Friday, 29 February 2008

Heja Sverige!

Are not the English fortunate? Wherever they travel in the world, they can be sure to find people interested in their royal family, in the premier league or in any of their pop stars, from the Beatles up to last week’s charts.

Now, imagine how different things are for us Swedes. Nobody outside Scandinavia knows much about our royalties and not even Norwegians and Danes care about allsvenskan, our top football league. So do not be surprised if we are a bit obsessed with those of our musicians who have an international reputation. Since I come from the Swedish town Halmstad, I maybe ought to claim that Roxette is our most famous pop group, but no: ABBA is the unchallenged number one.

The ABBA members have given us more than dance music. They have fallen in love, they have got married and then they have divorced. Some of the members have withdrawn from public life while others have had commercial successes. I admit that they are far behind Prince Charles, but still today do they give us things to talk about.

With that in mind, it is not surprising that we were 46 expat Swedes who had accepted the proposal by the SWEA choir and the Swedish-Spanish Chamber of Commerce to go and watch Mamma Mia! tonight. The two ABBA men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, have been involved in making this musical, so it goes without saying that we can not let the Catalans know more about a Swedish contribution to world culture than we know ourselves.

And not only patriotism made us like the show. While we seemed to agree that some of the singers were a bit weak, we thought that the lighting on the scenography, the choreography and, most importantly, the total atmosphere met high standards.

Since we have grown up with the original ABBA versions of the songs, most of us would have preferred to see the show in English. However, as an alternative, Spanish is a beautiful language for singing: “Quizás bailemos un rato, con cuidado, chato...”

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Jordi Pujol - a Catalan Father-Figure

I should not have looked forward to the debate between Zapatero and Rajoy yesterday. Today (Tuesday), LaVanguardia and Avui have reported it and on radio Ondacero I have heard it repeated time and time again: the debate was so predictable that it was not worth watching. The person quoted is not just any Catalan, they come from Jordi Pujol i Soley, this country’s only living political father-figure.

Born in 1930, Pujol has built his reputation step by step. During the Franco dictatorship, he had to spend 2,5 years in prison for being an activist for the suppressed Catalan culture and language. His spirit unbroken, he kept on working for his ideals and in 1974 he was one of the founders of the political party Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), today one of the two groupings within Convergencia i Unió (CiU).

As a result of the Spanish transition to democracy, he was elected the President (de la Generalitat) of Catalonia and then re-elected as many as five consecutive times before he stepped down in 2003. I did not yet live here during his years as President, but have learnt that many people look back at it as kind of a golden era. As a statesman, Pujol acted as if Catalonia already existed as an independent state and therefore, apparently, used to be received with formal ceremony when he travelled abroad.

Pujol still plays an active role in society. He might come across as a bit self-important – that is how he tends to be portrayed in the political TV satire Polonia – but that is largely due to the attention people pay to him. That we all know what he thought about the debate yesterday, does in fact say more about media than about Pujol himself.

A more substantial comment which he also made today – that Catalans have to choose to either surrender or react in the coming elections, and that voting for PSOE or PP is as bad as not voting at all – seems not to have made the same amount of headlines.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Status Quo

The two top candidates to future prime minister of Spain have just finished their first public debate during this election campaign and I am currently following the analysis of it. All commentators seem focused on the role they play for the parties they support and therefore only give evidence why their candidate won. “Rajoy ha ganado, es tan claro” (Rajoy has won, it is as clear as that), one of them is screaming (he literally is). Well, I am sure that it is obvious to him, but not to me.

The initial polls on newspaper web sites are equally disparate. In Lavanguardia, issued in Catalonia where PP is always weak, a clear majority thinks that Zapatero has won, while in the business newspaper Expansión, Rajoy comes out as the absolute winner.

In the end, it does not matter so much who won, the important thing is that the debate has taken place and that there will be a second round on March 3. An enormous amount of time and energy has been spent on the preparations of formalities about exactly what to discuss and how to design the studio to create a neutral playground.

The candidates can be accused for having interrupted each other, for having focused too much on history or on their own favourite arguments, but they have met and that adds transparency to politics here. Spain is a society so split between left and right, and even more between centralism and regionalism, that it has been fifteen years since this last happened.

“We have asked very clear questions and the other side has not answered any of them.” The comment could have been made by either party.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Political Parties of Catalonia - a Summary for the 2008 Elections

My wife complains that she knows more about the American primary elections than about the March 9 elections to the Spanish parliament (el Congreso de los Diputados de las Cortes Generales). For a politically interested blogger like me that is, of course, embarrassing so I have decided to sum up what the main parties stand for.

In this entry, I want to be as objective as possible, but admit to have had difficulties to select which ideas to list. In case anyone can argue that I do not correctly present a certain party, I will be happy to make changes. There will, however, be a limit to five proposals per party. The order of the parties is according to their current number of members of parliament (MPs) representing Catalonia (47 of 350 in total).

Partit Socialista de Catalunya (PSC) are the Catalan branch of PSOE and have 21 MPs. Their top candidate is Carme Chacón (Minister of Housing in the sitting government). They want to…
# Create 350.000 new jobs in the coming four years.
# Increase the minimum salary to € 800 per month and minimum pensions to € 200.
# Prolong the right to paternity leave from 2 to 4 weeks.
# Establish a anti-discrimination law against xenophobia, homophobia etc.
# Build more subsidised apartments out of which 50.000 in Catalonia.

Convergencia i Unió (CiU) are right-wing liberals and have 10 MPs. Their top candidate is Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida. They want to…
# Build respect for Catalonia and officially declare Spain to be a multinational state.
# Develop all rights and competences as set out in the autonomy charter (estatut) of Catalonia.
# Build an infrastructure of excellence to attract investments into Catalonia.
# Re-establish the value of effort, quality and respect in the school system.
# Modernise the labour market through reforms for flexicurity.

Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) are left-wing republicans and have 8 MPs. Their top candidate is Joan Ridao. They want to…
# Make Catalonia an independent “premier league” country.
# Have transparency in how much Catalonia contributes to the Spanish state budget over the taxes versus how much it receives back.
# Improve the subsidies for families with children and/or people with handicaps.
# Increase minimum salaries to 60% of the average level and improve pensions.
# Build more subsidised housing.

Partit Popular (Partido Poplular, PP) are the conservative main opposition party to the sitting PSOE government. From Catalonia, where they are relatively weak, they only have 6 MPs. Their top candidate is Dolors Nadal. They want to…
# Unite Spain into one common project to gain strength in a globalised world.
# Fight terrorism and not negotiate with separatists like ETA of the Basque Country.
# Strengthen the police and the judiciary system in order to fight crime.
# Make the labour market more dynamic to gain international competitiveness.
# Make immigrants integrate into society and put a brake on illegal immigration.

Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds – Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (ICV-EUiA) are left-wing ecologists with a Catalan perspective and have 2 MPs. In the Spanish parliament they form part of the 'United left' group (Izquierda Unida). Their top candidate is Joan Herrera. They want to…
# Carry out a ‘green’ tax reform, supporting renewable energy sources and emission cuts.
# Introduce a 35 hour work week.
# Increase the progressiveness of the Spanish tax system to reach EU15 average tax levels.
# Set up a strategic plan against climate change and develop the railway network.
# Increase minimum salaries to € 1.000 or 60% of the average salary.

Ciutadans/Ciutadanos (citizens), finally, is a new party which is represented in the Parliament of Catalonia, but not yet in Madrid. Their top candidate is Albert Rivera. They want to…
# Unite society against terrorism, regional nationalism, racism and sexism.
# Carry out an electoral reform for a more proportionate representation in the Spanish parliament.
# Decentralise local power to build citizen participation.
# Regulate the use of Spanish as the official language of the state.
# Guarantee the right to education in the mother tongue in public schools for anyone who speaks an official language.

On March 9, we expats do not have the right to vote, but these elections will have consequences for anyone who plans to live in Catalonia or the rest of Spain during the coming four years. Let us hope that our neighbours make a good choice.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Catalans, Let Your Anger Out - Go and Vote!

Apparently, only 59% of Catalans entitled to do so, have decided to vote in the coming elections to the Spanish parliament. In 2004, a massive voter turn-out here (76%) played a big role for the change of government. That was largely a protest against PP, for adapting the reasons behind the March 11 (2004) train bombings in Madrid to their own agenda. Only to a smaller extent was it a vote for Zapatero who, subsequently during four years in power, has not always seemed to care about his Catalan supporters.

The popular explanation to the low interest is that people are fed with up with Spain’s dominating parties – the ruling socialists and the conservative PP. However, that is to disregard the fact that Catalonia has Spain’s richest range of local parties with a realistic chance to win seats in parliament. Catalan nationalist can show their disappointment with the two big ones by voting for right-wing liberal CiU, left-wing ecologists ICV-EUA or the fiercely nationalist left of ERC. Spanish nationalist, on the other hand, will find their alternative in Ciutadans.

I am not surprised that the socialists have a relatively high share of voters who have not yet decided whether to vote or not, that is normal for a main stream party. But that the inclination to vote for the catalanist ERC is even lower does not make sense to me. Spain will continue to exist beyond March 9 and either Zapatero will continue in power, or PP will have an opportunity to change society as of their ideology. The Spanish parliament will not lose legitimacy, only the Catalan voice in Madrid will suffer.

In a democratic state, the rational choice for those who want a change in politics is always to vote. This time it seems that a low voter turn-out in Catalonia will benefit PP, which means that anyone who decides not to vote, passively give them their support. Personally, I much prefer Catalans who show that they are irritated (emprenyats) to those who stay and sulk at home.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Drivers with Guardian Angels - on Spanish Traffic Accidents

Sunday evenings can bring unease as it is, but to make things worse, this is when Catalan and Spanish TV make a summary of the road deaths of the weekend. As if the high numbers were not enough to shock us, they are usually presented with terribly explicit pictures of the accidents.

When we left Sweden seven years ago, the Swedish Road Administration had been successful in communicating its objective to reach zero road deaths. And we have believed that things must be developing well, since Swedes are so careful drivers:

# Swedes always make a full stop at stop signs, while people here merely slow down.
# Swedes stop when traffic signals switch to amber, while most drivers here give the gas pedal a push when the light changes to red.
# On highways, Swedes slavishly go back to the right lane unless they are overtaking, while lane hopping, with overtaking wherever possible, is common here.
# Swedish children are always belted and their parents put on the safety belt preferably before they even start the car (I admit that I am one of them). Here people are a lot more relaxed.
# Swedes know not to drive the day after they have been drinking, while the custom here is that a couple of glasses of wine should not prevent you from driving. One high profile Spanish politician has even defended people’s right to drink driving.

For these reasons, we were highly surprised when a fellow Swedish blogger opened up our eyes to reality and yesterday we received it black on white in statistics from the European Union for 2007. The death toll of 2.741 people in Spain is a decrease with 9% compared to 2006, while the 490 road deaths in Sweden represent an increase with 10%. With a fast split by the number of inhabitants, Spain comes out only slightly worse than Sweden and that is before you add the huge number of tourists on the Spanish roads.

My wife and I are of course happy to see that our new home is not as dangerous as we have thought. But we honestly do not understand how it can be.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Llívia - a Spanish Town in France

When you leave Catalonia after Puigcerda, you drive through one idyllic village after the other, all with shop signs in French. If, all of a sudden, you see that the cars have Spanish registration plates, then you have reached Llívia.

“Which languages do you speak here - Catalan and French?”, I asked in Catalan in a grocery store. “No, Spanish and Catalan”, answered the shop assistant in Spanish – a situation which could have taken place anywhere in Catalonia of today, but Llívia is totally encircled by France.

According to the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, Spain had to cede land and villages of this area to France. What the French had overlooked was that Llívia counted as a town (vila) and therefore could be claimed by the Spanish crown.

The place is as busy as you can expect from a town with just over 1.000 inhabitants. The architecture is very different from what we are used to in the coastal area, but in all honesty looks the same as in the other villages of the Cerdanya valley. What makes Llívia unique is its history which you are able to discover on multi-language plaques in the streets. I would have loved to visit the museum as well but it is currently being renovated. Imagine how isolated it must have been to live here during the years of the paranoid Franco dictatorship, when there were strict controls on the border with the rest of Spain.

Thanks to the Schengen treaty, you nowadays easily move from one country to the other. Llívia is a good example that people do not change as fast. Instead, we stick to the language which is given to us by birth and convention, also when that is not necessarily practical any longer.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Drop-Out Rate from Spanish Schools Scarily High

Our children happen to be in a good, half-private (concertada) school, but we have moved here to stay and have to see to society as a whole. Therefore, I am truly upset to see how poorly the Spanish school system fares in international comparisons.

According to a recent study, Spanish schools have the third the highest drop-out rate in the European Union, 29,6%% versus the EU average at 15,3%. Only Malta and Portugal are worse and this is not a simple question about money, since some poorer countries like the Czech Republic and Poland stand out for their low figures.

The situation is rightly being critizised by the conservative PP and the Catalan liberals in CiU and both parties talk about the need to restore respect for teachers. With the amount of unfavourable data available, it is not surprising that the ruling prime minister, socialist Zapatero, is trying to make a pre-emptive strike. If he wins the elections, he now promises reforms which will put a focus on the English language, mathematics and general reading comprehension.

As long as the parties keep their promises, whoever will form the new government, public education should thus become a priority. But improving the reading comprehension will be the key to success and that is a huge task since 25,7% of Spanish pupils currently have difficulties. All parents to children of school age had better take note. As expats we are not allowed to vote, but that does not meant that we can allow ourselves to think that the coming elections concern only those with a Spanish passport.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Spain ahead of France in the Protection of Minority Languages

Catalans can be negative about how the rest of Spain deals with matters related to their culture. Although I would not argue that they are wrong, it is worth pointing out that here and nowadays, the Catalan language enjoys official recognition and support. This is is not the case on the French side of the border, in Catalunya Nord.

This weekend we went skiing in Font Romeu with some friends. The resort claims to be one of the sunniest in the Pyrenees and therefore houses one of Europe’s biggest solar panels. The snow obviously tends to be wet in the afternoons, but thanks to an extensive network of snow canons, the conditions for skiing are good at least for those who do not feel any urge to go off-piste.

The ski lift system is small, but for a family with small children it is ideal for a weekend stay. I am an intermediate skier and was content with challenging myself on the black slopes. My wife, on the other hand, regretted that many of the red slopes were temporarily closed, since she found the blue ones a bit too unexciting. Our hotel Claire Soleil, finally, surprised us with excellent five course dinners and a very hospitable management. That is, as long as you speak some French.

Language wise I can not help being highly disappointed, since the name Font Romeu (the Pilgrim’s source) is of Catalan origin. “Nobody here speaks Catalan, but you might find some old people in the town who still do”, I was informed when asking at the hotel. Our four year old did not complain, but rapidly learned how to order jus de pomme (apple juice) and ask for our room key, number dix-huit (eighteen) in French.

The French state has admittedly been scarily successful in eradicating languages, but is that an excuse for northern Catalans of today? They receive a lot of tourists from Catalonia and seem happy to make use of Catalan symbols like the flag and the red barretina (beret) on postcards and souvenirs. Is it too much to ask that they show a bit of interest in the language as well?

Friday, 15 February 2008

Public Art in Vilanova

Public art is an interesting phenomenon. Since it is usually paid for through public funds, you could expect it to exist for the common good, but in Catalonia as in Sweden it is often criticised for being elitist and overly abstract.

For those interested in public art, I can not claim that Vilanova has much to offer. On the other hand, for us who live here, it is nice to learn more about what we pass by everyday. Today, I had the opportunity to join my oldest son’s school class for an art walk through the town.

The statue over José Tomás Ventosa at Plaça de la Vila, is above all a monument over a famous local personality. But since it is made of three easily identifiable materials - marble, sand stone and copper - it served well to open up a discussion on art techniques.

The monument over vilanovins who died in Nazi concentration camps worked well with the children, since you can ask them what they think it is rather than to have to give a correct answer. I really like it, but would want to see it moved to one of Vilanova’s many roundabouts. Its current position in the Plaça de la Peixateria, next to the entry of an underground parking lot, does not do it justice.

“A fishing net” was how one of the pupils described the symbolic gate which has been erected close to what once used to be the town’s northern limits. As I see it, it harmonizes very well with the rest of the Plaça de les Casernes, where it stands.

Since public art risks being questioned, it is worth mentioning that the angel of the Sant Antoni Abat church, was put back only recently by general request. Its predecessor was lost when communists destroyed the church during the Civil War. I do not consider it especially artistic, but agree that an angel which points out where the wind comes from is a correct decoration on top of the highest building in a traditional fishermen’s town.

The torn bodies of “Home i Dona” (Man and Woman) in the Plaça del Mercat make a sad impression on me. Having said that, many of the buildings which surround it are terrible eye sores. Therefore, I am still content to have some quality art to rest my eyes on.

My personal Vilanova art favourite is Pasífae. This bull statue was too far away for our excursion today, but I plan to come back to it in a later entry. The beach Ribes Roges, where it stands, will only gain in attraction as it gets warmer.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Proud Embassadors

Once a year, when our oldest son is the monitor of the class (protagonista de la setmana), we are allowed to enter into the classroom during school hours. Many parents enjoy this opportunity to see how the children interact, but I think that we as expats parents appreciate it more than most. For language reasons, our four-year-old is a bit more reserved than his classmates, but he radiates with pride when we support him to take centre stage.

Today he was especially happy not only since my wife and I both turned up, but also because we were to talk about Sweden. Officially, he has never lived there, but three long summers stays with his grandparents have left lasting memories.

So how did we present our country? Well, we started off from stereotypes about cold, snowy landscapes and vikings, but then added details to the picture by talking about our national holidays (les festes) and animals. The children seemed to like our midsummer dances 'små grodorna' and 'små grisarna' (songs about froggies and piggies). “Costa una mica” ("That is a bit difficult"), one of the pupils reacted when we taught them that piggies in Sweden say “nöff”.

Finally, we had brought coloured papers, pipe cleaners, foam balls and drinking straws so that they could all make small Swedish Easter witches to take home. To have 25 children making these at the same time was hard work – we would never have managed without the support of their teacher.

My two observations are both related to the fact that we are foreigners in Catalonia. Firstly, I can not help being fascinated about how early in life children understand who is a foreigner. Last year some of our son’s class mates knew that he is Swedish. Today when I asked, they all knew. Secondly, children at this age have started to learn patience – only a year ago the same group of children was easily distracted – and listen to us although we speak with an accent, make mistakes and sometimes mix Spanish words into our Catalan. What a rewarding audience.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Coming Back to Tarragona - Same City, New Feelings

When we moved to Spain, we spent our first month in Tarragona, since that is where the company which I used to work for is located. My family and I really wanted to find a new home and I guess that is why we blamed this city for everything which we did not like in Catalonia.

We came here after four years in Bangkok, Thailand, and had got used to meet smiling and service minded people in shops and restaurants. Our Spanish was weak, to say the least, but we did not worry since we were sure that English would do for all basic conversations.

It felt as if Tarragona wanted us to go back again. Supermarket staff always looked grumpy and did not even try to understand questions in English. In most restaurants where we went, the waiters handed us menus written in Catalan, not even in Spanish. To make matters worse, the winter was unusually cold, and our landlord personified the myth of Catalans being tight with money. The central heating was on during the night, but then switched off in the morning. I did not suffer, since I spent my days at work, but I had my wife and our first son to think about as well.

The city's fascinating history did not change our feelings. In the Roman era, Tarraco used to be the capital of the province which comprised the Spain of today. We worked hard not to miss any of the interesting sites – the amphitheatre, the old Roman circus and the old town with its town wall - but explicitly did so in order not to have to come back.

Three years have passed and when we recently spent a slow afternoon in Tarragona, we realised how unfair we have been. The local authorities do a lot to make tourists feel welcome and with nice beaches next to a buzzing centre, the city is attractive also for those with intentions to settle down. By train or car it is only one hour away from Barcelona and property prices are substantially lower.

And it was obvious that among staff in service industries, Spanish is as dominating here as it is in the rest of Catalonia. Tarragona might not be an international metropolitan and it does have a strong local character, but it is not as stubbornly Catalan as we originally thought. That almost felt a bit disappointing.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Another Day in Paradise

“When will you move home?” is a frequent question to, as well as among expats. Since both my wife and I are native Swedes, there is a strong expectation that we will eventually go back again. Maybe we will, but that is not our plan.

And why would we? According to a recent survey, the area where we live offers the best quality of life to foreign professionals. For the tenth year in a row, Barcelona comes out on top, followed by Geneva and, third, Madrid.

There is a negative side to the same survey. Due to the appreciation of the Euro and the real estate price spiral, Barcelona has seen a fast increase in the cost of living. It is now the 31st most expensive business city of the world (Moscow is number one, followed by London, Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong) but was ranked number 56 as late as in 2006. To make matters worse, salary levels here are among the lowest in Western Europe. A small consolation for us is that Madrid is even worse off – the cost of living is higher than in Barcelona while the salary level ranks one position lower than that of the Catalan capital.

I interpret the survey as a proof that quality of life is not about money. At least our family can make do with less here in Spain. We do not feel the same pressure to wear new clothes, make fancy journeys or drive a BMW as we experience when we visit Sweden. The explanation probably lies in the high exposure to sunshine. Hopefully, it makes us happier and therefore less materialistic, but, who knows, maybe we have only become lazier.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Not Immigrants Any Longer

A friend of mine was early to react to and stir up a discussion about a populist poster used in the campaign for the March 9 elections to the Spanish Parliament. It is Mr Duran i Lleida, representing the usually relatively liberal CiU, who when talking about immigrants makes the statement that '...a Catalunya no hi cap tothom’ ( Catalonia there is not room for everyone).

The leader of conservative Partido Popular, Mariano Rajoy, must have seen this as a threat and during the last few days he has been working hard to win the xenophobe vote. His latest proposal is, in short, to set up contracts between immigrants and Spain. People will be allowed to come here to work, but will be requested to integrate in society while they are here, and leave again if one day they would find themselves without a job.

The pre-election campaign has just started so there will be plenty of reasons to come back to how the different parties see immigration as such. But what I do find a bit amusing is that people like myself, resident foreigners from EU countries, do not seem to count as immigrants, not even as foreigners, any longer. Judging by how these two words are being used by Rajoy, they can only refer to no comunitarios (citizens from outside the EU).

Does Rajoy already see all EU citizens as his fellow countrymen? Not only would that be a very progressive stance for a conservative party, he would also immediately win the hearts of Spain’s many Romanian immigrants. What a shame they are not allowed to vote.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Public Mourning - Last Day of the Carnival

Tonight they passed us by in a solemn funeral procession - drummers with suppressed stick movements in the front and loud professional mourners at the end. In between, representatives of Vilanova’s comparses (the carnival societies) lead the way for the carriage carrying the mortal remains of el Rei Carnestoltes (the Carnival King). There will not be any meat served at the closing parties, only sardines and herrings. Not many people stick to the tradition, but today, Ash Wednesday, is the first one of forty days of lent.

The number of people who took part in the procession or lined the sides to watch, yet again reminded me about the role the carnival plays for this town. With the exception for la Guerra de Caramels (the Candy War), our carnival does not attract many visitors so all the people who come out to celebrate do in fact also live here. For the first time, we have made an effort to follow as many events as possible. Although it sounds like a cliché, it has been a great opportunity for us, an expat family, to socialise with the natives of the town.

But now the fireworks have gone off – the carnival in Vilanova i la Geltrú 2008 is over.

Children's Carnivals: Vilanova vs. Sitges

The children’s carnivals reveal the differences in atmosphere and social life which exist between the neighbour towns Vilanova and Sitges.

If you, as a visitor, want your children to be a part of the carnival next year, the Saturday program in Vilanova is my best recommendation. There are no carnival groups in the children’s parades here, they are open for anyone who wants to join. The only hurdle is the language. For children it usually is not a problem that everything is in Catalan – many of them speak this language at school – but foreign born parents can, admittedly, feel a bit excluded.

Sitges, on the other hand, is like a window to the outside world. Not that my small boys understood much, but while we watched the children parade on Tuesday afternoon, it was easy for me to give examples of what Swedes usually think of when hearing the word carnival. Language wise it is easy to connect, there are a lot of expat children who take part in the parade. However, no matter how nice fancy dresses your children wear, they can not really participate. This is a well rehearsed show – there are several groups of young girls who dance proper samba.

Funnily enough, there do not seem to be any parents who take their boys to dancing school, although this town is known for its open-minded atmosphere. Or, maybe, that is the reason why.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Villanueva y Geltrú

The Carnival tradition is strong in Vilanova. Thanks to an exception during the Franco dictatorship, people here were allowed to put on fancy dresses although his regime otherwise was not too fond of neither satire, nor people wearing masks.

But traditions do not make the carnival last longer. Tonight we might hear a light noise from those who celebrate el Vidalot (meaning something like La Dolce Vita). That is Vilanova’s modest closing parade and nothing like the wild party which is now going on in Sitges.

Before those who take part in el Vidalot took to the streets, they had the chance to participate in the carnival costume competition. The ceremony in itself was quite entertaining and met higher standards than most of the participants. When it started, there were two Catalan speaking presenters, but they immediately saw their show crashed by two chic Spanish speaking people who wanted to present as well. The newcomers were shocked to have ended up in Villanueva (the town's official name during the Franco years), since their intention had been to go to Sitges. After all, it is only five minutes away from here.

In the competition class ‘satire’, I was happy to see my personal favourite be the winner: the one-euro-store, or el xinès, as they are called here. There are plenty of them in the centre of Vilanova and that probably says a thing or two about our town.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Soft Catalan Social Engineering

The carnival is approaching its end and yesterday, Monday, the children had their closing ceremony, called the Comparsa del Vidalet. Since it is a popular event, we started off in three locations and walked to the Plaça de la Vila in separate parades. When we all came together, the funny characters who had accompanied us, took of their stilts and started to sing and dance on the stage.

My oldest son was highly impressed with the confetti cannons. The organisers had made a point of using recycled paper, to add an instructive element to the fun.

One song followed after the other. Last year, there was a lot of talking in this show, but for children as young as ours, the new format worked much better. “Saltem i ballem” (Let us jump and dance) were some of the few words I managed to catch in a song which has been made about the Carnaval de Vilanova. For coming years, the children will practise it at school in advance. What a nice way to build a feeling of belonging among the small ones.

Carnival of Sitges: Rua de Disbauxa

In front of my neighbours, I would say that the carnival of Vilanova is the best in the world. But that of Sitges happens to be world famous and, geographically, we are so close. What good excuses to go there Sunday evening to watch their Rua de la Disbauxa (the Debauchery Parade).

My first impression was that there were less people than I had expected but that was compensated by the huge number of floats. The organisers nowadays put up fences in the streets to separate the audience from the participators. Still I felt to be very close to the action and appreciated the attention which the Sitges carnival groups pay to aesthetics and detail – on the floats as well as in the dresses.

One group portrayed La Rambla (Barcelona) with all its vendors, living statues and drunk football fans, but except for that I did not notice much satire. Since the gay element is often underlined when the carnival of Sitges is described, I was surprised to find a parade dominated by female dancers. So, what about the drag queens? I guess that they came at the end of the parade, when I had already gone home.

Apparently there were technical problems with one of the floats, so during the first hour, the parade did not move much. The organisers could have been faster to solve that. We are in South Europe but a cold wind was blowing from the sea and when you only stand and watch, two hours are a long time. Having said that, this carnival is like a professional show, so I am confident that Tuesday’s Rua d’Extermini (the Closing Parade) will have a better pace.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The Candy War - Vilanova's Claim to Fame

El Carnaval de Vilanova has been declared to be of national interest to Catalonia and that is partly thanks to la Guerra de Caramels (the Candy War). When we moved here, I thought that this was a marketing gimmick to make the town famous, but it is the other way around. The comparses (carnival societies) have been fighting in the streets of Vilanova for more than a 100 years but in spite of fascinating traditions, this town does not seem to be able to ‘sell’ itself to the outside world.

The comparses enter the town centre already at nine a’clock Sunday morning, each with its own brass and drum orchestra playing up-beat marches. In our house, we had the opportunity to hear what happens when five of them at the same time test the echo in the viaduct below our windows – it was very loud, but easily forgiven when you see all happy faces.

Since there are some forty odd comparses taking part, they have to take turns fighting in the Plaça de la Vila. The children were first out and had to fight during a rain shower, but most of the other “wars” had a better weather.

When the figthing was over and the comparses, as always, left behind a town with a sweat smell in the air and streets sticky from crushed candy.

Again, when we were new in Vilanova we were afraid to have our children hit by hard candy, and therefore avoided to go out during the busiest hours this day. Nowadays, I admit that risk exists, but is worth taking. Just like my wife and I, our children truly enjoyed the guerra de caramels. But they mangaged to collect far too much candy.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Feathers for the Children

On Saturday morning our carnival experience started before we had left home. El Rei Carnestoltes (the Carnival King) and his escort of dancing flag bearers passed by below our balcony.

This day of el Carnaval de Vilanova is important for the children. Our first stop was our oldest son’s school and in the festive atmosphere of the schoolyard my wife and I made a promise – next year we will dress up in carnival costumes.

We left school too late to see the children’s show when Mr. Caramel cooks the candy for tomorrow’s Guerra de Caramels (the Candy War), but joined the parade behind his bicimòbil (a fantasy vehicle) for a while before it started to rain. Since we went home, we missed Moixò Foguer, whom I am sure that our oldest son would have loved. I have had him described as a jack-in-the-box character who suddenly pops up and throws feathers at everyone he sees. He must have done a good job – the Rambla is still covered with feathers.

It is now after midnight and I still hear the music playing outside, but that does not change the fact that for grown-ups, Saturday is a day in between bigger events.

On Friday evening l'Arrivo drew a lot of spectators. This is a float parade usually presents local politics in a satiric way, but unfortunately I did not manage to see much in the crowd. My wife was in Barcelona, so literally I carried one child on each arm.

Tonight, the busiest people are the shop owners who cover their windows with cardboard. There will be a lot of candy flying in the air here tomorrow.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Shawls Out

Vilanovins love their carnival and half-jokingly, half-seriously challenge that of our neighbour town. Vilanova’s carnival pin 2008 shows a motif from Sitges with a cross over it. Posters all around our centre claim that the few Gauls (remember Asterix) of Vilanova are holding out and stay true to Catalan carnival traditions while the Sitges version has been brazilianised.

To escape the carnival you have to flee town. El Turuta, a military march turned carnival tune has been played on the municipal loadspeaker system over and over, throughout the day today.

The downside of the Carnival of Vilanova is that it is not much of a show – you almost have to participate to fully enjoy it. The upside is that you are easily absorbed in the atmosphere - having children serves as a wonderful excuse.

In our family, we might be foreigners – new Catalans – but are proud anyhow. Tomorrow morning there will be an embroidered shawl hanging from our balcony as well.