Look at any list of The Best Books Ever Written (subjective I know, but still), and you’ll see that a large number of them were written by foreign authors in foreign languages. English may be the most widely spoken language in the world, but I find it sad that according to some statistics, only 3 percent of all books published in English are translations. Foreign literature gives us an insight into the national psyche of other countries, allows us to better understand the history and gives us a first-hand account of life from a foreigner’s perspective.
Sure, we can read newspaper articles and blogs to find out how other people in other countries live, but there’s nothing quite like reading a French, or Dutch or Japanese novel in translation to get a sense of what it’s like coming from and living there. Reading Murakami’s massively successful Norwegian Wood gave me a much deeper insight into Japanese life than anything else could — and similarly, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling offers a view into Japanese office hierarchy from a Belgian’s perspective, obviously not something you’d easily come across otherwise. People tend not to go for novels in translation when choosing something to read in a bookshop or library because of the misconception that it will be “more difficult” to read, or more “challenging” than an ordinary English novel, but this just isn’t true (unless you pick War and Peace). The main benefit of reading foreign literature is, of course, that you look really smart reading on public transport…
Foreign books and movies can be a great way of encouraging young people — especially teenagers — to take up a foreign language. In England, where I live, we are currently experiencing a language crisis: the number of people choosing to study them at university is decreasing every year. This is rather sad — having graduates who can speak one or more languages is an asset to any company, and there are several reasons for the lack of interest. Firstly, the standard of teaching in secondary schools is often not that great. Secondly, and more importantly, the syllabus for 14 to 18 year-olds is honestly rather boring. Each examination board is different, but with some, the topics studied rarely stray from the environment, family and the world of work. This is especially true at GCSE level — the public exams we take at the age of 16. If the course were more interesting — incorporating popular culture, music, film and books — way more students would choose to study languages. Spending time with other European teenagers from Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, it’s actually embarrassing that on the whole, most of them can speak three or four languages. To solve this crisis in England at least, one thing is clear: we should draw more attention to foreign language film and literature, as there is so much for us to learn from them.
Catalonia, a region in the north of Spain most famous for containing Barcelona, is in the process of trying to become an independent state. There are divided opinions on the subject, so we interviewed Max, an 18 year old proud Catalan who lives just north of Barcelona, to tell us a little bit more.
1. Hola Max! What’s the current situation in Catalonia?
Hi! Well, currently Catalonia is in a sovereignist process in which we are trying to separate from Spain, to become an independent state. This process started after the massive demonstration (more than 2 million people on the streets) that was held in Barcelona the 11th of September of 2012 and the situation is now in a crucial state. The Catalan people are asking the Spanish government to let them vote in a referendum, but the answer is always no. Nevertheless, a date for the referendum has already been fixed by the Catalan government for later this year: 9/11/14.
2. Why do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?
I want Catalonia to become an independent state for many reasons. First of all, because I do not feel Spanish at all. We have our own language, flag, institutions and traditions which are almost 1000 years old. Catalonia has only been part of Spain for the last 300 years. Before being defeated by Felipe V, Catalonia was, along with Aragón and País Valencià, a sovereign country (Corona catalanoaragonesa). Through these 300 years of Spanish occupation of Catalonia, we have been abused day after day and year after year. The Catalan language and the Catalan institutions have been banned several times through these 300 years in an attack on the Catalan nation. Therefore, I don’t want to be part of a state which hates me and which has been unfair to mine.
Secondly, I want Catalonia to be an independent state also for economical reasons. Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions of Spain, and as an Autonomous Community (AC), each year it gives a large amount of money to the Spanish government. The thing is that, although being one of the AC that gives the most money to the Spanish state, it is the one which receives the least money back. Every year Catalonia loses 16 thousand million euros to Spain. This is a very important amount of money that would prevent the Catalan government to use restrictive policies and to cut the budget if we were independent. We are also abused in many other ways. Catalan students are the ones who are given less scholarships, Catalonia is one of the the few AC with tolls, and the investments in the improvement of the railway system are ridiculous compared to those made in AC like Madrid, Andalucia or Castilla La Mancha, which are AC that give much less money to Spain than Catalonia. The centralism of Spain harms the catalan economy so much, and the situation in unsustainable.
3. Do you think it would be a problem to come from a country with such an unusual language spoken by only 11 million people? Would schools only teach in Catalan or would students learn Castilian too?
Not at all. I’m very proud of being a Catalan speaker. Catalan is such a cultivated and historical language and the fact of being bilingual is so useful. Catalan dates back to the XI century and played a great role in the Middle Ages. Great and famous novels have also been written in the region, like Tirant Lo Blanch, the first chivalry novel ever. Plus the language is spoken in four countries ( Spain, Andorra, France and Italy) which gives the language more repercussion. If Catalonia became independent, Castilian wouldn’t stop being taught in school since bilingualism is one of the things that defines Catalonia. And as former members of Spain, it would be nonsense to stop teaching Castilian.
4. When is the soonest that Catalonia could become an independent state?
I think the soonest Catalonia could be independent is 2015. Providing, of course, that the answer to the referendum were yes. If the referendum eventually couldn’t be celebrated, there’d be plebiscitary elections and 2015 would also be the soonest Catalonia could be independent.
5. Do all your Catalan friends agree with you? Do most people have strong opinions, or do some not care whether it becomes independent?
Yes, the vast majority of my friends are in favour of independence – up to 90% of them. Although there are people who don’t care very much, almost everybody has his respective opinion about the subject. And there are also some people in the region who don’t want Catalonia to become an independent state but want it to become a federal state of Spain, like the Socialist Party of Catalonia, PSC.
Read about a famous Catalan tradition here
Read about Barcelona here
Read about Catalonia’s national day here
Read about another Catalan city, Girona, here
Read about a novel set in Catalonia here
So, what can be done about the problem of youth unemployment? It’s a massive problem with no clear solutions, and this is party the reason why it has already escalated to such worrying heights. Understandably, individual European governments have not got money to throw at the problem. It is therefore necessary to think outside the box, and suggest alternatives like becoming freelancer writers or journalists. Clearly, there are downsides to this too – job instability and lack of previous work to name a couple – and certain governments don’t make this a particularly easy path for young people to take. In Spain, amongst other countries, freelance workers are required to pay a certain amount of money to the government per month for the privilege of not working for a company. This means that for many, especially those just starting to work, freelancing is not a viable option as they do not make enough profit once they have paid their fee to the government. Another option for young people looking to go down a less conventional route is in start-up companies – either working for one, or creating their own. This too can have its disadvantages, but no job is completely perfect. Start-ups can become very successful with some hard work and an innovative idea, and investment can come from private companies both in their home country and abroad. The added benefit is of course that start-ups can employ more people once they start to grow. In the mean time, however, governments should focus on keeping young people in school for as long as possible, so that they leave with decent qualifications and have various options open when deciding what to do with their future.
(PS – sorry for the cheesy photo (which is from http://www.transmitpromo.com))
Although the statistics vary in every European country, one thing is undeniable: something needs to be done about youth unemployment as soon as possible. Spain is one of the worst affected countries, with over 50% of 15-24 year olds currently out of work. This is a completely surreal statistic when you really think about it, and with many friends in Barcelona and Madrid, it’s a very real problem for a lot of people I know. It’s unrealistic to blame governments for every problem a country faces, but in Europe as a whole, the issue of youth unemployment does not seem to be at the forefront of politicians’ minds.
Youth unemployment can have massive consequences for a country – in both long- and short-term ways. In Spain at the moment, there is concern that the current generation of young people aged 15-24 will become known as the ‘generación perdida’, or the ‘lost generation’. Many of those who fall into this age category will never have a real ‘career’ in one field, as companies are reluctant to offer anything more than short-term contracts, and the proportion of young people who work over-qualified is worrying. Recently, a particularly worrying trend has come to light: young people leaving Bachelor’s degrees off their CVs when applying for jobs such as bartending, so that their future employer does not think it is just a holding job until something better comes along. Something is seriously wrong when people are actually downplaying their achievements just to earn some money. This age group is also now living at home for much longer, often until the age of 30, and they are therefore less independent. There rates of school dropout have also increased due to the economic crisis – when young people see that working hard and getting good grades just leads to unemployment, many think it’s not worth continuing with their education until the age of 18. This is something governments really need to address, as this is clearly one of the roots of the problem. There is also a certain amount of disillusionment with the education system – government cuts mean that teachers have bigger classes and are therefore able to devote less attention to each pupil.
It’s also not just us who are affected by youth unemployment – it is unlikely that the current youth of Europe will be able to support their parents financially in their retirement, as they will not have had stable savings throughout their adult lives.
The ‘brain drain’ is also a phenomenon that has seen in an unsurprising increase in the past few years, in Spain in particular, as the country has been hit especially hard in the area of scientific research. Due to a lack of funding, Spanish research centres have stopped employing so many scientists and engineers, and these young people choose to go to countries like Germany, where work is more readily available. However, this can have serious consequences for the countries from which the young professionals flee – in the future, when the crisis is over, there will be a large sector of top scientists missing, and those who leave are unlikely to return to Spain. It’s not just scientific research which is affected – the majority of my Spanish friends who are planning on becoming bankers, doctors and journalists want to study and then work in the UK or in America.
Have you ever heard of Girona? Probably not, it is a small city located in the north east of Spain, it is known by history lovers and passionate artists, but what about other people? Well, there is a lot you can do in Girona, get lost in the old part of town and discover the mysterious legends it hides.
The old part of town is the most beautiful thing in Girona. You can start your walk in the Rambla and then start wandering in the dark labyrinthine streets around it. Once there you can make your way to the old cathedral, in which you can find different architectural styles from different periods of time. The cathedral is well known for having the widest gothic nave in the world. If you are an art lover I strongly recommend you the cathedral’s museum in which you can find beautiful and unique pieces.
I’d then continue going down the small alleys in the so-called Jewish quarter, because there used to be one of the biggest Jewish communities until 1492. There are a lot of legends surrounding this quartier (there are some books explaining almost all of them that can be found in shops in the old part) and I definitely recommend the visit to the Jewish museum in Girona.
Continuing in the old part, you will be able to find the smallest square in Europe, la plaça del Raïm and the curious thing about it is that hardly anybody knows about it, not even the locals.
I haven’t talked about it much but it is definitely worth seeing is the wall of Girona, it was firstly built by the Romans then rebuilt by Charlemagne. The sight from there is beautiful as you can see the mountains from the Catalan Pyrenees.
Finally, the famous orange and red houses next to the river (in Catalan they are called “les cases de l’Onyar”) are really something one must see before leaving Girona and take some good pictures, as well as the kissing the lion’s bottom. Let me explain that before you think about how crazy Spanish people are, there is a statue of a lion and if you kiss its butt that means you will definitely come back to Girona.
Whilst this was written by a British author, it’s about the Spanish Civil War and therefore totally counts as Spanish. Whilst many are familiar with George Orwell‘s Down and Out in Paris and London/ Animal Farm/ 1984, far fewer know about Homage to Catalonia. While this may seem very superficial of me, I was in two minds about starting this novel as the cover seemed rather dull (I know, I know, so stupid of me). However, it’s surprisingly readable! Orwell describes the Civil War in a way which really makes it come alive, something I haven’t really come across before, and it opened my eyes to the harsh realities soldiers faced, much like those in WW1. I’d recommend Homage to Catalonia to people with zero knowledge of the Spanish Civil War – it really does teach you about it in an accessible manner, and for anyone studying Spanish or Spanish culture, the civil war is something we need to know about. It doesn’t even take that long to read!
La Boqueria Market, as well as being somewhere you can buy amazing Spanish food, is one of Barcelona‘s most popular tourist attractions.
According to the market’s website (yeah, that’s how famous it is)….
At the Boqueria people eat, shop and gossip together doing what the Spanish excel at, living life well and enjoying a sense of community.
The fruit is so fresh and good value – especially compared to the outrageous London prices. A whole punnet of organic strawberries costs around 1 euro, and the best thing of all is the fresh juice. You can find almost any flavour under the sun – my favourite being coconut and banana. They mix exotic fruits like papaya and mango, and the juices only cost 1 euro 50 for a big serving. It’s possible to spend all day at the market sampling the local food and gawping at the watermelons the size of two basketballs – but it’s best to get there as early as possible before the tourists arrive en masse.