Friday, December 31, 2010

Red Underwear

It is the custom for Catalans  – both men and women – to wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve.  In fact, it is done throughout Spain and is supposed to bring good luck.  You should receive your underwear as a gift from someone, and you should only wear it once.  Ramon, my electrician, who doesn’t believe in God and is not superstitious, wears a pair that his wife gave him a few years ago.  Not being superstitious, tempting fate by reuse apparently doesn’t concern him.  No one I asked knew where this custom comes from, although they all say it is relatively modern and August thought it may have come from Italy, which could be since they do it there also.  One American has it on his blog that it dates back to the Middle Ages when the church forbade people wearing the color red, it being the color of blood, the devil, and witchcraft.  But if that is so, no one here ever heard of it.  Anyway, I don’t think they had the wherewithal in the medieval ages to dye their underwear red.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition here is eating twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight.  I’ve tried that a few times and let me tell you, it isn’t easy to get them all down that quickly.  After my first try, I discovered that everyone else at the table had peeled and picked the seeds out of their grapes, so they at least had it easier than I did, all gagged up with my mouth full of pits and skins.  But in subsequent years, peeling and seeding still didn’t allow me to swallow all twelve grapes in time.  Try it sometime.  It’s supposed to bring good luck.

The grape tradition isn’t that old either, but people seem to have an idea of where it comes from.  Mostly they say that it started in 1909 in Valencia when the grape-growers there had a bumper crop and unloaded grapes on the celebrating public.  Ramon thought it was the Italians that had a bumper crop one year and disposed of their grapes in Spain.  But then somewhere I read that the tradition was actually documented as early as 1897, so maybe people don’t really know the origins after all.  Whatever the source of the tradition, it is well observed.  Grapes dominate the produce section of the supermarkets in the days before New Year.  You can buy whole bunches of them, or portions of twelve grapes in little packets dressed in cellophane, enclosed in plastic champagne flutes, or in small tin cans.

Of course everyone brings in the New Year with champagne, except that here they tend to drink Cava – the Spanish sparkling wine made, mostly in Catalunya, in the same way as the French but with a lower price tag.  Maybe it’s not as good, and then maybe it is just more reasonably priced.

Falling in with local customs, I have on a pair of red underpants that I had in my underwear drawer.  It wasn’t a gift; I had bought them for myself many years ago, when I was still living in California.  Although it wasn’t a gift, they are new; I don’t think I have ever worn them.  I do that sometimes – buy something nice or a little special, and then save it for God-knows-what occasion.  Well the occasion for my underwear finally arrived today.  This will be my first time joining into the red underwear tradition. 

For most of the other traditions, I have made some adjustments to fit my own quirks:  I will be drinking red wine (from the Terra Alta) which I prefer to Cava (or champagne), and instead of grapes I’ll be munching on bread with two different kinds of lovely goat cheese while watching a DVD of La Cage Aux Folles (the original), my own personal New Year’s tradition – one sure to bring in the New Year with a good laugh.  And while like Ramon, I’m not superstitious either, I hope, in spite of the lack of grapes, my red underwear will be enough to bring me some good luck in 2011.

Happy New Year to everyone!

Friday, December 24, 2010

El Gordo

El Gordo, the big Spanish Christmas lottery was held on the 22nd of December and broadcast on TV with little children singing out the numbers as usual.  I meant to tune in for a few minutes that morning to hear the little ones do their strange chant, but I forgot all about it until I heard them on a radio in the village.  I definitely tuned into the news at midday to see if I had won.  After all, I, together with about 98% of the population, had a ticket.

The Spanish National Lottery seems very complicated to me, compared to what I knew in the U.S.  There, when you buy a ticket you have a unique number, and if you win, you take the pot.  What does it say then about the Spanish that there is no such thing as a unique number or a unique winner?  There are hundreds.

A Spanish lottery ticket has a five-digit number and costs 200 euros.  This same number is printed 195 times, each one with its own series number, but all 195 of them are equal.  If all 195 series of, say, the winning number were sold, the bearer of each of the 195 tickets would win 3 million euros, which was the first prize this year.  There is also a second prize, a third, two fourths, and eight fifths, plus many lesser prizes based on partial numbers of the bigger winners.

You can buy a whole ticket or the more popular decimos – a tenth share of a ticket, costing 20 euros – at an official State Lottery office.  Every city has several of these and even the tiniest village seems to have at least one.  Those decimos are sometimes also divided into smaller portions called participations.  This is done by private buyers – organizations and charitable groups, or businesses that give the participations as gifts to their employees or perhaps to clients.  The participations are given or sold, sometimes with a little extra added to the actual price, to benefit the organizing group if it is a non-profit.  These are privately printed and stamped and have the name of the group, the value of the participation and, if there was a surcharge, the amount that went to the charity or group, the value of the actual ticket, and of course, the all-important 5-digit ticket number. 

The payoff for a full (200-euro) ticket of the winning number this year was 3 million euros.  However, most, if not all of those who won held smaller shares.  A decimo of the first prize this year paid 300,000 euros; for smaller participations it translated to 15,000 euros for each euro wagered.  And that is what makes the Spanish lottery so interesting.  There are many tickets with the same number and most tickets are broken up and bought, shared, or given as gifts.  For instance, my participation was organized by the Catalan political party that I would vote for if they would let me.  I paid 3 euros for the participation; 2.40 was the actual value and .60 went to the political party.  The ticket number was 79741.  The first prize paid 15,000 euros per euro wagered.  If my number had won first prize, I would have won 36,000 euros.  But it didn’t win first or anything else

Many bar owners buy one or more tickets and then break them up into decimos or smaller participations.  Everyone who frequents the bar – neighbors, people who work nearby, a soccer team that practices in the area, and so on, all buy in.  That happened this year in Cerdanyola, a town near Barcelona.  The owner of the bar bought 60 series of the same number, broke them down to smaller participations and sold them to all his customers.  That number was 79250, the same number he has been buying for years.  On Wednesday morning, the street in front of that bar was packed with people celebrating.  79250 won first prize, and all of these people were winners.  This was a whole neighborhood of people who won thousands of euros each; some might even have become millionaires.  A group that works for a company in the fruit and vegetable wholesale warehouse of Barcelona – Mercabarna –  also won.  They all celebrated together and then went back to work.  Virtually the same story repeats every year – only the locations, the bars and the factories change.  There is never one winner; there are always hundreds, and I am very sorry to say that I wasn’t one of them.

Some people chose this year’s winning number because it ended in 50, which was the score of Barcelona Futbol Club’s recent triumphant defeat of Real Madrid.  Because the winning ticket ended in 50, other tickets that ended in 50 also won something.

Second prize paid 1 million euros for a winning (200-euro) ticket, paying 5,000 euros per euro wagered.  Third prize paid 500,000 or 2500 per euro wagered, fourth (with two different winning numbers) paid 200,000 or 1,000 per euro wagered, and fifth (with eight winning numbers) paid 50,000 or 250 per euro wagered.  Having partial digits also won money – I’ve read that there were over 13,000 prized tickets.  Unfortunately mine didn’t win even a centime.

In Cerdanyola, where that bar owner bought his tickets, 390 million euros were won in first prize money.  The week when I passed my driving test I thought maybe my good luck would hold and I bought a 2-euro ticket for La Primativa, a smaller lottery that runs weekly.  I won 9 euros.  Not El Gordo, but still a nice surprise and better than nothing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Spanish Driver (part 2)

Obtaining my Spanish driver’s license took far longer than I ever expected.  I passed the written driving exam on Tuesday 2 November after nine weeks of study, thinking I had done the hard part.  Little did I know.

I scheduled my first driving lesson with the school for that Thursday and the road test for the following week.  Carles, my instructor, took me around Tortosa, showed me the different neighborhoods that the examiner might ask me to drive to, and tried to hammer into me what the examiner would expect. 

In the nice new dual-control Seat that we were driving, not only does the clutch disengage much faster, but crawling slowly in second gear you don’t have to keep your foot on the clutch to keep the engine from stalling.  Take your foot off completely when you’re barely moving and the car just keeps rolling along very, very slowly.  In any car I’ve ever driven (including my current 13-year-old heap), if you did that the engine would stall.  Carles never told me that explicitly, or if he did, I didn’t understand.  The problem was that I didn’t know the word for clutch in Catalan so I didn’t know what he was saying.  Only the written exam was in English; everything else was in Catalan and although I’m pretty conversant with body parts, engine parts are not yet part of my vocabulary.  It took him most of the hour to get me to understand about the clutch, having finally to take over the dual control to press home the point.  Aha!  I learned that desembragar means to let out the clutch.  There was also the matter of the brakes being so much more responsive than mine.  It did take some getting used to using the brakes and the clutch gracefully on this modern car.

I decided that it would be prudent to take another lesson and not be clumsy during the actual exam.  So I paid an additional 60 euros and off we went the next day, Friday.  Now that I understood that the engine wouldn’t stall, I used my left foot less.  But I still didn’t exactly get it that Stop meant not only Stop, but Stop and linger.  Since most people here don’t stop at Stop signs at all, I thought I was doing very well by stopping, shifting to first, and then going.

There were lots of little things that Carles told me during the lesson and I tried to assimilate them all.  You are supposed to back into the perpendicular space in a parking lot.  Most cars front in, and I always do too.  But apparently that is not the correct way.  Also, you must always drive with two hands on the steering wheel, which I do, most of the time, except when I am compelled to gesticulate to make a point in a conversation.  But I steer with one hand when I turn to look back to parallel park.  That isn’t allowed on the exam; you have to use your mirrors.  Uh, oh.

The driving exam is given once a week and taken in groups by school.  Since none of us has a driving license, everyone goes together in a school car or van.  But because I suffer from panic attacks in a car that someone else drives, I drove myself.  My school knew about this and I was discrete enough to park a block away. Tuesday finally came and at 7:45 in the morning I was in Tortosa waiting for Carles and the other students to arrive.  There were five of us that day – three women and two men.  One of the women was about my age, the other was in her twenties, one of the guys was also about twenty, and the other was only slightly older.

During the exam, our instructor rides in the front passenger seat with his dual controls, one student drives while the other sits in the back seat, together with the examiner.  When the first student finishes, the two change places.  Since I cannot ride (can you imagine my panic with a student driving if I can’t ride with experienced drivers?) we arranged that since there were an odd number of students that day, I would go last.

The exams begin in the street in front of the Department of Labor of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional government and nothing to do with the exam or the Department of Traffic).  To ensure that we would not be late, our appointed time was actually half an hour before the exam was supposed to start.  Before even the first trip out, we had already been standing out in the cold for about forty-five minutes.  It was a good hour after the first group started before my turn came up.  At one point, while I was driving down the main street in the city, two pedestrians stepped down onto the roadway just as I was approaching the crosswalk.  But I was already quite close and there was enough distance, I thought, not to slam on my brakes and have whoever was behind me slam into me.  So I decided to drive through.  The rest of the exam was uneventful and went smoothly, as far as I could tell.  I was confident and happy, looking forward to maybe stopping somewhere for a celebratory lunch on the way home.  Or should I wait until the weekend?

Back at our starting point all five of us students waited while Carles conferred with the examiner.  Eventually he came to tell us our results.  The young girl and the older guy passed, the other older woman, the younger guy and I all failed.  I was supposed to have stopped for those two pedestrians.  I hadn’t spoken with either of the two guys, but I did know that the young girl who passed that day had failed the exam before, and the older woman later told me she has failed it five times.

I scheduled another driving lesson for late in the week and another exam for the following Tuesday.  I paid another 60 euros for two more hours of practice, spending one of them on the highway there and back and the other tooling around Tortosa.  I was beginning to get to know Tortosa but not liking it any better.  The rundown city sits alongside the Ebro River which could be nice, and in fact there is an ancient castle on the highest hill and a very short, tree-lined promenade along the river, but overall the city is shabby.  I drove up one dingy street and down another, tried to make my stops long enough and not annoy the other drivers by going way too slow and, well, obeying the speed limits and following the rules.  When you do that, you stick out like a sore thumb and in fact, people did pass me on city streets!  The instructor told me to never mind.

On Tuesday, this time at 8:15 am, I was there again, waiting on the street in front of the Department of Labor.  This time there were four of us so we went two by two.  In my turn, I drove first and then was asked to park, told I could get out of the car, and walked back to the starting point while the other student went on to have her exam.  I felt I had done nothing wrong, but was uneasy because I had been driving only a short time and they say a complete exam takes 30 to 45 minutes.  This was suspicious.  When all of the group was finished Carles came to tell us the results.  One of us had passed and the other three had failed; I was one of the unfortunates.  What in the world had I done wrong?  There had been a Stop sign at a dead end street where one could only turn left.  After stopping, I inched forward in order to be able to see the oncoming traffic and when I saw it was safe I made my turn.  Inching after a stop wasn’t good enough; one had to actually stop a second time.  For this I failed?

I had thought it before, but now I became convinced that the whole thing was a racket.  What with the high cost of the driving schools and the fact that you could only get your license through these schools, you didn’t do well or poorly on an exam – you either passed or failed, and there didn’t really seem to BE a Department of Traffic, it seemed like a game run by some kind of mafia.  On top of that, they also took in extra cash from excessive driving lessons and steep additional fees for repeating the exams.

After failing twice one must wait two weeks before trying again.  Time to practice, or to reflect on the system?  I scheduled another lesson, and my next exam would be on Tuesday 30 November – this time at the more relaxed time of 11:15 am.  I had to pay an additional 210 euros, which included the cost of up to two more exams and one more lesson.  They say the Department of Traffic levies these charges for the exams and it is not up to the school, but they somehow managed to discount mine from the posted price of 260 euros.  For that next lesson I arranged to meet Carles in Tortosa since he lives there so we could better spend the whole time driving up and down the city streets, trying not to run anyone over and practicing when to slow down plus when and how many times to stop at any given Stop sign, and not waste an hour of the lesson on the highway there and back.

Tuesday came and it turned out that there were only two of us taking the exam with our school that day.  My companion was a young guy who was taking the exam for the first time, and who had already paid out over 1200 euros to the school.  He told me that until you get your license, you are only allowed to practice on the roads with an official school.  My father would have been out of his unpaid employment teaching me.

I drove first.  The first two examiners had been women but this time it was a man.  My young companion said that would be better.  Men weren’t so mean.  We started out talking about the Barça-Real Madrid game of the night before (it was the examiner who told me that Barça had won 5-0) and I got so excited about the score that I almost forgot I was taking an exam.  After a short time I was told to park, at which point I could walk through Tortosa, back to our starting point.  I thought I had done OK, I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong, but I had lost my earlier optimism and was resigned to the worst.  Again my driving time had been suspiciously short.  I must have done something wrong, so as I walked, I went over and over how the driving had gone.  Well, never mind, I would find out what I had done wrong when the others got back.

When they did come back and Carles walked up to me with a serious face, I just kept thinking OK, how much more money do I have to pay to get this thing done?  But he was just teasing me.  I HAD PASSED!  Unfortunately my poor young companion had not.

My new Spanish driver’s license cost me a total of 780 euros.  A lot of money – more than I had originally hoped and too much to add celebratory lunches to the bill, but probably below the average of what most people pay.  It could have been worse.

It was around that time that there was a story on the news about some new electric car that was going to be manufactured in Barcelona.  They showed the Mayor taking one of these around the Placa Sant Jaume for a test spin.  Jose Montilla, the President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Regional Government) was also present but didn’t test drive the car.  It seems that he takes public transportation and has no driver’s license.  I think I know why.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Spanish Driver (part 1)

I had procrastinated for several years, but finally I could put it off no longer.  On 24 August I paid 200 euros, the first installment of the fee to a driving school, and the next day I started in on my studies.  I had to get a Spanish license and it wasn’t going to be cheap or easy.  If you ever saw how Spaniards drive, you would wonder that it could be difficult to get a license.  Surely anyone can walk in the door at the local Department of Traffic, pay 10 or 20 euros, and walk out with one.  Not so.

I got my California driver’s license the day I turned 16 and have been driving ever since.  I’ve always loved driving and even thought once, for about five minutes, about becoming a long-distance truck driver.  My father taught me to drive and I think he taught me well.  Once I got the hang of it (after almost throwing him through the front windshield of that beautiful Mercedes which was my training car) he took me up to the mountains so I could have experience on curvy roads.  When it rained he would take me out for a practice and he even had me drive his truck.  He wanted to be sure that I was accustomed to all possible driving conditions before I was turned loose on my own.  He emphasized driving defensively.  You never really know what someone else will do, thus you keep your distance, keep checking what’s behind you, and you don’t take anything for granted.  But he never brought me to Spain.

Here, defensive driving takes on a whole new meaning.  Everyone speeds, everyone tailgates, many pass on two-lane roads when it isn’t safe and take blind curves crossing to the other side of the road.  It seems to be the custom here to pull as far as possible to the left before curving or turning to the right.  No one signals, no one stops at Stop signs, everyone drives in the center or even on the left on the pavement of small two-way roads, and in this area, no one stops for pedestrians unless they are directly in front of the car.  Sometimes I can’t tell which way a one-way street goes because cars are parked in both directions.  For me, this kind of chaos on the road really takes some of the fun out of driving.

Given all this and the cost involved, I was never too anxious to go through the process of getting my Spanish license.  The fact is that I was driving illegally for several years.  My California license was only valid for the first six months of my residence here.  I pretended I didn’t know that and continued to use it together with an international license that actually had no validity at all, although it looked official.  But the time came when I had no choice and so I buckled down, paid up, and got to work.

In Spain you can’t walk into an office of the Department of Traffic and ask to take the written and road tests.  You can only do it through a registered driving school and they cost a lot of money.

In my village there are two schools.  First I went to the smaller of the two to enquire; their fee was 450 euros.  I’ve heard that people usually pay 700 to 1000 euros or more to get a license, so that price seemed reasonable.  It worried me, however, that they were a small outfit with only the one office and had only opened recently.  I’ve heard of schools that collected money from people and then closed down and disappeared, so I worried that although 450 euros was relatively inexpensive, it was very expensive if the money was going to be stolen.

The second school is part of a small local chain and seemed a safer bet, but they wanted 550 euros for the same thing.  So I explained to them that the other school had quoted me 450, and they agreed to the same price.  This would include unlimited time attending classes or studying on the computers in their office, two hours of driving instruction in their car, and three tries at the two exams.  Additional time practicing in the car or more than three tries at the two exams would result in additional fees.

I had been told that the written exam was very difficult with many questions that were meant to trick you rather than find out how much you knew about the rules of the road.  After forty-seven years of driving, I didn’t think I would have much trouble with the road test, especially since I no longer lurch and do, actually, stop at Stop signs.

On the website of the Department of Traffic you can work your way through the practice tests.  But those are only in Spanish and when I tried them, I found that mostly they didn’t make any sense.  I hoped that with a school I could at least study in Catalan, but it turned out that you can study and take the written test in Spanish, Catalan, French, German, or English.  I opted to study and then take the written exam in English, thinking that it would be more comfortable for me and the questions would make sense.

That was what I thought.  Much of the practice test questions didn’t make sense even in English, and it wasn’t clear what the point was of some of the others.

Take, for example:
Who is responsible for a motorcycle passenger not wearing a helmet?
A.  The owner of the motorbike
B.  The riding
C.  The passenger
The correct answer is B. The riding.

How does the consumption of ecstasy affect a driver’s behavior?
One option:  It reduces his/her sensitivity to concentrate
Another option: It reduces his/her ability to concentrate

This next question seemed to me more appropriate for weeding out morons than testing your knowledge of driving laws:
In order to stop the vehicle before an obstacle on the road you need to go at such a speed that the stopping distance is
A.  Greater than the distance from the obstacle
B.  Smaller than the distance to the obstacle
Give me a break (or should that be a brake).

There was an obsession with oil pressure represented by two questions, one the inverse of the other.
Test 11 question 15:
The engine is properly lubricated when the oil pressure is above the minimum value.  How can it be checked?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is off.

Test 15 question 5:
When oil pressure is below the minimum the engine is not well lubricated.  How can you check it?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is on.
My friend Don, a car and auto racing enthusiast, said that he hadn’t seen a car with an oil gauge on the dashboard in years.  In any case, I never could get the two straight so I finally memorized that above was “off” and below was “on.”

There was this:
The circumstances that increase the probability of an accident happening are called
A.  Risk markers
B.  Accidentality factors
C.  Risk factors
The correct answer was Risk factors, but who cares?  Does knowing the correct wording make me a better driver?

At least for the 450 euros I would finally solve the mystery of the roundabouts.  In the rest of the world, you have to position yourself in the outside (right) lane of a roundabout in order to exit.  But here, several people who should know told me that the person on the inside (left) lane had priority for exiting.  I thought that was strange on the one hand and dangerous on the other.  After all, the person on the right lane is not required to exit so exiting from the center can cut them off; you are not allowed to do that on a highway.  It turned out that not only were you not to exit from the inside lane, you were supposed to actually stay in the right lane.  As on highways here, the left lane is only for passing.  Thus Test 23 question 15:
On what part of the roundabout on an interurban road must your vehicle go if there are two lanes for the same direction?
The correct answer is: The right-hand lane, or you can go on the left-hand lane if circumstances advise but without cutting off the other vehicles.
There are frightfully few people driving in Spain who know this.

I was told at the school that it wasn’t necessarily important that I understand a question.  If I didn’t understand, I should simply memorize it.  Others have said that they wanted to get their license because once they had it, they could drive however they liked.

On August 24 I paid the first part of my fees and on August 25 I started studying.  I expected it would take me a month to be ready for the written exam, but in fact, it took me nine weeks, going every day, five days a week (holidays excluded), until I could do all 40 of the practice tests with a perfect score or at least not more than one error (there are 30 questions on each test and you are only allowed three errors).  Then I went to take the exam.  I passed on the first try with only one error.  They don’t tell you what you got wrong -- that, evidently, is a State secret maintained by the Spanish Department of Traffic, so I’ll never know.

That left just the driving test.  The original price included two hours of driving lessons.  The lessons begin here in the village but most of the practice is done in Tortosa, half an hour drive away, where the exam is given and where you are expected to know your way around town.  If the examiner says go to Jesus or Roquetes, you have to know how to get there.  And if a street is missing its traffic sign, you should know that too.  Thus you spend one hour of your two-hour lesson driving to Tortosa and back on the highway and learned that I was supposed to downshift through every gear when I needed to slow down or stop.    

I didn’t do brilliantly on my first two-hour lesson.  The clutch and brakes responded to a feather touch – nothing like the response of my old heap.  It took most of the lesson to really get the feel of the school’s much newer car.  So I decided to schedule a second lesson before the exam, to be sure I wouldn’t be clumsy on the important day.  That extra lesson cost an additional 60 euros (30 per hour), but I thought it would be worth it.

Finally I paid up the remaining 250 euros and scheduled the exam for the following week.  I figured it would be a piece of cake, and started thinking about how I might want to celebrate when I passed.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Oh Happy Day

Today was a very good day for two reasons.  The first was that last night the Futbol Club Barcelona played a match against their arch rival Real Madrid in what is called here a “classic” – the confrontation in the Spanish league between Spain’s two most important teams.  I don’t subscribe to the pay channel where you could watch the game and I was not disposed to go out at night, alone, to watch it in a bar, so it wasn’t until late this morning that I found out that Barça had won 5-0.  That is a thrilling result for any Barça fan, but even more so this year after some impolite bragging and put-downs on the part of Real Madrid’s trainer and their star player (who isn’t nearly as cute as they say.  Has anyone ever looked at Xavi Alonso?  Now there is cute) just before the game.  Every now and then justice prevails.

The second and more important reason for this being a good day for me personally is that I finally, after much money, effort, and disappointment, passed the exam for my Spanish driver’s license.  In fact, I learned about the result of last night’s Barça game from the examiner while I was driving around the streets of Tortosa, trying not to run anyone over.  Getting a license here is nothing at all like getting one in California, and in a subsequent post I will describe the process.  Suffice it to say that I consider it a big accomplishment and I am thus very relieved, a little bit proud, and very, very happy.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Catalan Independence

A few days ago, my stepson Manuel Serge sent me this letter, assuming I had already seen it, but thinking I would want to read it if I had not.  I had not.  And I was very happy that he sent it because it expressed my own sentiments but did it much more knowledgeably and eloquently than I ever could.  Susan DiGiacomo is an American who has lived in Catalunya for many years.  An anthropologist, she teaches at the University Rovira i Virgili, which is walking distance from where I used to live in Tarragona.  Too bad we never met!  I wrote to ask her if she would agree to my posting her letter on my blog and she graciously said yes, so with no further ado, here it is.  If you had any doubts about the wisdom or necessity of Catalan independence from Spain, perhaps this letter will reassure you.  If you didn’t know it was even an issue, read and find out why it is.

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, DC 20500-0004
United States of America
Dear President Obama:
I write to you not only in your capacity as president of the United States, but also in your capacity as a former professor of constitutional law. In The Audacity of Hope, you propose shifting the metaphor through which we understand democracy in order to see it “not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had.” What the American constitution does, therefore, is to “organize the way by which we argue about our future.” Importantly, “Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course…”.
I write to you, then, because in the country in which I live and work, what is happening is precisely this sort of attempt to end conversation by arguing that the house is already built, constitutionally, and that no further debate is even legitimate. In a formally democratic European state, a completely politicized constitutional court, four members of which – including the chief justice – have served for years on expired terms of office, has taken four years to produce a decision using the constitution as a weapon to crush the legitimate national aspirations of a people and to set absolute limits, once and for all, on the powers of home rule defined in that people’s statute of autonomy. The European state in question is Spain. The country in which I live and work is Catalonia. Its statute of autonomy was approved no fewer than three times: by the Catalan parliament, by the Spanish parliament, and by the Catalan people in a referendum. What is happening here, then, is an assault on democracy. In the United States, when the will of the people is not reflected in the constitution, the constitution has been amended, a total of 27 times since the year 1791. What the Spanish constitutional court has done is to consider the Spanish constitution of 1980 untouchable, engraved in stone, and their reading of it is so restrictive that the democratically expressed will of the Catalan people has no place in it.
What is Catalonia? You will remember something about it from your visit to Barcelona many years ago. Catalonia is an ancient European nation with an equally ancient tradition of representative government. The document on which this form of government is based predates the English Magna Carta, and only Iceland has an older parliament. In the Middle Ages Catalonia was an independent polity, and later the Catalan-Aragonese Confederation ruled a Mediterranean empire that extended as far as Greece. During the 15th century, the dynastic marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile integrated Catalonia into “the Spains”, as the composite kingdom was known. But Catalonia did not lose its institutions of self-government until 1714, by force of arms, at the end of the Spanish War of Succession, when an absolutist monarchy came to power. It did not get them back for another 200 years, with the arrival of the Second Spanish Republic, but lost them again at the end of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Despite this history, Catalonia continued to remain linguistically, culturally, socially and economically distinct from the rest of the Spanish state. With the death of General Franco and his dictatorial regime in 1975, Catalonia began to recover once more its political institutions and the powers of home rule home abrogated by the victorious fascists, to reconstruct its national story in its own voice.
How and why does the decision of Spain’s constitutional court affect me, since I retain my American passport although I am a permanent resident who lives and works here? It affects me because I have known Catalonia for three decades, since I came here to do anthropological research at the end of the Franco dictatorship and the beginning of the transition to democracy, when it became apparent that the transition would have no legitimacy at all unless the political autonomy Catalonia enjoyed under the Second Republic were restored. Because I experienced, as an anthropologist, the cultural and political resistance to the Franco regime and the beginning of the process of national reconstruction in Catalonia during the transition to democracy. Because with the passage of time I have become a professor in a Catalan university, where I teach my classes in Catalan. I have, then, things at stake in Catalonia’s future. Many things, starting with the language in which I teach and write, which is recognized in the Catalan statute of autonomy as having preferential status in Catalan public institutions including schools and universities. This language, my second first language, is now threatened by the decision of the Spanish constitutional court.
On Saturday, July 10, 2010 more than a million Catalans (according to the Barcelona city police, 1,100,000; according to the organizers of the demonstration, a million and a half; the total population of Catalonia now stands at just over 7 million) filled the streets in the heart of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, to reject the court’s decision to eviscerate the Catalan statute of autonomy and make our voices heard: “We are a nation. We decide.” After years of indignities, the court’s decision was the last straw and increasing numbers of Catalans see no other path to national survival except through full sovereignty, a peaceful and negotiated separation from the Spanish state and the establishment of a new Catalan state within the framework of the European Union. Kosovo’s history is different from Catalonia’s, but there is nothing in international law that prevents the democratically elected representatives of a people from unilaterally declaring independence.
This past summer former president Jimmy Carter came to Barcelona to accept from the president of the Generalitat (the Catalan government) the Premi Internacional Catalunya, an international award in recognition of his work on behalf of human rights, democracy, and peace. His visit coincided closely with the announcement of the decision of the constitutional court. President Carter described this decision as an “error,” and offered to send international observers in the event of a referendum on Catalan independence. You should know that to date well over half a million Catalans have already voted for independence in nonbinding municipal referenda all over Catalonia. More such referenda are planned.
I am not asking you to intervene in this process. I ask only that you interest yourself in what is happening here, that you discuss it with your advisers, that you seek information, and that you begin to establish contacts with the Catalan government that will emerge from this fall’s election. If I can help you to do this, you need only ask. Catalonia badly needs international interlocutors and international visibility.
Respectfully yours,
Susan M. DiGiacomo, Ph.D.
Departament d’Antropologia, Filosofia i Treball Social
Universitat Rovira i Virgili

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Catalan Elections

Yesterday was the first day of campaigning for the Catalan parliamentary elections that will take place on 28 November.  This schedule allows 15 days of active campaigning; the 16th day is considered a day of contemplation and no political activities are allowed.  The next day (always a Sunday) the election is held.

This is how elections are handled in Spain, whether they are local, regional, or national.  Other countries may do the same, I don’t know.  Here, two weeks before an election, posters go up, visits are made, and speeches are given; each party gets some free air time during the two weeks; the last day no campaigning is allowed -- it is reserved for thinking it over, and then, finally, off to the polls.  How much money do you think the Spanish spend on their elections compared to Americans?

In order to facilitate the public getting to the polls and then watching the returns on TV, the big Barcelona-Madrid football (soccer) match, originally scheduled for what turned out to be election Sunday, has been rescheduled for the following Monday.  Not the most convenient day of the week for football but hey, elections are important.  Then again, football is important.  Were they were afraid of low public viewing of the game or low public viewing of the election returns?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pope's Visit

Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did find Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Barcelona very moving.  After all, I’m not Catholic, not even Christian.  I’m Jewish but not religious.  I’m socially liberal, I believe gays should have all the same rights as anyone else, I do not think people should dictate to women whether or not they should (or can) have an abortion, I think we should all have the right to die when we feel the time has come, and I don’t like church being mixed with state affairs.

All of this makes me an unlikely person to be impressed or even interested in the Pope’s visit today.  But I was.  I was very interested and very moved.  Why?  Well, because I live in Spain where only 14.4% of Spaniards attend Mass regularly, but 73% of them define themselves as Catholic and to them the Pope is a very important person.  Also, I’ve been informed about the details of his visit all week when each day another street would be closed off, chairs set up in perfect rows by scores of volunteers, and this would be part of the day’s news.  Then there is the fact that his visit is important to Catalunya.  Today’s ceremony took place before a congregation of 6500 people including King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain.  Another 50,000 people followed the Mass outside with more than 300 priests there to offer Holy Communion.  His homily condemning gay marriage and the trend for society, this society, to become less religious was unfortunate although not unexpected.  Spain’s socialist government has enabled gay marriage, faster divorce, and easier access to abortion.  But that was not the main reason for his visit.  He came to consecrate Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.  Begun in 1882 and not expected to be finished for another fifteen years, the Sagrada Familia is already an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Today’s consecration by the Pope lifted it from the status of a church to that of a basilica and, in my opinion, this is a good thing.

The Pope delivered part of his homily in Catalan, an important signal to the world that the Catalan language has merit and is important.  His visit provided the means by which people all over the world could see the interior of the church for the first time.  Antoni Gaudi was a very devout Catholic and spent the last fifteen years of his life devoted only to the building of this huge and unique church, living like a monk on the grounds.  He is buried in the crypt.  He is now going through the process (whether he knows it or not) of becoming a saint of the Catholic Church.  He, I have no doubt, would have been very pleased and honored by today’s visit.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

To be, or not to be

It can get boring living out here beyond the pale; there are no concerts, lectures, or art museums nearby.  But government bureaucracies transcend geographical limitations so even out here I can and do find legal hassles.

Soon after I came to Spain I decided that when I was eligible, I would become a Spanish citizen.  Having no intention of going back to the U.S., it would give me the right to vote here (where I follow the issues), and it would make me more a part of the society where I live.  Spain makes you renounce any other citizenship and turn in your former passport, but America does not have that restriction so you only have to apply for a duplicate to have your American passport back.

About a year ago the time had come.  Among other things that were required was that pesky criminal record that I wrote about last April.  Once I had those fingerprints correctly done by the Catalan police, it took another few weeks to actually get the official statement from California.  In fact there was some irregularity to what I had sent, but the sheriff was kind enough to let it go through.  He is a very nice and helpful sheriff and has a standing invitation to come and visit.  I had the statement officially translated into Spanish in Tarragona and added it to the growing mountain of papers.

In the middle of collecting endless documents for my citizenship application, I was also immersed in trying to get myself inscribed as Manuel’s wife in Panama, the country from which he gets his largest retirement pension.  They won’t pay out any extra for me, but getting listed as his wife will give me widow benefits if he dies before I do.

We’ve sent numerous documents to Panama over several years and made many follow-up attempts by letter and phone.  Manuel even went into the Social Security office in Panama City in person last year.  They wanted this, then they wanted that, then they said that something we sent (at considerable trouble and expense) never arrived, even though we had sent it registered mail.  That was my birth certificate.  About three years ago we went to the Dominican Consulate in Barcelona to request a copy of my birth certificate.  They told us that you can only do it in person in the Dominican Republic.  If you can’t go, you can ask a friend or family member to go in for you.  Of course I don’t know a soul in the Dominican Republic.  In hindsight I see the trick they were playing on me, but at the time we were desperate, so we were grateful when the functionary said he would find an attorney who would take care of it for us.  That only cost us about 300 euros.  Now I needed yet another birth certificate for my citizenship application, so I decided to try a different route and requested it online through the Dominican Embassy in Washington.  It cost me $10 plus postage (actually my stepson Manuel graciously wrote the check for me).  No one got rich off of that certificate.

Unfortunately, the social security office in Panama later informed us that I would have to provide a court statement certifying that my name was legally changed from the one on my birth certificate to the one I currently use, the same one that is on my American passport, our marriage certificate, all my Spanish documents, everything that is current.  Not only that, but I have a Spanish court issued statement certifying that I am alive.  If I have documents to prove that I am married to Manuel and up-to-date identity papers that certify that I exist and am currently alive, a citizen of the U.S., and a resident of Spain, why do I even need a birth certificate?  What difference could where or when I was born possibly make in this matter?

Changing my name has been a kind of hobby of mine.  Possibly it has to do with an identity problem – something I’ve evidently been plagued with over the years.  I’ve changed my first name, my middle name, and my family name, and the latter I’ve changed more than once.    But some years ago I settled on what I use now, having my father’s original last name as my middle name and my first married name as my family name.  In fact, I’ve used this family name twice as long as I did my maiden name (and my maiden name was not our original family name because my parents had changed it when we immigrated to the U.S.). 

So I sent Panama an affidavit stamped and sealed by the American Consul in Barcelona explaining and testifying to the name change.  But it wouldn’t do.  Nothing short of a legal statement from an American court would do.  I thought of applying for the court order myself using a Nolo Press do-it-yourself book, but part of the procedure is a personal appearance in court and besides you are supposed to be residing in the court district.  Since it wasn’t straightforward, I asked Howard, an old friend of mine from Los Angeles who practices law in the Bay Area to help me.  So I am now in the middle of trying to obtain a court order certifying the legal change of my birth name to my present name.  It has cost me a lot of time and may end up also costing several hundred dollars.  But after I obtain the court order, I’ve promised myself never to change my name again.

Back to my Spanish citizenship.  In August, when I thought I had all the required documents, I went in to the government office in Tortosa.  But of course I didn’t have everything after all.  So I went away and worked on assembling the rest.  And finally, last week I went in with the full complement of papers.  They went through it all and could find nothing missing except the marriage certificate issued here in Spain, certifying our American marriage.  But I had the official signed and stamped receipt for having filed the request for it, and that would suffice until the real document is produced.  It seemed that everything was, after all, in order.

I thought we were finished, but they still had one small surprise in store for me.  Just as I was getting ready to leave, the clerk mentioned that once my citizenship was approved, my name would be changed.  What?  I don’t want to change my name.  Yes, my name would be changed to the Spanish way of doing last names.  After all, at that point I would be Spanish, and Spanish family names are in two parts: first the father’s family name, and then the mother’s.  What a nightmare!  I didn’t grow up with my father’s real last name; he had changed it when I was two.  Some years ago I adopted my father’s real family name as my middle name, and it now appears on all my official papers, but I’ve never used it as my last name.  I can’t even pronounce my mother’s maiden name properly.  Besides, the one she put on my birth certificate was not her real maiden name.  She had been using this one during the War as a kind of protection because her own was so obviously more Jewish.  I guess changing names is an inherited family trait.

Now this new development presented some serious problems for me.  First of all I am in the middle of a long distance legal process to get the name I use officially certified, court-ordered, and recorded.  Then the next thing I do is go change it to something else again!  Apart from the fact that I don’t like being dictated to, changing my name again seems to me to be asking for a lot more trouble down the road.  And besides, my name is part of my identity.  I like my name.  I chose my name.  It’s been mine for forty years.  It’s who I am.  Who are these people to say I must change it?

I left the Civil Register office with all my documents in hand, telling the clerk that I would have to think about it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

La Sardana

When I moved to Barcelona I learned to dance the sardana, the Catalan national dance. I found a place that holds a dance every Friday evening, with lessons for those who want them. Manuel didn’t want to go, so I started going alone and after a while I got to where I could do the sardana passably, at least to where I was usually headed in the right direction on the appropriate foot at the right time. It eventually turned out that learning the sardana became much more than just learning the steps of a dance, but more about that another day.

The sardana is danced in a circle and entering a circle has its protocols. The man to the left of a woman is assumed to be her partner (although partners are not required), so one never enters between the pair. You also don’t enter between a man and the woman on his left (I don’t know why) unless you are a couple or you have no other option. It is always OK to enter between two women. The unlimited number of women in a circle allows any woman to dance whether or not she has a partner. So, once I learned how, if I wanted to dance, I just went to a place where they were having sardanes and joined in a circle.

Next, the common etiquette is to join into a circle of people who dance at the same level of knowledge and physical ability as you. That makes it difficult for the complete beginner who doesn’t know beans about how to do the dance. But there are those kind souls who will take a newcomer aside and show them the steps, although it takes more than a few minutes to really learn the dance (simple as it may look) and if you dance badly, you spoil it for the rest of the dancers in your circle.

At first I had tried to pick up the steps by following behind someone in a circle or joining into a group of gent gran (elderly!). But even with the gent gran I was a little bit lost. For one thing, inexplicably, they would all suddenly stop the step they were doing and then start in again either with the same step or with a different one, sometimes on the left foot, and other times on the right. Figuring it out seemed like a great puzzle to which I didn’t have a clue, except that the stops coincided with stops, or breaks, in the music. But every time I went, I heard different melodies. Clearly everyone knew when to stop, when to change steps, which foot to start out on again and exactly when to finish. Had all the hundreds of dancers committed every piece of music to memory?

On the other hand, dancing with the gent gran could get a little boring.  Quite frankly, some of them schlepped. Those groups of younger people who danced better seemed a lot more interesting -- instead of shuffling they bounced, sometimes they jumped, their foot movements were more precise and pretty to look at, and even though it was the same dance, there seemed to be more variety to what they did, certainly more elegance. It was clear that I wasn’t even close to their level of dancing, but I had my aspirations, so I decided I would take lessons which eventually led me to the Friday evening dances.

There are only two basic steps to the sardana: els curts (the shorts) and els llargs (the longs). You join them together with a combination of two- three- or four-step cambis (changes). The dance goes like this. On the numbered count you lift your knee and point your toes down and then tap the ground with the tip of your shoe. The following step will be with the same foot. Say you’re starting with your left foot, which is how the dance always begins, the curts go ONE, step, step, step, TWO, step, step, step, and you’ve moved a little to the right, then you’ve moved back a little to the left. Danced well, you have placed your feet very close together and on the third step you cross one foot in front of the other. After more than three months of practice, I was still tripping over myself every now and then if I didn’t concentrate on what I’m doing. Were my feet too big? The Catalans never trip.

Llargs go ONE, step, TWO, step, THREE, step, step, step, also going back and forth and ending up pretty much where you started. If, in addition, you also bounce once on your planted foot, keeping time to the rhythm, every time you point or step, then you are dancing rather well. If you dance entirely on the balls of your feet, bouncing but never touching your heels to the ground, then you’re a good dancer.

Every circle has a leader who calls out the cambis. That person is counting every beat of the music. The person who counts only has to know in advance how many tirades (sets or layers) the sardana has. Unless otherwise announced, the cobles always play sardanes of ten tirades. The leader counts the first set of curts, and later the first set of llargs. They can tell the end of a set because of a break in the music. After that, the leader keeps right on counting because all tirades of curts will have the same number the first set had, and all the llargs will have the same as the first set of llargs, and the leader has to keep counting to know when to call out the changes and the stops. The count for a set of llargs can number up into the eighties. That’s a lot of counting.

I have attended a couple of sardana events where there was no one in the circle who could count. You can’t dance properly if no one can count -- part of the joy of the dance is ending up exactly with the music.

Sometimes a circle will also have a second leader. This is the stylist. The stylist calls out when to bounce, to bounce more, to jump, to jump higher, to stop the jump or the bounce, and so forth. Because a well-danced circle constantly bobs up and down at different levels of intensity that complement the music, and everyone who dances knows when to start, when to bounce, when to jump, and when to stop, each circle looks like a living organism.

There is a sameness about sardanes that would boggle the mind of many. People who need constant stimulation of new and fast-moving things would probably not like the dance. If you are the type of person who needs to go to a new restaurant every weekend, the sardana might not be the dance for you. There is only one set formula for the dance, no opportunity for improvisation to speak of, and even though each song is different, many of them have melody fragments so similar that if you know the repertory, you still might initially confuse one for another. They all have the same structure, and your feet always do the same two steps.

So why do Catalans love the dance so much? Well for one thing, it has a subtle beauty when done well and the whole circle moves like one unit. Also, when you look across a plaça where many circles are dancing, it looks like some sort of musical mass movement and all the people know that they are participating in something intrinsic to their culture. The music too, once you get used to the slightly whiny sound of the gralles (a unique, Catalan wind instrument), has its own unique sound and if that sound does not hurt your ears, you quickly start to have your own favorites, both for dancing and for listening. Yes, listening. They give sardana concerts where you sit in a hall and just listen. Some people – diehards -- attend these.

Going to sardanes is as much a social event as an opportunity to dance and most people come for both. And finally, people enjoy doing their national dance not only because they consider it beautiful or fun or good exercise, but because they weren’t allowed to for so many years. So it’s a little like the difference between going out to a new restaurant every weekend, as opposed to going to your grandmother’s house every week for Sunday dinner. The sardana is definitely Sunday dinner and learning to dance it became an invitation to join the family.

I have danced very seldom since leaving Barcelona, but on this last La Diada (the Catalan national day, 11 September) I went to a nearby village where I had heard there would be sardanes with a live band. It took a bit of poking around sausages, cheeses, and handmade soaps in a medieval-style fair, but I found it. I sat through the first one then joined into the second. I must have said something to this woman because after sitting out the third, she came up to me and asked if I wasn’t going to dance any more, that I danced very well. Her name was Maria and she was from Lleida, a city she said I must visit to see especially the cathedral. Wasn’t that nice? So, the people were friendly, the music was wonderful, and the whole experience reminded me of why I loved it here in Catalunya when I first came. It made me feel alive again.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Catalan Castles

On 11 September 1714 the Catalans, who had supported the Hapsburg claim to the Spanish throne, surrendered to the Bourbon victor. Oddly, this monumental defeat marks the national day of Catalunya. La Diada is celebrated with flags, wreaths commemorating the heroes of that war, speeches, Catalan poetry, and music. Last night I listened to the annual La Diada address of the President of the Generalitat (Catalan government), and later today I plan to go to dance sardanes, the Catalan national dance.

There is talk and there are posters proclaiming that Catalonia is not Spain, and if anything supports that sentiment, the sardana surely does. Compared to the iconic Spanish national dance, flamenco, it is at the opposite end of the dance spectrum. Everyone knows what flamenco music sounds like and what the dance looks like – fiery, almost violent, full of sexual innuendo and manifesting individual pride. Contrast that with the sardana, and you would assume that the two dances came not only from different countries and cultures, but possibly from different planets.

To dance the sardana is to bob up and down, doing one of only two patterns of steps, sometimes with arms down and other times with arms up, in a circle, with no partner required, no evident leader, no individualism, no fire, and definitely no sex. It is staid, some think it is boring, it is danced totally in unison, it has no variety. But when done well, a circle of dancers looks like one living, bobbing organism, and I happen to like that. It is symbolic of what you see a lot of here – community spirit.

Another excellent symbol of community spirit is the uniquely Catalan sport called castells. Castell means castle in Catalan -- you could say these are castles or human towers. The towers can reach as many as ten storeys. Each storey is made of people who have climbed up onto the shoulders of those below while accompanied by the music of gralles, a whiney-sounding flute that sounds like a sick seagull.

Castells are formed on a square base of four very formidable men, who use their arms to lock themselves into an extremely tight position that will directly support the tower. The weight of as many as nine human storeys, each of two, three, or four persons, will go up above them and will bear down directly on them. The core four are then surrounded by others – dozens of people, sometimes over a hundred -- who hold onto them and each other and provide the buttressing to help the four anchors withstand the weight and pressure from above. This construction is called a pinya, literally a pine cone or a pineapple. To fer pinya (make a pinya) means to work or band together towards some common end. Sometimes a second pinya is formed above the first. Bear in mind when you look at the photos that you do not see the base pinya in the sea of people on the ground.

Once the pinya is deemed solid (by the cap de colla, the director or head of the group) the persons who will make the tower begin to scramble up. Storey by storey they set themselves up, each layer climbing up the backs of those before them and doing it all to the traditional music played by a drum and gralles (small wooden flutes). The castle must be made as quickly as possible – the whole thing takes three or four minutes -- for the weight bearing down on those below cannot be withstood for long. The castle is finished when the top person, called an anxaneta who is usually a small child about 7 years old, holds up his or her hand to signal completion, but the whole thing is not concluded until those who went up all climb back down.

When I watch them make castells, whether in person or on television, they give me goose bumps and inevitably make me cry. It’s an incredible cooperative effort, so suspenseful to watch, and I always find it very beautiful and moving.

This is THE typical Catalan sport, unique to Catalunya, and is one of the things that sets it apartment from the rest of Spain where the equivalent sport is to torture and murder bulls. Ironically, I took these photos at a special competition that was held at the Tarragona bullring a few years ago! When I wrote on this blog some months ago about the move here to forbid bullfights, someone posted a comment saying that the Catalans are against bullfights only because they want to appear different from other Spaniards. But I beg to differ. Catalans ARE different. Their national sport, the castells, and their national dance, the sardana, contrasted with bullfighting and flamenco, typical in the rest of Spain, demonstrate that difference perfectly. In both there are no stars, no soloists. Both are cooperative efforts of people doing something together and in the making of castells, it is for the simple pleasure of creating something wonderful that lasts only a moment.

Making castells is a popular sport in Catalunya -- children and mature adults all belong to the teams.  It is not nearly as big as soccer, but important enough to be covered regularly in newspapers and on radio and TV. Many towns have a team, the bigger towns sometimes have more than one. They hold competitions throughout the season where they earn points for the difficulty of the construction and whether or not they put it up and then brought it back down without mishap. They always participate and are a highlight in the festes. Castells are one of the grand cultural manifestations of Catalunya.  There is a video on UTube about the castells, narrated in Catalan, if you don't understand Catalan you can still enjoy the images.  If you want to take a look it is at

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Party Pooper

Although not much of a party person, I’ll go to one if invited, there being little else to do. I’m one who prefers the kind of conversation you have gathered around a table with food (and wine). I’m clumsy at making small-talk and then gracefully moving on to the next person while trying to balance a plate of food and a glass of wine, eating, drinking, and talking, all while standing.

Parties can be challenging and they can also be dangerous. At one that I attended last April, an English woman of a certain age, an acquaintance – friend of friends whom I have met many times at such events, we have never hit it off – told me, when I protested that I wasn’t happy with my hair cut, that I should have my face lifted. Not being quick on my feet, I told her I couldn’t afford it. But I mean really, what does one say to advice like that?

When I drove up to a recent party, I pulled in to park next to a couple I know who were just getting out of their car. However, they are young and apparently living life in a hurry and didn’t wait the extra minute so that we could all walk up the hill together. Not an auspicious beginning to a sociable event, but never mind, there was still hope for spending a pleasant and perhaps interesting evening.

In the emailed invitation we were asked to bring a tapa. Not having a kitchen in which to cook, I brought three store-bought pates and little toasts to spread them on. Upon entering the garden where the party was taking place, there was no sign of the host or the hostess. I may not be a big partygoer, but I have seen how it is done in the movies where guests are announced by the butler. I thought in less formal circumstances it was usual to be greeted by a host when one enters, or offered something to drink soon afterwards. But here one simply found one’s own way. I went to look for the hostess and begged for a plate, unloaded the three pates, and headed off in search of stimulating conversation.

People of many nationalities were in attendance: English (the majority), French, Swiss, Dutch, and Catalan. As far as I know, there are only four or five Americans living in this general area: me, a couple I have never met, and the couple who were hosting this party. When they first arrived here, I thought we would have a lot in common and would become friends. But once they settled in they dropped me and threw away my phone number so that now I only see them when there is some group activity.

I engaged in an initial short chat with a Catalan woman whose daughter was spending time in the U.S. As is often the case with roaming Catalans, she doesn’t plan to stay there, preferring to return to family and friends here. I made what I hope was a graceful exit and then spent most of my time chatting with two French women, one of whom I vaguely know from the arts and crafts fairs where we both sell – she, jewelry made of ceramic beads that she makes (very nice) and me, cards I make from my photos. The lady I know is French while the other turned out to be French-speaking Swiss. I didn’t realize the French-speakers were in the minority in Switzerland and that there were three official languages: Swiss-German the big majority, then French, the bigger minority, and finally Italian, a small minority, spoken by a handful.

The Swiss lady spoke French and a very broken Spanish. The French lady spoke French and decent Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish but I do speak Catalan. In spite of the Pimsleur French course I’ve been working on, I can’t manage to say anything in French when I try to use it in public (my brain goes to the Foreign Language section and only Catalan comes out), but I can at least understand some French. So I spoke Catalan, the Swiss lady spoke mostly French (from time to time she would throw in pidgin Spanish and become almost completely unintelligible), and the French lady would speak sometimes in French and sometimes in Spanish and translate for one or the other of us when needed. We all got on just fine.

It was a bunch of work but we managed to converse for quite a while in this trilingual manner. Although tiring, it was good mental exercise, and I do need all the mental exercise I can get -- I’ve already forgotten the French lady’s name, but the Swiss lady is Giselle. Like in Swan Lake, she said. I may be wrong, and didn’t want to question her about her own name, but I thought it was Odile in Swan Lake; Giselle is another famous ballet and was one of my mother’s favorites. Good I kept that to myself because eventually I was invited by Giselle for a real Swiss fondue, ladies only, but not until December when the proper cheese can be obtained. I’m hoping that I will have moved away by then, and Giselle says she is trying to sell her finca (a country property) and would like to move to Albi. But in the more likely and unfortunate event that we will both still be here, I will be very pleased to go. I love fondue. Takes me back to the 70s – to my youth when we all had those fondue pots we were given as wedding presents. Maybe by December French will actually come out when I try to speak it.

But danger lurked at this party too. I was introduced by the parking lot woman to another young English woman whose name escapes me. Hola, she said. Hello, I answered. DeVOra she said. Your name is very harsh, she told me. It sounds like devour. That isn’t very nice, is it? Nice meeting you, I said and walked away. Moving on suddenly became easier.

I hiked over to where my English friends were sitting, ate and chatted with them. Unlike me, some of the invited guests had actually prepared food, some of which was very good: a fine potato salad with tuna, seito (tiny marinated fish), several good looking omelettes (all of which I passed on, afraid of my egg allergy acting up), curries, and a dynamite bean salad. I really wanted the recipe for that bean salad, but how would I find its maker among all these people, most of whom I didn’t know? So I put the question to those at the table and struck gold. Angela (who makes lovely pearl earrings and also sells at the arts and crafts fairs) was the cook and was happy to share her recipe with me. But good luck finding the Thai red curry paste here in Spain. She buys it by the tubful on visits back to England.

Before heading for home, I went back to spend a few more minutes with my new French lady friends. The people at these parties come in many nationalities and in all types. It’s great when you can make the acquaintance of the ones with whom you click and not let language be a barrier. And for the others, well maybe chatting briefly and moving on isn’t really such a bad idea.