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October 29, 2017

Tha Catalan Chronicles: John Hancock

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So, one of my brothers texted me Friday saying, “Catalonia declares independence.  Wow!”

 

I wrote back almost instantaneously, “It’s about time.  Took ’em long enough.”

 

I could sense his puzzlement.  “Aren’t you shocked?”

 

“Actually, I’m relieved.”

 

Not that I was embracing the announcement as something good for Spain, or Catalonia for that matter, because it isn’t; it was just that it was like the tenth time in two weeks the president of the region, Carles Pudgemont, was supposed to make this proclamation and his political stuttering was beginning to get on my nerves.  It stirred the New Yorker within me.  “Get on with it, already.  Don’t be a pussy.”

 

For weeks we have had to listen to “we are going to declare independence, we declared independence, we suspended our declaration of independence, maybe we declared or maybe we didn’t declare, if we did declare it we aren’t going to tell you, next time we are really going to declare it, we mean it, we really mean it, and on and on,”  The climax came when Puigdemont announced Catalan independence on October 10th and 40% of the population was brought to the brink of a communal orgasm, only to backtrack 8 seconds later and say, “but let’s wait for another day.”  It was a baffling and unprecedented show of political coitus interruptus.  I honestly don’t think anything like it has ever happened in history…so at least they have that to say for themselves.

 

Anyway, on Friday he finally mustered up the courage to do it; through a silent vote, mind you, so that the Spanish authorities couldn’t point the finger at anyone.  I guess it’s an astute move from their point of view, but it isn’t quite what you’d call the ballsiest gesture in the world.  Not the kind of intrepid defiance you’d expect from these things.  No valiant individual standing in front of an approaching tank and what not.  Certainly not in the spirit of the American declaration 241 years before when each and every rebel present personally signed on the dotted line for King George III to view.   John Hancock, the famous statesman and merchant, wrote his name so large you could read it from across the room.  It was essentially an autographed version of him flipping the bird at the British monarch.

 

In fact, the only one to show their vote was a member who voted “no” in the parliament session, and possibly because he didn’t want to be mixed in with the secessionist crowd.  Most of the opposition parties had already left the room anyway, so the decision was a foregone conclusion.

 

Oh well, different country, different century, different circumstances; best not to compare the two too much…but I will one day, trust me.

 

Anyway, the point is, though I had no plan to write about this subject, a number of people in my circles of friendship have suggested the idea, and so far I have eschewed the idea fearing I would be getting stuck in a quagmire on a very sensitive issue…and I would be.  In other words, I was being a pussy.  But the hispanologist within me, the historian inside, has gotten the better of me.  That and my better half is tired of me standing in front of her with a coffee mug in my hand grousing to the backdrop of morning radio, “Can you believe what they said?!  That’s outrageous!”

 

“Honey, it’s eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.  Go tell the rest of the world and let me sleep.  Thank you.”

 

OK, so I will tell the rest of the world.  I’ll be a John Hancock.  That’s the queerest thing I think I’ve ever written, but I’ll leave it in.  You don’t get to “be there” for a country on the verge of falling apart every day, so I might as well make the most of it.  Plus, while there is a growing percentage of balanced reporting on the issue, still too much of what is published and posted out there is superficial and doesn’t even come close to understanding the complexity of the conflict; nor do many of the fly-in reporters have the knowledge of Spain as a whole to approach the subject with the know-how that one needs.  I once saw a link to an article titled “The Catalan Crisis in 300 Words”.   Sorry.  Can’t do it.  It’s almost insulting the writer should try.   The first section went like this:

 

What is Catalonia?
Catalonia is an autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.
The wealthy region has its own language, parliament, flag and anthem. It also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.

 

Let’s ignore the fact they had to even pose the question (though that should give you an idea of how unfamiliar people are with the subject).   Everything about that text is essentially true.  There isn’t a single lie there.  It’s also one of the most misleading statements in writing, because what the writer has basically done is describe half a dozen regions in Spain, and if you remove the “its own language” factor, he is depicting all of the regions of Spain.  To suggest Catalonia is unique in this sense grossly misrepresents the truth about Spain overall (and much of Europe for that matter).  Based on the information, I’d say some of the other regions have a much stronger case for independence (many were their own kingdoms for God’s sake), and they ain’t bitching day and night about how bad life is them.  But maybe the author didn’t know this.  Maybe they did.  Or maybe the fact they had only 300 words to emit a fact fart out online hindered getting the full story out there.  And this is where things get messy.  Maybe they should stop trying to sum complex issues up in 300 words.

 

I hope this will be a fascinating sociological and historical anaylisis that goes beyond the Ramblas of Barcelona, or even the frontiers of Spain.  Nationalism is a perplexing easily misunderstood topic.  I don’t even know what it means half the time.  So, I’ll do my best; but if anyone out there is familiar with the way I do things, you can expect some surprising but relevant angles.

 

So, just what the heck is going on?  We’ll take a look.  But first, I’ll have to tell you how I feel about it in general.

COSAS QUE NUNCA ME CONTARON DE LA HISTORIA

October 15, 2017

Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Celts & Bunnies

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If there ever was a time a teacher of mine devoted an iota of their lesson plan to a bunch of stone age graffiti inside a dank cave in the north of Spain, it would have amounted to little more than an utterance before moving on to the other side of the Mediterranean where things were really hopping.  The Middle East, and more specifically Mesopotamia, was rather busy establishing what would end up being the bases of all of modern civilization.  A daunting task, to say the least, and it certainly kept their minds occupied.  Nowadays a region often maligned for being backward, in the dawn of ancient times, Mesopotamia and its peoples were at the head of the progress pack in almost every way.  Let’s see just a smattering of what our friends from Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia (and later Phoenicia and Egypt) would contribute to the betterment of mankind: agriculture, irrigation, metalworking, medicine, writing, engineering (including dams and large buildings), urban design, the wheel, coordinated transportation, arithmetic, accounting, banking, money, astronomy, and, of course, beer and winemaking.  And that’s just the important stuff.

 

So there was good reason for the teacher to focus our attention on developments there, but that doesn’t mean nothing was shaking in other parts of the Mare Nostrum; we just weren’t privy to it.  The Iberian Peninsula was quite active, if you want know, and even if you don’t, I’ll be telling you about it anyway.
Just what was it like back then?  Legend has it, and this seems to be confirmed rather fervently by wishful-thinking environmentalists, that the land was one lush forest.

 

So fraught with vegetation was the territory, according to the story handed down over the generations, that the classical Greek geographer, Strabo, was said to have claimed that a squirrel could cross the span of the land, from coast to coast, without ever having to touch the ground.   A shocking bit of news if you are in any shape or form familiar with the average landscape in this country, especially around the middle part.  Either the plains were really once that loaded with forests or the rodent was equipped with bionic legs.

 

There is, however, yet another explanation: it’s total bull.  Strabo never mentioned the animal, let alone its extraordinary feat.  That’s reason enough to cast doubt on the whole story.  Has deforestation taken its toll on the country over its three thousand years of history?  Why not.  My home state of Connecticut was nearly stripped naked in just two hundred before the forests began to come back, so there is no telling.

 

Chances are, though, the change was not as dramatic as some would like to believe.

 

While the red squirrel still exists in Spain, the Spaniards are fascinated by this little creature and can see packs (of people that is) following them all over Retiro Park, the tru boss by numbers is the one and only rabbit.  In fact, and this was a big revelation for me when I first heard about it, the very name of the country has its origins in this lupine creature.  Word has it, the Phoenicians, we’ll get back to them in a little while, were so bowled over the infinite number of bunnies hopping around that they name the land I-spn-ya (land of the rabbits).  I shit you not.  Some hardcore Spaniards question this theory through and through, feeling it isn’t dignified enough, especially when you consider the animal is also used in Spanish as a connotation for female genitalia, but it seems to be the story that holds up the best.

 

In addition to a ton of rodents of different sizes and shapes, there was also quite a bit of human activity.  Not necessarily the kind that erected 500ft pyramids or who laid down the foundations of the modern legal system, but they were certainly keeping themselves busy staying alive.  This was when I learned that there were lots of them. To simplify matters they came in two basic forms: the Celts and the Iberians.

 

“Really?  The Celts?  The ones who lived in Ireland?  The ones who gave us basketball in Boston?”

 

My friend Pepe insisted that it was true.  “The even have their own bagpipe.”
Well, it turns out once again, that my old friend Pepe was telling the truth.  The bagpipe has existed in the northwest of Spain since the Middle Ages and probably made its way to the British Isles later.  Who would have guessed?  The same can be said of the Celts themselves.  Recent genetic studies show that many original Britons and Irish are closely tied  to the Celts from the Spain, DNA-wise,  and most likely came from that region when the fishermen sailed up to those parts around 6,000 years ago.  What do you know…that really must irritate the Brits to no end.  And that, of course, gives me a good laugh.

 

Anyway, as I was saying.  You had your Iberians and Celts and when they met, took a fancy to each other, and got drunk and horny, they produced Celt-Iberians.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  There were literally scores of tribes and nations roaming around the land.  Here is just a sampling:  you have your Vettones in Extramadura, your Vaccaei in the Salamanca area, your Lusitani in Portugal (that’s where they get the name of the ill-fated ship the Lusitania), the Carpetani in the middle of the land, the Oretani near Jaen, the Turdetani in Andalusia, the Astures in Asturias, the Vascones in the Basque Country (they have always been there), and so on.  There’s just no end to it.  Some were more advanced than others, but true progress wouldn’t come until the boys from the other side of the Mediterranean showed up.  Then things really started rolling…as we will see.