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.