millisphere (noun): A discrete region of roughly one 1000th of the total world population - a bit over seven million people. A lens through which to examine human geography.

The state-aborted referendum on independence in Catalonia (population 7.5 million) puts the spotlight on yet another millisphere seeking to extract itself from the state it is part of.

It was in Catalonia that I forgave the Spanish gypsies ...

In Andalusia, my travel companion had lost her plane-ticket and the contents of her purse to lightning-fast gypsy fingers. After that we went on alert whenever we ran into gypsies, but a few live performances by gypsy street musicians softened my heart.

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In front of Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, a gypsy woman with a baby on her hip was working a queue of tourists. We were leaving Spain, so I emptied my accumulated small change into her proffered McDonald's carton. She returned the gesture with a high five - it felt like a blessing.

Catalonia - in the northeast corner of Spain and on the border with France - was incorporated into the Spanish empire in 1516 in the "dynastic union" of Castile and Aragon/Catalonia under emperor Charles V.

In the 17th century, Catalonia briefly revolted against Spain, siding with France in the Franco-Spanish war, and retained a degree of autonomy until 1716, when the Nuevo Plata decree abolished Catalan institutions.

By the 19th century, when Spain started losing its New World colonies and had to look for new income streams, it was Catalonia that led Spanish industrialisation. In the early 20th century, Catalan anarchist activists achieved the first eight-hour working day in Europe.

Franco's fascist government put down the anarchists, banned any activities associated with Catalan nationalism and banned the use of the Catalan language, which is a Romance language somewhere between Spanish, French and Italian.

After Franco's death in 1975, the Generalitat (regional government) was restored. In 1978 the Catalan Generalitat was granted control over culture, environment, communication, transport, public safety and local government. The Generalitat shares health, justice and education with Madrid.

In 2006 the Catalan Generalitat passed the "Statute of Autonomy" but it was declared "non-valid" by Spain's constitutional court. When the Generalitat banned bullfighting, the constitutional court overturned it, ruling that bullfighting was a Spanish cultural tradition.
Madrid retains control over ports, airports, coasts, international borders, passports and ID, immigration, arms control and terrorism prevention.

Catalonia has its own police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, and the national police, the feared Guardia Civil who maintained political control in Franco's time but were rarely seen in Catalonia ... thousands of them were sent in to stop the Catalan independence referendum.

Catalonia is pretty evenly split between those seeking independence and those wanting to stay with Spain but they all agreed with having a referendum.

"If Scotland can have an independence referendum, why can't we?" they all said.

"Occupation forces out," they shouted when the Guardia Civil occupied the polling stations; and "No tine por" ("We are not afraid"), which is what the crowds in Barcelona chanted after the Islamist van attack on Las Ramblas last month.

My friend Johnny Keating was in Barcelona in the lead-up to the referendum last week.
Coming into the city from the north with his travel companion Sue behind him on a motorbike, he said the landscape was flat, hot and dry and the "ladies of the night", sitting under red sun umbrellas and pointing their long legs out at the passing traffic, were a bit distracting.

Johnny said the locals were "pissed off" with the presence of the Guardia Civil in the free-spirited city that had given the world Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Johnny thought the European Union should be mediating.

The composer of the hymn of the United Nations, the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, who is considered the pre-eminent cellist of the 20th century, said: "The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should should love stop at the border? There is a brotherhood among all men."

Traditionally Catalans follow their own "Seny" philosophy (called "the wisdom of sensibleness") - that, their language and banning bullfighting make Barcelona different from Madrid.

When Fred Frederikse is not building, he is a self-directed student of geography and traveller, and in his spare time he is the co-chair of the Whanganui Musicians' Club.