The outside world seems to have pigeon-holed Catalans as unsociable people, obsessed with work and somewhat disinclined to offer you their friendship just like that. While I tend to avoid clichés, the differences with Chilean culture – where friendship is cemented before you have even downed your first glass of wine – are notable. Newcomers from the other side of the ocean are also surprised to discover that people tend to gather in public places rather than in their own homes, and that home gatherings are only forthcoming after a formal invite.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the airplanes taking off from the international airport in Santiago, Chile, heading for Europe did not just carry tourists. One decade after the bloody coup d’état that had brought down the government of Salvador Allende, many Chileans were still taking the long and harsh road to exile. This included a substantial contingent of young people who, having been kicked out of university for defending democracy, were obliged to cross the Andes in order to finish their education, find a job or simply evade the deadly repression of the dictatorship.
It was one of the above reasons that led me, in September 1982, to swap the impending southern spring for the fading summer of what was then a football-crazy Spain. The Spantax plane set me down in Madrid, home to a large and highly supportive Chilean community. Nevertheless, my path would ultimately lead me to Barcelona, a city that had long attracted me like an irresistible magnet, seducing me with the sweet and as-yet indecipherable echoes of songs that someone had brought from the other side of the ocean, lyrics sung in a seductive and unfamiliar tongue. Thus, when the time actually came for me to set off on a journey for which I had a return ticket that I fully intended to use, the decision had long since been taken.
I took the night coach to Barcelona. The uptown part of Avinguda Diagonal literally paraded before my hungry eyes, which, on reaching the square then called Calvo Sotelo, were drawn to what looked like the scene of a film shoot, leading me to guess that I was indeed entering an extraordinary city. This hunch turned into certainty when the friends who so warmly welcomed me took me for a walk down the Rambla, as sensuous as it was immodest. A freedom impossible to conceive in our tortured, dark and dismal Chile of those days.
Culture in the street
I settled into a small room at the top of a stately building on Carrer de Rosselló. I could glimpse the roof of La Pedrera – still unspoiled by tourists – from my tiny balcony, and two strides out of my doorway were enough to take me to the mythical Punyalada. My landing in the city coincided with the time of the local festivities of La Mercè, an explosion of marvelous revelry. At that time, these local festivities still belonged to the people of Barcelona, and I experienced them from within, immersed in the unknown maze of Ciutat Vella, encountering, with every corner I turned, an unexpected explosion of music, dancing, fire and magic.CULTURE IN THE STREET FOR EVERYONE! How could I ever convey the emotional impact of it all, and how could words ever describe the feeling kindled in my soul by the unprecedented light of the city, which seemed to say to me, with every step I took: “Welcome, welcome!” It is true that the Barcelona of that time was still untouched by the “Barcelona, get pretty” campaign, and that the façades of the Eixample houses still stared back at you with their almost slapdash and uniform grey appearance. But to my mind, the city appeared to exude a miraculous sheen.
A few days later, I enrolled in the PhD program at the Information Sciences School of the Universitat Autònoma, which brought me into contact with the university community that had been my academic point of reference when I studied journalism at the Universidad Católica de Chile. However, that course was but a stepping stone towards what was to be my life’s great adventure. One year later, I began to write in the now-defunct El Noticiero Universal, the delightful Ciero, which heralded the beginning of a professional sojourn that is not yet over.
There are different ways of living in exile. In fact, there are as many ways as there are circumstances and people who are forced into such a grim experience. One way is to utterly negate the culture that welcomes you, as a kind of visceral cry against the tragedy imposed. I know of a Chilean, who went into exile in the USSR, who refused to learn Russian. “Why should I,” he is said to have protested, “if all I want is to get back to my own country?” I saw attitudes that were not too dissimilar in other Chileans living in Barcelona at the time: fellow countrymen and women wallowing in nostalgia for their distant homeland, which they reproduced, day after day, in so many different ways. I, on the other hand, decided to learn about this new land from within, without any baggage.
Of course, the process was by no means easy. As far as the outside world is concerned, Catalans are supposed to be – and I had also arrived with this information – dark and elusive people obsessed with work and somewhat disinclined to offer you their friendship just like that. And although I detest clichés, the differences with my culture – where friendship is cemented before you have downed your first glass of wine – were notable. First of all, I was very surprised to see that people tended to meet in public places rather in their own houses, and that such home gatherings are only forthcoming after a formal invite; just the opposite of that permanent and unforeseeable trickle of friends and relatives that I was accustomed to.
I was also surprised by people’s punctuality, how they kept their promises, well-mannered people who greeted you when walking into or out of a lift, their sense of responsibility and duty, their respect for others and their privacy, the clean streets (at least to my mind!), the civic-mindedness of citizens when asking their turn to be served or to have their bus ticket punched without anyone checking them, and particularly that feeling of safety when you walked through the streets, sadly lost today. “In this city, you can sit down to talk to somebody in a bar and leave your bag next to you without the fear of someone stealing it,” I once wrote to my family in a letter. Of course, that was the Barcelona of the 1980s. A pre-Olympic Barcelona – perhaps not so beautiful, but more genuine. A Barcelona that no longer exists, relentlessly engulfed by mass tourism that invades its streets but sees nothing.
Conquering the language
I enjoyed the immense privilege of never being a tourist. One might say that I dived straight into the deep end of Catalan society. Thus, my first obsession was to conquer the language. At that time, Catalan was just starting out on the difficult road towards standardization. Not everyone spoke it properly, let alone wrote it. In a way, that actually aided my learning process, which was spontaneous. I actually taught myself, and it did not prove to be too challenging. Learning the new lingo was a win-win situation for me in all respects. From the outset, it changed the way in which I interacted with people. I became warmer, closer. Of course it also led me to expand my cultural heritage, but more than anything it helped me to glean a better understanding of people who, while they actually did take some time to grant you their friendship – another cliché I like to believe – when they did, they did so sincerely, forever.
Now, more than 30 years on, I can say that I feel more from here than from there. Sometimes I am still surprised when people ask me where I am from. I still reply “from Chile”, but while my homeland is still deep in my heart, I tore up that return ticket a long time ago. And that decision – never easy or straightforward, sometimes even painful – heralded a commitment and a duty for me. A commitment to learn about and respect the land I have made my own, and a duty to contribute to enriching it to the best of my ability. And the truth is I believe that as a journalist I can continue to accomplish these two aims gradually, every day. A true privilege.