A Letter From Barcelona
It’s 9 am. I’m on the balcony in my dressing gown, doing my ‘tired face’. Got a cup of tea and a cuerno in my hands. Clear blue sky, empty street, but there’s something in the air. I can hear distant shouting and then – singing.
Some children run past at full pelt carrying flags. I look around at the other balconies. Red and yellow stripes everywhere. Imagine if we did that with Union Jacks in England! It can only mean one of two things. Either its yet another unfathomable Catholic holiday, Our Lady Of The Unfeasible Miracle, perhaps, or it’s another separatist protest day.
I get dressed, go around the corner to my coffee shop, a cavernous, permanently empty joint staffed by one sleepy girl who didn’t get in until 7am. Today there are about 150 pensioners crammed into it, and they’re singing. Catalan colours everywhere.
My worst fears are confirmed. There will be fireworks, bands, gigantes, speeches, chanting. And I live at Ground Zero, beside a 100-foot high Catalan flagpole marking the city of the ancient city.
Catalonia lost their battle for independence. In 1652 the Spanish captured Barcelona. The battle-site is under my flat. But, just as the wounds of the Franco years have never fully healed, the fight for Catalan independence splits families. Madrid is seen as arrogant in its refusal to acknowledge that the Catalan economic powerhouse drives the rest of Spain, but if Catalans secede there will be at least four other parts of the country that want the same thing.
It’s hard to deny that the history of Catalonia is one of suppression. Separatism is in the air around the world right now, so if it doesn’t happen now it never will. Look at the crowds, though, and you can see that they’re swelled by over-50s.
But there’s more at stake here. While most towns and cities are desperate to increase tourism, Barcelona is seeking to reduce it. A victim of geopolitics, Spain has become a safe haven for holidaymakers. Uber has been banned, new hotels have halted, a restoration of balance is being sought for residents.
I cannot imagine this ever being proposed for London. Barcelona has brought the problem upon itself by agreeing to build a port that can take gigantic US cruise ships. The tourists follow a preplanned rat-route and see nothing of the city. They pass by us and we don’t see them.
As Brexiteers have discovered, you don’t get to cherry-pick the parts you like about economic migration. Largely, Barcelona is still a city in balance. In summer the tourists flock to anything old, as they do in every city. They don’t visit the parts where people actually live.
I’ve been back here for about a month, overcoming a problem I’ve been having on a novel. I have the world’s noisiest neighbours, whose child seemingly drives a cement mixer at 1:00 am, but they argue in Catalan so it doesn’t bother me.
My crazy neighbour seeks to apologise for the noise. ‘You must understand, we are a family, not like you.’ Cheers for that, love.
The preconceptions we have about European cities are revealing. Paris and Italy have long been regarded as more classical and intellectual than Spain. Maybe they were once, but not now. Paris is conservative and deadlocked, ignorant of the powderkeg beyond the Périph. Italy is a wonderful mess, crushed between commercialism and the church. Spain has forty unaccounted-for years that it would still rather not talk about, and like all countries that have emerged from repressive regimes, has embraced modernity in the awareness that freedom must always be fought for. So I’ll go with the flags and fireworks – it shows people are thinking about their liberty.
Giles Tremlett’s superb ‘The Ghosts of Spain’ is the go-to volume on Spain’s complexities.