Barcelona, August 21
The ferry boat docks at the port of Barcelona. After an exciting summer of revolution in the East, I have finally returned to Spain. Or have I? From the looks of it, many people here will deny it, passionately. This is not Spain. This is Catalonia!
Catalan nationalism is nothing new. It has been periodically resurging in waves all throughout Spanish history. But lately it seems to be out of control. In a few years time the partisans of full independence have passed from roughly one fifth of the population to more than half.
The economic crisis is the catalyst of this latest wave of nationalism. There is a general feeling that it’s all Madrid’s fault, and that if Catalonia were independent everything would be all right.
During the first year of the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona and the greater part of Catalonia were controlled by autonomous anarchist communities whose workers and farmers ruled themselves. They formed part of the republican side together with communists and moderate social-democrats. Between the anarchists and the communists there existed a far-reaching contrast with regard to the social revolution that had taken place at the beginning of the conflict. The communists (supported by the Soviet Union) were opposed to the revolution, saying that the priority was not social change, but winning the war against the fascists. For the anarchists, the revolution and the war were the same thing. They were convinced that without social change it made no sense to fight.
I notice something vaguely similar in the current nationalist belch. For the hardcore revolutionaries of the 15M movement, the struggle against the financial system is also the struggle for freedom. But for many Catalans, left and right, the priority is independence. For them, only once Catalonia becomes a state, people will have the opportunity to bring about social change.
The independence partisans are gaining terrain, they are monopolizing the public discourse. I can feel it, every time I return here, every time I talk to people from both sides. Even just by walking the streets, I can feel the atmosphere becoming more grim and uncompromising.
In late 1936 George Orwell arrived in Barcelona to report on the Spanish Civil War. When he witnessed anarchist society in practice, he had a moment of epiphany. “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Instead of doing his job as a journalist, he signed up with the POUM, a communist militia in opposition to the official communist party supported by the Soviet Union, and he left to fight in the trenches against Franco’s forces in Aragón. “In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last.”
When Orwell returned to Barcelona after the winter, things had changed. The conflict between communists and anarchists had deteriorated into a civil war within the civil war. There was street fighting as the communists tried to capture anarchist strongholds such as the telephone tower near the Plaza Catalunya. The republican press was accusing both the anarchists and the deviant POUM as fascist collaborators. Orwell, who had been risking his life in the trenches, suddenly saw himself and his comrades being regarded as traitors. Instinctively he must have felt that the war was lost.
We walk the streets of Raval. I adore this neighbourhood. Although it’s located in the heart of the city it still retains an authentic proletarian air, very different from the other side of the Rambla. Much of the street fighting described by Orwell took place in these alleys, next to the monastery that was used as a hospital and that now houses the Library of Catalonia.
Raval is an immigrant neighbourhood, with lots of kebab restaurants, phone shops, and prostitutes. At one of the food corners we have a chat with the people behind the bar, Pakistanis. They all speak Spanish perfectly. One of them would like to take a taxi exam, but since last year it’s obligatory to take the exam in Catalan. Thus, for him, the doors are closed.
The Catalan language is the most important weapon of the independence partisans. Officially, the region is bilingual, but authorities are increasingly giving preference to Catalan over Spanish. This starts in school. If you want your child to be educated in Spanish, you are forced to send him or her to a private school, because all the public schools only give lessons in Catalan. A few years ago, Catalan nationalists are even demanding that they be able to speak Catalan in the national parliament in Madrid, with simultaneous translation, as though it were the European parliament in Brussels. “We are a different culture,” they say, and it’s not hard to notice that many Catalans are suffering from a superiority complex. Not only do they feel different, they feel better than Spain.
We cross the Rambla, and we enter the lion’s den, the Ateneu Barcelonès, a private club and focal point of Catalan culture. It’s not the kind of place where you would expect to find revolutionaries like us. Instead it has the feel an English gentleman’s club, the place where you would encounter Phileas Fogg playing whist with his peers or reading the Times in a comfortable leather chair. Upstairs you find an old style library with brown oak bookcases and old volumes behind glass. Downstairs there is a courtyard with fountain, a coffee bar and stylish smoking rooms where the full blooded Catalan nobles come to discuss the glories of the Catalan race.
And then there’s us. We almost feel the need to whisper so that nobody notices that we are vulgarly speaking Spanish. I make a chat with the bartender. Fortunately, as a foreigner, a barbarian, I’m forgiven for not speaking Catalan. With subtlety I steer the conversation towards the independence question. I want to know what the fuzz is all about. Many Spanish and foreigners in Barcelona find it difficult to enter in contact with the Catalans, they openly say they feel discriminated against. The bartender is most kind, but he more or less confirms it without ever saying so. He emphasizes the difference of culture, he acknowledges that many Catalans also feel that Madrid is bleeding them dry economically. For him, independence is the opportunity to start something new, a state that is more democratic, closer to its citizens.
I’m left with this feeling that nationalism is completely beside the point. It will only create more divisions at a time when we need unity most of all. In Madrid, there is a similar shift going on. Over the last two years, in every demonstration the amount of republican flags is growing. More and more people are convinced that ousting the king and establishing the third Spanish republic is a solution. The coming fall, people will be preparing an occupation in front of one of the palaces to put the ‘king in check’.
At the beginning of 15M in 2011, the movement could count on 80 percent popular support, because it addressed core issues of blatant injustice that nobody in his or her right mind could justify. Now it seems as though all the old issues that have divided Spanish society throughout history up to the point of armed conflict are returning to the forefront at the expense of the real problems. Republicanism, separatism, the only thing that lacks for the moment is outspoken anti-clericalism.
All of this will cause a reaction. Anti-catalanism is on the rise all through Spain, and people in Catalonia know full well that Madrid is not going to allow them to become independent. There is a very large conservative part of Spain that has been hibernating during the last few years. It’s the Spain of God, King and Country. If the republicans and the separatists keep insisting that their answer is the solution to all problems, then they will surely awaken the Beast of Spanish nationalism more sooner or later.
The waiter of the Ateneu Barcelonès, although himself a fervent supporter of independence, made one very lucid analysis of the situation, when he said that it is mostly a matter of emotion. “It is emotion that guides people’s actions, that makes them do the most horrible things. Reason only comes afterwards, when the damage has already been done.”
At sea, August 17
Years ago I was returning to Italy from Paris. On the train I met a couple from a village on the plains near Milan. Farmers. They must have been in their fifties, and this was the first time they had travelled outside of Italy. For them, it had been a revelation.
With shiny eyes they told me about their experiences. “Have you seen how young people can actually find a job in France? Have you seen how they can afford their own place to live? Have you noticed how public services really seem to work?”
Now France is not the best place in the world by far, but for someone who only knows Italy, it’s paradise. Then when you return, you finally start to notice all the shit. You realize that this is not normal, this is just Italy. And Italy is not the pinnacle of civilization.
I had a similar experience in the last few days. I know this country pretty well, I admire it in some respects, but plunging into it on an empty stomach after some time in the real world makes you realize it’s a farce, and it’s not even funny. Here, the same old politicanti keep playing their same old games, and the same old apathic public keep shrugging its shoulders. I decided to move on West. Back home to Spain.
Still, for a moment I was tempted to go either to the far North, or to the far South of the country. Not just for old time’s sake, but because this image of general apathy is only the surface, and under the surface there is always something happening in Italy.
In northwest, for more than a decade now, the No-Tav partisans keep resisting in the valleys of the Alps against the high speed rail connection between Turin and Lyon. They have reasons enough to protest. Environmental, economical, logical and infrastructural. Rail traffic between France and Italy has been decreasing for years. There is simply no need for a new rail line. Plus, the time that will be saved with a high speed connection compared to the current one is almost none. I was passing by there when the Italian family told me about the miracles of the outside world, and I can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with that piece of rail.
Creating dozens of kilometres of new tunnels also has a negative impact on public health. It turns out there are traces of asbestos and uranium in the rocks, which could harm both the construction workers and the inhabitants of the valleys.
But the Italian government, any Italian government, whether they are classified as ‘left’ or ‘right’, vows to continue this project. It will have to be completed in some faraway future because there is too much money tied to it and too many people who want a piece of that money. Also the Italian government has certain obligations, not towards their citizens, but towards Europe. The Turin-Lyon connection is part of a greater scheme of redesigning European infrastructure that was originally drawn up by captains of industry in the 1980s, and which has to be implemented whatever the cost.
Opponents of the plan also point at the dire state of the Italian railroads in the rest of the country. From North to South, there are trains and tracks that have been lacking improvement and maintenance for years. Many local connections have been cut for lack of funds, forcing travellers to pay two to three times as much for high speed trains and intercities that hardly ever arrive on time.
So while governments everywhere are forced to cut back their expenses, it is pure folly to continue with an infrastructure project that makes no real sense at all. And so it’s for sense, for common sense, that today’s partisans keep fighting on in the mountains and blocking the construction yards, year after year, for as long as it takes.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of Italy, in the inlands of Sicily, a local uprising broke out against the MUOS radar installation that is used by the U.S. Air Force to control drones. These radars cause very strong electromagnetic interference in the surrounding areas, which can be damaging to public health. For this reason, the radars are usually built in deserted areas. Only in Sicily, they have been erected right next to the town of Niscemi.
For a few months now, activists of ‘No-Muos’, have been protesting against the radar installations, together with sympathizers from all over the country. Some ten days ago they entered the base, climbed up the radars and attached banners. They also occupied the town hall of Niscemi and turned it into a headquarters of the movement. The struggle is ongoing.
Italy, they say, is not a real country. Italy is a thousand different towns and regions, each with their own local cultures, cuisines and rivalries. Likewise, Italy probably won’t rise up for one single reason. It will continue its thousand little struggles. In the villages, in the neighbourhoods, in the social centres, in the valleys, and in the mountains.
In all the clashes I witnessed – whether it was in Madrid, in Lisbon or in Istanbul – I have always had the pleasure to encounter Brandon Jourdan in the first line. As dauntless cameraman for globaluprisings.org, he has produced yet another valuable documentary together with his better half, Marianne Maeckelbergh. For everyone who wants to know what happened at Gezi Park, this 30 minute video is a must see.
[Spanish translation attempt here]
Sofia, August 4
There is one more layer missing. People here have rightly pointed this out to me. The fourth dimension.
Imagine time. Imagine people, cities, nations, empires. Imagine birth, growth, stagnation, decay, death. Over and over again. Imagine the fog. You’re somewhere on the line of time. Actually, you’re exactly in the middle, always. When you look forward, you can’t see where you’re going, which is frightening. When you look back, you can distinguish the road appearing out of the haze. You see yourself, your parents, your tribe, your species.
Here in Sofia I met a Russian girl, an archaeologist, who had come all the way from California to dig up pieces of an old Thracian city. It’s the furthest point of the road behind us that we can still vaguely see. We know it’s much longer than that. This fertile land between East and West we now call Bulgaria has been inhabited long before that by nomadic tribes. The whole idea of settling down in cities, and keeping records, is pretty recent.
So what’s the use of history? Well, quite simply, it serves to understand who we are, and more in particular what distinguishes us from ‘the others’, what makes us special. We look back, we downplay the tragedies, the defeats, the decline and instead we try to focus on something that boosts our national ego. The Dutch for example, they concentrate on the ‘Golden Age’, when the trading fleets from the Lowlands ruled the seven seas, when great painters left their immortal masterpieces, when those who were persecuted for their ideas or their beliefs found refuge in a climate of relative tolerance.
Here in Bulgaria, like in other places around Europe, you have your Romans and your Greeks and your Christian missionaries, who are used to define us as a civilization. More in particular, as far as the nation is concerned, people learn in school about the Bulgarian Empires, first and second, which ruled the greater part of the Balkans during the middle ages.
In my conversations with the people here, most of the highlights and lowlights of Bulgarian history have made their brief appearances. The people remember with pride how the Bulgarians besieged mighty Constantinople more than once. But then, then came the Turks. For four centuries they dominated the land, and schoolbook history pictures them as cruel heathen overlords.
There is a significant minority of Turks still living in Bulgaria. Many Bulgarians don’t like them, as a result of what they are taught. They also say the Turks refuse to speak to Bulgarian. They can’t stand to see a Turkish minister in the Bulgarian government. During communist times, the Turks were forced to bulgarianize their names. After the fall, they quickly turkified them again, which angered many nationalists. From their side, Bulgarians generally don’t speak Turkish, except for maybe one single phrase, a particularly insulting one.
In opposition to the Turks, Bulgarian history paints the Russians as a big brother, if only because they helped the country regain its independence from Ottoman rule at the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, local wisdom also includes a sense of irony. The saying goes that if you put three Bulgarians together, then one is a leader, one is a follower, and one is a traitor. To which people usually add: “Most probably, two of them are traitors.”
Bulgaria sided with the losing coalition in both world wars and ended up under direct Soviet domination. Forty-five years of communism really screwed this country up. It’ll take time for people to get the communist heritage out of their system. It’s still present all around. The other day I went with a friend into the outskirts of Sofia. Contrary to the centre, which is pretty charming, the outskirts are like a cemetery. People live in huge concrete tombstones, which are heavily suffering the passage of time only decades after they were built. They are lacking maintenance, they start falling apart. Some of them are mere skeletons.
It was here that I heard a few of the ‘Tales from the Crypt’, as my friend called them, the stories of pure Bulgarian hopelessness. He told me about poverty, corruption, emigration, and about the people staying behind who try to avoid the bitter reality by getting drunk on cheap booze every day.
In the 90s, omnipresent authority in Bulgaria transvested itself from the communist party into the mafia. If I’m to believe what I hear, the mafia is not simply a criminal organization that leeches off the economy. Much like in southern Italy, the mafia is the economy. It make things go around, and either directly or indirectly, people depend on it to get by.
I got to see one of the outskirt flats from the inside the other day. It’s everything you expect it to be. The small dark rooms, the leaking tubes, the flaking plaster, the rusty window frames, the broken doors. Then there’s the 1970s furniture, wall paper and curtains. The mix of brown and orange and dark green. There is a world map on one of the walls that still shows the old Soviet Union. The television comes from the era when screens were not flat yet and had a big butt behind them. You know, the kind of screen that used red-blue-green cathode ray tubes. Even the programs it broadcast matched the environment: 1980s trash horror with ditto special effects.
Nothing worthwhile to do here but drink, I begin to understand that. Drink and play ‘tavla’.
Now, getting back to the culture discourse, there are numerous ways to classify a civilization. By mobility (nomad or sedentary), by religion (polytheist, monotheist, atheist), by dominant status symbol (property, knowledge, age, valour, etc.) by language, by dominant cereal type (grain, corn, rice), by preferred or endorsed drug (alcohol, coca, caffeine, weed, opium, etc.), or by games. One of the oldest artifacts found in the tombs of Egyptians faraos was a board game. Nowadays you have chess civilizations, mahjong civilizations, poker civilizations, etc. Bulgaria, like Turkey, is part of the backgammon civilization. It’s a beautiful game that adds a touch of luck to strategy and tactics. Me, coming from a different civilization, I had the pleasure to be taught some of the game’s tricks in an original communist environment.
In Sofia’s outskirts you will still encounter the Lada’s and the Moskvitches. I am amazed that these cars haven’t disintegrated yet. They are famous for their crappiness. Let me give you an example. My dad once brought me a toy Zil from the Soviet Union. The Zil was the limousine of the party officials. Usually, toy cars are pretty much indestructable. You can throw them off a skyscraper and continue to play with them without trouble. But the toy Zil fell apart by itself. So imagine the original limousine. Imagine the common man’s Lada.
On our way back to the centre, we don’t pass by the Gypsy ghetto. Bulgarians like to avoid those places. Generally, they hate Gypsies. Their motives are the same ones you will hear in other countries. “They don’t work. They steal. They breed like rabbits.” This is quoted from one of the most open-minded and reasonable people I met here. The Turks are at the penultimate rung of the social ladder. Then there’s a big gap, then there’s the Gypsies at the bottom. The hatred of Turks is mainly based on “stupid prejudice”, and in some cases on envy (one of Bulgaria’s big business tycoons is a Turk). The hatred of Gypsies on the other hand is mainly based on personal experience: “You get robbed a few times, and you turn into a racist.”
It comes down to pure incompatibility. The Gypsies are fundamentally nomads. Most societies try to assimilate them, turn them into “normal people”, store them in big building blocks. The Bulgarian government made similar efforts. But the Gypsies treated the flats as tents, they lit fires in the living rooms and parked their horses on the balcony. They don’t pay for utilities. They tap their electricity directly from the source, which is cited as another reason why electricity companies raised prices out of proportion, causing yet more ethnic animosity.
The Bulgarian population is shrinking, the Gypsie population is thriving. They usually don’t send their kids to school. But the schools are funded on the basis of the amount of students. And it’s obligatory to send your kids to school if you want to receive child benefits from the government. So officially they are registered and attending. This way the school receives funding, and the Gypsies as well. It’s the kind of minor corruption that most people will understand and forgive. But it’s also a symptom of a wider and broader corruption on which Bulgarian society is based. All of this will not change overnight should the current government resign.
Friday marked the fiftieth day of protest. To celebrate it there was a re-enactment of last week’s siege on the parliament. People had built a cardboard bus, which featured the images of members of the government. It was escorted by Star Wars stormtroopers and medieval knights who ruthlessly yet playfully attacked any camera who tried to catch the scene.
The fiftieth day also marked the end of this stage of the protest. Parliament will go on holiday. Some people have vowed they will continue the protest here in Sofia, others have said they will follow the government to the seaside and continue to make noise on the beach and even offshore. In any case, the protests are likely to pick up again in September. One of the protesters hinted to this by paraphrasing a famous verse from a Bulgarian poem: “September will be May.”
“September will be January”, the sign said, in reference to the last popular uprising against the post-communists in January 1997. At that time, exasperated by hyperinflation, the people stormed parliament, entered, and brought down the government by force.
[Spanish translation here]
Sofia, August 2.
At Occupy Wall Street there used to be the Morning Bell March and the Closing Bell March. Also in Bulgaria the beginning and the end of the day are marked by protest.
The evening march is the main event, no doubt. It attracts thousands of protesters, it targets the government as a whole and its main slogan is ‘resignation!’ The morning protest only drums up a few dozen people, it targets the parliamentarians individually as they arrive at parliament in their fancy black Mercedeses. The main slogan you will hear is ‘Mafia! Mafia!’
Both protests have their own spaces, and every space has its own encampment. The evening protest takes place in front of parliament, where there is the main camp around the monument with the piano, the banners, the slogans, the cross, the plastic swimming pools and the communications tent. Today, while others staged their morning coffee protest, there was yoga all around the equestrian statue.
The morning protest takes place at the back of parliament, in the park, where there is a small camp with a handful of tents, and four park benches in a square under a gazebo, giving it a living room type of feel. Every evening I drop by there to speak to the locals and catch up on the latest news, rumours, accusations, conspiracy theories, etc. Then I usually go back to the main camp, for the live concert.
Yesterday, a second piano had appeared. A small one, without a wing. There was an old man who sat down to play. Beethoven. You wouldn’t believe it. From a classic start he took his listeners on a tour of musical history that had people dancing the charleston and the polka before he arrived at jazz, at rhythm and blues, at swinging 1950s rock and roll. Truly, the man smashed up the piano, playing like Jerry Lee Lewis. If only he had set it on fire, his act would have been complete. Or if he had played on a little longer, the piano would have ignited by itself.
Tonight, as well, we might have a swinging little party, to celebrate 50 days of protest…