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.