Friday, 21 December 2007

Bon Nadal!

I usually send quite a lot of Christmas cards and were planning to do so even this year. During the sunny days of early December we went down to Platja de Ribes Roges to arrange a nice family picture.

Although I have been living in countries where palm trees grow naturally for seven years by now, they remain exotic to me. The same day we took the pictures, we ordered cards over the Internet, but still have not received them. Even if they turn up tomorrow Saturday, friends and family will have our cards late this year. We can not blame anyone else – it is we who have messed things up.

What luck that I can send out a greeting by means of this blog. Merry Christmas!

So Much to Learn

My wife and I both did our university studies at Lund – a small town with Sweden’s most beautiful cathedral. In there, during Advent, they build up their Christmas crib in an elaborate new way every year. That is quite an exception in a Protestant country where cribs tend to be aimed only for children and, honestly, very uninspired.

Here in Catholic Catalonia things are different. To house the biggest crib of Vilanova the local crib builders’ association erects a special building on Plaça de la Vila. This year they have created a mountainous landscape with real water in a little stream. Already before looking into it, my oldest son told me that there would be one oxen and one mule, not more nor less. That is apparently common knowledge. People like I, who thought that the holy family was the only critical detail, obviously have a thing or two to learn.

I Was Wrong

I have felt sure that Catalans would show their discontent with Zapatero in next year’s March elections. An opinion poll published today suggests that I am totally wrong. Catalans are worried about the state of infrastructure here, but do not seem to hold the government responsible. Instead, PSC reach their best poll figures ever.

Pro-Spain columnists will want to interpret the figures as a proof that there exists a silent majority against an independent Catalonia - both right wing Catalanistes CiU and left wing equivalents ERC get lower figures than in the latest parliamentary elections. However, this is contradicted by the fact that PPC, proportionally, lose even more and that newcomers Ciutadans do not seem to take off.

The only winners are in fact Zapatero’s socialists - a surprise Christmas gift from Catalonia.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Catalan Songs Better Than Swedish Ones

Last week my wife tried to convince our oldest son to take part in the Santa Lucia procession of the Scandinavian Club. She did not have a chance since he claimed not to like to sing together with other children.

That was last week. Today, he and his class put up their Christmas play. The story was about all the people and animals who come to greet the newborn in Bethlehem, but also about a spider who surprises everybody with the beauty of its golden web. Our son has talked a lot about this during the last few weeks. Time after time have I heard him rehearse the verses in Catalan by himself. In the play he suddenly had no problem at all to sing with the other pupils. We did not comment on it – we were too busy being proud.

A Little Dog Makes the Difference

We live close to Barcelona but Vilanova is laid-back and not very trendy. This we usually appreciate since it makes everyday life easier. Today, my wife and I had dressed up just slightly for our oldest son’s Christmas play. I am confident that strangers who noticed us on our way there, took us for visitors to the town, although we spoke with low voices.

On our way back we brought our son with us and then it is difficult not to reveal our foreign background. We only speak Swedish in the family and our oldest boy can be loud when he is in that mood. However, this time we felt totally integrated and I am confident that nobody who saw us doubted about where we live. Very few tourists bring their child dressed up as a cocker spaniel.

Monday, 17 December 2007

First Meeting with a ‘Live’ Santa Claus

Our two-year-old is being indoctrinated with the magic of Santa Claus. At home, his older brother cannot stop talking about him. On our short walk to kindergarten, we pass by two shops with mixed merchandize, and ‘Santa Claus climbing a ladder’ must be their best-selling product this year. To my oldest son’s disappointment, we are one of few Vilanova households who still do not have one hanging from our balcony. Now the same shops offer the ‘human size Santa Claus moving his hips while singing Jingle Bells’. I fear that he will soon start to turn up at school entrances and supermarkets, since it is obvious that many people are unable to resist buying anything which is cheap.

None of this mental preparation helped when the ‘live’ version visited the Scandinavian Club today. “Ledsen” (sad) was how our younger one summed up the event.

Rare But Regular Church Attendance

As most modern Swedish families, we are not actively religious. I have to admit that while living in Sweden, my wife and I never went to mass together. Still, here in Catalonia our children will grow up with parents who visit church regularly, albeit only once a year.

Saturday 14, the Scandinavian Club of Barcelona held its traditional Christmas mass. The simple but intimate German church (C/ Brusi), which we borrow for the event, was as packed as always. The program was a well balanced mix of a religious mass, a Santa Lucia procession, choir singing and psalms in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. I do not think that Scandinavian ex-patriates are more fervent believers than those who remain in our home countries. So, is it so that we are more concerned about maintaining traditions or do we only have a stronger urge to remind ourselves that we are not alone?

Enjoying a Sunny Christmas

We were not too happy to see our two-year-old breaking a flower pot as soon as he came out on the balcony today. Neither did we think it was a great idea for him to then play with the soil, but had to give in. It has, after all, been quite some time since he last had a chance to play in the sand and today it was really warm in the sun.

This year we are spoiled with a sunny December but at the same time go through the most traditional Advent which we have had for years. So what does this make me realize? Well, above all that we do not need snow for a true Christmas atmosphere. It rather is about experiencing it all from a child’s perspective. With a four-year-old who is old enough to observe, analyse and remember, but still young enough to fully believe in Santa Claus, we very much do.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

IKEA instead of Goethe

There is the German Goethe Institut, the British Council and the Alliance Française, all promoting these nation’s languages and culture to other people. The Chinese recently started up Confucius Institutes with the same mission. We Swedes do not have anything of the kind or, rather, that is how it seems at first sight.

In reality we have IKEA and I doubt that any other country’s institutions can match their rate of expansion. Very few of the products they sell are manufactured in Sweden, but we do not care. There still is something Scandinavian about their design and the botiga sueca as well as the restaurants offer some of our national specialties to the whole world.

This is where our chamber of commerce organizes its traditional Christmas party and lets us enjoy Corallerna’s Santa Lucia procession. A home away from home for Swedish ex-patriates.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Budesca at La Sala – a counterweight to the cold weather

Our local centre of modern art La Sala currently presents H2O aigua by Vilanova artist Joaquim Budesca. Other artists might paint dark, dangerous and dramatic seas. Budesca, as I see it, successfully limits himself to the play of sunlight and currents among stones in shallow waters. Warm colours serve as a reminder about the nice climate we have here. The current drop in temperatures will not last forever.

My oldest son starts to like La Sala, but the reason is the open space rather than the art in itself. Budesca did, however, manage to catch his attention with some rather abstract paintings in white and black - very different from the detailed and colourful pieces which were my personal favorites.

The exhibition will hang until January 20, 2008. It is well worth more than one visit.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The best thing about Catalan nationalism

In a few weeks, we will see the birth of an independent Kosovo, with the support of the EU and the USA. Interestingly enough, Spain happens to be one of the few EU countries which strongly opposes this.

I am the first to agree that many culturally strong regions can not flourish within today’s national borders. However, the solution I favour is a stronger role of the regions within the EU, rather than a bigger and bigger number of small nation states.

In Spain, Kosovo’s coming independence will for sure re-ignite the debate about Catalonia’s future status. There might exist a silent minority againt independence, as some politicians claim, but I am not sure any longer. What I do know, however, is that compared with former Yugoslavia on the one hand, and Basque Country ETA’s violent separatism, on the other, Catalans can pride themselves for peaceful and democratic methods. Visca Catalunya!

Monday, 10 December 2007

Time to be Swedish, or at least Scandinavian

I put on Navidad con los Lunnis while we started to decorate our apartment for Christmas. My oldest son immediately told me that his favourite song was Campanas de Belén (Campana sobre campana) - I did not even know that he knew the song. At the same time, his younger brother was dancing, repeatedly screaming molt bé in front of one of the loudspeakers. How good that Christmas will bring us several occasions to underline the Swedish side of our background. We would love to see our oldest son participating in his first Lucia procession, but he is far from thrilled with the idea. However, we certainly do look forward to seing the younger one's face when Santa Claus turns up at the children’s Christmas party organized by the Club Escandinavo de Barcelona. Which feeling will prevail - fascination or fear?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Joaquim Blume – World Class Gymnastics in Vilanova

Last weekend, Saturday November 10, the 32nd Joaquim Blume Memorial competition in gymnastics took place here in Vilanova. It is a true pleasure to have a chance to see world class gymnasts without having to leave home. Let us hope that Vilanova can continue to be one of the strongholds of Spanish gymnastics.

Fifty years ago, in 1957, Catalan Joaquim Blume won the title as European Champion of Gymnastics, beating legends like Yuriy Titov, Russia, and Max Benker, Switzerland. In 1959, Mr. Blume perished in an airplane accident but since 1969 the Federació Catalana de Gimnàstica honours his memory through an annual competition, the oldest and most prestigious competition in Spanish gymnastics.

The Memorial Joaquim Blume always takes place in the province of Barcelona and for the last few years it has been arranged in the Pavellò Municipal del Garraf here in Vilanova i la Geltrú. Last year was the first time I personally found my way to the it and although I liked what I saw back then, only this year was I truly impressed.

The competition in itself has a compressed and audience friendly format. There is no total winner so the focus in on the individual disciplines (for men six and for women four), of which each participant can decide to take part in two or three. This results in a punctuality we are not used to in this country – two and a half hours after the beginning we saw the prize ceremony start, exactly as of schedule. Apparently, we were 1.500 people in the audience, a statistics partly improved by the fact that there had been competitions for younger gymnasts in the hall earlier during the day. A comprehensive program and an improved result screen compared to last year, made it all easy to follow.

This year, the Chinese participants stood out. In the men’s competition, Xen Yibing, double World Champion in rings, easily won that discipline with a breath taking show of strength, while on the women’s side, Li Shanshan was the winner of the floor exercise and the beam. Although there were several participants from the national teams of Russia, the Ukraine and Romania, the Spanish gymnasts proved to be in a very good shape. Almost local Melodie Pulgarín (she is from Martorell) won the asymmetric bars and the vault on the women’s side and while Isaac Botella (Alacant) and Sergio Muñoz (Madrid) won one discipline each. Frenchman Yann Cucherat, with his 28 years one of the oldest participants, won the high bar and the parallel bars.

I certainly did not know anything about Vilanova’s history in Spanish gymnastics when I moved here, but since I come from a family with a strong involvement in Swedish gymnastics, I was happy to discover that our new home town has produced several Olympic Games participants of this sport.

What Vilanova mayor Joan Ignasi Elena thought about the international top gymnasts who took part in the competition, I can not tell. However, he was standing at attention, radiating with pride, while a group of gymnasts from our local club made performance a as an intermezzo before the prize ceremony started. So, I dare to conclude that gymnastics has at least one very influential fan here in the town.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Fira de Novembre starting to grow on me

Vilanova is a relatively unimportant satellite in the gravitation field of Barcelona. Currently we go through an especially difficult period, since communications with the metropolitan area are heavily disturbed. One way to remain optimistic about the future of our town is to change the perspective and a look at what it has to offer in itself. This weekend, the Fira de Novembre was literally impossible to avoid.

I have always liked exhibitions as a chance for a company to present its products to people who have not yet heard of it. Still, I have had difficulties to appreciate earlier versions of Vilanova’s multi-sectoral outdoor exhibition Fira de Novembre since I never understood who was the target group. My four-year-old son was the first person to start to change my perception of this annual event. Cars make up a dominating part of the fair since physically they take up a lot of space. For people with pushchairs, pavements here are often too narrow and normally the Rambla is one of the few areas where you can move freely. During the fira, however, walking there feels like slalom skiing between cars and people. I tried to find alternative routes in the small streets but then my oldest son firmly stopped me from doing so. To him, the Rambla turned car showroom was nothing but an adventure.

This week’s issue of Diari de Vilanova made my feelings for the fair develop further. In an interesting interview with Josep-Tomàs Álvaro, our Councillor of Local Development, did I first get a background to the big number of car dealers – they replace the agricultural machines which historically used to be presented here. Except for that I learnt that what our ajuntament tries to reinforce, is not the very disparate commercial side of the Fira de Novembre, but rather the popular and festive aspects.

So Saturday November 10, I tried to keep an open mind while exploring the different stands. To say that I liked a lot of what I saw would be to lie, but finally have I learnt to accept that that is not the point. By definition, in a fair of this kind you will have to look for your own favourite spots. I found at least three worth mentioning.

I liked to learn about restaurants where I have not been yet and it is to be regretted that so few local restaurants see a value in promoting themselves during the fair. Even more did I like the estand municipal presenting photos of the town’s latest developments projects, although I found it quite deceitful to include pictures of the Teatre Prinicpal. Those should be reserved for 2009 when, apparently, it might finally start to look decent not only from selected angles. Finally and most of all did I appreciate the atmosphere in Plaça d’Enric Cristòfol Ricart where organisations of the town had a chance to present their activities. I was very impressed by the precision and energy of taekwondo club Chois Vilanova as well as the thought through performance by Flow-Center, but also with the big number of Vilanovins who had turned up to watch.

Since the terraces on the Rambla were closed to give space for the cars, what I truly missed was a chance to sit down to let the children have a snack without leaving the fair. My vision would be to have a tent with a food court where people can shop around in different stands but then sit down and eat in a common area; a chance to be together and explore new things at the same time. That ought to be in line with the ajuntament’s festive objectives for the event. Our Fira de Novembre might never be interesting enough to attract big groups of outsiders to come here, but I think that it already helps to foster a unique Vilanova spirit. That is good enough.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Zapatero’s high speed loss of Catalonia

My wife and I do not particularly agree with the political program of CUP, a small left wing party advocating an independent Catalonia. Still, yesterday we decided to join their demonstration to show our support for the message Estem farts! (We have had enough!), from Vilanova to Spanish prime minister Zapatero. What we are fed up with this time is not the Spanish state in general but more concretely with the government’s latest fiasco.

In Spanish politics, centralism as opposed to regionalism forms a dividing line almost as strong as the ideological one. Generally speaking, the incumbent socialist central government can usually count on the passive support from all Catalan political forces, from the left to the right. The only exception is Partit Popular - the Catalan branch of the main opposition party - but their strongly centralist agenda renders them a weak role in this autonomy-minded region. A close cut race is expected for next spring's elections to the Spanish parliament. Zapatero’s government has a lead in the polls but his recent mismanagement of problems related to the AVE (Spain’s high speed train) undermines that in a region which he can hardly afford to lose.

To me, the AVE project seems sadly politicized from the beginning. The first line to be opened was Madrid-Sevilla and before the end of this year the Spanish capital will also be connected to Malaga and Valladolid. The highly symbolic connection to the state’s second largest city, Barcelona, will be completed only in 2008. Were it only for the historical delays of this project, Zapatero’s earlier promise to have it inaugurated before Christmas this year, would only seem naïve. Now, with the soil subsiding under the tracks, the competence of his government is seriously being questioned.

Two weeks ago, railway traffic was suspended in the Bellvitge area, the entry into Barcelona. With open holes in the ground, the government did the only thing possible - that is to give priority to the safety of the travellers and the construction workers. People now have to change from train to special buses taking them around the affected zone. In the most heavily trafficked part of the whole Spanish railway network the consequences of such a manoeuvre are dire. When 100.000 daily travellers are moved to buses, ordinary roads collapse from congestion and all at once has the government made sure that nobody escapes the hassle.

And painful it is, indeed, not the least for us out here in Vilanova. When my family moved here, a train journey to Barcelona took 40 minutes. During this year, we have seen that increase to 50 minutes as of standard and on top of that have had a number of big delays due to power cuts or minor accidents caused by the AVE construction works. Comments in our local newspaper reveal that irritation was running high already before the train traffic was cut off completely. These days, people like my wife, who takes the train to work in Barcelona, spend a minimum of 3 hours a day commuting. To make matters worse, until now, nobody has wanted to tell for how long we will have to endure this extraordinary situation.

Tomorrow, November 5, Zapatero has promised to inform on when the commuter trains will again start to operate as of schedule. Whatever his message will be, he can expect severe criticism from the whole range of Catalan politicians. The comments from PP, and possibly those from right-wing CiU and extreme left ERC, he might be able to disregard. However, this time he had better act on what we hope to hear from his fellow socialist Montilla, president of the Generalitat, and Joan Ignasi Elena, the mayor of Vilanova i la Geltrú. During the latest month, Zapatero has repeatedly made his local party leaders seem embarrassingly powerless. To describe what the inhabitants of Catalonia now feel about the central government, Estem farts! is clearly an understatement.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Jou Nou – a true second hand car dealer

The process to buy a second hand car is full of question marks. It does not help that car dealers are portrayed as crooks in all movies. To know whom you can trust is a challenge for everyone and being a foreigner certainly does not make it any easier.

Ideally, the market for second hand cars is perfect – the summaries of models and their production years show as much variations as the prices. However, a lack of knowledge about what you are buying makes it everything but transparent, something that rapidly struck my wife and me when we recently decided on a car. And right after that did we understand that those of our friends who possess some level of expertise on the matter live far away from here.

For two risk avert Swedes it felt like swimming in open waters but we found a first contact with solid ground in Spanish consumer law. According to this, authorized car dealers have to sell second hand cars with a 1-year guarantee providing the customer with quite extensive rights (at least during the first 6 months of ownership). This was enough to convince us to stay with the professionals and not go through the classifieds you find in media. A consequence of the law is that professional dealers avoid old cars, since living up to the guarantee is too expensive compared to the price you can charge. In fact, most second hand dealers here pride themselves of working only with selected semi-new cars which they seem to sell with a standard discount of 20% versus the price of a new car of the same model.

That was above our budget for the model we had in mind, so we were happy to find JouNou (Rambla de Garraf) where they work also with older cars (five years seems to be the oldest), but that is not the only advantage. The company is the official concessionary of, among others, Opel and SAAB, but have a rich second hand supply of all brands and models. We were happy to be received by salesman who was accommodating but not pushy. From the first moment he made a solid impression by taking down all questions which he could not answer on the spot in order to come back with answers later on, which he infallibly also did.

When we had made our pick and it was time for me to test drive and check up on the car, the salesman left me in peace to do so largely by myself, something I greatly appreciated. Social people who do not know too much about cars will most likely buy someone who does a cup of coffee and then bring that person to let him comment on the possible object. Introvert ones will prefer impersonal advice on the Internet compiled by related authorities and well-known consumer organisations. Living up to the prejudice about Swedes I, of course, did the latter and spent quite some time ticking off items in printed out checklists, in Swedish as well as in Spanish. To work with lists in two languages is worth recommending to anyone who is not a native speaker. On the one hand you need to fully grasp what you are actually checking, but at the same time you then need to be able to ask and comment about it in Spanish.

It is too early to make any comments on how the car will work long term, but so far we are very content. It was delivered not only with a new coating but also impeccably cleaned. To our oldest son it is better than a new car, since it does not smell of plastic. An additional advantage of having bought the car from a dealer is that the paperwork to register us as new owners forms part of the purchase contract. That service clearly has a higher value to immigrants like us than to locals who know the routines here.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Cursa Popular – more popular than ever

One of Vilanova’s best sides are the conditions and facilities for outdoor sports, so it is suitable that we have a local running race through the town. It attracts a lot of people. My only question is where do they all come from?

On Saturday October 21, el Club Esportiu de Vilanova i la Geltrú organised the annual Cursa Popular. The 7 km main race does not require too big an effort of regular joggers and the 1,5 km Minicursa, which parents and children can run together, is also an interesting format. This year, the race had its starting point in Plaça del Mercat. In spite of some quite tasteful public art, this square is an eyesore when it is empty but that was certainly not the case this day. In total, 1.626 had signed up to participate and that exceeded the organisers’ target.

We are not new in Vilanova any longer, so when I learnt that this was the 29th Cursa Popular, I fell a bit ashamed for having taken part for the first time. I can not understand how I have managed to miss it the last two years, not only since I like jogging but also since the route turned out to be a well planned presentation of our town.

On the Rambla we passed by people having a coffee at the outdoor cafes. After that we reached the fresh air, but fortunately enough no strong wind, at the marina, followed by the beach promenade of Ribes-Roges. By the time we turned back towards the centre I must admit to feeling a bit disappointed with the amount of runners who overtook me but then discovered my wife and children who had come to cheer on me. This gave me new forces to run through the old parts of Vilanova and then follow what I assume must have once been the wall street of la Geltrú. My original intention was to start spurting when coming back to the Rambla, but my strengths failed me so I only did so when I saw the beautiful Mercat building in front of me.

My result was far from impressive but I blame that on a nasty cold. The entrepà and sports drink served at the finishing line soon made me forget my suffering. Next year my oldest son will be five years old, so maybe I will be nicer on myself and run the Minicursa together with him instead. Since it goes through streets which he knows well I will be able to challenge him up to the next toy store in case he gets exhausted.

The only thing that puzzles me a bit with the Cursa Popular is where all the participants came from. Vilanova is a small town, and until now I have been under the impression that I start to recognize people here. Faces I spot when walking around in the pedestrian area also turn up during the carnaval and the festa major. However, among my fellow runners I found very few people whom I am sure to have seen before. Are we so divided in our town that we either take part in local street life and culture or do sports? If so, I will have to accept being odd, because I feel connected to both groups.

My first Cursa Popular left me with one special memory. When the start shot went off and the big crowd started to move - everybody dressed in the same green t-shirt - a strong sense of belonging came over me. Was it that emotion that made me feel a tear forming in one of my eyes? Am I really so pathetic or was I just blinded by the bright sunshine?

Monday, 22 October 2007

Adult students depend on volunteers for practice

A popular method for learning a new language is to spend time in a place where it is naturally spoken. There, you usually do not help from the authorities to get verbal practice. In Catalonia, the regional government offers this service for students of Catalan. My own experience reveals that, unfortunately, it is needed.

When checking out the Generalitat’s services related to Catalan studies I was positively surprised to find the program Voluntariat per la llengua. In this, students are offered one-to-one conversation classes with native speakers and since the latter do this on a voluntary basis, the program is free of charge. Your only commitments are to only speak Catalan and to have ten meetings, preferably on a weekly basis. This summer, I finally had the time to join and last week did I have the tenth and last meeting with Ramon, with whom I formed my first, so called, linguistic couple.

Before meeting Ramon for the first time I was very nervous. Up to then, I had learnt Catalan through self-studies and had little experience of speaking the language. I did not need to worry, because he was fast to adapt to my level. Somehow we found ways to have fruitful discussions on everything from Catalan culture to history and local politics. Except for that, we explored Vilanova’s small neighbour town Sant Pere de Ribes, since that was where we used to meet. Looking back, I am very content with Voluntariat per la llengua and wish to extend my thanks to the Servei de Català of Vilanova for the fast processing of my application and, even more so, to Ramon for all his time and energy.

The fact that I have relatively few natural opportunities to practise Catalan frustrates me, and that is why I come back something which I have already commented on in an earlier blog entry. In my local supermarket, where the staff recognise me thanks to my sometimes not so quiet children, I have reached ideal conditions for language learning. The shop assistants answer me in Catalan, unless they see that I do not understand. When that happens, they temporarily recur to Spanish, but then return to Catalan for the rest of the conversation. However, still today this is an exception.

When I moved to Catalonia, my Spanish was poor. More than once did to talk to shop assistants who did not even try to conceal how bored they were to deal with yet another inarticulate foreigner. And I do not blame them. To communicate with people who do not speak properly slows us down and increases the risk for mistakes, neither of which is rewarded in a work situation. Still, since it was these people’s job to deal with my business they never had any alternative but to follow through with the conversation.

My Catalan today is far better than my Spanish was back then, but I meet with little patience when I use it. An incorrectly conjugated verb can be enough to trigger a switch to Spanish, although the people I talk to seem to prefer Catalan not only with other customers but also with their colleagues. This is quite discouraging for a person who tries to learn a new language.

When I bring this up with Catalans, even young people claim to have been taught that it is good manners to speak Spanish to non-Catalans. I question how it can possibly be considered poor manners to answer a person in the same language which he or she uses to address you and think that this is first and foremost a comfortable excuse for an example of the principle of the smallest resistance. My impression is that while many Catalans complain that their language is being threatened, surprisingly few of them take the opportunity to promote it to new speakers. There is no need to be a voluntari per la llengua to do so – all it takes is to answer the few Catalan speaking foreigners one meets in daily life in this language and not in Spanish. Admittedly, the risk for misunderstandings might increase slightly, but is it not worth that?

Returning to the program Voluntariat per la llengua, as of what I have heard, in Barcelona they arrange big get-togethers in order for the linguistic couples to feel that they are a part of a bigger community. Well, I think I got a better deal out here in Garraf, where there was nothing special about Ramon and me. We were another two people chatting in Catalan while enjoying a cup of coffee in the shade. Although I originally met Ramon in a formal way, it felt as if we were just like everybody else. Now, is that not what integration is all about?

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Matthew Tree – writer found niche market

An Englishman who as an adult decides to learn Catalan and reaches such proficiency that he can nowadays earn his living as a writer of his adopted language - that is quite a remarkable personality. However, not all interesting writers write good stories.

In literary theory there are many things which the experts disagree about, but in one aspect there is almost consensus; when analysing a text you are to work with it in its own right while leaving the author and his intentions to the side. If I apply this perspective to the two books which I have recently read by Matthew Tree, I feel that there is not much substance left. At the same time, since Mr Tree rarely describes anything without revealing a firm opinion about it, I believe to have learnt a lot about him as a person. Admittedly, I am not yet the right person to evaluate how well he makes use of the Catalan language, but neither do I feel comfortable with his story-telling technique, nor with is selection of topics and details to comment on. Therefore I am happy to have read the books in Catalan and thus, at least, had a chance to practise my new language.

In CAT – Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix, Mr Tree describes what he experiences during a 30-day roundtrip by public transport in the geographic region of Catalonia. To some places he goes for the first time, while to others he has already been and decides to come back. He meets quite a number of people, a few of them being old friends but the majority being random encounters.

Whether Catalonia exists as a cultural entity is indeed an intriguing question for anyone who arrives here as an immigrant and wants to be integrated into local society. I was hoping that this book would offer Mr Tree’s point of view on which places I ought to go to understand, let us say, the 'soul' of Catalonia. Unfortunately, it does not and I believe the reason for that to be all the time spent on explaining travel itineraries, the author’s mood or the background of his friends. There simply is not enough energy left for telling us about the places the author visits and even less how they contribute to the alleged objective of the book - i.e. to see whether Catalonia exists.

In La puta feina we are being presented examples from Barcelona on how deceitful, lazy or sexist bosses ruin the lives of their employees. Mr Tree repeatedly reinforces his message that we should liberate ourselves from the humiliating jobs where so many of us spend a big share of our time. Only in the very last pages of the book, where he outlines a soluciò final - a realistic alternative to paid work - did I finally find something which I recognized as fresh and original. Many a writer has been inspired by the problematic relationship which exists between employers and their staff. To me, Mr Tree’s stereotypical and superficial reflections on the matter would possibly be enjoyable in a blog, but I can not understand how someone could agree to publish them as a book.

Some people seem to think that Mr Tree would be able to earn more money if he would write in English, but I think that it is the other way around. Like any creative entrepreneur, he has built a niche for himself in being a foreigner but writing in Catalan and that is what makes his books sell. To use myself as an example, if I buy further books by Mr Tree, it will not be for their literary qualities, but only because I am interested in him as a phenomenon. And that special status, I judge, could only ever be achieved in a language like Catalan, with a strong craving for international recognition. I dare to bet that no Swedish publisher would ever treat a foreigner writing in Swedish in this benevolent way and I interpret the fact that Mr Tree’s books have not been translated to other languages as an indication that I am right.

A few days ago, Mr Tree launched a new book where, apparently, he proves that God does not exist – a topic which I am usually easily motivated to read about. However, I want for such delicate a matter to be treated with a level of seriousness that I have not seen in Mr Tree's aforementioned books and I am confident that that he has no intention to change his style. For his skills in Catalan and also for his success in making a living of something he likes to do, Matthew Tree is an inspiring example. Chapeau! Having said that, before I buy his new book I will remind myself to see it as a discussion on the life, needs and body functions of its author - and not at all about the existence of God.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Learning a new language – maintaining motivation

As I see it, time and motivation are the two most important factors for those who want to learn a language, much more important than individual capacity. I have already discussed the importance of creating time for the new language, since it is the aspect that I consider most people to disregard. But time without motivation does not take us anywhere. So what do I do to stay motivated?

I know of many people who have learnt one or several languages so well that they occasionally are taken for native speakers. If asked, all of these people would say that reaching that level of fluency has taken a lot of efforts. New languages can not be learnt without a true commitment, and that is why many adult learners fail. The busier we are, the more difficult is it to be motivated for projects where progress is slow.

Since many adults lament that children learn languages faster than us, let us take a look at how we differ in motivation. Adults analyze and then prioritise needs while children are direct. My sons, who are one and a half and four years old, respectively, learn Catalan by social necessity. Since people they meet in school do not speak Swedish, they adapt without much questioning. For my wife and me, on the other hand, motivation does not come by itself. We know that Catalan is good to know for daily life here, but also that it is far from indispensable. To complicate matters further, we are aware that there is a trade-off, at least short term; should we learn two languages at the same time, with the risk of mixing them up due to similarities, or rather first strive for perfection in Spanish and subsequently let that be our bridge into Catalan? No wonder we are much more likely to lose motivation than our sons are.

As readers of this blog will understand, I have already made up my mind to learn Catalan although I am still far from fluent in Spanish. To succeed as adult learners we must make a firm decision to learn a language and then immediately capitalize as much as possible on the energy of the initial impulse. Learning new words is hardly fun, but is an absolute must in any language. It is therefore my advice to dedicate the first weeks solely to the vocabulary of the target language, and come back to basic grammar or simplified dialogues only later on. Personally, I collect as many ready-made glossaries as I can find and then start to memorize words. To search up additional words by oneself at this stage is a waste of time since all important words sooner or later turn up in the glossaries. It is equally futile to exclude words only because they do not seem important or too difficult. Let us be honest, if our motivation is so weak that we feel relief in removing two words from a list of 100, we will never manage to learn all the words needed to master a language.

Fortunately enough for my Catalan, I have come through the toughest stage, that is achieving basic vocabulary. I will, occasionally, go back to glossaries to learn new words but rarely do so to revise words which I have already learnt once. I simply consider that too boring. My method for maintaining the vocabulary which I have already achieved is to read a lot, newspapers as well as books. Admittedly, this is a low-intensive way to refresh a certain set of words. However, at least for me, it is a kind of quality exposure to the new language, which I am easily motivated for, since the focus switches from learning the language to making use of it. The important thing to remember in order for this method to work is to concentrate on content and not on the individual words. Any text made for native speakers will be full of vocabulary which we do not yet master and we have to force ourselves to accept that. If we do not, but expect to have a perfect vocabulary before we start to read, we extend the time before we can make use of the new language. For an adult learner, that is an unnecessary risk to motivation.

It will sound like heresy to some, but does it really matter if we miss out on some of the meaning in a book we read? My wife and I have both recently read La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. While I stayed with the Spanish original version, she gave up and switched to the Swedish translation. I admit that there are several details and descriptions in the novel which she, most likely, has understood better than I, but I can live with that. After all, none of us will have to pass a test on what we remember from the book. Except for that, because I read at a slower speed, my experience of reading the text lasted longer. This even my wife was jealous about since we both loved the novel.

I prefer reading, since it allows for me to go about at my own pace, but that is purely a matter of taste. For those who do not like books, thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of alternative tools. From our home we today have access to radio, TV and films in virtually all foreign languages. Look back ten years and you will realize what a fantastic development there has been in the conditions for learning a new language without any travelling. The tools are there, however, as before it remains a personal challenge to find our individual ways to create the time and build the motivation to make use of them.

Post scriptum: In spite of my strong drive to learn languages, there have been times in my life when I have been so discouraged that I have temporarily given up. How to gain back motivation in case you lose it, is a topic I will come back to in a later text.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

La Caixa - so great and still late

The savings bank La Caixa is in a class of its own here in Catalonia. No matter how you measure it (capital flows, number of branch offices etc) it is many times bigger than its closest competitor. Its brand name stands for professionalism. Well, at least most of the time.

During the last few months, La Caixa has been preparing for the public offer of Criteria Caixa Corp, an entity which above all will hold and develop the group’s international activities. There has been less media coverage of the event than I expected, but at least all people who watch the nine o’clock news on TVE1 will have seen the classy but abstract advertising. I also assume that most customers of the savings bank, like my own family, will have been approached personally by the staff of the local branch as well as through messages on La Caixa’s web-pages.

In July, when we first heard about the IPO plans, my wife and I decided that we would invest. Then followed the big credit crunch of the summer and our interest faded away. We never doubted about the project as such, but neither did we feel an urge to invest in bank shares while the consequences of the US sub-prime mortgage crash are still unclear. La Caixa is not exactly known for giving away things for free, so we are confident that the initial price for private investors like us will not have much of a discount. “But if we invest we might finally be motivated to follow the stock exchange here”, my wife said and so, in the end, we decided to take a chance. Yesterday, October 2, I signed the power of attorney so that the branch office can subscribe some shares in my name.

All activities a company undertakes can influence its brand name. Today, by ordinary post, I received a standardized letter from La Caixa, reminding me about the IPO and inviting me to invest. The funny detail is that this reached me on October 3, and as far as I have understood it, yesterday was the last day to issue power of attorneys. The fact that the letter is dated “September 2007” does not help me to determine when it was actually sent out. I am prepared to give La Caixa the benefit of the doubt since post here often comes with big delays. But the question remains: Should not a bank, which claims to be great, be able to plan for the fact that post arrives late? Or was the staff not 'under pressure' to get the information out on time?

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Learning a new language – create time of exposure

With the possible exception for the English, Europeans in general seem to be interested in the language of places they visit. It is therefore logic that many of our friends back in Sweden see the language in itself, rather than the nice weather or the Spanish culture, as the biggest opportunity my family and I have when living here. The world has changed, however. Thanks to the Internet, it is easy to create a Spanish media environment in your home, although you live in another country and if you are a committed learner you ought let your target language come alive in everyday life. To increase the time of exposure is a crucial factor for success.

Originally I was planning to write a text on the first books I have read in Catalan. Since I prefer to study languages by myself, starting to read books in a new language is like reaching a first and very concrete milestone. From that point, everything gets easier in a self-reinforcing positive spiral. The two interconnected reasons for this are time and motivation, and they both merit some reflections before I start commenting on what I have recently read. I will start with time, since this is the factor I judge that most people underestimate.

When adults complain about their difficulties to learn languages they often blame it on grammar. How unfair! Grammar is an intellectual challenge and ought to be just as rewarding as the crosswords and sudokus which so many people enjoy in their spare time. It is not rare that the same people claim that children have a fundamentally different capacity to learn languages than grown-ups. I consider that to be a wrong conclusion from a correct observation.

Children are better than adults in achieving a nativelike pronunciation in a non-native language. This, most likely, is due to the fact that they are more open-minded to unexpected sounds and tones which the brain of a typical adult has learnt to filter out. However, when it comes to learning vocabulary, which I dare to claim is the key element of any language, adults theoretically have a huge advantage over children in identifying concepts for which there is a need for words. So why, after some time in a new country, do the children of most immigrant families excel over their parents, not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary? I am confident that the time spent exposed to the non-native language is the answer.

Under no circumstances do I want to ridicule people who invest time in taking weekly classes of a foreign language, but I do think that they should ask themselves what they aim to achieve. If the main reason for their studies is to have some social time, they by all means do the right thing. However, if they truly strive to learn a language they had better stop. Low-intense language learning is only discouraging for adults, since we tend to remember the amount we have paid for courses and the number of years we have studied, but do not admit what a small fraction of our time we have in fact spent on the new language. It is relevant to make a comparison with children. My two little sons pay attention to, repeat and explore language throughout the whole day. How many grown-ups come anywhere close to that? Is it surprising that children learn so well while we do not?

From a learning point of view, it is this exposure time which is the main advantage of living in an environment where a language is naturally spoken. Since many of my daily activities, like taking the children to school or to the doctor, doing the shopping etc, have to be carried out in in Spanish or Catalan, I spend time with these languages even at times when I would prefer to speak my mother tongue.

At the same time, do not be discouraged by the fact that you do not live in the country where your target language is being spoken. Unless you can find a job where you can make use of the language which you are studying, you might not be able to switch the language of daily life. However, if you really want to learn, I am confident that you will find some extra hours in your daily routines if you scrutinize the time you spend on entertainment. In the beginning, to watch a movie or read a book in a new language will not be relaxing, but I can promise you that you will soon pass that threshold and once on the other side, you will have gained additional hours of exposure to a non-native language.

Entertainment is where I put my focus since that is often the only pool of extra hours which adults have available. It has the additional advantage of being fun and what is fun does not require much motivation. Motivation, however, is so important a topic that I will come back to that in my next text.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Pika Tapa – the Mediterranean as we want it

Tourist traps are an interesting phenomenon. Very often they are easy to identify – establishments with a lot of natural traffic, usually charging premium prices since they offer a nice view or are located close to interesting sites. The beach promenade at Vilanova is an area where any seasoned traveller will start to look for advice on which restaurants are good and which you had better avoid.

I always feel a bit stupid when I take my family to a restaurant where we could have foreseen that either the food or the service or both would not live up to our expectations, but every once in a while end up in that situation. What do you do when you come to a town which you do not know and it is already well past the children’s lunch time? What do you do when all places where they seem to know how to cook look boring and deserted? At least my wife and I tend to take a chance and head for a place which is busy and easy to find. This probably reveals that our buying behaviour is first and foremost social and not very rational.

The beach promenade in Vilanova i la Geltrú is truly precious and, as all tourists desire, there are plenty of outdoor restaurants to choose between. From personal experience, however, I want to draw visitors’ attention to the fact that only some of these have a regular clientele among the local residents. When I take my family for lunch, most tables at Pika Tapa (Passeig de Carme, 21; phone: 93 815 12 84) are occupied by foreigners, usually a clear indication that you are about to enter into a tourist trap. However, remember that the Catalan and Spanish culture is deceitful in this regard. For inhabitants of Spain it is perfectly normal to have their meals about two hours later than we do in the Northern Europe.

Pika Tapa is located right in the middle of the action and offers light tapes as well as full meals. We have been here for lunches and for dinners, with as well as without our children, and always been satisfied. The paellas (€ 13 per person) will not win culinary prices but are served in a traditional way from the pan and always are very tasty. Competition close by advertises paellas for lower prices, however, those places do not cook by themselves but merely reheat precooked dishes. Caveat emptor!

Pika Tapa has indoor facilities as well, which means that it is open for business all the year around. Having said that, just like the town Vilanova, in summer it is at it's best. Here you find the Mediterranean feeling as you want it – offered at a very reasonable price. The restaurants close to the beach still have their terraces open. Take note of this recommendation in case you want to have another lunch at the seaside. The season is not over yet.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Swedish – Catalan: 4 – 0

One of the advantages of living abroad is the opportunity to learn new languages. Although possibly of a different magnitude, in this area my wife and I share an ambition for perfection. The objective is not to be a good foreign speaker but to reach the level of those who have the language as their mother tongue. If our whole family would one day speak Catalan, I believe that we will be quite unique. Is it worth the effort? And, if so, how far have we come?

Let me be honest about our background. It was not an interest in Catalan culture that made us move here. A work opportunity was what drew our attention to this place and a desire to learn Spanish combined with the nice climate were factors which made the decision easy. On the contrary to what many Catalans seem to believe, like many other Swedes we were fully aware that there existed a unique Catalan language, but felt as motivated to learn it as most Catalans feel about learning Swedish, i.e. close to zero.

This perspective changed dramatically once we arrived here. Although this is a bilingual region, I consider that learning Catalan is a necessity for anyone who is interested in what is going on and who wants to be integrated in local society. Possibly, you can avoid it if you live downtown Barcelona and get your local news through Lavanguardia - for historical reasons edited in Spanish - but not in the outskirts of the province, like here in Vilanova i la Geltrú. We have moved here with the intention to stay, to build a new home. It is Catalan, not Spanish, which our sons learn at daycare and in school. With this in mind, we have accepted the challenge to learn not one but two languages.

So here we are, a family of four, all with Swedish nationality but quite different backgrounds. In this blog, I plan to follow and share our experience in gaining access to the new language. Twice a year, I will establish which is the preferred language of each family member. At home we speak Swedish, so that language has a home ground advantage. However, it is Catalan which dominates street life here, so it will soon be given a tough match.

Swedish enjoys a strong backbone in my wife and me. We have now spent more than seven years outside our native country, but were both born, raised and educated there. In fact, I do not only believe but also hope that our mother tongue will remain our preferred language forever. Having said that, through our children Catalan will play a stronger and stronger role in our lives. Fairly soon, our sons will be given homework to write and I take it as my personal responsibility to be up to speed to help them once that day comes.

Our four-year-old is the true dark horse of the game. He was born abroad and thus has never lived in Sweden. However, Swedish is very firmly his first language, since it was the only language he brought with him when we moved here. In the future, when he starts to learn English, we will be able to tell whether his early exposure to that language has left any lasting marks. I doubt that we will ever be able to check the same thing with Thai, since the probability that he will want to learn that language is quite low.

Due to the long Spanish summer holidays, our oldest son regularly receives what I could call special injections of Swedish. For the third consecutive year, he has spent more than a month with his grandparents in Sweden. We can not help taking pride in the fact that he has such a rich vocabulary and sense of correct syntax that he is at least on par developmentwise when compared to children of the same age who have grown up in Sweden. This week he was very nervous about going back to school in Catalonia and blamed it on the language issue. However, that might well be a rationalization of a more general fear of having to leave home. My impression when talking to him after his first day back in the class room was that he enjoyed taking part in the activities, in spite of the language barrier.

It would not surprise me if he switches over and accepts the majority language as his preferred language as early as by the end of this year. He has already spent more than half of his life in here and currently is in a phase where he is actively exploring the possibilities of verbal language. If the talent which he possesses for observation and pronunciation of Swedish will be equally valid for Catalan, we can expect to see a remarkable development during the coming few months.

Finally, we have what from the perspective of the Swedish language is the weakest link of the family. Our one and a half-year old son was born here and has spent many hours in a Catalan daycare since he was only four months old. Fortunately enough for Swedish, his language development started to take off during these summer holidays. He now tries to imitate the sounds of more or less any word we repeat to him. It might well be that this interest came about once he felt that one language, in this case Swedish, started to dominate his daily life.

A special observation is that his passive understanding is far greater than his active use of words. For example, he never tells the names of animals, but happily imitates their sounds when we give him their names in Swedish. Neither does he name parts of his body, but is able to point them out when asked to do so. I believe this to be normal for children who grow up in a bilingual environment, since it must be easier to associate Swedish näsa and Catalan nas with one phenomenon, i.e. the nose, than to determine which of the two words you are select when someone asks you for them. Currently, our youngest son prefers Swedish for most basic words; nana (have a nap), godnatt (goodnight), glass (ice cream), äpple (apple), sko (shoe). However, his daycare teacher says that he is very active in repeating words after her as well. An interesting fact is that Catalan seems to have a strong grip of him at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Although he says mat in Swedish for food in general, llet and pa are the only words he has ever used actively for milk and bread, respectively.

To sum up the score, summer holidays has put a strong focus on Swedish and I trust that, to both our sons, this stability has served as a motivator in their language development. Although we have an au-pair who speaks Swedish with them at home, there will now again be a strong bias towards Catalan in their daily exposure to languages. Mid-September 2007, Swedish wins a 4 – 0 runaway victory over Catalan in our family. I doubt that we will ever see such a walkover again.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Els Segadors – a fortunate contrast between lyrics and national identity

During the summer, media has reported on the efforts currently being made to add words to sing to the Spanish national anthem. The aim is to create lyrics with a meaning to the people of Spain, something that is not easily accomplished in a state where big parts of the population prefer to present themselves as separate nationalites. One thing is sure – if they ever manage, the text will be very different from Els Segadors, Catalonia’s national anthem.

Today is September 11 and while the rest of the world will remember the appalling events on Manhattan in 2001, many Catalans will first and foremost look back at something which took place almost 300 years ago. Just before lunch today, I brought my two small sons to the Francesc Macià statue in Vilanova to let them take part in Catalonia's national holiday. Many national holidays serve to celebrate a victory or a major achievement, but here we commemorate a defeat which, on September 11 of 1714, resulted in that Catalonia lost its sovereignty.

Media usually focus on negative news so it is the nationalist struggles for a Basque Country independent from Spain which foreigners tend to know about. It is a sad fact that terrorist group ETA is again actively making use of bombs to reach their goals. For that reason, I want to point out that Catalan nationalism is peaceful and that the relatively high autonomy this region enjoys has been won through successive and democratic reforms. Interestingly enough, this stands in sharp contrast to the fight for freedom as described in Els Segadors, the national anthem.

Since the traditions of Catalonia receive a lot of attention in school here, I hope that teachers wait until children have reached a certain age before the start to analyse its lyrics. A modern interpretation can be that sickles are to be swung at any chain which restrict our freedom, but the text can easily be misinterpreted. Personally, I can not help it, but it makes me recall gruesome pictures of how the Hutus went about to allegedly liberate themselves from Tutsies in Rwanda in 1994. The lyrics of the Catalan national anthem should, as I see it, only be explained as a document of how people used to feel and act back in history. I hope that school will guide my sons to learn to solve conflicts without violence, and that teachers do not attempt to defend the ambiguities of Els Segadors only because it is one of the symbols of Catalonia.

Judging from the calm faces of our sensible fellow citizens while we were singing the anthem today, I have no doubt about the Catalan people’s non-violent approach in gaining further self-determination. As on earlier occasions, in his speach, local mayor Joan Ignasi Elena stressed this by encouraging people to make use of their Catalan identity to support the integration of newcomers and keep an open mind to the outside world. Having said that, I admit to be happy that my oldest son did not ask me any questions about Els Segadors. Already next year, when he will be five years old, I can expect him to be a lot less innocent. Before then I will have to find some good answers to what we are aiming at with the sickles.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Program of the Festa Major - in English

Within Catalonia, Vilanova i la Geltrú has a good reputation for preserving its traditional festivals. Coming Friday, July 27, is the first day of our Festa Major 2007. Colour booklets of the program are readily available at a number of local bookstores. They contain pictures, descriptions of the activities to come and even a word list explaining all the oddities and details related to this annual event- that is if you are a Catalan-speaking insider of the culture.

For non-Catalan speaking outsiders, be they tourists or resident foreigners like me, I here below present the full Festa Major program translated into English. Enjoy Vilanova i la Geltrú while we show you our craziests side.

Special thanks go to Vilanova native Ramon Canyelles i Ricart. Without his help I would not have been able to decipher that Campionat de Botifarra does not refer to a sausage eating competition, but to a card game. Quite a difference, is it not?

Official Program of the Festa Major 2007

Friday July 27

7 p.m.: Opening of the exhibition:
Una mirada a la festa (A Look at the Party); by Enric C. Ricart
Place: The library of the Balaguer Musueum. From Jul 27 to Sep 2.

7.30 p.m.: Rehearsal by the Folk-Dance Association
plaça de Sant Antoni

Beach Handball Tournament
Place: on the beach
platja del Far
(the Festa Major program does not indicate the time of the event)

9 p.m.: Presentation of the new Festa Major fans for the Procession of Vilanova Legends (Cercavila de l’imaginari)
Place: Where
avinguda de Francesc Macià intersects with C/ Vapor
Artists: Roser Amela, Idoya Archilla, Anselm Cabús, Xavier Duran, Albert Lleó, Carolina Raventós, Sebastià Serra and Martí Valero

10.30 p.m.: The Correfoc of Vilanova i la Geltrú (a dance procession of fire and crackers)
With the participation of
Ball de Diables (devils dance) groups from here as well as guests from other towns. The dragons of Vilanova and la Geltrú, respectively, also take part.
Route through the town:
Plaça de les Neus, C/ la Bomba, plaça de Sant Antoni, C/ l'Església, plaça Llarga, C/ Mercaders, plaça de les Cols, C/ Sant Gregori, rambla Principal, C/ Cristòfol Colom, C/ Sant Felip Neri, C/ Fruita and plaça de la Vila.

10.30 p.m.: The doors open to the concert: La Excepción

midnight: Concert: Muchachito Bombo Infierno; Place: The Athletic Stadion

midnight: Festa Major Dancing with the group Travelin Band; Place: plaça de les Cols

Saturday July 28

Beach Handball Tournament
Place: on the beach
platja del Far
(the Festa Major program does not indicate the time of the event)

noon.: The 25th anniversary of the Flower Garland Dancers of Vilanova i la Geltrú (
With the participation of dance groups from here and from other towns
Route through the town:
rambla Principal, avinguda de Francesc Macià and plaça de la Vila

Followed by a performance to take place in plaça de la Vila

6 p.m.: Opening of the exhibition: Goigs de la mare de déu de les neus – A poetic elegy to the patron saint of Vilanova i la Geltrú; Place: The club premises of Penya Filatèlica. From Jul 28 to Aug 4.

7 p.m.: Opening of the photography exhibition: The Festa Major 50 years ago
Place: the exhibition hall
sala Toc. From Jul 28 to Aug 6.

7 p.m.: Performance by
Castellers (Human Towers) With the Castellers group Bordagassos from here and groups invited from other towns; Place: plaça de la Vila

9 p.m.: Fishing competition
Place: the beach
platja de Ribes Roges; For more information or to sign up, contact SEPC La Gavina

10.30 p.m.: Jazz Concert with the Sílvia Orrico Trio; Place: Foment Vilanoví (plaça de les Cols)

Followed by a Jam Session of Blues and Jazz; Place: Dick's Jazz Bar (C/ Unió)

11 p.m.: Festa Major Dancing: A Latin Night.
plaça de la Vila

Sunday July 29

10 a.m.: A bike tour through the streets of Vilanova, guided by
Francesc Carnicer; Starting point: The tower Torre Blava at the beach Ribes Roges

7 p.m.: Opeing of the art exhibition: Esclat de Festa Major (The Sparkle of Festa Major) by Rosa Pastó i Figueres; Place: Foment Vilanoví (Plaça de les Cols), From Jul 29 to Aug 15

7 p.m.: The procession of the
Falcons (acrobatic human towers); Route through the town: plaça de les Neus, rambla Principal, avinguda de Francesc Macià and plaça de la Vila

Directly followed by: An exhibition of the Falcons (acrobatic human towers); Place: plaça de la Vila

8.30 p.m.: Flying of the Catalan Flag at the Bell Tower (Pengem la Senyera del Campanar)Place: the bell tower of the church Sant Antoni Abat (located at the top of the Rambla; the bell tower is located at the northern end of the church)

10 p.m.: A Night of Dance
With the participation of:
Dansa de Vilanova, Ministrers de la Vila-Nova and l'Esbart Dansaire from Andorra la Vella.
plaça de la Vila

Monday July 30

7 p.m.: Childrens tales related to
Festa Major
Narrator: local artist Eva Bolaño; An activity for Catalan speaking children; Place: Foment Vilanoví (Plaça de les Cols)

9 p.m.: A night walk up to the peak of the hill Talaia in the light of the full moon; Starting point: plaça de Sant Antoni

10.30 p.m.: Dances to the local wind-instrument Gralla
Place: plaça dels Lledoners

11 p.m.: A Country Night. Festa Major Dancing With the group The Country Revival Farmers Place: plaça del Mercat

11 p.m.: VNG GRUPS; Performance by the groups: Gentle Music Men, Suî Te MoMo; Place: plaça de la Vila

Tuesday July 31

5.30 p.m.: Competition of Simultaneos Chess; Place:
rambla Principal in front of the premises of La Gran Penya

6 p.m.: A public discussion in Catalan on the topic "La Sala i La Festa"; Place: La Sala

7 p.m.: A Workshop in Fan Decorations; An activity for children; Place: plaça de les Cols

10 p.m.: The Festa Major Cinema: Ice Age 2 (dubbed into Catalan); Place: plaça del Mercat

11 p.m.: Festa Major Dancing
With the group:
Rauxa Rumbeta - folk and other rhythms
plaça de la Vila

Wednesday August 1

7 p.m.:
La Jordina s’ho imagina
An activity for Catalan speaking children; A game based on the book Un estiu diferent... narrator: Jordina Biosca; Place: Plaça de les Cols

7 p.m.: Championships in the local card game Botifarra
Place: plaça de les Neus; For more information and to sign up, contact Can Pistraus at C/ Santa Madrona, 33

9.30 p.m.: The Festa Major Dinner With entertainment by Travelin Band and the magician Ferran; Place: plaça del Mercat; Tickets can be bought at the Festa Major booth in plaça de la Vila and in the restaurant Ca la Maria

10.30 p.m.: Singing of Havaneres by the group Port Vell; Place: plaça de les Cols

11 p.m.: A Night of Folk Music - Dancing to the group Marcel Casellas i la Principal de la Nit Place: plaça de la Vila

Thursday August 2

11 a.m: Workshop: Let’s play with
Festa Major pictures (Juguem amb l’auca de la Festa Major)
An activity most likely best suited for Catalan speaking children; Place: The library of the Balaguer Museum

7 p.m.: Peter and the wolf
A puppet theatre performance in Catalan for children
plaça de les Cols

7.30 p.m.: Lecture on the topic Imatges Festives de Ricart
Lecturer: Francesc X. Puig Rovira; Place: The library of the Balaguer Museum

11 p.m.: The Variety Show of Festa Major with Merche Mar and El Molino; Place: plaça del Mercat

11 p.m.: A Night of Soul and Dance
With the group Soul Bandits; Place: plaça de la Vila

11 p.m.: The Concert of Festa Major
with Pedro Javier Hermosilla / Antonio Orozco; Place: The Athletic Stadion

Friday August 3

10 a.m.: A Spectacular Painting in Three Dimensions
Toni Ortiz makes a big format 3D picture throughout the whole day
plaça de les Cols

11 a.m.: A Festa Major Workshop. Based on the Fishermen’s Dance (in the Procession of Vilanova Legends)
A Childrens activity: Make your own fancy boat dress
Place: The library
Armand Cardona Torrandell (refer to this library for more information and to sign up)

6 p.m.: Concert by the La Rondalla La Família; Place: the gardens of the hospital Sant Antoni Abat

7 p.m.: Concert with the group Macedònia
One of the first performances by the new generation of Macedònia; Place: plaça Mediterrània

8.30 p.m.: Tour of the Giants of Vilanova
Place: the church
dels Josepets; Route through the town: C/ Sant Magí, C/ horts, C/ Major, C/ Josep Anton Marquès, C/ la Bomba, plaça de les Neus, rambla Principal, avinguda de Francesc Macià and plaça de la Vila.

10 p.m.: A Concert from Two Sides
By the band from the Music School of Maestro
Montserrat and the music band Maestro Lupi de Benavente (Zamora); Place: plaça de la Vila

10 p.m.: Theatre in Catalan: L'autèntic amic de Carlo Goldoni; By the theatre group Rossegall Place: Círcol Catòlic (C/ Sant Gervasi)

11.30 p.m.: Rock concert MANANI ROCK FM'07; With the groups:
Kon-Ira (Vilanova i la Geltrú), Boikot (Madrid) and Olive Tree (Portugal); Place: plaça dels Pescadors (the Fish Market)

Midnight: Festa Major Dancing with the group The Big Jamboree; Place: plaça del Mercat

Followed by a performance by the DJ LUCKY BASTARDS

Saturday August 4

11 a.m.: The Arrival of Councillors and Festa Major Representatives
Accompanied by the
grallers (wind-instrument blowers) Havana Xica; Place: plaça de la Vila

11.30 a.m.: The Invitation to Festa Major
By writer and philosopher Rafael Argullol i Murgadas; Place: The Meeting Hall of the Ajuntament (Plaça de la Vila)

Noon: The firing of 12 Small Mortars; By Pirotècnia Igual; Place: plaça de la Vila

Bell ringing at all the churches of the town.

Followed by: Gathering for the Open Procession
plaça de la Vila

5 p.m.: A Café Concert
With the musicians
Jordi Inglada and Cristina Boixadera, Marcets de Sitges and Clau de Mar; Place: C/ Major (in front of the premises of the Folk Dance Association)

6 p.m.: Concert with La Rondalla La Família; Place: The premises of Casa d' Empara

7 p.m.: Miniature Train Rides; Place: The park at the beach Ribes Roges

7 p.m.: Procession of the evening before (Cercavila de la Vigília); Place: plaça de l' Assumpció Route through the town: plaça Font i Gumà, C/ Pont, plaça del Pou, C/ Palmerar de Baix, plaça Llarga, C/ Mercaders, plaça de les Cols, C/ Sant Gregori, plaça de les Neus, rambla Principal, C/ l'Almirall Colom, plaça dels Carros, C/ Sant Sebastià, C/ Col·legi and C/ Escolapis.

8 p.m.: Dance Performances, Performances by Castellers (Human Towers) etc.; Place: plaça de la Vila

11 p.m.: The Spectacular Fireworks of the Festa Major
By Pirotècnia Igual; Place: platja de Ribes Roges (at the bull Pasífae)

Midnight: Listen to Sardana Music
Cobla Ciutat de Cornellà; Place: rambla Principal

Midnight: The Gala Dance
By the Orquestra Magnum; Place:
plaça de la Vila

Midnight: Dancing for 7 hours (Ball de les 7 hores); Performance by the Catalan rock group Els Pets (Forming part of their 2007 tour Com anar al cel i tornar); Place: the beach promendade at Ribes Roges; Sponsored by the real estate agencies LLARS.NET and VORAMAR

Followed by the orchestra Privada; Place: the beach promendade at Ribes Roges

Midnight: The Rock Concert Manani Rock FM'07; Performances by: Raggatunning (Vilanova i la Geltrú),
Fundación Tony Manero (Barcelona), Strombers (Catalunya) and DJ Petit (Vilanova i la Geltrú)
Place: plaça dels Pescadors (the Fish Market)

Sunday August 5

7.30 a.m.: The happy and drink-inviting morning music of the Festa Major (
Alegres i Traguejades Matinades de Festa Major); By the Festa Major gralla (a wind-instrument) blowers
Place: Different starting points but all heading for
plaça de la Vila

9 a.m.: The Go-To-Service Procession (Cercavila d’Anada a Ofici); Route through the town: plaça de la Vila, C/ Caputxins, plaça de les Cols, C/ Comerç, C/ l'Església and plaça de Sant Antoni

10.30 a.m.: The Festa Major Art Fair; Place: rambla Principal

10.30 a.m.: The Solemn Festa Major Service; A solemn mass by reverend Jaume Berdoy, parson of the Sant Antoni Abat parish
Place: The church of
Sant Antoni Abat

After the service The Leaving-The-Service Procession (Cercavila de Sortida d’Ofici)
Route through the town:
plaça de les Neus, rambla Principal, avinguda de Francesc Macià and plaça de la Vila

12.30 p.m.: Dance Performances, Performances by Castellers (Human Towers) etc.; Place: plaça de la Vila

1.30 p.m.: A Greeting to Les Neus
Place: In the patio of the Ajuntament (Plaça de la Vila)

6 p.m.: Concert of Catalan Music By the Cobla-Orquestra Costa Brava; Place: plaça del Mercat

6 p.m.: Folk Dance Performance; Place: plaça de la Vila

Followed by the Dance of the Giants etc.
plaça de la Vila

7 p.m.: The Festa Major Football Game
CF Vilanova and CE Sabadell FC; Place: The Municipal Stadion dels Alumnes Obrers

8 p.m.: Listen to
Sardana Music By the Cobla-Orquestra Costa Brava; Place: avinguda de Francesc Macià (in front of the main gate of the market hall)

9 p.m.: The Procession related to the Town’s Vow to its Patron Saint (Cercavila del vot del poble); Route through the town: plaça de la Vila, C/ Escolapis, C/ l'Almirall Colom, plaça dels Carros, C/ Llibertat, C/ Tetuan, rambla Principal and plaça de les Neus

Followed by the Renovation of the Town’s Vow to its Patron Saint
Speaches by reverend
Jaume Berdoy, parson of the parish Sant Antoni Abat, and Lord Mayor Joan Ignasi Elena
Place: plaça de les Neus

To be followed by the Fireworks of the Town’s Vow
Pirotècnia Igual; Place: plaça de les Neus

Midnight: Festa Major Dancing
l'Orquestra Costa Brava; Place: plaça del Mercat

Midnight: The Night of DJ:s
By Walkie Talkie, The
Trol·lys and Molecular Man; Place: plaça de la Vila

Monday August 6

6 p.m.: Procession of Vilanova Legends (
Cercavila de l’Imaginari)
Route through the town:
plaça de la Peixateria Vella, C/ Pàdua, C/ Mercaders, plaça de les Cols, C/ Sant Gregori, rambla Principal, C/ l'Almirall Colom, C/ Escolapis and plaça de la Vila

Followed by the Dance Procession related to Vilanova Legends (Passada de Balls de l’Imaginari)

7 p.m.: Lyrical Concert of Opera and
Sarsuela (Spanish Light Operas)
By the company of maestro
Damunt; Place: Teatre Círcol Catòlic

9 p.m.: Nomination of the 2008 Festa Major Representatives and Farewell Party for the 2007 Representatives; Place: The session hall of the Ajuntament

Followed by
Sardana Music from Vilanova, by the Cobla Sant Jordi-Ciutat de Barcelona; Place: plaça de la Vila

00.07 a.m.: The Dance of the Festa Major Representatives
By the
Cocodrilo Club (DJ Revival Albert Malla); Place: plaça del Mercat


Una Mirada a la Festa (A Look at the Party); by Enric C. Ricart
Place: The library of the Balaguer Museum; From Jul 27 to Sep 2; Morning opening hours: from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., from Tuesday to Sunday; Afternoon opening hours: from 4.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., from Tuesday to Saturday (with the exception of Thursday); Thursday evening opening hours: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Mondays closed

Goigs de la Mare de Déu de les Neus (An exhibitions of poetic elegies to Vilanova i la Geltrú’s patron saint)
Place: The premises of the club
Penya Filatèlica; From Jul 28 to Aug 4.
Opening hours: from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

La Festa Major de fa cinquanta anys - 1950-1960 (The Festa Major 50 years ago); A photography exhibition by Ramir Horro and Jordi Mas (The Garraf Regional Archives); Place: Exhibition hall sala Toc; From Jul 28 to Aug 6.
Opening hours: from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Esclat de Festa Major (The sparkle of Festa Major)
Rosa Pastó i Figueres; Theme: Pictures of correfoc (processions with fire and crackers), Vilanova’s procession of legends etc.
Foment Vilanoví (Plaça de les Cols); From Jul 29 to Aug 15.
Opening hours: from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Orígens. Cinc fites en l’evolució humana (Origins. The Five Milestones of Human Evolution)Place: plaça del Port; From July 23 to Aug 30
Opening hours: from Tuesday to Friday 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays: from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays closed

Monday, 16 July 2007

La Sala – Cause or Effect?

The opening of La Sala – Vilanova’s centre of modern art - will add a new interesting stop to my family’s weekend walks. So, why do I ask myself whether the investment was justified? Maybe the reason is that I am mistaking an effect for being the cause.

Economist Florida teaches that those cities shall flourish which manage to attract the creative class. I first believed that our governing tripartit had been inspired by him when they approved the investment of € 1.470.000 in La Sala (C/Joaquim Mir, 12). Politically, I consider myself a liberal but still do not disagree with the idea that governments, at times, get involved in supporting and financing culture. However, being a realist, I am aware that resources are scarce, so I could not help asking myself the question: Why on earth would Vilanova need a centre of modern art?

I will try to explain the background of my doubts. Based on the number of inhabitants as well as average income and education levels, I guess that the amount of vilanovíns who really care about art is limited. Except for that, the town already has a few museums and neighbourhood centres (centre cívic) which include art exhibitions in their programs. Finally, Barcelona is less an hour’s drive from here and that metropolis in not only internationally recognized for its abundance of art museums but also has the financial strength to house temporary exhibitions of world famous artists. Based on this, I came to the conclusion that a centre of modern art located in Vilanova will not have any chance to attract a major audience. As if to confirm my suspicion, last Saturday when I went to La Sala with my family, we were the only visitors there and this when local media were still commenting on its opening.

I could not help feeling that the creation of an art centre was a very strange use of public funds. However, when I mentioned this to one of my Catalan friends, he suggested that I have let myself be fooled by how La Sala is now being presented and therefore misunderstand the whole situation. As he sees it, there existed a just cause for renovating a unique building since, apparently, this is the oldest still standing theatre house in Catalonia. Then, as an effect, somebody decided to make use of renovated space by creating a art centre.

If my friend is right, it is likely that a majority of Vilanova’s inhabitants consider it correct for the town to have invested in this project. They might not be particularly interested in modern art, but did want to see the La Sala renovated. Partly because the town has already let too much of its patrimony be destroyed, and partly since it brings back memories to them from the times when the building of the old theatre had been converted into a popular dance hall. The latter closed down as recently as in the 80-ies, so it is easy to imagine that quite a few of today’s decision makers had their first dance with their spouses-to-be under its vaults.

In the end, even I am prepared to stop questioning whether the investment was justified, as long as we start to capitalize on it. Summer is here and Vilanova is full of tourist, but I doubt that many of them know anything about the art centre. Today, La Sala is easy to find only if you are on your way to the hospital, but that is not exactly where visitors to our town desire to go. Attention creating information boards in the Rambla and clear sign posts in the alleys are inexpensive means to remedy this situation.

Maybe Vilanova can not hope to attract too much of the so called creative class, but we should be able to increase our importance in the market of quality tourism, especially if we focus on our nearest source of potential visitors - Barcelona. A small town like ours can hardly afford to build a centre of modern art attractive enough to encourage people from other towns to go here. However, for those who do come, the existence of such an institution will add value to their stay. The nice beaches and the sea, many an excellent restaurant as well as a Rambla with attractive shopping opportunities are already there. Now, to round off an imaginary itinerary, we can also offer a bit of modern art before people go home again. No matter whether La Sala was a cause or an effect, we will all benefit from it, by making it a part of the Vilanova experience.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

By the way: 08800 La Revista de VNG

To keep people’s acceptance to pay taxes, politicians must be careful to make sure that the money is spent in a correct way. Like elsewhere in the world, this is not always the case in Vilanova and the latest copy of the official information magazine ”08800 la revista de VNG” is a sad example of it.

My family and our neighbours received the July copy in the mailboxes only yesterday. I do not mind to receive a summary of how the local goverment will look for the coming four years, although the local press informed us of this already weeks ago. Neither am I too concerned about the fact that tax payers' money is spent to make a benevolent interview with Joan Ignasi Elena, our re-elected mayor. But it does irritate me to on July 10 receive an event calender which covers the dates from the 1st to the 31st of July. A fast check gives at hand that 35% of the listed activities have already taken place. As if to underline that the this issue was late, there is an article encouraging visits to the exhibition gràcies which was, as you are in fact informed already in the magazine, taken down on July 7.

If we are to continue to spend money on a printed information magazine, let us at least improve the planning and have it issued on time.

August 5, we will celebrate our Festa Major here and many vilanovins will appreciate to, in advance, have a program of the event . I cannot help wondering what will reach us first – the next issue of “08800 la revista de VNG” or the sound of “ball de diables” from a town where the party has already begun.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Peixerot – living up to its name

Some restaurants are emblematic of their towns. El Peixerot has a strong, solid reputation and many regular guest who are prepared to come here all the way from Barcelona. Just imagine if Vilanova as a town would have the same attraction.

Among the connaisseurs of the Barcelona restaurant market whom I have met, nobody has failed to mention Peixerot (address: Passeig Marítim, 56; phone: 93 815 06 25), when I have told them that I live in Vilanova i la Geltrú. This restaurant, specialized in fish, has existed since the year 1918 and, by far, exceeds the quality levels which we are used to find elsewhere in this town. What better occasion could I possibly have to take my wife here than our 5th wedding anniversary. True, she would have preferred a surprise journey around the world in a hot air balloon, but after all these years together she has got used to my boring predictability.

Now in the summer, Peixerot offers the possibility to eat outdoors at tables overlooking the marina. Personally, however, I think that it is indoors where this establishment come into its rights. The first thing that a visitor meets when entering into the restaurant is big display of fresh fish on ice. Tables dressed in starched linen and shining white textile napkins with the Peixerot logotype embroidered on them, add to the expectations about the meal to come.

When seated at your table, on the one side you will be able to observe people passing by on the Rambla outisde, but with a nice feeling of privacy since the lower part of the windows has been frosted. On the other side of the room, you will find original paintings of Vilanova artist Martí Torrents (1887-1977), who, apparently, in his days used to be a Peixerot regular. I really liked the artist’s style, and except for that I must admit being childishly fond of art lit up through spotlights, so I would have loved to walk around and have a closer look at them. Since I did not feel confortable to do so when there were other guests sitting eating right below, I would be very happy if Peixerot would one day develop a web-page with a full presentation of the works.

I cannot say that the waitors of Peixerot felt especially warm or personal, but they are just as professional and attentive as you would expect in a place of this category. It is a special idea to hand your guests a menu card printed for the day, but for the touch and print quality I must admit that I would have preferred a more classic one. The selection of food turned out to be more extensive and varied than we had expected and we were surprised to find out that there were starters for € 11 and main courses around € 20, prices which must be considered as moderate in the Spanish world of fine dining.

Since we were celebrating our special day, we decided to splurge out a bit more than that and had the Peixerot house sallad and steamed mussels for starters, upon which monkfish followed for my wife while I tried the arroz marinera con bogavante. The food was excellent, but I must admit that to me it is the total dining experience which makes this place stand out. If the perspective is limited to food quality and preparation, then I dare to say that there are a number of other Vilanova restaurants which can give them a match. To enhance the unique strength of Peixerot – the stylish, spacious atmosphere - I think that the management of the place should consider adding music. To me, the image would grow further with a background of classic music, albeit recorded.

Peixerot happens to have a branch in the city of Barcelona as well (address: C/ Tarragona, 177). That clearly cannot compare with its prime location here in Vilanova – where the Rambla meets the Passeig Marítim. And remember that the fresh fish comes from here. Visca Vilanova!

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Celler del Ton – A home away from home

One of the trends in the restaurant world is to welcome people to a 'home away from home'. El Celler del Ton really feels like a home, but that does not mean that the place is trendy. Or if it is, well then my mother-in-law's dining room is trendy as well. To draw the comparision further, my mother-in-law does serve good traditional food, just like this restaurant .

El Celler del Ton (C/ Cuba, 49; phone: 93 815 39 33) is hardly possible to find without a map or a road description. Thanks to our local newspaper, we came across it when we wanted to discover a new place for tapes a couple of weeks ago. However, we were discouraged many times before we finally sat down at a table. First of all, carrer de Cuba is not exactly one of Vilanova’s more typical restaurant streets, although it is in the city center. Secondly, when we looked in through the door we met with the backs of a thick group of people, all standing around the bar. Our feeling was that we had crashed some private party so we were just about to excuse ourselves and leave again, when the owner looked out from behind all the guests and invited us in.

I dare to guess that this place has been decorated according to personal taste and with a total disregard to design books. The wooden walls set a warm, non-Spanish tone and are so full of framed art prints that they would need to remove some paintings, should they decide to buy new ones. Combined with smart black placemats and linen look-alike napkins with a sparklingly bright design, the interior is totally different from what I have seen before.

For the spirit of the restaurant, we started with a glass of cava while making our selection of food. I assume that most local people see this as a place for finger food per picar, since they do not have proper main courses. We were thinking in terms of a dinner, as we accept it to be, and I must say that with some plates of iberic, cheese and pa amb tomaquet, a rich sallad and some ovenbaked bacallà, we had more than we could eat. All this was accompanied by the good red wine of the house.

El Celler del Ton has managed to create its own distinct niche although it has only existed for two years. There are less than ten tables and, apparently, the clientele might be small but is very faithful. For that reason, advance reservations are an absolute necessity for anyone who wants to make sure to be able to sit down.

The owner himself is the main explanation to the welcoming atmosphere and it did not take long before he and I found out that we had been working for the same company. To make the story even better, after having mapped the old colleagues we had in common, it became clear to my wife and me that this was in fact the very first restaurant we learnt about in Vilanova. The only problem was that we got the recommendation one whole month before we moved here and almost one year before the restaurant opened up its doors to the public. How nice that we found our way there now, albeit by coincidence. Tapes is the perfect solution if you do not want a full three-course dinner but still want to go out for a snack. We will soon be back.