Saturday, December 28, 2013


I have a friend, Jaye, who is from New York, lives in France, and prefers Spain.  I am from California, live in Spain, and prefer France.  In spite of these differences, Jaye and I tend to see the world the same way, have similar rhythms (although being a New Yorker, hers is slightly faster than mine), and get along very well.

Yesterday Jaye came down for the day and we went off to see the Greek and Roman ruins at Empúries.  We both love that we live in places with so much history, some of it evidenced by the buildings that surround us, and some of it under our feet.  There is little left standing at Empúries.  They’ve been excavating the site since 1907 and what you see mostly are the uncovered foundations of what was first a Greek, and then a Roman city.  Picturesque it is, sitting at the top of a small rise, overlooking the Mediterranean.

Founded by the Greeks in 575 BC,
they chose a lovely spot

Feet of clay... or rather, marble
On an earlier visit last May they were having a festival!
Ruins were not the only thing on our agenda.  Girls have to eat.  Lunch was at La Terrassa d’Empúries in Sant Marti d’Empúries, and lunch was calçots!  Calçots are those marvelous early spring onions, unique to Catalunya.  They are reburied while they grow in order to increase the length of the edible white part.  (More about calçots in this earlier blog post.)  They are mild, almost sweet, the best ones, grown in Valls, are protected by a Domination d’Origen.  They are heavenly, even if they do come to the table all charred black.  You just hold the green ends, pull down on the outer layers, and reveal the tender white meat.  Marvelous.   Bon profit! 
Sant Marti d'Empúries is a tiny, picturesque, village


Friday, December 20, 2013


There is very little of autumn here in Figueres and today is its last day.  Figueres doesn’t actually have many trees.  Except for La Rambla, most of the streets have none.  But if, like me, fall is your favorite season and you are determined and observant, you might spot something.


Chanuka came early this year and my celebration was low-keyed.  I hadn’t gone searching far and wide for candles for my menorah, so I made do with votive candles and a taper.  That worked.  It’s the idea that counts.
Sorry about the blur.  I must have had a wee bit
too much celebratory schnapps

Christmas will be low-keyed too.  A Christmas tree wouldn’t be appropriate and a nativity scene even less so, but the little Catalan shitter, the caganer, who typically is part of the Catalan nativity scene is a different story.  He puts a smile on my face and although I don't have the other figures, he is always welcome at Christmas.

Independentist Caganer with
the holy family

Friday, December 13, 2013

Right To Vote

Catalunya continues to move forward, getting closer to holding a referendum and probably closer to their independence.  Yesterday was a big day.  Yesterday four of the six political parties represented in the Catalan Parliament came to an agreement on the date that the referendum will be held and the questions that the voters will be asked to respond to.  Artur Mas, President of Catalunya, made the announcement at mid-day, accompanied by representatives from all four parties.  The excitement, watching the announcement live on TV, made eating lunch difficult.

The date will be 9 November 2014.  This is later than many people would like, but was agreed upon for logistical reasons.

The ballot will contain two questions:
(1)  Do you want Catalunya to become a state?  Yes or No
If the response is Yes, then
(2)  Do you want that state to be independent?  Yes or No

What many people hoped for was the simpler question, Do you want Catalunya to become an independent state?  But there are those who want to change the structure of Spain and make it a federal system much like the United States of America.  With the two part question, those who want a state but do not want that state to be independent, can say so.

The four political parties that reached this agreement yesterday are of varied political ideologies.  The CiU represents the Catalan right wing.  It is a party that historically represents the interests of the bourgeoisie and business and is the party currently in power in Catalunya.  Near the other end of the Catalan political spectrum is the ERC, the Catalan left wing.  They historically represent social and worker interests and Catalan independence.  ICV is the Green party although they tend to be equally concerned with social issues.  And finally CUP, a newcomer to the Parliament with a very small representation.  To be honest, I don’t really know how to define them.  They seem to be some mixture of leftist and anarchist and represent the anti-establishment sector.  When they first showed up to take their seats in Parliament after being elected, they were reprimanded for wearing t-shirts to the august chamber.  They still wear t-shirts.
There are two other parties in the Catalan Parliament, PPC and Ciutadans.  PPC is the Catalan section of the national PP party, a far right party that still celebrates elements of the Franco dictatorship and currently holds the absolute majority in the Spanish Congress.  Ciutadans is another, albeit very small, right wing party.  I’ve been told that they are not right wing, but from all I hear them say, I don’t see any difference between what these two parties have to say except that the Catalan PP representatives usually say it in Catalan and the Ciutadans usually say it in Spanish.

That the four parties mentioned above, CiU, ERC, ICV, and CUP, spanning almost the complete political spectrum, could come to this agreement after two days of meetings and negotiations, is nothing short of amazing.  It happened because in spite of their differences, they are all determined that Catalans should be given the chance to vote and determine their own future.  Not all of these politicians will vote Yes, Yes.  Some are not in favor of independence.  But they all think that in a democracy, a public that has clamored for a referendum (polls say that 84% of Catalans want to vote), should be able to vote on one. 

This should serve as an example to American politicians.  If you want things to work, if you want your country to keep moving forward, and if you want to do your job properly and get things done, you need to compromise.  All four of those parties compromised on the date, or the question to be asked, or both.  Some wanted the date to be months earlier.  Some wanted only one question asking only about independence.

It took less than 30 minutes for the Spanish President to respond.  Catalunya will be prevented from holding a referendum.  He maintains that a referendum is unconstitutional.

But the fact is, if a democratically elected body such as the Catalan Parliament presents a formal request that the authority to conduct a referendum be given to Catalunya (a similar mechanism by which Britain gave Scotland the authority to hold theirs), because their citizens want to vote, it should be given.  Legal experts say that the constitution allows for this.  If they are wrong, then the constitution could also be changed.  The US constitution has already acquired 27 Amendments from the time it was first written.  Constitutions are not carved in stone.  Laws should serve the people, not oppress them.   

In some parts of the US it used to be illegal for a black to sit in a bus if a white person was standing.  In Germany Jews had to wear black armbands with yellow stars that identified them as Jews.  In South Africa there was apartheid.  In America owning slaves was legal.  Not all laws are good.  A law that doesn’t allow people to vote is not appropriate in a democracy.

So far, word is that most democratic countries have taken notice of Spain’s intransigency.  I also heard that the US government response was that all Spaniards should vote on such a referendum.  If true, I find that deeply disappointing.  Did America ask the English to vote on whether or not Americans were to become independent?

We are all eagerly waiting to see what will happen next.

Friday, December 6, 2013


A little over a month ago, on Tot Sants (All Saints), I posted about going to the Figueres cemetery to see how people were celebrating and inadvertently tripped across a murder scene (see Tot Sants).

What had happened was that two gypsies, one from Figueres and the other from France, had gotten into an argument, believed to have been related to drugs.  The local gypsy shot and killed the one from France.

I encountered the aftermath when I left the cemetery, intending to return home via a circular route that would take me around the back of the cemetery along its wall.  But my way was barred by a police barricade.  Not knowing what had happened and thinking it was a traffic diversion, I was surprised that they would not let a pedestrian through.  But as I walked around I asked someone what it was about and was told that someone had been shot.

Shootings are not common here nor is there as much violent crime as in the U.S.  When violence does occur, it is most often with a knife or something at hand, usually the result of a fight or argument, or it’s domestic violence.  With the exception of people who hunt and have rifles, very few people own guns.

They apprehended the man who fired the shot immediately, and he is now sitting in jail, awaiting trial.   I thought that would be the end of the story.  But a few days later there was another installment.  The family of the Frenchman had come to Figueres and entered into the home of the family of the suspected murderer, destroying many things in the house.

I’m not sure, but I don’t think this was the home of the actual accused killer.  I have learned that in gypsy tradition, the extended family is also an acceptable target for revenge, so as the accused has a large extended family, there are many people in this area who are at risk.

A couple of weeks later yet another member of that extended family was attacked.  This time it was at a small farm in a nearby village where 13 farm animals were killed, including several horses.  No one ever said if the number 13 had any significance.

I thought to myself, goodness me, will this ever stop?  And Josep, the young man who does all my repairs and home improvements, such as they are, told me that no.  It won’t stop until the killer is dead.  In fact, he knows this young man – the alleged murderer -- who is the same age as he and who he had met on school field trips.

The local gypsies run many of the stands at the Thursday outdoor clothes market.  Ever since the Tot Sants shooting, there are been far fewer stands open.  I go there from time to time looking for bargains, and for some unfathomable reason, a couple of weeks ago I decided I would wander over and take a look at how things looked.  It was true.  There were less stands than usual and what is a generally uninteresting market was even more uninteresting, except for the noticeable police presence.

Although I wasn’t smart enough to stay away from the market, I knew in my heart that no way in hell did I want to wander into San Joan, the neighborhood that was getting all the press and police surveillance – the gypsy part of town.

So I asked Josep where San Joan was in order to be sure to avoid it.  It’s right behind where they have the weekly clothes market, near the hospital, right where my real estate agent had showed me one of the apartments for sale the day I was here shopping for my move.  Happily, I didn’t buy that apartment.

Yesterday, while taking my usual loop walk, on the one stretch, where I could see the beautiful snow-covered Pyrenees off in the distance, I could also see a helicopter hovering in the air in the middle of town.  As I walked on the copter didn’t move.  Where was it?  I figured it was hovering over San Joan.

It was the first story on the mid-day news.  There was a big police crackdown in Figueres in the barri of Sant Joan.  One hundred agents sifted through the neighborhood, ostensibly to protect the residents, but in fact, they found and confiscated 2152 marijuana plants (seven people have been charged) and numerous electrical installations that weren’t connected to any meter but bypassed those inconveniences to hook up directly to the power lines.

Figueres turns out to be far more colorful than I ever suspected.

Photo credit: Tramuntana.TV


Friday, November 29, 2013

Some French Food

On the TGV returning from Nice to Avignon, an elderly French gentleman boarded the train at Cannes and took his reserved seat which was next to mine.  At some point he started to chat.  It didn't matter that my French is very basic and he speaks no English at all.  As is often the case when people want to communicate, we managed.

He learned that I am an American, divorced from a Spaniard, and living in Spain.  That I was going from Nice to Avignon before returning home, that I liked Nice, that I liked Avignon, that I liked France, and that my holiday was only one week because hotels are expensive.

I learned that he had a son who lived in Paris and taught English, that he lived in Cannes and that he also has an apartment in Paris, and that Paris was where he was headed now.  He also said that Cannes is much nicer than Nice and that I should visit it next time I come.  If I liked, he would give me his phone number so that I could call before my next visit and come and stay with him in his guest room.

I never did ask for his number.

So now, hey, how about that French food!

Some French produce comes from Spain


Friday, November 22, 2013

A Few French Dogs

At first I just tried to shoot pictures of the dogs when they were sitting or as they walked by.  But in general I like to take photos closer in.  I like portraits and I like details.  And people don't like when strangers seem to be photographing them on the street.  So I figured, OK, I'll go up and ask the owners if they don't mind my taking a photo of their dog.  But then there was the problem of my limited French and the known fact that the French are (1) not friendly, and (2) do not understand you unless you speak perfect French.  Oh, and then there's (3), I'm pretty shy with strangers and hate to embarass myself in public.

So wasn't I surprised when every person I asked said yes and was actually quite pleased.  Some waitied while I took several shots and then proudly viewed the results on my little camera.  I only wish I had started doing that sooner.





Friday, November 15, 2013

More Than Nice

When the war was over, my parents came to Nice to live for a few months until their visas to the United States came through.  My father worked for a relative, Soloman Pelix, who owned a small factory that made orange marmalade.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to trace that family.

I have a hand color tinted photo of my mother standing by the beach at Nice.  I could tell, reading my father’s memoir, that those were very happy days for them.  How could they not be?  Behind them were the years spent in Siberia.  Then the return home to find Warsaw a ruined city and all of their families exterminated in the Holocaust.  But there they were now, a good-looking couple, still young, stylishly dressed, enjoying the French Riviera.

During those happy six months I was conceived.  It was only when I was in my 40s that my mother told me that the “pension” they were living in, just off the Promenade des Anglais, was actually a brothel.

When I first visited Nice in 2005, it was a kind of pilgrimage.  I wanted to see the place where my parents had found a respite after the war, before they set off for their new life in the New World.  And I wanted to get a look at that pension.

Nice was prettier than I expected.  Why was I surprised?  Lots of artists came to paint there because it was so beautiful.  Many stayed.  Why didn’t my parents?  That was all I could think of during the few days that I was there, and the question keeps coming back on each subsequent visit.  It’s so beautiful.  Why didn’t they stay? 

Hotel Nesgresco on the Promenade des Anglais
Queen Victoria once stayed here

The Hotel Oasis, where I stayed.  Once a boarding house catering
to the many Russians who frequented Nice,
Anton Chekhov stayed for several months
while writing The Three Sisters.

Nice police on a pedestrian-only street

Cathedrale St-Nicolas
Nice was a favorite watering hole for
wealthy Russians in the 19th century

I found an antique market (I'm getting good at it)

The regular flower and fruit market

The Matisse Museum is housed in the villa
where he once lived

At the Chagall Museum.  Yes, he lived nearby too.