What has been billed in my mind throughout the planning process as “our trip to Spain” turns out to not have been to Spain at all.
While not overt, it was clear in our first two weeks in Catalonia that this is a region, and a people, in the midst of a ‘self-determination’ debate. The Catalonian flag of independence flew from every other balcony, though interestingly, not always in exactly the same colour.
Our questions about the differences between the red star vs the blue starred ones were mostly met with shrugs – reminiscent of that inimitable French shrug with which I am so familiar. The anti-independence cafe owner we asked about it, somewhat disparagingly explained that the ‘official’ flag of Catalonia is the striped red and yellow one – apparently created by a French general at some stage in the past when the Catalonyan armies came to his rescue, and lost their leader in the process. It is said he dipped his fingers in the Catalonyan blood and drew the four red stripes across a golden shield. This is the official flag of Catalonia, a province of Spain.
But in a quite recent unauthorised referendum, supported by the provincial politicians, but not endorsed by the Spanish government, the population apparently voted to secede… with the forces for independence apparently agreeing on their new flag construct – a triangle with a star superimposed on the stripes, but not on its colour. All this reminding me of the ridiculous flag referendum in NZ where two of the choices were simply different colours of the same design, which split the vote, and arguably resulted in the old flag being retained for now.
But I digress…
So Catalonia remains very much part of Spain for now – apparently, according to a tour guide we spoke to, having rejected the halfway house of devolved government in a semi-federal arrangement as has been implemented in other northern provinces. The Catalonian language is visible in the bilingual signage, and I guess audible for those with an ear for these things. But it was, as I said, not overt… maybe there are so many tourists from the rest of Spain that it’s all blending in….
In contrast, heading west through the Pyrenees to Basque Country, the divide became much clearer. Bilingual street signs gave way to separate signs – sometimes one on each side of the road, leading to massive confusion for map readers… and reflecting what we discovered to be an aggressively separate-from-Spain people and culture. Human remains discovered recently date the Basque people to being in the region more than 5000 years ago, with evidence of their seafaring forebears having reached the ‘new world’ across the Atlantic, along with the Vikings, centuries before Columbus.
In San Sebastián, the language of choice is Uscera, a language completely unrecognisable from Spanish, since it predates Latin. With roots apparently in Ethiopia, it is one of the oldest languages still in use on the planet (though Rob informs me, courtesy of Dr Google, that the actual oldest language in Europe is actually Lithuanian). In the Basque region, schools use Usecera as the mother-tongue. As the kids get to 7 or 8 years, we were told, they start doing one day a week in English. Eventually Spanish is introduced, but only for a couple of hours a week. An interesting message, there.
We did a fascinating tour with a retired US serviceman, married into a Basque family. A couple of hours trawling an edited history of the region, including the impact of Franco – most visible in the one ugly building blotting the skyline… Looks like a prison, said one of our fellow tourists, mirroring my thought that it looked like John Foster Square (police HQ) in Johannesburg! But no, apparently it’s residential – “just like Soviet Russia” said another.
Keith, our guide, regaled us with tales of the past and the present… Franco, he said, was on a mission to “make Spain great again”. I really wanted to ask if, as a US citizen, he was concerned about the parallels with Trump’s rhetoric, but in the interests of group harmony, I refrained (out fellow groupees being “official barbecue judges” from Kentucky – I kid you not!). He talked about ETA, and the parallels with the IRA … I wondered if Keith himself might be what is euphemistically called a “government employee”? This tour guide gig would be the perfect cover, and he talked at length about doing drug-enforcement duties in South America… Another thought I kept to myself.
According to Keith, and indeed similar to what our grumpy Girona cafe owner had said, a lot of the tension is economic. Here in the north, people work (well, not that hard – see later comments) but they do work. The people in the south are lazy (or appear to be, it’s often 40 degrees in the shade after all) and the money from the north goes to fund the less-productive (shall we say) people in the south.
Mind you, Keith did go on to explain that the average working person doesn’t actually work all that much either. Explaining how pintxos (Basque tapas) works, and how to eat like a local, he told us that a typical working day starts at 10am (after you’ve walked the dog – everyone seems to have a dog, despite living in tiny apartments – had your swim in the sea, and picked up a coffee and a pastry, to get you through till morning tea time, at about 11.45am, when you pop out for your first pintxos and a glass of wine or cider.
Then it’s back to work for an hour or two, while you make plans to meet your friends for lunch. Around 1.45pm you might meet some friends in a pintxos bar, for one or two drinks and bites to eat in anticipation of your menu of the day, three course lunch which starts around 2pm, with half a bottle of wine per person included (though it has to be said, if you are a real wine drinker, you will want to select – and pay for – your wine separately rather than drink the Ribena-like stuff included in the menu price!). Around 4pm you will return to work until about 8pm – this is when any ‘real’ work gets done, though one has to wonder about the possibility of doing your best work on what could easily by now be your first bottle of wine for the day! And that also explains why restaurants don’t open until 8.30pm in the main… People are at work!
If one is to believe Keith, most people don’t take work all the seriously anyway – they’re just working to get through to the retirement cheque, when they can spend their days at the beach or the park, eating and drinking on the government. The fact that these cheques come from Madrid – central government – is a significant deterrent to the population voting to completely break away from Spain.
The second part of what turned out to be a nearly 6 hour tour was basically a pub crawl – visiting 5 different traditional pintxos bars, for a carefully well-matched drink and “snack” at each… foodie heaven! Showing us how to eat like a local – claim your ‘real estate’ when you walk in (a patch of counter or bar space – these are stand-up eating experiences); don’t take a plate or cutlery (unless what you’re eating really needs it), especially don’t treat the array of food like a buffet!
We quickly started ‘judging’ people with a large plate, loading up, as being seriously culturally unaware! Lean forward and bite… The lean needs to be far enough that any drips fall on the floor, not your front – and then drop your toothpick and napkin on the floor to follow. Don’t have more than one, or maybe two if you must, at any place before moving on to the next. You can tell where the locals eat – the floor is covered in napkins and debris, and the place is empty by about 2.30pm when they head onwards to their real lunch.
Apparently on the weekend, the process repeats – only at a much more leisurely pace, and in much larger groups, as whole families roam the streets grazing on this and that before somehow miraculously agreeing on where to lunch. Keith talked about his Basque family of maybe 15 or 16 people visiting 3 or 4 pintxos bars on the way to lunch… Kids, oldies all in tow! Having experienced first hand the difficulty of getting a small group of cyclists to agree where to eat, I marvelled at the fact that 16 people could visit not one, but 4 or 5 bars and restaurants in a single day, and apparently all hang together doing so.
They then stay out -kids and all – often until the early hours of the morning, socialising, snacking… ‘Back home’, said Keith, ‘I’d get a visit from child protection services’, but here the kids are included in everything. Especially, it seems, the eating and drinking that is so very much part of this amazing part of the world.
If there is a single item of food that I wish I could smuggle back home, it would be a large hind leg ham of black-hoofed Iberian pig – a taste beyond description, sold on the streets as a paper cone filled with ham slices – heaven!
Instead, I’m bringing back a pintxos recipe book, planning that pintxos party in the not too distant future.
And determined to henceforth refer to this holiday as the one when we were not in Spain!