Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas in Figueres

At home
When I wished him a Merry Christmas, someone, who should have known better, started to wish me a Merry Christmas back, but then corrected himself, Oh, but you don’t celebrate Christmas.

In fact, I have always celebrated Christmas.  My family had a Christmas tree every year when I was growing up, and throughout their lives, we always exchanged gifts at Christmas.  When I was married to Joe, a lapsed Catholic, I would have a tree.

I also light candles for Chanuka and usually make latkes.  I send Chanuka cards to friends who celebrate it, and more generalized holiday cards to others.  I’ve even made my own holiday cards.  I like celebrating holidays and Christmas is one that is hard to avoid if you live in the western world.  I don’t celebrate the religious meaning of Christmas (nor of Chanuka, for that matter).  But as an enjoyable winter holiday with good food, gifts, cards and letters to friends I haven’t seen for some time, and sentiments of peace and goodwill, it works for me.

Since coming to Catalunya, I have adopted the caganer as my one and only Christmas ornament.  The caganer (shitter) is the uniquely Catalan figure that squats and shits somewhere in most people’s nativity scenes at home as well as in many shop windows and that, for me, is the most endearing characteristic of the Catalans.  A people that has invented a little figure smoking and shitting and puts him near the figure of the baby Jesus when they celebrate Christmas, is a people that deserves its own independent state.  A caganer is also often included in public nativity scenes, as in the one put up by the City Hall of Barcelona in the Plaça Sant Jaume.  Not surprisingly, it is never included in nativity scenes at churches.  Mine doesn’t sit in a crèche, it just sits on the shelf.

I have read about the caganer but no one seems to know how it originated.  They say it represents the Catalan character: a wee bit irreverent, unpretentious and down-to-earth, with a trace of humor.  This also works for me.

But he who thought I don’t celebrate Christmas was right in one way.  Christmas is not a holiday you can celebrate alone, and this year, I didn’t really celebrate.  I did make a slightly fancier lunch than usual and bought myself a nice pastry, drank better wine, and ate torró, the Catalan Christmas candy.  But lunch was in front of the television, as usual, watching the midday news.  Eventually, I took the caganer for a walk around town.

Bon Nadal!
On La Rambla
At the Dali Museum

Friday, December 21, 2012

No Soap, Mafia

On today’s mid-day news there was a story of a Marseilles mafia chief who was arrested here in Catalunya.  He led a big drug ring that brought cocaine from Central American to Europe.  He wasn't passing through.  He lives here, in Castelló d’Empúries, a village just twenty minutes away and where I’ve visited a couple of times.  Not only does he live and own a bar there, his wife owns the soaps and scents shop where I bought the sabon de Marseille that is sitting in the soap dish at the sink in my bathroom at this very moment.  I wonder if the soap will reveal any surprise as it wears down.  Crime aside, Castelló d’Empúries is a very pretty village and I will certainly visit there again, although I’m not sure I’ll be buying any soap.

Carrer Jueus

Friday, December 14, 2012

Inching to Independence

Laundry & Independence
The Catalans are inching their way to independence.  Later this evening the two majority parties (CIU who will head the government and ERC who will lead the opposition) will announce their agreement for the running of the next session.  Monday the new Parliament will hold its first meeting, and by the end of the week the President will be elected.  This will be Artur Mas, the fearless leader who did not start the current rampage for independence, but has taken it upon himself to carry it out.

As the Catalans quietly and peacefully move down their road, Madrid is on the attack.  They attacked Artur Mas in the second week of the two-week campaign with unsubstantiated accusations that he has bank accounts in Switzerland.  This accusation was in the form of a police report “leak” to a Madrid newspaper.  After the election was over it was discovered that the “leak” did not come from any Spanish police agency and that there was no such report.  Hopefully someday someone will discover where the phony material did come from and those responsible for that smear will be brought to court for willfully disrupting the democratic process. 

It was interesting at the time, that when Artur Mas asked the Minister of the Interior to explain where the report came from, the Minister’s response was it was not for him to explain but for Artur Mas to explain about his accounts in Switzerland.  If anyone had any doubt that Spain was a Third World country, the response of that minister alone should have resolved that doubt.  Cynicism in Spain is a national pastime.

That episode may have cost CIU and Artur Mas some seats in the parliament, but if so, they went to ERC, a Catalan nationalist party that is even more supportive of independence than CIU.  This means that they will need to work together to make this next legislative session a success, and so it is that they have been meeting and discussing and will announce their agreement tonight.

After the elections were over, the Spanish government and Madrid newspapers all celebrated the fact that CIU had lost and that independence was a dead issue.  I suppose they did that for dramatic effect. It was easy enough for a grade school kid to add up the numbers and see that this was not true.  I think most Spaniards who do not live in Catalunya read the Madrid newspapers and watch Spanish television (here most people watch Catalan television) and unfortunately don’t think for themselves, so the general public probably believed what its government leaders were saying.

But as I posted recently, the pro-independence parties won a majority of the seats in the new Catalan parliament and anyone who can add, or who can use a calculator, could have figured out that the Madrid politicians and their newspaper friends were lying.

So this last week the Spanish Minister of Education launched a new attack, this time on the use of the Catalan language within the Catalan school system.  Without going into the details, this new proposed law would be equivalent to the Federal Government in Washington suddenly dictating how all schools in every state were to be run, changing the curriculum of each state to conform to a national curriculum, and dictating that final exams for graduation would be written in Washington and sent to each state to be implemented.  Except that here there is more at stake because it would mean the elimination of Catalan as the language used in Catalan schools.  This would be a grave attack on Catalan culture and identity.

The Catalans are having none of this and have protested.  It doesn’t look likely that Madrid will back down, in which case I think the Catalans will take the matter to the Spanish Constitutional Court since it is each autonomous community that is responsible for its own educational system and not the central government.  Or, they will simply go ahead and conduct their schools as they have been.  It seems to me that day by day, the independence movement is gathering more supporters as Madrid becomes more and more hostile and antagonistic to Catalunya. 

But just so you know that I do more than watch the news and marvel at Spanish cynicism, this week I made a brief trip to Girona.  I went to see the Christmas market but found it very small and disappointing, so took a few photos of the parts of town I found lovely, down by the river.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Castle and The Candles

When I lived in Barcelona I always went to the big and bountiful Santa Llucia Christmas market that surrounded the cathedral.  But this year I’m not in the mood to travel to Barcelona so I’ve targeted more local venues. 
Without having to travel at all, right here in Figueres the Christmas market is a much more modest affair with about eight or ten stands, some selling food and the others decorations for Christmas trees or more importantly, figurines and supplies for nativity scenes.  Although I don’t do Christmas decorations, I do make the one exception of displaying the Catalan figure of the caganer (shitter) every December.  It doesn’t seem particularly religious, I don’t think my parents would object (in fact, I think my father would love it), and it is one way of participating in Catalan culture!
Figueres Mercat de Nadal
Els Caganers
The Figueres Christmas market would have been disappointing except that I didn’t really have high expectations in the first place.  The Collioure Christmas market was a different story.
My friend Jaye lives not far across the border in France and she suggested that we go.  It’s a food and an arts and crafts market; she had been before and liked it, and she was right.  The level of artistry and craftsmanship was very high.  It was a pleasure just to walk around and look at what these artisans were up to. 
I didn’t take photos of all the beautiful things.  I felt a little self-conscious and didn’t want the artists to think I was carrying out commercial espionage.  But I did take some photos of the castle that housed the fair.  Because this fair wasn’t just a bunch of stands standing outdoors, held hostage to the elements.  This fair took place in the Chateau Royal de Collioure where, in spite of being in a castle, we were still hostage to the elements.
The Chateau, originally built by the Templars in the 12th century, was, 200 years later rebuilt and used as a part-time residence by the Kings of Mallorca and Aragon.  It couldn’t have been very comfortable to live in as most of the rooms don’t connect and one has to keep going outdoors to the courtyard to duck  into the next room.  This made for exciting browsing as the weather was blustery with the fierce tramuntana wind that threatened to knock us over as well as some spots of rain.  But we persevered and managed to see it all, stay erect, and not buy a single thing!  All those beautiful handcrafted works of art and neither one of us bought even one.  It wasn’t that they were too expensive or that we were too cheap, it was because, for my part, I didn’t need anything, and, I have finally realized, that just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean I have to buy it.  It was because I have finally grown up.
I didn’t need anything because I have already finished my Chanuka shopping.  Two weeks before, Jaye and I had gone together to Perpignan.  Her agenda was to go to an Asian grocery to pick up some ingredients, and mine was to find the Kosher shop where I planned to buy Chanuka candles.  Originally Jaye was going to get to Perpignan early to get her shopping out of the way, but I told her I didn’t mind going with her to the Asian grocery and joked that maybe I would find my candles there.  Not to laugh.
When we arrived in Perpignan we went first to the address I had found for the Kosher shop.  I was a little worried because when I looked up the address on Google maps, it showed a car repair shop.  Still, I had some vague hope of a miracle.
As Google had warned, the address did yield a car repair shop, so we went on to do other things, saving the Asian grocery for last.  Once there, while Jaye was collecting her supplies, being a great fan of browsing in any interesting food shop, I had a look around.  I was enjoying myself, going up and down every aisle when all of a sudden, zap!  Guess what?  There were packets of candles that, although they didn’t have Hebrew on the packaging and didn’t come in mixed colors, seemed to be the same size as Chanuka candles.
My Chanuka candles this year are all white, they were made in Thailand, and they fit my chanukiah perfectly.  Two friends had offered to send me candles, but no need.  I traveled two hours to a city in France and, in an Asian grocery, found the perfect candles that were made in Thailand.  For modern times, modern miracles.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Catalan Election Results

After two weeks of campaigning, last Sunday the Catalans went to vote.  The result wasn’t what anyone expected it would be, and now the Socialists are explaining how their loss of seats is really a win because they didn’t lose as many seats as the predictions said they would, or how CIU, going from 62 to 50 seats, really lost.  They did lose seats, but by coming in first and ending up with twice as many seats as the next largest contingent, they didn’t exactly lose the election.

The results came out thus:
CIU, 50 seats
ERC, 21 seats
CUP, 3 seats
ICV, 13 seats

Not clear on their position:
PSC, 20 seats

Against referendum:
PP, 19 seats
C’s, 9 seats

Adding it up, you get 87 of 135 seats in favor of a referendum.  That’s 64% of the parliament and an absolute majority.  If the parties were to actually vote for or against independence, you would have CIU, ERC, and CUP voting for, ICV has not taken a position, and the last three, PSC, PP, and C’s would vote no (although there could be several renegade representatives from PSC who would also vote yes).  In any case, taking the party line 74 of 135 would vote yes, making it 54%, enough for a declaration of independence by parliament.

The reporters tell us what happened, what the results are.  It’s the job of the pundits to tell us why.  Some of them are more interesting to listen to and make more sense than others, but, for the most part, they don’t seem to really know.  It’s a lot easier to count numbers than to know and understand people’s motives.

Speaking of numbers, even as late as yesterday, the Vice President of Spain said to the press that because CIU lost 12 seats in the Catalan Parliament, clearly, the move for a referendum and independence lost.  Surely it isn’t possible that the Vice President of Spain doesn’t know that ERC, a political party that has been around since before she was even born, is first a foremost a Catalan nationalist party in favor of independence.  So, assuming that someone in such a high political position of power does, in fact, know, that leaves one with the disturbing thought that she is simply lying to the Spanish public, in the hope that someone out there believes her.  The other disturbing thought, is that she’s probably right in her hope.  Or possibly, that because of government cutbacks, she doesn’t have, as I do, a calculator to add up the numbers and figure out the percentages.  In fact, some the Madrid newspapers suffer from the same handicap as the Vice President.  If you lived in Spain you wouldn't know that pro-referendum and what’s more, pro-independence parties won the election unless you read Catalan newspapers, foreign newspapers, or read the Spanish papers but were able to add and divide.

I wouldn’t normally vote for CIU, but this time I hoped Artur Mas would win.  I believe he is totally committed to holding the referendum and gaining independence.  I also found him to be the most practical and the most diplomatic, and for this endeavor, both are necessary.

Since the election I’ve been worried about whether Mas (CIU, and President of the Generalitat) and Junqueras (ERC and head of the opposition) will be able to work together.  If they don’t, independence won’t happen.  CIU is right wing and ERC is left.  As things progress, it begins to look like both are willing to make some compromises.  If they do, this will be the best possible scenario.  Because with the two sides, left and right, working together, more people will be brought into the independence movement and it will strengthen the movement’s image internationally.  If the right and the left both back independence, that shows that a broad segment of the Catalan population supports it.  So if they work together there should be a referendum to vote on in 2013.  I do believe I am witnessing the birth of a nation.   
Photos courtesy of Trini Gonzalez

Friday, November 23, 2012

Spanish Nightmares

Catalunya is having its parliamentary elections this Sunday, the beginning of what will probably be the road to independence. The Government in Madrid is doing everything it can to derail these elections. So many lies have been told that it’s hard to remember them all.  If I had known how this was going to play out, I would have kept notes.  But one very notable lie was published last Friday by the newspaper El Mundo.  This is a supposed draft of a police report that accused the incumbent President Artur Mas, a supporter of independence who is running for reelection, of having illegal bank accounts in Switzerland.

It turns out that this draft report has never been shown to anyone and no one knows who wrote it. In Spain, police can investigate on a tip or a lead, but if it looks like there is cause to open an investigation, they must bring their evidence and ideas to a judge to authorize an investigation (if you read foreign crime novels, you’ll find the same process in Simenon’s Inspector Maigret books and Camalleri’s Inspector Montalbano).  The judge is also the one who authorizes any information being given to the media.  This alleged report was never approved, much less seen by any judge.  So if there really is such a draft report, it was illegally leaked from the police to the media.

When asked by President Mas to clarify, the Minister of the Interior said that he could find no evidence of this report.

When asked by President Mas to investigate and/or clarify, Cristobal Montoro, the Minister of Hisenda (Internal Revenue Service) said that it not for him to clarify. It was up to Artur Mas to explain about these illegal accounts.

Political campaigns in Spain run for only two weeks (and amazingly, people say they get tired of the campaigning before it’s over!) and this stink bomb was dropped right in the middle of that period.  Artur Mas has denied having any bank accounts in Switzerland, in spite of the fact that he has not been officially accused of anything.  Even so, day after day, the PP party says he must make a statement concerning those accounts.  It seems that in Spain, if you are anonymously accused, it is up to you to prove you are innocent.  This reminds me of Spain during the Inquisition, and yet it’s been 500 years.

This is what democracy is like in Spain. Referendums that allow people to vote on issues important to them are forbidden, and the accused has to explain himself, even if there is no evidence of a legal or official accusation. Spanish-style democracy is the stuff of nightmares.

This week another story hit the news, this one even stranger, although not quite the threat to democracy as the last.  Antonio Tejero is a former Colonel of the Guardia Civil. He’s a former colonel, because he was expelled from that paramilitary unit after his participation in the failed attempt to overthrow the new democratic government in Spain on 23 February 1981, a few years after Franco’s death. 

Two days ago, this same former colonel filed an accusation with the Prosecutor General of Spain against Artur Mas (who he referred to as Arturo Mas, ignoring the President’s actual name – I guess he doesn’t like Catalan names), accusing him of provocation, conspiracy, and proposing sedition.  I was thinking that perhaps Mr. Anthony Tejero might want to supply comedy shows like Saturday Night Live (is that still on the air?) with material for their skits.

The Catalan parliamentary elections will be held this Sunday.  I can only imagine that if Catalans get fed up with campaigns after less than two weeks, they also get fed up with the antics of the Spanish government.  We’ll see.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Jewish in Girona

My yearly quest to find Chanuka candles is once again in motion here in Spain.  This is not like California where any supermarket will have them, sitting on the Kosher foods shelf next to the gefilte fish.  There are two places I know of that sell them in Barcelona (thanks Jaume for telling me about the second one, which is much more central than my original source).  But Barcelona is two hours away by train, I was there recently, and I’m not in the mood to travel there again so soon.

Girona, being only about 30 minutes away by train, seemed like a better possibility.  In medieval times, Girona’s Jewish community was an important center of Jewish mysticism.  I know that was a long time ago, and even though candles keep, I didn’t have medieval Chanuka candles in mind.

Girona has a Jewish Museum in the middle of the historic district.  This is what was, in the middle ages and before the Expulsion, the Jewish Ghetto, the area just bordering the Cathedral.  There is a museum and nearby shop that I remember from my visit there more than 12 years ago.  Surely the shop, that had lots of menorahs and chanukiot, would have the candles for them.  And while I was there I could visit the museum again.  I hardly remember it, except for the pretty patio and the feeling of being in a space rich with personal meaning.

The entrance to the museum didn’t look how nor was it located where I remembered it.  When I entered, the spacious reception area was empty except for the two young women sitting at the reception desk.  Neither looked up as I approached, although neither looked particular engrossed in anything either.  So I said “Bon Dia” and that caused one of them to raise her head. 

When I had visited before, it wasn’t called a Jewish Museum, it was the Center Bonastuc Ça Porta.  Bonastuc Ça Porta is one name used to refer to the famous rabbi, philosopher, and cabbalist of Girona, Moisès ben Nahman, also known as Nachmanides.  I asked if this was the museum where the house of the famous rabbi used to be.  Apparently I had that all wrong.  This was the Jewish Museum, the young lady informed me.  It’s not a house, it’s a museum.  It seemed she didn’t suffer fools.

Numbering 300 at its peak, Girona wasn’t the largest Jewish community in Catalunya (it was Catalunya then, not Spain), Barcelona was bigger.  However, because of its rabbi, Moisès ben Nahman, who was such a significant figure in the world of Cabbala, Girona was in fact more important in the Jewish world than Barcelona.

Later, back at home, I found that the museum is located in the area where the synagogue and its related buildings used to be.  Maybe the famous rabbi, Moisès ben Nahman lived in one of those?  All I remembered was a patio with a Star of David.  I remember entering into the complex and seeing that patio.  I believe that now it is incorporated somewhere into the museum complex.

Clearly this woman was not interested in welcoming me into whatever there was on offer, rabbi’s house or not.  So I asked where the shop was and headed in there hoping to find more tolerance and, more importantly, candles.

The shop looked just as I remembered it, although the other time I had entered directly from the street.  It has a dark, old fashioned bookshop feel, overflowing with books, and other curiosities, among them, many menorahs and chanukiot.  I asked the man if he had any candles for the chanukiot.  No, he didn’t.  I asked if he could direct me to where I might buy some.  No, he had no idea.  Probably nowhere in Girona, he told me.  I don’t think it ever occurred to him that those decorations he was selling have a use and he clearly had no interest in what someone might do with the candelabras if they bought one. 

At that point, I felt disgusted with this Jewish Museum that doesn’t welcome visitors and the Jewish Shop that doesn’t stock candles for the Chanukiot it sells.  It was time to move on.

So instead of exploring the Jewish history of Girona, I went instead to the CaixaForum, a public exhibition space owned and run by my bank.  Currently on show were mostly 19th century landscape paintings by a few Catalan painters and some of their French contemporaries, painters such as Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Gauguin.  The receptionist was pleasant, the exhibit was beautiful, the bathrooms worked, and the whole thing was free.  I also spent some time just walking around this lovely city.  I’ll go to the Jewish museum another time.
Christ under plexiglass
Catalan Independence flags everywhere

Sweets shop


A walk along the river

No smoking inside the restaurant

Friday, November 9, 2012

Harry Potter Terrorist

The election campaign here just started.  These are snap Catalan Parliamentary elections that were recently called, as the first step to holding a referendum in Catalunya on the issue of independence.

I don’t know the budget but, as always in Spain, it will be small.  Politicians are always making speeches and attending to their public image and that of their political party.  But hard core campaigning, putting up posters and broadcasting political campaign messages are allowed for only 15 days.  This campaign began last night at midnight and will end at midnight the 23rd of November.  Saturday there will be no campaigning: The day before an election is a day of contemplation.  Sunday 25 November people will go out and vote.

It just so happens that today is the premiere of a new Catalan movie.  It is called Fènix 11-23 and tells the true story of Eric Bertran, a Catalan boy who, in 2004, at the age of 14, was accused by Spanish authorities of computerized terrorism.

Eric, at that time, had two interests: Harry Potter and saving the Catalan language.  Catalunya has two official languages, Castilian (Spanish), and Catalan.  Whereas Catalan is the native language, because of high immigration to the area from other parts of Spain (and Latin America), the dominance of Castilian in the popular media, and repeated interference on the part of the Spanish government to decrease the teaching and use of Catalan, many people feel that Catalan is being threatened.

In Catalunya, shops are required to post all printed information in both languages.  But many don’t.  Some don’t because they are run by immigrants who never bothered to learn Catalan, some don’t because they feel they are in Spain and shouldn’t have to, and others just don’t.  Evidently, none of these businesses are the least bit concerned about my patronage.  I make it a point not to shop where Catalan is ignored.  I prefer to spend my money where the local language is valued (and where the ordinance is observed).

Being a Harry Potter fan, Eric had set up a website (Phoenix 11-23) for the purpose of promoting and defending the Catalan language.  And one day, in the name of Fènix 11-23, he sent an email to one of the big supermarket chains that did not fulfill the legal requirement of signage in Catalan.

This resulted in the arrival of 30 police from the national Guardia Civil Anti-Terrorist Brigade at his house.  They searched his family’s house, and later they arrested Eric and took him to Madrid for a court hearing.  There are Superior Court judges in Catalunya, so why they had to take him so far from home I don’t know.  But I can guess.

Eric explained the Harry Potter connection.  He also explained that there was no organization, he was the sole inventor of this website.  Nevertheless he was threatened with eight years in juvenile detention for his terrorist act.  In the end he was acquitted.  You can imagine the terror he and his family must have felt as this judicial farce unfolded.  But it wasn’t really a farce, was it, except that arresting a kid for a Harry Potter-inspired email seems farcical.  Seems to me it was really more like an act of governmental terrorism.

I think the timing for the release of this film is, if accidental, excellent.  And if it’s deliberate, that’s just as good.  Although I think most people caught up in the independence movement are mostly concerned about the bleak financial consequences of being part of Spain, I don’t think financial concerns are the only reason many Catalans want an independent country.  What happened to Eric Bertran is only one example of the oppression Catalunya and Catalans suffer under Spanish government.  It isn’t surprising if most of them have had enough.

The film is premiering today throughout Catalunya.  If it ever comes near you, you might want to see it.

I have no photos today, but there is an interesting video posted on the internet, done by an American who was visiting Barcelona this last 11 September and by chance got caught up in a march of 1.5 million Catalans on the streets of Barcelona.  He was a bit overwhelmed and very impressed.  You can view his video here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

All Saints in Girona

The Onyar River
As the Catalan movement towards independence gathers force, I am continually surprised at the Spanish conservatives and how busy they are trying to instill fear in the public and do anything they can to thwart such a move.  Lies, threats, and clumsy political manoeuvres by Madrid are daily news stories, but at some point you get tired of it all.  So, since Girona is an interesting city (said to be very Catalan) with a river flowing through it and an historic Jewish neighborhood, yesterday I boarded the train and headed there to see the sights.

Catalan independence
is in style in Girona
Following the signs towards the historic part of town, across the Onyar River, and following a stream of people who seemed headed in the same direction but who looked like they knew where they were going, I followed the stream.  Early on this took me onto a broad pedestrian-only street filled with smart shops (although it was a holiday so they were all closed).   I’ve been to Girona before but not since I lived in Barcelona, so it’s been some years.  I moved to this area last June.  Why did I wait so long to make this trip?  It’s only half an hour if you catch the express train and about 35 minutes if you take the local.

I chose yesterday to make the visit because it was All Saints, Girona was in the middle of their big festival, Sant Narcis, and yesterday in particular there was an antique/collectibles fair being held somewhere in the historic section of town.

Making lace
I hadn’t brought a map and didn’t need one.  Just following everyone else brought me to it.  It wasn’t just antiques.  It was a large fair of art, handcrafts, food, and antiques.  The fair started alongside the river and then was strewn along the narrow side streets of the old town.  It was quaint and scenic, but became more and more crowded as I went on until the point where you couldn’t say I was following the stream of people.  I no longer had a choice and was simply being carried along by what was no longer a stream but a very big, slow-moving river.

Having moved along for a while in this river, I had second thoughts.  But by that point, there was no clear way of touching shore and to go against the flow was impossible.  I was trapped in a kind of Ikea nightmare. 

When I finally got to the antiques, it was also the end of the river.  It was still packed, but now there were escape routes.  So I poked around a little, but there were so many people browsing that you could hardly see.  Anyway, by then I was so fed up with the whole thing, besides the fact that Spanish antiques are either very expensive or they aren’t antiques at all but junk, that I took the escape route now open to me.  It just so happened that I had time to make my way back to the station (by another route) and catch a train home where, instead of having lunch out as I had planned, I could heat up a frozen pizza and watch the mid-day news.  At this point, the annoying news seemed a better bet than the moving human river in Girona.
Some of the words were missing from this
old Catalan saying:
Eat well, shit strong, and don't
fear death!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cashmere and Croissant

On my recent trip to Avignon, I also spent a day in Arles, one of my favorite places.  One of the reasons I love Arles is because Vincent van Gogh, my favorite painter, lived there for some months and being there allows me to see some of the places he painted and feel closer to him.  Arles is where he lived in the Yellow House, where Gauguin came to live with him, but ended up only spending some weeks.  The climax of that ill-fated visit was when Vincent mutililated (not cut off) his ear.  His illness was certainly not caused by Gauguin, but their stormy relationship probably contributed to making it worse.  This attack was the first of several episodes, probably a form of epilepsy, that he suffered from for the rest of his life. So visiting Arles, for a van Gogh fan, is necessarily a pilgrimage. The other reason is simply that it is a very pretty place to be.
Les Arenes, Roman amphitheatre
Les Alyscamps
Musee Reattu, those are carobs
afixed to two different buildings
This trip, going to Arles was a double pleasure because in addition to being able to spend a day in a place I love, I also got to meet one of my new friends who I got to know through the internet.  Delana is an American who lives in Aix-en-Provence.  Delana moved to France about four years ago and in the last year we have corresponded a few times.  She was kind enough to make the journey to Arles one day during my stay so that we could finally meet and what else?  Go treasure-hunting at a brocante fair.

Photo by waitress

Delana is a sucker for old linen, especially linen bed sheets.  But we combed through all the stalls, not just the linens, because we both know that at an antique/collectibles fair, you never know what you might find.  And we did find two treasures, neither one of them linen, both made of leather.  These were two fine leather bags, Delana’s in the form of a backpack, and mine in the form of a battered little handbag with a lot of character which I was assured was a designer bag, although which designer the lady couldn’t say.  It doesn’t matter.  The bag is clearly a one-of-a-kind (now, if not when it was new) and I will remember my great day in Arles every time I use it.

Brocante shopping wasn’t my only spree.  I always pay a visit to the second-hand clothing stores in Avignon where you can often find designer treasures.  There I scored with an Eric Bompart cashmere cardigan that suits me perfectly, adding to the Avignon second-hand stash that I already have at home.  Lots of good memories hang in my closet.

My new cashmere sweater
Photo by Delana
Delana writes a blog and recently started a Provençal rug business.  You don’t have to travel to buy her Provençal rugs, they’re online at

My most surprising and genial experience in Avignon took place at the café near the hotel where I went each day for my morning coffee and croissant.  There was a very cute, young waiter (maybe the owner) who, by my second visit, already knew I wanted a café au lait et un croissant.  (Week after week, the waitress in the café here in Figueres where I go on Sundays has never given any sign that she has ever even seen me before – not so much as a nod.)  He encouraged me to use the little French I knew while he practiced his superior English.  On my first visit he was friendly, explaining the difference between a café au lait and a café crème (the former has more milk).  On that second day¸ he made me feel at home. 

There were two days when I went in quite early for my coffee, and both times there was a group of eight or ten men sitting together at several adjacent tables.  This was a small café and they were taking up about half of it.  At first I thought they might be work colleagues having an early morning meeting even though some were dressed in business clothes and others were dressed casually.  But they didn’t all leave together.  And not only did they leave at staggered times, I noticed that some didn’t pay on their way out.  I asked the friendly waiter about them.  He told me they were friends who met before work every day.  The first man who left had paid for them all.  Apparently they take turns.  What a nice way to start the day – so much nicer than taking your coffee to go in a styrofoam cup and drinking it alone in your car.

My last day I went to pay and told the waiter au revoir, that I was leaving.  He gave me three kisses on the cheeks and wouldn’t take my money.  He said I had been a loyal client for the duration of my visit and this last breakfast was on the house.  Whoever says the French are unfriendly, needs to visit this café. 

At home in Avignon


Friday, October 19, 2012

Rue des Teinturiers

There are several things I like about Avignon.  I like that there are many very good restaurants, some of them very expensive (and probably worth it, although I haven’t tried those myself), some affordable enough if you’re splurging on vacation or for a special occasion, and some where you can eat well in a delightful environment for 10 euros or less.  Then there’s the river.  I’ve lived all my life near an ocean (or sea) and at this point, I prefer river.  Some places have rivers but no riverside sidewalks or paths (Tortosa is one such place; the promenade along the Ebre is lovely, but it’s only about two blocks long) whereas you can do a lot of walking along the Rhone.  And third is the rue des Teinturiers, a wonderfully atmospheric small street in the heart of Avignon.

I had written in an earlier post that the rue des Teinturiers was the most evocative street in Avignon.  But evocative of what?  Of tranquility, of beauty, of a village and of a time gone by.  And why, you may ask, would you want to feel you’re in a village when you went to all the trouble to go to the city of Avignon, famous for its gigantic granite palace?  Because the grass is often greener on the other side, that’s why.  And sometimes you get to have both.

The canalized Sorgue River runs along the tree-lined street.  Here is where the 19th century dye works were housed that once made the cotton printed fabrics that Provence is still known for.  You can stroll along the river, beneath large leafy plane trees, passing small, mostly funky shops, welcoming cafes, and the occasional waterwheel.  If you go in October as I did, when there are not many people about, you might even be transported to another time.    If you prefer to be transported directly from home, get yourself one of these music CDs, Les Grandes Chansons Francaises or Piaf: The Voice of the Sparrow.

The End