Is this Spain?!

Everyone warned me that the north of Spain would be different than the sunny south I’ve learned to call home over the past 10 months. Well, “warned” probably isn’t the best word, because it makes it sound bad, which it’s not. But for months before I arrived in the northeast reaches of the Iberian Peninsula to spend all of July working at a summer camp in the Catalan Pyrenees, my Spanish friends relentlessly listed all the differences between the two sides of the country. The north, they told me, is greener, more expensive, and not at all like the flamenco-dancing, toro-wrangling, free-tapas-consuming stereotypical image of Spain (that honor belongs to mi querida Andalucía).

After spending a week here in the north of Spain, I see that they were right. But am I in Spain…or Catalonia?

Technically, the answer is both. I’m in the country of Spain, in the autonomous community of Catalonia. Spanish Geography 101: Spain consists of 17 “autonomous communities,” which I usually compare to American states. Each community has its own government and leadership, but is just one part of the whole that is España. A few of Spain’s autonomous communities are Andalucía, Valencia, Castilla La Mancha, and – yes – Catalonia.

Map of Spain’s autonomous communities with Catalonia highlighted.

But Catalonia isn’t too happy about being part of Spain. If you’ve followed international news over the past few months, you might have seen that they’re pretty into the idea of cutting ties with Spain completely and becoming their own independent nation. I’d heard about it as well before I got here last week, and seen images of independence demonstrations filling the streets of Barcelona on national news, but I didn’t realize just how big the movement is. But, as it turns out…







I’m not in Barcelona. (Remember when I said “Pyrenees?” Barcelona is not in the Pyrenees). In fact, the only big Catalan city I’ve visited so far is Lleida, a stop on the way up north from Madrid (and by “visited” I mean “used the restroom in the train station, then walked 5 minutes outside to get on the bus”). I’m in a tiny little village that even my coworker and roommate, an English teacher from Toronto who has lived in Barcelona for two years, calls “hardcore Catalan.” I’m not even 100% sure how to pronounce the name of the town because – surprise! – it’s not Spanish.

Bellver de Cerdanya.

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(Seriously, someone tell me how to pronounce the Catalan LL, especially before a consonant.)

It’s a picture-perfect European mountain village, and with a population of 2,075, it’s even smaller than Cantoria, where I worked this past school year. It also feels nothing like the Spain I know and love, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just…different.

Something that really stood out to me almost immediately was the presence of the Catalan flag everywhere. Every Spanish autonomous community has its own flag, but the community flag is usually only flown on public property together with the flags of Spain and (usually) the EU. Meanwhile, people here have the Catalonian flag proudly hanging from apartment balconies (and I’ve never once seen the Andalusian flag displayed in anyone’s home down south).

It took me a few days to realize that the flag I was seeing all over the place here – a red-and-yellow stripey deal with a big star – isn’t even the official flag of Catalonia. It’s the flag in favor of independence.

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Welcome to Bellver. Have some Catalan freedom.
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A political statement on public property.

(The official Catalonia flag, if you’re wondering, is basically just the striped part without the star.)

There’s also the tiny fact that they speak a whole other language here. Between hearing Catalan 99% of the time and doing my job in English, I’m almost afraid to hear how terrible my Spanish sounds at the end of the month (because right now, the extent of my daily Spanish usage is “patatas, por favor” when I’m in line at the cafeteria).

To me, Catalan looks like a mix between Spanish and French.

I’m almost hesitant to speak Spanish here, just knowing how fiercely proud of their language Catalans are. I’m still not sure how I feel about the independence movement, but as regular readers may recall, I’m a strong believer in always using the local language when I visit a new place out of respect. In this little town, the local language is Catalan, even though we’re technically in Spain.

I went to the grocery store yesterday and my skills were put to the test for the first time. I use the word “grocery store” lightly because it wasn’t much bigger than a 7-11 in the US. The lone cashier greeted me with something that sounded like “hola,” but was noticeably different. Rather than attempting to speak and screwing up the language, I settled for smiling a polite greeting back at her. I did the same when she greeted me as I stepped up to the cash register a few minutes later, snacks in hand (the woman probably thought I was a deaf-mute). She told me my total. Three-something (the first word sounded like the Spanish tres). I handed over a five-euro bill, hoping she wouldn’t bust out into rapid-fire Catalan to ask for exact change, which is common at supermarkets in other parts of Spain I’ve visited. The only word I managed to say was gracies, which anyone who knows even the tiniest bit of Spanish and zero Catalan could probably guess.

Like I said, I don’t have a fully formed opinion about the independence movement in Catalonia. I’ve heard both arguments, but I don’t know enough to really take one side or the other. What I can’t deny, though, is that it’s a distinct and unique region with a totally different culture than what I’ve gotten used to in Spain. Almost everyone living in this country has heard the joke that “Spain is different,” but in this case, it’s Catalonia that’s different. Spain or not, I can’t wait to keep exploring this little corner of Europe over the next few weeks.

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Author: lindseyzimmerman

I'm a marketing pro, writer and cat person from Columbus, Ohio living in southern Spain since 2015. Usually drinking manzanilla, reading Lorca, or attempting to dance flamenco (not all at once).

12 thoughts

  1. I found Catalan to seem like a mix of Spanish, French with random English thrown in as well but I was in Barcelona where I assume they are both more widely acceptable than in that pueblo. So I mostly spoke Spanish. Good Luck!

    1. I need to get to BCN at some point! The locals I’ve interacted with here seem very nice, but super obviously proud of being Catalan so speaking Spanish almost feels weird.

  2. Hi. Thanks for this great post. I’m sorry you had a distorted view of Spain. We are leaving the peak of a extremely boring political movement from the strong separatist elites. However most of Catalonian feel happy to be Spanish. The fact is that the extremist sects have high mobilization willingness. I don’t know if you know but in Spain the voting law gives 8 times more representation to the villages over the cities. Separatists are stronger in villages and take advantage of any place to put their flags. But the big peaceful majority of people does not want to be involved in political confronts. Actually most Catalans are bothered with their local government (remember that a village vote values 8 times a citizens one). I hope it will be solved in the middle term in the next voting. Meanwhile we have to explain people that the separatist sects are specialists in making noise. Thanks for your post.

    1. That’s very interesting! Having only visited small villages in Catalonia, I was unaware of the differences between the value of a vote. The independence movement definitely felt very strong where I was, but that explains a lot. I would love to spend some time in Catalonia’s cities (I’ve still never been to Barcelona! I’d love to visit Girona, Lleida, etc as well) to see a different side of things. It’s very different from Andalucía where I live but I fell in love with the beautiful landscape and quaint villages where I spent time over the summer. Overall I think it’s an absolutely beautiful region and the people I encountered, Catalan nationalism aside, couldn’t have been friendlier. Thanks for your comment 🙂

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