Archive | April, 2014

La Diada de Sant Jordi

Posted on 24 April 2014 by American expat!

Yesterday was the festival of Sant Jordi, celebrating the patron saint of Catalunya wherein people gift each other either a rose or a book. All over town, there are book stalls and flower stands set up on every corner, and in the city of Barcelona, there is a festival on the Rambla de Raval.

This long plaza is the home of one on my favorite sculptures, El Gato, by my favorite sculptor, Botero. I’ve never been able to get into the spirit of this day, probably because there already exists a Saint Valentine’s day and while the gifting of a book in theory is a good thing, I think Book Day should be more specific, like Literature day. Because useless people like Belen Esteban and Kim Kardashian have written books. But today I thought I would check out the celebration and go visit my favorite fat cat.

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Botero’s cat, Rambla de Raval

The street market was much like any other, with artisan soaps, jewelry and handmade clothing with lots of big buttons, panels of avocado green material and piped edges on asymmetrical dresses and shoulder bags among the book and rose sellers. 

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This little public area is an oblong slice surrounded by a bike lane, then a  one way street, both of which loop continuously around the long center island. Shops and restaurants backdrop either side of the tree lined ovoid, with their outdoor seating on the island, requiring the waiters to navigate through first car and then bicycle traffic while balancing full trays.

I rode my bike around half of the oval,  braking for a few waiters and taking in the activities. The trees today were shedding pollen like nobody’s business, catching in my throat, sneaking behind my sunglasses into my eyes, and making me stop more than once as a fit of violent sneezes took me over. I decided to walk my bike through the rest of the festival to avoid breathing in any more evil pollen than necessary. At then end of the island, I can upon the worst band I’ve ever seen in real life. They were a group of young guys on a temporary stage with a mess of plastic chairs set up in front of it. The guitarist and bassman played about a half beat behind the drummer, who was inconsistent in his rhythm and seemed to be playing too slowly for what the presumable energetic tune called for.  Then another guy joined in – a horrible, off-key whine escaped from his face into the microphone. At first I thought he was playing a kazoo, but then he started moving his lips and words were formed and I realized that he was singing. I put my earphone back into my ears and walked my bike back up the other side of the island.

People everywhere carried roses in plastic with a sprig of what looked like wheat cozied alongside the long stem and peeping from the conical opening at the top. Women mostly carried them in their hands, presumably having received them as gifts, while men seemed to be transporting them – they hung out of backpacks, stuck out from bag tops and were cradled in arm crooks.

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I saw far fewer books being carried, but that could be because once purchased they were put away, unlike the roses. There certainly were plenty of book stands being perused. Those who were not shopping relaxed in the outdoor seating of the restaurants, sat on benches and planter edges with plastic cups of beer, or looked around for their friends. This event would go on into the night, where presumably there would be better bands on the stage and far more people.

This day has been celebrated even before its official adoption into a constitution in the cathedral of Barcelona in 1456 declaring Sant Jordi as a festival day. Gifting roses goes back to the 15th century, though the original reason why has been lost. Books, on the other hand, were only incorporated in 1926, when Spain declared the 23rd April as Book Day (this day was chosen as it is the anniversary of the death of  the Spanish writer Cervantes), which also happened to be Sant Jordi. So today we have two festivals rolled into one.

Yes, it is sweet to be recognized with a rose or a book, and I have received both on various occasions, but being a decidedly non religious person, which is the other part of the day-the celebration of a saint- I am not particularly moved by Sant Jordi. Perhaps it was because I’m not a fan of beer, or the astonishingly bad band on the stage, or the lack of an Argentinian restaurant with good empanadas nearby (I was craving them) – whatever the case, I decided that I had seen enough.

I said goodbye to the fat cat and took my leave, sneezing.

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Why so late?

Posted on 20 April 2014 by American expat!

lateMy friends and family (those who have not visited Spain) are bewildered when they call and find me just sitting down to dinner at 10pm. I assure them that this is 1) standard in Spain, and 2) that I’m not trying to conform to any kind of Spanish timetable. Because 10pm feels about right for dinner, because everything happens later here.

There is an explanation for this, maybe you already know it. It’s that Spain uses the same time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy. But Spain is geographically aligned with Portugal and Britain, which live life in Coordinated Universal Time. So in fact the clocks here are ‘wrong’ – according to where the sun is in the sky and also according to what my body thinks.

This is because Fransisco Franco (the country’s dictator from 1939 to 1975), during WWII, set clocks forward to align with Nazi Germany. Portugal also changed the clocks ahead during the second World War, but returned to UCT (then called Greenwich Mean Time) after the defeat of Hitler. But Spain kept the same time with Germany, presumably because Franco was a jerk and held tight to his fascist values.

Over time, Spain’s culture adapted to this time change in the form of breakfast breaks for workers (there isn’t time enough in the morning at home for breakfast), lunches from around 2-4 in the afternoon, which is the same time businesses close for siesta, though this is entirely flexible and dependent on the discretion of the owner but is generally for 2-3 hours between 1pm and 5pm. This long lunch/siesta pushes closing hours late into the evening, as workers are only returning to work around 4pm. So kicking off work happens anywhere between 6 and 9pm. And this is why dinner is not unusual at 10pm.

The good side of this is that things stay open later, unlike other European countries where everything is locked tight at 6pm. No, I can roll out of my office at 9:15pm and now that I still have 15 minutes before the post office down the street closes, then after that can pop into Carrefour for some, um, salad (OK I mean American cookies and wine) before heading riding a bike home. If it is summer, I can head to the beach at 7pm and still catch some rays and have a swim before the sun sets at 9:45pm.

Spain is talking about reverting to their actual geographical time zone, positing that it will make a more efficient workforce (with this I completely agree) as well as allow working parents to have time with their children in the evenings, though I question the necessity for this last point as children never seem to go to bed here, they are still running frenzied around plazas and yelling from their strollers at midnight.

I know visitors are bewildered to find most restaurants are not yet open for dinner at 8pm, and cafes not yet open for a coffee at 8 or even 9am. New expats have a tough time with late lunches and dinners, though most–if not all–adapt quickly and find themselves loving the late lifestyle. I find it easy to switch between a US schedule and Spanish one, probably because the lifestyles are so different – but also because the clocks here are ‘wrong’.

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