Monday, December 7, 2015

The Constant Pilgrim

One of the first things I did when I moved to Figueres was to go to the tourist office and study maps to see where I could walk, on a path or trail outside the city, somewhere close by where I wouldn’t have to take the car in order to get to the trail.

The only path I found is called locally the Via Lactia (Milky Way) which is a short segment of the longer Cami de Sant Jaume – the route through Catalunya that pilgrims of old took to get to Santiago de Compostela – in other words, the Camino.

Google maps tells me my walk is 3.2 kilometers long and takes 38 minutes, one way.  It actually takes me closer to an hour one way, but never mind.  I do this walk several times a week, sometimes with company and sometimes just me and little Cupcake.

Someone here asked me once if it doesn’t get boring always doing the same walk.  No, it doesn’t.  For one thing the scenery is always changing: sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes cloudy or foggy; sometimes the fields are green, then the corn grows and it’s golden, then it starts to turn a light brown.  And then, once a year, you find that between yesterday morning and today, someone has come by and harvested all the corn leaving stubby bare stalks.   Sometimes there's a field full of alyssum that almost looks like snow.  Sometimes there is snow in the nearby mountains and sometimes there are egrets or a grey heron looking for their breakfast.

Today was a grey and dismal day.  But grey days can also be beautiful, and I seem to enjoy the fields no matter what the weather.   Once at the village there is the warmth of a cafè amb llet and Cupcake’s sweet face. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Capable and Courageous Woman

She has a degree in philosophy and a master’s in Catalan Philology.  Her professional life has been in education; she’s written textbooks, books on language and literature, and a dictionary.  Involved in cultural organizations, in 2012 she was elected president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a grassroots organization that had, at that time, 5,000 members and was working for the right of Catalans to vote on a referendum on Catalan independence. 

That year, the ANC organized a demonstration in favor of independence that took place in Barcelona on 11 September, Catalunya’s national day, and 1.5 million people took part.  On 11 September 2013 the ANC organized the Via Catalana cap a la Independencia, a human chain that stretched 480 kilometers (300 miles) from the French border in the north to the Valencian border in the south.   Thirty thousand volunteers worked so that the 1.6 million people who came could demonstrate in an organized and orderly manner.  On September 11, 2014, the ANC organized a demonstration in the form of a V (for victory) on two major boulevards of Barcelona and 1.8 million people came.  On 11 September 2015 the ANC organized the Via Lliure, a demonstration that stretched along the 5.2 kilometers of the Avinguda Meridiana in Barcelona and where 2 million people held up colored cardboard cards, each color representing a value such as freedom or dignity.

Carme Forcadell stepped down from her position as president of the ANC and a few months later was drafted to run on the coalition ticket Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) at the last Catalan parliamentary elections that took place on 27 September 2015.  Junts pel Si won 62 seats and Forcadell, being number two on the ticket, became a member of the Catalan parliament.

On 26 October, Carme Forcadell was elected president of the Catalan Parliament.  In the short time since then, the Junts pel Si coalition and the CUP, the other pro-independence party that won 10 seats, giving pro-independence parties the majority of seats in parliament, drafted a proposal that would begin the breakaway from Spain, to be discussed at the first meeting this coming Monday, 9 November.  The office of president of the Generalitat (the Catalan government) will also be voted that day.  Several opposing parties immediately took the matter to the Spanish Constitutional Court, but the court, in an unusually wise move, ruled that it could not impede a discussion in parliament.

When the matter is discussed and approved on Monday, it will be interesting to see what happens next.  It is clear that the Constitutional Court will take a negative action.  And it is possible that the Spanish government will accuse Forcadell of criminal activity for her responsibility in bringing the proposal before the parliament.  But one of the items in the breakaway proposal says that the Spanish courts are not creditable and no longer have jurisdiction over Catalunya.

The United States fought a war in order to achieve its independence.  Catalunya is trying to achieve the same thing but without any violence.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Gemma, one of my doggy friends, had made arrangements to adopt a black kitten that had been rescued and was waiting for a home in a shelter in Palafolls.  Gemma doesn’t have a car, and she asked if someone could take her, and I thought, why not?  But because I had never been to Palafolls, nor had Gemma, and neither of us had a sound idea of how to get there, we invited Josep, who knows these things and is lively company, to come with us. 

Josep has lots of experience driving on- and off-road throughout the area, both in autos and on motorcycles.  As we drove along, he knew in advance that there would be a gas station after the next curve or a restaurant that had great breakfasts after another.  But in fact, he had never been to Palafolls either.  Not to worry.  Palafolls is about an hour away, on the way to Barcelona via the slow road, and is near to but not on the coast.  I had looked it up on a map at home, Josep turned on his cellphone GPS, and off we went.

We took the deadly national highway II, which is a two-lane road, distinguished by the singular use of Roman numerals (for the first few years I thought it was highway 11), where many fatal accidents occur.  Even so, it is not as deadly as the national highway 340 in the area where I lived before in the south of Catalunya.  With that in mind, it is relatively safe and I was relatively relaxed.

Winding along our way, conversation was continuously interrupted by the repeated announcement of the GPS lady telling us that “The GPS signal has been lost.”   We heard this fact at least twenty times, but not once did the lady provide us with a single instruction. 

Palafolls boasts some beautiful old masies (farmhouses) and a castle.  We didn’t see any of those.  We did see the façade of the 19th century church of Santa Maria and had our coffee at a very large and lively café that, on a weekday morning, was teaming with people.

The black kitty had to be chipped, and Gemma had lots of papers to complete for the adoption.  Finally, cat in carrier, we set off for home with Batman.

Credits: Batman photo by Gemma

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Rumba Catalana in the Wee Morning Hours

Figueres hosts a yearly music festival called Acustica that will start on Thursday and continue through Sunday.  Some of the concerts charge admission but most of them are free.  I’ve never gone to any of them, not being a fan of performances that begin at 10 pm or midnight, although I can’t help but hear some of them that take place just a few blocks away, from the comfort of my own home, so to speak.

But my doggie friends are talking about going.  There’s a group that they’re interested in and in fact, I’m interested too.  The group is called Gertrudis.  I have a couple of cuts of theirs on a CD that V made for me.  They are a Catalan group from Barcelona that plays rumba catalana (rumba catalana is what the Gypsy Kings, also a Catalan group but from Perpignan, play), although Gertrudis' music is actually more of a fusion with flamenco, cumbia, reggae, and others.

Click here for a sample.

The problem is that their performance begins at 2 am.  Really.  V thought it read 2 in the afternoon on Thursday.  But I knew better.  No concert here ever starts at 2 in the afternoon.  I took a close look at the program and it says Thursday, 02:00h.  The discussion at the dog park this evening was, if it means 2 am, shouldn’t it read Friday?  Or is it 2 am on Thursday morning?  Just to say, I’m the only foreigner in the group!  It seems that even they – the natives – don’t know what to make of a concert that starts at 2 am.

In any case, I think some of them will be going (hoping that they’ve zeroed in on the right time and the right day).  And the question is: will I go with them?  In general, at 2 am on any day of the week, if I’m not asleep, I feel like hell.  Then again, it would be yet another adventure.

To go, or not to go, that is the question.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Nighttime Pilgrimage

Vilabertran is a small village with a population of 913, about two kilometers (a mile and a quarter) from Figueres, if you take the direct path – an old dirt road where vehicles rarely pass.  This old dirt path is part of the Camino de Santiago, known in France as the Chemin du Saint Jacques, and in Catalunya as the Camí de Sant Jaume.

The Camino is not a single track that begins in France, enters Spain at Roncesvalles, and ends in Santiago de Compostela as many people believe.  Pilgrims in the middle ages would come to Santiago from all over the Christian world and that world was extensive.  Those who arrived from the east of France, via Narbonne, or via the Mediterranean would have walked along my little path, now marked with the well-known scallop shell.

Vilabertran caught my interest soon after I moved to Figueres because (1) getting there provides an easy, pleasant walk through farmland, and (2) once you get there you can explore the beautiful medieval complex of Santa Maria, a church, monastery, and cloister dating from the 11th century.

Lately I’ve taken to walking there often with two friends from my doggy group, one of whom informed me that last year he came one evening to hear a group of Mariachis (who, he said were pretty bad).  It turned out that Mariachis were also on this year’s program, so we decided we would go and that the doggy group should also come.

There were four of us (and four dogs, although my little one stayed at home) on the first ever doggy group nighttime walk to Vilabertran.  The Mariachis weren’t as bad as we had feared, perhaps because we had fortified ourselves with wine and beer before the performance.  However, my glass of wine did nothing to alleviate the discomfort I felt sitting on the grass for two hours.  A week later, my neck and back still hurt.

If Mariachis are not popular among dog-lovers, Country music is even less so, and for the second ever nighttime walk to Vilabertan, there were only two of us (and one dog).  This time, however, the performance took place in a plaza where there were two bars so we could sit in chairs and sip white wine and eat roasted red peppers stuffed with brandade of cod.  This was much better. 

What was surprising was the fact that about a quarter of the audience was up doing line dancing.  I’ve never seen anyone doing line dancing until I came to Catalunya.  Is it is as popular in the U.S. as it is here?

I’ve done the walk to Vilabertran countless times – many times alone, and lately with company.  But it is notably different when you walk at night.  In spite of the fact that the path is not lit, for the most part you can see enough not to fall over (or plunge into a puddle left from the last rain – puddles shine in the dark!).  I thought I’d be groping but in fact I could walk fairly comfortably for most of the way.  Going there in twilight you get a sense of tranquility that you don’t get during the day.  Although you can’t see much of the surrounding fields, coming back in the dark you get a good whiff of the aromas -- fennel, mint, among others -- that are enhanced by the night air.

Next week will be Rumba – the music of the Catalan gypsies.  I wonder how many doggy people will show up for that.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dancing with Lobsters

Recently, a group of us dog-park regulars, who are starting to coalesce into a group, were invited to the masia (an old farmhouse) owned by Patricia, one of the doggy people.  We were going to eat arros amb llamantol (rice with lobster) made by Josep, one of the other doggy people.  

And of course, dogs were invited too (although they were served dog food which all five dogs managed to eat out of one bowl with no fights, not even a growl).

We carpooled, as not everyone drives.  I picked up the chef at the market where he had gone early that morning to buy the fresh lobsters that he had ordered in advance.  We picked up Gemma, her son, and their rescued greyhound and drove over to the gas station where we were to meet some of the others and, most importantly, Patricia who would lead us out to the masia.

An hour and a quarter after arriving at the designated gas station meeting point, we finally headed out for the country.  Catalans are not known for their punctuality although I have heard that they are more punctual than people in the rest of Spain.  Getting a late start did little to dampen our spirits or keep us from enjoying the heck out of the day.

The masia is located on a hillside near the Costa Brava village of L’Escala.  It is old, simple, and totally charming, as was our hostess.  “Make yourselves at home,” she told us, and we did.

There were ten of us.  I was the oldest in a group that ranged from 32 to 67 (not counting the child).  As the only foreigner I wanted to contribute something not Catalan for an appetizer and so I brought my famous guacamole.  This was a hit and helped tide us over during the two hours it took for Josep to cook.

Getting ready to cook

Smokers waiting.  Several roll their own.

Rice with lobster is an incredible, aromatic, and richly flavored Catalan dish that deserves international fame.  

Eaten in far less time than it took to make, we then turned our energy to dancing.  With the dancing came gin and tonics for some of the hardy ones and that eventually led to those who were drunk as well as those who were simply young at heart getting everyone else soaking wet.  A huge bucket that kept the wine and beer cool was used at first, eventually being replaced by the far more efficient method of the garden hose.  Not being drunk or all that young at heart, I thought they’d forget about me (or let me pass because of my superior age), but no.  I got my dose too.

It was a fine day. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Seat 600

The Seat 600 was built in Barcelona from 1957 to 1973 under license from Fiat.  It was an inexpensive little car that was for Spain what the VW beetle was for Germany or the Fiat 500 was for Italy -- allowing many families to hit the road.  There are still some -- either restored or very well maintained -- putt-putting around.  A group of owners gather each year to show off their wheels and parade around town at the Figueres festa major.  And when they do, I always try to be around with my camera.  I would get one if I could afford it!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Bagels have come to Spain!  It may not seem like a big deal to you, but I hadn’t had a bagel in 14 years, so imagine my joy when I saw Thomas Bagels advertised on TV.  Not surprisingly, they aren’t as good as ones you get from a bakery, but hey.  I’m on my third package and enjoying the heck out of bagels, lox, and cream cheese, although here they say Philadelphia rather than cream cheese.

Sometimes I get annoyed with the narrow selection of products available here.  No graham crackers, no real vanilla extract, no fresh (or frozen) cranberries, no corn meal, no corn tortillas, (and very little fresh corn which is used for animal feed rather than human consumption) no yams, and sweet potatoes only in the fall and winter.  On the other hand, I just read an article that said that having too much choice (as in an American supermarket) was stressful.  And it’s true.  I suffer from very little stress these days, and for that I am grateful.

Now I’m waiting for English Muffins.  I hope those don’t take another 14 years to arrive.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Jews of Poland in Castelló d’Empúries

It was last October that I went to see an exhibit that one wouldn’t expect to find here.  In fact I wouldn’t have known about it at all if my Polish friends who vacation nearby hadn’t told me.  They are Polish Catholics and knew about the exhibit because it was housed in the church that they attend when they’re here. 

Titled “And I Continue to See Their Faces: Photographs of Polish Jews” the exhibit was the work of a Polish organization called The Shalom Foundation that in 1994 started a campaign asking for people to send them photographs.  So far they have received 9,000 images from people in Poland as well as many other countries such as Israel, Venezuela, Brazil, the U.S.A., Italy, Argentina, or Canada.  Some of the contributors were relatives, some friends or neighbors; all of them had kept the photos for over 50 years.  The oldest contributor was 90 and the youngest was 12 years old.

The organizers say that those who helped to save someone from the Holocaust are called “The Just.”  But they believe that The Just also includes those who have done something to preserve someone’s memory.

This beautiful collection of photographs was first exhibited in 1996 in Warsaw and has since traveled to over 40 cities around the world, including Frankfurt, Munich, Hamburg, Saint Petersburg, Brussels, The Hague, Prague, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, and Castelló d’Empúries!  Castelló is nearby.  The exhibit was hung in the Basílica de Santa Maria – the village church which, oddly enough, includes a Star of David in its architecture.  Some of the photos reminded me of ones from my parents’ albums.