The Sorrows of Catalonia

A Home in BarcelonaLast weekend’s edition of the Financial Times led with three articles about Spain. They catalogued nothing but misery: a quarter of Spaniards are unemployed, the country’s financial position is worsening, Spain’s bonds have been downgraded by two notches, Spain is crying out for help, seemingly into a void. The FT’s attention is justified; Spain is important, Spain matters. If Spain falls prey to the markets, it could take the entire Euro system with it. It’s clear there are not enough reserves, not in Germany, not in the entire solvent portion of the European Union, to save them. A Spanish collapse could lead to a renewed global downturn.

Given this turmoil, it may seem strange that Spain was once viewed as a land of hope and opportunity: the Francoist past had been airbrushed out of recent memory, Spain was a cheap place for British people to retire or merely have a good holiday. Spanish art, design, cuisine were all in vogue. Woody Allen descended upon Barcelona just prior to the advent of the financial crisis in order to make his romantic comedy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, starring the versatile Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson. While the relationships in that film were tinged with sadness, regret and even violence, Barcelona itself was painted in warm colours, touched by golden sunlight. It seemed a perfect place for artists and poets, where ridiculous but tragic love affairs could take place and inspiration take wing.


This Spain, or as the residents of Barcelona would prefer, this Catalonia, still exists. Go to El Jardi, an outdoor restaurant located in the garden of Antiguo Hospital de la Santa Creu. Sip an excellent glass of Estrella Damm beer, or even better a Moritz, brews which put the homogenous concoctions of mega breweries in America and Britain to shame. Order the chorizo, which will arrive nearly sizzling. A gentleman in a black shirt with a trimmed beard and moustache will be along in a little while, carrying a guitar. He’ll hail the restaurant staff as his “amics” and then will make his instrument sing sweetly as the late afternoon slowly fades into night.

The bonhomie infused into the atmosphere at El Jardi didn’t arrive by accident: it came after the city drowned in sorrows. It’s a deserved spot of sunshine following the torrential rain. Barcelona bears the hallmarks of a metropolis that rose high and subsequently crashed into the dust. Great buildings such as Palau Nacional, built for the 1929 International Exhibition, speak of times when Barcleona welcomed the world. The 1992 Olympics was another such occasion: the magnificent Olympic stadium still stands atop Montjuic, it is almost classical in its grandeur on a sunny day. Yet Barcelona has also been a battlefield: it was the last outpost of the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. It finally fell to the Nationalists in January 1939 after a bloody battle. I have seen spots of discoloured concrete on buildings along Las Ramblas and wondered if these were patched over bullet holes.

The people of Barcelona in 1992 and 2006 perhaps thought sorrow belonged to the past. After all, they had been fully admitted into the European family, war had been banished, prosperity had arrived. The city could celebrate luminaries like artist Joan Miro and cellist Pablo Casals without fear of being dragged back into the the darkness.

However, there is a second film of Barcelona, perhaps the best movie ever made, which provides a contrasting vision to Vicky Cristina Barcelona: it’s entitled “Biutiful”. It too stars Javier Bardem. The film describes a vastly different city. Indeed, the fact that it is Barcelona and not some dystopian vision is not immediately apparent. Bardem plays a street hustler named Uxbal, who works organising the production of cheap knock-off goods by illegal Chinese migrants and the sale of these items by just as illegal African immigrants. This Barcelona is a city of the dead and dying: Uxbal earns money on the side by conversing with the deceased on behalf of the bereaved, Uxbal himself is plagued by terminal prostate cancer and has very little time to sort affairs out for his two young children. Their mother is mentally unstable, his brother is an incompetent and uncaring petty criminal; he’s on his own. The best that Uxbal can do before he passes is entrust his children and the money he has to the wife of one of his African employees who is about to be deported. Life in this city is on the margins: the poor die unlamented, illegal immigrants are killed in tragic accidents, their bodies are dumped at sea and wash up on a beach, the Africans run in terror from the police.


The truth of this film is evident even to the passing tourist. Take a train from Vila Seca to Barcelona: African men carrying faded and beaten up rucksacks or wares covered in black bin liners will get on board and later leave at the tourist spot of Tarragona, intending to hawk their wares. They have come from all over sub-Saharan Africa; I heard one group break into the occasional English phrase like “Not bad, not bad at all”. Others mixed French into their patois.

As “Biutiful” suggests, the Chinese are in Barcelona too: not far from Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, is a small restaurant. The decor is dated: red linoleum floors predominate, but the establishment is pristine in its cleanliness. There, I had a coffee, served by a Chinese man. His little daughter, with big bright eyes and pigtails, sat at a corner table, drank orange juice out of a box container and watched cartoons on the restaurant’s television. The establishment was nearly empty. The only other patrons besides myself, my other half and the proprietor’s daughter was an old man in a navy blue beret who leafed slowly through his newspaper, and a young woman who came in and ordered a glass of San Miguel. I wanted to ask the owner if he was disappointed with the choice he had made by coming to Barcelona. Were all the sacrifices he made in order to set up in a new land in vain? China has a future, Spain had a glorious past and an almost future. Now the proprietor was stuck with a good establishment amidst the tattered remnants of an economy.

After I left and walked hand in hand with my other half, it occurred to me that the damage created by real bombs is relatively straightforward to manage: we can see the blasted out buildings, discern the rubble strewn in our path. Once the guns fall silent and the airplanes stop flying overhead, regardless of who brings peace, tranquility does return and there is a chance to sweep up the mess. Barcelona is psychologically better equipped to do this than many cities; the Gran Teatre del Liceu is symbolic of its capacity to rise from the ashes. The theatre burned down in 1861, was damaged by bombs in 1893, and burned down yet again in 1994. Yet parts of the old facade remain, and the gilded letters “Teatre del Liceu” still tower over Las Ramblas with gravitas; this older portion is buttressed by a modern building. Its life and its place in Barcelona’s life goes on.

Man Asleep on Las RamblasThe damage caused by an economic detonation is far more subtle and much more complicated to clean up. While El Jardi is full of tourists, not far from there are stores going into final liquidation, screaming out in black letters on flourescent yellow signs that every last bit of stock must be sold. A man sleeps on a bit of grass at the harbour end of Las Ramblas: his Levis and brown jacket hint at former prosperity, the holes in both garments and his leathery skin indicate his good fortune’s passing. His face is turned towards the direction pointed to by the statue of Columbus, out to sea. Switch on the television back at the hotel: the queue of unemployed cover their faces as the news cameras film them going into the welfare office. Projects outside Barcelona appear to be abandoned: the station at Vila Seca bears a sign promising redevelopment by the Ministry of Transport, however, the concrete on the platform is broken, unfinished, guarded by a temporary steel fence that looks all too permanent. Graffiti, a scream of protest in paint, is everywhere in Catalonia: two young men assault the walls of Vila Seca’s railway yard with spray cans and are entirely unmolested and unchallenged. In Barcelona itself, the iron shutters which protect stores are also marked: virtually everywhere has at least some squiggle, line or scrawl. The metal sheds outside Barcelona Sants train station bear legends calling for revolution with the crossed out A for anarchy. So much for the gilded dreams of 1992’s “beautiful horizon” or the artistic meanderings of Vicky Cristina: the Barcelona of “Biutiful” seems to be chewing the rest of city up, bit by agonising bit. It is a template for disappointment, despair and perhaps even violence. Spain and Catalonia cry out, Barcelona bleeds, but because the wounds rarely are as striking as the image of a once prosperous man sleeping incongruously on a tiny patch of grass, it is ignored, consigned to warnings on the financial pages.

I repeat: Spain is important, Spain matters. Catalonia’s hour is close to midnight, it proceeds through time rather like Bardem’s Uxbal makes his way through the streets of Barcelona: it survives as best and as long as it can, having a few moments of joy, but finding life for the most part remorselessly bleak. Hearts may be moved to pity; however, it is worth remembering that not long after the Spanish Civil War ended, World War II began. As it was then, Spain now may be a preview of our own future: the sorrows of Catalonia are not necessarily confined to there alone.

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