Friday, July 27, 2012


I could smell smoke.  I thought maybe someone was starting a barbecue.  That would not be a good idea here where there are only apartment buildings with balconies.  And besides, the wind was blowing.  Surely a barbecue would be unsafe and illegal.

The smell of smoke (not cooking) continued and after a while, there was a cloud of smoke visible fairly high above.  This was not a barbecue.  I turned on the TV to see what was happening.

There was a wildfire that had just started about an hour before about 20 kilometers north of me, just at the French border.  The tramuntana wind was blowing, rapidly moving the fire southwards.  A few hours later the smoke cloud became so thick and dark that I had to turn on the lights in the apartment.  Although the smoke seemed to be travelling high up, I closed the windows to keep out the smell.

That afternoon, propelled by the wind, the fire travelled at a rate of 6 kilometers an hour and arrived to just within six kilometers of Figueres, the city where I live.  I was frantic.  They had evacuated some of the small villages along the fire’s route.  Would they evacuate Figueres too?  Should I anticipate being told to leave, pack up the two cats, and head for my car?  Could I manage to carry both of them at the same time?  But where would I go?

I called the information number of the Generalitat.  They told me that if an evacuation was called for, the authorities would tell us.  How would they tell us?  What if we lost power (other places already had)?  Surely they wouldn’t be calling us individually by phone.

I called the only person I know in Figueres – Josep, my handyman who lives just a few blocks away and has a small granja (farm) with chickens and a vegetable garden outside of town.  Josep told me not to worry.  The fire wouldn’t enter into Figueres.  It was a little reassuring to hear him say that, but was that just the usual shrugging of the shoulders thing, or did he really know what he was talking about?

Not knowing what to do, I didn’t do anything except watch the 24-hour Catalan news station and keep an eye on the postings of the website of the Generalitat.  Thank goodness at least I could speak to ask questions and understand the language so I could read the information, listen to the news reports, and not be completely mystified.  And yet, I really didn’t know what the procedure was likely to be.  There have been many wildfires since I’ve lived here, but I don’t remember any that threatened a city.  Usually they are in less populated areas and then yes, villages have been evacuated.  But it would be difficult to evacuate a city like Figueres, especially when you consider that the major roads nearby were closed.  Yes, the major roads were closed.  I had learned that from my two sources.  Thus, hopping into the car might mean just sitting stuck somewhere.  Probably better to stay home.

This wasn’t a forest fire.  There is some forest, but the whole area is populated and much of it is farmed.  Most of the area is sparsely populated, but it is dotted with farms (not corporate farms, farms with farmhouses that have people living inside), livestock, and small villages.  In fact, all of Catalunya is more or less populated and the only wilderness you find is in the Pyrenees and the smaller mountains of Montsant and Els Ports, and even there you find some (if fewer) farms, livestock, and villages.

It says, "We are all of the L'Emporda"
(the area of the fire)
No, it wasn’t a forest fire.  It was a wildfire.  It started at about 1 pm on Sunday afternoon.  They are extinguishing the last of it today, Friday.  It burned 14,000 hectares or about 34,600 acres.  Two people died: One from burns, the other from a heart attack.  Many people have lost their homes, their farms, their businesses.  We, as a community, have lost a large area of beautiful green countryside.

Moving alone to Figueres, where I didn’t know anyone, was a little scary.  Last Sunday was deeply frightening, that is, until 8 pm Sunday, when authorities came on TV to tell us that we, in Figueres, were not in danger, that the city would be protected, and that we should simply stay indoors with the windows closed.  Thank goodness.  Not knowing what to do, I had done the right thing.  It allowed me to go to bed, later, and actually get some sleep.

Some hours after the first fire started, a second one ignited not far away, just outside of Portbou, the last coastal village before the French border.  This was a smaller fire, but it also claimed two lives. There was a parade of cars on that small highway, most of them French tourists, probably looking for an alternative route home since the two main highways were closed.  This fire, also propelled by the tramuntana wind that blows especially fiercely at that point on the coast, suddenly swept down to the highway where the cars were backed up.  People tried to escape the flames by abandoning their cars and heading for the sea.  But the road is above cliffs and the way down is steep and rocky.  One young girl fell into the sea and drown, followed by her father who also died.

Both of these fires had started from cigarette butts thrown from car windows.

N.B.  The three images I've used I found on the internet.  Thanks to those who took them, I don't know who you are and I hope you don't mind!   

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ángeles Santos

Now that I live in a town not all my problems are solved.  I still deal with loneliness, even more so now that I don’t know anyone here except my friendly neighbor Ines with whom I’ve gone out a few times, once to a fee concert and twice to sardanes (she to watch and me to watch and to dance a little!).

When I want to I can be friendly and fairly outgoing, so I am hopeful that eventually I will make some friends here.  Part of that is up to me and the rest is a matter of chance or luck.  I must admit, though, that there have been many times when I’ve thought that the lesson I was meant to learn in this life was how to be alone.

What has improved a lot is the possibility of taking advantage of cultural possibilities.  Concerts, dances, fairs, and exhibits are now easily accessible.  So for the first time in many years, on a very hot day this week, when doing almost anything was out of the question, I managed to walk out my door and to the Museu de L’Empordà, the local art museum, just five minutes away.

I never heard of Ángeles Santos Torroella.  She’s a Catalan painter, born in Portbou, a small coastal village near here, who now, at 101 years of age, lives in Madrid.  I wouldn’t say I was crazy about her work, although  I did like some of it, especially the self-portrait used to advertise the exhibition.  It was the process of viewing the paintings, mixed in with photos documenting some parts of her life, that was so very enjoyable.  This was a temporary exhibit.  I’ll be back to see some of the others and their permanent collection soon – one exhibit at a time in order to savour it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

You Can Go There But You Can't Come Back

After being here almost three weeks, I planned to take my first excursion last Saturday and go to France -- to Perpignan.  France is only 20 kilometers away although Perpignan is further.  It’s the first substantial town you encounter on your way north and it is accessible by rail.  I would go by train.

The tourist office had given me a train schedule for the R11 Regional line that runs from Barcelona, past Girona, skims near the Costa Brava, passes through Figueres, and ends at Portbou, the last town in Spain before crossing the border.  Sadly they had no information for making the connection that would take me to Perpignan.  I could see, however, that approximately every other train actually carried on into France and stopped just across the border, making the last stop at Cerbere.  I assumed, therefore, that I could get off at Cerbere and change trains there for a French train that would take me to Perpignan.

I then went to the train station to inquire about going to Perpignan.  They also had no information about the French trains for my connection and told me to look on the internet for that information.

I found the French train website, and found the schedule for trains that leave from Cerbere and go to Perpignan and for the return.  The connection going there was pretty good with only a 9 minute wait, probably just enough time to run into the station and buy my ticket, since I couldn’t buy it here.  But I couldn’t tell about the connection coming back because whereas the Spanish schedule showed the time of arrival for the last stop at Cerbere, it didn’t show any trains starting from there.  Going south, all the trains started at Portbou.

I didn’t want to plan a trip without knowing how the return connection would work.  Would I have to wait a few minutes, or two hours?  So, back to the train station to inquire about the return trip.  I was not happy to hear that you couldn’t come back from Cerbere on a Spanish train.  What, you could go but you couldn’t come back?  This excursion was not working out well.

Not one to give up, I probed.  How could it be that you could go but not come back?  What did people do?  The clerk finally explained that although some Spanish trains ended their route in France, none of the Regional trains began their routes in France.  But some of the French Regional trains ended THEIR routes in Spain.  It turned out that you could come back, but would transfer trains in Portbou on the return trip.  Thus you transfer at Cerbere on the way there and transfer at Portbou on the way back.  Easy.  And so obvious, at least to the train employee, if not to me. 

So it was possible after all.  Good.  But after all that, I decided just to hop in the car and have an outing much less confusing and closer to home, and so on Saturday I drove to Castello d’Empuries, a pretty, small medieval village just 20 minutes away.  I’ll leave the complications of going to (and returning from) France for another day.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Castells on Sunday

It just isn’t the same living out in the middle of nowhere and living in town.  In town, if you want to stay in your nice little apartment, you can do so.  But if you want to go out, even if just for a walk, the possibilities are many.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time just walking up one street and down another, sometimes looking for a specific place, but mostly just to see what’s there so later when I need it, I’ll know where to find it.  Today I found a shop that sells only things from France – things like pates, all sorts of stuff made from duck and goose livers, cassoulet in a jar, nougat, callissons, jams and jellies, and wine.  This wasn’t something I was looking for, and I didn’t buy anything, but I’ll be back.

The other night my friendly neighbor Ines invited me to join her in going to a free, open-air band concert.  At first I declined, but then I thought again.  Band music isn’t my favorite, but why stay home when I have a chance to go out, develop a new friendship, and who knows, maybe the music won’t be too bad.  And in fact, the music wasn’t too bad.  The big band repertoire was fun, the rest was OK, there was a great full moon beaming at us through the trees, and I even ran into someone I knew!  Who would believe it when I just got here.  But I had spent some time chatting with the Argentine owners of a nearby eclectic shop and they called out to me from behind.  That was a real surprise.

Before that, on Sunday, I had gone to La Rambla to see castells, the human castles.  There was a good audience, but I wouldn’t say it was crowded.  The teams were from Figueres, Olot, and Suria -- none of them high-rankers in the national competitions.  But that didn’t make the spectacle any less enjoyable and it did allow me to get closer in to take photos.

Building a castell looks like this -- layer upon layer of people:

Fer pinya -- making the base

The same music accompanies all castells,
and begins once the base is formed and the first layer is stable

Team members come in all sizes

and all ages, each with his/her function to perform

Lookin' good