Wednesday, 07 September 2011 16:01

Matthew Tree - Deeply rooted in Catalonia

Matthew Tree  laughs at the tag of 'Catalonia's Best-Integrated Englishman' but it's one that he can't quite shake off. Resident here since 1984 but a regular visitor since the late 1970s, the author is certainly the most famous Catalan-speaking Brit. He hosted the popular TV3 show Passatgers, can be heard regularly on local radio and writes for a number of newspapers including AVUI, the Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian.

He also, of course, writes books; he has famously authored novels directly in Catalan for many years, winning the Andromina Award in 1999 for Ella va quan vol. As well as his fiction in Catalan, he has also recently published an English-language collection of his views and experiences in the book 'Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside'.

As someone who has made his life in Barcelona and successfully overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers which sometimes appear, Matthew's insights into successful integration are always worth considering. With BcnIn playing devil's advocate, he kindly agreed to address some of these integration themes for our readers.

Matthew, a common theme expressed by foreigners is that Catalan society is more closed off to newcomers than that of other countries: that is to say that Catalans make few acquaintances but not new friends beyond a certain stage of their life, preferring to socialise with family and established social circles. Is that fair comment?

I've no idea where that way of looking at Catalans comes from. It doesn't correspond to any reality that I've come across in the last twenty six years of living here and the last thirty two years of contact with Catalonia. When you move into any area that's not your own, you're going to find that people already have their own social lives. I find that even when I go back to London, if I want to move into social circles which are not my own it's extremely difficult because everyone has their friends, their families, their acquaintances so in that sense Catalonia's no different from absolutely any other place.

Do you think that there is a sense of entitlement with some arrivals?

I've known quite a few people who stay for five or even ten years and when they're not making it, the way they think they should be making it -- because they're the great white promise -- they blame the Catalans, who haven't 'let them' succeed.

You talk in your books and lectures about experiencing anti-Catalanism when speaking Catalan outside Catalonia. Some people, however, complain of experiencing the same thing but in reverse when they speak Spanish here. Is the intolerance a two-way street and is the situation getting better or worse?

I don't see the two-way street. The experience I've had here with foreign people who habitually use [Castilian] Spanish is that Catalan people do one of two things: they either just switch and speak to them in Spanish (which is what I've seen in ninety five per cent of cases so I don't know what people are really complaining about -- Catalans switch languages very quickly if they see that the other person doesn't understand Catalan) or the other thing they do is that -- jokingly but seriously -- if they're talking to someone who's lived here or intends to live here for a long time, say longer than a year, is say, "Why don't you learn a little Catalan?" by which they mean "why don't you at least learn to understand it so that when we are six Catalan-speakers and one foreigner who only speaks Spanish, we don't then all have to speak in Spanish so that you understand everything" which seems to me a very reasonable request to make given that they are in their own country.

Sometimes when foreign people come here they 'learn the language' -- Spanish -- so that they can communicate with everyone, they set up businesses, they contribute to society, they often employ local people yet they feel rejected, and consequently resentful, because it seems to them that none of this matters: the only thing that matters is learning Catalan. Can you help them to understand why this impression --- true or false -- is sometimes given?

I'm self employed but my friends would laugh out loud if I described myself as a businessman! But it seems to me that what's going on is a basic misunderstanding of what languages in general are about. Why don't they imagine it the other way around? Imagine, for example, Chinese people setting up businesses in London, giving work to people and yet refusing to learn a single word of English? Perhaps, for example, because they prefer to speak Chinese which to them is a larger and more important language. I know it's not an exact equivalent but just imagine how the English people around them would feel if that was what their bosses were doing.

There's this idea that language is only for communication so that, as Spanish can be useful for communication everywhere in Catalonia, then all you have to do is learn Spanish. But language can also be a means of expression, a means of cultural expression in the wider sense of the word and they should perhaps remember that Spanish was not widely spoken here until about sixty or seventy years ago. Catalan was the language that was almost monolingually spoken here for about nine hundred and fifty years before they turned up on the scene and decided which language they were going to learn. So there are all those aspects, the historical, the linguistic expression and basically there's the aspect of simply speaking the language of a lot of the people around you. All human beings have the same thing: if you speak their language they're going to find it much easier to get on with you. You only have to go to Africa to see an equivalent where many businessmen speak the ex-colonial language, thinking that that's good enough, not understanding that if they were to learn Kiswahili or any other of even the big African languages like Yoruba or whatever it is where they're working, they would in fact -- and all Africans say this -- get on much better and feel less foreign. This is in Africa but we're all human beings so the reaction everywhere is similar.

When people first move here they almost inevitably learn Castilian Spanish first. Catalan seems to be an afterthought or a lesser priority for the majority. It seems obvious that learning it would increase one's ability to integrate but there often seems to be a Catch-22 situation in that if they start to feel unwelcome or resentful for not speaking it then their reluctance to learn it often grows. How do we break this cycle?

I'd start at the beginning. My advice -- for what it's worth -- to people who come here not to visit but to live, is first to ask "Are you going to stay for longer than six months or a year?" and if the answer is yes then I say, "Learn Catalan first. Look, it's just a language like any other. If you learn it first then without any doubt you will pick up Spanish very quickly because of the linguistic unevenness that there is here. If you start with Spanish then you will come to think of Catalan as a kind of complementary language that isn't really worth taking the trouble to learn properly. It *is* more difficult to learn Catalan by a kind of osmosis because it is still, even after thirty years of democracy, less present in 'atmospheric terms' -- at least in Barcelona -- than Spanish is because of language habits and so forth. So you're always going to get your Spanish, you're not going to miss out. But I'd recommend that you learn Catalan first and start off by using Catalan with people."

As an afterthought, I really don't get this feeling of rejection for not speaking Catalan. I've known Spanish-speaking people here from other parts of Spain who've lived here for years and years and years and they've never had any problems with speaking only Spanish. The only problems they've had, occasionally, is when they're in a Catalan-speaking milieu and they're the only person who doesn't understand Catalan. Then they very quickly learn to understand it. I just don't get it.

It's not to do with rejection of a person but rather how they view you. I've heard Catalan people congratulating foreigners on their Spanish but, because they speak only Spanish, they're still viewed as foreigners. As soon as you start speaking Catalan, then for them you become less foreign -- or even not foreign at all. Something that recent immigrants here -- by that I mean the last fifteen years -- have talked about to me on the radio and in writing and personally, is that for them you learn Catalan and suddenly the colour of your skin doesn't matter anymore, the surnames of your grandparents don't matter anymore, your Latin American features don't matter anymore because you've learned the language and... you're in, basically.

You've covered some of these themes in your new book?

That's right. It's called 'Barcelona, Catalonia: A view from the inside' and there's also a version in Catalan. It's about ten years' worth of selected articles and talks that I've given in English, all of it previously published in one place or another, and the idea is just to give as personal a view as possible of what it's been like for me -- not for anybody else -- to have lived here and to have had all the experiences I've had here. Whether it's about language or whether it's about dropping off stool samples at the local first-aid centre -- there's an article about that! The idea is always to avoid preaching or any kind of political propaganda and just to keep it personal and straight and simple in that sense. In the end, that's all I'm interested in anyway. When you write, that's what you do. You don't preach otherwise you make yourself like politicians where everything's automatically black or white. This is just one person's view. In the beginning there's a clear statement on where I stand because people always want to know that, and I don't consider myself a nationalist under any meaning of that word but in the last twenty six years of living in Barcelona I've never once had the sensation that I've been living in Spain, at least as most people understand the word.

Matthew's book's out now as electronic book for Kindle, Apple iPads and iPhones and other devices as well as in print through AmazonBarnes & Noble and Matthew's own website.

Published in Interviews
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