Consider for a moment these words from George Orwell’s 1938 “Homage to Catalonia”:
“I defy anyone to be thrown as I was among the Spanish working class—I ought perhaps to say the Catalan working class—and not be struck by their essential decency; above all, their straightforwardness and generosity. A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing. If you ask him for a cigarette he will force whole packet upon you. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with again and again in the most unpromising circumstances.”
Short of making a trip to Barcelona—indeed, back in time to Barcelona—this spirit can be found in a used bookstore in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Kensington, Maryland.
Located within the Kensington Row Bookshop, the La Fundació Paulí Bellet, Pauli Bellet Foundation’s Catalan Library offers one of the largest collection of Catalan-language materials outside of Spain. A miniature of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s “Sagrada Familia” is encased in glass. A verse fragment by beloved author Jacint Verdaguer is painted on the wall.
The foundation was established in 1987 to promote Catalan literature and culture in the U.S., and to be a meeting place for the Catalan community in the Washington, DC. area. It was created in honor of and named for Pauli Bellet, a monk from Montserrat (a sacred mountain outside Barcelona) who relocated to D.C. to teach at Catholic University. It was created by his friend, fellow professor, and fellow Catalan Josep M. Sola-Sole, who moved to D.C. with his wife Montserrat (named after the mountain) in the early 1960s and formed the nucleus of a small expatriate community.
At the time, Francisco Franco was imposing harsh measures on the Catalan people to get them to give up their language and culture. Montserrat remembers posters in the street, demanding, “Don’t bark! Speak Spanish!” The independence movement continues to this day, with a resurgence recently put down by the Spain’s constitutional court.
The foundation has been in its present location since the bookstore opened in 2002. Josep Sola-Sole died the following year, and his daughter Elisenda now runs the store and the foundation. She says people are very surprised when they find a room full of a language they never heard of before.