Girona: Days of Fleas and Roses
Love, literature, and Catalonian nationalism in a (sort-of) Spanish city
“… A small tribute to the memory of the pitch black and moonlit nights we spent together in these coastal waters and the four or five thousand fresh grilled sardines we ate… Not forgetting the bread and wine.
These are realities that are noteworthy, because one could say, and not at all flippantly, that all else is madness, smoke and ashes.”
- Josep Pla, A Frustrated Voyage
He really is a magnificent beast
That’s all I can say in our defense. That, and the claims that friendships, even newfound ones, make on us. Our own cat died the day before Christmas Eve, leaving a hole in our hearts that it seemed Spirit (pronounced en Francais, Spee-reet) might temporarily fill.
If he could fit.
If he were my cat, I would have named him something like Mephistopheles. Or better — Behemoth, like the vodka-swilling sarcastic demon in cat form from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. A gigantic Maine Coon with black fur and bright yellow eyes, he looks like some ancestral throwback, the wild and tuft-eared forefather of your average domestic tabby.
He’s actually as sweet and cuddly as they come. That’s part of the problem.
Spirit stayed with us while his own home was being renovated. A few weeks with us, like a vacation for him, a break from the multiple dogs and cats he ordinarily lives with. We’d already had him for a week when our friend came round with flea medicine to treat him. One of the dogs had picked them up, and she was worried they had spread.
A few weeks later, I’m standing in the kitchen, itchin’. The mosquitoes are already out where I live, rising like unquiet ghosts from the saltwater marshes around town, so a few bites are nothing unusual. But when my wife saw me scratching, her face transformed into a look of horror. She had bites, too.
“We’ve got something,” she said.
A bowl of soapy water with a desk lamp shining on it soon revealed the awful truth. Fleas sank to the bottom of the bowl, their long black legs pointed behind them at a forty-five-degree angle like a flag of defeat. Bringers of plague, biters of ankles, vicious little monsters with whom no deal can be struck, no agreement can be reached. This thing goes to the grave.
This is something I know too well. I have a bottle of permethrin in my shed for just this kind of situation. One hundred milliliters to a liter of water, about eight liters to treat the whole house. Some things you don’t forget. But the smell of the French pesticide was far stronger than the ones I’m more familiar with. There was no way we were going to be able to sleep in the house that night.
So on a whim, we booked a hotel for the night and went to Girona instead.
Girona is as Catalan as they come
The ancient city is a hotbed of Catalan nationalism, where red and yellow flags flutter from every balcony, and Spanish is spoken only to tourists. We were already on the road before I remembered that April 23rd, as well as being St. George’s Day in England, is also Catalonia’s national day too.
As vegetarians, we often miss out on local cultural events. So often, it involves ripping the guts out of a pig with your teeth or kicking a hedgehog to death. But in Catalonia, St. George’s Day is celebrated with books and roses.
April 23rd is also World Book Day, an initiative created by a Barcelona bookseller to commemorate the fact that two giants of European literature, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, died on that date in 1616. It’s also Shakespeare’s birthday, at least by convention.
Before we even arrived at our hotel, we saw the books stalls set up in Parc de la Devesa. Long lines of tents fluttered in the strong breeze that deposited Catalan dust on the tables, on the pages of the books, on the petals of the roses. A stage was set up in one corner of the park, a local radio station pumping out music that would be replaced that night by live performances. Crowds traipsed between the stalls in the patches of sun and shadow the racing clouds dragged across the park, the stems of the roses they clutched bending in the wind as they moved from one stall to the next.
The roses represent blood. The drops of blood shed by the dragon St. George killed, the story goes. The books don’t represent anything. Books represent enough already. And amongst pile after pile of Catalan books, we found a stall with a selection of novels in English. Mostly by Spanish and Catalan authors, although Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy managed to show up on the table in the swirling dust too.
I hesitated. There was a beautiful hardback edition of Don Quixote on offer. And after all, Cervantes did die on this day. But it was a book of short stories by the celebrated Catalan author Josep Pla that caught my eye the most.
A novelist and fiction writer who turned to journalism to pay the bills, the breathless blurb on the back of the book compared him to one of my all-time favorite writers, Joseph Roth. That, and the promise of his lyrical descriptions of the beautiful coastline of Catalonia that I am coming to know so well, was enough to make me insist my wife buy me the book in exchange for the three-euro rose I gave her.
I loathe nationalism
Even in its most benevolent form. Shakespeare might have been born just twenty miles down the road from me, but he belongs to all time and all places, not the rain-sodden scrap of the Midlands we both come from. Good writers aren’t so common that we can afford to hoard them and keep them for ourselves. Culture is something, like wisdom and love, that expands the more you share it. It’s in all our interests to blow those dandelions wide open.
Catalonia is defined in part by the fact that it’s not Spain, and the most recent referendum expressed a deep desire among Catalans to divorce themselves from the same country that made them suffer so much during Franco’s regime. I get that. And nationalism can be a source of pride for the humiliated, a source of strength when times are tough.
Something to rally behind. Something to fight for.
But guns, once loaded, need to be shot. Swords are made to be unsheathed. Nationalism depends on the patently absurd belief that your country is better than every other because you happened to be born there. A country is its people, and nationalists use that fact to justify their love for a concept, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable or any less ridiculous. For lines on a map, for stories someone told you once, people will die and kill, and when you can’t get your way at the ballot box, it’s time to load up the rifles again.
There are worse places in the world to be born than England, but I’ve never felt any warmth for the country of my birth apart from a fondness for understated sarcasm, pie and chips, and English literature. I’m much keener on Canada, the country where I was blessed to spend my adult life, but I’m not a Canadian nationalist either. There’s not a country on earth that doesn’t have its problems, and while I don’t subscribe to the belief that everything is relative, that every place and culture and moral code is morally equal to the next, you won’t find me waving a flag for France any time soon, either.
The Catalans have a right to determine their own future, the way all people do. But keep whittling away at one country, and the whole concept collapses. In a brutish world like this, minorities need to be protected from the blind power of a majority, but we are all ourselves a minority of one. Our own tiny nations shining a little light in the dark, preserving our customs, our individual language, in the full knowledge that the culture we have painstakingly built over the course of our entire lives will vanish, abruptly and completely, the day that we die.
Josep Pla also died on April 23rd
It was a bad day for literature.
But now it’s a day for books and roses, for love and literature, and if the Catalan flags flutter in the breeze, they do so over the dusty literature of the entire earth. Roses don’t care what hive the bees visit from. Any buzzing creature will do to carry that pollen on to the next generation.
There was a party atmosphere in the street as we made our way through Girona’s beautiful medieval streets, the truncated tower of the cathedral looking unfinished as it rose above the newer buildings. On a perfect day in Catalonia, it’s hard to complain about a nationalism that looks so benevolent, so innocent, so pure.
But I still remember the streets of Madrid, the Moroccan football fans lighting flares in the public squares and the young fascists on parade. It’s easy to get lost in this world, to feel your edges blurring and dissolving, and a fabricated identity seems to offer some safety.
Illusory, of course, as all safety is.
We should all celebrate with books and roses, any time we choose. But let’s not lose ourselves in any notion as stupid and self-defeating and tawdry as nationalism.
We returned to what we hoped was an empty house
Spirit, oblivious to the trouble he put us through, was returned to his people before I started throwing chemicals around. The traps I set around the house showed empty, no longer dotted with fleas striped red and yellow like the Catalan flag, the old blood fading while the new shines bright. We opened every window to let the tramuntana wind blow away the chemical stink, the same deathless wind that makes the boats rock in a Josep Pla story, heavy with the smell of oil and grilled sardines.
But parasites don’t die easy. And all my murderous expertise wasn’t enough to stop the bites swelling on my ankles again.
All that, and we still have fleas.
© Ryan Frawley 2023
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.