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Why I probably won't go back to Barcelona

The drive for independence, or at least for greater autonomy, in Cataluña has its roots in a people, culture, and language that have been oppressed for decades. Discussions about the possible independence of Quebec and Scotland have been active for decades, and talks of an independent Northern Ireland have been around for more than a hundred years. Whether a new country called Cataluña will appear on our maps may not be settled for many years, i ever.

We love the idea of an underdog peoples fighting for their heritage. All of us are richer when the poetry, language, and cultural arts associated with a distinct people group are preserved. But a struggle for independence is not without risk, and not without cost. Acts of violence, such as the subway bombings executed by ETA, a Basque separatist group, disrupt commerce and chase away tourists. And less violent evidence, even things as simple as graffiti, have their own impact on local investment and tourism.

I’ve been to Cataluña as a tourist, and I left sad for what I missed. More than half of the locals with whom I spoke refused to speak with me in Spanish. Although they understood me perfectly, they responded to me in Catalan. The resulted in awkward conversations where one party, the local, understood 100% of what was being said by the other, but spoke in such a way that perhaps half of what he said was being understood. I suspected, and it was later confirmed, that the assumption was that I was Spanish. (I’m not - I’m an American, but I speak good Spanish, having worked and traveled in Spanish-speaking countries for decades.) My family’s trip was a casualty of a regional hunger for independence.

We travel to experience a different culture. When the locals intentionally create barriers to the experience, the tourist experience suffers, and so does the local economy. I doubt we will go back to Barcelona.

But we love the Basque people, and most Spaniards have been good to us.

La unidad por la independencia, o al menos de una mayor autonomía, en Cataluña tiene sus raíces en un pueblo, una cultura y un lenguaje que han sido oprimidos durante décadas. Las discusiones sobre la posible independencia de Quebec y Escocia han estado activos desde hace décadas, y habla de una Irlanda del Norte independientes han existido desde hace más de cien años. Ya sea un nuevo país llamado Cataluña aparecerá en nuestros mapas no puede ser resuelta desde hace muchos años.

Nos encanta la idea de un desvalido pueblos que luchan para recuperar su patrimonio. Todos somos más ricos cuando la poesía, el lenguaje y las artes culturales asociados con un grupo de personas distintas se conservan. Pero la lucha por independencia no está exenta de riesgos, ni sin costo. Los actos de violencia, como los atentados del metro ejecutados por ETA, un grupo separatista vasco, perturban el comercio y persiguen a los turistas. Y menos evidencia violenta, incluso cosas tan simples como graffiti, tienen su propio impacto en la inversión local y el turismo.

He visitado a Cataluña como turista, y sali triste. Más de la mitad de la gente que conocimos negaron de hablar conmigo en Castellano. Aunque me entendieron perfectamente, respondieron a mí en catalán. El resultado era conversaciones incómodas, donde una de las partes, lo local, entendia el 100% de lo que decía, pero hablaron de tal manera que perdi tal vez la mitad de lo que decian. Yo sospechaba, y más tarde fue confirmado, que el supuesto era que yo era español. (No soy - soy un americano, pero hablo bien el español, después de haber trabajado y viajado en Espana, Mexico, y Argentina, durante décadas.) El viaje de mi familia era víctima de un hambre regional para la independencia.

Viajamos a conocer una cultura diferente. Cuando los lugareños crean intencionalmente barreras a la experiencia, la experiencia turística sufre, y lo mismo ocurre con la economía local. Dudo que regresamos a Barcelona.

Posted by
9363 posts

Of course you are entitled to your opinion, but as a tourist in Barcelona myself I never felt any barriers to enjoyment of my trip. I was aware of the separatist sentiments of some, but never felt that there was any danger, nor was my trip any less enjoyable because of them. Though I did not try to converse in Spanish, I had no trouble communicating with people in restaurants using a combination of English, pointing, Spanish, and smiles. I certainly feel that I learned a lot about the local culture and people. I'm sorry you didn't feel that you had a good experience.

Posted by
4535 posts

On most of my trips I try to know a few basic words in the local language. I find it usually helps to break the ice and makes locals feel I care and am not just a rude foreigner expecting them to know a different language. So when I have visited Barcelona (and the region), I have tried to use some Catalan. I'm sure my pronunciation is awful, but I've always gotten a warm response.

But I do agree that if the region wants to remain known as a friendly place with warm people, they need to allow some flexibility with those that speak Spanish. A lot of the world outside of a few states in Spain speak the language.

Posted by
7 posts

Thanks for reading. I was sorry, too. Because I speak Spanish, I expect and look forward to a greater level of connection with people when I travel. When someone who understands my Spanish perfectly intentionally refuses to reply in Spanish, it hurts and hinders. Hand signals and smiles and sketches on a place mat fall below what I hope for - below what I travel for.

Curiously, never had that problem in the Basque country. They are in the same process, but people there have been very gracious, and never reply in Basque when I speak Spanish.

But I understand your point, and thanks for sharing it.

Posted by
9330 posts

Thank you for posting this william. It has widened my perspective and I appreciate that.

Posted by
552 posts

William, I wonder if the very fact that your Spanish was so good was the main problem, as people did assume you were Spanish. Had they known that you were not Spanish I wonder if the responses would have been different.

Posted by
7 posts

rfbarta, completely agree, that was it. I might have enjoyed my trip better if I had spoken English or French. But unfortunately, if a primary industry in your area is tourism, it is not a good thing to do.

Thanks to all for civil conversation on this forum.

Have been on two Rick Steves tours, and loved both of them. Best of Italy, and Village Italy. Both awesome.

Posted by
2767 posts

Interesting. I've been, but it has been a long time and I was with a French friend who spoke a bit of Catalan. I'm going back this summer and am wondering about this. I speak some Spanish, but it's bad and I certainly couldn't pass for a native speaker. I wonder if it would be better to speak a few phrases in Catalan as opposed to trying my best with Spanish. My Spanish is better than the few phrases of Catalan I could learn, but the Catalan might be received better...

Posted by
7 posts

I think you've got it. Speak English or Catalan and I think you will be welcomed.
They just have it in for the Spanish.

Curious the changes in the world fabric that we are seeing. Did you read that Calalonia may be independent as soon as 2017? It was in the news on Wednesday. Will they be in the EU? Will Greece be in the EU by then? Will it require a passport to go from country to country in the EU? Our world is changing.


Posted by
4477 posts

Weren't they just insulted you went out of your way to speak to them in a language they prefer not to speak?

Posted by
7 posts

They all read, speak, and hear Spanish on the radio and television all day long. Since Catalan was suppressed for many years, there are plenty of people living there who don't speak it well - just as there are plenty of people living in the Basque country who don't speak Euskera.

I don't think they insulted when they hear, or are spoken to in Spanish. I think it was a matter of misplaced patriotism for them. They had a chance to be snooty, and they took it.

There is a time and place for that type of patriotism, and if you are in a tourism field (we got this reaction in several restaurants, hotels, stores, from young and mature alike.), that is not the time or place. Especially when I wasn't Spanish. If they REALLY wanted to be snooty to a Spaniard, a simple "Are you from Spain?" would have clarified the matter.

Hopefully a Catalan native speaker will chime in and share an insight.

Thanks for the question.

Posted by
4216 posts

When a pot's about to boil, as it sounds like Cataluna is, politeness goes out the window. If you're speaking Spanish, you are the bad guy regardless of where you are from. Just like teens hate their parents just because they are their parents.

Over the years the same things happen in Quebec and Montreal.

Posted by
7 posts

Thank you for the insight. It lends perspective. May have been the same way in the Basque country a few years back. Now? Very kind to us when we passed through.

Posted by
5178 posts


Your experience is so unfortunate... sorry that happened to you.
I visited Barcelona some years back & I didn't experience anything like what you've explained on your post.
I speak Spanish fluently (it's my native tongue since I'm Mexican) & all the people I encountered during our visit responded to me in Spanish & they were helpful & friendly.

Posted by
8293 posts

I am an anglophone living in Montreal (born and bred actually) and certainly when feelings are running high on the language differences between French and English, I speak only French when interacting with store employees, bus drivers, doctors, nurses, etc., etc . Makes my life more pleasant and improves my French. Since the OP appears to be sympathetic to the aims of the Catalunans and understands their stance, I am surprised at his insistence on speaking to them In Spanish.

Posted by
2381 posts

I appreciate the way the OP refers to 'underdog peoples' and how Americans, at least, tend to side with the underdogs, but he doesn't go further and make it clear that the underdog is not always in the right nor is the ~colonizer always in the wrong.
It would also help if the thread showed some sensitivity by not referring to Castilian as 'Spanish'. I'm noticing that a lot of websites in Basque and Catalan areas use 'Cast' as the abbreviation link to change languages rather than 'Esp'.
The Univ. of Nevada at Reno happens to be home to a major Basque history and politics research center, and they make a point of not referring to Castilian as 'Spanish'...

Posted by
371 posts

Because I speak Spanish, I expect and look forward to a greater level
of connection with people when I travel.

I don't know if this will make you feel any better, but this happens in many countries and cultures. A coworker who grew up in this country but is of Chinese ancestry and who is fluent traveled to an area in the countryside of China with her family that she had long been interested in visiting. She thought that speaking Chinese would be an advantage, but apparently the locals took them to be rich tourists from a big city and treated them rudely. She ruefully said she would have been better off speaking in English...

Posted by
11294 posts

I can only say that my experience was very different from the OP. I was just in Barcelona in September 2015. Before I went I was actually very worried about this problem, but didn't experience it even once. Every time I used my "Spanish," they responded in Spanish (sorry, Castillian) with no hostility or discomfort whatsoever. My Castillian is far from fluent, and while my accent isn't terrible, no one will confuse me with a native speaker - maybe that accounts for the difference.

Posted by
7 posts

Thanks to all for thoughtful discourse.

I didn't refer to Castillian Spanish because I thought it might confuse people who have not studied Spanish. Perhaps I aimed too low for this crowd. (I actually wrote the post using "Castellano" as a reference, then I changed it to Spanish. (I am sensitive to this issue. I speak to high school classes, and I always point out to them that the Iberian peninsula has a variety of languages, including Catalan and Euskera.

I am new to this site, and haven't seen "Cast" as a term to distinguish.

We continued to speak Spanish partly because I was traveling with my wife and kids, and all were anxious to try out their Spanish. Plus, I think I didn't recognize what was happening for a while. We were there four days, as I recall, then we went to Paris.

I hope that I didn't suggest that I am sympathetic to independence for Catalonia. I don't have an opinion. I am not informed enough to have one. My intent was to suggest that I am for the preservation of all cultures. We are richer, as humans, for diversity.

phred, thanks for the thought. We are hoping to travel north, so perhaps I'd best brush up on French before we travel to Quebec. (We are from Oregon.)

Perhaps I thought I would see more similarities between Basque country and Catalonia. Many there don't speak Euskera, the Basque language, and the conversations seem to move between Euskera and Spanish very easily. We went to dinner with one family, and at their own table, they moved back and forth, because the father wasn't Basque. Mom and the kids were perfectly fluent in both languages, but it led to interesting patterns. A teen would say something in Euskera, mom would translate to Spanish for the father and me, and I'd translate into English for wife. All fun, lots of laughing, no stress, no hint that Cast was disfavored.

Perhaps we just connected with a few people with thin skin.

Thanks to all for thoughtful replies.

Posted by
15526 posts

My sister studied 'Spanish' all the way through high school and college but received a rude awakening on her senior trip to Spain (can't remember her location) that what she learned was not Castillian so she had a bit of a time understanding the locals!

Posted by
8886 posts

Yes, William, you have aimed too low. Thanks for pointing that out to all of us.