Marvellous and yet imperfect, magical and yet cruel

For the Norwegians, Barcelona is an ideal destination: a large European metropolis, a status that Oslo can only dream of. But the Catalan’s heart sinks when he remembers the gerontocracy, the inequalities, the scenes of poverty in the streets, the city disappeared forever.

© Elisenda Llonch

Hvor er du fra? [where are you from?], asks the Norwegian, and the Catalan emigrant takes a deep breath and is faced with the usual dilemma. He knows that if he responds by saying Jeg er katalansk [I am Catalan] he will have to give a series of explanations that he can’t really be bothered to give, because they are explanations he has repeated a thousand times: but then he doesn’t want to say he’s spansk either, because he doesn’t feel Spanish. In these situations, he really envies those friends who are able to say they are italiensk or fransk, and leave it at that! But the Catalan has a secret weapon and, even if he’s from Girona, from a family from the Empordà region, he ends up saying: Jeg er fra Barcelona (I’m from Barcelona). In fact, having lived there for a few years he does happen to consider it his home.

The Norwegian’s eyes light up; he remembers the times he spent long weekends there and how much he loved it. For the Norwegians, Barcelona is an ideal destination: it is a large European metropolis, a status Oslo can only dream of, there are beaches, it is bursting with restaurants and fashion stores, and what’s more, one of its great cultural icons – Gaudí’s modernism – doesn’t involve spending hours shut up inside a museum. You can admire it from a terrace, drinking a cup of coffee.

Then the Norwegian asks with surprise: what are you doing living here, next to the fjord, if you come from such an extraordinary city? And just at that moment, the Catalan feels a knot in his stomach, as he wants to explain that, yes, he does come from an amazing country full of wonderful things, but that it also has a dark side, worsened by the crisis, and that – while it is sad to have to say so – he was very lucky to be able to get away from there.

Where to begin? The emigrant could say that he comes from a gerontocratic society, where the young people who brought about the terrible Transition continue accumulating all the power and taking all the jobs. He realised this when he read that the Norwegian Minister of Education was 35 years old (just like him!), the Minister of Defence, 37, the Minister of Agriculture, 36. In Spain, by contrast, these posts are held by people well over 60 years old, who have no intention of retiring or making way for others.

He thinks about his journalist friends in their early 30s who would have been able to become newspaper or news-programme executives in the early 1980s but who are now making a living any way they can. About those who decided to go for a university degree but lost out because they were unable to secure a place. About those in the health care sector, who were technically very well prepared but who found no opportunities because of the cuts. About those who have had their property repossessed and now have no other option but to work on the black market. About those who find themselves trapped in a flat that is only worth half as much as they paid for it.

The friends of the emigrant believed their parents when they told them that studying would improve their status, and that they would be part of a comfortable middle class. For five or six years they lived that life: the iPhone, the Wii, the gym membership and the two holidays a year with Ryanair. But when the world collapsed around them, they were not able to compete with the more established older generations, even though these people were often less suitable and productive. The obsolete civil service structure, the sky-high compensation levels and the support of the unions created a protective wall that left young people at the mercy of the elements.

However, this is nothing compared to the younger brothers and sisters of his friends, those under the age of thirty. They didn’t even get to experience the good times, and with no time to form a network or find a secure job, they were thrown into the savage world of precarious contracts, earning 800 euros a month, with no security whatsoever. The situation is so bad that some of them have gone to Norway, in an attempt to earn a living far from home. Whilst in 2007 there were two Catalans living by the fjord, now there are more than fifteen.

Naturally, not all the problems experienced in Barcelona are a result of the crisis. The Catalan emigrant is very happy with his 8 to 4 working hours, and he discovered with surprise that everyone worked to create a pleasant atmosphere, one that promotes companionship and productivity. He is also at the age where he can start a family and he knows that if he has children in Norway, he will be entitled to a year’s paternity leave that he can share with his partner, a guaranteed place in a state nursery and lots of other benefits. He doesn’t explain what it’s like for his friends in Barcelona, particularly those who are not civil servants, with their impossible working hours or those who have no choice but to pick the children up by car from a private school. Their grandparents have a lot to do with it, he supposes.

The emigrant has become accustomed to living in an egalitarian society, with no apparent social classes, without the showing off that is so familiar at home. Norway has a Lutheran tradition and wealth and success have to be ex­perienced discretely. Also, women in Norway have achieved a level of independence and share of power unprecedented anywhere else, and both the government and the majority of political parties have female leaders. This can come as a culture shock to a Catalan man when he meets up with a Norwegian woman and tries to pay for her drink, or acts in a way that is too chivalrous. But that is another story.

© Elisenda Llonch

In his heart, the emigrant knows that it is not that hard to integrate into Norwegian society. You just have to be prepared to behave in a simple manner, respect others, however lowly they might be, follow the rules and the protocols and be prepared to sacrifice a small part of your personal freedom for the common good. If you do all of this, the doors of the country are wide open to you.

Sometimes, the Catalan thinks about whether he could come home. He doesn’t have any relatives who could find him a good position, the only means of social climbing that works in the south; and his network of contacts has long since gone rusty. Nor can he see himself in a job with a Mediterranean-style superior, truth be told. And using his savings to start up a business? Simply thinking about the Spanish bureaucracy puts him on edge. But the Catalan’s heart sinks even further when he thinks about what he sees when he goes home for holidays. The neighbourhood shops where he used to shop as a child have closed forever. The poverty in the streets and parks. The sad and angry faces or the look of resignation. And also the envy.

But then he thinks about how his society has started to mobilise itself to confront those in power, with experiences such as the Mortgage Victims Platform and the Via Catalana, he thinks about the volunteering, about all those who donate money to crowdfundings, about the power the residents’ associations and groups of all kinds still have. And he knows that if one day his society wants to be like those of the north, the revolution will have to start from the bottom, with the people.

Why do you live here if you come from such a fantastic city? says the Norwegian again. But the emigrant has been away from home for a number of years now and he knows that Catalans and Norwegians share the same small-country syndrome: there’s nothing we like more that some outsider saying nice things about us. So he starts to praise the Scandinavian equality, the great opportunities for young people, the exuberant nature and open and welcoming character of the inhabitants. And Barcelona becomes a distant memory, a marvellous yet imperfect place, a city that is magical yet cruel to the weak, and that eventually the emigrant will be able to enjoy in the best possible way: as a tourist.

Josep Sala i Cullell

Secondary education teacher and environmentalist

2 thoughts on “Marvellous and yet imperfect, magical and yet cruel

  1. El catalán del que hablan curiosamente el relato no pertenece al grupo mayoritario de catalanes que se sienten poco, mucho o algo españoles, no? Esta historieta llega al cúlmen de la politización cuando se habla de la vía catalana. Pensaba que en una sociedad plural como la catalana, y más aún la barcelonesa, no se teñía todo de un solo color. Una pena que se manipule así a las personas.

  2. Hay catalanes -bastantes, aunque no lo parezca- como un servidor, que no tienen ningún inconveniente en responder a esa pregunta -¿De dónde eres?- con la simple verdad refrendada por su DNI: España, soy del país llamado España. Y por lo tanto y por haber nacido en Barcelona, también soy catalán.
    No es tan complicado, en realidad.
    Este artículo, por otra parte, derrumba un mito: eso de que el nacionalismo se cura viajando. No es verdad, desgraciadamente.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *