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Abeja Dispatch

Coffee Talk in Shimmering BaGarcelona (Barcelona)

The bright lights of the terminal wake me from an uneasy night, sleeping twisted and uncomfortably on the smoke-filled bus. It is still dark outside, but I have to get up. My overnight journey from Madrid to Barcelona is now over. Half asleep, I shoulder my backpack and look around for a place to sit and drink a cup of coffee until sunrise, when I can go search out the rest of the team.

Conversations drift to my ears from the voices around the cafe. "Are they speaking French, or Spanish? Or wait, maybe it's Portuguese." I sip my coffee. "I must be really tired," I thought, picking up a newspaper. "Hey, now my Spanish may not be perfect, and I may be tired, but these guys don't know how to spell!" I looked at the top of the paper..."Ediciòn Catalunya." A few synapses of my brain fire -- maybe the coffee is helping -- I realize I am now in the Cataluña region of Spain, where most people's first language is Catalan, not Spanish. Cataluña (spelled "Catalunya" in Catalan) is on the border with France, and Catalan is a Romance language that has elements of both French and Spanish, as well as its own oddities. Cataluna has its own monarchy and its own history, separate from Spain and the rest of Europe.

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This place looks like it celebrates Halloween year round!
Three students from the University of Barcelona sit down and we start talking. They have been out all night at a club, and want a cup of coffee and a cigarette before going to home. -- It seems like everyone smokes here, even on busses and in restaurants. Yuck! -- They all speak Spanish and some English, even though they are from Cataluna. I ask if their classes are in Spanish or Catalan. "Both," Francisco replies. "It depends on the teacher." - Could you imagine classes in your school conducted in two different languages, interchangeably?

Luis was born here, but his family is from Extremadura, a region in far Western Spain. His mother is from Don Benito, the little town where, coincidentally, I was an exchange student in high school. "It's such a small world!" we laughed. Luis's parents, along with people from all over Spain, flooded into Cataluna looking for work, in the 1950s and 60s. General Francisco Franco, the dictator who controlled Spain from 1939 until 1975, tried to squash Catalanism, the nationalist movement, and even outlawed the public use of the language. Now, Catalanism is popular here and most people resent the power Madrid has over the region. Still, most Catalans don't want independence from Spain, just more autonomy. And ethnic differences don't hinder friendships like these.

As the first rays of daylight illuminate the large, industrial city around me, I say good-bye and descend into the depths of Barcelona's metro system. I emerge, minutes later, in a completely different part of town... Barri Gòthic, the Gothic quarter of town. I am on La Rambla, the most famous street in Spain. A wide sidewalk stretches down the middle of the street which is lined with kiosks and cafes, all still closed because it is so early. Around me, huge stone buildings with elaborate carved facades start to glow in the morning sun, and I feel like I just stepped into the Middle Ages.

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Hey! What's with the crowd?
This part of Barcelona was built during Cataluña's "golden age" in the 13th through 15th century. Their powerful army expelled the Muslims in 1140 -- more than 300 years before the rest of Spain -- and began building a trade-based Mediterranean empire. At different points, Cataluña's military conquered Athens, Malta, Sardinia, Naples, and several ports in Northern Africa.

The team all met up again and explored the city. Of all the cities I have visited, this is one of my favorites! There's a lot of history and Gothic architecture, plus surreal modernist influences like Gaudi's buildings and the Picasso museum. To top it all off, it has many musicians playing in the streets, good food, good theater, and a hopping nightlife. Some people refer to Barcelona as the southern-most city in Northern Europe, because it is so different from the rest of Spain.

Later that evening, Monica and I participate in the local custom of sitting in a street side cafe, drinking strong espresso and watching Catalans and tourists pass down the busy street. We start talking about how Spain is really composed of many different regions, with different ethnicities and cultures.

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Yet another crazy looking building
"Terrorists from the Basque region [to the west in the Pyrenees mountains] have used bombs to promote an Independent Basque country!" Monica points out, relieved that such a thing isn't happening here. "They've always considered themselves separate."

"Did you know that the Basque language isn't related to any other known language in the world?" I ask her.

"No way!"

"Yea, some linguists think it may have come from the Neanderthals who first lived in the Iberian peninsula!"

Monica seems skeptical, but I swear I've read that theory in a couple of places. I can hear you yawn through your computer screens, but the fact is we actually do talk about these topics quite often. Traveling and seeing these things close up makes history, culture, languages, and politics more interesting and I feel directly involved.

"Nationalism and separatism versus federalism and large unions of different states seems to be the big international issue right now," I point out, "not something just happening here in Spain."

"Yea! Like East Timor, or Chechnya, where ethnically different groups want independence."

"But the European Union is bringing Europe together. Already, all the prices here are written in both pesetas and Euros, and EU citizens don't need passports to travel between the member countries."

I remember reading in the newspaper that Hillary Clinton said, "Everyone has a right to a homeland" when talking about the Palestinian desire for their own state, but Bill Clinton said something like, "If every group in America wanted independence, we'd break into at least 8,000 different states. It's important to stay in strong unions"

"Well, we just wrote about the people of the Western Sahara who want independence from Morocco, and there are the people of Tibet facing annihilation from China, and the Kurds in Turkey, and Native Americans - the list is endless." My mind spins around the world!

"What do we expect?" Monica asks. "I mean, look at the borders in Africa, for example. They make no sense. They were just carved out by European powers for their own purposes."

"So, would it be better for Cataluna and the Basque region to be separate, or does it help them to be a part of Spain?" I wonder. "I mean, economically, it can make it easier for them to sell their goods in foreign markets. But it also leaves them open to competition from places that may have cheaper labor or less stringent environmental regulations."

"Do you think their culture will be lost?"

Vocabulary box

romance language - also called "neo-Latin" because it is derived from Latin. Other Romance languages include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian.
oddities - unusual people, places or events
interchangeably - capable of being put or used in place of each other
annihilation - to reduce to utter ruin
stringent - tight
gothic - a style of architecture with pointed arches, steep roofs, windows large in proportion to the wall spaces, and, generally, great height in proportion to the other dimensions -- prevalent in Western Europe from about 1200 to 1475 AD.
Monica and I talk about this for a long time, but we do not have any easy answers. What do you think? What are the benefits of a central government? And what are the benefits of power being left to a more local level? Do you consider yourself from a state, a Texan for example, more than an American? Or Scottish more than British? In this age of internet's "communications super highway" and the Leer jet, the Earth isn't getting any smaller, but each individual's world is getting much bigger.

We pay our waiter in Spanish Pesetas, and wander back through the thin streets of the Barri Gothic, as if going back through time. We wander back to when the Catalans ruled over people from far away lands, when their army, with ships and swords, imposed their economies and politics on foreign cities. Can we learn anything from history?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - The Odyssey Discovers a New World
Team - Adrift at Sea
Making a Difference - We Still Need to Save the Whales

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