Jordi looked at me trying not to laugh and then turned serious. “Nats, although the September 11 terrorist attack was a terrible thing that affected not only the US but the whole world, this is not the reason why the Catalonian government is declaring tomorrow, 11th September, an official non-working day.”
We were crossing Via Laetana and Jordi was giving me a tour of the Borne neighborhood as part of our English-Spanish language exchange when I mentioned to him how I admired the Catalans for their sense of solidarity with the victims of the 9/11 attack. I was already going on my ninth month in Barcelona and having lived in Madrid for three years before moving to the Catalonian capital, I must have missed this part of the Spanish history, or rather, the history of Catalonia as Jordi would put it.
We sat down on the steps of the Cathedral del Mar and I braced myself for a passionate lecture on Catalonia´s history.
Catalonia´s first settlers were the Íbers. Later came the ancient Greeks, followed by the Romans and then the Visigoths, the Moors and soon after, the Franks. It was during the Frankish rule that Catalonia achieved the status of being a self-governing principality composed of condados (counties) under the leaderships of their respective counts who had to choose a king to the Crown of Aragon. The union between King Ferdinand II of Aragon and the Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1469 saw the birth of a unified Crown of Castile and Aragon making Castile the seat of the political power. Conflict arose when in 1700, the Spanish king Charles II died without an heir to the throne causing Spain and France to pick Philip V of the House of Bourbon as the rightful successor. This move was strongly opposed by The Grand Alliance, mainly composed of Austria, Holland and England fearing that a unified Franco-Spanish union would be a dangerous threat to Europe. The Grand Alliance supported Archduke Charles, a member of the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. Catalonia was dragged into the fray when in 1706, it recognized the Archduke as their King to the chagrin of the Bourbon monarchy. With neither of the two warring groups willing to give in, war was inevitable. Catalonia sided with the Grand Alliance against the combined forces of the Spaniards and the French.
The war, which is known as the War of Succession dragged on for more than a decade. Doom soon dawned upon the Catalans. Dispirited by the withdrawal of the English, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Austrian troops, the Catalans capitulated to the Bourbon army. September 11, 1714 marked the fall of Catalonia. As punishment, Philip V passed the Nueva Planta decrees stripping the Catalans of their rights and prohibiting them to practice their language and culture. And so, 11th of September, Catalonia´s day of infamy, is an important date for Catalans as they commemorate the loss of their independence.
The cooking class
Five years after my history lesson with Jordi and three hundred years after the fall of Catalonia, I find myself standing in Anna´s kitchen watching her cook what she describes as something catalanisim (very Catalan), mussels bathed in salsa marinera while listening to her rants against the Spanish government and her dream of an independent Catalan nation.
One and a half kilos of mussels and a kilo of clams, already boiled and cleaned are waiting for me when I arrive at Anna´s place for our get together lunch with two other friends, Gloria and Montse. Anna volunteered her place and offered to teach me how to cook her mother´s favorite dish. Recently retired, Anna now enjoys the time of her life travelling, taking up languages and walking her dog, Duna. An ardent fan of Barça, she goes berserk and dies when her team blaugrana loses and resurrects and goes mad every time they win, especially against Real Madrid.
I perfectly know that this topic about Catalan independence is too delicate a subject but I am very eager to hear from ordinary Catalans what they feel more than the experts or the politicians. And Anna happens to be one of them. Born to Catalan parents, she is one of the most passionate persons to talk to about Catalonia and catalanisme, a term she pronounces with ease and pride.
To start our cooking session, Anna pours oil into the pot. “September 11, 1714 is a date etched with fire in every Catalan´s blood. When the war ended and the Bourbon bastard won, it was terrifying for the Catalans. They introduced laws that abolished all our rights, our language, our heritage. They humiliated us and constantly plundered our wealth. Catalans celebrate this day because despite losing everything, we can claim that we bravely died to defend our land, and we want to claim back the rights that were stolen from us, with no kings. Without those Bourbons!”
As thin wisps of smoke rise up off of the hot oil, Anna adds a bowl of eight grated fresh tomatoes. She opens a thin bottle of spicy powder she bought IN Turkey and sprinkles a little bit. She then signals me to take the ladle and stir. I shoot another question. “How do the new generation Catalans feel about this?
“At home during the dark times, parents taught children the history of their ancestors and the country. And this has been transmitted from one generation to the next. So our children and our children´s children know what really happened. As you can see in protest rallies, a lot of kids march with their parents. We share our sentiments with them. They know. They feel it.”
What would become of Catalonia?
After adding a pinch of salt, Anna hands me the mortar and pestle to pound the small garlic bulbs. While pounding, I throw another question. “What do you think would happen if Catalonia became independent?”
“In the short term, nothing extraordinary would happen. Half of the population would feel uncertain and the other half would feel sheer happiness. Catalonia makes up 25% of Spain´s GNP. We can stand on our own. In the long term, it would be our salvation because we could create our own ecnomic policies with nobody telling us what we could do and what we couldn´t.”
With the garlic bulbs already pounded and crushed, Anna cuts the parsley leaves with her hands, puts them over the garlic and starts pounding again. I suddenly remember the coming Scottish referendum. “Will Catalonia be affected by the result of the Scottish referendum?”
“I sincerely don´t think so. But it would be a good morale boost for us if they won their freedom. We are in totally different situations because the government in London is completely different from the one in Madrid. Today on TV, London said that they would grant the Scotts their independence should the result called for it. That is totally in contrast to Madrid which said that they would send troops to Catalonia to crush us like what they did in 1714. Nathan! Give it more force! Crush it! ” I give her a confused look.
“The parsely! Pound it a little bit harder!” She giggles pointing at the pestle. As I pound harder, the smell of parsely and garlic delights my nostrils. Anna takes a bottle of cognac and pours a half a glass into the hot pot. The strong scent of alcohol swathes all over Anna´s small kitchen. She takes the mortar from me and hands me the ladle to stir the tomatoes and the cognac. While waiting for the alcohol to evaporate, I bark my next question.
“What would happen to the non-Catalans? Or the immigrants?”
Anna gives puzzled look. “Why? How? Totally nothing! On the contrary, Catalonia is an emerging country, progressive and modern. We care for our citizens, the immigrants. We had proven this in the past! And we are doing it now!”
It is time to put the pounded garlic and parsley into the pot. The delicious aroma tickles my nose and this sensation runs directly to my brain which immediately orders my stomach to grumble. The doorbell rings. Anna turns down the flame and heads out of the kitchen.
“Don’t stop stirring or it will burn.”
Even if the call for independence has already been echoing for the past years, it was only until the height of the crisis that heavily hit Spain´s economy where unemployment reached an all-time high, endless cuts and widespread anomalies became a way of life, that it became so strong, potent and persistent . The Catalans cried foul over the disparity in the redistribution of their taxes to the regions of Spain and this ignited the embers of independence that, since then, has continuously spread like wildfire all throughout the region.
A friendly sounding woman greets her at the door. A couple of seconds later, I hear Anna bidding her goodbye and walks back into the kitchen. “Oh, it was nothing. Just a phone company survey.”
A recent regional government survey shows that support for independence was about 45 percent. The central government argues that there is a silent majority who are not in favor of independence. These are those who fear that when Catalonia became an independent nation, it would be kicked out of the European Union and even out of the United Nations. At the moment, there are no offical words yet from these international organizations but the European Union and NATO have issued a warning to exclude Catalonia in the event that it broke away from Spain. Catalonia´s president Arthur Mas has sent out letters to different world leaders for support but so far, the world is still mum about the matter. Later this month, German chancellor Angela Merkell backed the Spanish government´s opposition to the Catalonian independence vote.
It is now time to add the mussels and the clams. Holding the ladle firmly, Anna stirs and moves all the ingredients inside the pot. “Each house has its own way of cooking mussels. This is how my mother taught me. And these mussels came from the Delta d´Ebro. Es catalan del tot!” She declares with a hearty laugh.
The Catalan vote
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has declared any move to hold a referendum as unconstitutional and therefore would block the planned referendum set by separatist parties on November 9, 2014. The day when the whole Catalonian populace will be made to decide whether they want Catalonia to be a state, an independent state. This is still a big question. Will the referendum ever take place as planned? Is it going to be a “Yes” or “No”?. The whole world is watching, especially the Basques.
After three minutes, Anna covers the pot. “We are done! Finito!”
I lift the pot cover and feel the steam touching my face as I lean closer to take a peek. This year, Catalonia celebrates the 300th anniversary of their defeat. Thousands of Catalans are joining hands to to form a 400-kilometre “Catalan Way” as a symbol of their undying solidarity and to press their fight for independence. Last year, the a big number of people held hands in different countries forming a human chain to show their support for the Vía Catalana. Anna is planning to hang her Catalan independence flag on her balcony on the 11th. The Estelada, the Catalan independence emblem consists of a white star inside a large blue triangle added to the yellow and red bars.
She said, they said
As Anna goes to set the table, I remember another friend of mine who by contrast, is totally against Catalonia´s independence. Also born to Catalan parents, Luis no longer listens to the radio nor watch TV. “I´m sick of hearing all this independence crap. This is all bad for Spain, bad for Catalonia and bad for everyone. It has been three hundred years, Nathan. It´s time to move on. There are other problems more important than this.”
The same sentiment reminds me of Emilio, a friend from Madrid. “Independence is not the solution for the problems of anyone. Catalonia´s independence is a minor issue, nothing is really going to change in all Europe unless we change the direction in which Europe goes. Maybe Catalonia will be a little richer and Spain a little poorer. Well then, the rest of Spain will not buy from them and in the short time, the situation will be the same as before. Not a big deal, in my opinion.”
Everybody has their own opinions and reasons. We can choose to speak our minds or be part of the silent majority. What matters most is that we know what we believe in and fight for. Only time can tell what the future holds for Catalonia. I remember my conversation with Jordi on the steps of the Cathedral del Mar that afternoon five years ago.
“Nats, before coming to Spain, did you ever imagine coming here and live for more than five years?”
“Uhm, not really.”
“See? What ever is bound to happen, is bound to happen. And what ever isn´t bound to happen, isn´t bound to happen.”
The doorbell rings again. Gloria and Montse have arrived. Anna emerges from THE dining room, happily welcomes everybody and announces that lunch will be served in a while.