jueves, 17 de mayo de 2012

Change of address

Now that I am back in Ireland, I have started a new blog about my life in my home city: Chronicles of my not-quite-perfect life in Belfast. Please visit me at:

martes, 3 de abril de 2012

Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba

This is an extract from a chapter taken from my recently-published book based on memories of the years (1999-2005) I spent living in Cuba. While I was there I was fortunate to work as a tour facilitator for the San Francisco-based company Global Exchange. Here is my account of a memorable afternoon on the "Following Che's Footsteps” itinerary.

Elizardo, the ICAP* represensentative takes the microphone from our driver and turns to face our tour participants, 
“Where we are going today is historic, for it was here, in the heart of the Sierra Maestra mountains, that President Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and their band of guerrilla fighters waged the battle that brought down the dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista and ushered in the Revolution. That was back in 1959. It took them three years to succeed and we are going to take this opportunity to retrace their steps. We’ll go into the mountains and see their headquarters for ourselves.“

Just then our driver, Juancito, calls Elizardo over to him. They confer for a minute or so. From the concerned looks on their faces it is apparent that something is wrong. They beckon to me and Diana. It turns out that our coach is an older model and Juancito is doubtful about its ability to climb the hills that lie between us and our hotel in the tiny mountain village of Santo Domingo. We stop at the base of the steepest hill I have ever seen. Someone a few seats behind me mutters that the gradient would be illegal in the United States.
“What we really need is a fifth gear for the ascent and hydraulic brakes for the descent. Our coach has neither,” whispers Juancito.
“So what do you recommend?”
He looks up at me apologetically.
We agree to let Juancito drive on at his own pace and for us to follow on foot. It will take a couple of hours longer but it’s safe. The students are elated at the prospect of getting out of their seats and eagerly rush toward the exit.
All twenty-five of us set off, walking on occasions at an angle of what must be about 65º to the perpendicular tilt of the road. The landscape is undoubtedly the most magnificent that I’ve seen so far in Cuba. Lush vegetation springs from sheer drops, and abrupt upward sweeps arrest the gaze and guide it skyward into the clouds. The sky is shrunk, framed by verdant peaks. I too am shrunk, made delightfully small, humbled by the power of these mountains. I remind myself that I am in the east of Cuba, somewhere between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by topography which has not changed in millennia. All of us are quiet now, content to pay homage to the moment, knowing that it will never come again. Around us there is birdsong, insistent calls produced by exotic creatures I cannot see and cannot name.
An ugly clattering, suggestive of metal colliding with concrete, intrudes on my reverie. It is getting louder, faster, and it’s coming toward us. From around the bend – at speed – comes a chivichana, a guider steered by an elderly campesino, his face frozen into a grimace. G-force, or perhaps the immensity of effort required to keep his vehicle under control at such speed? It’s not clear. Both hands are on the reins, pulling hard now, and his heels slam against the front wheels, jamming them to a halt a few metres away. Mules and home-made guiders are the most common forms of transport in the Sierra. The students are already gathering around enthusiastically. I stay back, content to watch and let the encounter develop under its own dynamics. A few words are exchanged in broken Spanish between the wizened, bright-eyed sprightly driver and his admirers.
Qué lindo. What a beautiful guider. Did you make it yourself? What speed do you go? Is it dangerous?”
And then, inevitably,
“Would you mind if we take a few photos?
Photos taken, the students give the old man the thumbs up and he manoeuvres his chivichana into position to continue its downward journey.
Just as he is about to lift his heels from the front wheels one of the group calls out to him,
Señor! Señor! Por favor.”
We turn our heads to see Jeremy, one of the quieter boys, hoist a bottle of Havana Club rum on high,
Muchas gracias!
And then he tosses it with a long slow motion to the old man who catches the bottle in a single deft sweep of the hand. Only a talented baseball player would have been capable of such elegance, and the group applauds. Then he is gone in a flash, followed by a rapidly retreating commotion that can be heard echoing through the mountains for a minute or two after we have lost sight of him. We see more chivichanas over the next few days; sometimes they are little more than a blur as the locals power down these slopes at breakneck speed on this most unique form of transport.  

*(Cuban Institute for Friendship among Peoples)

"Living Inside the Revolution - An Irish woman in Cuba" by Karen McCartney is available as an e book from Amazon.http://www.amazon.co.uk/Living-Inside-Revolution-Irish-ebook/dp/B007UN45TC/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1334593707&sr=1-1
If you don't have a Kindle, the book can be read on your PC if you download this free application from Amazon http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=sa_menu_karl4?ie=UTF8&docId=1000493771

viernes, 16 de marzo de 2012

EPILOGUE – This is it

“Take a deep breath. Stay calm.”
My friend Barbara and I are standing outside my terraced house in Belfast. I have the key in my hand and am about to open the front door. This is the first time I will have been inside my home since August last year. In the seven month interim it has been rented out.
The solemnity of Barbara’s tone unnerves me, and I feel anxiety rising as I turn the key and push the door open. With just one foot over the threshold, I am immediately confronted by the first of the transformations my tenant has wrought in my home: a ghastly purple wall covered by gigantic stick-on purple and white flowers. This is my chimney breast. I step inside the room and rotate. Two more walls have been painted loud purple to match it while the others have been left white, the original colour, the colour the room was when I rented the house before I left Belfast for Tarragona. In a fury I drop my suitcase, hiss an expletive, step over to the chimney breast and rip off one of the triffids. It comes away in its entirety. Barbara looks disconcerted. She knows me as a sedate, easy-going Buddhist. I don’t feel like a sedate easy-going Buddhist right now.
The homecoming, the moment I had been yearning for during the lonely hours in my flat in Tarragona, has been profaned. My cosy living room-cum-study with its original pine book shelves and antique clock has vanished. A hairdressing salon seems to have replaced it. As if reading my thoughts, Barbara points to the pine shelves, stacked in a corner and painted white …
“She removed them and set up a mega size flat screen tv in this corner.”
Another expletive.
I wander into the kitchen and through to the bathroom where, I’m relieved to see that everything looks pretty much as I left it. All the tiles are in place and they haven’t been painted.
Now for upstairs.
There’s barely any need to switch on the light in my bedroom because the colour is staggeringly bright: fluorescent green screams at me. The glare is ugly and I’m tempted to reach for my sunglasses. Instead, I venture into the back bedroom fearing the worst and what I find is a repeat of the living room: purple and white, minus the triffids. My home, I have to conclude, has been transformed into what I regard as a monument to bad taste.
“It’s not bad taste - Barbara protests – it’s just different.”
That first night my sleep was disturbed by angry thoughts that jabbed relentlessly at my brain through the small hours. “How could she? What a nerve. You should have been consulted!” In the background, a calmer wiser voice urged me not to be judgemental, to give consideration to my tenant who, after all, had the right to make this house into her home.
Over the following six days while the debate raged in my head I tore through the house with paint brushes and rollers. In record time I have redecorated four rooms, the attic included. With satisfaction I can now say that there is no longer any trace to be found of fluorescent green or loud purple anywhere in my home. Subtlety abounds. Soft peach soothes me when I step into the living room and magnolia wafts serenity through the bedrooms. But I am beat out. Redecorating at breakneck speed while battling with bronchitis has just about finished me. All the reserves are gone.
Was it worth it? I think it was. I just couldn’t stand looking at those colours for a minute more than was necessary. Does my tenant have bad taste or is it just different, as Barbara argued? Part of me, that harsh jabbing voice, insists that there is an absolute standard of taste and that “she” violated it. But the truth is that it’s all relative. My reaction, I believe, was probably about a deeper need to reclaim my space and to feel that I was really home again, albeit without Thelma, who has always lived in this house with me. It was about the need to feel secure after the “Tarragona experience” which didn’t quite work out as I had hoped. That’s another story; the one that I haven’t published on this blog.
For now though I am home and for the first time in my adult life I have no plans to move on anywhere else. This is it … and that thought scares me more than a little. This is it: my red brick terraced house in this West Belfast street, cups of tea with neighbours and friends, queuing for the Number 10 bus, rooks cawing from the nearby City Cemetery in the early morning rain, red-faced winos stumbling along Castle Street, Saturday night cinema, mittened hands on a frosty evening and the frantic search of grey skies every April for the first swallow to herald in a summer that never really arrives.
The finality of my decision to return home has a chill to it.
A miniscule doubt crouching in the darkest recesses begins to rise and then a woman out shopping smiles broadly at me on a busy city centre street; the bank clerk asks where I’ve been these past months, he missed me. A stranger at the bus stop comments at length on the unseasonable warm dry weather and my friend Judy surprises me by arriving with some cakes to welcome me back home. The doubt recedes and I know that I can live with this. Just this.

domingo, 26 de febrero de 2012


It’s habitual for my friends to ask how Thelma is. It’s habitual for me to cradle her in my arms as I drink my first cup of tea in the morning. It’s habitual for me to hasten home at the end of the day so that I can kneel before Thelma and bury my face in her soft warm fur. It’s habitual for me to snuggle down under the quilt every evening with Thelma and open my book to the sound of her accelerated purring. It’s habitual for me to lose my gaze in hers seeking the wisdom in her eyes. It’s habitual for me nuzzle Thelma’s left ear gently and delight in her creamy chocolate aroma. It’s habitual for me to compare the way she drapes herself over my arm to liquid velvet. It’s habitual for me to wince with pain when I note that her arthritic limp has become more acute. It’s habitual for my stomach to lurch when I see Thelma stumble into a table leg because her sight has failed her. It’s habitual for me to bite my lip when I see her strain to use bowels that have seized up with age. These are the habits of 19 years and six months.
Thelma’s life on this earth ended on the morning of Thursday 23rd February at 9.10. Those habits that have become second nature to me will not die with her. Time, months, maybe years may have to pass before I stop listening for the click of her nails as she crosses the floor or stop seeking cream-coloured cat hairs to pluck from my jumper. Now I dread not finding evidence of her presence in my life. No cat food, no cat litter, no insistent meowing, no arrangements to be made for cat sitters when I go on holiday. No responsibilities and no unconditional love. No other relationship in my life has lasted this long. Now I feel bereft without it. Without her.
Numerous are the lessons she taught me. Insights I gained into myself through the love that grew up between us were not always pleasing but they were the most valuable. Yet Thelma’s most precious gift to me was her death. I was privileged to be with her during the final hours of her life. All through the night I cradled her with me in bed as her suffering became more intense. BY 5.00 am I could no longer cling to any hope that she might pull through. That was when Thelma gathered what strength she had left and buried her head deep in my neck. It was a final embrace.
I never had the opportunity to embrace my mother and tell her how much I loved her before she died. Thelma gave me that chance. With the strongest possible love and the deepest sorrow I said goodbye to her. I said the words but I can’t let go of nineteen years with words. Only grief in the days and weeks to come will teach me what they mean, what the loss of Thelma means.
This is my final blog posting. I leave Tarragona and return home to Belfast in a few days time. I’d been wondering how to say farewell to my life in this city. Thelma has done it for me. The tragedy of her death is so final, so definitive that I feel I must go. It’s not just the end of Tarragona; it’s the end of an era in my life. What will happen next or how long “next” will last, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that I can no longer reach out and touch unconditional love when I need it. That is going to be the hardest part.

domingo, 19 de febrero de 2012


Before the end of March, Catalans – and their guests - will have consumed an astonishing 15.7 million calçots and the season only lasts three months. Calçots, you say. What are they? There is no translation for the word into English. However, if you’d been paying close attention to my last blog you would know that they look -  and taste - like a cross between a slim leek and a fat spring onion. Roasted on an open-air fire and eaten with the fingers, calçots are a feast you will never forget.
Last Sunday Paco and Sol invited me to a calçot banquet, a calçótada, at their house on the outskirts of Tarragona. The afternoon was bright and sunny – it nearly always is here – although there was a sharp wind blowing. When I arrived with my friends Marta and Jaume there were about twenty people gathered around an open fire in the extensive garden at the back of the property. Gusts of wind were lifting the smoke tornado style before carrying it off in the direction of the Prades mountains to the south west. Rows of calçots had been arranged across a metal grill and were enveloped by the flames. When they were deemed roasted, the blackened calçots were stretchered off into a corner of the garden, where volunteers wrapped them in sheets of newspaper to preserve the heat. Fresh rows of creamy calçots were arranged across the grill and the glowing embers were fed with more wood.
         Calçots and roast artichokes are the first course. For me they will be the only course because what comes next is an array of lamb chops together with a selection of llonganiza and black butifarra. Such thick and meaty utterances could be nothing else but Catalan sausage. Not at all tempting for a lifetime vegetarian. The porrón, a traditional glass wine pitcher, is being passed around and the guests, some more skillful than others, are drinking the rich dark Priorat wine directly from its long narrow spout. It requires some skill to align the spurt of wine with the mouth, a skill which I discover I don’t possess. My coat is quickly spattered with Priorat so I hasten off in the direction of the kitchen for a glass and some water. 
     A shout goes up to say that we can commence eating. Guests gather round and bibs are handed out. Small bowls of homemade Romesco sauce have been placed along the centre of the table. Three of the women are competing to see whose recipes are most popular. Ground almonds and hazelnuts, fresh tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and olive oil are mixed into a creamy sauce that is served with calçots. I unwrap my first bundle and am surprised to note that the newspaper has kept the calçots oven warm. They are almost too hot to handle but I dig in. I peel off the blackened outer skin to reveal a soft white fleshy interior and dip it into the sauce. Then I raise the calçot high above my mouth and lower it in.  An exquisite blend of Romesco and calçot explodes on to my taste buds transporting me into an epicurean paradise. I reach for Calçot Number 2 and Jaume snaps with my camera. “You’ve been compromised.” The phallic symbolism of the calçot and the porrón could not be more graphic, but it is all part of this feast of the senses..
         My hands are blackened and peach-coloured Romesco sauce is rolling ponderously down my chin but I’m not concerned. This is unbridled indulgence and I don’t give a damn about the mess and neither does anyone else. All twenty or so of us are on our feet, because that is how the ritual is conducted, utterly engrossed in an assault on our respective bundles of calçots. Except for birdsong and the occasional gusts of wind that waft the smoke in our direction, silence reigns.
Jaume is the first to break it.
         “Some foreigner won the calçot-eating competition in Valls the other day. He ate 288 and I think you must be very close behind him, Karen.”
I hear my name and look up momentarily.
         “But I heard but he used gloves. What a wimp!”
I stretch my blackened fingers to their full length, much as a cat extends its paws, and admire them. Then I move the Romesco sauce closer and reach for another calçot
     Jaume has progressed on to the butifarra sausage with a knife and fork, so he can talk now. Others are still engaged in the calçot feeding frenzy but I’m fading. Another half dozen or so and I’ll have to withdraw. Someone else can beat that foreigner in Valls. It won’t be me, not today anyway.
         This is the 33rd calçotada that Paco and Sol have hosted in their garden. For thirty three years this group of friends has been gathering here during the calçot season, between January and March. There’s a plaque on the wall to commemorate the 25thcalçotada. When they first met, many of the guests were student rebels against General Franco’s government during the latter years of his rule over Spain. Conversation touches briefly upon the recent VIP “send off” given to Manuel Fraga, a right-wing Popular Party politician and former minister to Franco, who died recently. There are grumbles about a Der Spiegel article which has just revealed that the King of Spain apparently held certain sympathies for an attempted coup d’ état back in 1981. This surprises none of those present. Corruption also crops up in the conversation. My fellow guests are outraged that Francisco Camps, Popular Party president of the Valencia government, has been acquitted of all the charges. There is deep despair about the future, particularly given the right-wing policies of the current Madrid government and the lack of coordinated opposition to the rule of the banks and financial markets.
     Unable to squeeze in even the slimmest of calçots I wander off to wash my hands. A lemon tree toward the back of the garden is laden with fruit; there are several types of palm tree, Mediterranean pine, olive and almond trees, a modest vegetable allotment and a large pond inhabited by goldfish. When I return I notice that the robin red breast I had spied half an hour previously is still hopping around the embers, ever closer to the heat.  The temperature is dropping as the afternoon progresses. The robin seems unafraid and flits on to the back of an empty chair from where it watches the butifarra being served. After a while it is joined by its mate and together they glide over to a nearby pile of logs where a cat lies outstretched. Feline eyes follow the pair, bemused by their temerity. Jaume informs me that “They are called a pit roig in Catalan.” Peat rotch, I roll the words around in my mouth, savouring the sound much as I had done with the Romesco sauce. Even the language is part of the feast this afternoon. 

domingo, 5 de febrero de 2012

Getting to grips with this Catalan Thing

From the moment of landing at Barcelona airport it is apparent to the traveller that they have not arrived in Spain, but in Catalonia. Sun seekers, in their haste to reach the beaches of the Costa Brava, may take a little time to register this fact, although one hopes that it does eventually sink in before they board the homeward-bound flight.
Airport signs are in Catalan, English and Spanish. Flags, if any are flying, will be multi-striped red and yellow Catalan, as opposed to the three horizontal stripes of Spain. Bar menus will confound those who have spent the winter taking Spanish conversation classes. Instead of café con leche, there is café amb llet and, rather than ensalada, amanida. Outside of tourist destinations, restaurant menus are increasingly published solely in Catalan. Then there is the accent. We are a long way away from the somewhat melodic Andalusian lisp; words are truncated and many locals sound like they have a mouth full of marbles when they speak their native language.
 These are just the trappings of a society that is fiercely proud of its identity and this is evident in many of the conversations I have held with friends and acquaintances in Tarragona. The Catalan question inevitably crops up in its various forms, either in a discussion of the language, the traditions, the food or, more commonly, in relation to Spain, in other words, defensively. Since I have lived in Catalonia before, this comes as no surprise to me. The difference is that years ago, in my determination to learn Spanish, so that I could move on to “my next big adventure”, South America, I saw “the Catalan thing” as an add on. A sort of extra or a bonus that came along with the experience of living here. Beyond a few token phrases I didn’t make any effort to speak the language – because I always had the easier option of communicating in Spanish, aka Castilian,
Now I regret my perception of “this Catalan thing” as an added extra. I didn’t register that the language is an open invitation, a doorway into this society. Not having walked through that door and learned to speak Catalan back then (although I came to understand it) has placed me in the position of “eavesdropper.” I listen to conversations just a couple of steps away from having my foot fully inside the door. When my Catalan friends and acquaintances kindly switch from their own language to Spanish for my benefit, a slight - but unintentional - distance opens up between me and them because this is not their language (or mine, for that matter). The gap doesn’t really close when – in response to my pleas – they address me in Catalan and I have to reply in Spanish because the words in my head just won’t be marshalled into sentences in Catalan.
A few English-speaking friends who, in their early days of language learning, made a conscious choice to give priority to Catalan and place Spanish on the back burner do not have this problem. Because they saw Catalan as something to be valued in its own right, as opposed to an extra, they now switch effortlessly from Catalan to Spanish and to English. Their Spanish seems to have been absorbed in a process of osmosis and through encounters with non Catalan speakers, so that along the way they have become fluent in the language. I’ve missed the boat. How I envy their trilingualism.
Fluency in Catalan would doubtlessly have given me a sharper perception of what it is to be Catalan. I ask my students if they are Catalan and uniformly they respond that they are. What does that mean, that you are Catalan, I inquire? The question evokes thoughtful expressions, furrowed brows.
“Well, we’re different.”
 “In what way?” I probe.
“We have imagination. Just look at Picasso, Gaudí and Dalí. Great Catalan art.”
“Er … Picasso was from the south…”
“Yes, but he lived here.”
I return to the question of difference. Marc, a banker, mentions efficiency as a Catalan attribute and links it to a word that others have spoken fondly of: seny, which they assure me has no direct translation. Seny, they argue is about the very essence of being Catalan and it means to be clear-headed, rational, cautious, without “the interference of passion.” Dolors laughs when I mention seny to her.
“Yes, a banker would be fond of that particular attribute because seny makes us into a nation of savers, estalviadores, and small business owners. We are also known for being tight fisted but maybe that’s the disagreeable side effect of seny …”
An exploration of the question of what it means to be Catalan generally relies on the introduction of difference to the discussion. Although most don’t say it, what they mean is different from the Spanish. Local cuisine is held up as a strong example. All the people I talk to, without exception, mention bread with tomato, pan amb tomaquet, as the crowning glory of Catalan cuisine. Marina admits that impoverished immigrants from Murcia in the south may have brought the recipe to Catalonia in the 19th century. Now though, the ritual of a slice of farmhouse bread, rubbed with half a tomato, followed by a sprinkling of top quality olive oil and a little salt, is a daily occurrence in most Catalan households.
“Calçots, now they definitely are one hundred per cent Catalan,” she says with a smile.
Calçots (pronounced calsots) look like a cross between a slim leek and a fat spring onion. There is no translation of the word into English. Marina tells me that they used to be thrown on to the compost heap until, during lean times in the 19th century, a farmer from the nearby town of Valls roasted them over an open fire. The resulting meal was so delicious that calçotadas (calçot banquets) have become a very popular tradition in Catalonia at this time of the year.
         Food is a topic that all Catalans delight in discussing at length but, before we get waylaid, I steer them back on to the path of what it means to be Catalan. Traditions and folklore are our next encounter. Marc inquires whether I am familiar with el caganer (the figure taking a crap in the corner of the Nativity scene*).
“Yes, and with the caga tiò too.* You seem to obsessed with defecation as a nation. Are you all stuck at the anal stage of development?”
“We might well be. But the point is that Catalans have a very earthy sense of humour; we are irreverent and we like to believe we’re not shy about those topics that others might regard as forbidden.”
Marc brings the Catalan national dance, the Sardana, into the discussion and asks if I have seen it performed. I nod.
“I doubt whether you hurried back to see it again.”
He’s right. Watching the Sardana brings to mind a ring of constipated dwarfs performing to a tune played on one of those annoying instruments that children blow repeatedly at parties. Ignoring my smirk, Marc suggests that the power of the Sardana, like the tradition of the human towers, rests in its symbolism.
“Look at how the participants hold hands to form a circle throughout the duration of the dance. They are united in their efforts, as are the teams who build human towers. They physically support each other in a collective endeavour. It’s all about cooperation and solidarity.”
“Without solidarity, Marina argues, we couldn’t have survived as a nation. Repression down the centuries has been part of our shared experience as Catalans. Together we have had to endure and to salvage what we could of our identity, which is, above all, the language.”
Cristina, who has a scientific background, sighs when I raise the issue.
“The rational side of my brain tells me that this is nonsense. To be Catalan … I can’t see it or touch it, But when you ask me about it I feel it and it won’t go away. Any encounter with our folklore, the Sardana and the human towers, evokes it. So does awareness that we have a very powerful neighbour that has spread its empire and its language – Spanish – to over 300 million people. We are a small and vulnerable nation in comparison.”
Discussion of identity often puts people on the defensive. Attempts to define what it means to be Catalan are overshadowed by very real political and historical issues of colonisation and Franco’s repression, as well as “a lack of understanding” on the part of the current conservative government in Madrid. This is the context within which Catalans’ sense of themselves as having a common identity has been forged - through the dynamics of repression and resistance. But, as Marc indicates, the common identity is not a cast iron shield; closer inspection reveals chinks which hint at a certain lack of integration.
“There are around seven million of us in Catalonia and many have come from other parts of the peninsula. Ask them where they’re from and they generally answer with the name of the town or village they or their parents, or perhaps their grandparents, were born in, even if they have lived in Catalonia for all or most of their lives.”
Guillermo is a sculptor and artist from a village in the south of Spain. He’s been living in Tarragona for over twenty years. He understands Catalan perfectly but doesn’t speak the language. Tarragona is his home now and there are no plans to move elsewhere. In his opinion the language, the traditions and the cuisine all make Catalans different.
“You can look high and low for evidence of their difference, and certainly you will find it. However, for me the crux is this, they are different because they want to be. And that’s good enough for me.”

* See my earlier Christmas blog.

lunes, 16 de enero de 2012

Learning the Hard Way

“Fingers on the lips. Fingers on the lips. NOW!”
Thirteen little voices echo my words back at me and thirteen tiny forefingers obediently press into a line of pursed lips. My five-year-old class is silent … momentarily, so finally we can move. Off we march through the double doors leading away from the playground and up the stairs toward the classroom. On the second flight of stairs I hit a blind spot and the more canny members of the group take advantage of it to break ranks and charge screaming along the corridor and into the classroom. Our four-year-old neighbours, lined up and still waiting for orders to break ranks, glance up at their teacher seeking some explanation for the human hurricane that has just torn past them. I too glance at her and her regiment. She’s not impressed but I have no time to wallow in shame, hell has broken loose in my classroom and I wade in there feeling decidedly unhopeful about restoring calm.
The children like the “fingers on the lips” mantra and so I resort to it now. Once they are sitting quietly around the table and I have called the register we can begin the process of learning some English. But it’s me who has learnt most in the five months since I was nominated teacher of these tiny human beings. Until September of last year I had absolutely no contact with children … of any age, never mind five year olds. Adults, strictly adult education, was my domain. Outside of it I have learned that the rules are entirely different, or so it seems to me.
For a start I am of the impression that routine, organisation and clear boundaries are fundamental to establishing and maintaining control in the classroom. First we do this, then this, and then this, and finally this. And we do it the way I say, no other way. Any deviation or indecision generally causes havoc. To prevent it I need a game plan and I need to be organised down to the last detail. Turning my back on the class to shuffle undecidedly among my photocopies – even for a few seconds – risks chaos. I tell the children I have eyes in the back of my head,
“Yes, I can see them. Little red ones,” pipes up Laura.*
Others murmur their assent, but only the most docile. Eric and Roberto look sceptical and resume kicking each other under the table. Kicking is much less lethal than their usual sport, fencing with sharpened pencils, the objective being to poke an eye out. If their behaviour deteriorates, there is always the option of asking one or the other to leave the room. Inevitably, that happens but it no longer worries me, not even when they make faces through the frosted glass pane on the door.
I have come along way since the first class on my first day at the school, which left me “traumatised” and I don’t use the word lightly. On that day, unaware as I was of the need for sergeant major tactics, I blithely urged the children to follow me, “Vámonos. Let’s Go.” And indeed they did. They swarmed on ahead of me, up the stairs and charged into the classroom, barely pausing to open the door. When I strolled in Eric was trampolining on the tables, Roberto had become a whirling dervish, Miguel was repeatedly crash diving on the floor and two of the girls were screaming in the corner. The rest were pogoing in a sort of group frenzy, or so it seemed to me. The classroom resembled a war zone. That was the start, and it only got worse from then onward. I emerged at the end of fifty minutes having aged fifty years.
Since that first day sympathetic colleagues have enlightened me about the importance of a system of rewards and “punishment” via the happy and sad faces routine, aka bribery. Now, each child who behaves well receives a copy of a happy smiling face at the end of the class and two happy faces can be exchanged for a sticker. The “sticker awards” have become something of a high point in the class and a sea of eager faces often besieges me in the final minutes of each lesson chorusing,
Dóna’m una enganxina” (Give me a sticker)
While I am doling out stickers, Eric and Roberto are whingeing miserably off stage over the injustice of the system. Each of them grasps a crumpled sad face in their tiny fists which their parents will have to sign. Cruelly, I hold up the newly purchased spider man stickers, which their classmate Arnau is deliberating over.
“Next time," I say, glancing over at the miscreants, “you too can have one of these … if you are good boys.”
Eric bursts into tears and buries his head among the coats on the rail behind him.
            For some reason the children have quickly grown fond of me. When I walk into the playground now to round them up, I get the celebrity treatment. The collective swarms over to me the second I arrive, joyously crying out my name. Both my legs are hugged, tiny hands slip into mine and little faces gaze up at me adoringly.  Elena, who habitually sticks to me limpet fashion, asks (again) if she is my favourite pupil. While I am still wondering what I have done to be worshipped in this way, my heart opens to the deluge and they’re in.
Whatever happens, no matter how much they wear me down, they have won me over and I suspect that long after the children have forgotten me, I will treasure the memories that these “tiny terrors” have given me. Those memories will not, however, slow my steps as I hasten back to my comfort zone of adult education. When my year in Tarragona is over that is where I will be. It’s where I belong and it is from there that I will salute the extraordinary professionals who have the skills and vocation required to be a nursery and primary school teacher. I am not one of them.

*The names of my pupils have been changed to protect me from the wrath of their parents!

viernes, 6 de enero de 2012

Nuclear - Yes Please!

Just before Christmas our television screens were filled with images of revellers gathered in bars, cracking open champagne and celebrating. Just before New Year almost identical scenes were broadcast again. In both cases the celebrants were ordinary working-class people overjoyed at a piece of news they had just received. Apart from the fact that smiles were broadened in the first case with champagne and in the second with beer, there was another crucial difference between the two sets of celebrants.
News of a massive lottery windfall had led to the spontaneous pre Christmas rejoicing. Many of those beaming at the camera and spraying champagne over each other had just become millionaires. However, the post Christmas cheers resounding through the streets of the tiny Castile village, Villar de Cañas, were in response to a government announcement that a nuclear waste storage facility was to be located close by. On hearing the news, the mayor, José María Sáiz, and a number of villagers gathered in the only bar for miles around, cheered wildly and raised their beer bottles to toast to a brighter future for the 450 inhabitants of the locality. Grinning at the television camera, Sáiz declared,
 “We have won the lottery, not once, but for sixty consecutive years.” This was not an opinion shared by “Disgusted from Cuenca” who phoned the nearby council offices protesting that the jubilant villagers were “subnormal”.
My initial reaction to the Villar de Cañas celebrations was incredulity. Surely, I must have misheard, misunderstood or missed a vital element in the story. But no, I hadn’t. These people really were overjoyed that the facility was coming to their town, where it is to remain for at least sixty years as home to around 6,700 tons of radioactive waste. For them the waste represents employment opportunities. Estimates suggest that 450 jobs will be created directly in the installation and a further 700 will be generated indirectly through work setting up the 750 million euro investment.
This is the first installation of its kind in Spain. Currently, waste generated by Spanish nuclear power stations is sent for storage to neighbouring France. That will change when Villar de Cañas opens its doors for business. The village had, along with seven other locations on the peninsula, put in a bid to host the facility and it won. For the decision makers in the Spanish government the fact that there are no railways linking Villar with the rest of the peninsula, meaning the radioactive material will have to be transported by road, and that there is a lack of qualified personnel in the locality were not significant obstacles. It was chosen regardless.
To my relief, they bypassed hopeful candidates like the nearby town of Ascó, in Tarragona province, in favour of Villar.* Disgruntled members of Ascó local council condemned the decision as politically motivated and are planning to appeal it. They may be right about the political motivation. The Villar de Cañas mayor represents the conservative ruling party, the PP, which was only elected to government last November … one month before the announcement that his town had won its bid to host the storage facility.
It is perhaps more likely that opposition was a key factor influencing the choice of Villar over other locations. The Catalan parliament was against opening the facility on its territory, in Ascó, and this can’t have gone down too well in Madrid. Furthermore, if I follow those suspicious thoughts of mine through the dark and murky hinterland that lies behind political decisions, I quickly come upon what could be the real reason why those disgruntled Catalan councillors in Ascó may be right. Local opposition to the facility in Villar is weak. On the very afternoon of the announcement 150 people joined a protest … in Cuenca, 75 kilometres away. That was it.
Spain is sunk beneath the worst economic crisis of the democratic era, and possibly even prior to it. In Villar de Cañas and neighbouring towns people desperate for jobs are muting whatever fears they might have about the danger of the installation. Mayor José María Sáiz remarked,
“Ecologists shouldn’t be so uptight about this. It’s not so bad. Dam it. There is a risk in everything in life …”
Television images of Villar have captured the desolate and deserted streets of a mid-winter Castile village that looks entirely uninviting. Abandoned by more than half its population, - young people who have left in search of jobs over the past four decades - Villar has become a ghost town. One of the villagers was quoted as saying,
“They talk about bringing a nuclear cemetery here. The cemetery was already here because the cemetery is the only thing that works in this place. The number of dead goes up while only one baby is born every two years.”
Locals are confident now that the promise of work will expand the population and inject new life into the village.
Once I had overcome my incredulity on hearing the news, my second impulse was to sneer at the naïveté of the villagers and their political representatives from the ranks of the disgusted. I wanted to ridicule these bumpkins but I couldn’t. Seeing those hopeful faces and listening to their expressions of trust in the decision makers saddened me. Only despair could have driven them to welcome nuclear waste into their neighbourhood. Economic circumstances, the crisis of unemployment, mounting debt and general hopelessness – as well as manipulating politicians – have all eroded their critical faculties. The long-standing healthy mistrust of authority that has been a catalyst for change throughout Spanish history was nowhere to be seen.
I leave the last word with Mayor Sáiz, who brushed aside unease about the decision, which he emphasised, has been “unanimously approved by deputies in parliament. Would they want something that is harmful for the people of Spain?”
Maybe someone should send that man on a junket to Fukishima in Japan.

*No reason to be smug here though. There are already three nuclear power stations in Tarragona province.