lunes, 26 de diciembre de 2011

Oranges, sunglasses and stick-wielding children - Happy Christmas Catalan style

Christmas Eve, and the sunglasses are still on in Tarragona. Throngs of shoppers sporting Gucci and D & G eyewear strut the main street, the Rambla Nova, on the hunt for festive paraphernalia. Eyeing them from the tables at nearby pavement cafés are the owners of designer label sheepskins and chic leather boots. The December sun bounces off the polished paving stones decorating the central walkway of the Rambla, temporarily blinding me. I tut at my forgetfulness and vow never again to go Christmas shopping without what is necessarily de rigueur winter gear in Tarragona. I glance up at the temperature being flashed from a sign outside a chemist’s to my right: 17º C. If this were Belfast, the locals would be out in shorts and tee-shirts.

            Plump juicy fruit hangs from the branches of trees lining the main street. Last time I looked the oranges were wan and uninviting. Since then the mid-winter sun has fattened and ripened them. But nobody, except me, seems interested in the fruit; they are all engaged in choosing… a log that shits presents. They are purchasing a caga tió, my latest acquaintance in my travels through Catalan culture. Dozens of these unconvincing props are on sale in the Christmas fair on the Rambla. I mill around one of the stalls peering at them from different angles. My friend Mercè looks slightly shamefaced when I ask her about their purpose. Suppressing a smile she answers,
Children beat them with a stick until they shit presents.
They beat them? You mean they literally beat the crap out of them?
Yes, this is how the song goes:
Caga tió –Shit tió
ametlles i torró
 –almonds and turrón*
si no vols cagar
 –if you don’t shit
et donaré un cop de bastó
 –I will beat you with a stick
Caga tió! – Shit tió
I glance down at the trusting little face painted on the log and empathise, wondering whether the smile will remain as fixed while the blows are raining down on it.          

Defecation also plays a crucial role in Catalan Nativity scenes. Scan the setting and you will find el caganer (literally the “shitter”) crouching behind a bush or in a quiet corner away from the crib holding the baby Jesus. The caganer is a popular rustic figure, usually a shepherd, caught with his trousers down and a satisfied grin on his face. Under his rear, in a neatly laid heap on the ground, is the reason for his satisfaction. More recently, makers of the caganer have branched out into the modern world. Now it is not uncommon to see the caganers metamorphosed into the features of well-known politicians and personalities such as Obama, Shakira and even Prince William and Kate Middleton … taking a crap in the background of the Nativity Scene.

The origins of this tradition date back to the 17th or 18th century and explanations are varied. Most indicate that he is a figure of fun and humour, particularly for children. I, however, would like to think that the caganer is representative of that tendency within Spain which has a healthy disregard for religious sobriety. El caganer, I suppose, is whatever you want him to be. 
 It’s an immense relief to discover that Christmas is quite a low-key affair in Catalonia compared to the full-on-in-your-face-assault in Belfast. I didn’t hear my first Christmas Carol until 6th December, which is about the time Santa Claus began swaggering up and down in front of the Corte Inglés department store, sweating profusely in his red and white gear and heralding in another wave of consumerism. However, since the shops seem to be crowded anyway most of the time and queues are generally prevalent here, I have noticed only a subtle difference in crowd volume with the arrival of the festive season, not unlike the subtle difference in temperature between summer and winter in Ireland.
Still, there’s a catch. While the agony ends back home on 1st January with a return to a renewed appreciation of what passes for normal life, the festivities here drag on until 6th January. I blame the Three Kings. Following that star they turned up late with their presents. And, true to tradition, Catalans wait for the Kings to arrive on 6th, the BIG pressie day. Those children who didn’t beat the caga tiò hard enough and were disappointed with whatever presents he shit will be eagerly awaiting the arrival of royalty from the east. Let’s hope that the gifts satisfy because, if not, the mini Catalans will have had plenty of time to become very adept at wielding those sticks in the 12-day interim between Christmas Day and the Epiphany.
              In the meantime we will have had almost two weeks to indulge ourselves with daily banquets of abundant fare. The festivities kicked off with dinner on Christmas Eve, which ended well after midnight. Christmas Day saw the table groan again under the weight of seafood, with a main course of prawns, elvers and cannelloni; turkey is not as popular here as it is back home. Dessert, if we could manage it, was Christmas Log. One that was eaten, not beaten. Afterwards the turrón* was served with champagne. Needless to say, few of us managed to leave an empty plate – we were still stuffed from our Christmas Eve midnight feast.
On New Year’s Eve we will gather around the table again at midnight, this time to participate in the ritual of the 12 grapes. With each stroke of the clock, signalling the death of the old year, all guests eat a grape. Tradition demands that in these twelve seconds we each chew and swallow twelve grapes and wash them down with a mouthful of champagne. This year I am fortunate to live in the vicinity of the cathedral and, unlike millions of others, won’t have to listen to the bells toll via television or radio. I only have to open the window to hear the real thing.

* Turrón is something of a cross between fudge and nougat.

martes, 6 de diciembre de 2011

A Cultural Desert

Yayne, Mr Rochester intones softly and pulls the lady in question, Ms Eyre, close to him.
I groan inwardly. I must be mad watching this. It’s not that this most recent cinema version* of Charlotte Brontë’s classic work is unworthy of my praise, because that’s not true, it’s just that yet another foreign language film at my local cinema has been dubbed. All my instincts scream sacrilege. Maybe Michael Fassbender, as the intriguing Mr. Rochester, fulfils all the requisites of the dark, tormented north country character that Brontë meant to him to be. But I just don’t know. Speaking a language entirely foreign to him, and in a voice that is not his own, undermines the power of the actor’s performance.
Last week I watched Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet become rage and hatred incarnate in Roman Polanski’s screen version of Yasmina Reza’s play, Carnage. Yet the words coming out of their mouths didn’t quite match the contortions of their faces. The actors’ performances, the emotions reflected, were not fully conveyed in the translation or in the somewhat detached intonation of the dubbed voices.  With this mismatch it seemed at times that the characters were engaging in histrionics. What were they so upset about? What am I so upset about? I suspect I feel cheated when Kate Winslet screeches in Spanish in a voice belonging to some faceless dubbing artist. I leave the cinema muttering blasphemy and determined to seek out the original version of Carnage. That won’t be easy in Tarragona. This far into my stay, three months, I have managed to see only one original version film: a Spanish language production.
This is how I spend my Saturday nights. I faithfully troop out to the cinema because it’s either a dubbed film or nothing at all, and nothing at all is not a choice; not for me anyway. I take the Number 97 from Tarragona city centre along the motorway and out into the back of beyond, to one of the most hideous examples of modernity, of consumerism, that I have ever seen: Les Gavarres.
Les Gavarres, a commercial zone, is surrounded by scrubland, complete with tumbleweeds and scorched earth. It is nothing other than a vast area dotted with gigantic Lego-style buildings that operate as shops, mega-size shops. Sports gear, furniture, cars, clothes, toys, Chinese imports, food, you name it, is sold here. Often, too often, the premises are so far apart that customers without a car cannot move easily from one venue to the next. Planning and perhaps even planning permission, if either exists that is, took no account of aesthetics or practicalities in Les Gavarres.
As my bus approaches, I peer out at the neon lights blinking through the darkness. My reflection is blotted by fast food joints, Burger King, Buffalo Grill, Foster’s Hollywood; their names emblazoned in in-your-face letters that compete for attention with the chains of recently hung Christmas lights. To the fore stands a brightly lit four-metre-high cone which operates as a Christmas tree. Anything natural, authentic, would look out of place in this scenario. And indeed, a few saplings planted along the pavement are wizened and sickly, the soul sucked out of them before their time.
Droves of young people descend from the bus with me. It’s eight o’clock and many are going shopping. They are joining thousands of others who, judging by the traffic jams leading into the car parks, are already indulging in Consumerism. There are queues everywhere, all year round. In the weeks prior to Christmas the lines are much longer and tempers much shorter. To kill time before the start of my film, I wander into MediaMarkt and immediately wish I hadn’t. The place is overwhelming in its vastness and I acknowledge that I haven’t the patience to seek out what I need among the labyrinth of aisles. No sales assistants are visible; the only uniformed personnel I spot are cashiers facing a wall of customers or walkie-talkied security guards eyeing loners like myself. Loudspeakers bombard me with price slashing offers at motion-sickness speed. I slink out.
Four lanes of human beings are jostling for position at the cinema. Tickets are dispatched from behind what seems to be bullet-proof glass. The cashier clarifies my request through a microphone with a volume that undulates, coming and going so that I only catch every fourth word. I am in row ? and seat number ? Exasperated and none the wiser, I smile, grasp my ticket and hurry off in the direction of the next set of queues.
The overriding feeling on my Saturday night trips to the cinema is one of alienation. I cannot relate to these surroundings but neither can any of my Catalan friends. “Vulgar” is the term one person uses to describe the complex. Another, a psychologist, refers to her “Les Gavarres experience” as dystonic, inconsistent with her character. “A necessary evil” is the kindest comment I have heard. Necessary, precisely because there are no other cinemas around, which is surprising given that Tarragona is a university city with a population of almost 150,000; significantly higher if you include residents of the nearby towns and villages.
My complaints about the lack of choice in cinema have fallen on sympathetic ears. A friend of a friend suggested I check out the Antiga Audiencia, where the city council offers world cinema sessions in original version with subtitles. I did and the security guard informed me – somewhat apologetically – that no further sessions are planned due to cutbacks. That’s the end of the line for me.
For the foreseeable future I am doomed to join the Saturday night throngs at Les Gavarres, to sit on the bus and listen to teenagers practice their English with each other and then follow them in through the crowds to watch dubbed films. I’ll continue to kid myself that I might justify the excursion as “a listening comprehension,” an opportunity to further my grasp of the language. How much tighter can my grasp get after thirteen years of living in Spanish-speaking countries? In the cinema at Les Gavarres I choke on it.

* By director Cary Fukunaga

domingo, 30 de octubre de 2011

Halloween - Mediterranean Style

This week I sought out my umbrella and coat, shook the dust off both, and set out for work under heavy leaden skies. Rain, intense rain, has ushered in the autumn in Spain. For the first time since leaving Ireland, I have sidestepped puddles and strode widely across angry torrents overflowing the gutters. The sun has most definitely gone, leaving behind a bereft and melancholic Mediterranean. There is the distinct feeling that the cheerful upbeat occupant of this house has abandoned us, depriving us of the joy, the sparkle and, of course, the warmth of their presence. The sea, ultramarine in summer, has turned gunmetal grey and coastal villages of summer homes huddle closer to the landscape, seeking shelter from the deluge. Regarding them, I am struck by their vulnerability. Blessed by golden light and they are the stuff of dreams, the white hot place in the sun we fantasise about. Without it these villages are a pallid, ghostly grey, a dull disappointment. 
            Initially the downpour was welcomed. This is the first time that rain has fallen in Tarragona, and elsewhere in Catalonia, since May. The land is thirsty. Now it has had its fill, and more, too much more. As the days have gone by the delight with the novelty of abundant water has turned to dismay and I have heard grumblings about the damage being done to crops and the danger of flooding. I’m peeved too, but for different, selfish, reasons, I feel hard done by, short changed. Not even the ten weeks of unbroken sunshine since my arrival in Tarragona compensates for this. This is Belfast weather with a vengeance, except for one major difference: it’s raining but it’s not cold. This presents something of a challenge for my limited wardrobe. There’s nothing in my collection that caters for such a combination. It’s either jumpers and boots or sandals and skirts.  I opt for jeans and boots. By lunchtime of Day 1 my feet have been crucified. By early afternoon they are bruised and bloody. Drenched and sweaty, I hobble home and retreat back into sandals. On Day 2, I cosset my feet in Band Aid but they still refuse to be coaxed into the boots. When I step out into the rain that morning I muse that I am, in all likelihood, the only person in Tarragona wearing open-toe footwear today.
            This puts me at a painful disadvantage in the supermarket. I deftly sidestep a pair of brown platform boots advancing toward the check out at the same time as me, only to find myself in the fast lane of the shopping trolleys. It’s too late. I groan audibly but the ram-raider has ploughed on oblivious, heading for an opening she’s seen in the check out queue. A minute later a scuffle breaks out when a further check out is opened. Those at the back of the line break rank and thunder toward the cashier, the last is first to arrive and the first is last, and the last is deeply disgruntled. A squabble ensues and I meander over just as the cashier intervenes to request that the customers regroup to respect their original place in the queue. A purple rinse sashays her way to the front with a triumphant smirk, her rivals mutter darkly. The rain, it seems, has eroded whatever civilities any of them might have had.
            Watching fat heavy raindrops fall day after day onto the cobble-stoned street beneath my balcony has made me surprisingly homesick. My thoughts circle momentarily above the scene, get their bearings, and – like homing pigeons – head north. I sniff the air instinctively, seeking the aroma of damp earth and decaying leaves. There is nothing. The oak, pine, birch and sycamore of Belfast’s City Cemetery are over a thousand kilometres away. Tonight, when the bonfires are ablaze back in Ireland, I’ll miss the sombre silhouettes of the tombs of my ancestors, the backdrop to my own musings about whether the veil between this world and the next really does fade at Halloween, this very Gaelic of festivals. It’s just not the same in Tarragona. I haven’t heard a single firework or seen a sparkler. Instead, chestnuts and sweet potatoes are roasted on open fires at street corners.
The rain has stopped and queues have formed in front of the braziers of tee-shirted and sunglass-wearing Catalans eager for a portion. In the background palm trees sway gently in the breeze. As I said, Halloween, Mediterranean style, is just not the same.

domingo, 16 de octubre de 2011

Medieval Magic

Mondongo, guts. Catalans love them. I am surveying a startling array of white sausages, red sausages, black sausages, fat and thin, long and squat, smooth and wrinkled, all artistically displayed at a medieval arts and crafts fair that has just opened in Tarragona this weekend. The stallholder grins at me,
“We use every part of the animal, the head, the tongue, the liver, the brain, all of it. Tastes great with garlic, red pepper, parsley and thyme. Here, try.”
He proffers a slice of the wrinkled chorizo on the end of a prong. I recoil.
“Sorry. I’m a lifetime vegetarian.”
He looks utterly flummoxed.
“How can you resist?”
Now is not a good time to proselytise about the ethics of vegetarianism so I smile sweetly and mumble something about it being a way of life.
About fifty stalls line the streets immediately adjacent to the cathedral of Santa María in the old quarter of the city. Darkness has descended and archdiocesan floodlights illuminate much of the early gothic architecture that is the backdrop to the fair.  Many of the stallholders have chosen a more traditional form of light: handmade candles and lanterns. They have also chosen to don medieval attire to complement the theme this weekend. Flaxen-haired maids in flowing robes and dapperly dressed jesters patiently explain the intricacies of their trade to interested customers. Nearby, a trio of minstrels animate the night with some heartily played medieval tunes. A passing couple is drawn to them and dances a few steps to the delight of passers by who spontaneously applaud. If the atmosphere were any more tangible I could reach out and grasp it in fistfuls.
There is magic in the air. Montsy advertises her craft as tarot, Wicca and and Santeria. We chat briefly about santeros and the supernatural in Cuba, where she studied for a time. A spiritista in Havana entered a trance and spoke to Montsy in the selfsame voice of someone very dear to her, who had passed over to the other side. Closer to the bell tower I come across the magician Javi Feroz and I’m wondering whether Fierce could really be his surname when he steps out in front of me with a pack of cards. Dextrously he performs a number of tricks which have me foxed. Would I be interested in learning how to do them? I laugh and reply that I prefer to believe in magic. Javier bows courteously and retreats into his stall.
Fragrances fill the evening air. Patchouli, lavender, frangipani and musk floats out from perfumed incense burnt at a number of handmade jewellery stalls. Further along is the aroma of freshly-baked bread and nearer the cathedral forecourt the breeze carries the acrid smoke rising from barbequed octopus at 10 euros a serving. A queue has formed and customers settle themselves at long tables in an informal banquet-style setting.
A sturdy-looking blacksmith and his equally sturdy-looking wife work the bellows of a coal furnace they have running beside their stall. To the fore is a display of beautifully and patiently restored objects, to the rear, prior to its transformation, is the scrap metal they collect. A tiny iron catches my eye. It’s around 150 years old the blacksmith’s wife tells me. Elegant Giacometti-style sculptures are on exhibit too. Some pieces are beyond repair, the blacksmith tells me, and so he reworks and recreates them.  Hand made soap is for sale at a  nearby stall and across the way I see something familiar, statues, the by now ubiquitous angels. An array of pastel-coloured figures, representing what must be the entire heavenly host, is set out in rows. The “angel craze” seems to have taken Catalonia by storm, just like in Ireland.
 Other stalls offer gigantic cakes, made with no less than angel hair (strands of pumpkin), handmade soap, leather bags, the smallest books in the world accompanied by a magnifying glass, and hand-woven shawls with the weaver weaving away at a loom while his wife knits. A shawl of emerald green catches my eye.
“It’s one hundred per cent organic wool,”
the weaver’s wife says as she passes it over to me to try on. It nestles classily around my shoulders having found its niche in life, but I know that we are doomed to part before the attraction becomes mutual. I have just seen the price tag and, with some regret, I return this beauty to the hands that created it. One hundred euros is a king’s ransom for a yet-to-be-famous writer.
In a region where food is unashamedly at the heart of its culture, I’m not surprised to see that so much of what is on offer here at the fair is local produce which, judging by the confident smiles of the stall holders, has to be gourmet-standard cuisine. At one of a number of cheese stalls I pause to accept a sample of goat’s cheese that is being generously regaled to passers-by. Instantly I am transported to a realm where Sainsbury’s basics cheddar has never and will never venture. I moan softly.
“I can’t, really, I can’t. It’s the cholesterol.”
“Problems with cholesterol and a love of good cheese? I have the very solution … buffalo cheese. It even has omega 3.”
Out of curiosity I ask how much a whole cheese, the biggest one, would set me back.
“You really don’t want to know. Anyway, it would take a year or more to munch your way through it. This one here must be about half your body weight.”
I urge him to divulge the secret.
“1,300 euros, a special price for you.”
            A few metres away I see another solution for my cholesterol on a herbal tea stall offering remedies for dozens of maladies, including angina, hair loss, ulcers, swollen legs, addictions, snoring and osteoporosis. This is the most impressive selection of infusions I have ever seen and it’s easily the largest stall in the fair. Choice is endless, there must be over a hundred teas here displayed in row upon row of wicker baskets. For this weekend at least, this medieval arts and crafts fair allows me to believe that the Arab merchants of yore, who once conducted their trade in these very streets, have returned to Tarragona.

miércoles, 5 de octubre de 2011

Ancient Scribes and the Lovers of Yesteryear

Street of the Ancient Scribes, only poetic inspiration could have conceived such a name. As I step into Carrer de les Escrivanies Velles I half expect a robed and bearded figure brandishing a quill and carrying large medieval tomes to glide silently by.  This is only one of many streets in the old quarter of Tarragona that invites the imagination to delight in the associations of its nomenclature. There is also the Street of the Glass workers (Carrer del Vidre), the Leather workers (Carrer Cuiraterias), the Cauldron makers (Carrer del Calderers) the Abbot (Carrer de L’Abat), and the Barefooted Ones (Carrer dels Descalços). Their names speak of Spain’s Catholic heritage and of its ancient Arab masters who lived in an era when streets bore the names of the trades and crafts of the merchants who sold their wares in the souks that once stood here.
The Arabs were driven out of Spain over five hundred years ago and the power of the Catholic Church is more a memory than a reality now.  Still, there are half-forgotten alleyways in the labyrinthine streets of the old quarter where candle flames quiver at shrines to saints and martyrs whose names I am not familiar with. Only the black clad, tight-bunned stooped women, hurrying from the cathedral cloister, remember their sacrifices today.
Wander these streets and you wander into the past. The essence of another era is trapped in their heavy stone walls, passage ways and dimly lit courtyards.  Heave aside an oak door and the dankness speaks of ages. Savour it, for it is redolent of a time when the Imam’s call to prayer drifted out from the minaret on a breeze, when plague raged through these streets and when the terrors of the Inquisition froze the blood of all. At each turn there is a new invitation to explore, Walk me, is whispered seductively. At night the enchantment shines out from under period-style street lamps that illuminate the occasional bat flitting by under an amber moon. This is when I have the old quarter to myself. I pass through lofty arches into silent empty streets that have a dreamlike quality, fractured only by the occasional television or the sound of shutters being pulled closed for the night. This is my new neighbourhood. It’s an open invitation to indulge in fantasy.
At the centre of it all is the early gothic cathedral of Santa María, built on the site that was once a Roman temple and later a mosque. Cypress and orange trees surround it and, just beyond the cloister gardens to the rear of the cathedral, the benevolent light of a late afternoon sun bathes the upper reaches of the archdiocese residence. On the forecourt at dusk a scattering of tourists and locals sip lightly at their vino blanco under the nonplussed expression of the twelve apostles fossilised in stone above. This is Plà de la Seu. Cross it, and with your back to the cathedral, walk down the steps, past the drinking fountains, and into the main street, Carrer Major. Modern day artisans and craft workers own the premises that do business here. An aromatic tea shop, a jeweller’s, a tattoo parlour, a baker’s, a cocktail bar, a number of boutiques and assorted retailers line this narrow cobble-stoned street. Further away, in Carrer Talavera is L’abella chocolate shop, where the display of handmade confectionary never fails to evoke Oscar Wilde’s much quoted phrase, “I can resist everything, except temptation …”
Temptation was of a different kind when I first came to Tarragona twenty five years ago. Now, when I cross paths with respectable gentlemen, grandfathers perhaps, I gaze deeply into their features, past the wrinkles, seeking the hippies, the lovers of my youth. Eyes and profile escape the ravages of age, and they are the clue to the identity of the men I once knew so intimately. On Carrer Major I met my first Catalan boyfriend on his way to party and in Cuiraterías I rented a flat, just a few yards away from the brothel down the street. A red light still shines above the entrance and languid scantily clad women lean against the door frame for a hasty smoke before taking a final long drag and disappearing inside. It’s hard to believe that they are not the very same ones who I sneakily glanced at twenty five years ago. These are the moments when I feel so close to the girl I was then that I could reach out and touch her as she hurries by on her way to her next date, to the next party. The past is all around me.
Yes, this is my neighbourhood now.  I can step out into this fantasy whenever I please. Walking to work is a stroll through medieval streets where collared doves coo. Street of the Guitar (Calle de la Guitarra) takes me alongside the Roman walls and out through the Roser arch (Arc de Roser) into the cypress-lined Via del Imperi, where the centurions of the Roman Empire once marched. Although the sun has lost some of its ferocity since the start of October, I still seek refuge in the shade. It’s a very long way from the route I walked each morning in Belfast, along Tate’s Avenue and in to work at the university. Battling against the wind and rain - that was just the summer - I rarely looked up to appreciate the charms of my home city, if there were any, and there were.

viernes, 23 de septiembre de 2011

When the Bells Toll

Bingo! I have finally found a flat in Tarragona. It has taken me five long weeks of footslogging in unmercifully high temperatures to reach the end of this rainbow and the treasure I have found is well worth it. I’m living in the old quarter, just a few metres away from the cathedral and the ancient Roman walls surrounding this part of the city, which is what I’d been dreaming of since I decided last winter in Belfast that I was going to move here. My flat is located in what I believe to be one of the prettiest and quietest streets of the old town. I live in a cul de sac, so no car horns and no drunken brawls to intrude on my dreams.
I’d started off on my quest keen and determined, placing well-worded ads in the local newspaper and on the Internet. They elicited plenty of response but nothing I saw tempted me, not even for a couple of seconds. Either the roar of traffic beneath the bedroom window, the lack – and sometimes the complete absence - of light in the room for rent, or unsuitable flat mates, sent me scurrying back out into the street after each viewing doubly frustrated. In two flats I was greeted by large smelly dogs which their owners forgot to mention when I initially inquired about the room. One sulky Hungarian failed to recognise that it might have been helpful to lower the volume of the music while I was attempting to communicate with her. In another flat I squeezed past a boyfriend or a lover, splayed liberally across the sofa, beer in hand, and into the adjacent cell-like bedroom where the walls reverberated with the cheers of the crowd in the televised football match. I did mention the words “quiet” “meditation” and “yoga” in my ads, but they must have forgotten. I smiled tightly and promised to let them know if I was interested. Twice in the final few days I called about rooms I had seen at the commencement of my search, and for one heart stopping moment I feared I had walked into a flat which I’d inspected two weeks previously. Fortunately I hadn’t and was spared the embarrassment of having to apologise and backtrack.
In the end, out of weariness I have chosen to live alone, which is an expensive choice to make. I have had to ditch my budget for the year and withdraw a large chunk from my savings to finance it. Using a letting agency involves having to pay a hefty fee, equivalent to a full month’s rent. Unlike the UK, where the house or flat owner pays the agent, in Spain it is the tenant who shoulders this heavy burden.  On top of this outlay there is a deposit of two month’s rent to be paid and, of course, one month in advance. That’s a bill of 2,000€ just to walk in the door of my new home.
I don’t resent the fee as much now that I’m in here. I may never get this chance again, to live somewhere that I’ve dreamed of, it’s a gift to myself and to my friends who come visit, so it’s here to be enjoyed. This flat undoubtedly has character. An ancient oak door leads into the building from the cobble-stoned street. Heave it open and step inside, where the aroma of ages greets you in the semi darkness. It’s a dank mustiness that speaks of centuries, of another era. Fumble for the light and you will see a wall fashioned from rocks, typical of the stone used by the Romans to construct their fortifications. It makes an impression. When he saw it, my first visitor exclaimed, “Waow! It’s a cave.”
Follow the wall for a few metres to where the ascent begins. Lifts had not been invented when the plans were drawn up for this building so the footslogging continues. You have to be swift. In exactly one minute and fifty five seconds the timer kicks in and the light vanishes. At that point, unless you know the exact location of the switch, you are doomed to grapple with the darkness, to blunder your way up the spiral staircase. I’m on the second floor and there’s only one floor above me, so it’s do-able … unless you happen to be laden with a week’s supply of drinking water. The front door of my flat is typical of its kind, plain, painted chocolate brown and with a spy hole for security. Its effectiveness, I suspect, will be somewhat limited if a potential intruder pleads that they are unable to locate the light switch. Momentarily I imagine myself pressed up against the spy hole negotiating hesitantly with a voice muffled by the darkness on the other side.
I’m the local priest out on a mercy mission to your sick neighbour … honest. Open the door and I’ll show you my dog collar.
Should I ask him to hold it up so I can see it? It’s a conundrum that I hope I’ll never have to face so I drop the hypothesising.
My flat has a feature I could have only dreamed of back home in Belfast: exposed wooden beams that run the length of the living room and bedroom ceilings. Nothing else in the apartment fascinates me more. I have neck ache from staring up at their beautifully varnished asymmetry, imperfection that reveals authenticity. The novelty of living my life under these wooden beams will take some time to fade, if it ever does.
If the ceiling is authentic, the floor certainly isn’t. Laminated wood has become very popular throughout Spain and while I prefer it to tiled floors, it is hard not to think of an aspiration turned fake. Nevertheless, the owners have chosen not to pretend that this floor is something which it really isn’t, oak, beech, walnut or pine. They have opted for grey and it looks classy, blending nicely with the very simple décor. There’s a double bedroom containing a vast walk-in wardrobe, eating up one third of the boudoir; a compact well-designed modern kitchen featuring a waxed brick wall; and a small but well-equipped bathroom. Light, plenty of it, floods into the bedroom and the lounge. The street below echoes a blissful silence, although those cathedral bells although do sound awfully loud, particularly when they toll at 2.00 am. I'll expect I’ll get used to them...

martes, 13 de septiembre de 2011

Tarragona Revisited

Standing on the Mediterranean Balcony staring out at the vast expanse of blue it is easy to understand why the Romans chose Tarragona as the capital of their expanding empire in Spain. A single turn of the head gives sweeping views of all approaching ships and, gazing eastward, a homesick centurion might allow himself to imagine Rome on the distant horizon. The view from the Balcón invites both grand plans and sober introspection.
Directly below, goods and passenger trains roll into the station. The evening breeze wafts up words from the tannoy, a long distance train is leaving shortly for Granada. Twenty years ago I got on that train with my bike and my Catalan friends. Now I’m back in the city where I spent some of the best years of my life. Walking away from the Balcón, down the pedestrianised Rambla Nova, I’m delighted to see that little has changed since my departure. Classy boutiques, cafés and ice cream parlours line the street hosting the central walkway, the rambla, where locals stroll before dinner. Catalans used to joke that this is the longest street in the world, stretching all the way from Mediterranean (Balcony) to the Atlántico (Bank) at the far end. I’m sure they still do.
In the old quarter, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, I chuckle when I see some of my old haunts standing just as I left them. The cave-like mustiness hanging heavy in the air of El Candil bar in Plaça del Ajuntament, takes me back to the winter nights I spent there on my way home from work. It was within these ancient walls that I learned my first words of Catalan from a patient old gentleman who I now half expect to serve me a glass of muscatel as I sit at the bar. In “my street,” not far the cathedral, I see the red light is still burning brightly outside the brothel. 
Visitors to Tarragona will be captivated by the timelessness of the old quarter. Much of it is surrounded by the city walls, parts of which date back to the second century BC, when the Romans built fortifications here to protect their base. El casc antic, as it is known in Catalan, is a labyrinth of narrow cobble-stoned streets and well-preserved medieval buildings which evoke fantasies of civil war and bubonic plague raging within these very walls where you now pass. The air here feels thick with a troubled history that you are always just one step away from.
The cathedral bell tolls.
Further up the hill is the magnificent early gothic Cathedral of Santa María. As I stroll around the cloister an ancient bell ringer pauses on his way to the tower,
“It’s forbidden,” he says, glancing around furtively,
“For me to talk to visitors.”
No clerics in sight, so he proceeds to enlighten me on some of the more intricate features of the surrounding stonework. His easy familiarity with the detail comes not from rote learning of the facts but with years of cohabitation that infuse his tone with warmth and affection. Urging me to say a prayer in the chapel of Santa Tecla before I leave the cathedral, the bell ringer hurries off. I’m alone again. The gargoyles stare down at me impassively.
Outside I see that gypsies are gathering on the broad stone steps leading down from cathedral forecourt into the Carrer Major, the steep narrow street serving as the main artery in the old quarter. In the twilight they drift up here to sing and play the guitar, a tradition that their families brought with them from the south of Spain two or three generations ago. The first notes of Flamenco drift out on the evening air; I listen to the sound of the immigrant community in Tarragona reconnecting with its roots in the south of Spain. Their words speak of melancholy and passion.  
Music will fill many of the squares throughout the old town as the evening progresses. Sound technicians have been doing tests all afternoon and by midnight traditional and modern rhythms will be bouncing off the ancient walls. These are the verbenas populares, live open air dance music, in which the whole town is invited to take part. It is the festival of Santa Tecla, the patron saint of Tarragona, and the city celebrates the event every year in September a very big way with parades, live bands and fireworks, there will be no mercy for party poopers tonight. Noise, colour and joie de vivre propel this festival well into the small hours, night after night.
Outside of the old city it is quieter. I cross the Rambla Nova and head into the back streets in search of patatas bravas, chunks of fried potato served with garlic mayonnaise and a dash of Tabasco sauce. I’m looking for El Meson Andaluz, and I find it. It’s a modest tapas bar, a place of character that is not entirely unchanged in the twenty years since I left the city. This is reputed to be one of El Tel’s (Terry Venable’s) haunts when he was manager of Barcelona Football Club. Photos of famous customers line the walls but it is too dark to see El Tel, and I’m not sure I’d recognise him anyway. The waitress is Cuban, she can’t help. I’m the only customer so she talks to me for a while in wistful tones of her life in the Caribbean.  Fireworks explode in the night with loud dull thuds followed by rapid fire cracks. We look at each other momentarily, she gives me a weary smile, lifts the dish cloth and sets about cleaning the bar area in slow circling motions.
I stroll back up the Rambla to the Balcón. A full moon has risen and hangs low over the Mediterranean. Its silvery light illuminates the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre, which stand in dark profile against the mirror-like surface of the sea. This is where crowds of around 13,000 gathered regularly to watch gruesome spectacles. The setting is so well preserved that little effort is required to conjure up images of the last terrifying moments of lives lost here. The remains of a church stand in the centre of the arena now.
New forms of local entertainment have replaced martyrdom and gladiator fights, although the emotions remain arguably the same. Fear, bravado and sheer physical strength are all in play when it comes to els castells, human castle competitions. Teams from Tarragona and nearby towns compete during Santa Tecla and other local festivals in this very Catalan tradition. Each team has its own unique kit, the locals, els xiquets de Tarragona, wear white trousers, a red and white striped shirt and, crucially, a thick broad black belt, a girdle in effect, wrapped repeatedly around the waist. Without this last item there is no support for the spine, and there have been casualties.
This afternoon els xiquets attempted a nine person high castle. Watching the enxaneta, a small child, scramble up the trembling tower, I bit my nails and covered my eyes, and tried to do both at the same time. If he or she reaches the top, unfurls a handkerchief and descends to safety without the castle collapsing, then the castell is declared valid.  I see that, mercifully, the enxaneta is wearing a crash helmet. Some traditions have changed, and definitely for the better.

This article is an extended version of a prize-winning competition entry I submitted to The Daily Telegraph in October 2010:

Crazy? Not me! A week on retreat in Seville was exactly what I needed.

In the white heat of late afternoon in Andalusia an ant struggles across sun-bleached stones. Her burden is a feather, wispy, white and delicate, from the under wing of a baby bird. She staggers sideways. The gentlest of breezes bellows out the plumes, sail like, thwarting her advance. For each centimetre gained, another is lost. Again and again the feather is wafted off her shoulders. Doggedly she shrugs, gathers up her treasure and resumes the onward journey. Zig-zag fashion. A colleague crosses paths with her and they appear to confer momentarily. I peer more closely and see a change of tactics. Now she has harnessed the breeze and her course is linear and rapid. She and her feather are coasting along, homeward bound.
I am spending this week at Seikyuji Zen Buddhist temple near Seville, where I have had the luxury of indulging in long hours of contemplation, meditation and perhaps rather too much soul searching (aka navel gazing). It’s just what I need after the buffeting of the last few weeks. Moving from Ireland to Spain proved to be a much stormier journey than I had anticipated. Finally though, I too am coasting along here at Seikyuji, where peace, not silence, reigns supreme. In the evenings, when the heat has abated, crickets begin their chorus of chirps, owls screech and jasmine breathes its seductive aroma into the night air. That’s when I patrol in search of escarabajos, beetles the size of a two pound coin floundering upside down, legs flailing desperately in search of a foothold. At nightfall dozens beach themselves on the porches of the temple and surrounding buildings. The plight of these bumbling insects evokes compassion. When I leave I hope that another volunteer will continue the rescue mission.
Two weeks ago I was teaching at university, preparing my students for their foundation year exams. Now I’m harvesting olives, gordales they’re called, the fat green tasty ones that are sold in a few select delicatessens in Belfast, my home town. It’s hard work. My shoulders, neck and arms have been quick to protest under the weight of the basket harnessed to me.
Seikyuji temple is located on the Morejona estate and is surrounded by mature olive groves. Three hundred olive trees bear fruit here, fruit which has to be harvested, sorted and pressed. Harvesting is done by hand. In the autumn, voluntary workers – like me - come for a few days or a couple of weeks to pick hundreds of kilos of olives that are sent to a nearby organic press. The oil and the olives are marketed locally under the logo of the community. It’s a modest income which is used to partly finance the day to day upkeep of the temple and subsidise the cost of retreats.
            Up to eighty people at a time can participate in retreats at La Morejona. Dormitories surrounding the temple are basic but the beds are comfortable and clean. There is usually Zen monk or nun on the premises available for spiritual guidance. Zen master Raphaël Doko Triet comes from France to attend the more heavy duty retreats (sesshins) involving hours of daily meditation. I’m not ready for that yet.  Rising well before dawn to the clang of bell has sent shock waves through my entire system. Meditation on that first morning became a war of attrition against sleep deprivation, nausea and, inevitably, joint pain. My knees screeched fire and my hips whimpered piteously in the half light of the temple. In the distance gunshots echoed through the countryside, morning and evening, as hunters set out in search of quail and rabbit. Still, we sat on in silence.
            Once morning meditation is over, we troop out out of the temple behind the resident monk for a brief stroll past the olive groves, pomegranate and fig trees, and along a path leading to the pond. Alert to our approach, a dozen or more frogs plop into the depths of safety. That’s where they’ll remain until twilight, when the temperature descends to more merciful 25º.
We file into the kitchen for breakfast and I’m starving. I’ve been up for three hours and have had nothing to eat. Since there are only seven of us this week, meal times are not the military operation launched three times daily when the temple is running at full capacity. For summer camp a team of four cooks and an equal number of washers up man the industrial-size kitchen. Austerity does not prevail in La Morejona. Food is prepared with gusto and creativity, to restaurant standard. Every evening we gather for an aperitif of wine or a glass of beer accompanied by olives which last year’s retreatants harvested. Dinner is served outdoors, under an inky blue-black sky, peppered by stars whose constellation I can only guess at.  
By 10.30 I’m fading but there’s still work to be done. In the kitchen, surrounded by the remains of tonight’s meal and dozens of dirty dishes, I turn to another retreatant, laughing off his offer to relieve me and add that I wash up at home because I have to. I wash up here because I want to. And I really mean it. My co retreatants are a joy to be with, there’s plenty of craic here, as we would say back in Belfast. I’m hooked now, a fellow traveller in a community that spends its evenings, weekends and holidays (well, not all) sitting cross legged in darkened meditation halls and sweeping temple floors after breakfast. Next stop – the south of France in November. I’m already looking forward to it.
And, just in case you’re interested, here’s the website. But be warned; only Zen practitioners already affiliated to a group will be accepted on retreat.

jueves, 25 de agosto de 2011

Feeling the fear - resisting the call of the sirens

The last thing I did before leaving Belfast a week ago was to throw away my umbrella. I dropped it into a litter bin on the Donegal Road with a smirk. Ten minutes later the heavens opened and the smirk had transmuted into a grimace. Not even the last evening in Ireland would be rain free. I sighed and trudged onward, gathering my coat to me while trying to be positive about getting soaked. At least, I supposed, the appalling summer weather would make my departure from my home town for a warmer climate slightly less painful. In just 24 hours I would be enjoying clear skies and baking temperatures in Spain. It was hard to remember what that felt like, to walk along the street without the accompaniment of a chill wind.
In the depths of last winter I took a decision to go and live in Spain for a year or maybe even more. This is no holiday that I am embarking on. Neither am I retiring. I am getting old and instead of sitting around in my terraced house in Belfast waiting for illness and death to catch up with me, I’m going on the run. Old age, and all that comes with it, can catch me on the run, somewhere where benevolent temperatures will soothe, and not aggrieve, my arthritis.
Tarragona is the setting for this new phase of my life. Exactly twenty five years ago I left my job teaching English in this pretty Mediterranean city, famous for its Roman ruins, and headed north, back to England and to academic life. Now I’m returning a quarter of a century later, quarter of a century older, it seems like a safe bet to return to these streets that were the scene of some of the best years of my youth. I’m familiar with its terrain but still I’m apprehensive about what this volte face, this aberration, might usher in. It’s not at all clear as I write whether the decision to move to Tarragona will be the cause of mild embarrassment at dinner parties back home in years to come, or the source of deep satisfaction at having “broken free”, at having thrown a spanner in the works of predictability by embracing uncertainty. What is clear now is that the move, wrenching myself away from all that is habitual, has been very challenging. My job, my house, my community of friends, my cat and my stable routine called to me, like the mythological sirens, even as I packed my suitcases in the week leading up to my departure. The message was always the same, so alluring and so rational, “You can stop this madness now.”
Unlike Ulysses, I was not bound hand and foot to a ship’s mast, but even so I resisted. Last week I boarded a flight bound for Barcelona and precipitated myself into the “madness”. The call of the sirens is still there, fainter, but perceptible. I felt it when I landed in the airport with my two heavy suitcases and later when I heaved them on to the single bed in the spare room of my Catalan friends’ home. Moving from a house into a single room is hard to justify, the sirens whispered, so this experience better be worth it.
But I am only here in this single room temporarily. I have begun my search for a place to live, somewhere that is Mediterranean, exotic, with a hint of Bohemian character; above all it must have a soul.
None of the property ads I have seen so far speak of “soul” and their hard-nosed Catalan owners and estate agents would cringe if I were to mention the word. Instead, the defining factors in my search have become firstly, noise and secondly, light. Too much noise and too little light. In a country where the car reigns supreme and the volume of traffic is both intense and relentless, finding a home where one can sleep undisturbed is equivalent to mission impossible. The hum of traffic is one thing but the stentorian blast of car horns deep into the night is another. Light, or rather the absence of it, in the bedrooms and even in the living rooms of some otherwise “acceptable” flats I have seen so far leave me shaking my head in disappointment. Owners and agents have grandly opened doors into dungeon-like chambers, so dim that the bed was barely discernible until the light was switched on. To wake to permanent gloom in the Mediterranean would be unforgivable the sirens rebuke. Enough of that in Belfast. Now, before a viewing, I ask if the bedroom is exterior, as opposed to interior. But it’s Catch 22 because an exterior bedroom leads me into a head on collision with noise from the street.
The most tempting abode that I have viewed this far into my search was one of the first in my quest. The bedroom was bathed in “natural light” flooding in through large patio windows leading on to a balcony overlooking an astonishing array of Roman ruins. It was undoubtedly a room with a view. Mentally, I was already unpacked and bestowing my personality on to the apartment, seeking its soul. Then the owner dynamited my reverie sky high.
“You can only have one of the two bedrooms. You choose which, but I need the other.”
            I’m a married man, thirty one years married. But I still have my needs.”
Fearful of what was coming next, I gave him my full attention.
            “My friend, girlfriend I mean, from Barcelona, comes down to Tarragona a couple of times a week and I don’t take her to a hotel. I bring her here. I hope you understand the way these things work.”
I nodded, knowing very well how these things work from the bitter experience of a cheating husband. I smiled benignly.
            “Of course I understand. That’s life, isn’t it?”
The smile was beginning to wear thin so I dropped it into a neutral expression. Sordid and sleazy, a squalid little arrangement, the sirens hissed. No thanks. I shook his hand anyway and mustering all the sincerity I could, I told him I would give careful consideration to his proposal.
Stepping out into the bright sunlight, I glanced up at the sign on the corner, Calle Gasometro, Gasmetre Street never would have suited me anyway.