Short history of la Rambla (Experiment)

When my great grandfather from Maçanet de Cabrenys, living in Barcelona since his childhood, had to undergo a stomach operation, he asked the ambulance driver if he would be so kind as to go down La Rambla before taking him to the hospital. In January of 1939, with Franco at the doors of the city, the Catalan president Lluís Companys also wished to say goodbye to La Rambla at the time of heading to exile, and with tears in his eyes he ordered the chofer to make a last trip along the famous thoroughfare before taking the road to cross the border.

Since the middle of the eighteen century until the Spanish Civil War, la Rambla was the symbol of Barcelona and the street most loved by the catalans. To understand this devotion, it should be explained that when the first Borbonic king of Spain defeated the city in 1714 he ordered, in the name of holy providence, an enormous fortress to be built in the quarter of la Ribera, exactly where the Parliament of Catalonia now stands.

The spanish nobel-prize Camilo José Cela recalls sportingly, in his book about Barcelona:

“With its squares and its more than fifty street, la Ribera was one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of the city, but despite the desperate begging of its inhabitants more than 1.300 buildings were demolished. Amongst them were the Convents of Sant Agustí and Santa Clara, as well as the orphanage of Montserrat, and the church of la Pietat, all of them barnished by the glow of History that shone in the flower of their medieval stones. Viva España!”

Maybe because la Rambla was a peripheric space not very build up, it didn’t suffer the general fate of Barcelona after the occupation of the country. In the Middle Ages the Catalan kings had dreamed of building a great palace facing the sea that would have changed the fisionomy of the city and the lower part of the thoroughfare. With the complicity of the Council, the kings bought the terrain and hired the best gardeners, but along came the extinction of the catalan dynasty and the posterior union with Castille and the project was abandoned. Maybe because of this disapointment La Rambla was relatively forgotten and only from the XVI century very slowly recovered its atmosphere, thanks to the academic and religious institutions that decided to establish themselves there.

When the war between the Catalans and the first Bourbon began, la Rambla wasn't the best place to walk, nor to show off the ladies or the money. The City Council had just made some reforms to the street but the big cakes were still eaten in La Ribera. Interestingly, it was necessary for the Borbons to rule Spain before the Catalans could enjoy la Rambla. Once the city was submitted, the invading army established two headquarters in the thoroughfare: the artillery in the south, at Drassanes, and the infantry in the north, at Canaletes, where the old University building stood. Thus, the students were sent to the small city of Cervera where they found a rector who was proud to say: "Let's maintain the dangerous vice of thought away from us."

The militarization couldn't prevent la Rambla from becoming the most vibrant space of Barcelona and, therefore, the main focus of its rebirth. As if it was immune to the holy power of the Borbons, the thoroughfare took over from the old streets destroyed to make way for the great repressive fortress and, while Catalonia got sunk into provincial boredom, the life of La Rambla began to modernize the city. Little by little, the untidy torrent, barely urbanised, brought back the memory to Barcelona. Thus the old medieval city that had been made with taverns and shops in every street, and a guitar and a gun in every house, was reborn. People are childish and need to recognize themselves in a mirror to be sure of their existence. Well, la Rambla was that mirror. Here you have a way to explain why this thoroughfare was loved with such an intense and unanimous passion.

Until the Spanish Civil War, la Rambla represented the democratic spirit of the Catalans and their attachment to an ideal of Europe and prosperity. Its fame was so noisy that when writers began to talk about her, in all the neighborhoods of Barcelona and in all the provinces of the country, large streets attempted to imitate its cosmopolitan air and its life, graceful and sensual. La Rambla of Guinardó, la Rambla of Catalunya, as la Rambla of Tarragona, of Lleida, and Girona were opened under the inspiration spread by the phenomenon of la Rambla. The obsession even spread abroad and, in Montevideo, la Rambla Wilson and la Rambla Roostvelt were inaugurated according to this enthusiastic state of spirit.

In Barcelona, people used to say: "You are not a good barcelonian if you don't stroll the Rambla every night or every morning". The poet Joan Maragall was so fond of Barcelona that during those bloody strikes that made the city famous at the end of 19th Century wrote to a friend quite desperate: "All week without seeing la Rambla de les flors neither el Pla de la Boqueria!" Josep Pla wasn't exactly a fan of Barcelona, but in his masterpiece -El Quadern Gris-, he writes: "La Rambla is marvellous. Its one of the few streets of Barcelona that makes me feel good."

The praises were coming from so far afield that in 1837 the skeptical Stendhal pointed out, after criticizing the Catalans: “La Rambla is really lovely". In his guide to Barcelona from 1951 (he had written another in the happy twenties), Carles Soldevila says that, before the Civil War, walking along the thoroughfare was like stroking the heart of the city with a hand full of gossip and tenderness. The writer explains (trying not to offend the censor) why, under the rule of Franco’s dictatorship, la Rambla hasn't recovered its magic charm.

Thus he remembers that la Rambla wasn't a street of pedigree, neither monumental nor venerable. He assures that in her golden moment, when he first knew her at the beginning of the 20th Century, the buildings were made of simple materials, the facades looked dirty and the sidewalks were cracked. He says that the kids that sold newspapers wandered along the street raggedly dressed; that the itinerant shops offered stinking and suspicious products; that the wheels of the diligence made an irritating and deafening noise. He recalls that caos, mixed with the squeaking of the trams and the shoutings of the drivers of the horsecars, that used to whip the animals furiously, and concludes that the street, as a whole, was almost a madhouse.

"Watching it detail by detail -Soldevila wrote- la Rambla was shockingly vulgar." An urban planner or an aristocrat of that epoch wouldn't have known how to arrange it. The lines of the street seemed drawn by a genius like Gaudí. The trees grew feral, lacking the minimum care. The branches of the trees were full of birds that, when feeling their stomachs overwhelmed, loosened a thick liquid with the texture and color of condensed milk. Needless to say that when the thick liquid fell upon the hat of any of the passersby a explosion of profanities was heard. Before Franco, the Catalan language was rich and the barcelonian citizens had an special grace for coarse expressions.

The Virreina's palace, walled between two rental houses, looked like an old warty ragged woman. The March Palace, transformed into a police station during the Napoleonic occupation, was used in that moment as the headquarters of the Bank of Spain. The shops on the groundfloor of Moja's Palace weren’t precisely decorative showcases, although the marquis of Comillas hadn't yet sold the garden, from where two palm trees showed their leaves to the walkers, fresh and greens as the ideas of the students that wandered along the thoroughfare and the thinking of the priests, that hadn't permanently been expulsed from the Rambla. And  don’t forget the whores and the drug dealers. Josep Pla explains that the drugs were sold on every corner. In his best book, Private life, written next to la Rambla in two very inspired months, Josep Maria de Sagarra demonstrates that the aristocrats were the main consumers...

Breu història de la Rambla (Galaxia Gutenberg)

The prestige of the soldier

Attacks such as those suffered by the soldiers in Paris and London are placing the Western countries in front of the necessity to both articulate a thinner democratic system and overcome taboos and inferiority complexes born after World War II. During the last thirty years, the military capacity of some autocratic countries such as Iran, China or North Korea has increased significantly in comparison to European countries. In addition, the power of damaging of some regimes and criminal organizations has augmented by means of terrorism. In Europe, the gap between armies and the peoples has done nothing but to increase. European peoples do not feel responsible for the military operations waged by their soldiers overseas.

Even today the United States is also facing the same problem. If the issue of the sexual harassment becomes the main theme in Obama’s speeches at West Point, it is so because he knows that the leadership of the United States will be unsustainable without the moral leadership of the American army. The debate about whether drone operations must be controlled by the CIA or the Pentagon also responds to the same discussion about the meaning and the limits of war. When the European military leaders lost their minds, the continent lost its global hegemony. In Europe we have solved the shame of the 20th century by degrading military values as much as we have been able to do. Democratic values have been moving away from the military ones even in the United States. However, everything suggests that as the external pressure on Western societies increases both politicians and voters will begin making themselves uncomfortable questions regarding war and security.        

Depending on how the debate evolves and which discourse crystallizes Western societies will be able or not to maintain their hegemony. The paradox of Islamists attacks against Western soldiers is that they can help to heal some of the wounds left by Second World and Vietnam Wars. Democracies will have to learn to defend themselves without losing their substance or let themselves to be destroyed. Radical Islamism is giving the military the possibility to recover the social prestige that it seemed they would never recuperate it.  


The age of Eric Hobsbawm

With the recent death of Eric Hobsbawm passed away the last great intellectual marked by the rise of Nazism and the II World War. To be honest his disappearance left me with no feeling of emptiness. I was never too fond of him, as I was of Isaiah Berlin or Ernst Junger. Without understanding exactly why, his two best known works, The Invention of Tradition and the Era of Extremes, didn’t convince me. Despite finding them well written and intelligent, I seemed to detect a very subtle hypocrisy that I couldn’t quite explain then. So, I received his death with a certain relief. Was as if with his disappearance the last phantom of the Cold War had gone and was finally possible to bury the Twentieth Century.

In Reappraisals Tony Judt creates a fair portrait of Hobsbawm. Judt develops an idea that I saw touched upon in a column from The Guardian, after his death, saying that the author of the Era of Extremes was a better historian than thinker. Hobsbawm lacked empathy, says Judt, after praising his memory, erudition and prose. Taking into account that history demands that you put yourself into the skin of other people from other ages, the remark is a slap in the face, even though it is made with delicacy. I think that Judt was right. Despite having specialized in rebels and social revolutionary movements, Hobsbawm consistently avoided asking himself complicated questions. He wrote from the armchair, contradictions of common life didn’t interest him. He had the typical totalitarian tics of the abstemious intellectual that trades sex for books. In the end, as many thinkers of his age, he never understood the relationship between tradition and modernity, nor between localism and cosmopolitism. He defended his subjectivity but he had too many fears and immediate interests to take distance from his own time. Maybe that’s why in my home I have books by Berlin and Junger, but not one by him.

Sometimes it has been remembered that Hobsbawm foresaw the crisis of capitalism after the sinking of the Berlin wall, but no one remarks that he didn’t foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union nor the failure of euro-communism. It’s worth mentioning, that he also never revised his teenage opinions as did other communists who have enriched the European culture. Orphaned, from a Jewish family, he was born in Alexandria, he lived in Vienna and Berlin and he was exiled to Great Britain after Hitler’s rise to power. The portrait that he made of the 20 century was conditioned by his harsh personal biography and has become a standard view of this age. But it’s a shallow portrait that uses the demon of Nazism to romantize the Soviet Union and to avoid autocriticism. Hobsbawm lived like a communist mandarin enjoying all the advantages of belonging to the official establishment in a country as liberal as is Great Britain. Despite having initially hindered his career, in the end his ideology favored him and even folklorized him. It could also be said that his figure represents, to the European intellectual panorama, what the anti-franquist intellectuals meant to Barcelona.

In the Era of Extremes he wrote: “The possibility of dictatorship is implicit in any regime based in a single, irremovable, party.” Judt, in the portrait of Reappraisals, asks, discarding any irony in the sentence: “Possibility?”Hobsbawm’s obituary, in The Times, includes some lines from his memories, published in 2002, where he wrote referring to the Stalin regime: “Those sacrifices were excessive...They shouldn’t have happened. Looking back the project was damned to fail, although some time was still needed in order to see it.” Time? Why didn’t Hobsbawm put distance between himself and communism when the Soviet tanks invaded Hungary in 1956? Or in 1968, when they invaded Prague? When journalists asked him these questions he hid behind generational reasonings and, entered into 21st century, he insisted upon saying that inside he still carried the dreams of the Revolution of October. In the end I think he must have believed that the sacrifices were worth it. Despite sweetening his militancy with sentimentalism, sometimes his writings have these disturbing moments, when he seems to suggest that the suffering of so many people would have been justified if Stalin and his men had obtained better results. Sometimes the Spanish democrats have similar short circuits.

Hollande plays the Grande Armée

On the very same day that the International Commission of European Citizens opened its campaign to collect one million signatures in favor of self-determination, the major newspapers were full of images of the famous French Mirage aircraft flying towards Mali. The war driven by Paris hasn't received harsh criticism, but it hasn't been difficult to detect some suspect enthusiasm and suspicious silence. Last week The Economist published an article titled more or less: Dictionary to understand the new French double speak. The text didn’t mention the war, but it wasn’t necessary. The intervention immediately found an unusual unanimity amongst the members of the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have a strong voice. Thus, it was easy to see that France was again going its own way, now that the democratic countries have more reasons than ever to band together in military matters.

So far, the Tuareg have said they are against the French intervention and that they hope to resolve the conflict through political negotiation with the United States, as Kosovo did.  While France pursues its "grandeur" in Africa, Japan and China threaten to go to war over a couple of tiny islands and Israel is considering a preemptive strike against Iran. The militarization of the international agenda endangers the goals of globalization, even hindering a peaceful solution to the crisis, highly intensified by the entry of former European colonies into the world economy. In Europe the increase of military parades has always ended up stopping the democratizing movements and  the process of political integration, that is so necessary to maintain world peace. The continent will be a reference for democratic values or will not be a reference at all. History, demography and culture don't  allow Europeans to play any other role, but it turns out that Zapatero-Hollande needs to hide his broken promises playing Napoleon.

France pretends to be the queen of the Continent on behalf of an old Europe that doesn't exist and no longer makes sense, as the basis of the social contract that created her has become extinct and the coming world will only be favorable to democracy if it’s based on culture and talent. Military borders have changed. Now, some of the best European countries to live in share defense with the United States and OTAN, and enjoy a modest military budget.  While Ireland collects the fruits of austerity, and Britain is reducing military spending and prepares a referendum to allow the Scottish people to decide their future, Hollande plays the Grande Armée. With his Second Empire shopkeeper’s style, the socialist president reminds us which country introduced the political culture of the Ottomans into Europe while Turks stood at the gates of Vienna. Paris seeks a national solution to the crisis that will not work, not even at the price of breaking political unity. In recent years, some countries have claimed that the boundaries were not important and that nationalism was evil. The crisis is putting them in evidence.

The Last Decolonization

The Economist has released an almost providential study, now that we are so much in crisis and, therefore, so deeply depressed. This study is based on the opportunities that the main countries of the world offer to their citizens in order to enjoy a full and happy life. Twenty years ago the United States and France headed the ranking, and countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and Britain where classified within the first 15 positions. The league of 1988 was dominated by big democratic countries with an epic military curriculum and a powerful mass of population. After a quarter of a century, Europe is still the best continent to be born in. There is no place in the world where governments offers better aces to the people. However, the nine European countries that are currently among the best 15 places to live are demographically small and have modest armies and modest official languages such as Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Dutch, Irish or even Rhaeto-Romance (Switzerland).

Five of the top ten countries in this ranking of wellbeing are European, but only one –Holland- belongs to the euro zone–Austria is in the 12th place, while Belgium and Ireland are, respectively, in the 13th and the 15th position. In respect to Asian representation, Japan and South Korea have lost their positions in favor of two smaller countries also modest in military capabilities: Singapore and Taiwan. It’s interesting to see that all the countries that have the atomic bomb have sunk in ranking this last quarter century: Westerners are now between number 17 (U.S.) and 27 (UK), and Easterners are between number 49 (China) and 70 (Russia). Australia, with its kangaroos and their extreme insularity, is the best country to be born now after Switzerland, according to The Economist, while New Zealand is seventh, ahead of Holland. The classification of 1988 makes clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall has benefited societies not particularly militarized and very attached to their soil.

This study, and the growing contradictions faced by certain nation-state, shows that the happiness of countries will be increasingly less associated with military power and colonialism, and more related with the capacity of each society to take advantage of its own culture and territory. The decision of Gerard Depardieu to become Russian citizen in order to avoid Hollande's taxes shows that the more the decolonization goes forward the more the welfare state becomes unsustainable without a national compromise stronger than universalist clichés. National identities are gaining importance because the military borders are changing. Giants such as the United States or China can not be considered nationals powers, but rather the spine of great civilizations. To maintain their Status Quo, and to be able to pay their armies, those giants will increasingly need to be surrounded by countries smaller and richer that help them to spread their reputations and their model of happiness without questioning their military leadership.

The crisis in Spain and in the European Union has a lot to do with the changes of paradigm that globalization is driving. The ranking proposed by The Economist suggests that it's not true that the future is fleeing towards Asia, and that could rather be fleeing from certain European countries anchored in the old schemes of the past. Today, having a mass language or a big army doesn't assure as many privileges as in the old times, but we have to recognize that the world is going forward, despite the crisis of the euro. Former colonies are competing with the old metropolis and the countries that during centuries had been living as if they where the centre of the universe are noticing. However, life expectancy and civil freedoms are thriving everywhere, and such things have always been good news in the Western countries.

I feel that to compete in the coming world, the EU will have to face the last phase of decolonization, that is, interior decolonization. Spain and France are the European countries that will suffer most because they have an imperial culture designed to succeed in a geopolitical order made of strong borders and heavy burocracies bankrolled by speculative economies, such as that impulsed by Aznar before the financial bubble burst. In France, during 2012, almost 400 people committed suicide due to laboral reasons throwing themselves in front of the underground. I want to know what the newspapers would say if, in Madrid, the underground stations had to be protected from suicidal people by a wall of glass. In Spain, the ghost of Catalan secession has begun to produce more anguish than the crisis itself, after decades of political denial and failed reforms to eliminate it.

Some moderate columnist will say that is more probable that Britain leave the EU than Catalonia attain its independence from Spain. This would be France’s dream scenario: that Paris substitute London as the financial capital of Europe. This would allow her to maintain the Mediterranean territories in the situation of neocolonization of the last centuries and avoid, for few more years, burying the shadow of old grandeur. I don't know if that scenario is favorable to the United States or Germany. The high speed train Barcelona-Perpignan just arrived to Figueres last month and since 1988 has been considered prioritary. Naturally, in the decolonized European countries these delays related to imperialistic manners don't happen. That's why I feel that a possible way to save Spain and even the Europe Union would be, precisely, to give Catalonia its independence.