At 7.50am on 1 October, a car tore down a narrow street in Barcelona’s gothic quarter, scattering the crowd that had been waiting in the dark and drizzle outside the Cervantes primary school for almost three hours.
The panic – this was only six weeks after August’s atrocities – soon gave way to elation, and the screams to cheers. The car, it transpired, was delivering ballot boxes, their arrival greeted with rapture and perhaps even a touch of disbelief.
Here at last was the moment that half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants had dreamed of, and half had dreaded: their chance to vote on becoming an independent state and witness the response of the Spanish authorities.
I’ve been the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent since June 2016, after two years travelling the world as the Guardian’s global development correspondent, reporting on humanitarian emergencies, natural disasters and the politics of international aid.
I was looking forward to a proper stint of reporting from a single country, which you might assume would be somewhat calmer and less pressured. Instead, I arrived in Spain to cover the fallout from Brexit, followed, three days later, by what turned out to be the country’s second inconclusive general election in six months.
I have since written about everything from the Barcelona terror attack to Spanish gastronomy and the country’s shifting political landscape. But no single story in my 16 months here has occupied as much of my time and energies as the saga of Catalan independence, which built slowly over the summer before exploding this autumn and winter.
“The experience of being able to vote has given me a satisfaction I could never have dreamed of,” one 77-year-old man told me that October morning as he emerged from a polling station with tears in his eyes and a textbook list of nationalist grievances on his lips.
It would have been impossible under Franco – although his heirs are still in power. Catalan independence is important so that we can live in a democracy, which Spain isn’t. We send all our money to the government and get crumbs in return.”
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, begged to differ. Later that evening he declared that there had not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia. “The rule of law remains in force with all its strength,” he said.
No one who took part in the vote, tried to stop it, or, like me, watched events unfolding, could have foreseen how thoroughly those innocuous plastic ballot boxes would detonate Spain’s worst political crisis in 40 years; a crisis in which Rajoy sacked Catalonia’s government, its former president, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Brussels, and eight of his deposed ministers were jailed.
Like the referendum day itself, the events of the past six weeks have been sad, brutal, farcical, bizarre, relentless and exhausting but, above all, they have been utterly unpredictable and deeply and painfully divisive.
When you lift your eyes to balconies in Barcelona and Madrid, you will see row upon row of flags. The pro-independence esteladas are nothing new in the Catalan capital; some have hung there so long their red and yellow stripes have been bleached almost pink and white. Madrid, however, where I am based, is not used to so many Spanish flags. Look closely and you see that many are such recent purchases they still bear the creases of their packaging.
The proliferation of flags is the most visible sign of the tensions in Spain, but there are others, some obvious, some more hidden. Take, for example, the recent decision by Spain’s state-run broadcaster, RTVE, to use the Exorcist theme tune to accompany a clip of Puigdemont.
If the crisis has an emblem though, it is probably the so-called “Tweetie Pie” ferry. Painted with huge Looney Tunes cartoon characters, this temporary floating home to some of the Spanish police officers deployed to prevent Catalan independence was one of the first things you saw as the plane swung around to land at Barcelona airport. It finally pulled out of port last week.
It is the focus of many cheap gags – a recent tongue-in-cheek article from the satirical magazine El Jueves reported that riot police had consumed Catalonia’s entire supply of cocaine. Five Spanish police unions argued the story was disrespectful, possibly defamatory, and was published far too soon after officers were confronted by angry crowds in Catalonia. Legal proceedings are under way.
Humour, like truth, can be counted among the earliest casualties of a conflict where the most ugly and blinkered skirmishes are being fought on virtual battlefields. To report on the Catalan crisis is to suffer interminable onslaughts on social media: one day I am described as a solipsistic tool of the Madrid establishment; the next a stooge of the Catalan independence movement. On the inbetween days I’m just a clueless guiri; another foreigner incubating ancient prejudices and peddling patronising stereotypes.
“Are you going back to the war in Barcelona again, dad?” my five-year-old asked the other day. He is not alone in trying to make sense of it all.
But if you can set aside the scenes of riot police dragging voters from polling stations, three trashed Guardia Civil cars, the mephitic online abuse, and the images of fascist flags and hateful salutes, one of the remarkable features of the past few weeks has been the lack of violence. For all the sound and the fury since the vote, including reductive references to Franco and the worst days of his dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of people on opposite sides of the independence debate have regularly taken to the streets of Barcelona to protest without total disorder breaking out.
Even so, the demonstrations show that what is routinely billed as a straightforward showdown between the powers-that-be in Madrid and the powers-that-were in Barcelona is something far more complicated and far more insidious. The question of independence has split the region, fracturing families and friendships and, in doing so, thrown up plentiful parallels with Brexit.
In the rush for independence – and the rush to prevent it – there has been seemingly little willingness to listen rather than to shout. As a Catalan might say, seny (good sense) has lost out to rauxa (rashness).
“We’re going to need to stitch up the wounds and build bridges and start talking more and talking better,” one pro-unity activist told me in early September. “We need to find a solution.”
But if recent events are anything to go by, a solution looks more elusive than ever. Old wounds have been reopened and new ones, many self-inflicted, are still weeping.