It was with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases that my girlfriend and I left Barcelona at the end of November. Almost all of our possessions had been picked up weeks before but with the sheer amount of Jamón, Padrons and Manchego we were carrying the seams of our bags were straining.
Hasta luego Barcelona. In the last week we said our goodbyes to the things we will miss the most. To the beach calmly emptying the final tourists during the dying days of autumn. To strong coffee in small cups. To Tapas. To Vermut. To the sound of agreement being echoed again, and again, and again as Catalan Gentleman nod and say “vale, vale, vale, vale, vale, vale” almost endlessly. Barcelona is a wonderful city full or wonderful people.
Moving back to Northern Britain – the 51st State
We returned to Edinburgh a day after that recent US import Black Friday. Celebrating with a consumerist splurge the end of a celebration (Thanks Giving) that you don’t actually celebrate has to be one of the strangest diseases that the UK has caught in a while. America has been sneezing at this time of year since the 1960s but only now, powered by the internet and our avariciousness, have we contracted the bug. To witness it – thankfully just on TV – was ghastly. Here’s Buzzfeed’s summary.
We spent “Black Friday” (actually is was just a bit grey) in Barcelona walking round the local market. This is what Black Friday meant to us and it would seem hundreds of others who did their shopping that day.
Every year in the lead up to Christmas food collections spring up next to every single type of food shop. Market stalls, smaller independent stores and the larger super markets all get involved. Large boxes on creates are placed next to or inside stores and quickly fill with beans, pasta, rice, UHT, biscuits and tins of seafood. We decided to donate a few bags of food; pondering over the best items as we weighed up longevity with variety.
During the 20mins or so of our deliberations I’d say that 90% of shoppers donated at least one item. But that’s no surprise as I’ve come to learn the Catalans are a very socially engaged and spirited lot. This food collection tradition is much older than the Black Friday Sales.
So you can imagine what it felt like to return to the UK and witness how Black Friday had been spent here. “The American state across the pond” is a soubriquet that I simply detest to see my country – Scotland – living up to. One of my great hopes for an independent Scotland is that we would cast off two sets of cultural shackles as we split from Westminster’s cultural direction and the UK’s desire to live the life of Americans. No thanks man! Is what I say.
One of the glories of Catalunya and of Barcelona is that the region has this heart shaped by local communities and a local agenda that pumps with pride. It starts in the family, through the barrios, cities and finally at the borders of the region. It may not be a “State” but at least it is not the 51st State.
To vote is normal in a normal country says the sugar accompanying my coffee.
This week – the 9th November – a majority of Catalans will cast their votes. They will answer two questions:
“Do you want Catalonia to be a State?
If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent State?”
The turnout will be relatively low expected at around 55% – nowhere near the dizzying 86% turnout in the Scottish referendum – but there will be a majority of voters saying yes to both questions. However no matter the result it will carry as much water as an old fishing net. It’s more of an opinion poll than an election: it’s a ghost referendum.
It is a great shame that it has come to this. There was so much hope – buoyed by the momentum in the #indyref – that a true plebacite would go ahead with a weight that forced the hand of the establishment. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way. Sounds familiar doesn’t Scotland?
Artur Masthe head of the Generalitat thinks it’s still worth having some kind of vote. This watered down version won’t cost that much – everything was in place for the official vote – and it will be run by volunteers, so I am sure he is right but not everyone agrees with Artur: not even those who favour independence.
Whatever the internal wrangling within the Yes campaign a Yes vote will increase the conversation nationally about the situation of Catalunya and other “states” within Spanish. Anything that demonstrates that there is a desire for more localised decision making has to be good for the democratic process across Europe. This vote on the back of the large Yes vote in Scotland will keep the momentum going.
Maybe the vote in Catalunya will unite the independence parties – although they argue like teenagers – to form a united and consistent front that can represent a majority in Catlaunya. It’s a small hope for something that had such high hopes.
It would be unfair to say the independence movement failed before it was out of the starting gate because the result isn’t where the victory lies: it is post vote and what the pro independence parties do next. And here the similarity with the Scottish referendum is striking. November is a big month in these two nation states. 2015 is a massive, gigantic year!
Chatting with a shop owner about the local brewery is a pretty universal conversation. “Muy fuerte” says the proprietor as he points to his favourite Pale Ale: “Very strong” he says and smiles. This guy knows I am Scottish.
From my Barcelona apartment I can peer into this politicised state and observe the political situation around the Catalan referendum and luckily I can do that while drinking locally brewed Pale Ale.
I’ve been here on and off for two years and the barriers that any land has to a foreigner are beginning to fall. The hidden meanings behind phrases – like “quatro gatos” “four cats” – meaning there’s nobody here; the closeness of families and the bizarre breads are all beginning to make sense. However in the way that strong ale loosens the tongue I don’t totally understand things but I can have a stab at them.
With the mist cleaning I see many similarities and many differences between Catalunya’s search for proper and meaningful representation and the similar struggle taking place in Scotland.
With this in mind I’d like Scotland and Scots to get to know Catalunya that bit better. I’d like them to take a virtual walk down the Ramblas which criss-cross the city. Come and see a human tower being built. Join a political demonstration that sucks 100,000 people on to the street. Follow “Gigantes” down the street. Wave their flags, buy the t-shirt and read the books. And above all strive for some of the wonderful things that Catalunya takes for granted.
One of the differences between Scotland and Catalunya is how and where people shop. Now this may appear insignificant at first but I believe it goes to the heart of why many people backed the Yes campaign: an anti-establishment agenda focusing on localisation as the answer to more commerce and more jobs.
To sum up the differences between Catalunya and Scotland all you need to do is to take a walk down any medium sized street. Let’s pick the metro station of Clot. Think of it as Charing Cross in Glasgow or Haymarket in Edinburgh. It’s just outside of the city centre and is a busy hub for the local community.
Head up the main shopping drag and within one block you will find 30 shops. On this street it’s €1.50 for a coffee and 10c more buys a bottle of Estrella. Within this compact retail space there are six places you can buy fresh bread. There are three bars all serving food cooked fresh on the premises and one restaurant. In seven places in total you can buy that €1.60 beer.
The other twenty or so shops range from shoe shops to printers, from ice cream shops to a gym. Many of these types of shops would be seen on a UK high street (well maybe not the ice cream shop) but there the similarities end. On Carrer Rogent the main Ramble in Clot there are only five chain stores. There’s a coffee shop called Caracas, a Ham place called Enrique Tomas, Monopa the baker and a kind of pre packed take away meal store called Nostrum. One international store has a pitch: on the corner there is an Orange store. This is of course a striking difference to a UK high street. Twenty of the stores are owned by the people who run them meaning that the money spent in these shops stays in Catalunya.
Many of the stores highlight the importance and position of local produce. After browsing a wine store and seeing nothing but wines from the tempranillo grape I asked the wine store owner “Is all the wine from Spain?”, “NO. It’s all from Catalunya”: now that is localisation in action. Stores in Catalunya are different from stores in the rest of Spain. In this sense I wonder how Scotland truly differentiates itself from the rest of the UK? Because it should. And it can.
In the UK a staggering 97% of groceries are purchased from a supermarket. In Catalunya my guess would be that figure would be less than 30%. There are no major players anywhere near the size of the big four in the UK and the majority of streets are supermarket free – and it’s bliss!
In their place local markets appear weekly and are a genuine source of affordable produce rather than simply a site for tourists or the domain of the middle class. The markets are super markets in the sense that they are real markets that are super. A fresh source of fish, meat, fruit, nuts, beans and all manor of things is supplied by scores of owners instead of one. And the food is cheap.
Supermarkets are the most visible of conglomerates as they are on, literally, every high street. They operate solely for profit, paying little attention to their impact in the community. They have to deliver shareholder value and that comes at the expense of suppliers and staff. Sure they have low prices but they are shy on quality and variety. Money from the community flows in to these shops because their aggressive practices have made high street shopping unaffordable. And it has all been backed by complicit Governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Money flows out of communities to shareholders. Stores close. Decent paying jobs in small stores are exchanged for low paying zero hour contracts in supermarkets. Everyone loses. Apart from senior executives and shareholders obviously.
Many within the Yes campaign in Scotland had a focus on a localised approach to commerce as a way to increase inward investment and boost the local job market. An anti-establishment mantra has to include suspicion and disdain of corporations of all sizes – and supermarkets are front and centre – from their little Corner Metro Stores to their out of town Hyper Markets.
One of the themes in this blog is how we can get active despite a no vote. One way to do that is to support local suppliers and stores. Avoid Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s if you can! Buy local produce. Buy Scottish. The power for change lies at the front door and in the wallet of every single person. It’s the decision to walk past the supermarket and go local. Exercising that power, like the Catalans do, by pushing for a localised agenda can have a positive impact in your community that maybe even a Yes vote couldn’t have delivered.
It’s a typical early Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend and I are sat on our Rambla taking a coffee and passively taking in the smoke from fellow patrons. A colourful procession of locals are taking a stroll and enjoying the sun. Today is like any other Autumnal day in Barcelona but one thing is different: the noise. The normal buzz of urban life on a Spanish street is punctured by the tooting of horns and shouts of support as a river of motorbikes pass along Carrer Aragó heading to a mass demonstration in plaça Catalunya.
I finish my coffee and dodging the Catalans on the Rambla I cycle down in my red and yellow “Ara És L’hora” – “The Time Is Now” t-shirt. I clasp myself onto the motor led procession and head west to the centre of the city.
It’s a three mile ride and I join a throng of at least three thousand motorbikes surely snaking back all the way from the plaça. Almost every motorbike is flying the Catalan bandana and as the only pedal powered form of transport in this procession I settle on flying the flag for cyclists.
“Movements” become more than just the word and more than just words when by their sheer numbers, they start to stop traffic, stymie conversations and suck in bystanders. Over 110,000 say the police (link in Catalan) have gathered at plaça Catalunya, which now resembles one massive Catalan flag with almost every person in red or yellow. It’s not just people. It’s dogs. It’s cars. It’s the two colours from the stage, from the metro stations and from the roof tops. It’s two thirds of the traffic lights.
I watch the big screen from a far, taking pictures, occasionally clapping and less occasional picking out words in Catalan, all the while trying to avoid skelping people with the pedals of my bike. Despite my poor grasp of the language and my bike I feel part of this movement.
The subtleties will always be lost on a non native but as a Scot still feeling the stab of sorrow a month after the no vote in Scotland I connect with this struggle more than most.
It’s easy to get carried away and carried along, to clap and to raise your hand with the pronounced shape of the “V” for victory as you merge into a gallimaufry of people doing the same. This is what real movements do they compel and command involvement and those calls are answered by those bystanders and supporters from a distance.
If taking part in this demonstration shows me one thing it is that Catalunya moves to a different beat than Scotland. With over 100,000 gathering in a main square it beats at least ten times the frequency.
Scotland you’ve got to catch up: remember movement can be both forwards and backwards, so let’s make sure we go in the right direction. Let’s do it with a force that only numbers can amass. Scotland get active. With a Westminster election next year the Catalans tell us: “Ara És L’hora”