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.