Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Catalan Funeral

Sunday I unexpectedly attended a funeral. I had only found out the day before that Pere had died.  In fact, the Whatsapp came at 11:45 am, and he had died that same day at seven in the morning.  One of the people from the dog park heard it from another person, also from the park and who knew Pere better than any of the rest of us.  It’s a good thing that news spreads fast, because the Catalans waste no time in having the funeral.  One day you’ve died; the next day you’re interred.

Pere liked to tell to people at the park that he was younger than me.  This was true, but did not strike me as being particularly polite.  He was about three months younger, but he seemed much older.  It all fell apart for him months ago when he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered.  I’m not sure if he lived alone or with a roommate, but he was never able to return home and spent his last months unhappily in a nursing home.

Pere was a grumpy old man.  He wasn’t particularly jolly to speak with at the park, but he did have his good points:  He was a passionate supporter of the Barcelona Futbol Club and a passionate lover of animals -- or at least, dogs and cats.

He and his dog Chester were a fixture at the park -- always among the first to arrive in the evenings.  His love of animals was evident at the park where he would always come with a bag of treats for all the dogs – never mind that some of the owners did not want their dogs to be given treats.  For those he would wait until the owner wasn’t looking and sneak it.

Chester

Pere giving treats to his doggy friends

 Less evident was his ongoing feeding and caring for homeless street cats.  He took care of many of them, finding them homes if possible, and feeding the rest.  He didn’t have a lot of money – I believe he lived on a modest pension.  But he would be sure the cats had enough to eat, even if it meant that he didn’t.

When someone here dies, the music that is played most often at funerals is Pau Casals’ “El Cant dels Ocells,” (The Song of the Birds).  But there is a second song that also sometimes accompanies those who die, and it is “El Vall del Riu Vermell” (The Red River Valley) and that is what was played on Sunday.  Translated to Catalan, it is no longer the love song I remember about the cowboy lamenting his girl who is leaving the valley.  In Catalan it is about someone beloved who has left this earth (the YouTube video is sung in Catalan but the text is in Spanish).

R.I.P., Pere

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sant Jordi

Every year on 23 April, Catalonia celebrates the festival of Sant Jordi. Sant Jordi (Saint George) is the patron saint of many places, including England and Catalonia. George is the one who slew the dragon.  Here in Catalonia his feast day is celebrated as the Day of the Book and the Rose.
The rose represents the blood of the dragon that Sant Jordi slew. Where his blood fell, a red rose grew.
The business about the book is more recent. In the early 20th century, a Barcelona bookseller introduced the idea of the day of the book because Miguel de Cervantes died on 22 April 1616 and William Shakespeare died one day later on 23 April 1616 (which also happened to be his birthday). The idea of the book caught on and the festival has evolved to be one of the nicest holidays of the year.
This is the Catalan version of Valentine's Day in that it is friends and lovers who exchange these gifts -- traditionally, a book for the man and a rose for the woman. But the holiday isn’t just for lovers – the whole family is included and there are almost as many books for children for sale as there are for adults.
The Rambla in Figueres

Les Rambles in Barcelona
photo by Manolo Garcia



In every city, town, and village there is a street or square devoted to the selling of books and roses. In Barcelona you'll find the biggest stretch anywhere, all along the Rambles. Figueres also has a Rambla, even if it is much shorter, and that is where our celebration is held. And as always, on Sant Jordi it was packed from one end to the other.  (No Catalan festival is for the claustrophobic.)

Les Rambles in Barcelona
Photo by Pere Virgili

La Rambla in Figueres
The following day, one newspaper showed a photo of an elderly man, sitting by a window giving a red rose to an elderly woman who was in a wheelchair.  This was the husband of more than 50 years paying his daily visit to his wife who has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home and doesn’t remember him or the holiday.   
For about a week before the day, my supermarket always prints out a poem, the winner of a contest, with your receipt. This year’s was:
The streets fill with roses.
And you,
and that book,
are waiting for me on any corner.

(By Cristina Company)

Photo by Pere Virgili


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Old French Cars

Walking through the Place de l’Horloge on my way to take photos of the famous Avignon bridge, I happened upon a vintage car show that was being held in front of the city hall.  It was part of a week-long celebration of seniors – evidently all kinds of seniors.  Small as the show was, it had some interesting relics.  I have an abiding love of classic cars.  I’ve been to classic car shows and museums, if I’ve got my camera with me, I always photograph an interesting old car on the street, and I used to drive a classic car myself – a 1964 Volvo P1800.

There is more to French cars than old Citroens as I quickly found out walking through the small display.   I am most familiar with the Citroen 2cv which, I just discovered, was made from 1948 until 1990 – 42 years!    It is the icon of French motoring, and is probably the image that comes to mind when any of us think of a French car.  Certainly every American or Brit going native in the French countryside drives one in films. 

And then there is the black Citroen Traction Avant, the first mass produced front wheel drive car.   First produced in 1934, these aren’t as common as the 2cvs, but if you’re an Inspector Maigret fan, you are familiar with them because they used to be the standard police cars and one or more always makes an appearance in any episode of any of the Maigret television series.  (The BBC production with Michael Gambon is great, as is the French series with Bruno Cremer.  If you haven't seen them, you can watch and decide for yourself which is the better of the two.  Both are available at my Amazon store).


There weren’t more than 20 cars in the show and they weren’t all French.  







The one that won first prize was, in my opinion, a fabulous little thing.  I asked the owner what it was and darn, I didn’t write it down, don’t remember what he said, and having scrolled through dozens of old French car photos on the internet, can't find it.  All I remember is that it was a 1954 model.  Renault?  Peugeot?  Do you know?




Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Van Gogh Pilgrimage

As is sometimes the case when I travel, this year’s vacation included a pilgrimage.  Most years my vacation base is Avignon.  Avignon is a hub which makes it convenient for visiting other towns in the area, it has some great restaurants, it’s beautiful, provides for some great walks, and each time I go there it becomes more like a second home, so going there is enjoyable and comfortable.  The fact that it was once the papal seat means nothing to me except that it resulted in the monumental Pope’s Palace.

Arles, however, was always special because Vincent van Gogh lived there for 16 months and created 200 paintings and 100 drawings during that short time.  Many of these paintings are among his most famous.  It was where Gauguin came to live with him – a disaster of a visit that ended in Van Gogh’s mutilating his ear and setting off the series of his worst epileptic fits – what became the beginning of the end for him.



 I’ve walked in the Alyscamps, been to what was the hospital where he was treated, walked along the river where he painted his starry night over the Rhone.  Each time I visit, walking into town from the railway station, I pass by the square where his yellow house once stood, and I’ve passed many times by café of the café terrace at night.  What I never managed to do was find the Langlois Bridge – the bridge that he painted four times in oil, once in water color, and drew four times – the bridge that has become an icon.


Clearly the bridge sits across a waterway, but the road directions seemed to take you off onto some sort of highway that doesn’t run along the river.  Since I always go to Arles by train, I wanted to walk to the bridge.  I knew it was no longer in its original location, but I didn’t want to navigate along a highway full of traffic to get to it.  So this time I wrote in advance to the Arles tourist office to ask for directions to get there by foot.

I saved my visit to the fabulous Saturday market for after my pilgrimage, passing through it quickly and then off onto the footpath that followed a canal to my destination.  The nice man at the tourist office said would take 30-40 minutes to walk to. 

It’s 2.7 kilometers from Arles to the bridge, and it took me almost an hour.  But never mind.  It was a lovely walk along a canal and well worth the time.  Maybe it took me so long because I was constantly stopping to take pictures:  of the canal, of the boats and barges, of the fishermen, and of the old Citroens.







Coming around a bend and seeing the bridge from a distance was an “Oh my goodness” moment.    


Inspecting it at close quarters was a real pleasure.  No lines, no barriers, almost no people.  There were two young German families there too, so I just about had the place to myself.






The original bridge was built in the first half of the 19th century as part of a project to expand the networks of canals that go to the Mediterranean.  That was replaced in 1930 by a reinforced concrete bridge that in 1944, along with all but one of the other bridges along the canal, was blown up by the Germans.  The only surviving bridge was moved in 1959 to the site along the canal, a little outside of Arles, where it now sits and where people like me come to pay their respect.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

More Than Just Toys

For anyone who enjoys, toys, antiques and nostalgia, the Museu del Joguet (Toy Museum) in Figueres is the place to go.    Housed in a grand building dating from 1767, the collection is based on the donation of a local collector in 1982.   Since then the collection has grown with donations from many others.  In a way it is a personal museum where you can find among the ancient toys, vintage photos of some of the people whose toys were donated through the years and some who are sitting or playing with their toys.  Even if you live here, you might not be familiar with many of the people in the photos.  But some – including the present and former Presidents of the Catalan government – are familiar to everyone here.

Dolls are often weird.  Toy cars are great.  Miniature stage sets where you could stage your own play are delightful.  Stuffed animals are eternal.  Army and war toys are unfortunate, but a fact of life.  The photos of Catalans, some of them famous, taken when they were children, are priceless. 


A whole display case of caganers 






Not just any bear, this once belonged to
Anna Maria, Salvador Dali's sister
Salvador Dali, age 6
Carles Puigdemont, President of the
Generalitat of Catalunya

Artur Mas, former President of the
Generalitat of Catalunya

Either the father and uncle or grandfather
and great uncle of one of my friends
from the dog park!

There were two photos that were especially moving.  One was of Salvador Puig Antic, a young Catalan anarchist, born in Barcelona, who, in 1974, at age 25, was executed in Barcelona by the Franco regime, having been accused of killing a Guardia Civil.   His photo sits alongside his model train set that his family donated to the museum.





The second photo is of Muriel Casals i Couturier.  In it, at age six, she is sitting and reading Babar.  Muriel was the President of Omnium Cultural, a Catalan cultural organization for several years and became a household name when she became one of the two main driving forces – together with Carme Forcadell -- behind the grassroots Catalan independence movement.  Beloved by many people here, she died tragically in February 2016 after having been struck by a bicycle in Barcelona.