Tag Archives: Barcelona

Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Shopkeepers?

Although I celebrate the principle of historic preservation, there are times when it can go a bit too far.  The recent case here in Washington of the hideous Christian Science Church near the White House is a good example of how people confuse “old” with “historic” in this country.  However there is a different topic in historic preservation which often gets overlooked, and that is the historic business.  The question I want to pose to the reader is, do we have a moral duty to shopkeepers to preserve their old business, or does that business have to rise or fall through its own merits?

My favorite city in the world, Barcelona, is a very ancient place, founded by the Carthaginians and later populated by the Greeks and Romans.  While no garum shops survive from Roman days – although you can find their amazingly well-preserved ruins in the underground streets atop which sits the City History Museum – there are some businesses still trading that existed a century or more ago.  Set Portes restaurant down near the harbor, for example, has been serving seafood and rice dishes since 1836.

As of January 1st of this year, many of the older shops in Barcelona and throughout Spain are facing almost certain closure.  A national law which we might translate as the “Urban Lease Act”, created substantial changes to the property leasing market throughout Spain.  It contains a number of common-sense reforms, such as clarifying rights and responsibilities for landlord-tenant agreements for university students, but as part of these reforms, the new law also does away with existing rent controls for commercial properties.  This means that many historic shops which lease their premises, and have existed for 50-100 years or more, are now facing extinction.

One early victim, the nearly 70-year-old Canuda bookshop in the Gothic Quarter, has already shut its doors.  So has the superb Monforte toy store, which first opened its doors in 1840.  And it has recently been announced that the lovely old Quilez grocery/delicatessen/liquor store, where I used to go to buy a very specific brand of Russian vodka one cannot find in this country, is going to have to close as well.  The rent hikes on its prominent and prestigious building, located on the corner of a fashionable shopping street downtown, were too great to bear.

Of course, the change in the law will not affect all historic businesses the same way.  As one might imagine, luxury dealers in items like women’s accessories or jewelry/watch dealers will probably survive.  And although it will be too late for many historic businesses, Barcelona city officials are now scrambling – better late than never – to try to come up with some sort of municipal plan of action to save what is left, perhaps through tax breaks or zoning changes.

So this situation brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece, which is whether we have a moral obligation to protect businesses such as these from changes in the economic environment, or whether the effects of the market on such businesses are morally neutral.

No one likes to see a beautiful old business shut its doors, leaving a hole in a community where it had long-standing ties.  There is something tragic about the loss to the fabric of a neighborhood when this happens, even if it the business in question was only open for a few decades rather than a few centuries.  The departure of several old taverns in my Washington neighborhood of Georgetown for example – particularly The Guards – left me and many others genuinely saddened by the loss.  Georgetown’s commercial district more and more comes to resemble an outdoor shopping mall for people who do not live in the neighborhood, and less of an actual neighborhood for those of us who do live there.

Yet the impetus to engage in commerce, lest one forget it, is in most cases not a charitable one.  Commercial property ownership is not entered into with the expectation that one will lose money by engaging in it, any more than a commercial business sets up shop just to be nice.  The parties are there to make a profit, and to ignore the profit-making principle is to sentimentalize their motives.  In fact, to argue that a business should be preserved simply because it sells nice things that no one wants to buy is arguably a form of idolatary, in which we are asked to worship a golden calf in the form of a book or a marionette or a bottle of gin.

It seems to this scrivener that if there is a moral obligation to preserve an historic business, it is at best one limited to specific instances and not a universal principle – although I rely on you, gentle reader, to upbraid me in the comments box if you disagree.  When customers are not buying, or profits are non-existent, that is unfortunate, and perhaps it is time to shift to trading in something else.  However, that does not mean that the original commercial enterprise must be renewed ad infinitum simply because it is old. Otherwise, we would still have blacksmiths and wig makers on every corner.

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

The Colmado Quilez on Rambla Catalunya, Barcelona

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On That Whole Church-and-State Thing

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of the city of Barcelona.  It is the largest festival held in the city each year, including concerts, fireworks, and so on.  The official ecclesiastical portion of the celebrations centers around the baroque Basilica which houses the statue of La Mercè, as she is known.  On September 24th, a mass in honor of the Blessed Mother is celebrated at the basilica, to which dignitaries and officials are invited, including the members of the Barcelona City Council.

This year Councilman Jordi Marti Grau, head of the socialist bloc on the Barcelona City Council, refused to attend the mass.  On Monday he issued a statement saying he would not attend because he finds the custom “anachronistic”, and was offended by the display of “allegiance to the Church” represented by the City Council in attending the annual service.  At the reception held at City Hall following the mass, which Mr. Marti naturally attended – no leftist will turn down free food at taxpayer expense, whatever their anticlerical opinions – Mr. Marti said his party intends to lobby to change the nature of the present ceremony honoring Our Lady to something that is more appropriate “to a secular society and a secular state. ”  You can read Mr. Marti’s entire statement regarding this issue on his blog.

What is interesting about his view, much as I loathe Spanish socialism in all its forms, is that he has a point.  In this country we would not have to raise the issue of whether it would be appropriate or not for government to become involved in a religious ceremony.  Let me give you an example from American civic life by way of contrast.

The annual Red Mass for the opening of the Supreme Court’s term is coming up on Sunday, October 6th at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington, DC.  Several of the Justices of the Supreme Court will likely be in attendance, as will members of Congress and the Cabinet.  This is not a compulsory event, but rather a tradition in which jurists and members of the government are invited to gather together to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their actions over the course of their working year.

Inevitably there are a few complaints about officials attending such a mass, usually from those who also want to see us drop  “In God we trust” from our currency, so that we can worship someone with inferior intellectual credentials to the Almighty, such as Richard Dawkins.  However in general the American people seem to understand that something like the Red Mass is simply an event, which those invited may choose to attend or not attend as they see fit.  For example Justice Elena Kagan attended the mass last year, while she did not attend the year before; Justice Samuel Alito did not attend last year, but he did attend the year before.

As is the case with much of Spain, for Catalonia at least at present is still legally a part of that country, the festival surrounding Our Lady of Mercy is largely more secular than religious in nature these days.  There is little popular interest in taking part in masses or processions, and more in shopping, becoming publicly intoxicated, and doing rude things in alleyways. The collapse of Christianity throughout Spain has taken place at an astonishing pace over the past 30-odd years since the death of General Franco.

Yet because Spain has always been and remains a majority Catholic country, even if in most instances in name only, these festivals and celebrations dating from a time when there was greater religious faith, or at least more social pressure to pretend that one did have faith, have remained in place even while belief and practice have declined.  In America we do not have any religious holidays on our federal, state, or local government calendars which would cause the services provided by government to be shut down for the day, apart from Christmas.  Though some could persuasively argue that the celebration of Christmas in the U.S. has not been related to Christ for quite some time now.

This of course begs the question, “Whose holiday is it, anyway?”

Mr. Marti argues that there should be a more secular celebration of the mass, which is a rather obvious red herring, since one cannot actually have a valid Catholic mass which is secular in nature.  It would be like asking a zebra to turn itself into a cow.  Rather, Mr. Marti simply intends to force the city into a public affairs nightmare which will cause it to disassociate itself from the Church.  Since there is no way that the Archdiocese would agree to hold some sort of secular mass for the Feast of Our Lady at the Basilica, Mr. Marti will then pressure the city to not attend in an official capacity.  And in a city as generally left-wing and anticlerical as Barcelona, he will find a great deal of support toward achieving his goal.

The irony of this controversy is that in the U.S., even those of us who, like myself, happen to be rather conservative, can understand and appreciate why government needs to be careful about being too close to religion.  Most of the time we do not seem to have a problem with the President or a governor or senator attending a religious service, largely because we have such a wide host of religions, denominations, and sects represented within our population, which of course Spain does not.  Nor do most reasonable Americans take the view that even the concept of the Deity must be removed entirely from the public square.

It does go to show, however, that the generally rather peaceful separation of Church and State which we enjoy in this country is not something which is a part of public life in many others, including those with democratic forms of government.  In the case of Mr. Marti, who is more interested in becoming mayor someday than in anything else, he picks on the Church because he can.  Like his political ancestors who within living memory did things like dig up the corpses of dead nuns and take them out into the streets to shoot at them, Spanish leftists find Catholic institutions an easy target because they tend not to be able to fight back anymore.  Yet even putting that aside, one does have to consider, in a country which is largely no longer Christian, whether Mr. Marti has a valid point about changing the participation of government officials in religious events from official to unofficial status.

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Cardinal Sistach (center) celebrating mass at the
Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona

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The Courtier Cooks…Arròs Negre (Black Rice)

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and last night on the eve of today’s feast, in Barcelona people partied until the wee hours celebrating the birth of Christ’s cousin and forerunner.  Every year I host my own commemoration of this Catalan custom at the manse, transferring it to the nearest Saturday night in order to allow time to recover the next day of course, though with certain modifications. I have to cap the guest list very strictly to prevent overcrowding, so no long, outdoor communal dining tables like you see in different Barcelona neighborhoods on the Night of St. John.  Moreover, I imagine the District of Columbia would have a problem if I tried to make a bonfire in my back yard, so we just stick to sparklers.

One of the dishes I made for the feast is called arròs negre, “black rice”.  It once known as “paella de pobre” since it was made with just a few, very inexpensive ingredients by fishermen.  Since after posting the photograph below on social media several people asked for the recipe, I am happy to share it with you.

I realize the picture may appear ghastly.  As my youngest brother commented, it looks like an overhead shot of the armies of Mordor.  However this is a dish that is both impressive to look at and to eat.  The color is extraordinary, while the taste and aroma are not at all “fishy”, as you might expect. Rather, it is a more delicate, subtle hint of the seaside, something simultaneously sweet and briny, but very faintly so.

Fortunately, this is a wonderfully simple dish to make, and you can always put in your own variations.  Personally, I like to keep this one plain, since as with all Iberian rice dishes, the rice is the most important part.  If you concentrate on making the rice flavorful, the additions are not as important.

Ingredients:

4 cups of seafood stock

2 cups of short-grain Bomba rice

2-3 medium to large-sized squid, cleaned and separated into tubes and tentacles

1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (not Hungarian)

1 teaspoon of salt

6 sachets of cuttlefish ink

1 lemon

1.  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2.  In a 15-inch paellera, heat the seafoood stock and squid tentacles on medium-high until the liquid comes to a boil.

3.  Once the broth is boiling, use a slotted spoon or strainer to remove the squid tentacles from the stock. Discard.

4.  Pour in the Bomba rice, smoked Spanish paprika, and the contents of the 6 sachets of cuttlefish ink.  Be careful when opening the ink sachets as the contents will stain your clothes and hands.

5.  Stir everything together well to combine evenly, then stop stirring completely. From this point you will not stir or touch the rice again.

6.  Continue cooking, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.

7.  Meanwhile, cut the 2-3 squid tubes into rings, about the width of your finger.

8.  Scatter the squid rings across the surface of the rice, and push them in slightly using the back of a spoon.

9.  Now turn off the stove top, and cover the top of the paellera with foil.

10.  Carefully place the paellera in the center rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes.  You want to check toward the end to make sure all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be cooked, but still have a bit of a bite to it, not be soft and mushy.  If you need to add more liquid, add a 1/4 cup of water or seafood stock. If the rice from the bottom of the pan is a little bit burnt, even better.

11.  Remove the paellera from the oven, and allow to sit, covered, on top of the stove for about ten minutes to rest.  When you’re ready to serve, squeeze some lemon juice around the surface, or serve with lemon wedges for your guests to put on themselves.

Bon profit!

Arros NegreThe black rice, cooking away on top of the stove.

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Sharing St. George’s Day

Many Christian countries, regions, and cities have St. George as their patron saint, so today is a day of celebration for many of them.  Were I lucky enough to be in Barcelona, my favorite spot in the world, right now, I would be enjoying the “Day of the Book”, which I talked about in this guest post I did for author and speaker Dawn Eden on her website this time last year.  And I could wander all over the city admiring the many images of St. George and the Dragon, as I showed in this photo essay from a couple of years ago.

Jordi

St. George and the Dragon by Franz Pforr (c. 1815)
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

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