Catalan Independence: Come Together, Now

Over the weekend a non-binding referendum held in the Catalan capital of Barcelona resulted in almost 90% of those participating supporting the idea that Catalonia declare independence from Spain. The results of this poll are essentially the same as polls taken in the other counties of Catalonia over the last two years, in which over 90% of participants also voted in favor of Catalan independence. While a full declaration of independence or secession is nowhere near a reality, there are some very significant developments in this area which ought to give naysayers some pause. Before we can get to that, however, some disclosures are necessary.

The regular reader of these pages is in no doubt as regards my general political leanings – though I put the tenets of my Catholic faith first, ahead of any political considerations. Thus although my posts often have a certain point of view, I do not in general blog at any length on overtly political issues. In this case, being half-Catalan, I need to make an exception.

With regard to the issue of bias, I freely admit that I am very much in favor of Catalonia regaining its independence from Spain, or at the very least engaging in the creation of a federal system within Spain similar to that which we enjoy in the United States, or that of Germany. If independence proves impossible but the latter path of federalism could be equitably applied, it would allow the individual states to retain a significant amount of control over their own finances, public policies, and so on. It would concentrate the power to govern in local hands, in order to better address local issues, while demarcating the powers of a national, centralized government to address large issues, such as defense, which are better-handled collectively.

Apart from the suspicious leanings of The Courtier in the eyes of some on the issue of Catalan independence we must also, when considering the poll result, drill down into the numbers of the poll results themselves; percentages only tell us part of the story. The number of voters in yesterday’s referendum was a bit north of a quarter of a million people. This figure represents a little over 21% of the estimated population of the city of Barcelona.

While I believe this does not detract from the fact that there are a large number of people in favor of Catalan independence – nearly one out of every five eligible Catalans and Catalanistas in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia voted in favor of it, after all – I think it reasonable to assume that those who went out to vote in this non-binding poll were the “true believers”, for lack of a better term. They are people who took the opportunity to make sure their voices were heard, even though they knew that there would be no direct result; the rest either were indifferent and thought the poll was not worth their time, or were opposed to the poll even taking place.

All that being said, what is significant about this most recent polling is that, unlike on previous occasions, the Catalan Center-Right participated more actively in the discussion. The current President of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is a member of the largest Catalan conservative party, and voted in favor of independence, as did Jordi Pujol, the previous Catalan conservative head of government in the 1990′s. The strongest voices for Catalan independence have, in recent years, been those on the far Left, but the fact that the middle-class party is taking the question more seriously than it has in years is an indicator that perceptions may be shifting, given the disastrous governing of Spain’s present Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Because of its association with the Left during the 1930′s, many commentators outside of Catalonia and even many Catalans themselves forget that the rebirth of a desire for independence in Catalonia began in the mid-19th century, with the “gent de be”, i.e. the Catalan version of the UHB or “Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie” [with apologies to Whit Stillman.] This powerful group of aristocrats, gentry, industrialists, professionals and intellectuals, were proud of their Catalan heritage, outward looking at what the rest of Europe and the world had to offer, and yet remained deeply devout Catholics. They fundamentally changed not only the look of Barcelona, commissioning the work of legendary architects such as Gaudi, but also altered the future of Catalonia. Through their efforts, Catalonia emerged from being a cultural and economic backwater in the 17th and 18th centuries, after years of repeatedly being stomped on by Madrid and losing their empire, which once stretched from Barcelona to Palermo to Athens.

That we have a situation today, not seen since the transition after the death of Franco, in which both the Left and the Right among the Catalanist parties are willing to talk to each other but also to find common ground, is a very remarkable state of affairs. Even a low level of participation, but participation nonetheless among Catalan conservatives is noteworthy, and it should give pause to members of both the national conservative party, the Partido Popular (“PP”), and the national Socialist Party (“PSOE”). For ironically enough, Catalan independence is an issue which both the national Left and the national Right in Spain will put down their weapons over, and link up arm-in-arm to prevent from happening.

The press seems to focus on what the PP has to do and say because it is, in the eyes of many journalists, too Right-wing. This is because most Spanish journalists worship the philosophical quicksand that Mr. Zapatero walks on. Be that as it may, Catalan independence is, for the PP, first and foremost a philosophical issue. They do not see the Catalans as a nation-within-a-nation, even though the majority of Catalans see themselves that way – including those who would not vote for full independence from Spain for political or practical reasons.

Yet for all the press about the Right, the Socialists as currently headed by Mr. Zapatero, could not govern Spain if the Catalans were to leave. The national Left has always needed Catalan money and political support in order to remain in power. During the Civil War, when they were chased out of Madrid, Barcelona became the capital of Spain for the Leftist, Republican side. Today as then, take Catalonia out of the equation and Spain as a whole not only becomes significantly poorer, but also significantly more conservative politically. Thus, both the national Left and the national Right in Spain can, in fact, agree on one thing: that it is in neither of their interests for Catalonia to declare independence.

The idea of full independence through secession, or simply a larger degree of de-centralization, is one which gets knocked around in this country from time to time (e.g. in Texas and Hawaii), but which rarely gets any practical traction. In Europe however, there have been many examples in recent years of groups gaining either full independence or increased separation from the centralized state which had historically came to dominate it, often as a result of the absolute monarchies and empire builders of the 18th and 19th centuries. Critics call this “Balkanization”, based on how poorly this process was handled in the former Yugoslavia.

Yet as terrible as that was there are other examples – Scotland, Slovakia, etc. – where it was not necessary to shed blood in order to either gain greater autonomy or separate completely. In disintegrating Belgium over the last several months we have been witnessing the birth pains of what is probably going to be at least two new countries. Catalonia, if it eventually chooses to go its own way, does not have to be the next Kosovo or Bosnia.

This afternoon I will be attending a conference on the evils Mr. Zapatero and the Socialists have wrought in Spain over the past few years. The speaker will, I am sure, not favor Catalan independence, and so there is little point in my raising the issue with him. However, my hope is that the Catalans themselves will continue to actively engage in this issue, and not simply relegate it to the bar, cafe, or living room following yesterday’s referendum. Those are the places where this discussion needs to take place, of course, for it was in the homes and clubs, over a good coffee or brandy, that such talk began back in the 19th century among Barcelona’s UHB. Yet those discussions will need to move beyond the comfy chair or the tottering stool if they are ever going to be seriously considered by the Catalan people as a whole.

Giant Catalan flag unfurled at the legendary
Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona

>Frozen December Warmth

>Gentle reader, chances are wherever you happen to be reading this in the Northern Hemisphere, it is pretty darn cold. In Europe for example, there has been early and crippling snow in many places, shutting down airports and causing all sorts of accidents. Here in the Nation’s Capital, we have been stuck around the freezing mark for several days now, sometimes with terrible winds out of the northwest from Canada that sweep across the plains and over the Appalachians. Fortunately the mountains keep the snow from getting here, but the winds continue down into the valley of the Potomac nonetheless.

I noticed on my way into work this morning, it seems that the winds have finally died down. It is still much colder than usual in Washington this time of year, but sunny, making things not seem so bleak. And so I began singing one of my favorite Catalan Christmas carols to myself, “El Desembre Congelat” or “Frozen December”, as I walked to the office.

A Christmas carol is known as a “nadala” in Catalan – “Nadal” being the Catalan term for “Nativity”, and the expression for “Merry Christmas” in Catalan being “Bon Nadal”. Most of the best Christmas carols of Catalonia were written between the 15th and 17th centuries, and have been making a slow but steady impact over the past twenty years or so into the repertoires of singers outside of the Hispanic countries, where they have always been popular albeit with lyrics translated into Spanish. Until comparatively recently, if you were to find any Catalan carols at all in a program of Christmas music in the U.S., you would most likely get “Fum, fum, fum,”, always a favorite of children’s choirs, and possibly “El Cant dels Ocells” or “The Song of the Birds”.

The latter was the great cellist Pau Casals’ signature tune, which he always played at the conclusion of his concerts. In fact, he played it for The Kennedys in his legendary White House concert of November 13, 1961. The subsequent Columbia Records album of the concert was purchased not only by classical music aficionados, but by just about every JFK and Jackie fan in this country and around the world. The result was that this was probably the first and largest single distribution of a specifically Catalan musical composition to a general world audience.

Today it is becoming more common to see English translations of Catalan carols appearing in newer church hymnals, something I always check on whenever I come across a Catholic hymnal which I have not seen previously. The song “El Noi de la Mare” or “The Boy of the Mother” is one example of an increasingly popular Catalan carol for American singers. As a matter of fact, when I was still a tenor, I had to sing this piece solo in front of the entire school for an after-communion meditation. (Subsequently my voice cracked down to a baritone, where it has remained since, and I quit the choir.)

However, for sheer cheerfulness it is hard to beat “Frozen December” for lifting your spirits on a cold wintry day. The music for this particular carol started out in the late 16th century as a popular tavern song in Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Pyrenees, the northern provinces of Catalonia (most of which were subsequently made part of France after the sacking of Barcelona by the French in 1714.) By the beginning of the 18th century, the tune was given new lyrics and had morphed into a Christmas carol.

Those interested can listen to a lovely recording of Kathleen Battle – my favorite soprano bar none – with guitarist Christopher Parkening. Here is the first verse in Catalan:

El desembre congelat
confús es retira.
Abril, de flors coronat,
tot el món admira.
Quan en un jardí d’amor
neix una divina flor,
d’una ro, ro, ro,
d’una sa, sa, sa,
d’una ro, d’una sa,
d’una rosa bella,
fecunda i poncella.

Here follows a popular non-literal translation into English, which is necessary since obviously the Catalan text if translated literally would not fit with the notes and rhythm of the tune, due to the significant differences between Catalan and English linguistically:

Cold December’s winds were stilled
In the month of snowing.
As the world fell dark one night,
Springtime’s Hope was growing;
Then one rose-tree blossomed new,
One sweet Flower on it grew.
On the tree once bare,
Grew the Rose so fair,
Ah, the Rose, ah, the Rose,
Ah the Rose tree blooming,
Sweet the air perfuming.

Textually, the verse employs the symbolic imagery of the single rose growing unexpectedly in the garden, to theologically addresses the Old Testament prophecies of Advent, such as the root of Jesse and Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the event of Christmas itself, in much the same way as the great German carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen” or “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”. Unlike the German tune, however, this carol is not a meditation but rather a celebration. Perhaps this is because the Catalan peasant, so cold up in the mountains or with the Tramuntana wind blowing down from the Pyrenees, needed something to jump around and keep himself warm with as he tended his fields and sheep during a frozen December.

A true “Desembre Congelat” in a village in the Catalan Pyrenees.

Poti Poti Friday

Lest my readers wonder why I am writing about bathroom fittings, I should explain that the term “poti poti” is a Catalan expression for a mixture of seemingly random things. In English, we might use the word “jumble”, or “mishmash”, while in French one might say “mélange” or “macédoine”. It is also the name of a dish, and a recipe for this is provided at the end of the entry.

Today there are a number of things which I would like to highlight for my readers:

- A hearty congratulations in advance to JB and his bride-to-be AD, whose wedding I will be attending this weekend, provided there are no further mishaps with the police. As I am with some regularity of late – bizarrely – mistaken for a police officer, perhaps I will prove of assistance in this regard. We shall see.

I am very much looking forward to the nuptial mass, and then moving on to the subsequent festivities at the beautiful Washington Club, a glorious Gilded Age mansion originally known as The Patterson House. It was designed by the legendary, albeit infamous Stanford White of New York’s beaux-arts masters McKim, Mead & White; it is the only example of White’s work here in the Capital. The home served as a temporary White House for President and Mrs. Coolidge in 1927, as the actual White House was being renovated.

- My congratulations also to Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Warner and family on the arrival of their new daughter Katherine Grace. Matt is a powerhouse of the Catholic blogosphere and runs the Fallible Blogma blog, among other ventures; his tweets in particular always alert me to interesting Catholic material on a daily basis. My best wishes to them and welcome to their new little one.

- Mr. Matthew Alderman over at Matthew Alderman Studios – and also of New Liturgical Movement and Shrine of the Holy Whapping fame – has released his Christmas Card design for this year. It is done in a charming Quattrocento woodcut style, and available to purchase online. While at the site you can also see Mr. Alderman’s proposed elevation for the new St. Paul University Catholic Center in Madison, Wisconsin, a very interesting blend of Romanesque, Byzantine, and Art Deco that reminds me (in overall impression, rather than stylistic elements) of a number of 1920′s and 1930′s campus buildings such as the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh.

As to the recipe for poti poti, it is a favorite of mine which I hope my readers will enjoy. Technically it is considered a summer salad, but it is certainly tasty any time of the year. It is particularly useful if one wants to make use of bacallà, i.e., salted, dried cod (or even canned tuna, in a pinch) which is not often available in the States but seems to pop up more regularly in the winter. You can find it in many Italian or Latin American markets. In Italian it is known as “baccalà” and in Spanish as “bacalao”.

INGREDIENTS (for 4 persons)
1/2 pound of new or red potatoes, boiled and cooled
1/2 pound of dried cod, desalted (or canned tuna, drained)
2 hard-boiled eggs
2 tomatoes
1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1/2 medium-sized yellow onion
2 dozen pitted or pimiento stuffed olives
olive oil
vinegar (I prefer balsamic)
parsley
salt and pepper

NOTE: Optional extras for this jumble can include sliced sausage (preferably the white Catalan sausage known as botifarra, or a similar, mild but garlicky sausage) or diced/shredded cured ham such as serrano or prosciutto.

Slice the boiled potatoes into 1/4 inch discs, rinse them to remove any excess starch, pat them dry, and put aside into a separate bowl lined with paper towels. Cut the tomato into thin wedges and the bell peppers and onion into strips, and combine all of them in a large bowl. At this point, you can either add the olives directly to the pepper-tomato-onion mixture, or you can chop them into halves or quarters first before combining. Cut the hard-boiled eggs into 1/4 inch slices, and add these and the flaked cod (or tuna) to the bowl, stirring everything gently together to combine with a rubber spatula, being careful not to break up the tomatoes and eggs too much, and put this bowl aside as well.

Make a simple vinaigrette using the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, parsley, salt and pepper. Now add the dried-off potatoes into the large bowl with the other ingredients, and pour the vinaigrette over the top. Use a rubber spatula to combine everything.

At this point I would normally pack everything tightly into a bowl and put it in the fridge for at least an hour, and then unmould the salad by inverting it onto a plate. You can also cover the salad with plastic wrap and allow it to marinate at room temperature. Bon profit!

Stand selling bacallà in La Boqueria Market, Barcelona