Discovering Catalunya
by Patricia Robertson


Photo: Scott Wylie

Can Serrat, just outside the village of El Bruc in Catalunya – Catalonia – is a beautiful ruin. A ruin, though, with all mod cons, as the British would say. A former winery converted into an artists’ retreat, it reminds me of the mysterious chateau in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, full of romance and nostalgia. An open courtyard lined with arches leads into an amphitheatre-like setting studded with quixotic structures – among them an outdoor hearth with a mosaic of a Virgin and Child made of shattered tile. Battered tables and chairs are strewn about the lawn under the blossoming almond. A massive twelve-foot-long dining table sits beneath an arbour trellised with wisteria. Inside, a flight of stairs leads to a sloping hallway of bedrooms. My room has a large wooden wardrobe, an ornate mirrored dressing table, and fading frescoes on the walls. The effect is Versailles-like, if Versailles had been left out in the rain for a couple of centuries. The kitchen, with its blue-and-yellow tiles and big fireplace – wonderful in this chilly place – looks more Mediterranean.

Can Serrat lies at the foot of the serrated mountain of Montserrat, whose name it echoes. Like much Catalan art, the mountain itself is surreal, its grey-and-pink stone twisted into grotesque, ginger-root-like formations. In 1998 twelve Norwegian artists bought the winery, with its hovering mountain gods, and restored it, work they funded by organizing classes and workshops for visiting Norwegian schoolchildren. Today the retreat hosts artists from many disciplines year-round, with a break in May for a music festival. It has a staff of four, including the redoubtable Mercè – cook, gardener, and all-round maintenance person – who, in a previous life, worked in Spain’s Seat car factory for twenty years.

It’s Mercè, gathering herbs on the hillside for dinner, who teaches me that thyme – tomillo in Spanish – is farigola in Catalan, while rosemary – romarín in Spanish – is romaní. The name comes from Latin rosmarinus, literally “dew of the sea” (ros, “dew,” + marinus, “sea,”) because the plant thrives where fog and salt spray meet. According to legend, the flowers were originally white, only changing to blue when the Virgin Mary, on the flight to Egypt, threw her blue cloak over a bush. A variation of this legend, delightful in its picture of domesticity, tells us that Mary washed the baby’s clothes in a small stream where they’d stopped to rest, then spread the tiny garments on a fragrant bush to dry in the sun. The service earned the plant its name and its delicate blue blossoms, the same colour as Mary’s robe.

I am met at the Barcelona airport by Oskar, the car-hire driver who regularly ferries Can Serrat residents. He radiates that wonderful, dignified Spanish warmth that I remember so well from the three years I lived in Spain. On the half-hour drive to the retreat I struggle to summon my rusty Spanish. When I lived there Franco was still alive and every street corner featured a Guardia Civil or two in their peculiar black patent tricorne hats. Magazines such as Playboy were banned, birth control almost unavailable. The fact that I lived with my Spanish boyfriend was an unmentioned scandal, though his family were welcoming enough to me. The Spain I remember featured butcher shops where you haggled over prices, sawdust-strewn bars where dogs wandered in and out, Sunday afternoon paseos (strolls) up and down the main street in our Madrid suburb when, dressed in their best, families promenaded bearing paper-wrapped trays of pastries from the local pastelería.

I worked, then, as a bilingual secretary for an import company. The subway into central Madrid was stinkingly hot and overcrowded; men pushed into the already full cars by placing an arm on either side of a doorway and shoving. I was regularly groped on my way to work. I pushed and squirmed and cried out, but it made no difference. Though I’d insisted on learning every vulgar expression I could from my boyfriend, when I used them on the street the response was amusement, and more catcalls. It was best to walk past in dignified silence, like the Spanish girls, though I fumed as I did so. My boyfriend couldn’t understand. Comments on the street were piropos, compliments, he told me. Why would I object when men said things like “So many curves, and me without brakes!”

And yet, and yet…. Spain was a revelation after puritan North America. The sensuality and intensity of life, for one thing. The undiluted pleasure in food, in wine, in sitting for hours in outdoor cafés drenched in sunlight. The sensuality even of the language, with its rolled r’s, its chewy consonants. Everything mattered. It wasn’t considered impolite to be passionate about one’s beliefs or to argue loudly in public. “Two Spaniards are an argument, three a political party,” as the saying goes. In fact I was constantly told that the only fault in my Spanish was that I didn’t speak loudly enough. All that intensity got exhausting at times, but it was never boring. And then there was the history, each street and village was soaked in it back to Arab and Roman times. Culture mattered, too. Streets were named after poets; there were statues of writers and artists in public squares. “Amnesia is the true history of the New World,” Derek Walcott once said, but it certainly wasn’t true in the Old.

In Spain, all those years ago, the first words I learned were playa, beach, and cuartel, barracks. Beach because I lived, at first, in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands – then a Spanish possession, today one of Spain’s seventeen autonomous communities –and barracks because the man I’d met was doing his then-compulsory military service on the island. I taught English at a private language institute, but the rest of the time I spoke Spanish, and it made my jaw ache. Different muscles were being called into use, apparently. I’d never realized how physical language was. It wasn’t possible to speak Spanish without using my hands to gesticulate and punctuate.

The language also bore its history in its lineaments. It was influenced not only by Latin but by neighbouring Romance languages such as Catalan, Portuguese, Occitan, and, later, French and Italian. It was also deeply influenced by Arabic. Islamic armies consisting of Arabs and Berbers invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, a presence that remained until the wholesale expulsion of Muslims who were unwilling to convert in 1492. Thousands of Arabic words entered the language, from azúcar, “sugar” (Arabic sukkar) to zanahoria, “carrot” (Arabic isfanariyya).

Spanish culture is deeply infused with Arabic influence, from its architecture –  houses designed round central courtyards, with thick walls and shutters to keep out the heat – to the hours for eating (lunch never earlier than 1:30 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m. or later). But Spain is changing, in its eating hours as in much else. The government has been contemplating bringing working hours more into line with Europe over the next ten years, and Catalunya has now decided to rush ahead. What the new hours will be hasn’t been decided, but an age-old pattern attuned to the country’s climate is now to be altered at a time when summer heat, with climate change, is intensifying, and will only get worse.

In the afternoons, when I’m done writing, I stroll up to the village past a field of olive saplings and along the base of a dried-up stream, the Torrent de Santa Maria. El Bruc is tiny, just two thousand people, with beautiful ochre and cream houses and the red-tiled roofs typical of Catalunya. Some of its residents commute to Barcelona, a forty-five-minute drive. At the little supermarket I buy sardinillas en escabeche and a packet of salted nuts, then wander down the street to the Forn Alemany bakery – forn is the Catalan word for “oven” – with its excellent café con leche and pleasant staff. When I left the Yukon, the river was still lined with ice; here I can sit outside in the sunlit breeze, under chestnut trees in bud, reading El Periódico (a regional newspaper that publishes in both Spanish and Catalan).

The human scale of the village makes me see people in a different way. The woman in the supermarket, for example, who weighs your oranges, puts them in a plastic bag, ties the bag into piglet ears, and hands it to you with a smile. The interchange feels so much more personal than in my supermarket back home. On my way back to Can Serrat, I buy a bottle of local wine from a grocer. I watch as the wine is decanted into an empty plastic water bottle from a huge steel tank. A litre and a half for three euros (or just over four dollars)! And it’s very good, strong and fruity with no acid aftertaste.

To be anywhere in Spain is to be deeply immersed in regionalism. In Catalunya, one is Catalan first – unless you’re from elsewhere in Spain – and Spanish second. In Spain the Spanish language is more commonly known as Castilian – castellano, meaning of Castile – to distinguish it from regional languages such as Catalan and Basque. Castilian, in fact, was also a regional language; the fact that it became the common speech of Spain is an accident of history.

After forty years of suppression under Franco, Catalan (Català) today is the official language of Catalunya, and often the only language on street signs, in museums, etc. Everyone knows Spanish, but Catalan has pride of place. I quickly learn some basic phrases – bon dia, adéu, gràcies – that show French as well as Spanish influence, and others – tancat, “closed,” de res, “you’re welcome” – that seem related to neither. Its closest cousin, in fact, is Occitan, still spoken in Spain’s Val d’Aran in the Pyrenees and recognized as an official language in Catalunya. Catalan is also spoken in Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra (where it is the only official language), the south of France, and the Sardinian city of Alghero, by a total of about seven million people, making it the eighth most commonly used language in the European Union.

But Catalan isn’t the only thing that makes Catalunya so distinctive. Nor is it just the food, such as calcots – a kind of large spring onion served grilled with romesco sauce – or crema catalana – cream custard with a burnt sugar coating – or mel i mato, a dessert of cream cheese and honey mixed together. Nor is it traditional festivals such as La Diada de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day) on April 23, when Barcelona’s central thoroughfare, La Rambla, is packed with stalls selling roses and books for people to buy for one another. For a writer it’s wonderful to see books so celebrated. Apparently half of Barcelona’s yearly book sales happen on this day, and author readings are held all over the city.

Why St. George should have become the patron saint of both Catalunya and its largest city is an open question. He is a particularly military saint, a Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was martyred. King Jaume I claimed that Sant Jordi helped him conquer Mallorca, in 1229. His present-day manifestation in the form of flowers and books is considerably more peaceful.

No, what is most striking and unusual about Catalunya is the mix of anarchism and surrealism that flavours both its politics and its art, an outgrowth of its long fight for self-rule going back as far as the Middle Ages. An embryonic Catalunya was established late in the ninth century by a nobleman with the memorable name of Wilfred the Hairy. In the tenth century, it stopped paying taxes to the Frankish kings. By the eleventh century a primitive form of parliament existed – the Assamblea de Pau i Treva (Peace and Truce Assembly). And in 1283, one of the oldest parliaments in the world was created. Les Corts Catalanes forbade the king from levying general taxes without the authorization of the three estates: the military, the church, and the nobility.

This independent and feisty frame of mind saw a resurgence in the early nineteenth century with the Renaixença, a romantic revivalist movement in Catalan language and culture. It was followed by modernisme, the Catalan form of the modernist trend emerging throughout Europe, which was given its distinct flavour by the Catalan cultural revival that preceded it and by the intensity of urban and industrial development, especially in Barcelona. It was active from roughly 1888 (the First Barcelona World Fair) to 1911 (the death of Joan Maragall, the most important Modernista poet). Although its main form of expression was in architecture – think Antoni Gaudí – it was also strikingly evident in the decorative arts, including cabinetmaking, carpentry, forged iron, ceramic tiles, ceramics, glass-making, silver- and goldsmithing. Its painters included Santiago Rusiñol and Ramon Casas, while its writers included Joan Puig i Ferreter and Caterina Albert i Paradís (better known by her pen name, Víctor Català).

Modernisme, in architecture and the decorative arts, has many resemblances to art nouveau: the preference for the curve over the straight line, for example. Gaudí himself famously said, “The straight line belongs to man, the curved line belongs to God.” It is also characterized by organic and botanical shapes and motifs, a great richness of ornamentation, bright colours, a disregard of symmetry, and a wide use of symbolism. Catalan modernisme used images from traditional Catalan rural life and Catalan mythology, as well as Arabic patterns and decorations. The overall effect is a style of architecture that is dynamic, human, colourful, and often absurdly over-the-top when it comes to details and adornment.

It was this feminine, organic quality that most struck me walking the streets, and especially visiting the spectacular Palau de la Música Catalana. Designed in the Catalan modernista style by the architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner (arguably the father of modernisme, though not as well-known as Gaudí), it was built between 1905 and 1908. In the concert hall our guide pointed to the ornate stained-glass skylight in the ceiling and exclaimed, “It looks like a giant breast with a nipple!” Which indeed it does.

It was another architect, Josep Maria Jujol, who incorporated the now-quintessential Catalan technique of trencadís (“broken, shattered”), a type of mosaic using shattered tile and ceramic fragments. The basic idea is not new – the Romans used broken terracotta in their mosaics – but it was Jujol who incorporated this folk-art practice into modernist architecture while collaborating with Gaudí on the Guell Park (constructed between 1900 and 1914). To fit Gaudi’s curved, organic surfaces, Jujol used broken tiles, pieces of coloured bottle glass, and broken plates from his own dinner service. The result is playful, colourful, and domestic in its recycling of humble materials.

Catalunya saw political as well as artistic shattering in the twentieth century. As the most industrialized and unionized part of Spain, it was an anarchist and socialist stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, with Barcelona the capital of Republican Spain from October 1937. George Orwell recorded his amazement at the reversal of the class structure in Homage to Catalonia:

It was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle.Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.

But it was not to last. After four days of aerial bombardment, Barcelona fell on January 26, 1939. Almost half a million refugees, including the defeated Army of Catalonia, crossed the border into France. With Franco’s Nationalist forces now in control, Catalunya lost its autonomy. The Catalan language was forbidden, as were books and newspapers written in Catalan, a cultural genocide that was to last forty years. The epitaph of the Spanish poet, militant anarchist, and feminist Lucía Sánchez Saornil (December 13, 1895 – June 2, 1970) reads “But is it true that hope has died?” (“¿Pero es verdad que la esperanza ha muerto?”).

In today’s Catalunya, suffering like the rest of the country under neoliberal policies that have produced the highest levels of unemployment in the EU after Greece, the answer is: Maybe. The rise of grassroots political movements such as Podemos and the home-grown Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common), one of whose founders, Ada Colau, is now the mayor of Barcelona, are responses to the Spanish, and indeed the European, economic crisis. These citizen movements also seek to shatter the old-guard party politics of the centre-right Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the mildly social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which have alternated in power, and corruption scandals, since the death of Franco in 1975.

In the national election held in December 2015, the two major parties both lost support, while Podemos, still less than two years old, won twenty per cent of the popular vote and also placed first in Catalunya. But with no party having enough seats to form a majority, seven months of political deadlock led to a second election in June of this year. Although they failed to make gains nationally, Podemos once again won in Catalunya, adding to the pressure for a formal Scotland-style referendum on independence from Spain. A new generation – Podemos’ leader is only thirty-seven – is clearly feeling its oats. And with typical Catalan feistiness in evidence, Spain may be poised for the birth of a new political order – and perhaps, once again, hope.

—From CNQ 97 (Fall, 2016)

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