As politicians break the law and the police take sides, ordinary life seems a long way off.
I arrived in Catalonia in the summer of 2010, during the tough years of the economic crisis – bad timing after 15 good years in England and Italy. My homeland is Alicante, a medium-size city further south, with no strong patriotic sentiments, at least as far as I remember. I have a Spanish passport and we speak Spanish at home, so that might make me a Spaniard.
My ties to this place are good friends and colleagues, the Mediterranean woods that we so frequently walk, tasty tomatoes, bright skies and a blue sea. We are a family of four, with four different countries of birth. Home is where we live. Home changes. I am also a leftist. I endorse the universal values of equality, justice and solidarity. There is little merit in this, I admit, but I try to live my life accordingly. My kids go to a state school, we use public transport and are frequent visitors to public libraries and parks.
Two weeks ago, I did not vote. I was in sheer disagreement with the way in which the coalition government in Catalonia (a very strange blend of right-wing status quo and anarchism) moved forward to approve a referendum and the subsequent unilateral declaration of independence. This did not respect the institutional and legal rules of the game, not just those of Spain, but also of the Catalan “estatut” which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament.
The referendum had not – could not have – the minimum democratic guarantees. On this point, different political parties of different stripes, even the main party holding a pro-referendum stance, agreed. There then followed the spectacle of judges and police being sent to Barcelona looking for ballot papers and ballot boxes. The scenes were pretty pathetic and would have had a comical air, if it weren’t so serious.
In this complex context, those of us holding a critical view on the doings and sayings of both the Catalan and central governments were increasingly left with no “in between” space and forced to take sides.
My youngest daughter, aged seven, asked me the other day who I supported. It is now virtually impossible to leave the children aside. Finding it difficult to use words, I tried with a rope. “Hold it loose,” I said. “It’s a swing,” she replied.
“Now hold it tight and tell me what happens to those swinging.” “They fall,” she said. She had understood. Perhaps too well.
It is much harder with older children. This month, my eldest daughter’s peers at her secondary school – she is 14 – signed a piece of paper proposing a strike to defend “the universal rights of Catalans to celebrate a referendum to decide over the future of their country”. I asked her not to sign. She did not go out that afternoon to join her friends who, wrapped in the revolutionary-looking flag, were marching in Barcelona for democracy and the right to vote.
I confronted the school head for involving the kids in a political act, for not respecting diversity of opinions, for putting unbearable pressure on them. His response was that the governing body did nothing, the institution was neutral and that he could not be held responsible for what other teachers say or do in their classrooms. Of course.
Primary schools, including ours, were being occupied by families who wanted to vote. I confronted no one this time, I even sympathised with the way in which they were mocking the rules in a peaceful and ingenious way. But I did wonder if even one of them realised that they were using a public space that belongs to us all. This is a pretty futile question these days.
However, these spaces of confrontation do not exist in private settings. For the whole of the last week, the expensive international school next to our house has been open as usual. Private schools in Catalonia, where presumably most political leaders send their kids, offer families the chance to receive an education in their mother tongue, whether Catalan, Spanish, German or English, accepting a streaming that is absent in public schools. It is pretty amazing how some groups and places bear the costs of political and social divisions much more than others.
The narrative that has emerged on local TV over the past weeks has been pure nationalism. The Spanish state was confirmed to be a repressive state. The main public TV channel in Catalonia rushed to explain to children what happened in terms of the bad Spanish cops versus the good Catalan cops.
Is this the best way to condemn the use of force, I wondered. I showed to my kids very similar images of police in identical uniforms in Washington DC, Hamburg, Genoa or Barcelona a few years ago. They looked puzzled and it was a painful thing to do, but how else can we aspire to collectively reject this shameful manifestation of power by authorities?
How tempting it is to explain what is happening in the language of children’s cartoons. How easy life seems when we simply repeat slogans without an understanding of the meaning these convey; when highly complex realities are pinned down to simple binary and mutually exclusive terms. Concepts stop being the units of thinking when feelings are running so high. The sequence of events explained to us, and especially to our children, always build to the same unanimous narrative – a powerful and magnetic narrative that has no counterforce.
I do not know what will happen next. At the moment of writing, the future looks as uncertain as over the past weeks, although many of us are desperate to see signs of de-escalation so we can carry on with our lives, to have our family dinners back, to have time to care, to think and sleep. I do not wish this territorial conflict to continue stealing time, space and energy away from fighting poverty, unemployment or social inequalities.
We should soon be able to lift our heads to realise how very little it rains; how extraordinarily warm the weather is for the time of year.