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The International Writers Magazine: Spain

Catalan Springs Eternal
• Olivia Montiel
“El mue nom és Olivia. Sóc dels Estats Units,” the few words I remembered from my half semester of Catalan seems to have paid off.


While all I said was, “My name is Olivia. I am from the United States,” the local people of Barcelona cheered my attempt to use Catalan while at Campo stadium, the home of FC Barcelona. The Catalan language differs a great deal from Spanish. Barcelona, my home away from the quiet town of Sleepy Hollow, so to speak, taught me to look deeper than the flashy lights of the city, to visit the tourist attractions, and to become a “local” by wandering off the main streets of Las Ramblas, and Placa Cataluña. Through the people I met and the food I ate, in the cut-off-cornered-streets with Catalan names I explored, I became a local, and learned more than I could have hoped to learn about this proud Catalan nation. By immersing myself into the native cultural and traditions of a place, I notice the underlying conflicts facing the region, the individuality of the people, and the uniqueness in the everyday experiences that lay beneath the surface.

Barcelona Upon first arriving in Barcelona, I thought that the city and the rest of the region appeared just as Spanish as any other part of Spain. Barcelona has the slow pace of life: the siesta in the middle of the day – the few hours when the citizens stop working to enjoy food and a few glasses of wine – the abundance of holidays allowing everyone to take a day or two off from work quite often, and weeklong saint’s festivals like Gordi’s (Saint George).

After I visited other cities in the country, however, Barcelona transformed itself in my mind from just another typical Spanish town, to a very different place that definitely lacked many aspects of Spanish culture, but made up for its shortcomings with unique characteristics of its own. The language, the traditions, the history, and even the architecture, sets Barcelona apart from the rest of Spain. The Catalan people, who have been oppressed for years, want recognition for their differences.

In an attempt to embrace the culture of the city, I tried every tapa, in every restaurant. One of the most unique places became my favorite – la champaneria. Taken to this hole in the wall for the very first time by my friend, a native of the city, I became very intrigued. The cavernous restaurant, if you can call it that, had people crammed in every nook, overflowing like the town pool in the heat of summer. The interior had red and white checkered wrappers coating the floor, and dried ham legs hanging from the rafter over the counters, which separated the kitchen from where customers ordered. Inside, everyone joyously ate, drank, and delighted in one another’s company while standing; the whole scene is still plastered into my memory. After making an attempt to decipher the menu (written in Catalan, just like every other menu in the city), we ordered spicy sausage, ham and cheese tapas, and a fish dish, along with a few bottles of rose champagne cheaply priced at three Euros per bottle. How could we resist? Thank goodness for the suggestions of the seasoned diners who recommended what we ordered. Comiendo and hablando with the locals, I learned how proud they were to be Catalan rather than Spanish. The soccer team, the language, and the work ethic among other aspects of the culture are what the people took pride in – elements that defined the Catalan people.

Catalan While the Spanish and Catalan people don’t differ greatly in appearance, the language has become a means to differentiate the two. The fact that the menus are in Catalan shows that the city has tried to incorporate the language into everyday life. During the time of Franco, a Spanish dictator in power after his victory in the Spanish Civil war, the Catalan language was not allowed in schools or spoken in public. Today Barcelona and the rest of Cataluña make a great effort to teach Catalan rather than Spanish in schools.

Noticeably, the newspapers and television shows demonstrate these changes too. Knowing this information, I was surprised to see an older women having café and reading a Spanish newspaper because the paper also comes in Catalan, yet she chose the “foreign” tongue. According to this older woman, Laia (a very common name in this region) who I spoke to in Spanish, she read the Spanish paper because she didn’t know how to read Catalan, despite knowing how to speak the language. Laia went on to inform me that she couldn’t read Catalan because children during Franco’s reign were not taught Catalan to try and oppress the language that connected the people with the differences exhibited between the two cultures, and only learned the language at home from speaking with family.

During my time in this always sunny city, I visited museums and observed people. I learned how under Franco, the Catalan people were oppressed. Because children have been killed, the complete repression of Catalan traditions, and exploitation of these people, the Catalans have since been trying to make their culture predominant. In the wake of Franco’s death, and the liberation of the Cataluna, a strong independence movement has become widespread. Walking through the Eixample or Gothic Quarter, I passed by many of the structures that make Barcelona’s architecture so interesting and uniquely Catalan.

The numerous buildings designed by Gaudi all incorporate aspects that have significant relevance to the Catalan culture. The Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Casa Batlló, and Casa Milà are all faultless examples of this influence. Casa Batlló, for example has architectural aspects that look like a dragon, which relate to the patron saint Gordi, and his killing of the dragon. These art nouveau edifices can be found in no other place in Spain. From the time these buildings were constructed to present day, they have acted as a form of resistance to the central Spanish government, which has too often suppressed the vibrantly unique culture and people of Barcelona and the whole Catalan region.
Gaudi facade

Having the opportunity not only travel to a foreign country, but also to live in one and embrace the culture of Spain, is so special because I have been given the chance to have extraordinary experiences that ordinary tourists don’t have. Studying abroad taught me to learn more about the culture, the history, and the people of the region though observation, and asking questions. Digging deeper into the culture gave me a much better insight into the Catalan people that otherwise would have sat dormant under the surface. When traveling, take your time. Just sit in a café on a nice day to watch the people walking by, and talk to the local person sitting next to you, for that is the only way to become a local yourself.

© Olivia Montiel May 2013

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