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Catalan: A Culture in Dispute.

What's really going on in Catalonia?

Go at dusk. Look out the window as the bus wraps around the mountain ledge, and the stars come out to freckle the sky and shimmer off the ocean below and the hint of grape musk teases your senses. Traveling to Cadaqués feels like flying, and makes you think you may be dying. The town is a celebration of life. The town is a microcosm of Catalan culture.

This summer I accidentally lived in this small Catalonian town that was once home to Salvador Dalí and is now home to a community of artists who spend their days painting and sketching and sculpting. When the sun goes down they meet for cocktails at Bar Bóia where Ramon Moscardò’s art wraps around the walls. When they have drunk enough to find their hunger, they walk through the slanted streets in sandaled feet to gather at Embolic, where they get their fill of flat-beads and conversation. This is just one of the streets that will eventually take you to the harbor if you follow it up and over the hills that thrive under the black night sky, and shrink in the bright morning sun when tourists crowd the tilted streets and mingle on the small beaches with sand that turns to pebbles that lead the ocean

If you’ve ever doubted that Catalonia is not Spain, go to Cadaqués. It is small and stunningly beautiful, filled with characters like the Brothers, who I stayed with before meeting Susana and the Moscardó family, who housed me and fed me and kept me like their own. It is home to Ester who owns Embolic, and Camila, who I taught yoga at her cousin’s home, surrounded my lemon trees and mosquitos. It is a town long known to French tourists who come for the Dalí museum and stay for the beaches and galleries and summer music series. Cadaqués is a town I am hesitant to write about, because I fear words will fail me; it is a town, where I discovered a sliver of Catalan culture. Naïve to the coming referendum, protests, and unrests, I experienced the land of Spain that calls itself Catalonia.

It was just a month before the referendum, when I was sitting in the Moscardòs’ dining room, eating bread with tomato and olive oil, talking with Gael, the youngest of Dana and Ramon Mosardò’s three children. Their son was at work, where he rents boats to tourists at the harbor, and Laura, the eldest was on the couch nursing her newborn son. Dana had just left for choir practice and Ramon was on his way to his studio. Gael sat, with one knee hugged into her chest, finishing her coffee and discussing university prospects with me.

She was considering studying in Spain, but if she was going to leave home she would prefer America. But wasn’t Spain home? No. Catalonia was home. Spain was foreign. I spiraled into questions, fueled by both curiosity and embarrassment. How had I mistaken where I was?

“I don’t even know what holidays they celebrate in Spain. They aren’t our holidays. We have our own. I hear their music sometimes, but it’s strange, no?” Her tone was matter-of-fact, conversational.

“But, do you want to be separate from Spain?”

She traced a finger along the ridge of her coffee cup, “I don’t know. Some do. Some think it would be better to stay. But we are Catalan, they should let us be Catalan.”

Morning was becoming afternoon when I left Gael and joined Susana to walk down the hills and through the town, past the white houses with blue shutters, and down the cobblestone hills that led to the shore where we circled the water’s edge to walk towards the light house.

The walk was short in distance but long in duration because we stopped often to speak with the people we met in town and with Gael’s words noisy in my head, I listened for hints of a culture I had just learned was its own.

Everywhere I looked, there was art and people and the sea. I heard bits of Catalan and bits of French and fragments of English with a slight German tilt. Locals drove by on scooters with bags, and canvases, and sometimes a dog would be riding along.

We wrapped our way around the mountain edge, breathing air that smelled like sea salt and licorice. Susanna shared stories about merchant Catalans who voyaged across the Mediterranean; leaving for commerce and returning with pieces of European culture. The small town had been ruled by the Greeks and the Romans and the Moors and then the Frankish Empire before being governed by the Crown of Aragon, under which Catalan language and culture flourished, spreading as far as south as Naples and Sicily. My mouth was dry with thirst; I didn’t mind. I sat under the Cadaquès sun, listening to the Susana, recount an expanding and shrinking Catalan autonomy during the years since the Crown of Aragon merged with the Crown of Castile to form a unified Spain.

Just five weeks later, sitting alone in my small New York apartment I called Susana, to inquire about Spain’s pending occupation of Catalonia, and as she described Catalan culture, I thought back to my time in the small town, at the most eastern point of Costa Brava.

She called the Catalans open minded. I thought of my evening discussions with the Brothers who had given me a room in their house and smoked thin cigarettes while we had endless discussions until the night noise became the morning quiet.

“We have our own music, our own dances,” she continued. I remembered sitting in the town-square at the water’s edge, while the sun turned the white buildings orange and children played, and a group of adults came together in a circle to hold hands and dance together. I asked Susana is the dance had a name.

“Oh! You saw them dancing the Sardana?” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“Is that what it’s called? I couldn’t tell if the people knew each other or if they were strangers.”

“No. Probably they did not know each other. But that is Catalan. We are open-minded. We are inclusive.”
“How are you different than Spain?”

“Catalonia has its own language, Catalan. When Dana and I speak, we speak Catalan, we do not speak Spanish,” Susana says. “Jennifer, this is very important. Spanish is my mother tongue. When I grew up, they were not allowed to teach Catalan in schools. This is not new. Catalan goes back to the beginning; we are one-thousand years old, not one-hundred.”

Francisco Franco ruled Spain with fascist oppression during Susana’s youth, and the Catalan language was once again forbidden in a region that has experienced oscillating degrees of autonomy since coming under Spanish rule. The current discord in Catalonia is not an attack on Spain, it is a defense of a people whose culture is once again being threatened by what many Catalans see as the beginnings of fascism.

I remembered us sitting outside Ramon’s gallery with the Moscardò family, during open art night in Cadaquès. There were enough of us to occupy the street’s end, sharing food and drink and stories. When a young couple stopped by the gallery, Ramon insisted they join us; they spoke Catalan.

Evening became night while I listened to the notes of their speech and watched Ramon’s light eyes take in the gathered crowd. Dana’s long legs stretched out in-front of her, the creases around her eyes deepening with each smile. Gael and her brother squeezed in closely, before leaving us for work and for sleep. Susana sat beside me, summarizing bits of conversation so that I would feel included. When the breeze picked up, the hem of her dress brushed against my bare legs. Music reached us from the neighboring gallery.

Before I got off the phone with Susana I asked her if the current protests were representative of Catalan culture.

“Yes, because you can’t do what we are doing without people who have the capacity to organize, and this is the thing. We are together, always together, and this is Catalan. Our power is made because the people work together, all together.”

After hanging up with Susana, I flipped through the notes I’d kept during my time in Cadaquès. In rushed script, I had detailed breakfast with the Brothers after morning yoga in their garden. I had written about lunch with the Moscardòs, when everyone came home from work to be together. I came to a page with a drawing I had done of a young girl, after giving her my sketch book and pastels to color with. Her name was Nora. And then there was the first page; the first night I met Susana recorded in hurried dark charcoal. We were at an outdoor concert, sitting in the hills, overlooking the Cadaquès sea. I realized with shame that everyone, except myself had brought food and drink to share. Susana, reassured me, “Don’t worry,” she said. I brought for both of us. We are together.” 

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