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A message to Catalonia, Spain

catalonia.jpgReading about the Library of Congress trying to call Scottish ‘English’ reminded me of a recent trip to Barcelona in Spain. Or should I say, in Catalonia? Or in Catalunya? Or, erm… oh dear!

Barcelona is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. But sadly I left the place liking its people less than almost anywhere I’ve travelled in the world, for the uncomfortable hostility repeatedly experienced in contexts where as a visitor I’m used to receiving anything from grudging acceptance to (more often) overwhelmingly warm hospitality. I almost always leave somewhere wanting to return. Not Barcelona.

The reason? I can manage a smattering of Spanish. But like over 99.99% of the world’s population, I don’t speak Catalan. And this matters there. So virulent is their nationalistic pride, that locals (who I’m certain know it fine) pretend not to understand a word of Spanish, even when asked for help by visitors. This didn’t happen just once, but regularly, rudely, until I learned to stop asking. It left a really nasty taste in my mouth.

And here’s the rub… watch Catalan TV news or read their papers, and the UK is routinely referred to as “Anglaterra” - England!! Talk about hypocrisy. I was about 8 years old when I learned to call (the old) ‘Russia’ the Soviet Union, on realising the parallels with my own dislike as a Scot to be called English. I’d be more impressed if the Catalans looked further than their own fundaments and thought about the principles of their principles!

But it’s also a reminder to the nastier elements here at home. Fortunately I think we’re a rather more welcoming folk than the Catalans I encountered. And other than a few nationalist nutters, I like the fact that most Scots regard national identity as something positive that embraces others, rather than a hostile trait that divides and excludes. Let’s keep it that way.

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Reader Comments (10)

I've been here in Barcelona for more than 5 years and I've never experienced that kind of treatment. Not once. I have had problems in getting people to speak Catalan to me... they normally switch to Castilian when they detect my accent.

Your experience, although not unheard of, is very unusual... maybe you just met the wrong Catalans (I suspect you didn't meet all of them, so generalising is a bit risky).

Also, it's more common to talk about the 'Regne Unit' when UK politics are discussed.
January 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTom
So you've never noticed the signs in shop doorways warning "Only Catalan spoken here" either? I just can't imagine the same in Scotland. No one would tell strangers they had to speak Scots and not English.

And just out of curiosity, I just did a quick google (after using translation sites, and remembering that they even translate names) to test my hypothesis. ["reina isabel" anglaterra catalan] returned 2.5x as many pages as ["reina isabel" "Regne Unit" catalan] which I'd say is pretty good evidence that they call Elizabeth (or Isabel, as they refer to her) the queen of England far more often than (correctly) of the UK!
January 13, 2008 | Registered CommenterMike Wilson
Mike: I am from Barcelona and I have never ever seen a sign like the one you describe with the message: "Only Catalan spoken here". I believe you either did not read the sign properly or you are lying.

If you know of the shop please let me know and I will investigate.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of shop owners who don't understand Catalan or try to make any attempts to learn it so that they can serve their clients. What's your opinion of them?

January 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarles
Canadians have had this problem for years. All over the world but especially in Europe, it is assumed we are 'all Americans'. This is why so many Canadians go over the top when they travel and deck themselves out in Maple Leaf flags. This has proven so successful that now some American tourists sew Canadian flags on their kit so people won't think they are American!
January 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStuart
It's really interesting that the residents don't seem to see the things that hit me in the face (metaphorically!). But hey guys, don't shoot the messenger. I'm only telling it as I saw it, and I've no axe to grind.

I wonder though how you explain my evidence from Google (which you can test for yourself!) that you habitually call our monarch the Queen of "England"? Do you not at least see the hypocrisy in this, if as a nation you're going to make such a big thing about your own identity?
January 13, 2008 | Registered CommenterMike Wilson
Mike - maybe the Catalans are trying to support Scottish independence? Seriously, I've not thought of it before but perhaps some of them think that Scots would rather not have her described as their queen too? Anyway, Elizabeth in Catalan is 'Elisabet'.

Also, there's no valid comparison between Catalan and Scots or Scottish Gaelic, neither of which are spoken by a significant number of people. Catalan is spoken by around 10,000,000 in Catalonia, Spain, Andorra, France and Sardinia and for many people (including the state infrastructure here, as well as most locals I'm friends and family with), it is the normal language for any kind of communication.

Actually, I find it very sad that you've got this negative memory of the locals because I've always found them to be friendly and polite, with a dry sense of humour. I hope that you can bring yourself to come back some day. I'll stand you a Voll Damm in a nice Catalan bar somewhere.
January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTom
Unfortunately I had a similar experience whilst travelling around Catalonia 2 years ago. I speak Castellano the most common form of Spanish quite well and usually get a very warm response whenever I speak it in Spain. On this trip however I felt the people were cold and unfriendly and I felt guilty for not being able to speak Catalan. I did find it improved a bit if I asked if they spoke Castellano first before starting to speak to them in it assuming that they did. It's a shame as I'm sure there are a lot of very hospitable and friendly people there but most of the people I met let their side down.
January 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJo Turner
Are you telling us that you were here in Barcelona and you find a banner telling "Only Catalan spoken here" ??? Please don't lie, I've been laughing the last 5 minutes thinking 'bout that "only catalan spoken here". I'm from Barcelona, and I always have lived here ... and I never never never have seen a sign like that.

Even more all your post is amazing, all your text. Maybe you've been on a Barcelona I don't know ? It's the same Barcelona as you publish in that map ? I sincerely doubt it. In most of commerces of Barcelona (more if you go to Rambles or to "tourist center" of the city) you cannot find anyone speaking or understanding catalan. As a native catalan speaker, I could tell you hundreds of commerces where you can't buy using catalan, here in Barcelona, but I can't tell you ANY that don't let you buy anything in spanish.

I sincerely encourage you to make a list for me about where can I found those "misterious" commerces and people not answering you in spanish, and especially about that "Only catalan spoken here" sign, which is the most surrealistic thing I've ever heard about my city.

Most of Barcelona citizens never spoke catalan (even if they are catalan native speakers) to an unknown person. Everyone uses spanish first, as a traditional sign of inferiority complex, taken from the spanish fascist period, where catalan was condemned to a "dialect" and lost his "prestige". And of course you must have visited another Barcelona, 'cause here you have to be incredibly lucky to find someone that speaks catalan when speaking to an unknown person.

Example: if you are black, or have any sign that reveals you to be a foreigner, everyone would ask or speak with you in spanish. Even if you've been learning catalan for years, and even if you can speak fluently that language, no one will ever begin a conversation with you in catalan. And most of barcelona citizens won't speak with you in catalan even if you tell them to do, if you are a foreigner (or seem to be).

This is the reality of Barcelona. And remember, please make that list of "catalan speakers exclusive places" for me, I'd proudly appreciate it, as those will be, for sure, the unique places in Barcelona I never have been.

In catalan there's a traditional sentence: "S'atrapa abans a un mentider que a un coix" (a liar is always catched before a lame).



PD: excuse my non-perfect english level
January 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGuillem
If you say that you experienced a lot of Catalans who pretended not to understand Spanish then we should believe you. My experience is rather different to yours though. Whenever I speak in Spanish (to the locals) in Barcelona, I am understood (if not, it's my fault). There have been times when someone will continue to reply in Catalan, but this is not the norm for Barcelona as people usually switch to the most mutually convenient language. When asked to speak in Spanish, almost everyone will. I have only ever met 3 or 4 people over a period of several years who have refused to speak in Spanish when asked. I've also met a few people who didn't have the ability to speak Spanish and replied in Catalan (never in Barcelona though) but still understood Spanish. So I do find it a little odd that they were pretending not to understand you. Please don't take this the wrong way but maybe they weren't pretending and really didn't understand your Spanish? It's the only explanation of your experience that I can think of. Either that or you were unfortunate in being permanently surrounded by terra lliure members. As others have said, your experience is not typical and it's a shame that you went away with a bad impression of Catalans.

If you can remember the names / locations of the places with *that* sign, let us know! If I have time I will go and ask them 1) Do they speak Spanish / any other language and 2) Why they think it is beneficial that a public facing service in a large tourist city should advertise their limited mono-lingual ability / policy.

I find your experiences as being far from typical also. I am a foreigner living in Catalonia and I have never experienced what you wrote here:

"And most of barcelona citizens won't speak with you in catalan even if you tell them to do, if you are a foreigner (or seem to be)"

When I was actively learning Spanish, I asked people to speak Spanish to me. I am still trying to learn Catalan and so I still ask people to speak to me in Catalan. Guess what? They have all obliged every time I've asked. I only ask people who I assume to be Catalan (makes sense) but have got it wrong once or twice and was told that it would be best if we spoke in Spanish (or English) given that we were both "foreigners". How have you come to the conclusion you made above given that you are a native Catalan? Would you or your friends refuse to speak Catalan to a foreigner if asked?
PS Guillem: Your English is quite good. I hope that my Catalan will one day get to your level of English.
January 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNeil
I don't have a problem with people learning a few words of the local lingo before the go somewhere. How crass and ignorant to assume that one can arrive in Barcelona and spout Castillian, without asking "Parla Catala?"
January 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStewart

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