Arrival

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When I first arrived in a certain Catalan village some sixty kilometres from Barcelona, like most English people all I knew about Catalonia was that the word formed part of the title of a book by George Orwell. Again like most English people, when Catalans started to tell me about their history and language, I jumped to the conclusion that I was being fed so much nationalist flim-flam. What changed my mind - to the extent that I not only learnt Catalan but eventually came to write and publish in this language - was gradual exposure to the reality on the ground. Catalan, I found, was a widely spoken language; and the well-camouflaged history of Catalonia, an unsettling tale of alternating phases of independence or autonomy interrupted by long periods of violent repression, on the part of both France and Spain.

I soon made the then unusual decision to learn Catalan (I didn't know any Spanish), but as there were still no Catalan classes for adults then – this was in the late 1970s, when many of the dictatorship's anti-Catalan measures were still in place – I acquired a copy of Alan Yates's 'Teach Yourself Catalan' and combined chapters of that with halting practice of the language in the village and nearby Barcelona. Within six months, I had immersed myself enough in Catalan to find myself thinking in it when I spoke it. Back in London, for four years I expanded my vocabulary by dipping into what turned out to be an unexpectedly large (and cosmopolitan) literature in Catalan. In 1984, I moved to Barcelona, for good. In these last 26 years, I have watched the Catalan cultural universe expand exponentially in all those spheres in which language plays a part, from TV and radio stations and music to books and newspapers - and the person on the street. Also, I have long lost the feeling of being the only non-native speaker on the block to learn Catalan: tens of thousands of the 1.200.000 ex-foreigners now resident in Catalonia have done or are doing the same. Neither am I the only Catalan language writer born abroad, being in the comfortable company of the Argentinian essayist Patrícia Gabancho, the Moroccan-born novelist Najat El Hachmi, and the Czech writer Monika Zgustova, among others. (By the by: a perception of mine which I do not consider political – that I am most definitely not living in Spain, at least as most people understand that word - has been with me from day one).

Sometimes people ask if I've ever thought about going back to live in the country I was born in; to which the only possible answer is: well, no.      

 

Matthew Tree

Writer

 

(Matthew Tree caption by Alba Danés)

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