El frío norte
Let me tell you about a little anecdote that happened on one of my last flights to Madrid, about two years ago, I guess. I was on the plane from Zurich to Madrid, way in the back, and behind me was a Spanish gentleman, in his early sixties, I’d say. He had apparently flown into Zurich from somewhere else, and he had left something on his earlier plane. He pleaded with the flight attendant – who spoke Spanish, because in Switzerland, we speak languages – to allow him off this plane and back on the other to retrieve his item. Now, anyone who’s ever had to deal with airport security in any way knows that neither thing is gonna happen. Our flying still happens in a headspace of absolute paranoia, and regulations are tighter than Barack Obama is with Joe Biden. The man was told he could file a missing items report, and staff at the airport would do the rest.
The gentleman was not pleased. He lamented the lack of understanding in his interlocutor and lambasted the condition of both our country and our hearts. He felt that in Spain, people would have gone out of their way to accommodate him, but here, „en el frío norte“, in the cold north, we were too stuck on rules and regulations to help out a soul in need. I laughed a little, when I heard him speak about the cold north. He inversed the order of words – in Spanish, the adjective goes after the noun – to make his plight more poetic and dramatic. But my laughter also held no small amount of bitterness, because not only was the flight attendant already indulging this guy above and beyond the call of duty, Spain was and is the country where I have found the most abysmal customer service to date. I have never had the misfortune to speak to less helpful people than the employees of a particular mobile phone operator there; certainly NO ONE has ever gone out of their way to be accomodating, not even with shit that was entirely of their own making. There. In the warm south.
That bitterness, it tells me everything about my relationship to Spain, 25 years later. It is the bitterness of a broken heart. Because, you see, I once loved Spain, with the vigor and temperament of youth. But yeah, as they say, love is blind. Because, clearly, I loved the idea of Spain before I knew the reality of it.
When I was eighteen years old, Spain was my thing. I had learnt to speak Spanish fluently, I was listening to nothing but Spanish rock music, and in the summer of 1994, I went on my first trip to Spain as a backpacker. My first stop was Barcelona, and I loved it. What a captivating, beautiful, artistic, vibrant city! The architecture! The sea! The night life! Everything was fantastic. From there, I went to Zaragoza, the capital of Aragón, in the middle of what looked like a desert. I had my own reasons to be there, and it was equally fascinating. For three days, the temperature remained at 49°C, and the wind seemed to come right out of a furnace. I remember my very short dress, and how the Ebro was knee-high at best. I loved it. From there, I went to visit with a friend in Quesada, in Andalucia. Quesada was a town that only had a population in the summer, when all the kids came home for vacation. Every night was a party. We had a great time.
So great was my summer, that, one year later, I came back to Barcelona to go to school and get a diploma in Spanish. A diploma I almost didn’t get, one of my teachers later told me, because the person conducting the test did not particularly like my answer to their question about bull-fighting. And right there, that’s where it started: the beginning of the end.
It bears saying that when I first got to Barcelona, I also didn’t know a lick about Spanish politics. Maybe not nothing, of course, but certainly nothing that is relevant to me now. The idea I had of Spain was that it was not unlike Switzerland in many ways. You know, a bunch of different cultures coming together to form a nation, in mutual respect and solidarity. Ah, isn’t it cute how naïve I was?
I didn’t know the full horror of the bull-fighting situation, and how animal cruelty is simply a thing in Spain. Like their treatment of the galgos, the Spanish greyhounds. Click on the link at your own peril. Then, there is something worse than the simple bull-fighting routine of torturing an animal to death, and that is doing so with fire. Again, clicking on the link will show you the video of a gruesome death that I, personally, cannot bear to watch again, so feel free not to. Just know that, to this day, it’s considered a „sport“ in Spain to set an animal on fire and watch it die.
And if that’s how animals are treated, what makes you think humans have it any better? For a while, there was the running gag of „I burnt her because she was mine“, after a man had set fire to his wife, so prevalent were the deaths of women at the hands of their spouses. Twenty-five years ago, the only European country where gender-related abuse was worse than in Spain was in Romania, which at the time was practically a Third World country. Yes, we can assume it’s gotten a bit better. But maybe not much better.
Last but not least, holy hell the racism. While other colonial powers have been having the discussion about their immigrants from the colonies for decades, the same cannot be said for Spain. Having myself been misidentified as „sudaca“ (pejorative term for Latin Americans) more than once – the joys of non-white skin, y’all – I can conclude that there is still some dialogue to be had about the foreigners in Spain. By now, of course, they also have Arabs and outright black people, which comes with a whole new can of worms. Here’s a video of what it’s like to be non-white in Spain these days.
Fun fact: the Spanish national holiday is none other than Columbus Day. What better way to celebrate your nation than commemorating the death you inflicted upon thousands of indigenous people around the globe? What I miss in Spain is the fundamental understanding of just how crazy fucked-up that is. They don’t call it Columbus Day, instead, it is the Día de la Hispanidad, the day of Hispanicity, invoking the pretty image of a joyful, multicultural community, united by common language and traditions. Except that those were imposed with deadly force upon people who already had languages and traditions. But I guess I’m being overly negative. Oh, wait.
Check out the #nadaquecelebrar hashtag on Twitter. There are three sides to this: the indigenous people, who feel that „discovery“ might not be the adequate term for what happened to them, those Spanish people with a conscience who recognise the wrong that was done, and the Nazis who don’t want to be called Nazis just because they insist on celebrating a spot of genocide.
The Matter of Catalunya and Euskadi
Remember the bit where I spoke of Spain as a happy union of peoples who came together to form a nation? Boy, could I have possibly been more mistaken? As a Swiss person, I guess it’s easy to project our process unto others. Switzerland came to be when a series of peoples shrugged off (in a more or less bloody fashion, depending) the yokes of their respective (sometimes perceived) oppressors and joined forces, swearing an oath to protect each other from the bigger fish in the pond (hello, France and Germany!). Little did I suspect that that was literally the opposite of what had happened to the Basques, the Catalans, and the Galicians. I know next to nothing about Galiza’s current state of wanting independence or not, but I just learnt that Queen Isabelle of Castile simply had all the local aristocracy murdered when she decided to integrate Galicia into her territories. ‚Cause that was how she rolled. Catalonia fell on the 11th of September 1714. The Basque Country was invaded by Castile when their king was away on a diplomatic mission in 1199. Again, that’s just how Castile used to do its thing. All in all, Spain is pretty fucking far away from a happy family of equals. Then there was the Franco dictatorship, and those same three regions almost fell victim to attempted cultural genocide. Needless to say, people do not take kindly to, you know, genocide, and since it’s only been 40 years since the new democratic constitution came into effect, it’s probably a bit early to expect complete brotherly love, trust, and forgiveness. Especially since the generation who grew up under the Franco regime is still alive.
Where do we go from here?
To be honest, I don’t think there’s anywhere to go. After the ongoing situation in Catalonia, my feelings about which I discuss here, I don’t think there’s anything to salvage between Spain and me. We are probably quite done. As one last shot, I tried to find a colony, just one, a single instance where Spain set a colony free without violence and bloodshed. All I needed was one. I couldn’t find it. Most colonies gained their freedom by blood, attacking the Spanish forces while Spain itself was embroiled in a war against France. And while one might argue that today’s Spaniards have nothing to do with the genocidal colonialists that were their ancestors, it is often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants. That is to say, we all add to the history of our forebears. And even so, I would absolve today’s Spanish from the sins of their fathers, had they not – immediately, angrily, loudly – shown us their true colours in the wake of the Catalonian referendum. There were counterdemonstrations, calling for the military to invade Catalonia, to subjugate it. To break it. Maybe that was not a majority of Spaniards who feel that way. Maybe they are a fringe phenomenon. Then again, what I hear from my moderate friends, like the friend who thinks that the Catalans are „deluded“, is no less frustrating; those friends ask for calm, for dialogue, for moderation. This, while Spain dissolved the Catalan government, revoked their autonomy, is putting Catalan separatists in jail. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth when those in power call for „calm“; when BLM are told to be reasonable, when women are told to stop screaming, lest they sound like harpies. To me, it looks like Spain has learnt nothing from its bloody, violent history.
I haven’t checked back on what’s happening with Catalonia; I’m tired. Fact is, you can’t keep a people down forever. History will tell.
As for Spain and me, we have nowhere to go. We’re done. Prou.