Sunday, 25 February 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: Japanese cuisine at Yamato

If you hear people living in our neighbour town Sitges say that they prefer to go to Vilanova for a good sushi dinner, you get curious. So far, I have only visited one Japanese restaurant in Sitges but that one made a strong impression on me, although it might be that I was so blinded with the sophisticated ambience that forgot to think about the food quality. However, logic has it that Sitges should be a better breeding ground for Japanese cuisine than Vilanova. No matter if you prefer to call the local people of Vilanova Catalan or Spanish, their culinary preferences are local and traditional. A cynical person would point to the fact that all recently opened Asian restaurants in the town are all-you-can-eat bufé libre concepts. If you can not make people interested in the quality of your cooking then maybe, at least, you can catch their attention through quantity.

Sitges is the opposite. Although its actual population is smaller than Vilanova’s, the town is populated by a big amount of western foreigners and those of the local people who have actively decided to live there, often do so for the international flavour. To make things better, Barcelona’s jet set has this as one of its favourite resorts to go to for weekend lunches which further increases the impact of money and sophisticated taste on the local restaurant scene.

So, can it really be that Yamato (Passeig del Carme, 2) here in Vilanova beats the Sitges competition? My wife and I went there to give it a try. Our first impression was that the interior decoration was genuinely Asian, but not in any positive sense. In many Asian countries, the local population prefers to go to restaurants with a strong florescent illumination. According to their culture, bare tables are considered as dirty and the only accepted solution to cover them is real linen, albeit that the hunt for cost savings results in the owners accepting the cheapest synthetic textiles available in the market. To this extent Yamato is truly Asian, albeit not very Japanese, since in that country dimmed lighting is popular and bare wooden tables are a proof of quality. In the end, this confusion at Yamato is not too strange since, as far as we could hear, the staff are Chinese and not true Japanese.

So what about the food then? To try the place, I ordered a miso soup which I liked although the chef could have been more generous with the miso. I was also content with my third dish, teppan yaki squid. In between we had a sushi combination plate, the big test of the evening. Maki rolls should be freshly made when you eat it, in order for the seaweed not to absorb the humidity of the rice. For that reason, typical mixed sushi platters are not good for food quality, since in all restaurants with anything but high rotation it will result in the makis being refrigerated before they are being served. Yamato, on the evening when we were there, was far from crowded so we have only ourselves to blame if our makis were not perfect. On the other hand all the pieces of nigiri were to our full content, most importantly the quality of the fish.

To sum up, we are not yet convinced that Yamato beats all sushi you can find in Sitges, but we certainly will come back. We almost feel a responsibility to support a place which manages to serve good Japanese food here in our town. Yamato’s owners can hope for occasional visits from the local people but I am convinced that among their regular guest they have a big number of Vilanova’s relatively few western foreigners.

On how to apply for the N.I.E. in Vilanova

One of the dearest possessions I have in my wallet is my identity card for Spain, the N.I.E., not because it costs a lot of money to apply for it, but because it time consuming and inconvenient to do so.

For this reason, I was very positively surprised to see that the police in Vilanova has stopped the procedure with queue numbers and instead has started to schedule appointments with the applicants and want to thank everybody involved in deciding on this improvement. The new routine still allows for the police to limit the number of applicants per day, but in a much more humane way than to have us foreigners spending a big part of the night waiting in a square.

Appointments can be made in three ways: By calling phone number 93 816 90 10, by sending an e-mail to or through a personal visit to the town hall, ajuntament, in Plaça de la Vila.

As far as I understand things, with the new way to schedule appointments Vilanova has taken a big step ahead of other towns where you still have to queue physically in order to be received by the police. But foreigners planning to live in Barcelona should be warned not to try their luck here. Although all requests are being processed centrally in the end, only the police of the municipality where you live will accept your application.

To make things even smoother in the future, I hope that the Spanish police will one day introduce a web-based application form. By letting the foreigners themselves take responsibility for getting the spelling of their application correct, the officers would not have to spend time deciphering handwriting. Someone might argue that many foreigners still do not have access to computers, but I doubt it. A fast visit to any of the locutorios, combined Internet and telephone centres which you find everywhere in Spain, will reveal that even poor foreigners have learnt to use e-mail and Internet telephone services, since that is the cheapest way for them to keep contact with home.

Finally, since the police here are surprisingly honest about not speaking other languages than the local ones, a web-based application could bring another big improvement without much of an investment since the same version could be used for the whole of Spain. Just imagine how many misunderstandings could be avoided if the application forms would be linked to translations to major immigrant languages. Today I have respect for the fact that a native Catalan officer is already making use of his second language when he addresses me in Spanish, but I must admit that when I arrived here that effort was something I rather expected than appreciated. What I wanted back then was more information available at least in English.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

On languages and feeling welcome in a new country

I sometimes I can not help laughing at myself. While I was sitting at home working on what was planned to be the big opening text for this blog, the world outside changed and the point I wanted to make was not valid any longer.

So, I have decided that literary masterpieces will have to come later. It is time for me to start to publish and learn and improve while working rather than striving for perfection before I dare to write anything in public.

As originally intended, the first reflection I will make on this blog will be on languages and the feeling of belonging to local society. Personally, I have always felt that mastering the local language is the key to whether you will feel that you belong to a certain place or not. This certainly is the case in my native Sweden, but was also my experience when living in Poland and the Czech Republic. I am quite sure that I am not the only one to see this connection. The Czechs even have a saying that “kolik umíš jazyků, tolikrát jsi člověkem”, meaning that you are so many times as a man as the number of languages you speak.

Living in Spain, a country where the main language is shared with countries in totally different parts of the world, I have realized that language is important but often not at all the most important factor for your feeling of belonging to a place.

The old way (and may it never be re-introduced) of applying for permanent residency and for your Numero de Intentidad de Extranjero (N.I.E.) here in Vilanova i la Geltrú used to reveal this quite mercilessly. In order to be received by the police in Carrer del Col·legi on any given day, in the same morning you first had to queue up to receive a queue number at the police station in the square Plaça dels Cotxes. The amount of queue numbers per day was limited to around 40 and they used to be handed out at 7 a.m. The only nice thing you can say about this procedure was that Spanish citizens had to do the same thing, while applying for their Documento Nacional de Identidad (D.N.I.). However, they always had a separate queue and a generous amount of queue numbers. While for them the issue was about getting a good number, for us foreigners – EU-citizens and non-EU citizens being treated alike - it was about getting a number at all or you had to come back another day and do the queuing all over again.

Sitting on a park bench at 5 a.m. in the morning I felt far from splendid, but soon realized that compared to other foreign applicants, I had two big advantages. One was that we live in the center of Vilanova, so when I had tried my luck for the first time and found out that there were too many people waiting already waiting in the square, I had at least been able to easily go home and back to sleep again.

The second and biggest advantage is that I come from a Western EU country. Since everybody in Spain knows that we will not have any problem to obtain our N.I.E. in the end, at least in my case it seemed that employers, landlords and institutions tended to be quite flexible. If I could not present the full documentation right away, I was allowed to come back and do so once I had it.

This is not the case for most other immigrants who live here. Before they have their paperwork finalized they are confined to the black market for work. In case they have come with their children, these will not have any access to public healthcare, nor to education.

While observing the other people waiting outside the police station in the early morning hour, I must admit to have felt just a little sorry for the many people of Northern and Sub-Saharan African origin. Firstly, they were all men and, secondly, they all seemed to know each other. While they did not make any attempts to approach any of the few policemen who went in and out of the police station before it opened, there certainly was a lot of loud greeting going on whenever a new person joined their group.

What really touched me, on the other hand, was the plight of the many Latin Americans waiting in the square. One of the reasons was probably that they tend to be quite small and therefore look more vulnerable and also that, among them, there were many women coming alone to arrange their documentation. There was one woman who had spent the whole night in the hard, cold square, trying to keep warm in a sleeping bag, just to make sure to be the first in line. Luckily enough I did not have to see the worst. In our local newspaper, Diari de Vilanova, there have been horror stories about some mothers having had to bring small children to wait with them throughout the night, since as poor immigrants they could not arrange for anyone to look after them.

The main reason for my compassion, however, was that these were all people who, in my eyes, had reason to believe that they belonged here in Spain, since they share the same mother tongue. I envied them for their capacity to fire away questions to any policeman they managed to catch and guess that they were hoping to be recognized as individuals in order to receive some favourable treatment or at least be reassured that this morning, they would finally receive the queue number which many of them had failed to get on earlier attempts.

Seeing their desperation it become clear to me how little they must feel that they belong here in spite of their fluency in Spanish, and for me, vice versa, that I had all reasons to feel welcome, although I was still struggling to put together comprehensive sentences. It was the first time I made that discovery and I sent more than one thought of thanks to the bureaucrats in Brussels. Maybe that is one of the most beautiful ideas of the co-operation in the European Union – that we belong together although we do not share the same language.