Friday, August 29, 2014

New Life, New Rules: Law and Order

Say you live in Barcelona.  It could be anywhere, but let’s say it’s in the old part of town – the Barri Gòtic, and to give it a touch of realism, let’s say it’s near the Plaça Reial.  The apartment is in the corner of a corner building and thus you have windows in every room and they give out onto two streets.  One of those streets is so narrow that if you are standing in it and even if you are only 5’3” you can, with the tips of your fingers, touch the buildings on either side.

Now let’s say you have neighbors who make too much noise.  They could be individuals who live in one of the nearby apartments – maybe even one in your building – or they could be businesses below, perhaps a bar with clients that spill onto the street where in their drunken delirium, they shout, pee, and generally carry on.  Barcelona has ordinances for the permissible level of noise, and it also controls, by licensing, the bars that can have outside terraces.  The bars below do not have that license, probably because the streets are too narrow and possibly but improbably because there are people living above.  People live above pretty much all the outside terraces and that doesn’t stop the city officials from giving out licenses left and right.

In that part of town, police surveillance is done by foot.  You might think that when the patrols come by and see or hear an infraction of a city ordinance, they would take action.  But no, they don’t.  It is up to you, the citizen, to call the police and complain if someone is doing something that is not only annoying, but also illegal.

So you call to say that your neighbor has their stereo on as loud as a disco, or that the bar downstairs, that can accommodate maybe 20 or 30 persons, has 80 people and they are out on the street drinking and shouting.  When the police arrive they can see and/or hear for themselves what is amiss, but even so, even though they know city ordinances better than you do, they will ring your bell and you will have to sign a complaint if you want the matter to be resolved.  Thus you show your i.d., as required, and you sign.

The police will then go and tell the offending party that they are disobeying a city ordinance.  They will be asked to turn down the noise and perhaps get rid of the extra clients, and maybe they have to sign something.  But there will be no fine imposed and nothing else will be done about it.  And the next , or the day after, you have the same problem.

If you call the police a second time for the same problem, you will be met with the same procedure.  You will have to sign a complaint, even if the police, who surely have eyes and ears, can see for themselves that someone is not obeying city ordinances.   No fine, no action.  If it happens a third time it will be the same.  And so on for the fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, possibly two-hundredth.  I have seen on the news where some legal action was finally taken against a bar or disco that had more than two hundred complaints formerly filed.

The question is, do you want to sign four or five or a hundred complaints?  Will that neighbor or bar-owner get angry enough with your interference to seek some sort of revenge?  They know who you are and where you live.

In a similar way there is the problem of the squatters or ocupes.  Let’s say that on the side of your apartment where you overlook the very narrow street, the building across that alley, the one you can touch when you’re on the ground, is empty – seemingly abandoned.  The door is boarded up, windows are hit or miss, and there are weeds growing on the roof and from some of the crevices in the stone walls that up to a certain point in time had given you the feeling that you were living in a village instead of a big city.  But no longer.  Now an unsavory bunch of people have moved in.  For the most part they are hidden in the shadows, except for when they hang out the window, talk to and leer at you when you’re in your bedroom just across from them.  Although they are probably drunk or high or both, you still worry that they could simply jump across to your balcony.  In any case, your privacy is gone.

So you call the police to say that someone seems to have entered and is living in an abandoned building and give them the location.  They ask you if you are the owner.  No, you’re not.  Well, only the owner can complain about squatters.

After a couple of months the ocupes, in their ignorance or stupor, start a fire.  It doesn’t take long for you to smell the smoke and then to see the flames – flames that soon enough are billowing out their window and almost entering into yours.  Immediately you call the emergency number to report a fire.  The firemen come quickly and end up using your apartment to spray water through the window of your bedroom into the window from where the squatter was disturbing your peace and privacy.

When it’s all over, you are grateful that the fire did not spread into your building.  Soon afterwards some workmen come to do a better job of sealing up the door and all openings at street level.  But in the end, the squatters came back, hoisting one another up to the second floor windows. 

It was at around that time that I decided that if I didn’t move from there, I would have a nervous breakdown.  All the ordinances in the world didn’t protect me from uncivil neighbors and illegal squatting that invaded my privacy and endangered my property and my life.  In fact, the system seemed designed to protect those who are committing illegal actions and leaving the average person to his own devices.  My device – my only option, as far as I could tell – was to get the hell out of there.

Friday, August 22, 2014

New Life: New Rules (A Lot of Theres There)

As long as street signs are in an alphabet you can read, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting around, even in a new country.  I brave the new highways and streets with a map and by asking directions.  I still have not succumbed to a GPS, and would prefer not to, in part because they seem to be only about 80% accurate here.  I like being an anachronism.  I like being different.  Between a paper map and Google, I hope I have all I need.

One day I went to the pharmacy to find it closed – it was probably an unexpected holiday.  On Sundays and holidays when the pharmacies are closed, there will be signs on their doors to tell you where you can find the pharmacy that is on holiday duty. There will always be at least one.  This one was on a street called Gonzalez de Soto and I set off to find it, asking directions of three people.  One person pointed one way, later another pointed back to where I had walked from, but no one seemed completely sure where this street was.  It turned out that each of the three had told me a part of the puzzle.  The problem was that what is Gonzalez de Soto on one block can be called Muntaner on the next one.  Like many streets, its name changes as you progress up or down.  So you need to keep a sharp, rotating eye, and an open mind.

If you look at the streets going east-west, from the top
La Rambla becomes Carrer Monturiol towards the right
Lasauca becomes La Rambla which then becomes Caamano
Collegi becomes Sant Llater
Gonzalez de Soto becomes Muntaner
Pere III becomes Fortia

You can be faced with other challenges if you venture out of town.  Last year I made friends with a Polish couple who live in London and have a vacation home here – in Empuriabrava.  Empuriabrava is a man-made series of canals, reclaimed from marshland, that house mostly vacation apartments and homes.  It sits on the coast and is Catalunya’s answer to Venice.  I thought it a tacky idea so I was very surprised on my first visit there to see how lovely it actually is.

Later, when I went to visit my new Polish friends for the first time, I found out how strange Empuriabrava really is.  I had their address and looked it up on Google.  There was a red marker, but it wasn’t clear to me that it showed a house on the lake as my friends had described.  They live on Carrer Sant Maurici.  What was so strange was that every street in the neighborhood goes by that same name.

What this Google map doesn't show is that the cross streets
are also named Sant Maurici

When I got there, I drove up and down the Sant Maurici I thought Google had marked, but couldn’t find their number.  In the end I called them.  “Where are you?”  they asked.  “I’m on Carrer Sant Maurici.”   So we met at a nearby supermarket from where I followed their car to the right house on the right street.  Was it just me?  No, most people have trouble finding them.  Later, back at home, further inspection revealed that the area adjacent to theirs is laid out in a similar way with all the streets being called Puigmal.

Friday, August 15, 2014

New Life; New Rules (Pillow Talk)

We came to live in Barcelona sequentially, on two different flights, on two different days.  My husband flew first because the apartment we bought would be empty so he had the task of buying us a bed.  I flew the next day with the cat.

Buying the bed hadn’t posed much of a problem and it was delivered the day I arrived.  But we had no linen so we went out together, to El Corte Ingles, the big department store, which is also where Manel had bought the bed.  A saleslady came to help us and showed us many big, bold, brazen designs in polyester before I managed to find a set of nicely woven pale green cotton sheets that would fit our matrimonial (double) bed.  However, upon closer inspection of the package, it seemed there was only one pillow case. 

I thought that was strange for a bed for two people, but the saleslady assured me that it was normal.  I said I wanted two pillow cases.  She told me I could cut the one in half and make two.  I was getting angry.  What kind of disrespectful customer service was that.

So the question was, where could I find a second pillowcase?  She walked us to the shelves with pillowcases.  They were all white.  Did everyone make their bed with one pillow in a big bold design and the other white?  The saleslady shrugged.  I bought a white one.

Having survived that unpleasant episode, we were off to the pillow section.  And that is where we discovered, from a pleasant young man, that the pillow for a matrimonial bed is a long tube that runs from one side of the bed to the other.  Two people; one pillow.

When you move to a new place, a new country, a new culture, you expect you will be confronted with many differences and much to learn, not least of which will be a new language.  But whoever would have thought that in Spain they have matrimonial pillows that look like giant white hotdogs, and that you are supposed to share. 

Photo credit: TripAdvisor

Friday, August 8, 2014

Figueres During the Spanish Civil War

Figueres was one of the cities most bombed during the Spanish Civil War.  This was especially true near the end of the war, in late 1938 and early 1939, when thousands of Spaniards passed through it on their way out of Spain and into exile.  Added to those on the refugee route, there was the special target of Castell Ferran, a large military fort on the hill above the town (still standing) where the governments of the Spanish Republic and of the Generalitat of Catalunya had set up temporary headquarters.

Spain had thrown out its monarchy, elected a government, and became a republic when General Franco started an uprising.  His allies were Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Fascist Portugal.  Both the Germans and Italians helped with the bombing of Figueres.  But the free world did not rally behind democratically-elected Republican Spain.  France, England, the United States, Canada, all the great western powers were neutral and quiet and even went so far as to ensure that no material aid could reach the legitimate Republican government.  The Spanish Republic did receive some aid from the Soviet Union and from Mexico.  Most notably the Spanish Republic received thousands of private citizens from the United States, France, England, and all over the world who came to volunteer in the International Brigades.

Currently on display in Figueres, in the Museu de l’Empordà is an exhibit entitled “Silencis: Figueres Sota Les Bombes, 1938-1939” (Silences: Figueres Under The Bombs).  It consists of a video, of testimonies, and of photographs of some of the older people who live here now and who lived here then and who were witnesses to the bombing. It is titled Silences because many of them say that their parents never talked about those days.  Nevertheless, they have never forgotten.

"When I returned to Figueres, my spirit fell to my feet.
I didn't know anyone.  It was all soldiers and Arabs.
The streets were dirty; the houses fallen to the ground.
I didn't find my friends.  It affected me a lot."
Franco's allies were Nazis and fascists, but a good deal of his manpower came from Morocco: 136,000 Moroccan fighters fought with Franco's troops, thus the reference above to the Arabs.

"My friend died decapitated.
She was wearing a new dress and her mother told her not to get it dirty.
When the bombs fell, everyone lay on the ground except her."

"When the sirens sounded we went to the entrance,
under the arches of the stairway.  My grandfather never came down.
He said "What the fuck!  If one has to go down, they can
just as well crush me here as below."

This lady is holding the Catalan
and Spanish Republic flags.

Spaniards also died in German camps, mostly at Mauthausen.
They were sent by Franco to his friend Hitler.

Photo credits:  All portraits by Jordi Puig

Friday, August 1, 2014

Deviant Dalí

The Teatre-Museu Dalí in Figueres is one of the most-visited museums in Spain.  In the two years that I’ve lived in Figueres, I’ve never gone in.  I did see it once, many years ago during my first visit to Catalunya, when I came for a vacation with Manel.  I didn’t like it then.  I still remember having the sensation, after the visit, of having just experienced the world’s biggest ego.  I am not a fan of big egos.

When I took my first art history survey course in high school, I thought Salvador Dalí was cool and went so far as to buy myself a postcard of one of his paintings with the melting clocks – most likely The Persistence of Memory.  But my admiration didn’t last.  Genius and excellent draftsman he might be, but I don’t enjoy looking at his paintings.  Eventually my taste went to painters more interested in showing the beauty in the world than the ugliness, and later still, when I found out a little more about the man, I decided I didn’t like the person.

So you might wonder why it is that I recently joined the Friends of the Dalí Museums Association.  Acquaintances told me about it, and it seemed a reasonable way to avail myself of some cultural activity and stimulation.  The association puts on lectures and field trips, and you get unlimited access to the Figueres museum as well as his two properties on the Costa Brava.  The man was born and lived here, and I would never deny that he was a genius.  So why not get better acquainted with his work?

Dalí’s museum is housed in what once was the town’s theater.  Having been destroyed by fire, Dalí took it over and created his museum in the remains.  He designed every aspect of the new building and all the exhibits.  When I think of Dalí, I think of painting.  But he employed every possible means, and some impossible means, to express himself. 

Last night the Friends of the Dalí Museum had a celebration.  This month marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres and the Friends were eager to mark the important day.  And clearly, it is important as it is virtually the only important tourist attraction that Figueres has to offer.

The celebration began at the Plaça de Les Palmeres where there was a photo exhibit related to the building and opening of the museum 40 years ago.  Nearby, in the old slaughter house/now cultural exhibit space, hangs another photo exhibit of Dalí.  These are historic photos from the Spanish press – one of which shows Walt Disney and his wife visiting Dalí and his wife Gala at their home on the Costa Brava.

Disney, Gala, Disney's wife, Dali
at the Dali home in Port Lligat

Uniforms of the Spanish women's water ballet team
at the Barcelona Olympics

There were two speeches, some milling around, and then we all headed off, following the Salvador and Gala giants, assorted cap grossos (big heads) and a band of musicians, through the streets of Figueres, past terraces full of waving tourists, up to the Theatre-Museum.

A familiar face

The main event was inside the museum, in the theater and consisted of a performance by Laia Vehí and her trio.  They had been introduced and when they came onto the stage, they offered no other introduction and started right in with the music.  It quickly dawned on me that Laia was not singing in Catalan – she was singing in English.  But somehow, I could only understand the odd word here or there.  Maybe it wasn’t English after all.

Eventually Laia did speak.  She is Catalan, she is a singer-songwriter, and her songs are exclusively in English.  She has a pleasant voice and sometimes uses it more as percussion than as melody.  This she does not in the manner of scat, but repeated blasts of a single syllable of the word that had just been sung.  Something like uhv-uhv-uhv-uhv, following the word love.

One doesn’t normally get to enter the Dalí museum at night, so, sitting there (without my camera) in that fantastic space surrounded by all the bizarre images and sculptures, it didn’t seem completely surprising that this young woman would be hammering out nonsensical English to a Catalan audience that didn’t understand a word.  In fact, at one point I came to the conclusion that she wasn’t so much singing as sculpting words.  In any case, while the singing took some getting used to, I thought the music – her guitar, the bass, and the drums, were wonderful.  Is this what surrealism is about?   I look forward to what else the Dalí Association has in store for me.