Saturday, May 6, 2023


The garbage strike started last Friday – over a week ago. The garbage collectors don’t work for the city; they work for a subcontractor. I don’t know what difference that makes, but it seems they are not happy with their working conditions or salary. The end result is that the city seems to be stymied in getting the strike settled and garbage has been collecting on the streets. The piles are huge; wherever the containers are located (about every other block all through the city) the garbage started spilling over after the first day and now it takes up the whole sidewalk so that you can’t walk past. It’s obviously not sanitary. People say there are rats.

People also say “Paciència,” patience. That’s the Spanish way. I’ve tried, but it’s hard to get it to work when you don’t have it.

Just now, coming back from walking the dog, I saw signs of life in the world of garbage (no, it wasn’t rats). The street had been closed off, there was a huge backup of cars, police, two huge trucks, and a crew of men dressed in white jumpsuits with dayglow stripes carrying shovels. Finally. They mean business. Patience or not, it’s finally over.

I may not have much patience, but I know of someone who does: King Charles III. He’s 73. How long has he been waiting to become king?

I watched part of the Coronation ceremony and then the procession back to Buckingham Palace and I have to say I was very moved. I kept looking at him during the ceremony in Westminister Abbey and thinking, my goodness, you’ve waited a very long time for this.

The whole thing was a great spectacle. It wasn’t a legal proceeding. Charles became king when his mother died. It was a spectacle that carried meaning. It followed a historical script with some modern additions and changes. It is long-standing British heritage and we have nothing like it. It’s not gold-plated bathrooms.

Many Americans I know are opposed to monarchy and proclaim for democracy. But Britain seems to me to be as much a democracy as the U.S. They have a constitution, a parliament, and their voting system is not some obscure electoral college where you can win with a minority of votes. And if they want a monarch as their head of state (instead of, say, a Donald Trump), that’s their business.

One thing you have to say for the new king is that he looks like he takes his responsibilities seriously. You could see it in his face. Much of the ceremony talked about duty and responsibility. And service. The priviledge of power and the duty of service. Now there’s a notion some of our political leaders could ponder.

Saturday, March 25, 2023


When I moved to Figueres in 2012, the first neighbor I met was a little old lady called Inés. She was petite, kind of cute, had short silver hair not unlike my own, spent considerable time on a public bench in front of the building, and was very talkative, except that I could hardly understand a word. It wasn’t only that she spoke no Catalan, in spite of having been married to a Catalan for over 40 years and having lived in Catalonia for over 60.  It was because in addition to being from Andalusia, where they have a strong accent, she spoke Andalus Castilian as if she had marbles in her mouth. But she was friendly, the only person so far to say hello, and so I made an effort to understand what she was saying. It turned out to be terrifying.

Inés told me that the former owners of my apartment had sold because some of the kids in the building were breaking in through the window that gives onto the interior air shaft where we all have a small balcony that houses our washing machines. These were Moroccan kids, she said, little delinquents, and there was nothing you could do.

Well, I know something about that Spanish idea that there is nothing you can do, but even so, I was upset. I had come up to Figueres to spend one day looking for apartments, at the end of which I decided which one to buy. I had little time and little money. Had I made a bad choice? I was not only upset but also a bit frightened.

So the next day I headed over to the gestoria – the management company that services our building. I spoke with Catarina and told her what I had heard. Who told you that? she asked. Inés. Oh, well, don’t give it another thought. Inés is always coming up with stories, always blaming people for things. She’s difficult, “complicated” is the word they use. Ignore her. There was never any break in.

When I got to know her better it became worse. Inés really did make up stories, all of them nasty. She blamed all of us around her – even those who actually tried to help her when she needed it. She complained to the police that kids were throwing rocks up at her window from that bench of hers, so the city removed the bench even though there were no kids, no broken glass, and no rocks down there to throw. So her story resulted in her losing her bench.

On the other hand, she used to throw urine out her window onto the street. She did it for years. She denied it but it always landed right under her window and some of the neighbors said they had seen her do it. Apparently she collected it in a bucket and then dumped it out. Why? Who knows.

She complained constantly that neighbors were trying to break into her apartment, that they were trying to get her out. She accused her neighbors next door and others. She would stand in the stairway in front of her door and accost anyone going up or down with a tirade. They can’t drive her out of her home, she would yell. And if anyone tried to engage her and tell her that no one was trying to get her out of her home, she would argue and yell. You could hear it throughout the building. When I heard those arguments I would try to delay my going out so I could avoid running into her. I got to where even when it was quiet I would look out my peephole first to make sure that going out was safe and I wasn’t going to be hassled.

At one point I went to the social services office to see if they knew about her. It seemed to me she wasn’t really capable of taking decent care of herself and could use some help. I gave them her details – name, address, etc. and that was the last I heard of it although some time later I would see someone who seemed to be a social worker going in or out of her apartment every now and then.

Once, on the stairway, when she was totally out of it, telling me something about how she felt she was dying, I called the emergency medical number. Police and an ambulance came. Two people went into her apartment with her, stayed for about half an hour, and then left. After that Inés told anyone she could find, even strangers on the street, that I had sent the police to get her. I decided that from then on I would just mind my own business.

I thought her problem had to do with old age, dementia maybe, but people who knew Inés from 50 years ago told me she’d always been like this. Mala llet, they said. (Spoiled milk.)

Whatever the cause of her problem, it only became worse and finally, shortly after the Covid pandemic began, her sister had her taken to a nursing home. That was about three years ago. And last week word came that Inés had died.

Word came via a notice that had been taped on the front door of our building by the funeral home. This is the common practice. When someone dies, the funeral home tapes a notice of the death and announcement of the funeral service, held at their facility across from the cemetery, on the door of every building in the immediate neighborhood where that person used to live. The notice gives the person’s name, civil status, age at death, family survivors, and the day and time of the funeral service – usually the next day because the Spanish do not wait around. You’re dead one day and disposed of the next.

When I first came to live in Figueres, from my apartment I heard, for the first time, church bells tolling. I hadn’t noticed that in Barcelona. This wasn’t the usual ringing that told the time or announced a mass. It was slow, lugubrious tolling, and it went on and on. The sound was so mournful that it didn’t take much imagination to figure out that someone must have died.

In the Catholic Church, bells represent the voice of God and are meant to remind people of the existence of heaven. Historically, bells were used as a clock (you might not be able to see a clock, but you could hear the bells telling you it was lunch time); to announce mass, baptisms, weddings, funerals, other religious holidays; and to warn of fires and floods. For each purpose there was a specific way of ringing the bells and everyone understood.

When someone in the community died, they would ring a death knoll. Three rings three times for a man (nine total), three rings two times for a woman (six total). Some professions also had special markers. Then the bells would toll, one strike for each year of the deceased’s life. Thus people would have a good idea of who had died.

I don’t know if any bells tolled for Inés. If they had, they would have rung 91 times, a good long time.

If you like this post, you might like my book: No Regrets: A Life in Catalonia, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, and brick and mortar bookshops, etc.

Link to

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Books, Roses, and Lies


I thought it would be a good idea to promote my book, No Regrets: A Life in Catalonia, by coupling it with the holiday of Sant Jordi. Saint George is the patron saint of Catalonia and his holiday, celebrated on 23 April, is the Day of the Book and the Rose.

It started out as a normal saint day and was celebrated with men giving women a red rose. That symbolized the red rose that grew where the dragon’s blood fell. If you are not fully versed on Catholic saints, it was George, a Roman soldier who was martyred for refusing to denounce his Christian faith and, more important to this story, who slew the dragon and saved the princess.

The idea of books came up hundreds of years later. In the 1920s, a book seller in Barcelona thought it would be a good idea to publicize and take advantage of the fact that both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same day – 23 April and thus promote reading and book sales.

This evolved to books becoming part of the Sant Jordi celebration. Now, each year on 23 April, every Catalan city, town, and village hauls out dozens, if not hundreds of stands full of books and roses.

Taking the cue from Catalonia, in 1995, UNESCO declared 23 April World Book Day. This has caught on pretty well in England where George is also the patron saint, and perhaps less so in other places. It seems to me that to promote this holiday in the U.S. would be a good thing, and of course it would be a good thing if any bookshop would highlight my book on that holiday, especially since one of the sections is devoted to explaining Sant Jordi.

In preparing my promotional letter to several Berkeley bookstores, I intended to include a link to the Wikipedia page on World Book Day. But to my horror, when I went to look at it, it cited Lisbon, Portugal as the place where the holiday originated. It said that George was Lisbon’s patron saint, which is not true. None of it was true.

So I contacted my friend Matthew Tree, a British/Catalan journalist (we’ve never actually met but we’ve been in contact for some years) thinking he would know how to correct the entry. I also contacted the Catalan Office of Foreign Affairs and one of the pro-independence political parties. Although Matthew didn’t correct the entry, someone did, he and I were left with suspicions. I had probably consulted that page sometime before. After all, I’ve written about Sant Jordi several times on my blog and in my book, and I know I looked for sources of information. So who would go in and make such a ridiculous change?

Today Matthew’s article in a Catalan newspaper appeared, informing Catalans of the misinformation that had appeared on Wikipedia. In it he says that I had contacted him about it a couple of weeks ago. He points out how in that article the Catalan origin of the UNESCO World Book Day holiday was erased from history. Lisbon has two patron saints, Vicente de Zaragoza and Santo Antonio de Lisboa, but no George. The holiday was never celebrated in Portugal until last year after the Catalan government proposed doing so to the Portuguese. He also says that he knows first hand that in London and many other places, booksellers refer to April 23 as “Saint Jordi’s Day.”

When I saw that article in February, I noticed that the last revision had been done in January. Matthew wonders (as do I), who could have had the time and desire to place that false information on the internet? He recalls a 2010 article by Màrius Serra in which he explained that someone had entered Google Translator only to get “I’m from Catalonia” translated as “I’m from Spain.”

Who? Why? Someone loaded with prejudice, intent on misrepresenting Catalan reality.

To see Matthew’s article in El Punt Avui (in Catalan) click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Yes, We Have No Vaccine

I recently went to meet with my doctor – my new doctor. We were to go over the results of my routine lab tests and I had a list of questions. Among those questions was one I had put to my former doctor but he had never come up with an answer.

The question was: Is it possible to get a shingles vaccine through the health service? And if not, is the vaccine approved in Spain so that I could go and pay and get it from a private clinic?

My new doctor knew I had that question pending and had an answer ready. A very weird answer at that.

A vaccine had just recently been approved. It was approved for people 69 and 80 years old. OK, fine. I fall within that span. No, it’s not a span. The department of health has approved the shingles vaccine for people aged 69 and for people aged 80. Those younger, older, or inbetween are not eligible.


Of course that is absurd,” he told me. He figured someone in some office must have made a mistake and surely soon someone in authority would figure it out and it would be fixed. He suggested I come back at the beginning of March.

Monday, January 9, 2023


The holidays are over and I’m a little bit sad. It’s not that I do so much celebrating. I don’t go to any parties or dinners; I exchange very few gifts and those are through the mail, and some of those gifts, even when mailed a month ahead, don’t arrive until the holidays are over ... or never arrive at all. The Spanish postal system isn’t particularly efficient, but Spanish customs is a either corrupt or completely incompetent.

But all that isn’t what makes me sad. It’s the ending of the street lights that gets me down. My evening walk with the dog is far more joyful for the six weeks or so that the streets are lit up with lights and decorations. The day after Kings, all that is over. Finished. Zip. Dark.

Speaking of Kings, January 6 is as special here as Christmas, maybe more so, especially for children. Because it isn’t Santa Claus that brings them gifts, it’s the Three Kings. And not only that, but the Kings arrive in town (whatever city, town, or village you live in) the night before, on the 5th, and there is a big parade and they throw candy and stuff.

During the week before their arrival, the Kings’ pages set up encampments where they receive the children and their letters. Kids can also deliver their letters to the post office – the same service that Santa gets in other places. Hopefully those letters get delivered in time, unlike my Christmas presents.

In some towns, especially along the coast where is a sandy beach, and a healthy city budget to pay for it, the Kings might arrive by camel. In other towns along the coast they sometimes arrive by boat, as in Barcelona and Tarragona. In some they come by train and in others by helicopter. But whatever transportation method they use, once there they have a big parade with lots of floats, street performers, marching drum bands, very loud music and through it all they throw candy and confetti.

Figueres made animal welfare a feature of their Calvalcada de Reis a few years ago so there are no longer any of the live camels, horses, or donkeys that used to parade down the street. I suppose that’s good for the animals, although I didn’t think the horses or donkeys were having a hard time of it. Cynical me, I wonder if it isn’t that their clean-up crews didn’t want to have to deal with the aftermath of large, live animals parading up and down the streets and standing in front of the city hall. If it was the loud music that bothered the animals, well hey, it bothers some of the people too and they could just as well have turned down the volume and kept the animals away from that drum band.

There isn’t much that will get me out to stand still for almost an hour on a cold, dark, winter night. Figueres city government has managed to get rid of the starlings that used to do their magnificent ballets in the winter sky at dusk, so now all that is left is the one evening of the Calvalcada de Reis.

On the morning of the 6th children get their presents and adults tuck in to the tortell de reis and cava (Catalan sparkling wine). The tortell is a semi-dry pastry decorated with candied fruit that is traditionally filled with marzipan but can also be found stuffed with whipped or pastry cream. Somewhere in the filling will be two little items: one is a figure of a king and the other a fava bean. Whoever finds the king in his slice gets to wear the crown and whoever finds the bean gets to pay for the pastry.


Wednesday, December 28, 2022

A Catalan Christmas

There are several interesting Catalan Christmas traditions both sacred and profane. First, foremost, and most profane is the caganer – a small peasant figure typically dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a Catalan peasant cap (a barretina) who appears in most nativity scenes, at least those not in churches – who is squatting and shitting while smoking his pipe or, in a more modern version, a cigarette. Caganer means shitter. There seems to be no documented origin to the caganer, except to say that he has been around longer than anyone can remember. Robert Hughes talks about him in his excellent book about Catalonia, Barcelona, and Joan Miro painted a little squatting figure into his famous 1922 work, The Farm. The caganer represents a natural activity and brings the whole miraculous concept of the nativity down to earth. Nowadays the caganer need not be a traditional peasant. Figures can be found (at Christmas fairs and year round on the internet) representing famous people such as the president of Catalonia or other political figures (loved and unloved), many of the soccer heroes, nuns, priests, the Pope...

Then there is the Tió de Nadal, a Catalan mythological character who also appears in Mallorca, Occitania, Andorra, Valencia, and Aragon. The name means Christmas Log and is related to the German Christmas tree and the British Yule log. But Wikipedia notwithstanding, I have never heard it called a Tió de Nadal; I’ve only ever heard it called the Caga Tió, caga, as in Caganer. Once just an unadorned log, now it has legs, a face, and the same little peasant cap (the barretina) as the caganer. It is a hollowed out log that is stuffed with small presents. On Christmas Eve, after having taken care of it – fed it and kept it warm with a blanket for several days – the children beat it with a stick while singing a song, imploring it to poop the presents it is holding within. These are small presents, candies and little toys. Bigger presents are for Kings.

Shit, tió,
hazelnuts and nougats,
do not shit herrings,
they are too salty,
shit nougats
they taste better.

Shit, tió,
almonds and nougats,
and if you don’t want to shit 
I will hit you with a stick!

I’m not sure I have ever met a Catalan who attends church regularly or who even attends the midnight Christmas Mass. But there are those who do attend the Christmas Mass in order to hear a special Christian liturgical drama sung to Gregorian chant. This is the Song of the Sibyl which has been performed in Mallorca, Alghero (Sardinia), and some Catalan churches almost uninterruptly since medieval times. Nothing of Santa Claus, presents, or shitting, it is a prophecy that tells of the apocalypse. For hundreds of years women were not allowed to sing in church so even though a Sibyl is a woman, the song would be sung by a boy. Now it is sung by either a woman or a boy. It it sung a capella with instruments playing between one verse and the next. The singer wears a tunic, and usually also a cape, and carries a sword which is held in front of his or her face until the song is completed when a cross is drawn in the air.

The chant was originally sung in Latin, later adapted to Provençal, and then to Catalan by the end of the 14th century. The Song of Sibyl was abandoned throughout Europe when it was forbidden by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). But it was restored in Mallorca in 1575 and there it still has the strongest presence although it is also becoming popular now in Barcelona and other towns in Catalonia. The performance of the Song of Sybil in the churches of Mallorca was declared an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

Performance in the Barcelona Cathedral.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Searching for Chanukah Candles

 An excerpt from my new book, No Regrets: A Life in Catalonia has been published in The Jewish Writing Project.  This is a story called The Chanukah Candles Challenge and is about.... well, yes, trying to find Chanukah candles in an area where there are no Jews.  

You can find the story here.

You can find the book on Amazon, at other online retailers, or order it at your favorite brick and mortar bookshop.