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