From the 24th to the 28th of October 2018, I was in Catalonia, Spain, working on a video report on the state of the independence crisis. These are some personal observations and do not reflect the views of my employer, BBC News.
Entering the picturesque small square, Plaça del Vi, where Girona’s city council stands, this damp October evening, you are struck by two large banners along the walls of other buildings. “Long live the Catalan Republic!” shouts one. The other simply declares: “We are a republic”. Both are written in Catalan, as are the street names and names of businesses you’ve passed on the way from the railway station. Apart from the occasional central government building, the only Spanish you noticed was on the pillar boxes. Having come out here on the train from the global city of Barcelona, you feel you’ve entered Catalan territory. “You are now entering free Derry” are the big painted words that come to mind, surging up out of the past from a gable wall in another corner of Europe, Northern Ireland, where the word “republicanism” was also synonymous with nationalism. Happily in Catalonia, it’s still a crisis, not a conflict.
It’s the 27th of October and a year has passed since the nationalists were driven out of office in the region by the Spanish authorities for declaring a breakaway state. Yet the republic that officially lasted a few hours (seconds, some argue) has not gone away. It has embedded itself in many people’s hearts. In the north-eastern corner of the garden of the Kingdom of Spain, separatism has taken root.
The surprise in Girona would be not to see a display of separatist spirit — this is, after all, the city of Carles Puigdemont, who led it as mayor before moving to the top of Catalan politics and leading last year’s attempted breakaway. No, the surprise came a couple of days earlier, much closer to Barcelona, in the seaside town of Mataró, a solidly working-class place famous for giving Spain its first railway line (down to Barcelona) and once known for its textile industry. With a large community of workers with strong links to other regions of Spain, it makes a formidable political nut for separatist parties to crack at election time.
But walk into Mataró from the sea front and you quickly spot a few lone-star flags of the independence movement fluttering from roofs or hung over balconies. In the town centre, you come across a veritable shrine to Mr Puigdemont and the separatist cause on Pujol Street. A banner celebrating “Puigdemont our president” dominates the view. Walk on up and you pass a poster in Catalan saying “No independence without disobedience”. Keep going and, looking up, you see elegant apartments flying yet more lone-star flags. Look down and you find kerbstones neatly stenciled with the names of Mr Puigdemont and the other Catalan separatist leaders now in exile or in prison, who are remembered everywhere with yellow ribbons tied to balconies or images of yellow ribbons, small and great. Look across and you see a block of flats with lone-star flags displayed. These peaceful streets breathe defiance of Spain. For the people who settled in this town to work from regions like Andalusia in the far south of Spain, it may feel a little like the frosty breath of polarisation.
Separatists are themselves nervous. You spent many days before coming here at all struggling to arrange an interview with somebody on one of those ubiquitous Committees for the Defence of the Republic, the impressively named neighbourhood groups that defended polling stations during the referendum on independence last year, when Spanish police tried to shut them down. It sinks in with you that people are scared to talk freely. Dramatic arrests have been made for public order offenses like obstructing roads or railways. People will still come out in droves for marches and rallies, safe in numbers, but up close, they’re wary.
In the centre of Barcelona, you may be forgiven for thinking none of this tension exists. In the traditional caff, they squeeze you orange juice, fill you a roll with ham and brew your morning coffee like everywhere else in Spain. Just you being served, after that pleasant lady who’s enjoying her bun and hot drink at a table, looking amused, no doubt, at the spectacle of the big foreigner at the counter. You’re happy in here in the fug, on a cold morning, making your individual plans for the day in one of Europe’s greatest cities. You allow yourself smugly to raise your eyebrows at the thought of the North American cafes along the street, soon to be teeming with foreigners like yourself, but incomprehensibly eating carrot cake and drinking out of mugs, and then you kick yourself, telling yourself that, in a very real sense, Barcelona belongs to the world, that world which flits to and fro over the city’s medieval heart on a Segway when it’s not scraping a living selling trinkets on a blanket in the subway. Liberty, frivolity, eternity. Drink what you want, where you want, with whom you want. It’s Barcelona, open city.
In the heat of your first afternoon in the metropolis, a few days before the weather spoils, a space surprises you by looking and feeling under foot, then under knee, for all the world like a marshy river meadow. A meadow beneath a cliff with a few scattered stones. Yet there is no river and no life to be seen but tiny darting butterflies. You’re in a field of death. At least 1,700 victims of Franco’s executioners were dumped and burnt with quicklime here, at the bottom of a quarry pit, just out of sight of the ornate tombs and crosses and paths of Montjuïc Cemetery. The stones turn out to be gravestones. On closer inspection, you see the columns at the entrance teem with engraved names. This place is the lasting scar of actual civil war, the final destination of nationalism, fanaticism, intolerance. A killing field preserved in mourning, yes, but surely also as a message to people in this part of the world that ideology unchecked ultimately kills. The path to Montjuïc was no doubt paved with good intentions some days.
You’re thirsty, your bottle is empty and you stop by the drinking fountain near the cemetery exit. Water floods cloudy as milk into the bottle and, alarmed, you wait. You wait and wonder if it’s safe, and then the liquid turns clear as crystal and happily you drink your fill before boarding the bus which rumbles off back to the land of the living where there are banners but not barricades, dread but not despair, a crisis but not a conflict.