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24 Hours in La Mancha

January 18, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 4

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Back in Cebolla, there were four street names that were under scrutiny. One was Calle Calvo Sotelo, in honor of José Calvo Sotelo, a right-wing politician whose greatest contribution to posterity in his life was undoubtedly his death in 1936. A conservative monarchist who advocated a return of the royal family to preside over the turbulent years that led up to the Spanish Civil War, Calvo Sotelo (in Spain they often go by their last two names) was considered to be one of the leading voices of his day. He wasn’t bashful about his opinions either, expressing on more than one occasion that if the government could not establish order in the streets, the army should. There are clearly more democratic ways of conveying popular discontent with an administration’s performance, but this proposal actually coincided with an age-old tradition in Spain to simply remove a government by force when things didn’t go well. As you would expect, advocating a military intervention tends to polarize any nation. Those in support of his vow to “Make Spain Great Again” looked favorably upon his hardline approach, and he began to attract a greater following. Those against his views, regarded him with plenty of fear and loathing.

          Calvo Sotelo’s soaring career was cut short rather abruptly by a bullet that came to a stop in his head. In July of 1936, tensions in Spain were as high as they had even been in decades. Five years after the monarchy had been ousted in a referendum, the fledgling Second Republic teeter-tottered as it struggled to find a balance in the dizzying ideological scenario of the day. The political right was outraged by the loss of traditional Spanish values; the Church was incensed by the growing numbers of atheists; the socialists were irked with the Church; the communists miffed about the socialists; and the anarchists were pissed off with just about everyone. And if you add to that the disgruntled nationalists from three different regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia) who wanted to separate all the together, who had a cocktail christened “chaos”. That very summer, the nation was on the verge of falling apart and would, in fact, begin to disintegrate before the month was out. But first, events would have occur to set the explosive situation off.

          On July 13, a group of soldiers detained Calvo Sotelo at his home and, in an act of cold-blooded revenge for the murder of a pro-government officer José Castillo just hours before, stuck him in the back of a truck, shot him and dumped his cooling body next to a cemetery which, if you think about it, was a kind of bizarre gesture of humanitarian consideration on the murderers’ part given the circumstances.

          There is debate as to whether the captors intended on doing him in or if it was just a major fuck-up. Research into the matter suggests that the latter seems the more likely. But if it was just a mistake, it was real doozy. His assassination did not cause the Spanish Civil War, but it is safe to say it effectively cemented a collision course which had been long in the making. For those unfamiliar with Spanish history, this was the “Archduke Ferdinand killing moment” of the Spanish conflict. The act the triggered the tragedy. Calvo Sotelo became an instant martyr for the fascist cause. His death ignited anger throughout the country, and undermined the credibility of the government, which was already quickly losing its grip on law and order. What’s worse, it persuaded a general who had been banished to the Canary Islands –I guess there are worse places they could send– by the name of Francisco Franco to become more pro-active. Apparently, he had had second thoughts about the uprising, mainly because he didn’t want to get hanged by his balls if it failed. With the situation spiraling out of control, he made up his mind that it was time to join the coup. Four days days later he was on a plane heading for Morocco to take charge of the seasoned legionnaires of the Africa army stationed in that Spanish protectorate and lead them in the crossing to mainland Spain. Calvo Sotelo had become a martyr. It was only fitting his memory be perpetuated in the streets of Castile.

          Another street in question was named Gran Canaria, after the third largest island of the Canaries. It’s a beautiful volcanic landmass and a haven for vacationers from around the world. Why was this seemingly innocuous reference to a pretty tropical isle so offensive to the sensitive Spanish ear? Maybe we should be asking, what such a place is doing being honored in a small, unassuming Spanish town to begin with. The connection is obvious once history comes into play. Franco, as we know, had not been sent to the Canary Islands to catch up on a little R&R for a job well done, but rather had been reassigned to the archipelago by the Spanish government because they saw him as a threat to the nation’s legitimate constitution. Time would prove they were right to feel that way. They just came up short in their efforts to prevent what know seems to be the inevitable.

          Then there was Calle Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera in honor of another major figure during that period. Son of the former dictator of Spain Miguel Primo de Rivera (yes, there has been more than one), he went on to found Spain’s version of the fascist party, known as el Falange. When war broke out in 1936, he was put in jail cell in Alicante, officially serving a sentence for possession of firearms. He was later tried for rebellion, even though he was in the slammer when the uprising started, condemned to death and shot on November, 20, 1936, the same day Franco would pass away 39 years later. He is currently buried in the basilica of the Valley of the Fallen near the El Escorial, in the province of Madrid, basically next to the caudillo. While José Antonio’s mausoleum-mate may soon be expelled from the grounds, he has been allowed to stay as a true victim of the war. His body will be taken from the altar and re-interred in a less privileged spot.  

          And finally you have Comandante Sánchez Rubio, a figure so unknown no one seems to even recall even his first name. He was just a soldier from Cebolla who happened to be stationed in Cebolla when Franco’s forces took over. Honored in his day as a local hero, he was on the black list for being on the wrong side at the wrong time. So, tough luck; he’s out!

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 15, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 3

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What in the name of Sam’s hell was going on? The law, that’s what. Implementing the law, more like it. On April 27, 2017, a full fifteen months before the early morning skirmish of Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz, as it has been come to be known, a meeting of the Cebolla town council was held to address the matter of changing the names of several streets in the town in accordance with the Law of Historical Memory, a controversial piece of legislation which had been passed by the Spanish National Parliament a full ten years before in 2007. The Law of Historical Memory has been one of the most hotly debated decrees in recent Spanish memory, as is anything having to do with the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. It was passed with the hope of bringing closure to a very painful time in this country’s recent past; it may have just opened the wounds further.

          For some Spaniards, though, closure had already occurred decades before when the Generalissimo died on November 20, 1975. The ensuing period of switching from a repressive dictatorship to a democracy under the format of a constitutional monarchy (known as La Transición in Spanish) played out without too much trouble. I say this with a large degree of hesitation, but let me explain. Those involved in the Transición look upon the achievement with pride. The image one has of those years is that of a peaceful and level-headed process, where sanity superseded visceral emotion, where pragmatism outdid revenge. And it’s fairly accurate in the sense that the country did not implode or rewind back to the explosive days of the 1930s. Society more or less cohered. But goodwill and pleasantries were not across the board by any means. Terrorist attacks by numerous separatist and Marxist groups inflicted hundreds of deaths and thousands of wounded. And you can’t ignore the fact that parts of the most conservative sections of the armed forces attempted to overthrow a legitimately elected government in 1981. By no means was it perfect sailing, but the Spanish seemingly pulled it off.

          How was it done? First of all, it wasn’t easy. You see, having your government run by a fascist dictator for 36 years is a stain on any country’s resume, but to help with the healing process, a Pact of Forgetting was agreed upon in 1975 by parties and factions on both sides of the political spectrum so as not to stir up unpleasant memories of the past. The feeling was that by not addressing the horrors of the past and not demanding anyone own up for their wrong deeds, the nation could focus on caulking the fissures and bringing about a smooth transition. This unofficial deal was institutionalized two years later with the Law of Amnesty of 1977, by which the parliament formally released any and all political prisoners, deleted their police records, and banned criminal procedures against anyone from that period, regardless of which side they were on. Basically, the idea was to erase the board and reset.

          The political far right was game for the idea. Who wouldn’t want to be criminally responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations and get away with it scot free? The political left earned a reputation for acting with extreme generosity and uncommon understanding. Having achieved that, everyone leaders then got together to create a new framework for Spain’s future. All sides sculpted a well-thought-out constitution, restored democracy and got on to being just another stable Western European country, with great museums, terrific vacation spots, an unmatchable historical heritage, outstanding cuisine, annual entries at the Eurovision Song Contest, and to top it off, a World Cup soccer title in 2010. What more could a European country ask for?

          Meanwhile, reminders from the past were slowly but surely being plucked away from visibility. Between 1980 and 2000, statues, signs, monuments which had in any way honored the Franco period had been retired from public view, many times under the cover of the night to avoid confrontation. Streets were renamed, as were squares, fountains and other landmarks. Plaques were unscrewed and pried off building walls, paintings and pictures sent to the basement or just tossed all together. The cleansing was fairly comprehensive, but far from complete, especially in the small towns, where the vestiges proved more resilient. Was enough, enough, or was a more thorough job required?

          In 2007, the Socialist Party, under Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, decided to propose a bill to deal with a number of issues associated with the sensitive past which had not been fully addressed. These went beyond just unhinging a bust or rechristening a lane. They also included financing the locating, identifying and exhumation of bodies buried in many of the countless number of common graves that littered the country, where the remains of an untold number of victims of the war lay. The most high-profile controversy was the mother of all disinterments, that of Franco’s body from the Valle de los Caídos Basilica (The Valley of the Fallen). The Franco-period church-monument-monastery built in honor of all victims of the Spanish Civil War, was never meant for the caudillo himself to be there in the first place, as he was not a victim of the war. He personally asked not to. But that is precisely where he ended up. The result was predictable, since the landmark acquired a kind of pilgrimage status for those who yearned for the days when you good suppress your opponents instead of rely on democratic voting. And while participation in these tributes has waned since the first few years, the fact remains, the old dictator still occupies a place of honor in the side of a mountain twenty-five miles from Madrid. 44 years later, left-wing parties are in the midst of a legal dispute with the Franco family, as they dispute where his final resting place will be. He’ll probably go, but when and where is a mystery.

          The Spanish Civil War and Francoism still hold a firm grip on the psyche of parts of this society, even though many citizens are hopelessly unaware of it. In fact, the two Spains that historians often refer two have their origins in conflicts that hark back to the 19th Century, but it’s the war “la Guerra” that continues to be most relevant to them.

          It may be tempting to say that bickering over events that occurred 40, 50, 60, 70 and up to 80 years ago is absurd, but it’s a more complex issue and more widespread phenomenon than people think. Some Americans, for example, are still coming to terms with visible reminders of their very own civil war. They may wrestle to recall the name of a general or a battle or even forget which century the conflagration took place, but that doesn’t matter. There are matters left unresolved, they’ll say. Just in the past few years, statues have been toppled and flags taken down, and crowds still fill the streets on occasion to protest the commemoration of former Confederate soldiers and leaders. Mind you, we are talking about an event that took place 150 years ago. So, it’s not really for us to judge others, which is a shame, because judging others is one of my favorite pastimes.

24 Hours in La Mancha

January 10, 2019

Figs of Steel: 24 Hours in La Mancha 2

A couple of workers from the town maintenance department lumbered out of the vehicle and hauled their tools and a ladder to the corner of the street where the main square began. They lit cigarettes, exchanged a few instructions, aligned the ladder with its destination ten feet above and prepared for action. One climbed up to their desired height, produced a chisel from his pocket with one hand, grabbed a mallet which had been dangling from his hammer loop with the other, lined the two up and started chipping away at the edges of a colorful Talavera design ceramic plaque which indicated, before it was removed, the name the street had been known by for the previous 75 years: Calle Comandante Sanchez Ruiz. It was a tremendously long title for an extraordinarily short road, in honor of an immensely anonymous character from some forsaken annal of time. Mr. Sanchez was getting the boot, and some locals felt it was about time. Most, though, could not have given a crap.

          The nerve-racking echo of repeated knocking on a solid wall would have spurred even the most staid individual to rise from their bed and investigate. David, the neighbor whose home the plaque was lodged in, just happened to be one of those individuals. He emerged from the iron door outside his patio wearing only a summer robe (and we can assume something underneath) and slippers. He assessed the situation carefully. Though not necessarily as stable a person as he would like to be until he had his first cup of coffee, he felt he could manage the matter and avoid victims at the same time. He was also the proud owner of several hunting weapons, knew how to use them effectively and was quoted as saying once, after an evening of several gin & tonics served in glasses the size of vases, “Everyone should know what it feels like to be hunted down at least once in thier life. It builds character.”

          Without alcohol running through his veins, David was a decidedly less swashbuckling person. As a first course of action, he folded his arms and affected a long, determined glare of disapproval, which he planned on maintaining until one of the two looked in his direction and picked up on the gravity of the situation. But the workers pounded away and did not even acknowledge his presence at first, basically because they didn’t see him. The slight prompted him to adopt a new more aggressive approach. Within seconds he came up with a line he was sure would grab their attention and convey disdain at the same time, “Buenos días.”

          It lacked in creativity but you can’t say it didn’t achieve the desired effect. The man up top stopped hammering. Both he and his colleague looked in the direction of the morning salutation, where David had gone back to his pose of displeasure. They returned the greeting, “Buenos días,” nodded, and continued with the dismantling.

          David sensed that a peaceful resolution was going to be harder than he thought, but he was convinced he could cope. Thanks to the Mindfulness courses that he had taken when he was laid off two years before, he had learned to manage tense situations without, what people close to him described as, “going berserk”. He himself wasn’t armed, but the town employee, the worker in charge of removing the inscription, wielded a tool so imposing that would have passed for a battle mace, meaning that should things take a turn for the worse, he was at an immediate disadvantage. David realized he had nothing to defend himself with, but recalled that he was wearing slippers and that they might serve as a potential flying defense mechanism to divert their attention, should the need arrive. It would probably stun them just enough to give him time to scramble back inside his house and lock the door. The sensible thing to do, though, his Mindfulness coach had instructed him, was to bring tensions down a notch or two. So he shouted at the worker from a comfortable distance. “Is it really necessary for you to be doing this at this time of day?”

          “It is.” replied the worker on the ladder. “What do you want me to do about it?”

          “I want you to leave and come back when normal humans work. That’s what I want. It’s eight o’clock in the morning! Can’t a person get some rest around here?”

          “Of course they can. But that’s not the issue here. Do you always react this way to these situations?”

          “What do you mean, that’s not the issue? What are you, a psychologist?” Given the current unemployment rate of 17%, it was entirely possible. “This is simply not right.”

          “Do you hear that, Quique?” he addressed his coworker who was holding the base of the ladder and pretending to keep him safe. “We have a protestor here. An indignado.” The worker stepped down from his place up top and began to advance towards David, who glanced at his foot and wondered if he’d have time to snag the slipper and whip it in the aggressor’s direction. But the town employee paused to put down the mallet, mainly because it was too heavy, and inadvertently gave David the impression that he was a man of peace. “Look. I’m just doing my job. Is that a lot to ask?”

          “At this time of day, you bet it is. Come back later.”

          “Come back later, or what?”

          The ensuing minutes broke down, according the version reported to me, into an exchange of opposing views where each side had no hope of convincing the other and yet had no intention of being convinced. So they just insulted each other relentlessly until they had their fill. David, who in a matter of seconds had abandoned the counseling of his Mindfulness coach, finally suggested that the worker do something creative with the chisel, while his opponent recommended that if he had a problem the man go to the town hall and take it up there. That’s how they left it off. As is usual in these cases, there was much more bark than bite.

          David went back inside and vented his frustration by immediately taking a shower and scrubbing his head extra hard with shampoo, and the workers, riled by the altercation, decided they needed to take a break to calm down and sauntered over to a café on the other side of the square. The street sign no longer bore the name of the Commander, and only the top left corner where the town seal was exhibited remained. It isn’t clear if this was done out of respect for town property or because they forgot to finish the job, but the fact is, the emblem has been left untouched ever since.

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.

Uncategorized

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.

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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 change.org 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…

Uncategorized

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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!