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.