Saturday, December 19, 2020

Dressing Up for Christmas

e in Figueres, on top of the pandemic that affects everyone, have had a new plague upon us. The garbage collectors have been on strike for three days and we are wallowing in rubbish.  I've heard that the strike has now been called off, so it seems there is hope that maybe by tomorrow the mountains of refuse will have disappeared.

In the meantime, the city, in an attempt at beautification for Christmas, has decorated itself. The decorations are modest – the budget here is modest. But I must say, some of them are really lovely – enough to lift my spirits and want to go out at night

In addition to the expected Christmas tree, there is an unexpected olive tree also dressed in lights. It may not be brilliant, but it certainly is Mediterranean.  Cupcake and I go out each evening now, taking a roundabout route to the center of town to enjoy the spectacle along the way.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Coffee, Confinement, and Foam

On Saturday 14 March 2020 all bars and restaurants in Catalonia closed. This was the first official act in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. I had spoken to my friend Josep early that morning by phone and we had agreed to meet at my usual cafe – the one I went to every day. But when I passed by while walking the dog, they were just closing up and pulling down the shutter. I called Josep and he said it looked like bars everywhere were closing. It seemed that the government had issued the directive just a little earlier. Surprise! 

That was the beginning of a series of measures the Catalan and Spanish governments have taken to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. There have been many but this is the only date I have marked because I keep an account of all my expenses, and all of a sudden my daily coffee and croissant disappeared from the spreadsheet. Having my breakfast out was a habit I acquired after moving to Figueres – my one small daily pleasure. Before that it was occasional, but at some point I retired all my coffee pots to upper shelves and headed out. 

That same morning I ran off to the supermarket and bought ground coffee, soy milk, and bread for toasting, so I could make my breakfast at home. Little did I know that toilet paper was about to become an issue. But my immediate problem was foam. The foam at the top of my coffee, sprinkled with a little bit of powdered chocolate, is the best part, it is like dessert at the end of breakfast. At home I had two mocha pots, three French press coffee makers of various sizes, but no espresso machine and no way to make foam. 

A day or two later we were all told to stay home. Only those who worked in essential businesses could go to work. Those included health care workers, grocery stores, pharmacies, veterinary services, newsstands, garbage collection, and tobacco shops. (Yes, really.) Hairdressers were originally on the list but they soon got removed. You could go out if you needed one of these essential services, otherwise you were to stay at home. You could also go out to walk your dog. After a couple of weeks the joke was that you could rent your dog out to people who were desperate to get out. Or maybe that wasn’t a joke. I received no offers. 

Dog for rent

You couldn’t walk your dog any old where and you couldn’t do it for great lengths of time. That same Josep was stopped one day, early on, by a patrol car. Where are you going? they asked. He pointed up ahead to where his apartment building was and said he was going home. Where have you been? they asked. He told them he was coming from the park that was just behind him. Ah, they said. But you’ve been to a lot more places than that. We’ve seen you all over Figueres this morning. You are not allowed to go more than 50 meters with the dog. 

Fifty meters? How far is that? I went to Google to measure it on their map. It seemed I was only allowed to walk Cupcake for two blocks, then I would have to come back. Some rules are meant to be broken. 

I figured I would never be bothered. A little old lady with grey hair and a small dog, no police would bother with me when there are all these young people going here and there with no dog and no shopping cart or basket in tow.

And for the first few weeks I was not bothered and those young people were. But my day finally came. Coming back one afternoon from the fountain, a good three blocks from home, a policeman stopped me and asked where I was coming from. The fountain, I told him. And where do I live? Carrer Sant Antoni, I told him, pointing towards home. You’ve gone too far, he said. My dog will poop only at the fountain, I told him. And that was the end of that.

While some of my American friends were driving here and there, and living life pretty much like normal, here the streets were deserted, almost everything was closed, the police cars that drove around were just about the only cars moving on the streets. Except for the lack of foam for my coffee, all this suited me just fine. If there was this horrible virus you could catch, I felt better not having others around when I went out and for the rest of the time, I was happy to stay home and wait it out. All I had to do was buy more books.

Eventually we could go out, but at restricted times: young people from 6am – 10 am; children (must be accompanied by at least one parent and only three children to a parent, or thereabouts) 10 am – 4 pm; elderly 6pm – 8 pm. It went something like that. In fact, it was so complicated that you had to write it down to keep it straight. I didn’t write it down because with my handy dandy dog, I could go out whenever I wanted to walk him.

When we were first told we had to wear a facemask whenever we left home, we weren’t told that there would be any penalty if we didn’t. There was no policing of it like there had been for the original lockdown; those in charge believed that people would assume individual responsibility. It took a surprisingly long time for the authorities to figure out that there was surprisingly little individual responsibility around and that nothing is mandatory if it isn’t enforced. Here about half the people on the street wore masks and the other half either had them hanging down around their neck or weren’t wearing them at all. But when the police started on their patrols again ready to impose fines, then suddenly everyone wore a facemask. And months later, we all still do.

Since then things evolved and confusion mounted. What you could and could not do changed frequently. These were restrictions based on epidemiological criteria, and also an attempt to consider both public health and the economy. But it wasn’t just the frequency, it was also the amount of details. When you could walk and the radial limit, how far you could travel and for what reasons, whether or not to use public transportation, what businesses could open and if they could open, what time were they required to close, how many people could they accommodate inside... it was (and still is) endless. And what to do when the rules of the Catalan government contradicted the rules of the Spanish government.

The most outstanding rule was issued recently by the city of Barcelona and concerned riding on their urban public transportation. Increasingly, researchers have said that the virus is spread through the air on tiny droplets, in other words, from person to person, through the air, when someone breathes, sneezes, coughs, laughs, sings, or talks. In a country where people rarely stop talking and do it loudly, city officials were concerned, so as of two weeks ago, you are not allowed to talk while on a Barcelona metro or bus. I wonder if that's working.

Besides imposing a curfew (11 pm – 6 am), a few weeks ago we were limited on leaving the county where we lived. And on weekends we could not leave the municipality. This was to prevent people from running off on weekends to their second homes in the mountains or at the beach and taking any possible infection with them to new and unspoiled territory. This peripheral blockade had been done a few months ago in Barcelona when their infection rates suddenly soared. There again, they said you could not leave the city at the weekend and that first weekend tens of thousands of people did just that. After that they had every exit from the city controlled by police on the weekends.

I didn’t think much about municipal restriction because I have no second home and if I want to leave town, I can do it legally during the week. What I didn’t count on was that all those people trapped in Figueres on the weekends would suddenly take to my walking path. Because while you are not allowed to leave in a car, but you are allowed to go on foot and no one guards the path. Suddenly there were hordes of people, families, bicyclists, children on bicycles. It looked like the Rambla of Barcelona. I found it dangerous to let Cupcake off his leash as I usually do and as he enjoys, and it just wasn’t pleasant. I go out there to enjoy the quiet and the views of the fields and far-off mountains. It was not possible to relax. Plus, with so many people around, I couldn’t take off my facemask and BREATHE. So I gave up those weekend walks and went on weekdays instead, where, as is normal, you hardly meet a soul.

On the question of foam, on 24 March I bought a milk frother (on Amazon since all the shops were closed) which came a few days later. Et voilà! Not only can I make foam at home, I can make mountains of it. Now that the bars and restaurants are open again (only until 9 pm), my routine is to have my breakfast at home and go out for coffee occasionally. They say the confinement may change the habits of some people, such as taking coffee to go and walking down the street with it. I will never walk down the street with a cardboard cup of coffee in my hand, but for the present, I am happy to make my own coffee, sit safely at home and enjoy it with all that foam and a touch of chocolate on top.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Coffee for Two

Here in Spain, when you go out for a coffee you have it sitting down or
else standing at the bar. No one walks down the street with a coffee in their hand and you don’t see stacks of styrafoam or cardboard cups by the espresso machine. You drink your coffee from a ceramic cup while you relax, maybe for just the time it takes to swallow the little bit of espresso in your cup, maybe longer for a coffee with milk and a croissant, or maybe for half an hour or more while you sip and talk to friends or colleagues. People who are going to work leave enough time beforehand to sit and chat or enjoy their coffee alone. 

Having coffee in Italy

All bars and restaurants here have been closed for five weeks and will be closed for a few more days. They are closed for seated customers but some have remained open for takeout and you can walk up to the door and order something to go. Not all of them are doing that because taking food or drink to go is not common here so there isn’t a big demand. But some are, and I have noticed that for the first time, there are a few people walking down the street in the morning with cardboard coffee cups in their hands. I wonder if this will end when the restriction ends, or if it will be a new trend.

At my usual cafe there is a group of four women that comes and sits outside every morning except Sundays. Telly, who owns a nearby jewelry store uaually arrives first at around 8:30, often 20 or more minutes before the others. She tells me she likes to come early, relax, have a cigarette and coffee before her friends come. The others come one by one and they stay until sometime after 9 when Telly goes to open her store, one of the others goes to open her florist shop, a third goes to her yarm store, and the fourth? she doesn’t work and I don’t know where she goes except that I did see her once at about 10 am at another cafe with another group of people.

When I was in Avignon some time back, I couldn’t get a room in my usual hotel so I was staying in a new one across town. That meant finding a new bar to have my coffee and croissant. I was quite happy with the first bar I found and went back there each morning. When I came back from that trip I wrote the following:

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, so 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.

Coffee for Two, watercolor by Jill Rosoff

Jill Rosoff online shop:

Instagram: @jillpaints

Twitter: @paintspoppies

Tuesday, November 10, 2020



Stolperstein in Venice
Photo Credit: Christian Michelides

A Person is Only Forgotten When His or Her Name is Forgotten (from the Talmud)

Have you heard of Stolpersteine? They are small plaques, 10 centimers (3.9 inches) square, made of brass and set into the pavement of a sidewalk. Inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of the Nazis, the plaques are installed before the last home or place of work of each victim. The majority of the Stolpersteine commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but there are also many gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Christian opposition (Protestants and Catholics), members of the communist party, Freemasons, and members of the Resistance, among others. Hitler’s list was long.

Started in 1992 by the German artist Gunther Demnig, The Stolpersteine Project is the world’s largest decentralized memorial. The first plaques were installed in Germany in May 1996; there are now 75,000 Stolpersteine (literally stumbling stones because they are not completely flush with the pavement) around the world, in Germany as well as in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and as far as Argentina.

Stolpersteine are small and you might not notice one except that they rise slightly above the pavement level to catch your attention. The destruction brought on by the Nazis is so immense that it sometimes seems to be just numbers, much like the deaths caused now by Covid 19. At first it was alarming that 30 people, then 100 people had died. Now 1000 die per day and people are not terribly moved or don’t even notice. So then the Stolpersteine, when you trip over one, brings your attention to the fact that in the house or the shop in front of you lived or worked a victim of Nazism, a real person, and here’s the name. Some of the victims weren’t killed but were forced to go into exile or committed suicide.

Most of the countries where the Stolpersteine are placed are countries that were occupied by the Germans. In some cases, the person lived in a non-occupied country but fought in an allied army or in one of the resistance movements and was captured by the Germans.

Figueres recently installed 11 Stolpersteine for people who were sent to German extermination camps. There are now 230 of these in Catalonia. Spain deported 9161 people to German camps. Mostly they were Spaniards who fought Franco to maintain the Spanish republic, or who came from other countries to fight Spanish fascism with the International Brigades. There were also those politically opposed to Franco. The Spanish government, headed by the dictator Francisco Franco, was an ally of Hitler, although Spain didn’t enter into the war. But allies they were and it was German planes that bombed the town of Guernica, an atrocity made famous by the painting by Picasso.

I found one of the newly installed Stolpersteine at one edge of the Plaça de l’Ajuntament (City Hall). Its commemoration reads: Here Lived Vicens Gené Llanet, born 1888, deported in 1940 to Mauthausen where he was murdered on 7 December 1940. Another of the 11 persons from Figueres was Martí Bosch Planas who lived two blocks up on my street. He was also sent to Mauthausen but was liberated at the end of the war. I’ll have to go and see if I can find his plaque.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Camino with Dog


In the middle ages, the Camino de Santiago was the most important of the three main pilgrimages of the Christian world. People made the pilgrimage from France, England, Holland, Germany, Poland, and other countries. Making a pilgrimage was one of the most important things you could do to save your immortal soul in medieval times, and I’ve read that half the population of Europe could be found on the Camino at any given time.

Known in English as the Way of Saint James, the Camino is made up of many tributaries that lead in to the main path. Throughout Europe, people walked out their front doors and started walking.  They made their way to the nearest of the main points from where an official path would lead to other paths that eventually led to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in the northern Spanish province of Galicia, where it is said the bones of Saint James are buried. Wherever they started, people walking from the north would have to pass through France (where it is known as the Chemin Saint Jacques) to reach Spain. In France, the main starting points were Arles, Le Pug, Paris, Vézelay, Cluny, and, closer to the Spanish border, Roncesvalles, and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Along the way they would stop at churches where their pilgrimage would be authenticated, and they would be put up in monasteries or local hostels.

Walking the Camino has made a comeback in modern times. In 1985, about 800 people walked enough sections of the Camino to be counted. In 2018 over 300,000 were counted. In 1994 Shirley Maclaine walked and then wrote a book about it. Some people walk it as a pilgrimage, a spiritual quest, others as a way to clear one’s head from the noise of modern life, or a hike, a personal challenge, or an adventure. Some do it because it has been there for over a thousand years and it is a way to join into an historic, collective action. The Camino was made an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino. During medieval times the scallop shell was proof of completion of the Camino. Now it is worn by those making the pilgrimage as they walk the path. It also appears on signposts and pavement tiles marking the way.

There are also paths from the south that lead through Spain. There are paths from Madrid and Barcelona, and others that are less known and that begin in Catalonia. One of those other ones passes through Figueres.

I walk my dog on the Camino de Santiago, known in Catalan as the Cami de Sant Jaume. With Santiago somewhere behind me, I take the path in the other direction, from Figueres through farmland to the nearby village of Vilabertran.  

The 11th century Romanesque church and cloister of Santa Maria was once an important religious center and a stopover for pilgrims.  They would have come down through the Coll de Panissars, on what was once the Via Augusta going from Rome to Cadis, near the present day Le Perthus.  Or they would have come by boat to Port de la Selva, visited the important monastery at San Pere de Roda, and arrived at Vilabertran from the east.  The church still holds services and is also home to the annual summer Schubertiada festival.

Cupcake and I walk the path, sometimes with other friends and their dogs, but these days mostly on our own. It’s a special quiet time that allows Cupcake to be offleash and to sniff the world to his heart's delight, and for both of us to enjoy a respite from the city. Just after a rain or in the evening when the aroma of the countryside envelopes you, it is heavenly. On cloudy days when the sky is constantly changing, it is almost a religious experience.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

A Breath of Fresh Air


Our Covid confinement started mid-March and I bought and began to use my first facemask on the 30th. Since then I have acquired a collection of washable, reuseable facemasks which is just as well since we were soon required to wear one everywhere but at home.

I took two of the collection with me last week on a visit to Toulouse where they only recently made the wearing of facemasks mandatory in all public places. Toulouse was the center of the French Resistance in the unoccupied part of France during WW II. During the lockdown and ever since, I’ve been reading books about WW II secret agents, double agents, and the French Resistance so I was curious to visit the city that kept coming up in my reading. In addition, it has the Canal du Midi and the Garonne River running through it, plus the area is the home of cassoulet – France’s very complicated-to-make homage to the bean.

Toulouse -- the pink city -- was just as pink and beautiful as they said it would be. If the weather hadn’t been so miserable, I might have seen more of it and taken that long walk along the canal that had been part of my reason to go. Not that I didn’t spend hours walking in the rain. I did.
And I managed a short walk along the canal.


I also managed to wade my way through the rain to see the Museum of the Resistance and Occupation where there was a temporary exhibit of photos by Germaine Chaumel -- wonderful photos taken during the war but not so much of the war, but of people.  You can find some information about her on this French website, if you can't read the text, you can admire the many photos.  Germaine Chaumel 

In the permanent collection I found a couple of photos of people I had read about and, very moving for me, an old wireless transmitter. You can’t read about World War II, double agents, secret agents, and the Resistance without reading about those wireless transmitters. The agents who used them often did only that – send and receive messages for several other agents. Theirs was the most dangerous of all the dangerous work that agents did, because they were the easiest for the Germans to find using their trannsmission detection devices. The transmitter was in its original, beat up leather case, a case about the size of our carry-on luggage. The agents parachuted into France with those. A very heavy carry on to drop down with.

Walking back from the museum (still in the rain) I took a path through the Jardin des Plantes, a park and botanical garden that I had skirted on the way there, afraid to vary from the GPS instructions. The verdant park was a peaceful haven and relief from the maze of streets of the day before. I spent the previous day blundering through those narrow ancient streets in the old town. (I used a map and was constantly lost. At one point, while consulting my map, a man in the doorway of a a shop asked me what I was looking for. “She’s looking for me,” said his pal. “Mais, oui,” I said.) So that next day I enjoyed a heavenly stroll through the garden and the woods. Upon entering and seeing that there was no one within sight, I took off my facemask, and, first time in months, took my first breath of fresh, fragrant air.