Friday, July 29, 2011

Havaneres: Catalan Sailor Songs

Last Saturday I went to a Cantada d’Havaneres at the beach.  Havaneres are Catalan and Spanish sailor songs that traditionally date back to the 19th century, when Spain was involved with Cuba.  One of the first havaneres, La Paloma, was written in 1855, and another, perhaps the best known, L’Amour Es Un Oiseau Rebelle, was adapted by Bizet from “El Arreglito” by Sebastián Yradier and brought to fame in the opera Carmen.  The songs typically have to do with sailing, with beautiful mulatto girls who were left behind, with disasters at sea, even with seagulls.

Traditionally these songs were sung in taverns by male trios singing a cappella or accompanied by a guitar.  In 1967 they moved from taverns to the beach with the first Cantada d’Havaneres in Calella de Palafrugell, a tiny village on the Costa Brava.  Calella de Palafrugell is home to 300 people in the winter; in the summer, the Cantada d’Havaneres is attended by 35,000-40,000 visitors.  Some sit on the terraces of the bars that line the beach, some sit on the beach, and many watch from the boats scattered all around in the sea nearby.  The event is so popular that it is broadcast on Catalan television and many thousands more (me included) watch from the comfort of their homes.

There are over 100 groups in Catalunya that perform Havaneres, now backed by a guitar and often an accordion and sometimes other instruments, and the Costa Brava no longer has a monopoly on either the performances or the groups that perform.  Peix Fregit (Fried Fish), Els Cremats, Els Pescadors de L’Escala, Port Bo, are a few of the best known.  The two groups that performed last Saturday in L’Ametlla – Veus de Reus and Grup Balandra -- were not from the Costa Brava or even from a seaside town; both groups were from nearby landlocked Reus (where Antoni Gaudi was born).

The Grup Balandra, besides giving a great, lively performance and supplying the two photos I’ve used, also have a website where you can listen to and download for free (legally) some havaneres.  Check them out here.  For more buying (and listening) options, click here for my Amazon store. 

I’ve been to hear Havaneres many times – in Barcelona, in Tarragona, and now here in L’Ametlla de Mar, and have enjoyed all the performances.  My first experience was in Barcelona, not on the beach, but on a narrow street in Gracia at the neighborhood Festa Major.  At one point, everyone in the audience (everyone except Manuel and I, that is) got out a white handkerchief and started waving them while singing along with the performers.  What in the world was that? I asked Manuel.  But he didn’t have a clue either.  He had left Spain in the 50s and wasn’t aware of what had clearly become some sort of cultural tradition.  The song was La Bella Lola and the handkerchiefs played out the meaning of the lyrics that say:

Después de un año de no ver tierra
porque la guerra me lo impidió,
me fui al puerto donde se hallaba
la que adoraba mi corazón.
 [After a year of not seeing land because the war did not allow me to, I went to the port where the woman whom my heart adored lived.]
¡Ay! qué placer sentía yo,
cuando en la playa
sacó el pañuelo y me saludó.
Pero después llegó hasta mí
me dio un abrazo, y en aquel acto creí morir.
[Oh, what pleasure did I experience when she got out her kerchief and greeted me on the beach. But then she came up to me, hugged me, and in this act I thought I would die.]

These days, Havaneres written in Catalan tend to be sung more than those in Castilian, in spite of which, La Bella Lola is probably the second most popular Havanera in Catalunya and is sung without fail at every performance, always the penultimate song to be performed.  The last is inevitably El Meu Avi.  This is the Havanera of Havaneres, the one that not only talks about a great wartime sea tragedy, but gives clear reference to Catalan nationalism

El Meu Avi
El meu avi va anar a Cuba
a bordo del "Català"
el millor barco de guerra
de la flota d'ultramar.
El timoner i el nostramo
i catorze mariners
eren nascuts a Calella
de Palafrugell.
[My grandpa went to Cuba on board the Catalan, the best warship of the high seas fleet. The helmsman, and our master, and fourteen sailors were born in Calella de Palafrugell.]

Arribaren temps de guerres
de perfídies i traïcions
i en el mar de les Antilles
retronaren els canons.
I els mariners de Calella
-el meu avi enmig de tots-
varen morir a coberta,
varen morir al peu del canó.
[Wartime came, the time of perfidy and treachery, and canons thundered in the sea of the Antilles. And the sailors from Calella, my grandpa among them, died on the ship’s deck at the foot of the canon. ]

Quan el "Català" sortia a la mar
cridava el meu avi:
Apa, nois, que és tard!
però els valents de bordo
no varen tornar, (no varen tornar)
tingueren la culpa els americans
[When the Catalán was going to the sea my grandpa shouted, “Come on, boys, it’s late.” But the courageous sailors did not return, the Americans were to blame.]
Quan el "Català" sortia a la mar
els nois de Calella
feien un cremat
mans a la guitarra solien cantar:
Visca Catalunya! Visca el "Català"!
[When the Catalan went out to the sea, the boys from Calella made a cremat; they palyed their guitars and sang: Long live Catalunya! Long live the Catalan!]

I remember visiting my friend Gracia at her mother’s house when her mom started singing El Meu Avi.  Gracia’s mom passed away a few years ago, but I still remember her belting out those last words:  “Visca Catalunya!  Visca el Català!

El Meu Avi was written in 1968 in homage to the sailors who died in the war with Cuba.  The author’s grandfather had participated in that war.  In Catalunya, this is the most popular of the Havaneres, not because it pays homage to the war with Cuba, but because it has become an emblem of Catalan identity.  Visca Catalunya!  Visca el Català!  That is the part that has stayed with me ever since Gracia’s mom sang the song to me more than ten years ago.

Photos taken at the beach at L'Ametlla de Mar, courtesy of Grup Balandra.
Lyrics and translations (with some modifications by me) taken from “The Habanera in Catalonia” by Galina Bakhtiarova, Quaderns-e, 03, 2004. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Chaos in the News

Being an orderly person, I always put things away, and I hate clutter.  Disorder and chaos make me nervous.  I want to understand things and there is no way to get a handle on chaos.  For that reason, living in Spain can sometimes be a challenge.

Spain once had a political party of anarchists.  Why would anyone want anarchy? It’s bad enough at home, but on a national level?  The anarchists have disappeared -- I never hear of them – but anarchy and chaos are present.  Building codes are chaotic – either totally unsupervised and ignored or draconian with no recourse to gain exceptions; all sorts of reasonable and useful laws and regulations are not enforced; trains don’t run on time; even the TV news program doesn’t necessarily start on time.  Natives shrug their shoulders a lot.  I have tried to do the same, but it’s given me a stiff neck which paracetamol doesn’t alleviate.

To illustrate, two recent news stories come to mind.

The first has to do with a team of Romanian gypsy women who are roaming the streets of Barcelona, supposedly soliciting signatures on a petition and donations for a charitable enterprise.  I saw these same women, or others just like them, several years ago when I lived in Tarragona, so surely this was not anything new, nevertheless it was on the midday news this week.

In fact, there is no charitable enterprise and they are not so much looking to con you as they are waiting for you to dig into your purse or pocket so that they can steal your wallet, camera, or mobile phone.

That these women do this is not what I found notable.  That they’ve been arrested more than a hundred times and yet are still roaming the streets doing exactly the same thing is.

The other story is about bands of pickpockets who operate mostly on the trains and metro, although they are also on the streets.  They come from Spain, Romania, and all over.  There are so many of them that they are not identified on the news as to their country of origin.  They are far more numerous and multinational than the gypsy women tricksters. 

These pickpockets have been arrested hundreds of times.  They go into the police station and back out on the same day, usually within an hour or two.  It’s a revolving door that could make a person sensitive to spinning dizzy.  They know the police and the police know them, but the police can’t charge them and send them for trial because one must be found with more than 400 euros of stolen property or it is not a crime, nor a misdemeanor, nor anything but a nuisance, especially for the police.  It must be frustrating arresting the same people day after day, week after week, month after month… and have nothing come of it.  If I am peeved by the stories, how must the police feel?

The fact that these pickpockets rob people continuously (mostly tourists in the summer, but everyone is fair game, including the easy target of little old ladies who are out to get their groceries), and that they are never charged was the subject of yet another news story some time back.  In fact, it has been the subject of several news stories over the years, reminiscent of those news stories about the same streets and houses that flood every year when it rains.  If you put the two stories together (the robberies and the revolving police door), you can get a sense of why I find it chaotic here.  Does it make any sense that stealing is illegal but stealing less than 400 euros carries no legal consequence?  Has it occurred to anyone that maybe they should make it illegal to steal, any amount?  After all, 50 euros is a lot to a person who is living on a widow’s pension of 300 euros per month and for that matter, ten is too.

On a more pleasant note, the other day I heard, from the balcony of my temporary apartment, a street musician playing French tunes, Russian tunes, and, to cap it off, Chava Nagila.  That was a bit of a surprise.  It reminded me of when I lived in Barcelona and could hear the musicians playing in the Placa Reial, although not many of them played Chava Nagila.  He played the accordion and played it very well.  He’s Romanian too. 

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Profile: Gertrud Weiland

Why do people from England, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries come to live in Spain?  Are they discontent with their home, or are they attracted by novelty, adventure, lower cost of living, or better weather?  Do they adapt, learn the language and fit in, or do they stay within the comfort zone of their home-language expat ghetto?  Do they plan eventually to go back to their home country? 

You could easily say yes or no to all the above because there are all kinds of people who come for all sorts of reasons.  In the future I will explore some of these questions with several people who have either moved here or who come frequently to spend time, to unearth something of their stories. 

First up is Gertrud Weiland who, with her husband Günter, came to L'Ametlla de Mar from Germany in a camper van 26 years ago.  They have raised a son here, but the couple has recently separated.  She runs Weiland Immobilien, a successful real estate agency in town, and in fact, I bought my villa with her.  I’m hoping she also sells it for me very soon. 

The couple had family with a vacation home near Marbella but she preferred Catalunya.  One of her first positive experiences in Catalunya was while traveling and staying in a campground in Roses on the Costa Brava.  At a bakery, when she didn’t have the correct change to pay for two croissants, the salesperson told her (she was a foreign tourist at the time) to pay when she came the next day.  On the same trip, in a campground in Empuries Brava, people were dancing the sardana while Gertrud and Gunther were standing aside and watching when all of a sudden the dancers opened the circle in order to put the two of them in the center while they danced around them.  She said that was an incredible gesture of inclusion that she will never forget.

When I asked Gertrud what she liked about it here, she responded, “By here do you mean Spain or Catalunya?”

“Which do you prefer?” I asked.

“I’ll speak about Catalunya because it’s where I live and what I know.  I like the tolerance, the dignity accorded to each person, and the attribute of taking responsibility for oneself instead of making excuses and blaming others.”

Gertrud told me that Catalans talk about their conflicts, and differences get resolved quickly.  That is different from the German manner of internalizing inner conflicts and never talking about problems.

Catalans are bilingual with Castilian (Spanish) and Catalan being the two official languages.  Gertrud learned Castilian first and then Catalan.  She took classes and found it easy; already knowing Latin and French helped as did having fallen in love with the Catalan people.  It took her two years to learn both.  She says she learned the most from watching the Catalan soap operas on TV.  She also wasn’t shy about using in public what she was learning and found that people didn’t laugh but rather made the effort to understand her.

When they first came, Gertrud and Günther opened a business converting vans into campers (caravans), fitting in kitchens, beds, etc.  Gertrud described herself to me as having been part of the flower power generation.  After seeing Günther’s website about his camper conversions and travels, I would say that truer hippies never existed.  I hope to explore more about that in a future post.

After about ten years, there was an economic downturn and the business faltered.  Gertrud began to do translation work, mainly for real estate agents, and eventually opened her own agency.  She speaks five languages, which must be a big plus here in an area where buyers have been coming from England, France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and now, the Russians are also coming!  They buy mainly holiday homes, income-earning investment properties, or retirement homes.  Her agency, Weiland Immobilien, is one of the few in the village that has survived the latest economic crisis.

When business slowed down Gertrud took the opportunity to further her education and now, in addition to her real estate business, Gertrud is also a practicing therapist using the Lacan method of psychoanalysis.  She is a busy camper. 

And finally, after all these years, Gertrud is in the process of applying for Spanish citizenship.  She mentioned, however, that if it were possible to obtain Catalan citizenship, she would prefer that.  

Applying for citizenship indicates a desire to remain permanently.  I asked Gertrud if she ever thought about going back to live in Germany.  “For nothing in the world,” she told me.

Her favorite Catalan singer: Joan Manel Serrat (singer/songwriter)

Her favorite Catalan book: Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Her favorite Spanish movie: Los Santos Innocentes, a 1984 film by Mario Camus, based on a novel by Miquel Delibes

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chaos: Spanish Building Permits

There is a small natural preserve called Les Muntanyans on the Costa Daurada.  It's in the municipality of Torredembarra, a seaside resort near Tarragona, between here and Barcelona.  Les Muntanyans sits at the edge of Torredembarra and consists of a salt water marsh that has been fought over for some years now.  A developer wanted to get his hands on it to build 500 apartments.  But some local citizens formed a group and protested. 

This area is a lovely natural preserve, one of few like it on the coast.  It is also a flood zone.  So there were two very good reasons not to build apartment blocks.  Quite frankly, it amazes me how many modern buildings in Spain sit at the bottom of a ravine or on a flood plain that floods repeatedly, year after year.  Every time there is a storm, you see on the news the same places being flooded.

In this case, although the city hall had given permission to build, the citizen group fought in court and just this week it was announced that they won.  Chaos averted.  For now.

But I know of another place much closer to home where chaos was not averted.  It is here, at the apartment I’m staying in for the summer while I rent out my own house in order to earn money to pay the mortgage.  My life is complicated.

My friends who own this apartment are also finding things complicated.  In Spain there is a document called the Cèdula d’Habitabilitat without which one cannot sell nor legally rent a dwelling.  The Cèdula certifies, among other things, that the building is habitable and, in the case of apartment buildings, that it is handicap accessible.  Whereas an older building would be exempt from accessibility requirements, this small apartment building is fairly new and very habitable, but parts of it, including this apartment, are not handicap accessible and thus the problem.

It is hard to understand, much less explain what the designer of this building was thinking when he worked out the plans.  It seems that the average person with no architectural background and some building experience could have done better and have satisfied the regulations.  After all, the apartments are just little boxes.  But instead, the rather strange, convoluted design makes it impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to enter this apartment.  You exit the elevator and are faced with five stairs you must descend, then one more leading into the very narrow entry to the door of the apartment where I am staying.  The descent is too steep for a ramp, and the entry to the apartment is too narrow for a wheelchair.  Why is strange design?

Between Manel and me, we have bought two apartments and two houses and have sold two apartments in Spain.  For none of these transactions was a Cèdula d’Habitabilitat required, even though, I am told, it existed back then.  In those days, it was simply ignored.  Now you can’t sell without one, nor rent out, nor have utilities turned on.  So what does an owner who cannot get a Cèdula do?  For the last year or two, there has been no recourse.  Country properties have been the hardest hit because most of them were built or enlarged without permit.  Virtually none of the country properties in this area have sold in over a year.  Meanwhile the government laments the lack of activity in the economy.   

I thought my friends should try to get the city hall to support a request for an exemption.  After all, they approved the building plans, so surely they have some responsibility for the outcome.  But it seems that one of the other owners in the building has built something onto their apartment illegally, without a permit, so that the city hall says it will take no responsibility for the entire building.  Does this make sense?  Well, never mind.  I guess my friends are preparing to make a claim against the architect; they can’t sue the builder because he declared bankruptcy a while back.  But that won’t solve their problem of making the apartment accessible so they can sell it.

Me, on the other hand, I have a Cèdula for my villa.  No problem.  All I need is a buyer who wants a cute little house with a pretty, green garden, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Mediterranean Sea, and certified habitable!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolaño, Chilean poet and writer, has just had a street named after him in Girona, where Bolaño lived the last five years of his life. Girona is a very interesting small city off the Costa Brava. It sits at the confluence of the Ter and Onyar Rivers, has a lovely old quarter which still has some original Roman wall and which includes what was a call (Jewish ghetto) before the Jews were thrown out of Spain in 1492. Although they say it is one of the best preserved ghettos in Europe, when I visited, I didn’t find much evidence of former Jewish existence except some depressions beside doorways where mezuzahs used to be. Then again, the buildings are still standing, and it did give me a special feeling walking those streets, knowing that once a thriving Jewish community walked on the same cobblestones through the same narrow streets. For no reason that I know of besides her dark coloring, my mother always thought she descended from Spanish Jews. Maybe my ancestors lived there? The Girona call was once home to one of the most important Kabbalistic schools, with Nahmanides (Ramban) as its leader. The Jewish Museum, housed with the former call, is well worth a visit.

Bolaño (who was not Jewish) has become one of the biggest names in Latin American literature in recent years, especially with what they say are his two masterpieces, 2666 and The Savage Detectives. I don’t know if he is considered postmodern or avant-garde, or what. I’ve never read him. I’m posting about him here because I know he is very popular among my online book buddies. But the report on TV announcing the new street said that its situation suits him. It is an unfinished street in an unfinished new urbanized area on the outskirts of Girona. Some day it will be a real part of the city, but right now, it is just on the fringe.