Spain is different (1)

I’m writing from Barcelona, where I lived for nine years during the 1990s.    The early 90s were boom years for the Catalan capital, as they were for Spain in general.   It was a period in which the Barcelona town council and the regional government was pouring money into public building and urban renewal projects, from the Olympic village to the renovation of the old port, when property prices shot up to European levels, and the city was already becoming one of the cool European travel destinations.

The 90s was also the period in which Spain joined the Schengen Area and effectively became the policeman of Europe’s southern maritime borders again ‘illegal immigration’ from outside the EU.

For Catalonia – and for Spain in general – these were optimistic times, in which Spain was finally emerging from its historic isolation and many Catalans hoped that European integration might usher in an independent Catalan Switzerland south of the Pyrenees.

Today Barcelona is more popular than ever with the tourists who swarm through the city centree, but Europe – or rather the European Union – is less popular with many Spaniards.  The  Spanish economy is creaking under the weight of public debt and jobs are scarce.  Official unemployment hovers at around the twenty percent mark,  and employers are grinding away at working conditions and wages under  the buzzword of ‘flexibility’.

Money is still being made in Spain – and not always legally.  In Galicia, 30 associates of the fugitive narcotrafficante Antonio Pouso aka ‘Pelopincho’  have been sent to prison on charges of moneylaundering, following a six-year investigation into money laundering in Galicia, that has far found the massive sum of 700 million euros of drug profits channelled through property investments in the province.  In the perennially-corrupt city of Marbella, two local and various councillors have been indicted for siphoning off funds from the public coffers.

Meanwhile  cuts have already begun to rip into the public sector.  In Las Palmas, 1,000 pensioners, some of whom have serious disabilities,  have just been told by the local council that they will no longer receive domestic help.  Everyone knows  that there is worse to come, whether from the ruling Socialists or from the troglodyte Spanish right, which is eagerly waiting to take advantage of the Socialists’ willingness to do the dirty work of the EU and the IMF.

No wonder  los indignados (‘the angry ones’ –  indignats in Catalan) remain an active movement across the country.  It’s just over three months since the police ended the occupation of Plaza Catalunya by firing rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators, but posters across the city continue to urge people to join the movement.  Many young  Spaniards have, like their counterparts in Greece and Ireland, begun to up sticks and open a new chapter in Spain’s long history of emigration.  Unlike the migrant workers of the 60s and early 70s, the new emigrants are often highly-educated.

Tomorrow the reactionary Pope Benedict begins a visit to a country that his predecessor once described as ‘ a country of pagans’.    Yesterday thousands of young Catholics celebrated mass in Madrid’s Cibeles Plaza in anticipation of the papal visit and to celebrate the Church’s World Youth Day, where Cardinal Rouco Varela, the city’s archbishop, railed against ‘rampant relativism’ such as abortion and gay marriage.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Pope’s visit.  Today a Mexican chemistry student was arrested, apparently for planning to attack the Pope’s entourage with poison gas.  But these last few days there have been processions of fervent and mostly young believers, many of them Latin American, around the Barcelona city centre, singing and hymns and religious songs to the accompaniment of guitars and drums.

Religious fervour is the exception rather than the rule in early 21st century Spanish society.   Some Spaniards have found their own ways of dealing with the crisis.  Last weekend Ratón  the homicidal bull killed a 29-year-old man at a festival in Xativa, near Valencia.   Ratón  has already killed two people and injured various others.  He now has his own website  and his owner commands a fee of 10,000 euros for each festival appearance, compared with an average of 2,000 that most bull-owners receive.

Ratón’s owner, unlike many Spaniards, has found a reliable source of income.  It can only be hoped that others don’t feel the need to follow his example.






From the borderlands

I’m writing from Vilnius, the beautiful capital of Lithuania, after four days at the Polish town of Sejny, in the Polish/Lithuanian borderlands.   I was there as a guest of the Sejny-based Borderlands Foundation, to attend an event called the ‘European Agora’ as part of the centennial of the poet Czeslaw Milosz which is being celebrated in various ways across Poland.

The Borderlands Foundation is a unique experiment that began twenty years ago when a group of artists, actors and directors decided to relocate from Warsaw to Sejny, a small and remote town with a population of 7,000, near Milosz’s family home in Krasnogruda near the Polish/Lithuanian border.

The main aim of the Foundation is the promotion of inter-cultural dialogue, and its activities include education, community arts projects, concerts, a publishing house and literary journal, and a documentation centre that contains films and photographs on the ethnic history of this complicated borderland area, and a well-stocked library on the ethnic and cultural minorities of the Central European borderlands in general.

All this has transformed Sejny into something of a cultural and artistic hub, which regularly attracts world-class classical and musicians, and writers, intellectuals, and philosophers from Central Europe and beyond. The ‘Agora’ event was intended to launch a new International Centre of Dialogue at Milosz’s restored family home’ It began with a speech from the Polish president at Krasnogruda and ended with a concert by a local band playing the old Jewish klezmer music of Central Europe.

In between there were talks from the philosopher Zygmund Baumann, symposia on Milosz’s influential autobiographical exploration of his own roots in Native Realm in Sejny’s former synagogue, heated debates and polemics, poetry readings in a ‘Cafe Europa’ that exuded the cosmopolitanism of Austro-Hungarian Vienna, the performance of a specially-written oratorium in the local basilica.

There were also lunches near the now-defunct Polish/Lithuanian border, debates about Central Europe and the future of Europe in general, and endlessly stimulating conversations with members of the Foundation and various people from Poland and across the world, all of whom have been drawn into the Foundation’s orbit in various ways.

It was all very MittelEuropean and a fine tribute to a poet whose poetry and essays shaped an entire generation of Polish intellectuals during the communist era. The creativity and generosity of spirit at the heart of the Borderland Foundation project is really quite astonishing, and what they’ve achieved in this little town in the middle of ‘nowhere’ is a model of socially-engaged cultural activism, from its celebration of multiculturalism, its determination to involve local people, particularly young people in its activities, and its excavation of the lost history Polish/Lithuanian borderlands – a history that in the case of the region’s Jewish population, was largely obliterated by Nazi barbarism.

I’m still dizzy from the experience, and the ideas and atmosphere that I was privileged to breathe in during those four days will remain with me for a long time to come.