I’m no stranger to Catalonia. I’ve been here many times: in Barcelona, in Costa Brava and elsewhere. This time, however, something is different. I can’t help but notice a proliferation of Catalan flags – and freedom flags. Both the red-and-yellow striped national flag and l’estelada blava (the blue-starred flag of the independence movement), wave from windows and balconies across the region.

September 11 – in Catalonia

Turns out, the flags are up for 11 September. Isabel, a Girona native, explains.

Just like Chile and the USA have their horror stories of this date, so does Catalonia. On 11 September 1714, Catalan troops were defeated by the Spaniards after the 14-month-long Siege of Barcelona. Many of those who defended the city on that fateful day died and are buried at Barcelona’s Fossar de les Moreres, now a memorial plaza.

Nowadays 11 September is Catalonia’s national day, celebrated with flower offerings at Fossa de les Morenes and at other important monuments throughout the region, and with demonstrations and waving of the red-and-yellow striped flag.

This year is special

As I wander past one flag-draped balcony after another, we’re 11 days past the national day. One would expect the flags to have been taken down by now. Not so.

“This year is special,” I hear again and again. The sentiments seem to run especially deep this year. An age-old dream of Catalan independence seems within reach.

I chat with Antón from Vigo in northwest Spain. “I’m from the other side,” he laughs. Then, somberly: “If Catalonia wants independence, of course they should have it. This is something they have a right to choose for themselves.”

There was a time when it was not as straight-forward. Catalonia have had a strong independence campaign for centuries, but couldn’t always wave the flag. Some still found ways to express their political opinions, however. Josep Puig i Cadafalch, one of the major architects of the Modernisme movement built cleverly hidden messages in some of his buildings.

The picture on top of the building above survived the Franco regime by being covered up. Under Franco, everything Catalan was banned.

Not just politics

So what will Spain do? Losing 7.5 million inhabitants will be noticeable, but even with ‘just’ 40 million, Spain will remain one of the major players in Europe.

“It’s not just a question of politics,” continues Antón, “but also of economics.”

With more than 25% unemployment (and an extremely worrying 52% among young people under 25), Spain has been hit hard by the current financial crisis. Catalonia is the wealthiest region in Spain, and many feel they will do better on their own. Everyone I spoke with complained about taxes, feeling that the region payed more than they got in return.

(All said ‘feel’, not ‘think’. I don’t know if that’s significant – I’m not familiar enough with the language to know whether ‘feel’ is more commonly used in Spanish than it is in the northern European languages. Interesting, all the same.)

Catalonia – a new state in the European Union?

I’m Norwegian, and my country has firmly (but, one hopes, politely) declined more than one invitation to join the European Union. I’m therefore interested to hear how the Catalans feel about the EU. Seems Catalonia wants to remain within the union. At least, none of the locals I spoke with voiced a different opinion. It’s just that they’d rather deal directly with the EU, as an independent member state. And with 7,5 million inhabitants, while it won’t be a huge member state, it won’t be insignificant. (More than half of EU’s member states have less than 10 million inhabitants).

Peaceful separatism

When I was in school, a girl in my year had a Spanish mother. At least, that’s what we called her. She, on the other hand, insisted she was Catalan. As kids, we didn’t really know the difference. And unlike Basque separatism, we simply didn’t hear much about the Catalan counterpart. But then, they never blew up cars or supermarkets. For most of my childhood, a trip to Spain meant a slight risk of becoming a victim of ETA terrorism. Not a great risk. But it was there. Somewhat ironically, ETA’s bloodiest attack took place in Barcelona.

I ask Gabriel, a student from Barcelona. “Catalans have never killed people,” he says. “That’s why I think we will win our freedom.” Then he adds, “maybe this year. This year is special.”

Disclosure: I was in Catalonia as a guest of Pirineu Girona Costa Brava Tourist Board. All opinions are, as ever, my own.