Sunday, December 11, 2011


I must apologize to my readers for not having posted for quite a while. It has been three weeks since my trip to Barcelona, which I realized as I rooted for Barça in a bar in the Alameda de Hércules plaza in Sevilla yesterday. In three weeks a lot has happened; three weeks is a long time here, and it is also an incredibly short amount of time. I nearly hyperventilate with the realization that shortly I will be back on my home continent—I could stay here a year, two years, and not do and see everything I want to do and see. But I do not dread the twenty-first of December, when I must fly back, because I know the comforts of family and Christmas await me.

But it’s not over just yet! Here goes my belated post on my weekend in Catalunya.


The day before elections, an old man raises his voice to a fellow passenger on the bus to Parc Güell. Estos politicos, estos politicos. These politicians. Politicians to be replaced by more politicians—is democracy really possible in this system? Maybe the Swiss do have reason to think so highly of themselves. In Switzerland the president rotates all the time, power is constantly turning over, and average citizens are able to make real change. Can citizens make real change in Spain?

In the Barrio Gótico that night I eat Basque tapas in a romantically darkened restaurant with my parents and uncle (who flew into Barcelona from Switzerland). We try one of this, one of that. Ooo, and one more of that. Just one more, and one more, until the toothpicks pile up like small mountains on the countertop, and the waiter counts them up and charges us for each one.

The owner takes a liking to my dad and his brother. We are an intriguing bunch; no one can quite tell where we’re from. Mexico, but also Switzerland and the U.S., we tell him. Soy cubano, he says. Can’t we tell? We try not to hurt his feelings but he has completely lost his island accent. Twenty-odd years of living in Spain will do that to you. My dad needles him about politics, his favorite topic at the moment, besides the Barça game that he couldn’t go to. He doesn’t need to prod much; the Cuban owner opens up and talks about how bad business is, how tourism is what keeps Barcelona alive, how he’s afraid something bad might happen and no one will be able to stop it. He sounds fatalistic, and it is hard to take in the gravity of his words with the taste of perfectly smoked salmon and three different kinds of chorizo lingering on my tongue.

A family walks in and the little boy is wearing a Messi shirt. My dad asks him who won. For some reason, no TVs have shown the game all day. The little boy shies away. “English,” the mother says, but the family really doesn’t understand English either. It turns out they are Swiss, so my uncle talks to them in Swiss German. Barça won, as usual.

The next day no one talks about the elections that are going on. It is as if people are living in a suspended world. This is how the Aztecs must have felt during the five unaccounted-for days of the calendar. Stuck in the limbo of uncertainty, not knowing what will come. How fitting that we spend the day in the museum of the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí in Figueres, alternately expressing awe at the artist’s ingenuity, laughing at the unexpected forms and juxtapositions, and concentrating to find the hidden meaning when a painting or sculpture seems too normal on the surface.

In a taxi that night we find out that the conservative Partido Popular has won a majority of the votes. The taxi driver does not comment, and neither do we. It was to be expected. Crisis and xenophobia is leading all of Europe to contract upon itself, to greedily guard its possessions, to reaffirm its most traditional values. Spain is no different. And Catalunya?

Catalanes consider Catalunya their “país,” their country. They speak a different language, have a different culture. The Partido Popular did not win in Catalunya; here Catalan nationalists were voted into parliament. But of course they are a minority. Since the days of Isabel la Católica, Castilla has been the giant that dictates the course of Spain, with Aragón, Catalunya, and those other pesky provinces—País Vasco and Navarra—following like reluctant and sometimes mutinous squires.

In Girona the day after elections I am glad to have my Catalan friend Pere as a guide. We meet for the first time in a year and a half, and I am reminded that the world is big but manageable, that good-bye never has to be forever. Pere is an excellent guide, telling us about how this cute, well-preserved medieval city was used to film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and he also serves as our badge of legitimacy in this semi-foreign country, since we can’t speak Catalan (yet). Whereas Barcelona is more cosmopolitan, Girona is distinctly Catalan. And it is in Girona that we eat a meal to blow our minds and make us fall in love with Catalunya—which, of course, is Pere’s main goal.

Barça is what holds Catalunya and the rest of Spain together, Pere says. I see what he means. Antonio Machado saw Spain as a “Cainist” country, made up of brothers prone to fighting each other to the death. This country still lives in the shadow of the bloody civil war and Franquismo. FC Barcelona has a great cohesive power; its slogan is “més que un club” (“more than a club”). Barça players made up the majority of the national team in the last World Cup when Spain won, and fans in Catalunya and the rest of Spain can feel united in pride when they root for Barça or for the national team.

What kind of unity have these elections brought? I cannot yet say. The newspapers blare headlines and glossy color pie charts of the votes, but the people are quiet. Once again, Spaniards must ask themselves, as the poets have for centuries, What is Spain?