As far as political revolutions go the independence bid by Catalan separatists to tear away from Spain must rank as one of the most surreal in recent memory.
There are no Molotov cocktails or barricades or other trappings of insurgency. In fact, there is no geographical flashpoint — no Maidan or Tahrir Square.
But there are hordes of tourists thronging the alleys of the Gothic Quarter, sampling the flavors of Barcelona, a prosperous, sun-blessed city — and that despite a reported 20 percent drop in tourist numbers.
Wedged between the Mediterranean and the Montserrat, a multi-peaked mountain range, Barcelona boasts a unique cuisine combining fish and meat — from butifarra, uncured spiced sausage, to fideua, a seafood noodle paella. There’s a throbbing nightlife packing a party punch that attracts the world’s glitterati, and only gets going when most north Europeans are long in bed, ending as dawn breaks.
No change in pace
The tourism, as well as bustling shopping thoroughfares like the tree-lined kilometer-long La Rambla, offer a jarring backdrop to a political crisis that will have not only major repercussions for the Spanish and Catalans but also for a Europe fearful of other nationalisms unpicking the map of a continent that can ill afford volatile border disputes, which can quickly escalate with unforeseen consequences.
As the separatists of Spain’s restive northeast region and the politicians in Madrid traded threats this week, the manicured grounds of Catalonia’s parliament in Parc de la Ciutadella were full of school parties and adult tourist groups picking their way past television camera crews and reporters rehearsing on-air lines.
“Eleanor, stop feeding the pigeons,” a bearded, tanned British teacher shouted at one of his wayward teenage charges.
When asked by this reporter, whom he eyed with rising suspicion, if his British teenagers had expressed any opinions about the to-and-fro struggle between Catalan separatists and Madrid, he answered, "No."
“We steer clear of that sort of thing,” he sniffed. He then broke off to scream again at his teenagers as they began to wander off, discarding their picnic boxes as they went and snapping selfies. “Girls. Where are you going?”
Nearby, crocodile lines of Catalan primary school kids twisted into the regional parliament, an imposing building, once a military arsenal, dating back to the 18th century.
Separatists have pledged to throw up walls of non-violent protesters to meet any squads of national police Madrid dispatches to shutter the parliament, possibly this weekend. Then, there will be no room for wayward picnicking teenagers or primary-school kids.
The imposition of direct rule by Madrid over rebellious Catalonia risks creating the very geographical flash-points the independence bid now lacks — the parliament and the region’s public broadcaster could quickly transform into Tahrir Squares, if Madrid is heavy-handed.
But for now there is nothing to suggest history is being made in Parc de la Ciutadella, except for loitering TV crews eager for a major development and a bit more swiftness to this drawn-out chess game of a political standoff. It is all a far cry from "La Pasionaria,” a Spanish Republican heroine of the Spanish civil war, and the international bridges.
For foreign news desks this stop-start crisis has been frustrating to cover. When to send in reporters and cameramen, and when to withdraw them has exercised editors, who fear not having a presence when something blows up, but are reluctant to waste money keeping crews on the ground when all is quiet.
Such questions aren’t worrying the tourists crowding the streets of the Gothic Quarter. Their biggest dilemma is which restaurant to pick. The most ubiquitous, echoing sound in the neighborhood’s narrow alleys is the clippety-clop of rolling luggage being heaved across paving stones.
A divided society
But for all of the sense of normality, behind the scenes in private Catalans are angry, alarmed and argumentative. The independence crisis has had real impact, especially in terms of dividing Catalan society — a polarization that starts at the kitchen table, throwing up issues of identity and pride.
“What can’t be forgotten is the effect the crisis has had within families and between friends. When old pals start throwing accusatory fingers at each other and politics is banned from family meals, you know you’ve got a problem, irrespective of what the politicians end up doing,” says Jaz Allen-Sutton, a British writer who lives in the countryside outside Barcelona.
The International media focuses more on the split between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. But the divide between Catalans is as wide.
For many there is real fear of the economic consequences of secession. Some Catalans have been transferring their bank accounts to other regions of Spain as a precaution, fearing what may befall their savings should Catalonia declare independence, which would mean exiting, despite the naive denials of separatist leaders, the European Union also.
“Separatists think everything will be so happy and perfect after we leave, but it won’t. We are going to have the euro or what? People are really afraid and they are going to the banks. I am worried about our money in the bank — tomorrow it may not be there,” says Alba, a mother of one.
Another surreal aspect of the independence crisis is how little serious debate there has been about the likely economic impact of secession — even less than in the run-up to Britain’s Brexit vote last year. Fearful of suddenly being outside the EU, more than a thousand businesses have relocated their headquarters outside Catalonia, including major banks.
The lack of economic debate is especially ironic considering the roots of this latest surge in Catalan nationalism can be found in the financial crash of 2008-2010. Catalonia may be prosperous, but not for all. The region has suffered from severe austerity cuts — and even before resources become more scarce many had already been left behind in the good times.
Swiss journalist Raphael Minder notes in a new book on Catalan rebel politics, “The Struggle for Catalonia,” that the ongoing Catalan separatist challenge is “without doubt linked to the financial crisis.” He adds: “The more scarce resources are, the more people tend to bolster their self-esteem through national pride.”
Many Catalans, though, are worried that pride can come before a fall.