Tuesday, December 12, 2023

This Blog Has Moved

 If you follow my blog, you might want to make note of this new blog address. A few years ago this platform stopped providing a means for readers and followers to subscribe to email notifications of new posts. Now you have to come take a look to see if there is something new, or ask me directly to send you a notice. For that reason and since I don't post on a regular schedule, I have moved the blog to Wordpress which does have the feature of automatic notification for anyone who wants it. There, on the right of the page, you can sign up for the newsletter. This will bring any new post directly to you in an email. 

I hope you continue to follow and read this blog, and I hope you sign up for the automatic notifications. And if you like the blog, tell your friends!

Happy Trails!

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sweet Pea the Pilgrim


Sweet Pea has come a long way from how she was when I first adopted her in early June. At that time, she didn’t seem to me to be frightened; she didn’t shake or cower, she ate, she pooped, she liked to be petted, she seemed normal. But when you adopt a dog whose history you know nothing about, and one who has just spent a month in a shelter, you don’t really know what normal is.

Normal began to manifest itself after a couple of months. That is when she would meet me at the door when I came in, jumping like a mad person. It was the same when it was time for a walk and I went to change my shoes – something I could hardly do because she was jumping up and down and running all around, and I couldn’t get my laces tied. And all of a sudden she just had a lot more energy. She walked faster and could go farther.

What took longer was to see her begin to enjoy walking out in the fields. One of my greatest pleasures with Cupcake was to go walking out in the fields, or the woods, or at the beach. He enjoyed it as much as I did, if not more. So it was disappointing when Sweet Pea didn’t seem to like it. I had no idea if it was too hot, or if she was afraid, or if she was urban dog who had never been in that kind of environment where there were no buildings or sidewalks, new smells, and she could walk without a leash. Maybe she felt uncomfortable being untethered?

But now, finally, she has joined the doggy walking hall of fame. Today, for the second time, she did the whole circular route – about an hour’s walk, in the fields by Vilabertran. She did it at a good clip, looking like she was collecting data to add to her lift list and enjoying herself.

The path we take around the fields is one short section of the Camino de Santiago. For any pilgrim, the Camino begins at his door. Over the centuries, many routes were established. Now, there are 281 Caminos listed, encompassing more than 51,500 miles of routes through 29 different countries. Forty-nine of them are in Spain, and these cover almost 9,940 miles. One of those connects the Monastery of Santa Maria in Vilabertran with the Sant Pere church in Figueres.

Although I just go out there to enjoy walking with no cars around, breathe the fresh air, and observe the changing crops and Pyrenees Mountains in the distance, I am aware that for many, the Camino is a religious observation and I always feel that when I walk on that path, I am taking part in an historical activity.

In the early Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela became the third most important pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Making a pilgrimage was one of the most important things you could do to save your immortal soul in those days. By the 13th century 500,000 pilgrims would be walking the Camino each year. Walking the Camino has made a comeback in modern times and whereas in 1985, about 800 people walked enough sections of the Camino to be counted, in 2019 that number jumped to 350,000. They came from 190 countries. In addition to the land routes, there are maritime routes. The longest of these is the Antarctic Route (Camino Antártico) that begins at the Spanish research base, Gabriel de Castilla on Deception Island, 8745 miles from Santiago.

Sweet Pea and I are not being counted. We have not signed up for our Camino Passport and we do not wear scallop shells, although we do see the shell symbol on posted signs that we pass and in the pavement near the monastery. We don’t do the walk for religious reasons and we are not headed for Santiago, but walking out there is good for your soul whether you are religious or not.

1 October


How could it be possible in any democracy that voting would be a crime?

1 October 2023, marked six years since the Catalans voted on a referendum to decide whether or not they wanted to remain part of Spain. The Spanish state did everything it could to stop the vote. They deemed it illegal, they hunted down anyone who might be printing the ballots, or making any other kinds of preparations, and when it looked like all their efforts to find the millions of printed ballots had failed, they sent in 20,000 troops and housed them on large ships in Barcelona harbor, ships that had Tweety and other cartoon characters painted on the sides. At first it made them look like fools, but on the day, they looked like fascists.

On 1 October 2017, these troops donned their riot gear and dressed in black they went out and beat up hundreds of unarmed citizens who had gone to polling places to vote. Young, old, it didn’t matter. Catalans were the enemy. The images of police in riot gear bludgeoning unarmed people, some elderly, others with children in tow, were captured on countless photos and videos and were shown on pretty much every news media around the world, although it isn’t clear if they saw any of it on Spanish television.

Afterwards, the New York Times repeatedly reported on the “botched” referendum, as if the failure had been because of some sort of incompetence of the Catalans, and always added that it had been illegal.

The Charter of the United Nations states that all peoples have a right to self-determination. That is what the referendum was about. The question it was asking was Voleu que Catalunya sigui un estat independent en forma de república? Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic? (Note that Spain is not a republic, it is a monarchy.) People could vote yes or no. Since there had been no agreement with the Spanish government, the referendum was not binding, so that it was really only a measure of what Catalan citizens wanted. But even that was enough to frighten Spaniards.

Over two and a quarter million people turned out to vote that day, that is, 43 percent of registered voters turned out in spite of government threats. Slightly more than 92 percent of them voted Yes; and less than 8 percent voted No.

It seemed to me that all those intellectuals who read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times, the EU, and all the rest of them, would stop to ask themselves how it could be in a democracy that voting on a referendum would be illegal? And how could they buy it that peaceful, unarmed people who were going to drop ballots could be violently attacked by riot police (they had seen the videos) and then be called terrorists by the Spanish media and the Spanish government.

There were 1066 reported cases of victims of police violence on the day of voting – that is, people who showed up at clinics and hospitals to be treated for wounds. One man lost an eye when he was hit in the face with a rubber bullet. Rubber bullets are illegal in Catalonia and Catalan police cannot use them, but Spanish police are a law unto themselves. To watch them on the television that day was to see a reincarnation of the German Nazi bullies who enjoyed hurting people who had no way of defending themselves.

One thousand four hundred and thirty-two people have been investigated for criminal acts connected to the referendum. Not all of them have come to trial, but each one has had to find legal help and live through the nightmare that criminal investigation engenders. Although when I looked it up on the internet, I was told that in Spain, jury trial “is deeply embedded in its constitutional evolution,” I have lived in Spain for over twenty years and don’t remember ever hearing of even one jury trial in the country. As in all trials, the so-called Catalan terrorists and traitors have been tried by judges. And judges are all appointed by the government in power, whether that is the Popular Party or the Socialist Party, both of which are vehemently anti-independence. They have to be because you can’t win a general Spanish election if you support Catalonia, much less Catalan independence.

Back to the New York Times. It was Rafael Minder, their former correspondent from Madrid who continuously wrote that the referendum was botched – a loaded word. He has since left the NY Times, hopefully they got rid of him because of his botched work as a supposedly unbiased and knowledgeable journalist (I can say that because I am not a journalist, I am a blogger) but maybe he went on to the greener pastures of the Financial Times under a bright sun.

When you think that with 20,000 additional police (many of them paramilitary) sent to prevent a peaceful civilian mobilization of citizens from voting, and yet two and a quarter million people did vote (on printed ballots that all the Spanish police never could find ahead of time), the Catalan referendum was not really botched at all. It was a great success. Sadly for the Catalans, independence is still off somewhere, beyond the horizon, but I hope that at some point Americans and others begin to give them some support. After all, wasn’t it in 1776 that we Americans won our own independence? It’s not such a new concept.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Two Visits

Whereas I usually get maybe one visit during a year, this year I had a visit in February, another in April, and in the last week I’ve had two. All these visits are special for me because they are always old friends coming from the U.S. So these last two were of course both special, but the first even more so because he is an ex-husband, and you don’t tend to get many of those. Never mind that I have three. Joe was my second husband and we hadn’t had any contact for at least twenty-five years until he emailed me about two months ago to say he was coming to Spain and would I like to meet up.

It wasn’t as hard as it might have been to pick him out of the crowd when I picked him up at the AVE train station. I hadn’t seen any recent photo, but Joe is six feet tall and there aren’t many of those here either. So I just had to look at the tall men and see if I could find one that was in any way recognizable. When I saw him, I thought “maybe,” but when he recognized me, the question was answered. I think we had both changed considerably in those twenty-five years, and I never would have known him if we had just been passing on the street.

It’s odd to be with someone who you were very close to years ago but who now is a stranger. And yet, for the most part, people don’t change much and that began to be apparent after a short while. Joe is in construction and I knew he would be interested in buildings and architecture, so our sightseeing was based around that: the beautiful medieval village of Besalú, of course, and the medieval monastery of Santa Maria at Vilabertran. This ensemble is one of the best-preserved examples of Romanesque architecture in Catalonia. The church is the oldest part of the complex; inaugurated in 1100. The cloister and remaining buildings date from the 12th century. But this visit had more to do with talking than with sightseeing.

The bridge at Besalú

Santa Maria de Vilabertran

Next to come was Srul with his wife Ora. I never met Ora before, but I’ve known Srul most of my life, even if we haven’t lived in the same place for most of it. I was his counselor in a youth organization we both belonged to in Los Angeles; I knew his parents and I know his brother. We hadn’t seen each other for probably something like thirty years, but in the last few years we have stayed in touch via Facebook so at least I knew what he looked like when I picked them up at the train. It was easy: the tall, slender guy wearing that cloth hat that he wears for every photo opportunity. When I saw the hat I knew I had found my man.

For Srul and Ora, I think the highlight of our sightseeing, since both of them do ceramics, was La Bisbal d’Empordà, the ceramics capital of Catalonia, where we visited the Terracotta Ceramics Museum. I love ceramics: I collect a little, I eat off of interesting plates and bowls, I visit La Bisbal from time to time and pick up a piece or two, and I had ceramic pieces from several workshops including two from La Bisbal in my shop, when I had a shop. But I had never been to the museum.

Housed in a former ceramics factory built in 1922, the museum has some of the old kilns, chimneys, machinery, and many examples of old and new, functional and decorative ceramics. Since the beginning of the 20th century, ceramics has been one of the main drivers of the local economy, the clay and forests nearby making that possible. All of us, both the potters and the collector, found the museum fascinating. The only thing missing was a good museum shop where we could spend some money! But that deficiency was taken care of the next day in Besalú where, in addition to that splendid medieval bridge, there is one of the best gift shops in the area.

I now have a month to plan the itinerary for my next visitors. This will have been a bumper year.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Romp Around the U.S.


Tony James Slater is a funny guy who writes funny books. I’ve heard say he’s a Brit, and I’ve also heard that he’s from Australia. Not being satisfied with either, he is both. He is also one eccentric guy who likes to travel, and if you want to take an eccentric trip while lying on your couch with your dog or cat, then this is the book for you.

Tony says he’s clueless, yet he manages to see past the surface to the core and the humor of things, because things are only really funny when they’re true. Tony sees the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner, and that means he doesn’t take it all for granted and will point out things you’ve known all your life but never noticed.

A lot cheaper than taking a cross-country trip and paying for the gas yourself, you are invited to join Tony on his.

It's called Alligators Eat Marshmallows (And Other Things I Learned on my 10,000 Mile Road Trip Around The USA!) and is available in print or ebook on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Holy Mother of God

Today is the 15th of August. It’s a holiday here: Mare de Déu d'Agost, also known as Assumpció de la Mare de Déu (Mary’s ascension into heaven) or simply called l’Assumpció.

I’m not Catholic and when I first came to live in Catalonia I was confused by all the Mares de Déu. As far as I knew, there was only one Virgin Mary. Holy Moley! How could they celebrate so many?

They are scattered throughout the year: Mare de Déu de la Mercè, Mother of God of Mercy, in Barcelona in September; Mare de Déu del Carme, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron saint of seafaring communities, celebrated in July up and down the Catalan coast. Then there is Mare del Déu de Setembre, better known as Immaculada. That’s when the holy virgin Maria was born. That’s celebrated on the 8th of September. There are others, but I don’t remember them all. In fact, none of my Catalan friends could name them all.

In addition to the holidays, there are the statues. These are referred to en masse as “les maresdedeu trobades” (the found mothers of God). These are antique statues that, legend says, were hidden during the time of the Muslim rule. They would be found by a farmer in the woods or in a field and taken to the local church. Sometimes it would subsequently disappear and be found again where it was found the first time. In some cases this happened several times.

The statues are from the 13th century, the Romanesque period. They are made of painted wood and have the Virgin seated, with the baby Jesus on her right knee often with a ball with a cross in her left hand. Sometimes in her right hand she will be holding a fruit or a bird.

These Mares de Déu would be named for the place where they were found, so there is the Mare de Déu de Núria, Mare de Déu de Queralt, Mare de Déu de Meritxell (not a place name) in Andorra, and the most famous and celebrated in Catalonia, Mare de Déu de Montserrat. There are at least a dozen others just in Catalonia, near me is the Mare de Déu de Mont, and more in other parts of Spain.

These statues are considered to have been born (again) when they were found, and so are celebrated on the same day as the birth of Mary, l’Immaculada.

So many Marys, so many holidays, and it’s so quiet outside. Everyone has their own way of celebrating but it’s August, all the shops are closed, it’s very hot, and everyone is probably at the beach or up in the mountains. I doubt that many of them are thinking about holy virgins.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Fire, Wind, and War in Portbou

Photo: Emporda Info
Wildfires terrify me. Unfortunately I have always lived in places prone to them. First there was southern California, then northern California, and now Catalonia. These are places that are relatively dry and that get hot in the summer. California gets the hot Santa Ana desert wind usually for a week or two in September. But the tramuntana blows on and off throughout the summer and the rest of the year. That makes summer fire season especially dangerous.

Tramontane is a classical name for a northern wind. The word comes from the Latin for beyond or across the mountains and it referred to the Alps. The word is also used to refer to someone who comes from beyond the mountains or anyone who is foreign or strange. More or less the same word is used throughout the Mediterranean. In Croatia it is called tramontana, in France it is tramontane, and in Catalonia it is tramuntana. There is a saying in Catalan culture (especially in the Empordà) that refers to a person as touched by tramuntana (tocat per la tramuntana) when they behave oddly or seemly lost their marbles. Salvador Dalí was often referred to as someone tocat per la tramuntana in his native Empordà.

I moved to Figueres, in the Empordà, in June 2012. Two weeks later in July, there was a huge fire that started in La Jonquera, the last inland town along the major highway before the French border and not far north of here. I could smell it before I knew there was a wildfire. I had my windows closed even before the authorities told us to, making it very hot at home. I was making plans in my head for how to evacuate with my two cats, but in the end it wasn’t necessary.

Yesterday in the late afternoon a fire started near Portbou, the last village on the coast before you cross the border into France. So far it has burned over 575 hectares and caused the highway and railroad to be closed. This means that people who live or are vacationing in either Portbou or neighboring Colera and Llança haven’t been able to enter or leave since yesterday evening. They also have no electricity, water or phone. Those who have been evacuated from their homes or camping sites are being lodged at the civic center, attended to by the Catalan government and the Red Cross. Over 200 Catalan and French firefighters are fighting the fire, but helicopters and airplanes that would drop water can’t fly when the wind blows at over 70 miles an hour, so containment has been difficult.

Portbou is a small village with a big history. Now it serves as a summer holiday spot, but historically it was important during two wars.

During the Spanish Civil War between 200,000 and half a million Spaniards (the number depends on your source) fled Spain within weeks of Franco’s troops taking Barcelona in late January 1939. Called La Retirada (The Retreat), many of them crossed the Pyrenees at Portbou.

Photo: Robert Capra

On 26 September 1940, during World War II and the German occupation of France, Walter Benjamin, a Jewish philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist, committed suicide by morphine overdose in Portbou. Benjamin had been living in France since 1933 and was fleeing the Nazis who the Vichy authorities were cooperating with. Having been helped by the virtually unknown American rescue worker Varian Fry, he had arrived in Portbou by climbing the mountains to cross the border with great difficulty, burdened by a briefcase containing his precious writings that he refused to leave behind. But Franco had suddenly cancelled all transfer visas so once in Spain, the Spanish police detained him and the small group he was traveling with. They were to be sent back to France the next day. Benjamin killed himself that night rather than go back and be handed over to the Nazis. The next day the procedure changed again and his two traveling companions were allowed to pass through Spain into Portugal from where they could sail. The manuscript that Benjamin had been carrying at such cost was never found. There is now a memorial to Walter Benjamin at Portbou by the Israeli artist Dani Karavanhe that sits on a clifftop by the Portbou municipal cemetery.

Photo: Vikipeida