is full of these memories, more or less recent. When I drove through the Balkans during Eurasia2013 I saw them again (here and here). This year also marks the centenary of another horror of our past, WWI. Considering the suffering, destruction and death Europe has seen in the last 100 years, two world wars, fascism (and Spain knows a lot about that), communism, the cold war, the war in former Yugoslavia, I’m astonished to see how in Catalonia suddenly a nationalistic fewer drives people to claim suppression and injustice in free and democratic Spain.
The obsession to segregate themselves from the rest of a country that has leapt into peace, freedom prosperity and welfare since the fall of the fascist regime of Franco is absurd. And yes, there is a crisis out there. But think back to 20, 30, 40 years ago, and then try to tell me again that the Spain and Catalonia of today are not a better place. Then think about where much of the money for that change come from (Europe) and why it came (solidarity). The stubbornness with which local politicians insist on their own “language”, “culture”, “identity” is very, very similar to the one I saw in former Yugoslavia, where after a bloody war politiciansjust for the sake of being different tried to force a separate identity on what was and still is one people. (In bankrupt and poor Sarajevo, public money went into changing the color of road signs to green instead of blue, local accent was elevated to “Bosniak language”, and brand new mosques got erected, surrounded by impeccable lawn, while the country is in shambles – for the sake of being Bosniak and not Yugoslav.) It’s also scary that particularly the younger generation of Catalans, that was schooled in Catalan language by a school system apparently controlled by separatist minded politicians, seems hooked by separatist ideology.
Europe was born out of the desire to stop fighting, stop killing each other, get together, and help each other out. The ideas of peace and tolerance, solidarity among all states and regions, creation of a joint legislative and political space have brought people together over the last 65 years. Country by country has joined the EU, and when I toured the countries on Europe’s borders that are still not in the EU, they all seem to want in. We reap the benefits of peace, economic prosperity, a welfare state from being in the EU. One could even argue that we got so much of all that that we barely appreciate it any more.
Recently I’ve sometimes heard or read that “you can leave Catalonia if you don’t like it here and go home”. I heard the same sentence from fascists in Italy as a child whenever I dared to complain about things in my home town, Rome. My answer has been the same ever since: I am home here, in Europe. We all are, and splitting apart is no solution to any problem.
I seriously hope that some reason will come to the minds of the people of Catalonia. Read about Europe’s past and you will see that separatism is not the future. Building walls has no future, building bridges has. As the richer regions of Spain help the poorer ones, the richer countries of Europe do with the poorer ones. Spain and Catalonia have greatly benefitted from that in the past. Splitting apart for economic reasons is egoistic and will find no acceptance not just in Spain, but in Europe. Splitting apart for nationalistic reasons would mean that nothing has been learned from the horrible effects of nationalism in the past 100 years. And if all this is not convincing enough, then try to imagine what the business world would do in the case of Catalan independence – move away. Who wants to do business in tiny Catalonia? Spain is an attractive, big country to do business in, even though there is a recession going on. But a Spain without Catalonia is a lot less attractive, and a Catalonia outside of Spain is not attractive at all for any investor or business man. No business means your economy is going one way only: down.
So get your act together, stop being angry, enjoy the freedom you have in Europe today, and embrace toe people around you with a smile.