Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

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24 Hours in La Mancha,Uncategorized

January 9, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 1

8:06 a.m.

In a place of La Mancha, whose name is not easily forgotten, on the morning of August 14, something historic took place. The events unfolded just beyond the crack of dawn, an ungodly hour for the middle of the summer holidays especially when an insistent heat wave, now into its third week, was battering the country with record high temperatures. The vegetation shriveled at frightening rates and turned the countryside into a mix of humbled colors that ranged from parched khaki to deathbed brown. After such an extended stretch of punch after punch of punishing heat, the thermometers no longer had the will to cool off at night, except for maybe between five and seven in the morning when near imperceptible variations might insinuate the sensation of descent. That fact, combined with the incessant shouting and laughing of the young people who hung out in the main square every night until three in the morning, made rest not only a challenge to the even soundest sleeper, it sometimes made it an absolute impossibility.

To add to the difficulty, members of the town’s public sanitation department come out in force first thing every day to perform a task which can only be likened to a battery of convicts laying down gravel with hydraulic equipment. It’s the town street cleaners and waste management teams making their way through the narrow streets with one purpose in mind: wiping up the carelessly strewn remains of the previous day. Their target was trash, and removing it at unreasonable hours is a widespread scourge that has tormented the dreamers of this country for years. Despite the obvious inconvenience associated with this activity, it is immensely popular among public officials everywhere. The local governments will tell you that the system allows them to freely sanitize the city while their citizens rest, but I am here to attest to the fact that it’s really actually proof of their immense sense of humor; the supposed beneficiaries of the service, meaning us, are jolted awake to a commotion which, when it catches you with the windows open, can seem seismic in dimension. Nothing about the noise they make appears in any way related to the improvement of urban hygiene. Quite the contrary. Yet by the time the townspeople awake and are on the run, the pavement is damp and spotless and ready to be soiled again.

On this day, though, a second unexpected pair of intruders came upon the scene and set up shop. Their intent was completely different and the time they expected to hang around extended beyond what people would consider to be common courtesy. But what did that matter? History was in the making, I tell you. And in the town of Cebolla, located on the western end of the province of Toledo, of the autonomous community of Castilla-La Mancha, run-ins with posterity don’t come along very often. In fact, they are pretty goddamn rare.


February 17, 2018

Are you satisfied?

So, I was out the other evening getting some last-minute item for my other half because it was February 14th and, even though we agreed that we would not fall for the bizarre tradition of having to demonstrate your love on a particular date just because the retail industry was putting pressure on us, I knew that wasn’t true.  Which is why I found myself perusing around the Corte Inglés gourmet section along with half a dozen other men who were there for the very same reason and donning worried looks of inadequacy as time ran out.  They were all about my age and clearly knew better than to believe the fateful words, “Don’t get me anything. I don’t want anything.”


There was also a small gathering of foreigners in the middle receiving a mini-course and tasting on Jabugo ham which had nothing to do with the challenge at hand and only served to distract my attention needlessly.  I homed in on the chocolate stands and picked up a box of Belgian delights, truffles, even better, smirked triumphantly as I headed for the register and left my competition behind.  Once at the station, I waited for the price to get rung up and then let my card hover over the machine so that my credit information can magically float over to its destiny and approval can be given.  Yes, even after all these years, I can say that I still get a certain sense of satisfaction out of seeing the word “aprobado” pop up on that tiny screen.  It makes me feel proud. It says “I’m solvent”, which is not something many writers can claim. The mirth is usually short-lived and by the time I have the receipt and bag in my hand it’s become a recent memory.


But this time I was assaulted by a simple quiz on customer satisfaction.  At first glance it didn’t require much deep meditation.  There were five faces in a row, emoticons for lack of a better word, each expressing different degree of satisfaction, or not.  It started on the right with a furious expression and progressively improved until the final head on the left appeared to be laughing out loud which, no matter how successful my trip to the department store has been, I think is a rather overstated reaction to the otherwise ordinary practice of purchasing a product.


To be honest, I don’t known really what they were asking me to rate.  Was the store all right?  Did I find what I was looking for?  How well the woman performed her duties at the cash register?  Was I happy being the dumbfuck who actually answers these questions?  I’ll confide that when I’m feeling particularly rebellious in today’s otherwise tame society, I refuse to provide the store with my zip code.  It’s sort of last bastion on self-respect.


I’ve seen these gimmicky things at store entrances, but I had never had one stuck in my face without previous warning, so I kind of panicked.  I put my index finger on the second face, the one that was smiling, because honestly, the chuckling one just didn’t seem to fitting.  It was past eight o’clock at the end of the long day of work and, once again, I had caved into the truth.


But as I stepped away, I started thinking about my decision.  I would quite go as far as to say I was regretting it; perhaps I should have been better informed.  What if the woman had expected the far-left option?  What if I had disappointed her?  What if the smiley face was a little too cheerful for such an un-enthralling episode?  Shouldn’t I have just to the middle ground? It was fine, and that was all.  No need to throw a party.  But here was the biggest question: what the hell was the Corte Inglés doing by making me spend the five next minutes of my life questioning whether or not I had done the right thing, when all I wanted to do was pay for the goddamn Belgian chocolates?  It just ain’t right, I tell you.


February 15, 2018

The Tabarnia Chronicles: The Empire Strikes Back

After the stunning results from the December 21 elections, stunning for their lack of stunningness, everyone went home and paused for five days of uninhibited eating and drinking in a festivity known as Christmas.


The yuletide in Catalonia, just like everywhere in the Old Continent, is full of ancient traditions, and two are worthy of mention, because if the nationalists were to ever have a solid claim on their region being different from the world and, thus, entitled to sovereignty, by God, these are the ones.  Hold on to your seats and read on:


One entails a unique member of the nativity scene, or crèche, which is a representation of the birth of Christ.  They are found all over Spain, in churches, shops and schools, and no home is complete without one…unless of course you are Muslim or Jewish.  Components of the basic kit include the Holy Family, as you would expect, three Wisemen, a couple of angels, a handful of shepherds, and an ox and donkey.  But the display is rarely that simple.  It can be extremely elaborate, depicting various scenes from the Christmas story, and often has sand, moss, LED lights, watermills, and even running water gurgling about on occasion.  The expanse, extension and dimension of your crèche can often be a reflection of your values, economic status or ostentatious personality.  The number of figures can run into the hundreds, as can the cost to collect and assemble them.  They often represent every aspect of life back then…and in some cases, life today.


One such character, peculiar to Catalonia, is known as the caganer, a curious bloke whose mission in this world is to depict a typical Catalan farmer squatting down and defecating.  I shit you not, excuse the pun.  His finished product is always included and has a striking resemblance to the emoji turd, but without the eyes and mouth.  Just what would possess anyone to insert such a profane figurine in such a holy scenario without fear of getting reduced to a pile of ashes?  And who could it have been?  Like anything in life, there had to have been a first.  I mean, you have to wonder about the look on the faces of those present when they heard for the first time, “Why don’t we add a statue of a guy taking a dump?”


The Catalans say it’s all a pagan tradition having to do with the renewal life, and I’m not one to refute that claim.  There does exist a vulgar phrase in Spanish in which a bowel movement is known as “planting a pine cone”, so maybe there is a relationship.  One thing is for sure, though, the Catalans have taken the custom on with uncommon affection and pointing out where the crapping dude is in the crêche is generally at the top of the list when you visit any home.  Every year at the Christmas markets, where the statuettes can be purchased, there are scores of variations, and instead of being a bumpkin from rural Catalonia, the heads represent famous personalities, oftentimes politicians.  In December 2017, to no one’s surprise, Puigdemont and Rajoy caganers were especially abundant.


Jumbo size versions of a caganers also exist.  In 2010, in the Maremagnum mall, a 20 ft. tall caganer was erected.  And since no caganer is complete without a big pile of poop beneath the butt, I can assure you nothing was spared on this occasion.


As astounded as I was, at first I chalked this tradition up to one of those oddball rituals that make the world so amusing and off the wall.  But it was when I learned about another annual custom, also performed at Christmas, that I came to suspect that the Catalans were, to say the least, scatologically-curious.  Here’s another gem: whereas in Spain you have a choice of gift-bearing visitors, Santa Claus (Papá Noel), the Baby Jesus (El Niño Jesús), or the most popular threesome of them all, the The Three Kings (los Reyes Magos), somewhere in the northeast of Spain, things are decidedly different.  Don’t panic, this has nothing to do with St. Nick pooping under the tree or anything like that.  The Catalan Kris Kringle is a log with bright eyes and a pleasant smile and two sticks attached to it to prop it up as if they were legs.  So far, so good.  A cute, little mascot with a plausible relationship to the season.  After all, we do have a yule log, so the symbol seems season-appropriate and, on paper, kid-friendly.   A blanket is draped over the trunk and we certainly get the feeling that we are tucking ourselves into a snug winter’s evening.


Patience.  It just so happens that in the days leading up to Christmas, family and friends begin to slip gifts under the blanket (I understand this might be a spoiler for those under ten, though my guess that represents 0% of my limited readership), and practice is continued until it is plump full of presents.  Then on Christmas Eve, or whenever the family chooses to engage in the ceremony, children dance around the log, tapping it with a stick (more earnest efforts might go as far as striking it) and sing a song after which they produce a gift for whomever the tag says its for.  Exactly what are the kids doing?  Well, and here’s the troubling part, they are bashing the fictitious character until he excretes a present.  I shit you not, again.  Should anyone have any doubts about my story or its aim, consider the name: cagatío, which roughly means “the crapper”.


So, there you have it.  Uniqueness.  A raison d’etre.  A justification.  Certainly something you can take to the United Nations and aver that no one on this planet does that.  We can start raising the estelada.


Believe it or not, as odd as they are, I think they are terrific traditions. I really do. They add color to tradition and are a tribute to the whacky diversity of humanity. The human condition. But there were others who had made a point of it of poking fun at Catalan independence, and in a way that caught just about everyone off guard.


On December 26, a Catalan organization known as “Barcelona is not Catalonia”, invented to counter to the widely used “Catalonia is not Spain”, formed a petition on the website demanding independence for a “historical” region in Catalonia which they called Tabarnia.  Never heard of it? Not surprised.  Nor had anyone else in Spain up until that date.  There was, and is, little that is historical about this territory which, for all intents and purposes, is made-up.  Invented.  Fabricated.  But as absurd as it may sound, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.


Tabarnia is supposed to be a region which represents a section of Catalonia that voted for the most part in favor of the pro-unity parties.  They claim that the rural parts of Catalonia are unfairly overweighted when it comes to parliamentary representation because all it takes is about 20,000 votes in secessionist-heavy cities like Lleida to win a seat, while you need 46,000 in Barcelona.  The result is that separatist Catalonia is over represented.  By a lot.


But the arguments don’t stop there.  The platform uses many of the points their counterparts rely on to defend their dreams of separating from the rest of the country.  Why? In part to prove the absurdity of the independence movement and, two, to suggest that if they aren’t careful, the same will happen to them.


The movement has been taken as a joke, a clever bit of political satire, meant to provoke the ire of the secessionists with their own arguments.  Separatists have taken the bait in some cases, while others just dismissed it as a sideshow that would grab headlines for a few days and then disappear.  That is a possibility, but not necessarily a definite.  Why?  Because it’s there.  It’s been said.  And therefore it exists.  And it will continue to be a humorous jest until it stops being one.  Should Catalonia ever succeed in separating, these residents who probably run into the millions may just have a larger say in the matter.  Especially since they represent in many cases Catalonia’s economic backbone.


And after that?  Then, within Tabarnia, there will be smaller communities and subzones which will want to join the new nation.  Russian dolls will crop up all over the place.  And there will be no end to it.


And the wheels, they go round and round…


February 12, 2018

Catalan Chronicles: A Kind of Referendum

As November pressed on and the elections drew nearer, Spain in general took a break from the very tense months of September and October.  Puigdemont was off in Belgium with five other former counselors drumming up support and accusing the Spanish judicial system of being untrustworthy; the parties were bickering about whether or not they wanted to participate in the elections and whether or not they would accept the results.  And most of us turned off the TV and just wished everyone well.


The Spanish government’s strategy was pretty straightfoward: Limit its time in governing the region, adopt a soft approach to the Catalonia as a whole, and arrest only the very top level leaders of the movement.  It was felt, or possibly agreed upon, that the less Madrid ran business in Catalonia, the better.  Just enough to put things in order, win the elections and steer the region in the right direction.


There was just one problem: it was risky as hell.  Somehow the national government assumed the people would come to their senses and vote for reason in December.  The silent majority would finally make its voice known and the separatists would finally have to acknowledge that their cause was not as strong as they had predicted.  It would be the beginning of the end.  A kind of referendum.


But all indications, polls and serious analyses suggested that there wouldn’t be much of a change.  In addition to that, the arrests, the imprisonment, and Mr. Puigdemont harrassing from afar, the central government’s image wad becomed more than tarnished.  If the PP and its temprary allies were trying to win over the Catalans’ support, they were doing a lousy job of it.  Critics were arguing that the Rajoy administration had acted too hastily.  The issue was still too tense and hot.  Tension needed to be lowered or else nothing would be achieved.


The separatists were banking their future on the December 21st vote.  With a vast majority participating, and with anti-Spanish sentiment as high as it had ever been, not to mention the fact their home rule had been taken away from them in humiliating fashion.  If ever there was a time to prove to the world that the majority of the Catalans did support their cause and, by default, the independence of their region, this was it.


The result was a vote for neither.  As was feared, nothing really changed and the region looked poised for a renewed deadlock.  Which doesn’t mean there weren’t some notable modifications.  To begin with, C’s, the newly formed center-right party, won the popular vote, but, with just 25% of the popular vote, was miles away from absolute majority.  Nonetheless, it did experience a 50% increase in support to reach over 1.1 million votes.  The two major pro-independence parties, no split this time, picked up about 21% apiece.  Another secessionist group, the anti-establishment CUP, experienced a serious decline in support, as did Podemos.  But the most shocking revelation was the debacled performance of the PP.   The warning signs were already there.   In 2015 elections, they had dropped from 19 to 11 seats.  This time the free fall continued and bottomed out at 4 seats in parliament, meaning they were unable to form their own group in the legislature and would have to become a part of the mixed group of different minor parties.  It’s pretty much as embarrassing as you can get for a major national party.  A kick in the teeth, gut and balls all at once.


So, the lowdown was this:

  • A constitutionalist party won the elections.  That was true.
  • A aggregate of the three separatist parties’ seats gave them a slim of unquestionable absolute majority.  That was also true.
  • The popular vote of the the pro-unity parties was higher than the independence parties.  That was true too.

The result: one big mess.  The show would go on.  That was the truest part of them all.


February 4, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: I never said independence, did you?

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Within days of announcing the DUI, the separatists were already in a pickle.  Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, had removed their home rule, dissolved their parliament and called on a snap election to take place seven weeks later.  The most radical advocates of secession gave a knee-jerk reaction.  La CUP, which based its argument on the fact that Catalonia was no longer a part of Spain (even though this was a reality that existed only in their minds), refused to participate, as it would give legitimacy to the idea that it had never left, which everyone (except for them, it appears) knew was true.  They even vowed to spend the day, December 21st, preparing a large paella.  Somehow they considered this action to be the ultimate show of defiance.  The paella, by the way, is a typical dish of Valencia (though I’m sure the ANC claimed it to be Catalan at some point), which was still a part of the Spain they belonged to too, but simply refused to accept.  Kudos to them for sticking to their guns, and I’m serious about that, but that did present a problem.  Once it was explained to them that they actually weren’t a sovereign nation and that if they didn’t run for parliament they would risk being excluded from politics, they did an about face.  It went something like: we know we’re a free nation; we just want to make sure.


In a sense, that was one brilliant aspect of Rajoy’s decision to announce the upcoming elections (and trust me, his administration didn’t have a lot of brilliant ideas).  In light of the fact that no one was going to put up a stiff resistance, the renegade parties either accepted the challenge and, thus, admit they were still inside the Spanish state, or be left out of any decision-making from then on.  And that wasn’t going to happen.


Junts per Sí, Puigdemont’s party, stuck to its strategy of playing word games with the public and thinking they are slyer than all get out.  It can get tiresome, I can tell you.  Well, the members of the Catalan Parliament who had held a secret vote three days before claimed they had never declared independence because it was never explicitly expressed in the resolution they voted on.  So, I guess if I say something like “I’m going to take possession of your car without your permission and keep it forever,” I can’t be charged with stealing because I didn’t express it in those terms.  Or something to that effect.  Here are some of things the people who did not explicitly declare independence voted on instead:

  • We hereby constitute the catalan republic to be an independent and sovereign State, and of social and democratic rule of law.
  • The law for the judicial and foundational transition of the republic shall come into effect immediately.
  • We shall initiate the creation of a new and democratic constitution, citizen-based, transversal, collaborative and binding.

I don’t know.  I’ll let you judge for yourself; but it doesn’t sound to me like they were drawing up the rules for a baking contest.  And notice the generous use of the word “democratic”.  Let us not forget that there was yet to be a poll (even the separatists were aware of this) that indicated a majority in favor of leaving Spain.  Not one.  So, in the name of democracy they hoped to obligate the majority of the residents in that region to leave Spain, to leave the European Union.  There you have it.  But they didn’t vote for independence.


As the days went by and doing time in the slammer became a greater reality, some of the secessionists began to recant.  Carme Forcadell, who was the speaker of the parliament, and a major proponent of the “procés indenedentista”, admitted before a judge that the vote was only “symbolic in nature” and was not binding in any way.  Is that right?  I’d like to see just where in the text that is stated explicitly or implicitly.  I’d also dread to think how the “nature” of the document would have changed if, say, the United Kingdom had decided to recognize the sovereignty of Catalonia.


It’s an endless game of dodging punches and rope-a-dope politics.  Sometimes I feel like I’m watching the Cheese Shop sketch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where John Cleese, to the backdrop of a man playing a Greek bouzouki and two other members dance in suits and bowler hats, tries to buy some cheese from Michael Palin, but the store is totally empty.  That does not prevent Cleese from ordering dozens of varieties to which Palin, aware that he has no cheese, replies no to one by one.  It is a classic in absurdist comedy.


Less comical but equally absurd was the verbal run-around that rocked the system in Spain in November, 2017.  All that was missing was the bouzouki.






February 3, 2018

Tha Catalan Chronicles: Every which way but loose

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As you can imagine, the independence supporters were elated, somewhat belated, but elated all the same.  Members of parliament were joyfully singing the Catalan national anthem, Els Segadors, and pro-separatists were rejoicing in the street as they embraced their new-founded freedom from Spain with the enthusiasm of children on the first day of summer vacation.


The Central government didn’t share in the merriment, and didn’t take long to respond.  You kind of expect that to happen when a region in your country has just declared itself a sovereign nation. Rajoy called a press conference and made a fairly lengthy set of announcements, which could be summed up in the following:

  • The Catalan Parliament was henceforth dissolved until further notice, (that doesn’t happen every day).
  • The regional government was removed from power. (that was also a novelty)
  • And regional elections were announced to be held on December 21st.  A snap election, as they call it.

Was this all a good idea?  We’d find out in a no time.  But the fact was, he pretty much had no choice.


If Puigdemont had hoped his declaration would trigger support from around the world, by six o’clock, he was soon getting the message that he was terribly wrong.  The total number of nations recognizing Cataluña had added up to zero.  And it didn’t get It was that pitiful.   The EU in block rejected the notion.  They weren’t going to spur on an onslaught of peoples wanting independence.  The U.S. said no too, stating that Catalonia was an “integral part of Spain” and that it backed any and all “constitutional measures to ensure unity.”  So, that was definitely a no.


So, without about no one in the world willing to stand by them, the secessionists vowed to make a stand on their own.  They cried out words like “dictatorship”, “oppression”, “repression”, “coup d’etat” and “resistance”.  And I mean a lot of resistance.  Passive resistance, active resistance.  The Spanish government could try and do what it wanted, but if it thought it was going to be met with cooperation from the Catalan people, they could forget it.  And I could see it happening.  I really could.


Well, what a letdown.  Pandemonium did not spread throughout the countryside.  Spanish-speakers were not abducted and tossed into the nearest lake.  Guardia Civil was not plowing into schoolyards.  Franco had not arisen from the dead.  Catalan was not being spoken on the beaches of the Costa del Sol.  All hell was not breaking loose.  Instead, people were getting home from work, nursing a beer and watching Netflix or getting ready for some tapas.  It was essentially what you’d call…a Friday evening.  Status quo, big time.  It’s one of those undaunted characteristics of the Spanish.  The caña is the caña.


Levity aside, a highly significant reaction from the ashes of the takeover was that there was practically no reaction at all?  For the love of God, Madrid had just deposed the regional government, dissolved its parliament, suspended its home rule and taken control of its institutions.  Except for the use of the armed forces, can you get any more pro-active?  Can a region be anymore humiliated?  If the hard times the separatists claimed Catalonia had suffered over the decades had really been true, wouldn’t this have been the ideal time to stand up for their rights?  This, if we were to believe their discourse on how poorly treated they were, should have been their Gandhi moment; the Martin Luther King moment; their Nelson Mandela time.  So, where in God’s name was the resistance?  I mean, apart from the threats and a few days of protests and outcries, where was the forecasted fight to the end?   With all the alleged oppression, suppression, repression and God knows what other kind of -pression, where was all the outrage?  Where were the factory slow downs, the administrative obstruction of orders, the strikes, the boycotts, the sit-down protests, the sabotage, the defiance?  Ubi sunt?  Ubi erant?  It just doesn’t add up, I’m sorry.  Were things really as desperate as they had made them sound?  Or maybe most weren’t willing to sacrifice their standard of living, their livelihood…their, God forbid, their lives.  In many ways, I can thankfully say no, for the sake of everyone.  But it does make me wonder, and it should everyone.


One person who did have a course of action planned as head of the planet’s newest nation was their trusted leader, Carles Puigdemont.  Trusted, that is, until it became apparent what he had planned up his sleeve.  A plan few people would have imagined.  Flight.  In the traditional sense of the word.  He left.  He ran off.  He, and five other deposed ministers, bolted for Belgium, of all places, to seek refuge.


Now, just what did this generally drab country have to offer a fugitive of the law other than its outstanding chocolate and excellent beer?  It wasn’t because it was the capital of the European Union, Brussels, I can assure you that, as the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Junker was made very clear that he would not find solace from EU institutions.


But it was near Brussels all the same, and that never hurt.  Plus, Belgium also had a coalition government formed in part by a separatist party of its own, which dreamed of founding a Flemish state.  They were most sympathetic towards the Catalan independence cause and welcomed exiles Catalonia as if they were refugees.  So, holding out abroad until it is the right moment to return has been done throughout history, and successfully on occasion.  But it’s a gamble, and it doesn’t always pay off.


You see, not everyone saw this as a brilliant and necessary move.  Others held a very different opinion of Mr. Puigdemont’s unexpected maneuvering.  The press in Spain had a field day and even his allies raised some eyebrows.  After all, Carles’ number two man in the government, Oriol Junqueras, stayed back and faced the music.  He was sent to prison.  He is still in jail.  Meanwhile, Puigdemont three months later was looking to install himself in €4,400 a month mansion in Waterloo, Belgium.  Not a bad place to engage the enemy.


So things were sort of in disarray, especially among the secessionists, who labored to decide just how to proceed.  The pro-unity side, on the other hand, had set its sights on the December 21st elections, which it hoped would be a referendum in disguise.  If all went well, this mess would be settled then.


As we have learned by this stage of the game; things tended not to go well for anyone.


February 1, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: The Jordan Syndrome

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Some people just don’t know when to hang it up.  Even all-time greats like Michael Jordan couldn’t walk away with the grace we were all hoping for.  He was close, though.  In the sixth game of the 1998 NBA finals and behind by one, Air, with the clutchness that was so characteristic of his style of play, started to drive to the net in the closing seconds, pulled up and sank a mid-range winning jumper.  It was his third consecutive ring after returning from an early retirement, before which he had also been crowned for three straight years.  The dream ending to a dream-come-true comeback of a dreamlike career.  All he had to do was sling a leather coat over his shoulder in the locker room, take one more look at the court, and  head down the tunnel into eternity.  It would have been a storybook finish.  And it should have been.


Two years later, he returned to partially purchase, play with and hopefully turn around the hapless Washington Wizards in what would end up being two forgettable seasons.  Jordan’s place among the gods in Olympus is uncontestable; his numbers nearly unequalled; and his candidacy as the greatest player the game has ever seen, essentially unbeatable.  But there will always be that lingering question: why?  We all wanted that perfect ending…but, oh well.


Fastfoward to a very different scenario, to a very different country and situation, and a similar inquiry arises.  It’s January 31, 2018, and the Catalan regional government is once again grinding it out under the pressure of a deadline.  This time not with a declaration of indepedence in mind, but with hope of electing a new president of the region.  The December 21st elections had pretty much solved nothing.  Once again, the pro-separatists, despite losing the popular election, managed to win more seats.  The constitutionalist party, CC, had received the most votes of any party, but not enough to have the majority.  Not by a long shot.  And even if they pooled all the parties together, the fell short.


So, who was the nominated candidate?  Carles Puigdemont, of course.  And where was Mr. Puigdemont in this delicate moments of crisis when he was most needed?  In Brussels, of course, where he had been taking refuge since late October, after declaring independence and fleeing the country on the basis he could not be guaranteed a safe or a fair trial under the Spanish legal system.  Pretty much the rest of the leaders stayed behind and assumed the position, if you know what I mean.  Carles ran away, somehow thinking that he was establishing a kind of government in exile.


Well, there he still was, waiting to return triumphantly as the new president of the Catalan government; it is one of the more bizarre moments in one’s understanding of how life works, and let’s see why.  Puigdemont had a warrant out for his arrest, should he return to Spain.  There was a mild attempt to have him detained in Belgium, but the Spanish government didn’t make an all out effort because my guess is that they were happy to have him sulking abroad.  The farther the better.  And I think they were right.


Anyway, for some reason, Puigdemont had decided that it wasn’t necessary for him to even be there for the investiture, or for even his term in office.  He could just run Catalonia via internet and all would be hunky-dory.  I’m totally serious here.  The man was being chased by the law for civil and judicial disobedience, along with leading a movement to secede from the country (pretty serious charges if you ask me), and somehow he thought he had the constitutional backing to pull it off.  So did his supporters who, to my befuddlement, were still legion.


The Spanish government as well as the judicial branch were going to have none of it and told him in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “you ain’t a-going nowhere.”  But just to be sure, there were car checks, opening trunks and all, at the border and around the Catalan parliament to make sure wily Carles did not sneak in somehow.  Crazy, but true.


Well, as time was running out, the leader of the parliament, Roger Torrent, was still trying to make it happen, but Spain’s highest court had ordered him not to.  Keeping his promise both to the Spanish government as well as his own people, he chose to put off the vote until everything was in order.  The problem was, he had only one day left.  It looked like the battering rams were ready to crash their heads into each other needlessly once again.


Just why Puigdemont still sat atop the totem pole was a mystery to me, and I’m sure many others too, though no one was talking about it.  His swan song had been playing for quite some time now.  I could see it coming when:

  • He had to switch cars secretly inside a tunnel in order to show up at a polling station on October 1 when the separatists held .  Not very statesmanlike, if you ask me.
  • When he performed the now famous coitus interruptus during the first semi-declaration of indepedence.
  • When he failed to stand up to the central government when activating Article 155 (the constitutional authority to remove home rule from a region), time and time again.
  • When he waivered over and over again in the hours leading up to the official declaration of independence.
  • When he held the vote secretly so no one could be held accountable.
  • When he left behind his supporters, allies and constituents and fled to Belgium and let the others take on the Spanish justice system alone.


I kept saying to myself that it was inconceivable this man was not being being laughed out of town by his own people.  Did they admire his ability to fight on from a distance? Did they really think he bolted because otherwise the cause would be lost?  Did they really buy it?  You betcha.  At least some did.  Others were becoming increasingly frustrated with and irritated by the “problema Puigdemont”.  To some, he was becoming a liability.  A former star who wouldn’t accept his time had come.


Then a little miracle happened.  A miracle for the constitutionalists, that is: the very next morning, the TV channel Telecinco released a breaking news report in which several messages written to a colleague, and former Catalan minister and fellow outlaw in self-exile, Toni Comín, in which the once and future head-of-state admitted he had been outplayed and that everything was lost.  The texts were sent through an ultra-secure though relatively unknown messaging service called Signal, a company which sure to benefit from the publicity.  They were snagged on camera and just too juicy to keep to themselves.


Puigdemont, just about as the same time he was defying Spain’s demands on the international scene, was essentially admitting defeat surreptitiously.  He was caught big time.  Actually, Comín was the culprit because it was his cell.  Some even suggest the “friend” let the messages be filmed so as to force Carles out of contention, but that seems unlikely.  Though, you never know.


The very next day Puigdemont admitted the messages were his.  It was, in my humble opinion, a perfect time to throw in the towel.  The tenth perfect time, but nonetheless a perfect time.  He tweeted what many thought might be his capitulation.  Here’s how he did it: “I am human and I, too, have moments of doubt. I am also the president and I will not fold or back away out of respect for the gratitude I feel towards – and the commitment I have – to the citizens and the nation. Onwards!”


Lord have mercy.  Michael…take another shot, please!


January 29, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: A Kind of Declaration of Sorts

About midday on October 27, 2017, the Catalan regional parliament was on the verge of declaring independence from Spain.  Or so it seemed.  By this point, nothing was a sure thing anymore.  To some it was a historic culmination of centuries of wrangling with bad old Spain, and a look at the past might suggest that.  As usual, these are half-baked notions.

  • 1641 – Catalonia wishes to break away from the Spanish crown and join the French one.  It wasn’t exactly what you’d call independence.  They were just looking for a new boss.
  • 1714 – Searching once again.  This time turning their backs on Philip V in favor of Archduke Charles.  No independence.  Another failure.
  • 1873 – They try to form a new state within a federal framework during Spain’s First Republic.  It wasn’t really a call to secede.
  • 1931 – The renewed announcement for a state forming part of the Iberian Federation.  As it lasted only three days, we can consider it a flop.
  • 1934 – Three years laters, yet another attempt to rearrange the Spanish political setup.  Didn’t happen.

This time around, the secessionists weren’t going to skirt the issue.  They weren’t going to beat around the bush.  At least, that was what I was hoping for.  With three false starts in a month, people were starting to believe they were chickening out. Me included. But they actually pulled it off.


Now, as brave and daring as it may have seemed, after all many were facing jail time for open rebellion, the actual events and circumstances were a great deal less heroic than what will probably go down in the history books. Trust me, Patrick Henry would have been slapping his forehead in disbelief.


First of all, they had no choice.  After weeks of dillydallying, time was running out.  Rajoy and the “constitutionalist” parties weren’t budging an inch, and the senate was about to pass a bill to activate Article 155, which would effectively suspend home rule for the region and land the insurrectionists in the slammer. You could say, things looked bleak.  As it was, Puigdemont was already earning a fairly well-deserved reputation for being a wimp when it came to throwing down the gauntlet; were he to back down and obey Rajoy’s executive orders, you could pretty much kiss goodbye his and Catalonia’s aspirations.  It was time to take the plunge.


But that wasn’t all.  By declaring independence before the executive order was approved, the Catalonian government could claim it no longer had to abide by Article 155 since it was now a sovereign nation.  If they waited for the order to be put into effect, they would essentially be saying that they still belonged to Spain.  In short, it was their last chance.  So it was pretty much a given that it would do it.


Parliament convened for a few minutes until it became evident that there would be a vote on independence.  The infamous DUI, as they called it.  This may sound like getting picked up for drunk driving in Spain, but it actually stands for Declaración Unilateral de Independencia, and it loomed ominously.


A unilateral vote.  Boy, do the Spanish get all hot and heavy when they talk about this.  The Spanish press and the central government go nuts.  They rant and rave and bitch about it not being fair.  This, of course, is ludicrous because, just how often are formal declarations of independence pronounced on a consensual basis?  Spaniards I knew would complain about this and, once again, ask for my opinion on the matter.  So, while visions of the Congressional Congress mooning the monarchy danced in my head, I pondered my answer.   I mean, I can’t imagine Jefferson raising his hand and saying, “maybe we should run this document by King George III before we sign it.”


So, I tell them.  But they don’t want to hear the truth.


“They can’t do it!”


“Why not?”


“Because it’s not legal!”


“Neither is declaring independence!  So who cares if it’s unilateral or not?”


“Because they can’t do it.  They just can’t.”   There was no point in carrying on.


Anyway, unilateral or not, the vote was imminent, and once it became clear they were going to ask for the “yeas” and “nays”, the Pro-Spain parties walked out in protest because 1) they didn’t have close to the number of votes to shoot the proposal down, and 2) if they had participated, they would have been granting legitimacy to the secessionist movement.


The independence supporters didn’t care because 1) they did have enough votes to carry the motion and 2) they didn’t care much about the legitimacy of anything of anything, so it didn’t matter.


But the best part was yet to come.  It what I would later consider to be one of the cheesiest declarations in history, second only to the coitus interruptus two weeks before, the remaining members of parliament decided to make it a silent vote, a highly unusual measure.  The aim was simple: if the vote is secret, then the government won’t have any proof of who voted for independence.  Some may say, “but I thought only the pro-independence parties participated.”  Well, nope.  A handful of representatives from a coalition of minor parties known as CSQEP planned on either abstaining or voting no.  Everyone pretty much knew who was who, but that was irrelevant.  The fact was, no one could prove it.


The procedure was highly criticized by the opposition parties for cowardice, especially by the PP’s Xavier Albiol who, ironically, had supported the idea of a secret vote if he could assure that the no would go his way.


Stop the works!!!!  What?  So, Mr. Albiol disapproves of the vote, refuses to grant legitimacy to any separatist referendum, and accuses the seccessionists of being a bunch of chickens, says he would vote in secret if he could win??  These are the kinds of things that led to the PP’s pathetic performance in the ensuing elections in December.


In any event, the vote took place.  In theory, 72 votes were foreseen to be in favor of the proclamation, with eleven against.  In the end, 70 cast their choice to break away, while ten rejected the proposal.  Two voted for neither.  That means there was another which did not figure anywhere.  It didn’t matter.  The deed was done.


January 27, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: Lost in Translation 1

Many years ago I was lying by a pool in Torrevieja, Alicante, a large and spectacularly unrefined summer resort town in the southeast of Spain.  Torrevieja’s tourism population swells to the hundreds of thousands in summer, not unlike the way the  marabunta might descend upon an unsuspecting baby boar on its last leg.  This is why seeking refuge in a relatively lowkey pool, away from the hassles of humanity out on the beach.  The pool area teemed with vacationers from all over Europe: Brits, French, Swedish, Russian, German and Italians.  A consequence of this impromptu congregation was a cacaphony of tongues filling the air, mainly parents barking out instructions and warnings to their children.  The Spanish, who also happened to be there, had no problem with this because, since the 1960s, beach-fringed coasts filled with sangria-seeking visitors from abroad had become a natural feature of the landscape.  They are the “guiris”, a slangy, affectionate (although, on occasion, derrogatory) nickname for foreigners.


There was also a young boy from Galicia there who ran up to his father and shouted, “Papá.  Non teño as chaves.”  (Dad, I don’t have the keys.), in the language that is commonly used there.  Galicia is a region just north of Portugal, so for simplicity’s sake, I’ll describe gallego as a mesh between Spanish and Portuguese.  It’s as old as Castilian Spanish and it has an official status in that region.


Well, the mere utterance of those otherwise innocuous words used in an otherwise everyday situation must have sounded like someone ripping a fart the size of rocket blast, because a man sitting in his beach chair nearby, raised his head, let his draw drop to the ground and groused, “Hey kid!  We speak Spanish around here, got it?”


The man happened to be from the Basque Country, by the way, which also has its own very peculiar tongue.  Yeap.  You read right.  Under the warmth of Spanish summer sun, all languages are equal, but some are more equal than others.  Such is the paradox of a country like Spain where linguistic plurality is a reality, a surreality, an irreality.  And it is the source of innumerable problems and debates.


But first, a little lesson on the subject, so this mess makes a little more sense to you.  Despite what we learned, or didn’t learn, in our Spanish classes, Spain is actually home to a whole slew of languages, the most widely spoken of which are co-official languages in their corresponding regions.  Spanish is official all over the country.  Galician is spoken in Galicia.  Basque in the Basque Country and some parts of Navarra. Aranese, which is a version of Occitan spoken in the Pyrenees.  Catalan in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and Valencian, which is virtually identical to Catalan but fiercely defended as a different tongue by it’s users.  It is one of the most bizarre debates in this field and worthy of its own post, so we will have to wait a little longer.


Those are the Big Five…but it doesn’t end there.  You also have a dozen other minor and moribund dialects and varieties which are struggling to fight off extinction.  These include Asturian (commonly known as Bable), which shares certain traits with Galician, Leonese (la ancient language of the kingdom of Leon), Montañés in Cantabria, Estremeñu in Extremadura, Fabla in Aragon.  While they have not reached the status of full officialdom, they are recognized as culturally significant in their regions and are protected and will remain that way until they, I hate to say, die off.


So, when Catalans purport that they have their own language, they are certainly being truthful.  But it’s hardly a one-man club.


It pains me to say this because I feel that one of Spain’s diverse linguistic wealth is one of its greatest attributes.  I like to pick up some of the languages when I’m in those areas, and I’ve become quite proficient in Galician.    It should be a source of national pride.  For many it is…but not for everyone, which is why you have knuckleheads like the man at the pool scolding the boy for speaking Galician when five feet away another child is asking his mother for a sandwich in Finnish and is exmpt from untold scorn.  It just doesn’t seem fair.


You see, few things define a nation like a language.  Hard to think of anything that brigns people, or peoples, together more.  I have nothing to do with South Africa, but you can bet your pack of biltong that the fact were share a common tongue already creates an affinity that bonds us more than I think I could ever have with citizens from Bulgaria, say.  But in the same way that it brings some individuals together, it can also serve to divide others.  Speaking the same language not only helps to determine who you are, it also sheds light on who you are not…or choose not to be.  The Generalitat was very much aware of this when it started to adopt an aggressive pro-Catalan policy just about everywhere within its jurisdiction.  The purpose was threefold: enhace the presence of Catalan, recover lost ground and, let’s not kid ourselves here, eradicate Castilian, because nothing says more about not being a part of a country than claiming you don’t speak the same language.  And it makes sense, until someone raises their hand and asks a devastating question: What about Switzerland?


First of all, you have the name.  Spanish in its own language is known as “español”. While this innocent word might appear little more than a subject you opt to study in school, it too is the object of controversy.  Many nationalists become very testy about the use of the word as it suggests it is the language of all of Spain when in fact there are many different tongues.  They think castellano (or Castilian) is a more appropriate word as it refers to the lanaguage of the people from Castile, as opposed to those from other places like Aragon, Asturias and Valencia.  And, of course, Catalan.  These are all romance languages, each in widely varying stages of existence, and all have about the same age.  The oddball is Basque, which is a world unto its own and has no definitive relationship with any other language.  Theories abound, but none of them is fully convicing.  The most likely scenario is that it is non-Indo-European, making it the sole survivor of an age that disappeared a long, long time ago.


You have to chalk one up for the nationalists on this point.  They have a good point there.  Even the people from England, who liked to dominate the world in just about every way possible, never called their own way of speaking “British”, but rather the way it’s known today, “English”.   Hardcore Spaniards get all bent out of shape about this.  They clench their fists and pound tables arguing that it has always been called Español.  Dear God, it’s that Big Bang thing again.  Everything in Spain started since the universe was born.  I can’t be bothered. All I’ve noticed is that there is a growing tendency to use castellano, even in the Spanish-speaking areas.  I wonder if it’s being politically correct or just a resurgance of pride in the word Castile.


January 18, 2018

The Catalan Chronicles: the Day the Music Died

Every September 11, tens of thousands (and on occasion hundreds of thousands) of Catalans gather in the streets of Catalonia, and in particular, Barcelona, mainly in commemoration of a tragic event that took place in history. They carry banners and flags, sing songs, chant, lay flowers and deliver often impassioned and defiant speeches.  It is known as the Diada.  It is a solemn day.


Contrary to what the modern mind might deduce, the host of celebrations are not held to pay homage to the victims of the terrorist attacks in 2001, but rather to another fateful moment nearly three hundred years earlier: the day Catalan rebels succumbed to the 14-month long siege Felipe V had laid on Barcelona in 1714.  That is, to a monumental defeat.  Many major national holidays in other parts, such as the United States and France, place emphasis on moments of patriotic glory; the Catalans chose to recall a collapse of what they saw as their known world.   I guess it would have been as if the ass-kicking at Pearl Harbor were turned into our national holiday, but with the difference being that the Americans managed to push back the Japanese threat.  Spain, as they see it, still hasn’t left.


It was from this setback that a very cleverly woven tale was born.  A story based on a handful of facts which were molded into half-truths and distortions and presented to anyone who would listen.  The younger, the better.  The more impressionable, the easier.  It has been done so in such a complete and deft manner that the message has grown roots deep into the separatist Catalan psyche.  A yarn that has been recounted time and again, and which is unlikely to be removed any time soon.


Just what is this story all about?  Here’s what happened according to the legend:


The history begins with “Once upon a time…” and goes on to describe a utopian land called Catalonia, where people lived freely and happily under the protection of their “institutions” and “constitutions” without the presence of pesky intruders from Castile.  The principality formed an essential part of a larger federation of nations known as the Crown of Aragon, though Aragon was not really a kingdom, its crown was not really the supreme power, and Catalonia’s relationship was never beyond that of an associate member.  Some nationalists even argued that had it not been for the Catalans, Aragon would not have existed at all.  It was a curious interpretation of the facts to say the least.


Then came the War of the Spanish Succession and everything fell apart.  The Catalans initially supported Philip V, the Bourbon pretender, who is even said to have called their land a “nation”.  This is a term present-day Catalans are so fond of; so much so that it practically single-handedly triggered the current crisis.  That’s why the rest of Spain is so fearful of it.


Be that as it may, a rift between Philip and the Catalans grew as the monarch’s true colors showed through.  He and his troops treated the Catalans like dirt, so they decided to support the Habsburg candidate instead, Archduke Charles of Austria.  They even came to proclaim him Charles III (but it never stuck).  Catalonia rose up against the threat and succeeded in expelling it, with the inestimable help of the British.  Battle lines ebbed and flowed, but eventually peace was settled among the major powers.   As a result of the Treaty of Utrecht, Charles had to renounce his claim to the Spanish throne; but the Catalans refused to give in.  They fought on in defence of whom they thought should be king, and in defence of their “constitutions” and “institutions”.  They were pushed back and encircled in Barcelona, with the inestimable absence of the British at this point, and finally gave in.  They plunged into a kind of Dark Ages under the iron-fisted rule of Castile from which they never recovered.  Their home rule rights were removed and their language suppressed.  Spring stopped coming; the sun failed to shine and God left.  But one day, that would all change.  They hoped.


More or less that was the idea. What were it true.


You see, it’s not that these events did not occur, or that the outcome was not more or less what Catalan nationalists lament.  Many did happen, and it’s unquestionable that the Catalans took a pretty severe punishing for their dauntless defence of their candidate; but the circumstances, the context and the reality were substantially different.  Here’s why:


  • Catalonia (and the kingdom of Aragon, to which it belonged) was not seeking independence by any stretch of the imagination.  It was defending a candidate to be king of a crown.  That, by default, means they were recognising the authority of the Spanish monarch.  Their reticence and posterior rejection of Philip had more to do with a fear of losing their rights to a person who came from an absolutist tradition.   What’s more, due to proximity and shared conflicts, there existed a real animosity between the two regions.  Having a Frenchman as a king did not go down well with many of the locals.


  • The, by now, famous Catalan “institutions” and “constitutions” were little more than the established political set-up for these regions, still officially kingdoms and principalities back then; for all intents and purposes, on their way out.  Castile was the rising power.  Plus, there was nothing especially unique about them.  Any structured community has them.  Aragon, Valencia, Navarra and the Basque Country had them.  My home state of Connecticut has a constitution and institutions.  What the hell…who doesn’t?


  • Castile was not out to get Catalonia.  There may been been some animosity in the past, but Philip was much more interested at first with guaranteeing his place on the throne.  It was afterward that his anger would be directed at those who attempted to topple him.  And to be fair, the region paid a heavy price for it.


  • Not all Catalans supported Charles.  In fact, it’s been proven that quite possibly the majority actually backed Philip even in the final days of the conflict.



The centralization of Spain was not just a Castilian thing, or at least in the way it’s looked at today; that is, a way to crush its neighbors, as revisionists prefer to see it.  At least, it was, but it wasn’t.  It’s a far more complex issue.  Castile had grown exponentially with the discovery of America; it had quite literally overextended itself, and the way things were set up during the Habsburg period, the kingdom(s) were in debt up to their necks.


Absolutism was a European phenomenon which had begun to take hold in many parts of the continent.  The French model had been by far the most successful to date (or did you actually think these regions did not exist in France.  Do Brittany, Normadie, Lorraine, Acquataine, etc. ring a bell?).  Philip sought to impose a system he was quite familiar with, the one where control was consolidated under one very strong and absolutist king.  It had worked for Louis XIV, why not him?  Yet unrestricted power was not just the only aim; there were some very practical reasons for doing so: the old way was terribly inefficient.  The Habsburgs had left the country in a total mess.  Philip and his ministers basically revamped the place inside and out, brought just about everything under a Madrid-centered fiscal and judicial control.  They also turned the military around and streamlined many once clumsy administrations.  And Spain as an empire, it must be said, for much of the 18th Century, enjoyed a kind of second youth.  Rights to trade with the new world were extended to all citizens of this modern Spanish state.


The Nueva Planta decrees, as the reforms were called, went further.  They endeavored to suppress Catalan language.  This is often cited as one of the greatest aggressions against Catalan culture.  It is undeniable that Spanish became the language of use for official documents, in certain instances it was subtituting Latin and not Catalan.  And Catalan did not disappear by any stretch of the imagination.  It was active on everyday levels; and let’s not forget that Spanish was already well rooted in that region two through natural means.  But we’ll get to that all on a different day.


Fastforward to the middle of the 19th Century, and the story begins to acquire different shades of meaning.  The authors behind the revisionist and romantic vision of the historical events arose when Catalonia, along with scores of regions in Europe experienced what came to be known as the nationalist renaissance, a period when regionalism became culturally significant.  In Spain, it happened in Galicia, in northwest Spain, and the Basque Country, too.  People began to fall in love rather nostalgically with everything theirs.    And anything that was missing was, well, just made up.


If that sounds a little far-fetched, consider this: the name of the Basque Country in their own language is “Euskadi”, a totally fictitious designation, a figment of the father of the cause’s imagination.  His name was Sabino Arana and he also came up with the current flag of the Basque Country known as the ikurriña, which was fashioned quite clearly (but also quite clearly flawed, if you ask me) after the British Union Jack.  Catalan symbols such as its flag, its dance, its patron saints, were all established in the final decades of the 19th Century. As was its history.  At least the one so often heard today.