España. Home of the Spanish people, the conquistadores of Latin America, and the language which requires 330 million people to place an exclamation mark at each end of the sentence when you want to have someone yell something (or a question mark at each end of the sentence when you want to have someone ask something. It's useful when trying to tell where the regular sentence ends and the questions starts, ¿you know what I mean?). Also has Ibiza and more British ex-pats than you can shake a crumpet at.
Spaniards speak slightly differently to the inhabitants of their former colonies. They insist on the use of the form "vosotros" as the second person plural, speak with a huge lisp, and are somewhat more liberal in the use of vulgar words in both television and Real Life. The latter can be seen as the legacy of the phenomenon known as "El Destape", when after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 a wave of Fan Service and crude language spread everywhere in response to almost four decades of wholesome values imposed with an iron fist.
For some reason, the most popular form of Entertainment in both print and audiovisual media includes anything related with gossip on celebrities. The Spain definition of "celebrity" includes not only artists and models, but also include major and minor members of aristocracy, and the kind of people who in America would be the "C-list" (which is also the case in the United Kingdom). How there isn't an equivalent of E! yet is a mystery.
Spain has a monarch, Juan Carlos I, who surprised everybody by not continuing Francisco Franco's Fascist regime after Franco's death in 1975. Instead, he more or less said "go have yourselves a democracy; once you've finished writing your constitution, I'll become just a figurehead and will spend the rest of my natural life being a nice guy." He is generally very popular in Spain, partially due to his personal intervention in ending a rather comical attempted military coup in 1981 and more recently verbally slapping down Hugo Chávez. The Spanish monarchy is also notable in that it's the only throne still held by the House of Bourbon (La Casa de Borbón), which formerly ruled over France as well.
Flamenco and bullfighting are not as big as movies done outside the country (and even some made by Spaniards) make you believe. Indeed, Flamenco is mainly a regional thing and other areas have their own traditional dances, like the Jota, the Sardana or the Muñeira. Of course, while Flamenco originated and is stronger in the Southern region of Andalusia, it is enjoyed in many forms throughout the country (Take, for example, Barcelona. While Spaniards seem to think that Catalans hate flamenco, Barcelona has a lot of the oldest tablaos in Spain and it's the birthplace of world-wide known artists like "el Pescailla" or Carmen Amaya) just not as much as foreigners may think. On the subject of bullfighting, well, let's just say that it has been banned in two Autonomies (Catalonia and the Canary Islands).
Politically, a member of NATO and the European Union.
Regions and regionalism
Spain is actually an extremely diverse country with four official languages and a variety of strong regional identities that run the spectrum from simple feelings of difference from other regions (Aragón or León, for example) to full-on separatismo (many Basques and some Catalans). A note on the language's name: "Spanish" is the official name of the language according to the RAE (the Real Academia Española or the Royal Spanish Academy, the highest linguistic authority in Spain), but with some people you have to call it "Castilian", lest you accidentally trigger a lecture on centuries of Castilian imperialism and oppression from a proud Catalan or Basque. On the other hand, you should be OK calling it "Spanish" in Madrid or pretty much anywhere else it's been the native language for a long time.
Spanish politics can only be understood as a combination of both a conventional left-right axis and a second regionalist-centralist one. As a reaction to chauvinistic Francoist centralism and imperialist and downright asinine attempts to impose Castilian-ness on the entire national territory, Spain now has an extremely devolved and decentralised structure. The 52 provincias are grouped into 17 comunidades autonomas with varying levels of power. The system has been described as de facto federal in nature. It's also an expensive bureaucratic nightmare, really--Spaniards live under four levels of government, 5 if you count the EU.
- In fact the Spanish devolution system is a matter of debate, and some scholars disagree on calling it federal. Some of its characteristics are typical of a federal state, and some are more typical of a centralist state.
- There is a local government, an autonomous goverment and the central goverment. Three levels. In addition, there is the EU, which makes the 4th level. It depends if your comunidad autónoma has one or more provincias: For example, Asturias or Madrid, both made up of a single provincia, have 3 levels, but, say, Galicia, Catalonia or Andalusia, which have several provincias, have a provincial government between the local government and the autonomous government. The provincial governments are effectively powerless on their own (except in the Basque Country), so it's not that bad.
- They are powerless, but have an important administrative role, and the municipalities add a 6th level of government.
The "historic nationalities" of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia have the greatest degree of autonomy whilst other areas lag behind. Andalusia got a grade of autonomy really similar to that of Catalonia through a really complex system that didn't prevent its implementation.
- The northeastern bit of Spain, called Cataluña (Catalunya in Catalan, Catalonia in its anglicized form), has its own language (Catalan could be described as half Spanish, half French and half Scrabble high scoring tiles) and general feelings of bitterness for the rest of the country in general and the King in particular.
- It also has its own sign language separate from Spanish Sign Language.
- In recent years (as of 2009), the "Catalan bitterness" has focused more on economic matters, specially around the 10% of Catalonia's GDP that the Central Government siphons to other autonomías, and the problems caused by this fiscal imbalance.
- The Basque Country (Euskadi or País Vasco) is generally considered the most distinct part of the country, even by Catalans. Separatist sentiment is stronger here than in any other region of Spain. Basques have been in the Atlantic Pyrenees area as long as anyone can remember. Their language is not only non-Romance, it's non-Indo-European (and startlingly alien looking, with all those K's and TX's everywhere), strongly implying that the language is the last remnant of those spoken in Europe before the first Indo-European speakers entered Europe. That means pre-Celtic, pre-Roman, pre-recorded history, more or less. Until recently, the Basque lands were heavily marked by the shadow of violence, with ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque Country And Freedom) remaining the only active terrorist organisation of any significance in Western Europe after that The Troubles had been more or less resolved and the Provisional IRA had been disarmed. The independentist party Batasuna was banned because of its links to the organization. However, the ETA's leaders officially declared they had ceased all armed action on October 21, 2011.
- Since the 2000s, the ETA had been a bad joke of what it once was, and it was very, very weakened, with most of the population against them and with leaders who pissed their pants when they got captured a week after they took charge.
- Galicia (Galicia or Galiza in Galician) is the northwestern part of Spain, north of Portugal. It shouldn't be confused with Eastern European region of the same name. Defined by its historic isolation and poverty and its rugged Atlantic geography, it's rind of like Ireland, really, right down to its status as a source of massive emigration. They even have bagpipes; indeed, "Galicia" comes from the Latin term for the tribe of Celts inhabiting the region when the Romans rolled in, and the region carried on trade in goods and culture with the British Isles in Roman and sub-Roman times. If Catalan is half-French, Galician is half-Portuguese and the language is spoken by a vast majority of the people. However unlike the other two historic nationalities, Galicia has no significant separatist sentiment.
- In fact there is a coalition of Galician nationalist parties the BNG), but they never reached even 30% of the seats on the regional parliament.
- Originally the same language as Portuguese, there has been surprisingly little linguistic diversion over the centuries, so es decir (that is to say), Galician and Portuguese are mutually intelligible.
- Some people even claim that Galician is Portuguese (ie. they're dialects of each other), and defend the official integration of both languages (hence their name, "integrationists"). They are the ones that use "Galiza" as the name of the region (the name in "official" Galician is "Galicia", not surprisingly the same as in Spanish).
- On the other hand, a few odd enthusiasts for ancient history have petitioned for Galicia to be recognized as the seventh contemporary Celtic nation (alongside Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Brittany). These petitions don't get much press in Spain and have been received with puzzlement at the Celtic League.
- Castile. The imperial heart of the Spanish Empire back in the day, centred around the interior plains of the country. Actually divided into many different autonomías. Madrid is the biggest Castilian city, though it's a relatively young city and only became capital by virtue of being in the middle. (It was originally a backwater small town.)
- For nationalists and separatists, the capital represents the centralism they are against, and because of this they usually speak "against Madrid" while they have no grudge against the inhabitants of the city.
- If you speak with someone from León, he will insist that León (the provincia) is not part of Castilla-León (an autonomía).
- Madrid is not part of Castile. It's in the Autonomous Community of the same name.
- But it's part of the region. We can say that the "old" Castille is both Castilles (Castilla y León y Castilla La Mancha) plus Madrid, that is right in the middle of both.
- Aragón is between Castile and Catalonia. It was once a separate kingdom, encompassing modern day Aragón, Catalonia and Valencia (and for varying lengths of time during the height of its power other territories like Majorca, Sicily and the kingdom of Naples, as well as parts of Greece). Despite this common heritage with the Catalans, the Aragonese don't bear the same grudge against Madrid. They do get a bit cranky when Catalans speak of the Catalan-Aragonese Crown, since back in its day it was just the Aragonese Crown and the "Catalan" thing is a modern add-on to have some sort of historical backing. They're also quite loud and a bit rednecky, according to the stereotype.
- Valencia is the bit below Catalonia. They speak a virtually identical language to the Catalans (it's a different dialect, only cosmetic differences) which the Valencian autonomous government insists is a separate language. It isn't. Happier being Spanish than the Catalans are.
- Andalucía (anglicised as Andalusia) is the southernmost region, with the largest population. Traditionally poorer than the north, with extensive rural areas and some of the biggest cities in the country, and possibly the most quintessentially "Spanish" part of the country (in that it comes closer to traditional foreign stereotypes). There's also a stronger Moorish presence in Andalucian culture and particularly the architecture, thanks to its past as Al-Andalus before the Reconquista. The accent also ditches the lisp.
- Minor quibble: some parts of Andalusia do "ditch the lisp" (i.e. they pronounce z and c like s), but others have an even more marked "lisp" (in that, unlike the rest of the Spaniards, they lisp even the 's'). This is formally called seseo and ceceo respectively (note than in "formal" European Spanish those words should be pronounced differently, but people with either affectation would not differentiate them--one way or the other!). Due to the overabundance of seseo in Latin America, this characteristic has been accepted as a "normal meridional pronounciation", while ceceo is seen as extremely vulgar.
- Extremadura is the part above Andalusia, between Castile and Portugal. Famous for its torrid climate, olive trees and cork oaks fields, mature goat cheese and the best jamón you'll ever eat. It's unknown who are the poorest ones in Spain, but it's either them or Galicians. Stingier than Catalonians, but as they're poor people this is often overlooked.
- This region also includes the city of Olivenza/Olivença, which has been at the centre of a long, still-running dispute between Portugal and Spain over which country it rightfully belongs to. This dispute has surprisingly not affected relations between the two countries very much.
The Spanish Civil War
Franco came to power via the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939, just prior to World War II), a war between the democratically elected left-wing government (Republicans) and right-wing rebels (Nationalists). About 500,000 people were killed.
This war massively worked up the intelligentsia of Europe, who saw it as a clash of ideologies. It was very much a proxy war, with Soviet and Nazi troops fighting covertly as "volunteers". Both sides used the war to test out tactics and military technology. The non-intervention of the Western democracies, compared to the heavy involvement of the Nazis and Italian fascists on the rebel side, was a significant factor in the downfall of the Republic, as well as its ever-increasing dominance by the previously weak Communists as the war progressed, since they controlled access to Soviet military aid.
The Nazis and Italian fascists tested their carpet bombing techniques--on civilians. One of the first cases--in fact the most infamous case--was on 26 April 1937, where German and Italian aircraft devastated a town in the Basque Country, killing probably several hundred people. This town's name in Spanish became a by-word for the horrors of war and was immortalised in a Picasso painting. Its name: Gernika, also known as Guernica.
About 30,000 volunteers fought, mostly on the Republican side; the one you're most likely to have heard of is George Orwell. Ernest Hemingway also showed up, but contrary to popular belief he did not take up arms: he was officially there as a war reporter, although he might unofficially have been a spy for the Republicans.
There were a considerable number of atrocities on both sides. The rebel "Nationalists" maintained a policy of repression and executions of alleged leftists (Federico Garcia Lorca, for example), Democrats, and Catalan and Basque nationalists in each town or city that was occupied during the war. When they won the war, more rounds of purges and repression took place over all the country. On the Republican side, just after the outbreak of war various anarchist groups armed themselves and took effective control of many zones within Republican territory, and the same happened with some Communist groups. Mainly in the first months of the war, before the Republican government could regain control and establish some order over its own territory, those rogue groups carried out a political cleansing of their own, killing alleged conservatives and fascists, land and industry owners, and Church staff.
- It's a recurrent joke in Spain that the Spanish film industry sometimes has trouble finding themes other than the Spanish Civil War, judging by the number of Spanish movies that take place during it. (Thank God it's not true.)
Ecology and wildlife
The Mediterranean part of the country (South) can be described as dry, while the Atlantic/Cantabric (North) part is called Green Spain and can be described as rainy.
In terms of wildlife, Spain is home to the rarest cat in the world, the Iberian lynx, with a mere 280 individuals. Since the rabbit is also native to Spain, the lynx had a diet of around 85% rabbits. The release of myxomatosis into neighbouring France, and its spread into Spain, very nearly caused the lynx, along with the Spanish Imperial Eagle, to go extinct, but they are now recovering quite nicely.
- Really, you can't be surprised: "Gaul" and "Galatia" (in Asia Minor) were also inhabited by Celts
- it was ceded to Spain by the Treaty of Badajoz in 1801, but Portugal claims that it should revert to Portuguese territory as the Treaty of Badajoz was revoked by the Spanish invading Portugal in 1807 and the Portuguese delegation managed to introduce Article 105 to the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, committing the victorious countries to negotiating the return of Olivenza