Friday, December 30, 2011

Marcel Pagnol and Marseille

Every now and then I read a book or see a film that I think is truly wonderful and want to talk about it and share it with friends.  I don’t like to write reviews nor do I like reading them, not long ones, that is.  I don’t care much for critique, although I do sometimes like to know what the book or film is about so I can decide whether or not I want to read or watch it.

Because I expected that TV on Christmas evening was going to be slim pickings, I bought myself a DVD, and now feel compelled to tell everyone about it.  It is a DVD of a trilogy that I had seen some 15 years ago, although the films are much older.  In the last few years I wanted to obtain it and see the films again, but these being old, classic films, it seemed the only DVDs were collector’s items and priced accordingly.  But when I looked again in November, I found they had become affordable.

Anyone who knows of Alice Waters or has eaten in her restaurant will be familiar with the names of the films and/or the major characters.  This is the Marseille Trilogy (also known as the Fanny Trilogy) and the films are titled Marius, Fanny, and Cesar.  Panisse doesn’t get a title, but he is one of the main characters in the films, and if you’ve had the good fortune to have eaten at Chez Panisse, you will be familiar with the posters of these films that decorate the walls there.  Waters named her main restaurant after one of the important protagonists, her bakery/café after another, and her tapas bar after Cesar, who actually is the heart and soul of the three films.  Apparently Alice Waters was a Pagnol fan before I had ever heard of him.

The story, briefly, is about Fanny, who has loved Marius since they were both children growing up in the same neighborhood of Marseille – the Old Port.  Marius loves Fanny, but he also loves the sea which has a very strong pull on him to sail and discover far-off places.  Cesar, is Marius’s father, and Panisse is Cesar’s good friend.  The story shows us how these people and a few others form a community within the neighborhood of the Old Port of Marseille, and how sometimes strong community leads to extended family.

Pagnol’s dialogue is wonderful.  I don’t understand the original French, but even the English subtitles tell me that the dialogue is wonderful.  There is drama, romance, and a good measure of humor. The conversations are real, and the humor is natural, never resorting to jokes.  Much of the humor is delivered in anecdotes and those always contain a grain of truth.

Marseille is the setting and the source of inspiration for these films.  Pagnol said that he didn’t know he loved Marseille.  Moving far away (he went to Paris) and seeing it in his mind’s eye, he realized he adored this city which he didn’t like as a youngster.  This often happens – that we discover our attachments when we’ve been away.

The culture portrayed is Marseillais, and the French spoken is Marseillais French.  This is not the Marseille of gangsters, but of the neighborhood of the Old Port that has since disappeared.  Still, you get a marvelous sense of place when you watch.  I visited Marseille on my first trip to France with Manuel several years ago, so I especially enjoyed seeing the scenic and outdoor shots. 

Marius was made in 1931, Fanny in 1932, and Cesar in 1936.  Although the films and the people come from a different time and place, you need no explanations to understand them.  These were very early talkies and at the beginning, you notice the old-fashioned style of acting, particularly in the dramatic scenes.  In fact, Marius was first a hit on the stage before it was made into a film.  Pagnol brought all the actors from the stage production to the filming and continued with the same cast for the second the third film.

Pagnol’s characters are true heroes.  There are no base or vile characters in his films.  No villains, no nasty people.  Pagnol likes his characters and makes us like them too.  They are human throughout and delicately portrayed.  They are complex, not easily or immediately understood.  We discover their different facets gradually as the trilogy unfolds.

In Marius there is a scene of a card game that Pagnol at first didn’t want to include, thinking that it was only a sketch.  Now, everyone in France (of a certain age, perhaps) knows the lines and it is part of their national consciousness.  I’m hoping to learn those lines one day!

If you want to read more about Marseille, I like M.F.K. Fisher’s A Considerable Town.
My favorite Pagnol books are the two memoirs he wrote of his youth, published as one volume: My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle.  These were also made into films (but not by him) and the films of these books are also wonderful. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Squatting in the Plaça Sant Jaume

Christmas is upon us but it’s pretty much passing me by.  For one thing I’ll be alone that day which isn’t really all that merry, but with that I could cope with my two cats for company.  Seriously important is that little Felix the cat is sick.  He’s at the vet today and will remain there overnight, probably suffering from Pancreatitis.  Little Felix is a cat who is normally full of beans, so I’m hoping his natural vivacity will help him to rally and overcome this illness.  And when he feels better, he will have a lifetime of vet prescription, high quality, low-fat cat food to dine on.  No roast goose Christmas dinners for him.  Tomorrow I will know more.  All I want for Christmas is for Felix to recover and come home.

I had planned to write about the Catalan Christmas but have lost any inspiration that may have been lurking so this will be brief. 

Catalans spend a lot of money at Christmas, although a lot of that is on food for fancy dinners.  Gifts are given mainly for Kings on 6 January.  Santa Claus and Christmas trees have made inroads here, but the traditional and most ubiquitous Christmas decoration is the Nativity scene.

The figures in a Nativity scene might be just the holy family, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, or might include angels, the three Kings, villagers, and farm animals.  They might be small and simple or large and very elaborate.  Although it all sounds very religious, typically, the Nativity scenes in Catalunya include one extra figure – a man, somewhere at the periphery, squatting and shitting.  He is called the Caganer (which means “shitter”).  It’s good fun trying to find him in shop window displays or in large public displays such as can be found every year in the Plaça Sant Jaume, the main square of Barcelona where the City Hall sits on one side and the Palau de la Generaliltat (equivalent to a state capitol building) sits on the other.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Red Army!

One of the few benefits I enjoy living in a house intended for tourist rental is that I have British television via satellite installed.  I wouldn’t have done it for myself.  I lived the first eight years in Spain watching only Catalan television.  But since it’s here, I do watch it and there are definitely some broadcasts that are excellent.

One of those excellent broadcasts was on BBC3 radio recently.  I tuned in planning to listen to classical music while I read, but the host and his guests were talking.  About to turn it off, I realized that they were talking about the Red Army Chorus.

I grew up with the Red Army Chorus.  That is to say, my parents had one of their albums and it was always one of my favorites.  My parents’ musical taste tended towards the Russian and Eastern European, no wonder as they were Eastern European themselves.  We had recordings of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Borodin, a lot of Chopin, the Red Army Chorus, and Les Paul and Mary Ford.  (Although they tended to classical and Eastern European, they did (my father especially) have eclectic taste.)

It’s hard to say which of the songs on our Red Army Chorus disk I liked the best.  They were all wonderful, not only the songs and the music, but the voices.  The bass solos were extraordinary, the tenor solos lifted you to the sky, and the whole chorus could move you to tears.

Perhaps one song stood out for its emotional quality.  I never paid attention to what the song was about.  For me all these songs were just beautiful music.  But on the BBC they were talking about more than just pretty music.  This song, the penultimate on our old disk, called Ukrainian Poem, is about the German occupation of the Ukraine in 1942 and its eventual liberation by the Soviet army.  When you know that, the song becomes even more powerful.

The Red Army Chorus (and band, and dancers) were (and perhaps still are) made up of members of the armed forces.  They originally performed folk and war songs for the troops.  Eventually they began to tour the world and broadened their repertoire.  In 1948 they were invited by the international forces in Berlin to perform at a concert devoted to peace.  Thirty thousand people came to stand and listen for three hours.  They can be heard performing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary in the movie Das Boot.

The Red Army Chorus (called the Soviet Army Chorus) on this disk, has had several names and is now called the Alexandrov Ensemble.  Whatever you call them or however they choose to call themselves, I think they are one of the great musical groups of all time.  There are other disks, MP3 tracks, and also a DVD with the chorus and dance troop.  I haven't seen the DVD yet, but it is in my shop and on my personal wishlist.


As with other of my favorites, you can buy the disk in my Amazon shop or use my portal to enter Amazon and buy thousands of other things.  Thanks, by the way, to those who did exactly that last week. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dreaming in Terrassa

Terrassa is a mid-sized town with 200,000 people about half an hour inland from Barcelona.  It is where my friend Gracia has the house she inherited from her parents and where I usually go to visit her when she is in town.

Architecturally, Terrassa is famous for its complex of three 12th century Romanesque churches, Sant Pere, Santa Maria, and Sant Miquel, all three declared an Artistic-Historic Monument in 1931.  These are beautiful ancient buildings, but we didn’t enter the complex to see them.  My photo is from a previous visit.

Terrassa is also birthplace and home of Xavi Hernandez, Barcelona’s outstanding (best in the world) midfielder and one of my favorite players.  We didn’t see him either, although Gracia knows his aunt.  We did, however, enter the 14th century Castell i Cartoixa de Vallparadis (Castle and Carthusian Monastery) and had a good long walk up and down the Park of Vallparadis, a beautiful park that follows what my architecture book calls the Vallparadis water course.  I thought it was a river that had been channeled underground.  I guess it isn’t really a river but a dry riverbed where water flows when there’s a heavy rain.

This linear park offers a lovely environment for a walk, passing under the castle and the three beautiful churches, lined with lawn and dotted with trees, some of which were in fall color.  The olive, carob, and pine trees that decorate my landscape don’t do fall color.  The Vallparadis park also has two hippopotamuses -- statues that lend a bit of whimsy to the environment, two or three cafes, and an amazing swimming pool consisting of several very large scattered sections that give the impression of a lagoon with clear, fresh water.  No photos of that, my batteries went dead during the walk.

Terrassa grew and became relatively wealthy in the 19th century when it became a great textile center.  Modern wealth translated into public, industrial, and private buildings built in the modernist (art nouveau) style, although many Catalan modernist buildings (including notably those of Antoni Gaudi) are far more fantastic than anyone else’s interpretation of the style.  This building, by the way, is NOT by Gaudi.

Gracia’s husband Miquel is an architect, but the three of us were more focused on lunch and talking about what we all wanted to do with our lives than with the fantastic architecture of Terrassa.  Gracia and Miquel are here for an extended visit, trying to figure out if they would want to move back to Catalunya, stay in California, or somehow arrange to have the best of both worlds.  Whereas they have more resources than I do, they are unsure of what they want.

I know exactly what I want.  I want to sell my house and move to a small apartment, although where that apartment will be is still somewhat up in the air.  It’s not that I don’t know where I want it to be.  I want to move to France.  But there are some problems with that dream and as time goes on, I am less sure of that plan working out.  If not France, then I will remain in Catalunya but move further north, where at least the landscape will be more to my liking.  Further north is also closer to France so that maybe I will be able to zip across the border from time to time to shop the French markets and buy cheese, even if I can’t live there.

Gracia, Miquel and I had a long lunch, talked about all these plans, possibilities, and dreams, and decided nothing.  Except for that annoying tow truck, it was a very good day.  

Friday, December 2, 2011

Giving Thanks in Terrassa

Sometimes you don’t have to take a big trip or venture far from home to have an adventure.  This I managed to do last week when I went to visit Gracia in Terrassa.

I met Gracia about twelve years ago when she married Miquel and moved from Terrassa to California.  Since then, she’s become one of my best friends, even though we only lived in the same area for a short time.  A couple of years after we met I moved to Catalunya, but we’ve managed to stay in touch and try to see each other when she comes to Terrassa.

Both Miquel and Gracia are from Terrassa, a small city to the west of Barcelona and about an hour and a half driving time from here.  At first Gracia used to come regularly to visit her mom.  Since her mom died, she’s been coming less frequently.  I’ve been to Gracia’s house several times, but I was living in Barcelona then and always went by train.  This would be my first time driving there.

I printed out directions from Via Michelin.  I’ve compared their directions with those of Google Maps and find they do better in Europe than Google does.  ViaMichelin told me the trip would take 1 hour 37 minutes, would be 153 kilometers long, and would cost 39.81 euros in estimated gas and road tolls.  That was one way. 

The trip would have cost considerably less if we were living somewhere else in Spain, Madrid, for example, because Spain concentrates most of its toll roads in Catalunya.  Going by train would have been cheaper, but it would have taken about three hours each way, instead of 1-1/2 and wouldn’t have left much time for the visit.  Ultimately the trip didn’t cost me 80 euros, it cost much more.

There was no where to park near Gracia’s house so she jumped into the car with me to go in search of a parking space.  We went round in circles and finally found one only about three blocks away.

At the end of the day, after a long walk, lunch, a lot of sitting around and chatting, Gracia walked with me as I headed back to the car to start the drive home.  It was about 5 pm, but I wanted to do as much driving as I could before it became dark, plus there was a Barca soccer game on that night that I wanted to get home in time to see.   Coming up to the car Gracia started to run forwards and shout.  I had no idea what she was so upset about.

And then I saw it: my car hooked up to a tow truck!  Good grief!  It turned out that I had parked in a loading zone.  Well what do you know.  Do they actually give parking tickets and tow cars away?  Or was I the first one?

The loading zone extended further back where other cars had also parked, and the sign was somewhat hidden by a telephone pole, but not completely out of sight.  That explained why I hadn’t noticed.  Spanish driver’s license or no, I wouldn’t knowingly park in a loading zone.

So the trip cost me the gas, the tolls, and 73 euros for the tow truck.  I paid the truck, and asked about the parking fine.  The tow truck driver said the fine would, or possibly would not, be sent in the mail.  Since I lived out of town, he wasn’t sure if they would bother to send it.  But until then, I didn’t have to pay the fine.  He was only authorized to collect the tow truck charges.  If and when the fine comes it will be an additional 32 euros.

So it was a far more expensive trip than originally figured.  I had been parked in that spot since a little after 11 am.  I returned at about 5:20 pm.  If I had arrived just a couple of minutes later, the car would have been gone.  Just thinking about what I would have done (my first assumption would probably have been that the car had been stolen), makes me dizzy.  How long would it have taken to find the car and get it back?  There would have been the possible confusion of ownership because even after all these months and the filing of papers with a lawyer, the car is still not registered in my name but in the name of a man who died several years ago.  Would the police have released the car to me?  And then there would have been the additional cost.  Paying for the tow truck to come was 73 euros, but paying for actual towing would have been double that. 

This visit took place on the day before Thanksgiving.  We didn’t have turkey (we had risotto with cuttlefish).  Having just remembered that Thanksgiving was the next day, we had a special toast and said our thanks.  But in addition to what I said at the table, I am thankful that the whole debacle wasn’t worse. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chanuka Candles in Barcelona

Five hundred and nineteen years after the Expulsion, I went to Barcelona last week to buy Chanuka candles.  In other years (for instance, in year 517 A.E.), I tried, to no avail, to buy them over the internet (too expensive) or place an order to the shop in Barcelona by phone (staff not interested in sending the goods).  Finally, I arrived too late and there were no candles left.  Instead of using my menorah that year, I used a standard taper in a brass candlestick and lit tea candles each evening, adding one each time to the lineup.  Actually, that worked just fine.

If I wanted to be more authentic (and not have to make these shopping trips to Barcelona), I could get eight small jars, pour in some olive oil, place a cotton wick in each, use a larger container for the shamish, and be more true to history.  But my personal history is of small multi-colored candles of yellow, blue, white, pink and red, and the Chanukiah that I inherited from my parents.  Although in fact, my parents preferred to celebrate Christmas.

The year of the tea candles, hearing my woeful tale, my long-lost and recently-found friend Irene was kind enough to send me a box of candles so that the next year I didn’t have to go shopping.  But a box only lasts one year so I was ready for another shopping expedition this year.  And off I went.

There is no searching involved in buying Chanuka candles in Barcelona.  Only one place has them.  So many years after the Expulsion, not many Jews have returned to Spain, and the kosher shop that operates across the street from the main synagogue is the one and only source.

You would never know that this building is a synagogue.  Evidence on the street is discrete, and without knowing the address, you would probably just walk by.  But if you look closely, you can see the entry grill lined with menorahs and finished off with a Star of David on each side at the top (click on the image to enlarge it). 

In order to buy my candles, I take the train to Barcelona – a two-hour ride each way, €12.20 round trip.  From the train station I walk to the shop, about a half-hour walk.  It is possible that I could take some other form of public transportation, but the shop is located a bit out of the way and I haven’t made a study of it.  Anyway, I love walking in Barcelona.  Each time I head off in the right direction, never exactly sure just where to turn, but somehow I always get there with no great mishap, although my route isn’t always exactly the same.

I am very happy to say that this year, I did find candles at the shop.  At €4.50, they were a lot cheaper than what it cost me to get there.  But they’re worth it.

While at the kosher shop I thought I might buy some yahrtzeit candles.  Ever since I ran out of the ones that I brought with me from California, I’ve been using church candles.  This works fine, yet somehow doesn’t seem quite kosher.  But when I went to take some out of the box (seen on the lower shelf), I saw printed on the face of it “Made in China.”  I put them back, thinking to myself, what the hell, that’s not kosher either.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Positive Attitude and a Man with a Horse

I’m working on a new attitude: Try to seek the positive.  It isn’t always easy.  With my newly acquired (still to be perfected) positive attitude, I have noted two amusing stories that recently appeared on the news.  The first was about a man with a horse.

It seems that about two months ago the man had left his farmhouse on horseback and gone into the local village to have breakfast.  After eating with friends and putting down several beers (beer with breakfast is entirely normal here), the man rode the mare home.  On the way he was stopped by the police and cited for operating a moving vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  His trial comes up soon. 

The man maintains that the horse is not a vehicle and that there is nothing to cite him for.  Given that you can walk on that road and walk your dog as well, I think he may have a point.  On the other hand, according to my dictionary, a vehicle is "any means in or by which someone or something is carried or conveyed."  Hmmm....  I hope they announce the outcome of this story and plan to keep my ears and eyes peeled for it.  I think whatever the outcome, it will be entertaining.

The other story was a cultural piece at the end of the news about a professional dance company that was performing somewhere in Catalunya.   Not your every day kind of dance company, this one includes in its corps some dancers with disabilities.  I thought the performance would appear amateur, but it didn’t.  It looked excellent and I was sorry I couldn’t attend to see the whole thing.  Congratulations to whoever came up with the idea, and to those who are making it happen.  Clearly they have a positive attitude.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Barcelona with Bonnie

Bonnie's recent visit brought up the usual questions of where to go, what to see, where to eat.  I’ve been a tour guide for friends before, but I think that in the past I was in a better, livelier frame of mind.  I was also feeling more positive about Barcelona and Catalunya.  Now, after the divorce and trying unsuccessfully to sell my house, I feel fairly negative, low energy, and trapped.

But I love Bonnie dearly – she’s been a very good friend to me over the years and I did my best to show her and Forrest what I thought would interest them, even though it seemed at times that I was leading them around in circles.  Well, in fact, at times I was leading them around in circles.

Two blocks up from their Passeig de Gracia apartment was Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà, also called La Pedrera.  This is a unique apartment block, all sinuous art nouveau curves and other-wordly shapes.  One of the apartments is furnished for the period and open for viewing and there is also a museum explaining Gaudí’s work in the attic.  The roofscape resembles something from Star Wars.  We didn’t go in because the line wrapped around the block, but it would have been worth seeing.

Although we didn’t visit La Pedrera, Bonnie and Forrest did go on their own one day to see La Sagrada Familia, the large unfinished Gaudí church recently consecrated as a basilica by the Pope.  Bonnie said she thought, judging from the overly decorative façade that she wouldn’t like it, but she found it wonderful inside.  Gaudí was a genius who followed no one’s style, although the sinuous lines of art nouveau (modernism in Catalunya) are evident in his work.  Both the Sagrada Familia and La Pedrera contain museums where some of his innovations are demonstrated and his work is explained.

Bonnie and Forrest also went on their own to visit the Museum Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) on Montjuïc (Jewish mountain).  The MNAC houses one of the most important collections of Romanesque art in the world.  In the early 20th century, many murals were removed from the small, decaying 10th-12th century churches scattered throughout the Pyrenees and brought to Barcelona for safekeeping.  The exhibit has recently been redesigned.  I haven’t seen the new installations, but Bonnie said it was fantastic, with many interactive components.  They spent half a day in that exhibit alone.

Mostly we wandered up and down the small streets of the Barri Gòtic and the Born.  That’s my part of town, where I used to live, and the part I know and like best.  We had wonderful fruit juice smoothies at the Boqueria market.  Many stands have these fruit drinks; there wasn’t a single one when I first moved here.  They are obviously provided with tourists in mind, but that doesn’t make them any less yummy.  The problem, however, is that there are so many tourists in the market, that you can hardly walk down the aisles.  And to think I used to do most of my shopping there just eight years ago when it functioned primarily as a market and barely as a tourist attraction.

We passed through the lovely arcaded and slightly seedy Placa Reial which figures in the story told in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron.  That’s a good thriller along the lines of Da Vinci Code but set in Barcelona and much better written, in my opinion.

From the Placa Reial we squeezed through the very narrow street under the balcony of my old apartment where luckily there was no odor of urine that day.  I have fond memories of the apartment and the music I would hear coming from the street musicians who played in the Placa Reial.  The drunks who would pee on the wall as they passed below seem more colorful now than they did at the time.  Interestingly enough, some of them would whistle or sing opera arias as they passed.

We visited Casa Gispert, one of the older culinary establishments in the city located on a small street just alongside the impressive Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar.  Founded in the 1850s, they continue to sell the nuts and coffee they roast on the premises in the original wood-burning stove.  Entering provides a very pleasant experience of traveling back in time.

We had a disappointing lunch at Agut, what used to be my favorite restaurant.  The food was so-so and the service came with an attitude, although to be fair, my fideua was excellent.  But on our second day we had a wonderful meal at Orio, a new, elegant Basque tapas bar/restaurant on Carrer Ferran that I had never eaten at before.  We stopped to look at the menu because the fresh oysters in the window had called to me.  But we didn’t order oysters. 

We ordered three starters and one main plate and shared it all, washed down with Basque cider and Basque white wine.  The starters were acorn-fed ham with pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato), an assortment of four Basque cheeses, and a salad.  The main plate was red beans with blood sausage.  We had ice cream and fried milk for dessert.  Everything was excellent, although the fried milk was a bit weird.  The service was good, with our waiter explaining why it is that they pour both the cider and the white wine from a considerable height.  I assumed it was for theatrical effect, but our waiter assured us that it was for aeration, to cut the acid.  It worked for us.  We were three happy campers with aerated alcohol in our veins and well filled tummies.

After the tasty Basque lunch we visited Gaudí’s Parc Güell, up on the hill (what Catalans call a mountain) behind Barcelona.  The bus ride was an adventure in itself; starts and stops, curves and turns all being experiences to endure.  I don’t know how the driver passed the professional driving test.  Once there, another adventure unfolded. 

There were thousands of people everywhere.  What for me has always been a place of peace and quiet and magic, was more like midtown Manhattan but with unusual rock constructions instead of concrete.  Originally planned as a garden city with scattered villas, only one or two houses were ever built and the grounds now serve as a park.  It’s a unique park and one of my favorite places in Barcelona, or used to be.  The columns and arcades built from natural rocks have always given me the sense of entering into one of the fairy tales my mom used to read to me as a child.  I vaguely remember images of toadstools which have somehow evolved in my imagination to be the rock columns of Gaudí’s arcades.

Besides that good lunch, the highlight of our second day together – at least for me – was watching people dance sardanes in front of the cathedral.  Although it isn’t part of my background or culture, for about two years I used to go every Sunday to dance at the cathedral with a group of Catalan friends.  So for me it was nostalgic to watch people dance and to listen to the music, which, as strange as it may sound to some, sounds wonderful to me.  Unfortunately I didn’t see any of the friends I used to dance with, but I didn’t really expect to.  When the couple who was the driving force of the group broke up, around the time that Manel and I moved to Tarragona, the group drifted apart.  Bonnie said she liked the fact that people were dancing right out in the street.  I’ll bet if she had stayed longer, Bonnie would have started dancing sardanes in the street too.

When we set out the first day, the only thing Bonnie knew she wanted to do during her visit was eat a paella.  She never did.  But then, surely that means, just as the legend that says that if you drink from the Font de Canaletes on La Rambla, she’ll return to Barcelona someday.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bonnie and Hotels vs. Apartments

It was January 1995 when Bonnie suggested I go ballroom dancing.  That was soon after my divorce and I was feeling down.  Dancing would be good, she told me.  It involves exercise, music, socializing, and, if nothing else, gets you out of the house.  In those days, I called her twinkle toes.  So I went and because of Bonnie I met Manuel and from there a lot of things changed and new vistas opened up.  But that’s another story.

I’ve known Bonnie since about 1972 when our two husbands worked together at the university, and last week I had the rare pleasure of spending time with her.  She was traveling in Europe for the first time in many years, toes now encased in sensible shoes, seeing parts of France and finishing in Barcelona so she could give me a hug

Bonnie used to come to Europe every year but it has been many years since she’s made the trip.  She was here with her friend Forrest who was visiting Europe for the first time.  Before coming to Barcelona they had been in Paris, to Normandy, and along the Loire.

Rather than staying exclusively in hotels, on this trip they rented two tourist apartments.  They were very pleased with their Paris apartment experience.  The apartment was operated by the owner who provided good service and well-thought-out conveniences.  In addition to the well-equipped kitchen, they also had a clothes washer and dryer, and an iron and ironing board.  They could comfortably have breakfast at home before venturing out and in fact, they could buy local ingredients and cook if they wanted.  But they didn’t.  After all, they were in Paris and part of the fun is eating out.  Still, it is convenient to be able to keep food at home and eat in if you feel like it and many hotels forbid any food in the rooms.  The apartment was well situated and the owner was friendly and helpful.

In Barcelona they also rented an apartment.  But unlike in Paris, this one was operated by a large rental firm.  When they booked, they were told the approximate location but not the exact address.  Upon arrival in Barcelona, rather than go directly to the apartment as they had in Paris, they had to go first to the agency’s office.  There, after waiting some considerable time in line, they were given the keys and the address.  They had taken a taxi into the city from the airport but now had to venture out again with their luggage to find the apartment. 

Unfortunately, finding the apartment and then getting into it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.  First of all, the rental firm had given them the name of the street in Spanish (Paseo de Gracia) whereas it, as most streets, goes by its original Catalan name, Passeig de Gracia.  There is no reason why someone who isn’t familiar with the city would know these two are the same street.  All the street signs in Barcelona are in Catalan as are the local maps.  How it is that the company would ignore that and use the Spanish name is hard to say.  But after some initial confusion, they figured it out.

When they got to the building, it turned out that they had been given the wrong key.  Luckily the building had the old-fashioned arrangement of a concierge and he was kind enough to help them out.  Otherwise it would have meant a trip back to the rental office, hauling their luggage (two suitcases each), to get the problem resolved.  The first stop at that office, en route to the apartment, had already added considerable time to their arrival and they were worn out.

This apartment was in a wonderful location, right on Passeig de Gracia, facing the Casa Batlló and Casa Amatller and just down the street from Gaudí’s more famous Casa Milà (La Pedrera).  But in addition to there being no one there to welcome them or tell them about the apartment or the neighborhood, there was also no written orientation material.  There was nothing to explain how to dispose of garbage, no tourist information, no information about where a grocery store might be found nearby, nothing but the user’s manuals for appliances and electronic equipment, and that was all in Spanish.  And oddly, there was an iron, but no ironing board.

So what are the advantages of tourist apartments?  Apartments have kitchens, allowing you to eat in as much (or little) as you choose.  Apartments have normal living rooms with sofas and more space than normal hotel rooms, even the generous ones.  Apartments give you the sense that you are actually living in the city that you are visiting and allow you to be more comfortable when you are at home.

What apartments do not have is a hotel concierge who can help you with problems and difficulties.  What would you do if the hot water stopped running or the electricity went out?  And apartments, unlike hotels, do not have someone on the premises who can help you with tourist questions.  Then there is the check-in, check-out procedure to pay attention to.  If you have an early morning plane to catch, checking out in an agency office might present a problem.

With tourist apartments and villas, there is no set way of paying deposits and rental fees.  Every private rental will ask for a deposit to make the booking and usually (but not always) the deposit is not refundable.  I have seen that many British owners who have villas for rent in my area want the full rental payment weeks before the tenant arrives at the villa.  Many others accept payment upon arrival.

When I rent out my villa I do it this way.  I send a signed contract to the tenant.  When the tenant signs and sends the contract back and pays a 25% non-refundable deposit (by bank transfer), the booking is confirmed.  The contract details what is included in the rental as well as the address of the property.  The remainder can also be paid in advance by transfer or upon arrival in cash.  Some owners accept PayPal or even credit cards, but I don’t.

Renting an apartment is sometimes less expensive than a hotel, especially if you consider the possibility of eating in.  It can be a good way to get more into the feel of a place, and renting a larger one, perhaps with two or more bedrooms, allows you to spend your more relaxed moments in the company of your friends or family if you are traveling with others.  And in that case, it will certainly make your stay much more affordable.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Spanish News: Perhaps No News is Good News

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Congress of Attorneys in Cadiz, Gregorio Peces Barba, former President of the Spanish Congress, made a couple of interesting comments concerning Catalunya.

First he said,
            What would have happened if we had gone with the Portuguese and without the Catalans?  Maybe things would have gone better.

Coming from someone high up in the Socialist party, the party of the nation’s President Jose Rodriguez Zapatero, this is not a statement to inspire national unity nor very respectful to Catalunya.  He went on later to add, after a comment that Spain is fragmented with people seeking independence, that he is not pessimistic:
            We are better off than in other times.  I don’t know how many times we had to bombard Barcelona.  I think this time we can resolve the problem without having to bomb Barcelona.

I sincerely hope I am not living here if those bombs from Madrid ever arrive because in the Spanish constitution is says that the army has the responsibility to maintain the unity of Spain.  Many in the military (and also not in the military) take that to mean they will attack any area that wants to secede.  Is this a not-so-veiled threat from the Socialist party to the Catalans who want independence?  Or just a thoughtless remark from a person of high standing in one of the country’s two largest political parties?

On another Spanish note, we have the issue of the 300,000 babies that were stolen from their mothers upon giving birth in hospitals and given to families more appealing to the Franco regime.  Looking into various crimes committed during the Franco regime is not legal in Spain.  It was what got the Supreme Court Judge Garcon removed from the bench.  Luckily, there are others who are also interested in some of these crimes.  Here is a short video report on the stolen babies.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Sell, Sell, Sell!

My desire to sell my house turned into a need and has now become an obsession.  I don’t think obsessions are a good thing, but there you are.  Might as well call it what it is.

Under normal conditions, this house would be easy to sell.  It’s cute.  It has a lovely garden and pool.  It’s a two-minute walk to the sea.  It’s well priced.  Lots of agents are peddling it (there are no exclusive listings here and no MLS).  And furthermore, the owner is willing to negotiate.

But the market is lousy.  It’s not only that prices have dropped (and so has mine), but that there are not many buyers.  Those buyers who are out there need to have lots of cash because the banks aren’t giving much in the way of mortgages.  And yet there are buyers out there and some of them do buy.

One realtor told me it will take five to ten years to sell.  That’s not a realtor I care to talk to often or that has the right attitude to get the deed done.  After all, a buyer could walk through the door tomorrow and how the heck does he know that one won’t?  The truth of it is, a realtor needs several buyers in the course of a year in order to make a living.  But I need only one.  One qualified buyer to see my house and fall in love with it, or see it as the good rental-income property that it is, and voila!

The cats don’t give me any encouragement because they don’t really want to move.  The two words “move” and “cats” don’t fit well together.  The apartment we will all be moving to will probably be small, but there will be windows and I’ll get them a big indoor cat tree and they’ll be happy.  After all, it beats being an orphan, wounded, and living out on the street.  So really they shouldn’t complain no matter what kind of digs I provide for them.  And sweet cats that they are, once they get over the car journey to wherever we move, they’ll be just fine.  I know they will.

So please, think “sell, sell, sell.”  And send me your good wishes or karma, or pray that I sell the house soon, very soon.  Thanks!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Spain's Secret Conflict

Today, rather than write, I am providing a link (below) to an excellent video (provided to me by my good friend Trini) that addresses the issues of Catalan independence and does it extremely well.  It is titled Spain's Secret Conflict, it's in English and easy to understand, however, it is 40 minutes long, so you need to set aside some time to watch it.  If you are at all interested in the issue of Catalan independence, Catalan relations to the rest of Spain, or just modern Spain in general, I highly recommend that you watch this.

Briefly, some of the topics covered are:
  1. That within what is supposed to be a democratic country, a referendum on the subject of independence is not allowed by the Spanish government
  2. That the extreme right is the main driving force behind anti-Catalan sentiments and misinformation
  3. That several of the current EU nations became independent by the process of referendum and are now viable countries
  4. That although it is constantly criticized for not paying its way and being selfish, Catalunya actually enjoys less benefits from the general taxes it collects (which are sent to Madrid and then reapportioned) than other Spanish communities
  5. That the strong feeling behind those who maintain that Spain is indivisible reaches irrational, religious fervor, with people saying “One Spain blessed by God, great and free!

A question that isn’t dealt with and that I have wondered for years is why, if Catalunya is so vigorously disliked by the rest of Spain, do the Spaniards not want it to separate and go off by itself?

http://vimeo.com/24052492

Friday, October 7, 2011

Spanish Mortgage

Even capitalist countries tend to reject the practice of systematic usury.  If bankers don’t, governments usually do by imposing limits to protect (at least somewhat) consumers.  Spain, however, as Catholic as it might be, has been comfortable with usuary embedded into its system of mortgages.  At least it did until today. 

Today Spain, or at least Catalunya, made a pass at leaving its outdated and usurious practice concerning mortgages behind and joining the enlightened world.  Today a court tribunal in Girona ruled that the owner of an apartment that was repossessed and sold at auction by the bank, now owes the bank nothing.  This is something new here.

You might think that of course the former owes nothing once his property is repossessed.  But that hasn’t been so here in Spain.  Here, when you obtain a mortgage, you are not only using the property as collateral, your total personal worth is also part of it.  What had happened with this owner, and what happens with every property owner in Spain who has a mortgage and his property is repossessed by the bank, is that the owner still owed the bank the money.  The amount the property sold for at auction was deducted from the original value at the time of purchase and the property owner owed the remainder.  In this case, it was over 100,000 euros, and the bank had taken steps to put a lien on the owner’s salary.

This is the first court decision giving the right to the property owner who loses his property to lose no more than the actual property that is mortgaged.  Until today, in the case of repossession during a period of time when prices have fallen, the owner lost his home and still owed.  There was no way out of this forced and unfair debt.  Usury is nothing compared to this.  For the average person, it meant being left without a home and owing money forever for the home that the bank now owned and perhaps had resold.  It has made me very worried about my own situation, owning a house I can’t afford to keep and not being able to sell it either.

I understand that this decision, which took place in Catalunya, will stand as a precedent for future court decisions and the application (or change) of the law in all of Spain.

Well good.  One more small step forward.  Perhaps next, someone will take a look at the local governments who take private property, paying little or nothing for it to the owners, and turn it over to private developers.  If the First World contains those countries who embrace capitalism and the Second World those who subscribe to communism, Spain seems to still sit firmly in the Third World.

This afternoon, after writing the above post, I went to a party.  Most of the people there were British plus one Dutch guy and one American couple.  From my English friend Dorothy I learned that mortgages work the same way in England.  If your house is repossessed, you still owe the full amount of the loan, which can be reduced by the amount that the bank sells it for.  I couldn’t believe it.  England allows such a barbaric way of doing mortgages?  Then from across the table, Hans told me it’s the same in The Netherlands.  What!  The Netherlands too?  Yes, said Hans.  In fact, he said, it is the same all over Europe.

I follow the news here in Catalunya regularly.  Ever since coming here, I’ve always made it a point to know and to try to understand what goes on around me.  But I never knew that about the rest of Europe.  My first thought was to rewrite the post now that I know that Spain isn’t the only country with kind of mortgage practice, but then I thought, no.  I’ll just leave it as I wrote it, and add this note at the end.  The people at the party all seemed to think that this was normal.  But from an American perspective, or at least from mine, it’s outrageous.  It’s interesting, though, to see how much one’s assumptions are based on the society from where one comes.  

Friday, September 30, 2011

You Can't Have It All

Yesterday as I was watching the news at midday, the electric box switch clicked and the television went off.  I went to look and it wasn’t the main switch, it was the one marked swimming pool, which also happens to include all of the living room and much of the rest of the downstairs, but not everything.  Whoever arranged the switch box was not particularly logical or organized.  They paired the pool with much of the downstairs, but the refrigerator is on a different switch.  Like many things, it is chaotic.  I haven’t made a survey of the rest of the house since it is almost always either the pool or the hot water heater that gives me grief.

I had turned on the pool control earlier in the day when I noticed that the pool was turning green.  I had had a leak and George, who maintains the pool, had come in and repaired it.  It looked like everything was done, paving stones beautifully relaid, but he had forgotten to turn the motor back on.  Well, perhaps it was best that I leave it off until he got back from his short vacation.  How green could it get in three days, and anyway, it wouldn’t work if it kept short-circuiting.

Later, at around 1 am when I woke up to turn over (or maybe a cat woke me up so that he or she could turn over) I heard the switch go again.  But the pool was off.  What could it be now?

Flashlight in hand, I went downstairs to take a look at the breaker box and this time it was the main switch that had plopped down.  Now it couldn’t be the pool because I had turned it off.  Surely this was a mistake.  I flipped the switch back on, tested a light, waited a few seconds, and headed back to bed.

As soon as I got to the bedroom I heard the switch click.  Back down I went, turned off the pool switch, flipped the main switch back on and went back up to bed.  Once again, as soon as I got to bed I heard a click.  This time I decided the switch had won.  I would sleep through the night without electricity, hope for the best with what was in the fridge, and deal with it in the morning.

Morning brought to light the fact that water was dripping, drop by drop, from the hot water heater. A call to my electrician brought him almost immediately.  But unfortunately the part needed to fix it didn’t come today because it’s 7:30 and he hasn’t returned to repair it as he said he would if he got the part in time.  It would be tough to have to go the weekend without hot water, he said.  This is true.


What’s more, the swimming pool was causing a short circuit and the pump had to remain off until Monday at least.  It is getting greener by the minute.

It seems you can’t have it all.  I can have electricity but no hot water for the time being, and I still have a pool, but it’s green instead of blue.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

Divorce!

For the third and last time in my life, I am divorced.  I’ve been on both sides of a divorce and I’ve never figured out which side felt worse.  I also never thought it would happen again.  But it was Manuel who decided that he wanted a divorce, I just filed the petition rather than wait for him to do it.

When he told me he wanted a divorce, I found myself some free counseling help.  I had no idea what to do.  I would probably qualify for free legal help, so I went ahead and applied and got assigned an attorney to take my case – the same woman who had been my counselor at the Women’s Help Center.  It’s apparently a small world over there in Tortosa.

It could have been a lot easier and less painful if we had come to terms at the beginning.  But the two of us met once with my attorney and didn’t come to any agreement, and Manuel got himself an attorney too, but his was expensive.  It would have been standard procedure for his attorney to contact mine and the two would see if they could negotiate an agreement for their clients.  But his attorney never did that.  Instead, he filed a response and the two attorneys put on battle gear.

My two previous divorces in the US were both done out of the Nolo Press Do Your Own Divorce book.  They were simple and no property or alimony was involved.  But this time I needed alimony to survive.  There is no way I could get a job in Spain at my age and in this economy.  And there is no Nolo Press here. 

My attorney is a woman’s rights supporter.  What she doesn’t like to do is explain things.  In the middle of the process I decided to change attorneys and hire someone who would listen to me and would explain when I didn’t understand something.  After all, it’s my divorce and my life and I want to understand what is going on.  But she quickly nixed my attempt to change, saying I would have to pay big bucks to her if I did.  I couldn’t afford that, so I dropped it.  At our next meeting I received a severe scolding and very long lecture on how the client doesn’t need to understand all the legalities and procedures, just as the patient doesn’t need to understand the doctor.  Clients and patients need to leave these matters in the hands of the professionals.  Not a Nolo Press mentality.

Clearly this woman had never worked with an American before.  Since I seemed to be stuck with her and I wanted to get the divorce finished, I did my best to placate her, apologized several times, and eventually we got on with it.

In my petition for divorce, my attorney asked for a sum much larger than I knew Manuel could afford and more than I had originally asked him for before I started the legal process.  I thought it made me look greedy and assumed it was a bargaining ploy.  Manuel’s response (probably dictated by his attorney) was that he would agree to no alimony at all.  No alimony would also mean no Spanish widow’s pension later if Manuel were to die before me.  In addition, the response said that although we had been married 12 years, we had never actually lived together.  This came as a shock.  Surely the judge wouldn’t believe that.  If my attorney made me look greedy his made him look dishonest.  Too bad we couldn’t just speak for ourselves.

Our hearing was scheduled for 18 July, but at the last moment was postponed.  In Spain, they don’t do divorce (or any civil suit) in August.  Except for the criminal courts, judges are all off on vacation for the month.  No new date had been set, but it certainly wouldn’t be before September. 

Months before, as soon as she had filed the petition, my attorney gave me strict instructions never to talk to Manuel about the divorce and never to agree to anything.  If there was to be any negotiating, it had to be done via the two attorneys.  But I was fed up, and the attorneys had never spent one minute negotiating.

When summer was over, I called Manuel and suggested that we meet and talk about the divorce.  It didn’t take us long to come to an agreement.  This negotiation should have taken place a long time back.  It would have saved a lot of money and a lot of bad feeling.  I don’t know if we had gone to court if the judge would have favored me or Manuel in his decision.  What I do know is that Manuel offered a sum he was comfortable with, and I proposed an additional ten euros, to round off the number, and he accepted that.  It’s less than I had originally asked him for, but it’s an amount he feels is fair and so he won’t resent it for the rest of his life.  I’ll figure out how to make it work.  Selling my house is key.

Before we actually signed the agreement, his attorney told mine he wanted changes.  My attorney called to tell me and warned me not to talk to Manuel about it.  Why not?  It seemed to me that we did much better talking than not talking.  And besides, this was our divorce, not theirs, so why should they make up the agreement ignoring what we had agreed upon?  I told her I wouldn’t call and then hung up and called Manuel.  And I was right.  His attorney was demanding things he had not discussed with Manuel.  Once again we ironed it out and finally, after several days of delay, we signed this Wednesday.  The judge decreed it final the next day.  I’ve been a third-time divorcee for one day now.

Friday, September 9, 2011

More Castells

Castells – the human towers that the Catalans make -- are so special that I think they deserve another mention here.  Castells are unique to Catalunya.  As an expression of Catalan culture, they stand for working as a team, making an effort while enabling the spirit of personal achievement.

A team (called a colla, which means a group) might have dozens and sometimes hundreds of members.  The members vary in age from about 5 to over 80.  It is one of the very rare activities, outside of family gatherings, and probably the only sport, that brings people of such disparate ages together.

There are 7000 castellers (people who make castells) belonging to 54 colles.  Altogether they make 16,000 castells in a year.  The groups compete starting in spring and running through summer.  They perform at the festa major (the festival honoring the patron saint of the town) of their own town or village and are invited to perform at festes majors in other towns as well.  Every time a team performs, it is competing.  The teams get points for the difficulty of the construction and how well they pulled it off, that is to say, whether they succeeded in building it all the way up, and then were able to dismantle it without falling apart.

The large base upon which the rest of the tower is built is called a pinya (which also means pineapple).  To fer pinya (make the pinya) has come to mean to work together in Catalan, an expression that originated in this sport and has become part of normal speech.  It is usual to see people from other colles helping make another team’s pinya, thus enlarging upon the meaning of cooperation.  You can tell from the colors of the shirts at the base when other teams join in.

It’s the small children who climb to the top.  This top can be as high as nine or ten storeys in the best of the castells.  One of the videos below shows what that looks like if you’re up there looking down.  From my perspective of standing on the ground looking up, I have to say that seeing those people, with the small child as the final climber, reach the top and lift his or her hand with four fingers up (representing the four bands of the Catalan flag) it quite simply takes my breath away.


As someone who is not happy past the second rung of a ladder, I can’t imagine standing on the shoulders of another person, who is also standing on the shoulders of another person, etc. on the eighth storey of this living tower.  How do they do it?  They practice and practice and practice.  And either they are fearless or they overcome their fear.  They also practice falling and, those below, how to receive the falls.  

The accompanying music is always the same, played by two or more gralles (shrill-sounding wooden flutes) and a small drum.  If I hear that music, even from another room when the television is on, it brings tears to my eyes.  It seems that some people cry in response to things they find very beautiful, and I’m one of those.

Last year (2010) Catalunya succeeded in its bid to UNESCO to have Castells entered on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.  Flamenco and the Chant of the Sybil from Majorca were also included on the list that year.

Any performance is always more moving in person, but if you can’t get here to see one, or if you’ve seen it before and just want to see it again from the comfort of your own home (like I sometimes do with operas) use the links below.  Don’t forget while you’re watching that the pinya, the foundation, is on ground level and isn’t visible through the crowd.  If you’re counting, don’t forget to include it! 

If you want to read or reread my earlier post on Castells, here’s the link for that.

Video Links of Castells:
This video, from the UNESCO site, was prepared by the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan government) as part of their application for Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2010.  You have to scroll part way down the page and the click on “video” to see the film which is almost 10 minutes long.  After a minute, before the narration beings, the cap de colla (head of the team) is shouting out to his group saying they’ve done it!  They made a 4 by 9, which means the tower was of four people on each level and the whole castle was 9 storeys high.  It’s only at the end with the credits that you hear the music that always accompanies the performance.  Actually, the music begins after the pinya is made (sometimes there is a second smaller pinya atop the first called a folre, and for the tallest and heaviest, sometimes even a smaller third called les manilles), and the cap de colla decides he has a viable structure going.  So, if you watch the video and want to hear the music and get the sense of the whole thing, watch it to the very end! 

Filmed by Mike Randolph, the 3-minute video below has no narration, but the music is there and it shows some of the castles falling apart. Shot in Tarragona in the bi-yearly competition held in the bullring, it’s a good place to shoot because at the festes you stand on the ground and can’t get the same good angles as from the stands.  My best photos are also from that bullring (the only time I’ve ever entered a bullring!).

This 5-minute BBC production was filmed in Vilafranca in 2010 before the UNESCO decision.  It begins with an advert and then goes into the program in which there are some errors in narration, she has no idea which team is which, (the green team is not the green team, it’s the Castellers de Vilafranca, always one of the top three teams and number one this year) but it’s a good video overall and allows you to get a good feel for the music.  My favorite shot is of the middle-aged casteller with the cigar!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Home Again


I liked living in the village this summer.  Not that I had much choice; I had to rent out my own house in order to earn some income that would help with my mortage and ongoing living expenses.  I had one other option that friends had offered, but that would have meant staying even further away and being more isolated than where I usually live.  In the village at least I was in the center of things.

Not that there was much to be in the center of.  But I was able to pass many days without having to use my car.  I could simply walk out the door and do my shopping and many routine errands.

On the way to the closest city trash/recycle containers, located in a pretty spot overlooking the port, there would always be a group of people, usually older men, seated under the trees chatting or just enjoying the shade and the view.  Some even brought their own chairs.  They were there morning, noon, and evening.  I thought of them as the local committee and suppose they took a break to go home for lunch.

In addition to this regular group, I also noticed men who would carry small buckets or plastic bags full of tiny fish.  Sometimes they dropped one or two for the street cats they passed.  These little fish were sardines, caught during the night by fishermen who have lights affixed to the back of their boats.  These men had bought the fish to take home or sell informally on the street blackmarket.  It doesn’t surprise me that people would go for these healthy little fish that come cheap.  Buying fish in any of the village fish shops is exorbitant.  If you don’t fish or don’t have a friend who does and you live in L’Ametlla, the biggest fishing port in the area, you drive to the inland village of El Perello or go to one of the bigger supermarkets in the area to buy your fish rather than be ripped off in the village fish shops.

The cats are ecstatic to be back home, back in their garden where they can go explore and sniff to make sure their territory is secure.  If they sniff anything threatening, they come in and stay in the house! 

I’m happy too.  I don’t particularly care about the garden, I just like being in the place that I know is mine and surrounded by my stuff.  But I know I want to sell the house as soon as possible, so rather than put everything I’ve stored away back out, I’m looking to see what I might get rid of in flea markets.  The house has been shown by realtors quite a bit this summer, so I’m hoping it will actually sell this fall.  I may be back home only for a short time before I move on.  I hope so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Doctor Is In

Since coming to Spain in 2001, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy good health, the only problems being those typical of my age – a rise in cholesterol and a rise in blood pressure.  In spite of my overall good health, I’ve had to call for an ambulance three times.  The first was in Barcelona and the second two times were here.  In none of the cases did the problem turn out to be a serious one, and that first time it was in fact something quite mundane and frankly, too embarrassing to go into.

Last spring I went for a mammogram -- the first time in a couple of years.  I didn’t make the appointment for this exam.  I had received a letter in the mail telling me that from the age of 50 to age 69, all women should have a mamografia done every two years and that would I please be punctual and show up wearing clothing that was easy to remove and wear no deodorant or talcum powder.  My appointment was scheduled for Monday 4 April at 18:48.  This free service was brought to me (and all women aged 50-69) by The Program for the Detection of Breast Cancer of the Catalan Health Service, i.e., government-run health care.

On the appointed day I drove to the Hospital de Tortosa Verge de la Cinta in Eve’s car that she generously let me borrow, mine still being at the mechanic’s waiting to have the vroom, vroom problem repaired.  (Although it took months, that surging problem was finally repaired to the tune of 1500 euros.)  I arrived early which I always choose as the alternative to pushing it and possibly arriving late, even though with my Spanish driver’s license, I can probably speed a fair amount with impunity.  The Catalans are generous with their provision of free health care, but if you come late for an appointment and miss your turn, they sometimes make you go through the arrangements for making another one.  Anyway, it isn’t polite to be late.

Tortosa is not my favorite city.  Although the largest river in Spain runs through it, it has very little of any riverside amenities and overall is rather rundown and drab.  But it does have its points, which include a few renaissance and modernist buildings and what was a Moorish castle on an overlooking hill, now a (Spanish) government-run Parador.  The hospital sits on the next hill, and so from there, you have a lovely view of the tiled roofs of Tortosa and La Suda, the castle plus what remains of the old defense walls of the city.  On a clear day, you can see the whole valley across to the mountains of Els Ports.

I passed my health card at the sensor – all that is required to sign-in for appointments with doctors and technicians – and took a seat in the center of the x-ray waiting room, in one of several banks of individual seats.  I was followed in by two women, one who took a seat against the wall and the other who remained standing at the opposite wall.  The span between them was the width of the room, but neither that, nor the signs posted asking people to maintain silence, prevented them from pursuing their conversation at full volume, making it impossible for me to read the book I had brought with me.  “Maribel has died, did you know?” asked the one who was standing.  There was some animated conversation as to who Maribel might be, but when it finally became clear, the seated woman realized that no, she hadn’t known that Maribel had died.  And she was only about 60.  Smiling throughout their conversation (which I thought a bit odd, given the topic), when they had finished, the seated woman’s face fell into a frown.  With the frown came silence.  And soon after I was called in.

There is little or no room for modesty in Spanish medical offices.  You tend not to have a private place to remove your clothes, and sometimes you remain with nothing to cover yourself once you are disrobed.  Other times you are examined half dressed (or half undressed, depending on how you want to look at it) which is even more weird than being naked.  But this wasn’t my first time, and I’m getting used to it.  Or at least I know what to expect.  Besides, I was alone with the technician – a young woman – with the door to the waiting room locked.  So I took off my clothes from the waist up and then proceeded to stand there giving the technician my information, date of last mammogram, change of address, things like that.  The mammogram (there are actually four shots taken) took a very short time (and didn’t hurt), the technician checked to make sure the images were viable, and then told me I could get dressed and go.  They would send me a letter with the results.  I don’t know how long the whole thing took, but my appointment had been for 18:48 and I was outside walking on the street back to my car before 19:00.

This week I went for a gynecological exam/pap smear.  This exam was also in Tortosa but at the clinic below rather than the hospital above, and the clinic is so ugly it doesn’t warrant a photo.  They say you should have a pap smear every three years.  Here the examining room was separate from the doctor’s office, but they didn’t ask me to take off my clothes – just remove my underpants.  I was wearing a dress.  The nurse said just to hike it up.

The exam went the same as these always do, but with the addition of a sonogram at the end.  That was a surprise and I don’t know if they only do that for older women or if it is standard procedure; it wasn’t standard procedure all the other years of my life.

I thought since I was left wearing my dress and bra that the doctor was not going to do the breast exam, but he did.  The nurse wanted me to hike my dress even further up but I found it preferable to remove it.

This appointment had been scheduled for 9:45 am, and I had arrived a few minutes early, taking a book with me because when you go to see a specialist, you never know how long you might have to wait.  By 10 am I was dressed and walking on the street back to my car, albeit that my freshly ironed linen dress had become a crumpled mess from having been scrunched.

Neither this exam nor the mammogram, nor the three calls for the ambulance cost me anything.  I simply don’t understand why so many Americans react with panic when the idea of national health care comes up.  I think it’s super.

Any thoughts?  Leave a comment below!