"The linguistic and political situation in Catalonia is so complicated that it's difficult for anyone, even a native, to completely understand it"
What do you get when you take an American, marry him to a Catalan girl, and put them both in the bilingual city of Barcelona? A linguistic mess, that's what. We speak some combination of English, Spanish, and Catalan to one another. I've noticed that one factor is who we're with; with my mother-in-law, who barely knows Spanish, we speak Catalan, but when with a friend from England we go into English. At home alone I'm not even sure which language we speak most or why, but I've noticed that whenever I'm in the doghouse I get chewed out in Spanish. I've also noticed that when my demure little wife curses, which she does quite fluently, she is most expressive in her native Catalan.
See, my wife is a Catalan girl from the country. She laughs at the idea of anyone handing out certificates of "who's a real Catalan" because no one could possibly deny her one. She doesn't think Barcelona is a really Catalan city; Catalan people, to her, are from the country and the small towns. She is always polite, but she snickers behind their backs at people who always go around trying to prove they're more Catalan than you. Those people, you see, all have a Castilian surname sometime in their recent genealogy. She doesn't. She's got nothing to prove to anybody. Also, here in Barcelona, a lot of people don't understand country Catalan. What they speak here is either an educated, artificial "RP Catalan" dialect, like the one they use on TV Catalunya--one of our friends with a degree in Catalan philology, for example, uses that dialect--or a popular dialect heavily influenced in vocabulary and pronunciation by Spanish.
Watching my wife interact with other people in Barcelona is interesting. (In the country, she just uses Catalan.) When we go into a shop, there's always a little bit of feeling the other person out. If the other person seems to be a natural Catalan speaker, Wifey instantly goes into country Catalan and you can see the other person's eyes light up a little--"One of us!" If the other person uses Spanish or not-very-good Catalan, she seamlessly flows into Spanish. I am convinced she doesn't do this consciously. I know she doesn't discriminate either, but I note we return to places where they speak Catalan--the basket shop down by the market, the bathroom fittings shop on Providencia, the lighting shop up on the Travessera de Dalt.
One important thing is that country people in Catalonia are pretty much the same as country people anywhere else in northeastern and north central Spain, as in Aragon or Old Castile or Navarra. They just speak a different language, but they think in similar ways--except nationalistically--and they do similar things and live in a similar way. The food is a little different, OK, but that's about it. They're more like one another than either is like the country people of Andalusia to the south or the country people of France to the north. It's the city people, the "we've gotta-prove-we're more-Catalan-than-you" folks, who seize on minor or even invented regional customs (dancing sardanas, building human towers, holding correfocs) and regional foods (escudella i carn d'olla, tomato bread, all i oli, calçots) and declare them the heart and soul of Catalanity. Country people blow all that stuff off (except for the food) and watch the Barça and Spanish TV variety shows while listening to Spanish and international pop music.
Country people even have insulting names for Barcelona people; they are "quemacus", because they always say "Que maco!" ("Wow, that's beautiful!") when shown something countryish like, say, a field, or they are "pixapins" (pine-pissers), because they stop their cars by the side of the road to take a leak. Barcelona is "Can Fanga", "Mudville", which in itself should give you an adequate idea of what country folk think of the place.
The linguistic and political situation in Catalonia is so complicated that it's difficult for anyone, even a native, to completely understand it. I certainly don't. I do enjoy, though, talking away in three different languages every day, and I can do so without even leaving the house.
John Chappel is a writer who lives in Barcelona