Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A little Catalan

Recently I had my last Spanish class here in Barcelona. Quite predictably, I felt a funny sense of nostalgia even though I had only been attending for six weeks. Walking to and from school two mornings a week had become one of my few routines here and I had really enjoyed the lessons themselves too. The school was recommended to me by a friend taking Portuguese night classes - a shopfront that appears to sell books and wine (obviously this combination immediately endeared the place to me) but which also has a short corridor down the back with doors either side that open onto small classrooms. My class would vary between only two and four students and once I even ended up having a "private" lesson in which my teacher, Elisenda, and I discussed Spanish literature (in Spanish, for the most part!).

In fact Elisenda grew up speaking Catalan at home and later learned Spanish at school. The same is true vice versa for children living in Barcelona - those who speak Spanish at home learn Catalan at school. This mixture of languages pervades the city, except for street signs, which are almost exclusively in Catalan. When we first arrived, not speaking either language, M and I struggled to know which was which - in shop windows, at newspaper stands, and especially when hearing the languages spoken. (I felt less silly about this when an Italian friend told us that, despite her language background, she felt the same way when she first moved here.) In some ways they are indeed similar, but they are also quite different. The easiest way the describe it is that Catalan is closer to (old) French and further away from English than Spanish is.

In our first weeks here we endeavoured to speak Catalan (we even bought a dictionary!) but ultimately ended up switching to Spanish because while Catalonians are very proud of their language, Spanish is easier to use for our tourist-related purposes (that's of course when people don't immediately start speaking English to us). This is true especially in such a cosmopolitan city where not only are many people not Spanish but there are also many Spaniards here who are not from Catalonia. For example, I mentioned in an earlier post that our flatmate is from Galicia - he came to Barcelona for university a few years ago. His mother-tongue is Spanish but he also grew up speaking Galician, which he tells me is more similar to Portuguese (given that Galicia neighbours Portugal) than anything else. He speaks a little bit of Catalan and understands it, but generally finds Spanish (technically Castilian) to be sufficient living here. And naturally Spanish is more useful language in general (being I think the second or third most widely spoken language in the world) than Catalan, although coming from my Hungarian background, where the language is also limited to mostly one area, I don't really like using this as an excuse.

When we were in Montserrat recently, I bought a CD of Catalan songs by a singer named Marina Rossell (the recommendation actually came from my father who discovered her through his internet travels shortly after I left NZ!). It's full of traditional 18th and 19th century Catalan folk songs with a bit of a modern spin. I love the music and the CD was a real find because the liner notes contain all the lyrics in Catalan, Castilian, French and English, so I have been able to gain an understanding of the music's meaning, too. Some of the lyrics' sentiments really remind me of feelings relating to national pride and alienation expressed in Hungarian songs, which makes them very relatable for me, such as -

Sweet Catalonia
country of my heart
when parted from you 
of longing one dies. 
(Track 1, The emigrant)

We are and shall be catalan people,
whether they want or not,
for there is no prouder land 
under the light of the sun.

God passed there in springtime
and all was song at His step.
Sing earth, sing still
and sing that you may sing.
(Track 2, The Sacred Thorn)

These feelings obviously date back centuries and at the same time are still current, especially as Franco's oppression of the Catalan language and culture is still vivid in people's memories. We were lucky enough to have a conversation about this with S at Les Tapes, who grew up in Barcelona after moving here from Andalusia when he was very young. Of course the conversation started out about football, but actually the subject of football and Catalan pride are not all that separate.

Barcelona has two footballs teams - the famed "Barca" or FCB team of course and another team named Espanyol. The teams, according to S, hate one another. The main reason for this is Espanyol's good relationship with the Real Madrid team which, as in politics, is considered a capital-city oppressor who thinks they have a right to control what goes on in Catalonia, in football and in local government. (For football fans: S told us the story of one of the greatest footballers of all time, Di Stefano, being signed to FCB before Real Madrid apparently "changed the rules" so that he ended up playing for Real Madrid and becoming their 1950s version of Messi, if not better - that is, he was effectively stolen.) Another reason is that the team's name, Espanyol, is considered a betrayal for a Catalan team because Catalonians are Catalan before they are Spanish. This is evident even walking down Barcelona's balcony-lined streets where the Catalan flag hangs from many windows while the Spanish flag is nowhere to be seen (except at the doors of government or other official buildings). However, as a Barcelonan friend J was telling me, everyone celebrates equally when the Spanish national football team qualifies for or wins a regional or global tournament, so the feeling of separatism is not entire.

Catalonians are of course not the only cultural group in Spain to feel this way - the Basques, for example, feel a similar sense of independence. S considers that Catalan attitudes have more legitimacy because unlike the Basque terrorist/nationalist group ETA, they do not resort to violence against innocent parties to convey their frustrations at central government actions, although protests are frequent.

Catalan flags were even more prominent around Barcelona last Monday when the city celebrated Sant Jordi day. This is Catalonia's version of Valentine's day, when woman gift men books in exchange for a rose. The streets were full of book stalls (packed with spy novels, thrillers etc - suitably "male" books, M pointed out) and buckets upon buckets of roses wrapped in cellophane the colours of the Catalan flag. (Especially on La Rambla where it was practically impossible to move from the crowds - interestingly, this was one instance where there were no concessions made for tourists and all the books were in Catalan or Castilian - perhaps an indication of how "Catalan" the holiday is considered.) While variations on the legend of St George slaying a dragon to save a princess have spread across many countries in Europe, the Catalonians have really made it their own with this vibrant celebration.

M and I experienced another triumph of Catalan culture this weekend when we visited the Museo Nacional d'Art de Catalyuna, the National Museum of Catalan Art (mostly referred to as MNAC). We had been meaning to go for a while and I am so glad we did because it was just fantastic! The building itself is beautiful and the exhibitions breathtaking. They include art dating back to the 11th century right up to some of Gaudi, Dali and Picasso's works. The museum is very well set out, so much so that some of the exhibitions manage to incorporate ancient wall- and ceiling paintings into the structure of the exhibition rooms.

We spent the afternoon wandering from room to room and emerged just in time to see the Magic Fountain, which stands outside the museum, in action (this only happens for two hours in the evenings on Saturdays). This too was spectacular because not only is the fountain itself impressive, but there are also many other smaller fountains and cascades of water around MNAC and the stairs leading up to it (including either side of the road that paves the way to the building) that suddenly come alive (to the childlike delight of everyone). Hundreds of people jostled to watch the spectacle that is accompanied by music and there also happened to be a very lively drum performance happening, so there was an awesome energy about the place.

Visiting MNAC, the treasure trove of Catalan culture that it is, was, I think, a special way for us to spend part of our last weekend in Catalan country. Next time I will be sharing our journey to the south's Andalusia and I am looking forward to seeing you again then (in that strange abstract way that blogging allows). Hasta luego, como siempre con besos!

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