Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Intrepid Entrepreneur

Late in 2004, when we were living in Tarragona, I decided to embark upon a dream. It wasn’t a lifelong dream, but something I had been thinking about for some years and that stemmed from my unabashed materialism. I love things. This may sound strange coming from a self-proclaimed socialist, but it’s true. And that’s not to say I simply like stuff. No. I’m picky. I want things well-made, hand-made, possibly functional, and certainly beautiful. So when Manuel suggested I open a business, I decided I would open an arts and crafts shop.

At the time, I was plagued by two problems, one of them being how to make a living. Opening a business could solve that, if only because I wouldn’t have to find someone willing to employ me. After five years of forms and lawyers, I still was not a legal resident and therefore not allowed to work or own a business. Manuel said I could put the business in his name until I had my papers. Surely, after so many years, it was imminent!

Mired in a financial and relationship crisis, I didn’t know if I should stay in Spain or return to the U.S. If I went back, I couldn’t afford California, so I would have to go somewhere new – I thought Pittsburgh. It had a lot going for it, plus my stepson and an old friend lived there. I was relatively certain that I could at least land a clerical job, whereas making a living had been a problem in Spain. Of course there would be the question of health insurance. So part of me thought I would go back for practical reasons, but another part of me thought I should stay here where my heart was. I had put a lot of effort into learning the culture, history, and language of my new home, and I didn’t want to throw all that away. Besides I had adopted Catalunya as my home, and I didn’t want to leave it. I thought it would help me decide if I talked to some of my friends. And in fact it did help.

I’m glad to have friends who don’t mind offering advice. When I read the various email, a few struck a chord that resonated. Hearing it from someone else, rather than ruminating over and over, made it easier to see what fit for me and what didn’t.

Toba expressed concern for my old age. She thought I should live in a place where the cost of living was low and where I would have friends, an important consideration when I grew older. She didn’t think that opening up a shop was a good idea because it was risking money, and she thought it would be safer to go to Pittsburgh, get a job, and make friends.

My reaction was that I can’t be assured of having friends when I’m old no matter where I live. When my mother was old, her best friends were newly made. All her old friends had either died, moved away, or become incapacitated themselves so that they no longer were able even to go out and socialize. Old age is often a lonely time and a problem anywhere, but in Spain I would at least have good, free health care.

Then there was the matter of risking money. I don’t like thinking about money. I’ve never had much and never figured out how to make more. I could set a limit of how much I could afford to risk and plan around that.

Evie’s response felt right. She said I should live where I enjoy being. It’s not good to be too preoccupied with the future because most of it is not in our control. “People make plans and God laughs,” is a quote she sent me. So best to enjoy what we can now, preferably without shooting oneself in the foot.

Randy said he thought that like him, I had found a place I loved to be. He figured that was worth a lot and if I could work out a way, I should stay.

The shop turned out to be an incredible personal experience and achievement for me, even though it ended up being a financial failure. I am still proud of what I created, but sorry I didn’t do it somewhere else. I think the main problem was location – not the street or neighborhood, but the city it was in.

The remodeling was splendid, turning a truly ugly space into an attractive one. I had never remodeled anything before and it was a bit scary when Francesc, the indomitable paleta (mason), had torn out all the useless walls. But what fun when he started putting it all together.

We ripped out the ugly plywood panels that some former tenant had put over the walls and ceiling. There was old stone wall and beamed ceiling underneath. Plastered walls received a pink tint, to blend with the lovely 100-year-old floor tiles that were a faded red and blue on (what was once) white.

The stock was varied and wonderful, all things that I, and most of my friends, would buy in a minute if we were out shopping. But in fact, very few American tourists ever came in, although those who did, and the few Japanese, were my best customers. Unfortunately, very few Americans or Japanese come to visit Tarragona and the local public is mostly lower middle class with a taste for cheap Chinese junk. One local lady came in a few times to chat and to tell me that my colorful, 100% cotton, Provençal tablecloths were more expensive than the dull, drab, synthetic Chinese imports they sold at the mercat.

My location should have been perfect – under a beautiful Renaissance-era arcade, just at the foot of the cathedral. But retired Spanish groups on bus tours would walk by and never stop, and the locals, coming and going from the nearby Saturday market, didn’t even bother to look in. Even when it rained, people tended to walk out on the pavement rather than under the evocative covered arcade.

I called it L’Artesà (The Artisan) and stocked it with products that would appeal to tourists and locals alike. They were mostly things that were either hand- or traditionally-made. I had decorative and functional ceramics from Catalunya and Provence, colorful table linen from Provence, Catalan folk music CDs, marble coasters and clocks from Italy, soaps, cosmetics, and candles from the company Occitane, marmalades from Catalunya and Provence, exquisite Catalan chocolate, antique button and hand-beaded jewelry, and odds and ends that I would pick up at the antique flea market and then resell. Finding all these was great fun, born shopper that I am.

I never had a big closeout sale. I was too angry. If my neighbors couldn’t enter, much less buy, while I was in business, they sure as hell weren’t going to tread over my dead body to get bargains when I closed. Like the cat in Nicole Hollander’s cartoon who dies and goes to kitty heaven, I was going to take it all with me. Some of the things that were on my store shelves now decorate my house and fill my kitchen cupboards, a few are in the homes of friends, and the rest are stored in Manuel’s basement. Some day, when I live in a place near a decent flea market, I will sell off what’s left to an interested and deserving public. L’Artesà was both my biggest failure and my greatest achievement, and I’ve never really been sorry that I did it.

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P.S. The struggle to make a living continues (although the matter of residency has been resolved). If you ever buy products at Amazon, you can help this poor expat by buying through the shop on this blog. You don’t have to buy my products (but take a look, you may like what you find, Catalan chocolate included). Entering Amazon through my store means that anything you buy during that visit will earn me a small commission, and very little bit helps. Thanks!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Onions. Lots and Lots of Onions.

The Catalans have a unique onion that they eat voraciously every winter and spring. The white part of this very special onion is extra long, making it look a little like a leek. It is especially tended to grow that way, with the farmers heaping dirt around it, so that it ends up with more edible, sweet, white flesh. This outstanding onion has the legal agricultural protection of a D.O. like wine and olive oil. The only area that can produce an official version of this nonpareil onion is Valls, in the Baix Camp, a little west of Tarragona.

The onion is called a calçot. Calçots are not simply eaten, they are celebrated, and the resulting event is called a calçotada. As the people of Valls say themselves, La calçotada ja no és només un àpat, sinó que també és una festa (the calçotada isn’t just a meal, it’s a party).

On the last Sunday of every January, the town of Valls holds a festival – their famous calçotada – that attracts thousands of people from all over Catalunya who come to gorge on the local delicacy. But don’t think that people are just standing around at this festival eating onions. They do stand, the tables are laid out in various public squares throughout the old part of town and you eat standing up. But you don’t eat calçots plain. There is no such thing as a calçotada without romesco sauce.

Romesco sauce can be made from peppers, almonds, hazelnuts, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and oil, but that is just a generalization. There are probably as many variations of romesco as there are cooks. The most typical pepper used is the medium-mild nyora pepper, but since you can only find it here, Colman Andrews, author of Catalan Cuisine, says a substitute could be the ancho pepper.

So, the calçots are roasted over a fire made from vine cuttings, then put into a container (wrapping in several sheets of newspaper works well) and set for an hour to steam. They are then brought to the table laid out on a ceramic roof tile. One takes a calçot, blackened from the grill, pulls down the burnt green part, dips the white into the romesco, and voilà! Onion heaven.

One doesn’t have to go to the festival in Valls to enjoy a calçotada. Many restaurants around Valls and throughout Catalunya offer calçotades during the season that goes from November through April. At a calçotada, the first course will be the calçots, of which you will be expected to eat at least a dozen. They are served with romesco and farmer’s bread, for sopping up any leftover sauce.

Next comes grilled meat, usually lamb and sausage, sometimes chicken and rabbit as well. This is accompanied by grilled artichokes, blood sausage, and cooked and then refried white canellini-type beans. All this is washed down with red wine drunk from a porró and cava. The porró is a decanter with a long spout from which you pour wine directly into your waiting, open mouth. The spout never touches your mouth, so one porró can be shared around a table. Your head must be tilted back and the porró well aimed. Starting and stopping are the most challenging parts. Best to either be born Catalan or spend considerable time practicing, preferably in private, before attempting this intricate drinking maneuver. Dessert is usually crema catalana, (crème brûlée) followed by a fresh orange.

Even in restaurants, the groups for calçotades are usually large, often a dozen or more people. But we went just the two of us the other day. I had made a reservation at a restaurant called Cal Ganxo in Masmolets, just outside of Valls, that had been recommended by Julian, our friend Trini’s brother. He is a regular there and insisted that there was no better place. I think he may have been right.

Cal Ganxo was once a masia (a Catalan farmhouse) that has been converted, with its outbuildings, into a very charming, rustic, multi-room restaurant. We sat in the celler, as instructed by Julian. The porró filled with red wine was already there waiting for us when we were seated. I opted to drink from a glass. It’s safer. Manel, who is a bona fide Catalan and a porró expert, managed to spill a good amount of wine on the table, so I’m glad I didn’t even try. From that ignominious start we went on to have the best calçotada ever.

Calçots may look a little bit like leeks, but they have little else in common. Their taste is mild, almost sweet, and their texture is silky. They may not look too appealing when they arrive at the table all charred, but they are wonderfully tasty and these had the best flavor and silky texture of any I’ve eaten. The meat that followed was juicy and tender, the blood sausage was delicious, the beans were perfect, the wine was good, and I never even tried the cava since I would be driving. I thought maybe my tummy would object later to having been fed lots and lots of onions, but no, tummy was happy and made no sign of protest as we drove home through the winter vineyards.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Miravet and the Templar Knights

I’ve always thought that Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carthusians, and the other monastic orders of the Catholic Church consisted of monks who, if they weren’t involved in teaching, lived in monasteries where they studied, sang, meditated, prayed, grew herbs, and made wine and medicinal green liqueur. I never knew there were Catholic monastic orders that were military until I moved to Spain. I thought that the knights in the crusades were handsome men who wrote poetry and fought to support their lord or their king. Men like Sean Connery.

It was on my first visit to Miravet, a tiny village on the banks of the Ebro River, that I discovered the Knights Templar – my first encounter with warrior knights. Of course the Templars no longer survive, at least not as an order of the Catholic Church. My encounter with them was in the physical ruins of what once was their glory.

Formed in the 12th century to protect the Jerusalem pilgrimage, the Templar Knights were the most skilled of the different orders of fighting monks. Little did I know, in the 1970s when I was watching The Saint on T.V. and admiring his Volvo P1800, what inspired Simon Templar’s name.

As their fame grew, the Templars instituted a system whereby travelers, rather than carry it with them on the journey, could put their wealth in the possession of Templars who would give the traveler a letter of credit which he could then redeem from other Templars when he reached the Holy Land. This and other financial arrangements eventually made them the most powerful and rich of all the monastic orders – so rich, in fact, that the King of France was so heavily indebted to them that he jumped at the chance to participate in their undoing and escape his debt.

The monasteries of the Templars were often fortresses, and the castle of Miravet is one such example. Castles, I’ve learned, were always defensive structures, usually incorporating a large yard where those who lived outside its walls but within its jurisdiction could come for protection in case of attack, whereas the dwellings where lords and kings could enjoy their wealth without resorting to defense were palaces.

The Miravet castle isn’t especially well-preserved, so you only get a rudimentary idea of what it might have been like when it was actually lived in. There is no example of a cell or dormitory, although you can see where the church, refectory, and stables were. From the grounds and even more so from atop the tower, you have an impressive view of the surrounding area for many miles around. In those days, the Ebro River was a major waterway for seafaring ships, so this location must have had strategic importance. And in fact, before Templars owned it, it was a Moorish castle.

One of the best parts of the visit to Miravet is crossing the Ebro River to get there. The closest bridge is several miles away in either direction, but you can cross directly from the opposite bank with a ferry. This ferry operates by means of the current, using cords attached to pulleys that are attached to a line that crosses the river and keeps the boat on course. This is the same system that has been used here for hundreds of years. It can carry several passengers and up to three cars at a time, making the trip across, silently, in about five minutes. The cost is 3 euros per car. Entry to the castle is 3 euros per person, free on Tuesdays.

Miravet website (in Catalan):

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Architecture of Wine

Most Americans and Brits who enjoy wine drink French or California wines. Some, who read the reviews, have sipped the occasional Rioja or Ribera del Duero. And some who follow the latest trends know about the wines of Priorat which have finally put Catalunya on the wine-lover’s map. The Priorat is about an hour away from me. The Terra Alta (highlands), yet another wine-growing region, is even closer, so, being a believer in buying locally, I drink their undiscovered wines the most.

While the Terra Alta is hilly, Priorat is comprised of steep, rocky terrain full of slate, and that is what gives the wine its distinctive flavors. There are virtually no flat fields so the vineyards are all terraced into the hillsides. The wineries in both these areas tend to be small enterprises, most of them harvesting and making their wines by hand.

There is no real city in either Priorat or the Terra Alta. The biggest settlements are small towns like Falset (population 2,600), and mostly you find only small villages. In almost every one of these small villages you find a building – usually in the modernist style – housing the village’s wine cooperative. In Pinell de Brai (population 1,075) you find the Catedral del Vi (Cathedral of Wine).

Designed in 1917 by the Catalan architect Cèsar Martinell i Brunet, a disciple of Antoni Gaudi, in the modernist (Catalan art nouveau) style, this cooperative has always been a working building, a winery and olive press, and is made of simple materials, brick and stone. What makes it stand out from the other modernist cooperatives is the ceramic frieze across its façade and the elegant parabolic arches inside, typical of Catalan modernist architecture, but not always so grand. It is these arches that give one the feeling of being in a cathedral.

Martinell designed several wine cooperatives in the area, all of them notable and noticeable when you drive through the villages where they are located. The one in Pinell de Brai is perhaps the most splendid of them all, although the village is no bigger or richer than any of its neighbors. Evidently the people of this village were somehow inspired in 1917 to make something exceptional. The members of all the cooperatives spent more money than they needed to in order to have these utilitarian buildings built. They could have opted for something very basic and utilitarian. But no, these people, in one village after another, chose to erect something more expensive, something lasting, something very beautiful.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

German clock in Spain

This is my new clock. Manuel bought it for me last week at an antique fair in Reus. Who said the Spanish don't do antiques? I did. He bought it from an Englishman who lives and has his business in Germany. My new beauty is a German clock from around 1930 and looks a lot like the one I lost when we moved to Spain.  I say I lost it but it must have been stolen.  It was the only box that wasn't delivered to us by the shipping company. The chimes are beautiful, and someday I will be able to ignore them and sleep through the night.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In the Middle of Nowhere

I live here, in this pretty village. Well, actually I live near this village. It's a fishing port but you can find a better selection of fish for cheaper in a nearby inland village. And actually the best view of the village is from where I took this photo. From other locations it isn’t that pretty. But the coast here is somewhat pleasing. The development is minimal, there are pine and olive trees, small cliffs, small coves, the sun shines often. Even so, this is not the place that moves my spirit.

I live about three kilometers outside the village. That’s a 45 minute walk or a ten minute drive on a small country road that passes through olive orchards. Sounds idyllic, but sadly, it isn’t.

I will try not to go on and on about Spanish drivers. Let's just say they are aggressive and inept. Ubiquitous aggressive inept driving makes it bad enough to be out and about while enclosed in an armored vehicle, like a car, and another to be out there unprotected. To walk down that small country road passing through olive orchards, winding, curving, and dipping your way to the village with no armor is to risk your life. One problem of ineptitude is that most drivers don’t stay to the right on these small roads. They drive in the middle and if there is a curve to the right, even a blind curve, they take it all the way over on the left. Same for right turns at intersections or into driveways. The speed limit on that little road is 30 kilometers per hour. Most cars go 60. So I take that walk to the village every now and then, but keep my ears pealed for oncoming cars so I can step aside if needed. And I never ride a bike because at my age, it isn’t safe to fall while trying to avoid being hit by a car.

The fact is that I didn’t come to live in Spain in order to be out in the country. I came to live in the metropolis of Barcelona – one of the world’s great cities. And one of the great attractions to living in the city was that I wasn’t going to need a car. I could get around by foot and public transportation and so I would be less of an environmental burden on the world. But life happened, things changed, and here I am, out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by olive trees and inept drivers.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Becoming Extinct

No Great Mischief: A NovelSome time back I read No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod with an online book group. To me, this tale of a Scottish clan in Cape Breton, Canada is more than the saga of a family, it is about the extinction of a species – the species in this case being a culture. I find this phenomenon just as sad and disturbing as when it is the extinction of a species of animal. A culture with its history, language, stories, literature, music, food, way of being and thinking, cannot be revived once its members are no longer members and no longer speak the language and sing the songs. The thousands of cultures that make up our world are one of its greatest treasures and, in my opinion, deserve as much protection as turtles and owls and whales. Someone in the book group asked why Zulus and a couple of other groups were mentioned in the book. I think it was because they are also on the point of becoming extinct.

I live in Catalunya where the Catalans are doing their best not to become extinct. They are constantly fighting to have their language taught and used in the schools, used on commercial signs, used in court proceedings, used when they dub movies, so that it doesn’t become yet another dead language. They fight to have Catalan introduced as one of the many official languages of the European Union, and they fight to be able to have Catalan national teams play in international competitions, as do the Irish and Scots of Great Britain. These battles are fought with the government of Spain.

On 12 December 2009, many Catalan towns had a vote on whether or not they wanted Catalan independence from Spain. This vote was not an official referendum as that is illegal in Spain. It was merely put forth as a point of information. Even so, it was criticized and threatened with being declared illegal and legal actions taken. It doesn’t make much sense to me that in a democracy, people can’t have a referendum on something like that if they want it.

One hundred sixty-five towns held the unofficial non-referendum poll and they had an average of about 30% participation. That’s not bad for an unofficial poll. The highest turnout was in the Garrotxa, in the center of Catalunya. Two hundred thousand people voted all together and the vote was overwhelmingly yes for independence.

In No Great Mischief, when the narrator brings his brother Calum home at the end, there is no one to greet them as there had been on other occasions; there is no piper, and the policeman who stops them asks if they are the MacDonalds who make the hamburgers. Clearly the clan is in the process of disintegrating and soon there will be nothing left of the Highlanders in Cape Breton. Without that community, there soon will also be no Gaelic spoken in Canada, and all the songs and stories will also die out, except those that are written and saved for folkloric purposes, like those songs we saw performed on the museum website that one of the book group members sent around.