Thursday, 28 June 2007

Sant Joan – the noisiest night of the year

Sant Joan can be celebrated with big fires and a huge amount of people on the beaches of Barcelona. I celebrated it with a few friends, here in Vilanova. Judging from the noise level we reached in our small town, I am grateful that I did not look for anything wilder.

Catalans will agree that one characteristic feature which they have in common with people from other parts of Spain, is the love for anything that booms or explodes. It is almost as if the size of the fireworks and the loudness of the crackers are decisive factors for a the reputation of a place, something we are reminded of now in the summer when each town celebrates its festa major. Luckily enough, these parties are held at different dates, so people who prefer calm can easily go to a different town for the night.

During Sant Joan there is no escape, at least not here in Catalonia. To make things worse, this is not like New Years Eve, when most pyrotechnics go off at a certain time. Already many days before the event do we have to live with regular explosions, in the town centre as well as on the beach. When the actual celebrations take place in the evening of the 23rd of June, the sound background bears more resemblance with a war report on TV, than with the national festivities I am used to from Sweden.

A true Sant Joan party, verbena, can be held anywhere outdoors but preferably around a bonfire. The fire has the symbolic effect of clearing up the skies and scaring away evil spirits but also is, practically enough in a country where apartments are small, a good opportunity for people to get rid of old furniture. In a few neighbourhoods, the authorities help to collect the stuff to be burnt to make sure that the bonfires are piled up in a safe way. However, it is the spontaneously organized beach parties in Barcelona which attract the biggest crowds. So many people try to reach the coast area about the same time that public transport usually collapses. This year, the metro had to close for some hours since the authorities simply could not guarantee people’s safety on the overfull platforms.

Personally, I have no need to go to the beaches of Barcelona for Sant Joan. I am always horrified with the pictures of tons of litter being cleaned away the day after. Our new au-pair went somewhere close to Port Olímpic with her friends, but they left early with a comment that there were too many strange people there. It might be an old tradition to jump over fire on this supposedly magic night, but I am not sure that I see the beauty in it when most people who do it are either overly drunk or high on drugs.

My guests and I had planned for a calmer celebration. I did not find any recommendations of typical Sant Joan main courses, but since my friends come from the landlocked Czech Rebpublic, it was easy for me to impress them with fresh seafood - Girona-style monkfish ovenbaked with prawns, tomato and burnt garlic. For dessert, we had the traditional coca de Sant Joan, decorated with caramelized fruits and pine seeds. To add local flavour of the dinner, the food was accompanied by a Penedès white wine and cava for drinks. For all the success I might have had with the cooking, I could not do anything about the constant bangs and booms, repeatedly followed by angrily barking dogs.

I am not sure whether it was the wine, the noise or simply the fact that we are parents with small children, but we all got tired embarrassingly early. Many other Vilanovins did not. Before we went to bed we observed a man shooting off one firework after the other just below our balcony. He obviously enjoyed the moment, although his wife was his only audience and she seemed far less interested. It must have taken him about an hour to finish all the crackers he had bought and the scene left us - his secret Czech and Swedish spectators - totally stunned firstly by his almost childish enthusiasm but then even more by his wife’s patience, where she stood in the street with their sleeping baby in her arms.

For all the hostile atmosphere, it is Saint John the Baptist who has lent his name to the Spanish version of this originally pagan holiday. However, there still seem to be limited success in making it Christian. My guests are Catholics so I followed them to the church Sant Antoni on the actual day of Sant Joan and truly hope that what we took part in was not a well-visited mass. The congregation was small and notably old, but maybe this was only due to the fact that all young church goers had had a too active night. Some of them had not even finished the party yet. I estimated that still on the Sunday morning, loud explosions came with a time interval of less than ten minutes.

Yesterday Wednesday was the first truly calm day for more than a week. There were some odd bangs, but we are getting back to normal. Sant Joan is a beautiful holiday but, honestly, does it really have to be so noisy?

Friday, 22 June 2007

Polònia – the proof that Catalans are special

Catalans can be difficult to joke with since they tend to be very proud people. If you feel that local culture is taken too seriously here, the satiric TV show Polònia proves that they also have the capacity to laugh at themselves. The program is a must for anyone interested in learning more about the Catalan society of today.

Catalonia is one of the richest Spanish autonomous regions. Although Madrid is doing a good job in making itself more attractive for international business, for many industries Barcelona is still the preferred location in Spain. Few other regions can match our tourism offer of a modern big city surrounded by attractive beaches as well as mountains, so Catalans have quite a few things to boast about.

However, for many foreigners living here, their pride often comes across as exaggerated nationalism. While we meet a society where Catalan clearly dominates media and all public institutions, many local people still see the their culture and language as threatened. With some of them, any comment which can be interpreted as critical provokes a strong defensive position. If you have a need to tell a Catalan that they could be more punctual or better organized, you will immediately learn how much worse people from the rest of Spain are in those aspects. If you find flaws in the way trains and air traffic works, the problems, of course, stem from the fact that these services are controlled not from here, but from Madrid, and that the decision makers spend all money in the capital.

Most likely for the different language, people from other parts of Spain call Catalans polacos, Poles, which is the reason why one of the most popular TV-shows about society here is called Polònia. What I really like about this program is that it does not deal with Catalonia as a tender plant which needs to be protected to be able to flourish in the future, but as a existing fact, strong enough to withstand critical remarks or even being laughed at.

I warmly recommend Polònia to any tourist who speaks Spanish and wants some flavour to the Catalan fet diferencial. Just like in daily life here, the program is built on constant linguistic jumps depending on each person’s background. Characters from Catalonia speak Catalan and, as can be expected, politicians are the main target. Socialist José Montilla, the president of the generalitat is easy to make fun of since Catalan is not his native tongue.

His predecessor, fellow socialist Pasqual Maragall, also shows up on a weekly basis. Barely had he left his position as president, before he started to criticize the most notable achievement during his term in office, the estatut, a charter for local independence in Catalonia. His new project is to build a European platform to in practice show that Catalonia does not depend on Spain to merit a prominent position in the world. I like his positively formulated message, but his total lack of modesty makes him a very easy target. Artur Mas, leader of the opposition CiU, is one of the many politicians who gets a simplified presentation, constantly being against whatever the Catalan government says. Finally, among the non-politicians, super-chef Ferran Adrià with his experimental cuisine and slightly odd voice is a perfect background for a caricature.

In the sketches spoken in Castillano, His Majesty the King Juan Carlos and his family make frequent appearances, usually in quite good-hearted jokes. The ghost of the old general Franco tends to be treated with the lack of respect that you can expect Catalans to feel for him and I certainly do not disagree. Mariano Rajoy, the opposition leader from PP has a neutral solid look and a good voice which could make him a difficult target. Again, a repeated funny hand movement and his notoriously negative rhetorics adds all the input which a comedian needs to build a funny character. His predecessor as the PP chairman and former prime minister, José Maria Aznar, receives a tougher treatment, especially since this formerly serious politician recently defended people’s rights to drive by car although they have drunk a bit.

Politicians world-wide have a tendency to avoid guilt of anything bad. Catalan politics has had its share of corruption scandals, as if to prove that things are not always good just because they are regional or local. On June 10, in his column in La Vanguardia, Toni Soler, the director of Polònia, pointed out that politicians seem to interpret his program in quite contradictory ways. Before it existed, some of them complained that Catalonia needed more satire for people to take regional politics seriously.

Now, when such a show not only exists but enjoys viewer numbers close to one million people, in a region of seven million in total, the message is the opposite. When the rate of blank votes and people who abstained from voting went up in recent local elections, some politicians tried to blame this on Polònia’s trivializaton of politics.

Why do not politicians worry more about their own behaviour and less about how it subsequently is interpreted in satire? For me, this TV show is one of the most sophisticated parts of the Catalan culture and it makes understand why I feel proud to form part of society here, in Polònia.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Outdoor Sports Facilities in Vilanova

Vilanova i la Geltrú is far from perfect. Only in the quarters of la Geltrú are streets preserved in a way so that tourists will perceive the town as “genuinely Mediterranean”. Huge construction sites in the middle of the centre reinforce the town’s old industrial reputation. With the nature and climate we enjoy here, it is easy to picture a more attractive scenario.

I often have my doubts about how our local authorities prioritize different projects and I am repeatedly disappointed with the time it takes to finalize them. However, when you follow the political debate, you will find out that all local parties have advanced plans for how to improve the quality of life here and I like the idea of living in a town in development. Like elsewhere in Spain, much energy is spent on finding ways to attract quality tourism, but we have very tough competition. Barcelona will always beat us on culture and art. Costa Brava and Sitges have much more attractive beaches and Vilafranca del Penedès easily comes out on top for rural tourism. My recommendation for Vilanova is to focus the resources available where we have the chance to be the best – outdoor sports.

Summer is here and the air is getting more humid by the day. My wife has decided that it is too warm for jogging but I still appreciate to go for a run. Vilanova’s beach promenade is lively throughout the evening and well-illuminated so there is little danger in going out after the sun has set. Running and walking are outdoor sports where Vilanova already does very well. As if the local authorities were aware of that, they have built a number of workout stations along the beach with pictures showing how they are intended to be used. To add value to a good thing which already exists usually is a cost efficient development strategy.

Vilanova has a beautiful marina. It is dominated by small boats and until now I have been prejudiced enough to think that this is because rich people prefer to show off their yachts in more prestigious places. Last weekend, however, did our local newspaper make me understand that only with the opening of the new part of the marina will Vilanova meet the technical requirements of big boats. The port authority is working with a plan to create one of the best yacht service areas in the Mediterranean. I will be happy to follow their progess.

Already today do they offer sailing courses, an alternative for those who do not have capital to invest in their own boats. Since I easily get sea sick, I am not in a hurry to learn to sail, but if one day in the future our children would be interested, I will be fast to accept the challenge. I could think of much more boring places to spend time with my children than at the marina and the sea.

In a coastal town like this, you will expect to find football goals and beach volleyball nets on the beach and so you do in Vilanova but, unfortunately, with quite poor quality standards. The basket ball and football playgrounds you find around the platja de Ribes Roges would also need more maintenance, but this does not seem to put of the crowds of young people, many of them immigrants, who regularly make use of them. The area for petanca is sadly underused, though. I wonder if it is the young people close by or the high weeds that scare away potential players.

There is a 18 hole golf course in the north of Vilanova, close to the camping site, and as of what I have heard it is not too bad. I keep my clubs next to the computer to be reminded that there was a time when I had decided to take up this sport but, for now, with small children, we have to make do with less time consuming sports. My wife has played since she was young, so as often in ball games, it is me who is the weakest link.

Finally, my best recommendation to local politicians who want to gain quality vistors is to focus on cycling. Already today can the tourist information office provide you with a map of proposed tracks, what remains to be done is to improve the road and safety conditions for bikers. Some of the municipalities of the Garraf district have already started the work to build separate bike lanes. If these can be linked together in a proper way, they will create a fantastic network for tourists who want to go by bicycle and explore different beaches, from Sitges to Cubelles. I hope that our local politicians understand the potential gains of these relatively modest investments. They would benefit the whole of Garraf, but most of all Vilanova, by linking us to our more picturesque neighbours.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

The spotlight is on my son – and on me

When I was in primary school in Sweden in the late 70-ies, pupils used to take turn to be the monitor of the week. Here in his Catalan school, our oldest son has just had the chance to be the protagonista de la setmana. Since he is not yet four years old, his duties were limited to be first in line when the class went out for breaks. That did not diminish how special he felt – partly thanks to me.

Children start school early in Spain. Unless you sign up your children at the age of three, you have small chances to get them into any of the good publicly financed schools. About a year ago we were very fortunate to discover our oldest son’s name on the list of children accepted to a half-private (concertada) school with a very good reputation.

To Swedes, Spanish schools come across as quite closed. From when the school day starts at 9 a.m. until it finishes at 4.45 p.m., the school gates remain locked. It feels safe that outsiders are not let in, but at the same time a bit excluding that we are not able to observe what is going on inside the class room. True, we have had individual evaluation meetings with our son’s teacher as well as a meeting with the other parents, but far from the open-doors and parents’ days which are common in Sweden.

However, maybe this is just a cultural difference on how we expect to receive information. Our son spends the whole day in school since, as typical Swedes, both my wife and I have our professional careers. Most of his class mates go home for lunch, so for parents who have the time, this allows for four, albeit short, daily meetings with the teacher. People here usually need much less of a common interest than school to start to talk to each other. It would not surprise me if my wife and I in fact are the only parents of the class who are not up-dated on what is going on. We simply have not yet learnt to make use of social networking but expect formal invitations, like in Sweden.

For the opportunity to take part in the the school activities, I looked forward to our son’s turn as protagonista. Still, these were mixed emotions because as the parent of the protagonista you are supposed to hold a class with the children. While I am used to making presentations for grown-ups in Spanish, this was the first time I had to do it for small children and, as an additional challenge, in Catalan. My wife was quite happy to avoid the Catalan part and instead put together a collage of family photos.

Luckily enough, I did get a smooth initiation. Since I had already taken a day off, I did not hesitate to help out as an accompanying parent when the teacher took the whole class for a visit to Vilanova’s train station in the morning. My son was much less intimidated by having me in the classroom than I thought he would be. I could have felt a bit hurt when he asked his teacher, and not me, for a glass of water, but I was too proud listening to his perfect Catalan.

My own language test came in the afternoon. Faithful to my plan, I started with some comments on our family’s background, but it turned out that the whole class already new that Melker is Swedish. Well, what else can you expect in a class with only two foreigners? Then we moved over to talk about how to lay a table – my personal adaptation of “my work”, a more typical presentation topic.

It turned out that, in theory, all the children were fully aware that we do not wipe off greasy hands neither on our clothes nor on the tablecovers but on paper or napkins. We practiced to put glasses, plates and cutlery in the right positions on the table and then I was not allowed to finish folding napkins before all pupils had received their own. This was time consuming but for my son this was probably the best part of it all. He was helping me by proudly presenting his class mates with napkins and other products which I had brought.

I know that our son enjoyed being protagonista for a week and above all the day when I took part in the class room. I grateful to his teacher for helping me with the language of my manuscript and, even more, for helping me out with all the words which I had not prepared but urgently needed in the middle of the presentation. Somehow I must have managed to make myself understood. Before, if I ever addressed my son in Catalan at home, he angrily informed me that “we speak Swedish here”. Now he has started to add that I am allowed to speak Catalan, as long as I do it in his school.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Restaurants in Vilanova: El Genito - the local state-of-the-art

A good restaurant tells a story. It brings you into a certain mood, gives you an insight into a new culture, makes you feel that you are at home or, the opposite, that what you are experiencing is exclusive and unique. El Genito tells the story about Vilanova i la Geltrú. It is a place for those in our town who want to see and be seen. At the same time, it brings to the table the riches of a culinarily spoiled region.

Yesterday evening I was driving home from the outskirts of Barcelona. I was content with the day but tired and therefore quite grumpy about the congested traffic which is a recurring Friday problem on all exits from the metropolitan area. By mistake, I ended up on the national road N-340, but this turned out to be fortunate. The further away I came from Barcelona the more picturesque was the landscape. The sun had just started to set when I made the final miles to Vilafranca del Penedès, the heart of Catalonia’s white wine region. On both sides of the road, lines of grapevine were stretching over the rolling landscape. I promised myself to soon bring my family here to share the sight with them.

The low mountains which separate Vilafranca from Vilanova form a borderline between two different kinds of scenery. On the northern side you have a lush fertile agricultural landscape. When you reach the other side, in Vilanova, the weather conditions are much harsher. Here, we have got used to living with the strong wind from the sea and the big amounts of sand it sends into the town. Foodwise, however, this side is equally blessed. What can not be achieved by farming is more than compensated for by the fishery.

Driving through the region certainly got in the mood for the dinner which my wife and I had planned for El Genito for the eveing. I knew that we would be offered food specialties from the varied landscape which I had just observed from the car. As always at El Genito, the waiters presented us with two menues. The smaller one, per picar, contains the tapes – the different kinds of iberic hams, sausages and cheeses which you also find in the delicatessen counter. In the other one, per menjar, you find combined dishes for a full meal. As the simple table decorations reveal, this is a place for informal dining and you are free to mix and match between the menues.

We started with some glasses of cava in the bar and then continued with some of the day’s special recommendations. When the tallarines de Vilanova, which we thought would be pasta tossed with mussles turned out to only be mussels, I first felt a bit sorry for my wife who is usually not too fond of that. However, we both found these small, triangleshaped mussels cooked in garlic totally delicious. We also had fine potato sticks topped with a fried egg and an aubergine baked with goat cheese. All the dishes were traditional and local, with a glass of red wine as the only exception.

El Genito offers classic main courses as well, but if you stay with tapes and the specials, this place is a bargain. Our check totalled less than € 45. Reservations are absolutely needed since the restaurant fills up already in the low season. One way to get a table is to start dinner early. The delicatessen store is open already in the afternoon and you can continue from cold tapes to warm food once the kitchen opens. If you do not manage to get a table, you will be allowed to have your food in the bar, but do not count on this option, since even that area tends to be crowded.

Why do we not eat here more often? Well, to be honest, we have simply got so accustomed to international and fusion cuisine that we can not fully appreciate a homely fare, in spite of all the fresh ingredients and the genuinity of the recepies. Having said that, no other place tops El Genito's atmosphere so we will at least pass by for a glass of local cava before we go to other restaurants.