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.