Friday, September 25, 2009

What is a Catalan?

As the number of comments an article about the history of Catalunya shows, the topic of national identity in Spain is complicated and emotional, provoking intense feelings on both side of the debate.  This, of course, makes discussing it difficult and compelling because somebody's bound to get angry when passions become inflamed.  So, what better topic on which to write, right?

Like with most of the nationalistic debates taking place in Europe, this one traces its origins back to the middle ages, when the continent was a mix of small kingdoms and principalities battling it out for resources and land. The proceeding centuries saw many of these independent countries annexed by the rising European powers of the time (namely France, England and Spain) as they set out on their colonial conquest.  But, unlike say Ireland and Scotland that became part of Britain through invasion and brutal force, the King of Aragón (and Catalunya) married the Queen of Castilla, uniting the two nations under the Spanish flag, which for the times could be considered a peaceful consolidation of power.

Initially, the region was free to speak their native language and practice their traditions.  As with Castellano, Catalan was rooted in Latin, but because the Moors had failed to conquer the region, it had none of the Arabic influence, making it sound like a mix of Italian and French.  This freedom was short lived period, however; and over the course of the ensuing centuries, the ability to speak the language in public came and went with varying degrees of violent repression, depending on the king or dictator.  Today, it's the co-official language, taught in every school, and the first basis of the Catalan identity, which means it survived the times better than Gaelic, and so ends this history lesson. 

Personally, I like the sound and trying to speak it.  There's something about the words, intonation and pronunciation that brings out a real warmth, if that makes sense.  And, because the words are shorter and it has the "jay" sound, it can be easier than Spanish.  Yet, while it is undoubtedly a different language with its own grammar and vocabulary, I can't help but hear some similarities to Castellano.  I don't mean in words and sentences, but how it's spoken - loudly and abruptly with every third word a curse.  Although, given the Catalans' scatological sense of humor, they tend to be about shit and ass rather than female and male genitalia.

Aside from the language, the second biggest difference Catalans will point to is their personality.  Unlike the rest of Spain where work is a necessary evil, they embrace their jobs and put in a full day.  And, it's true - I've never met people who spend so much time at the office and are proud of it.  Whether or not they're more productive is another question entirely, and I often wonder if they've heard of the law of diminishing returns.  In fact, I sometimes tell my Catalan friends and students - if they really wanted to be different than the Spanish - they'd not work ten hour days, but be punctual and plan.  To which they respond: "But we're Latin.  We improvise."

The difference in personality extends beyond work ethic.  The Catalans, in general, take on a more serious and closed demeanor compared to their fun loving and warm Castilian neighbors.  Many visitors comment on the sour faces of the people living here and I can't argue.  They're a stressed lot given all the hours they work.  But I will say, once you've made a Catalan friend, you've got one for life, which hasn't always been the case in other places I've lived in Spain and the reason for the common expression: "Si te he visto, no me acuerdo." (If I've seen you, I don't remember).  Still, even this applies to a minuscule minority of the people I've met over my travels, making both Catalans and Castellanos some of the sincerest and most hospitable people I've ever known.

Now, if you talk to other Spaniards, you'll hear many of the stereotypes associated with Jews applied to the Catalans - that they're tight with their money and insular, which is true and makes sense since the region once had a large Jewish population before the Spanish inquisition made everyone a Catholic and a lover of ham. And, compared to the rest of Spain, where bull-fighting is still celebrated, the fact that it's shunned here and left for the odd tourist speaks less about difference than progress, I think.

But just like the Andaluces, Vascos, Gallegos and Madrileños, the Catalans share a love of eating and dancing that can be found throughout the Iberian peninsula.  The traditional meal consists of sliced blood sausages, cured cheeses and toasted bread with tomato, oil and garlic that takes three hours to eat.  The local dance is called sardanas, which is like a slow motion square dance with a brass band.  Granted, it's not as boisterous as a caseta during la feria, but sometimes a smile on a stoic face says more than a bellowing laugh in a room full of clowns.  And, just like in every other autonomy, they love their local parties and celebrations with special times reserved for family and friends.

Basically, while there are no doubt differences between Catalans and the other regions of Spain, so are there between a New Yorker and an Angeleno, a Manc and a Londoner, a Dubliner and whatever they call someone from Cork (A screw?).  The principal difference with these analogies being that the Catalans are a people who have a centuries old language and traditions, but whose long common history with Spain gives them a shared culture, boasting such artists as Picasso, Dalí and Goya to name a few, and a style of life that still attracts the romantics.  Sadly, in a media and political environment that feeds on conflict, these ties and similarities are often drowned out by the vocal few  longing for an independence lost seven hundred years ago.  And, to them I say - Go ask a Sardinian what they think it was like to be ruled by some distant king from Barcelona back then.


  1. Hi! Yours is one of the very few really cool and informative BCN blogs! Thanks for sharing, keep it coming! ;) BarceloMIA G.

  2. Interesting article, still, I think there are more people out there longing for independence than you may think...

  3. Thanks for the comment, Toni. It does certainly seem that way. Personally, I'd like to see a referendum held to end the issue once and for all. Of course, what would there be to argue about - the economy? I don't think either party wants that!