Homage to a Small Town in Catalonia

The Catalan town I know and love is living through what the Spanish national press has named austericide. Five years ago I found a thriving market town beside the sea, relished by tourists as an unusual find except in dead of winter. Today it gives the impression of having  shrunk back to its nineteenth-century core: church, market, main street and central square. All along the radial streets are empty retail units. The pretty narrow streets of the Old Town are missing key restaurants, fancy goods and fashion boutiques. I guess the locals might like their town back to themselves, but the reverse prosperity, after so many good years, is painful.

Sea, sand and rock, local produce, views and generous cuisine: everyone can see what’s naturally attractive about a place like this. The tourist brochures  regularly used to carry the embarassed confession ‘we know we’re lucky’. But now suddenly the place is visible – at least to me – as the barely modest little town it was before modern tourism began.

The pharmacist whose neon sign used to tell me the temperature as I jogged past must be saving money on electricity, because it’s off now. The bus from the station takes a different route, merging two services into one. Since I started coming here in 2008 forty per cent of businesses have closed, and never have there been so many spaces to let: retail, residential, offices, restaurants.

I’m judging by what I can see in the shops that remain: the equivalent of pound shops everywhere. A crowd that congregates in the café where a coffee is only one euro. A woman with two grown-up children orders two tapas of tripe and gravy,and four (free) baskets of bread. The keenest bargains are offered by the Chinese. Three such outlets now, in such a little town. ‘Vous prenez la carte bleue?’ I heard a French tourist ask in one, piling up the tat at the checkout. The older immigrants from Shanghai tend to lower, especially the men, and  have difficulty communicating, but their grown-up children speak Spanish and are a tad more friendly getting the hard-up to spend the spare money they have.

There’s more grafitti than before. ‘Down with capitalism! We want a workers’ economy.’ ‘It’s no longer time for resignation, but for action.’ ‘Don’t just follow it on tv. There are alternatives!’ I like the brave ‘No tenim feina. No tenim casa. No tenim por!’ which Google translates for me. We do not have a job. We have no home. We are not afraid! ‘ Yet as I sit here in my sandblasted seafront café I can’t feel revolution in the air. Indeed, angry voices say there’s such stupefied acceptance of the recession because the lower classes just want to make it in the get-rich system of the last 30 years. They’re only waiting for the storm to pass over, as are all the tenantless property-owners keen to rent out but not to sell.

In the newspapers intellectuals protest. We can’t take any more. But nothing happens. Anyone can see what the problem is: a conservative country, folkish ways, just what the tourists from the identity-free northern metropoli come to enjoy. Compare photographs of  1912 with today and yes, the promenade is not so built up, and where the tourist hotels and the camp site are was still open space, but the essentials have remained: close-knit families, small local businesses and a traditionally structured day, week and year. Try not to commit suicide. The time of austerity will pass, austericide will lose its meaning, and the tourists and the work will come back.

Friendliness is not an obvious Catalan quality, and my adopted town is made all the more introverted by the crisis. My jokes about the weather meet a straight bat, my struggles with a language I use a couple of times a year invite no sympathy. The daily food market, with its gorgeous piles of Swiss chard and fresh broad beans so early in the year, and all the usual peppers and courgettes and strawberries, the olive stall and the honey, is staffed by wrinkly peasants, but not of the model kind who smile on foreigners. A Spanish friend of mine from Galicia told me that whenever she shopped there, in her native Castellano, they replied in Catalan: a sure way of saying you’re not one of us. The baker at the end of my street is a true artisan baker, without any hike in prices or nonsense spiel, but when I ask what is this and that she seems even offended. I ought to know, or perhaps not be here.catalan indep

I don’t terribly like the localism of these market stallholders whose weathered faces make me feel like a stray white lily, but to see them struggling is gutwrenching. In mid-April the stalls almost blew down in the unseasonable tempest coming off the sea. The market was a second sea of puddles and there was hardly any trade. Many went home early to a long lunch and the football. But even that great source of Catalan pride has been hit by depression. This season Barcelona has conceded as many goals as it has scored. To make matters worse it suffered a humiliating defeat, 4-1 against Bayern Munich, just as Madrid were crushed by Dortmund, and no one could escape the thought that one way or another Angela Merkel’s Germany has it in for Spain. They had to blame someone.

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My adopted town has an unexpectedly outsize library, a lovely welcoming piece of modernist architecture looking out to sea through a glass frontage just recessed enough the keep the heat down in summer. In the unexpectedly grey afternoons with wind and rain whipping across the deserted beach, I often read there. I take my seat beside the school students working on their laptops. I can’t help noticing their good behaviour in an institution sure of itself and its rules. One rule starts when you push open the entrance door: silenci s’il us plait.

The train line to Barcelona is a real economic, social and cultural asset. Actually I love and admire this place and it won’t sink. It’s been a place to enjoy since Roman times. But for the time being it has shrunk into itself. A letter from the mayor was recently pushed under every door, containing the familiar message. It hurts to have to make these cuts. The debts we inherited have made it all the harder. No one dares say it will get better, or when. Only that the summer will eventually come. Hold on, Catalonia.

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