Friday, August 30, 2013

Russian Royals

Why read romance novels when you can read a real life story packed with romance, opulence, intrigue, tragedy, and even magic?  The story of Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar, and Empress Alexandra is, in my opinion, a great love story.  The story of the Romanov family is one of the great tragic stories of the early 20th century.  These are superbly told by Robert Massie in Nicholas & Alexandra.

Having recently read this remarkable book, my interest was piqued yesterday when I heard a news report that there was a photo exhibit of the Russian royal family.  Sponsored by the Casa Russa in Lloret de Mar, it was being held at a gallery in one of the big Lloret hotels.  Unfortunately, today, Friday was the last day of the exhibit.

So this morning, I hopped in the car and set out for Lloret.  I’ve been to Lloret once, with Manel, about fourteen years ago, when we came together to Catalunya for the first time on a vacation.  I didn’t like it then and didn’t like it much better today.  It’s one of the prime coastal tourist destinations and is overflowing with people and tourist shops full of tacky junk.  But never mind.  I didn’t come for that.  I came to see Nicholas, Alexandra, Alexis (the tsarevich), Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia.  If Rasputin were also in the photos, that would be cool. 
It's not all tacky.  There is at least one
glorious, modernist church
To make a long story short, Massie says that the downfall of the Tsar stemmed from his son’s hemophilia.  The little tsarevich suffered terribly all his short life from this disease while the family managed to keep it a secret from the public.  It was in a desperate, hysterical attempt to alleviate his suffering and to save his life that his parents, particularly his mother, turned to the monk Rasputin for help.  Pierre Gilliard, tutor of Tsarevich Alexis wrote “The illness of the Tsarevich cast its shadow over the whole of the concluding period of Tsar Nicholas II’s reign and alone can explain it.  Without appearing to be, it was one of the main causes of his fall, for it made possible the phenomenon of Rasputin and resulted in the fatal isolation of the sovereigns who lived in a world apart, wholly absorbed in a tragic anxiety which had to be concealed from all eyes.”  Massie explains, step by step, how this came to be.

I was hoping for some memorabilia, some Faberge eggs maybe, but there were only the photos.  Overall they were very interesting and yet they lacked two things.  First the titles and text were in Russian only leaving you to guess at the subjects of those photos that weren’t so obvious.  And second, they didn’t tell the whole story – they didn’t show the last two years, when the royal family was put under arrest and eventually sent to Ekaterinburg and finally very brutally murdered.  Photos from that period exist, some are in Massie’s book, and they are heartbreaking.  I imagine the Russians who admire their royal family want to show them in their glory and not in their demise which came directly at the hands of the revolutionaries.  Although British inaction also contributed.

George V, King of England, was first cousin to Nicholas through his mother, and first cousin to Alexandra through his father.  (The two looked almost like identical twins and were confused for each other at some of the social events where they were both in attendance.)  Queen Victoria had been Alexandra’s grandmother.  (Alexis’s hemophilia almost certainly was inherited from Victoria.)  But while it seems he could have, King George did nothing to help the Russian Royals escape.

Now there is the question of who was really dug up in 1991 from the shallow mass grave near Ekaterinburg, Siberia?  I will soon be reading Massie's newer book, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter to find out.
Coronation (I'm guessing)


Is the monk in black Rasputin?

Tsarevich Alexis at bottom center,
his father Tsar Nicholas to the left

Father and son at center

Friday, August 23, 2013

Catalans Paving the Way to Independence

One meter closer to freedom
Last year on 11 September, Catalunya’s National Day, a massive demonstration took place in Barcelona.  Over 1 million people took part in an unprecedented outpouring of support for independence that moved the Catalan government to hold special elections and, with the clear independence mandate, take up independence as its main objective. 

This year, on 11 September, a human chain will mark the pathway to Catalan independence, stretching along the length of Catalunya, from the French to the Valencian borders.  Called the Via Catalana Cap a La Independencia, it will follow along the ancient route that was once the Roman Via Augusta. 

Those 400 kilometers will be manned by people standing along highways, country roads, and city streets, holding hands, making their peaceful but determined statement that Catalans want to and will vote on a referendum to decide their own future, whether the Spanish government approves or not.  And although I didn’t go to the demonstration in Barcelona last, year, I’ll be there holding hands with strangers this year.

In order to have a place on the chain, you must sign up in advance.  They are coordinating it so that the urban areas aren’t overloaded while the rural stretches go unmanned.  There will be some transportation to take those who are willing to travel to those areas where fewer people live and where the chain needs reinforcement.  So far 300,000 people have signed up.  But I expect that on the day there will again be 1 million.

The organizer of these demonstrations is a grassroots movement – the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC).  Some weeks ago the ANC announced that it would be producing t-shirts for participants to wear.  They would be yellow, as that is a color that is visible from afar.  This event will be photographed and videoed from land and air and if everyone wears yellow, the images will be more impressive.  Yellow looks really really bad on me and I never ever wear it, but as soon as they went on sale, I bought one.

Initially the t-shirts could only be bought online.  I printed out my receipt but nowhere did it say when the shirts could be picked up.  So I waited to go to the designated local pick-up point, figuring it would take at least a week before the shirt actually arrived.

Some ten days later, I walked across town, in considerable heat and humidity, to pick it up.  But the shirts hadn’t arrived and the manager there said they wouldn’t be in for another week.  Giving it another two weeks, I went back, walking across town again in considerable heat and humidity.  This time my mission was accomplished.

Some days later, as I entered the nearby supermarket where I do my shopping -- lo and behold: At the entrance was a display of the yellow t-shirts.  I could have saved myself two long hot and sweaty walks.  But never mind.  I was glad to see that the shirts were being so actively marketed and had become so easily available.  When I went back to the supermarket three days later, I was even happier to see that the shirts were almost sold out and the shelves were practically empty.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Crowded Collioure

The French border is only about twenty minutes away.   Because I usually take the train, and you have to change trains at the border, actually getting to Collioure is a longer trip than it might be, but I find it much less stressful than going by car.

My last visit there was about a week ago.  I like to go on their market day, and my friend Jaye, who lives nearby, is usually up for the outing.  Jaye was diplomatic enough not to say anything until we arrived at the market although she had passed the market on her way to the station to meet me.  Boy was it crowded!  It looked more like a churning, living mass than a market, and was not the place either of us wanted to be.  So we poked around a little, long enough for me to find some lovely postcards being sold by the woman who painted the images. 
Then we escaped and Jaye introduced me to a new shop, a chain out of Brittany that sells lots and lots of nicely packaged and very expensive sardines.  They were lovely to look at, and I like sardines, but these were beyond my budget. 

So we plowed on through the narrow streets of town where the crowd wasn’t as dense, and where we could at least walk side by side.  Soaps and marmalades bought (that had been my shopping list), we set off for the important part of the day.  Trains and crowds are worthwhile if there is good company and some nice French food as your reward.


Friday, August 9, 2013

Polish Friends and German Cake

I had joined the local British expat group a year ago but had never attended any of their activities.  The fact is that although I have no friends or social network here, I also have very little tolerance for the expats who have little interest in learning about the place where they live and don’t make the slightest effort to learn the language (neither Catalan nor Spanish), something the Brits in Spain are famous for.  Most of the Brits I had met here so far don't watch and some don't even have receivers for Spanish television.  They are all connected via satellite with Britain.  And it is at events like this where you hear comments such as “The people here should learn English” referring to their doctor, the shopkeeper, or their car mechanic.  At this lunch one Brit complained about a restaurant they used to go to but stopped because it had been bought by Catalans and the food now was very Catalan.

But when I saw a winery tour scheduled for July, I signed up.  This, finally, was an activity that interested me.  The winery tour would be followed by lunch at a nearby restaurant and the whole event would take place very near Figueres, in two villages I had never visited.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I went.

Before the tour began I hear a woman speaking American English so I sidled up and introduced myself.  I and her husband L are from Richmond California, about twenty minutes from where I used to live in Berkeley.  It’s a small world.  They live in California but have a vacation home in Empuriabrava.  They, in turn, introduced me to the couple they were with, H and T who also have a vacation home in Empuriabrava.  H and T are Polish and live in London.

My parents were from Poland and it turned out that I had a lot in common with the Poles.  I could demonstrate the three Polish words I know (which translate to “I have to make pee pee”), they immediately started calling me by my Polish name, and, we sang Polish songs (I only sang one song that my parents used to sing and that somehow, I still remembered after more than 50 years).  I had a grand time.

Soon afterwards H and T invited me to their house for lunch.  Besides a lovely meal, we shared old photos and they told me about their war experiences.  At the end of the meal H brought out coffee and a very good-looking coffee cake.  I asked if she made it.  But no, she had bought it.  The Catalans don’t do coffee cakes so I asked her where she had found it, and they told me about this German bakery inside a German grocery in Empuriabrava, and gave me directions how to find it.

Two days later I was off to find the bakery.  Months ago, I had gotten fed up with toast every morning and had started baking my own sweet quick breads in order to have something nice with my morning coffee.  I was in the routine of baking every weekend, but lately it was simply too hot to turn on the oven.  This coffee cake thing would be a boon to my diet.

Empuriabrava is only about twenty minutes away, and the grocery was exactly where T said it would be.  In it were all kinds of interesting products that you would never find in a Spanish grocery store.  Much of it was appealing (especially the herring) but I wasn’t there for groceries; I was there for coffee cake.

And there it was at the bakery.  Trays and trays of coffee cakes.  Plum, cherry, apple, rhubarb (it’s rare to find rhubarb here so it isn’t surprising that most Catalans have no idea what it is).  I bought some plum and some rhubarb.

A week later, I went back and bought more.  Then, a week later, I went again.  Now my car was getting a regular weekly workout.  The last time I was there I mentioned to the saleswoman that I had come from Figueres.  “Oh,” she said.  “We have a shop in Figueres,” and she told me where.

Their shop is three blocks from my apartment.  How many times had I walked by and not noticed it?  And how long until I need to drive my car again?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Speeding Gonzales

First, there was the headline in a newspaper.  French drivers speeding in Spain will now be fined.  This is new?  Why wouldn’t they be fined before?

Later, it was the headline on television news.  French drivers speeding in Spain will now be fined, and Spanish drivers speeding in France will also now be fined.  What the heck?

Then the details: Spain and France have signed an agreement and starting that day (1 August) each country will release to the other the address of the owner of a car caught speeding on radar, thus allowing that country to send the notice of a fine in the mail.  For very serious infractions of the speed laws, driver license suspension or prison penalties may also be applied.  The countries will collaborate.

Now I understand a little better why I never see any police cars or planes patrolling the highways.  It's all done with radar.  The radars are announced in advance so that if you’re not a total idiot, you can slow down and then go back to speeding once you’ve passed by; although surprisingly, many people don’t do that.  There are also stationary controls of police that wave you over where you might be tested for drugs or alcohol levels.

Apparently, up until now, everyone knew that when they crossed the border, they were immune from fines.  Even if caught on radar, nothing would happen.  In November this exchange of information will be available to all the countries of the EU.  Will it make the highways any safer?  I’m not convinced.  But it could bring some extra cash into government coffers.  Maybe that’s why this novel idea of actually collecting fines has been approved.

Yet it’s interesting how so many Spanish drivers break the speed limits, and not by a little.  Do they get fined?  If only the drivers I see speeding were fined, this could raise mucho dinero for the empty public coffers.  On my recent drive in France, I noticed how, for the most part, the traffic moved together.  I think I passed more cars than passed me, and I wasn’t exceeding the limit.  That never ever happens in Spain.  I rarely pass a car here – only trucks, and I’ve never had the experience of moving along together with the cars around me except in deep, dense traffic.  What happens often is that I’m passed by drivers who zip by, passing me as if I were standing still.  If Speedy Gonzales was Mexican, his granddad was Spanish.