Sunday, 30 March 2008

50th Anniversary of the Rally Barcelona - Sitges

There was a thick, unpleasant smell over the beach promenade of Sitges today when the vintage cars of the rally Barcelona-Sitges (Ral•li internacional de cotxes d’època) reached their goal and lined up for all spectators to have a closer look.

When it was organised for the first time, in 1959, it formed part of the carnival. From the beginning, the rally was intended a means to promote tourism to Sitges, which at that time suffered economically after the town’s two big shoe factories were closed down. The 24 participants of the first rally were flagged off by Joan Antoni Samaranch, then deputy mayor of Barcelona.

This year, it was again Samaranch - nowadays well-known as the former President of the International Olympic Committee - who performed this task to mark the 50th anniversary of the rally. The route still remains unchanged: from la Plaça de Sant Jaume, the cars follow the Rambles, Passeig de Gràcia and Diagonal to leave Barcelona and then drive through the municipalities l’Hospitalet, Cornellà, Sant Boi, Viladecans, Gavà and Castelldefels before they take the curvy, but highly scenic road along the Garraf coast to arrive at Sitges.

It is gaining in reputation. Today there were 150 vehicles taking part, all made in the year 1924 or earlier. One of them was driven by Sitges native Marcel Maluquer, who has taken part in all 50 editions. In another one, Jordi Baijet and Jordi Hereu, the mayors of Sitges and Barcelona, respectively, had symbolically taken place in the front seat.

This is not the biggest rally of vintage cars in Europe - the one from London to Brighton usually counts some 400 participants - but is unique in its concentrated format. All the cars come in one long caravan, so it is not a true rally, but a parade. The only competition this year was for best costumes, to add historic flavour to the event. As long as you disregard the foul smell from the old engines, the rally is a beuatiful tradition.

Remark: The source of a lot of the information in this entry is our local weekly Diari de Vilanova.

Becoming a Ham Fan in Bayonne

I guess that you want me to be politically correct and claim that I have always known that Bayonne (Baiona) forms part of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria). For sure, I was not yet a teenager when I first heard of their famous smoked ham. But I am afraid that I always used to think of the town as French.

According to the guide books this is wrong. Apparently, there exists quite a lot of Basque nationalism here. During our recent visit, we honestly did not see much of that but, possibly, we walked through the wrong streets or were blinded by how much better small nationalities thrive on the Spanish side of the border.

The ham, on the other side, we simply could not avoid, since there happened to be an open-air ham trade fair while we were there. It is, in fact, interesting that ham looks so different when you chop of the hoof, as they do in Bayonne, compared to when you leave it on, as is the Spanish custom. Nor did we miss the chocolate, which certainly is not cheap, but there are many stores so, at least, it is easy to find.

Picturesque houses, nice food at restaurants along the river and a lot of atmosphere. Bayonne is a truly liveable town. Basque or French? For a tourist it does not really matter.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Two Blogs

Since I am a Swedish native, I sometimes want to comment on articles which I find in Swedish media, but during the Spanish election campaign I learnt that they would not link back to me, since this blog is in English. Therefore, I recently started up a new blog on Catalonia in Swedish.

The profiles of the two blogs will mature over the time, but this is what I plan for, for now:

In Wirdheim in Vilanova you will find entries on:

# Tourism - Vilanova i la Geltrú, the rest of Catalonia and the regions and countries beyond
#Catalan culture
#Catalan society, Spanish society and the European Union
# Anything related to expat life which can be of interest outside the small world of Swedish speakers

In "Wirdheim i Katalonien" you will find:

# Short introductions to all entries on Wirdheim in Vilanova
# Comment on articles in Swedish media which cover the topics Catalonia, Spain or the European Union
# All pure "family and friends" entries
# "From the hip" entries (i.e. less links to sources) on society in general

Especially the last item is something which I look forward to develop since I have often felt a need to publish fast comments, but not felt comfortable to do so in a language which is not my own.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Never Dreamt of Biarritz

During our mini-vacation in the Basque Country, we of course had to visit the northern part (Iparralde) as well. Things are different there than in the southern part (Hegoalde). Window shutters in red and green still dominate, but blue is quite frequent as well. The housing estates come across as overly planned and perfect with their shiny white buildings. Except for the souvenir shops and a set of Basque flags over the vegetables in the Champion supermarket, Biarritz (Miarritze) above all felt French.

Last week, Biarritz obviously was the place to visit. When we walked over the bridge and up to the view point at la Rocher de la Vierge, I think that everybody around us spoke Spanish. Looking out over the beach where the view of a classic grand hotel was disturbed by a number of modern monster constructions, I realized how reluctant I would be to fight for a square meter of sand here during the high season. If my wife insisted we go, I would prefer to stay at one of the cafes in the idyllic town centre.

One of the advantages of expat life is that you have the chance to (relatively) easily go to places which did not make it to the top of your travel list while you were in your native country. Who am I to judge Biarritz after all? I have never dreamt going there.

Having said that, only today did I realise that there is an Orthodox church which we missed to look for. It was built for the Russian aristocrats who used to frequent Biarritz before the revolution. I cannot deny that there is a special charm in these traditional posh resorts.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Cultural Normalization Through the 'Mona'

Our four-year-old had wished for an airport or a car or, possibly, something with a Barça-football player - or just any of the elaborate chocolate figures which Vilanova’s pastry bakers have on sale these days.

It is time for the mona, the chocolate covered cake or creation which marks the end of lent (quaresma). Traditionally they are given to children by their godparents after mass on Easter Sunday (Diumenge de Pasqua) and eaten together with relatives on Easter Monday (which is a holiday in Catalonia, but not in most other parts of Spain).

All our relatives live far away from here, but our children have little to complain about. Although our oldest one first protested against the idea of a home made mona, he was happy to help his mother to decorate it. At his school, we have learnt that an egg in the middle and feathers for decoration are the only indispensable parts, but that you are otherwise allowed to improvise.

Aesthetically, I think that my wife made a great job. However, since we are not yet fully integrated into Catalan society we started eating the mona already today. Three out of four family members liked the cake very much. Only our youngest one was so busy eating chocolate eggs that he totally forgot about it.

A Day to Celebrate for the Basques

For us in Catalonia, the decisions which the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) makes, are important. Tactically, since Zapatero can opt for a long-term co-operation with them in order to circumvent the Catalan nationalists CiU. Strategically, since they are a political force which works for independence from the Spanish state with democratic means, condemning the terrorism of the Basque separatists within ETA.

Last year the Basque president (lehendakari) Juan José Ibarretxe upset many Spanish nationalists by setting out a date for a referendum to October 23, 2008, in which the Basques are to determine whether they, themselves, have the right to decide on a possible future independence (el dret de decidir, as it is called in Catalan).

Today, Easter Sunday is the day of the Basque Homeland (Aberri Eguna). It is always celebrated on Domingo de la Resurrección and not on a fixed date like eg. Catalonia's national holiday on September 11. In their speeches in Bilbao, President Ibarretxe and PNV chairman Urkullu did not repeat their demand for a referendum, but instead opened the door for an agreement with Zapatero’s government, provided the Basques receive maximum self-determination within the Spanish state. Since what they want is something different from the, in their eyes, watered-down statute which Catalonia got recently, a referendum is in fact not needed. The text which they demand would in itself clarify that the Basques are sovereign to decide whether or not they belong to Spain.

The Basque nationalism is strong and this week, my family and I have visited one town after the other full of posters and graffiti calling for independence. For tourists who come from castellano-dominated parts of Spain, I assume that it can feel hostile. However, for us who live in Catalonia, although the Basque language is a huge barrier, we recognise many of the messages. That feeling is mutual - Basque souvenir shops offer t-shirts with the flags of Catalunya and Euskal Herria (the 'great' Basque Country - i.e. including the French parts) next to each other.

Only one of the posters we saw confused us a bit. To see the Basque flag next to that of Scotland is logic - outside the Spanish state, the Scots are a preferred partner for many nationalists. Neither did the flag of Montenegro surprise us, since it peacefully won its idependence not long ago. But what were Swedish and Finnish flags doing in the background? We used to be one country some 200 years ago, but I doubt that the Finns consider that they got rid of the Swedes in an especially nice way, since they were occupied by Russia before they reached independence. Or are we only seen as role models for small but relatively successful states?

In symbols, it is always easy to prove that independence would work, but the real issue is how to get there. Most small European states find international strength through the European Union, but neither the Basque Country nor Catalonia will be allowed in unless they have the majority of the population within their territories with them and that is, most likely, not the case today.
Personally, I am convinced that Catalonia and the Basque Country will be independent one day, but hope that it will be in a new federal Europe. In modern democracies – and especially in a state like Spain where there is a strong tendency towards regional autonomy – I do not see the need to rush things. In their rhethorics, Basque and Catalan nationalists see things differently, but in action most of them seem to agree.

San Sebastián and All the Dinners We Did Not Have

Last Wednesday the weather in San Sebastian (Donostia) was far from ideal but we did our best to explore the city. At a fast pace we walked along the clean quays of the river Urumea, admired the fancy Kursaal concert hall , entered into the Old Part (Parte Vieja), looked at the numbered balconies in the square Plaza de la Constitución (a reminder of the time when it was still being used to host bull fights) and then went down to the bay la Concha. To keep our children happy we made a long stop at the playground in front of one of the houses of the Basque government, but after that we needed to take refuge indoors.

The Basques are famous for their food - promoted throughout the world through chefs Arzak and Berasategui and others - so it is easy to find attractive restaurants. Or, that is, as long as you do not bring children as energetic as ours.

A funny consequence of our preference for loud places where we do not risk disturbing the other guests too much, was that it made us enter into a café for ETA sympathisers. From the alley, I got the impression that it was a normal music pub, but inside I found myself ordering coffee under an idol portrait of Iñaki de Juana Chaos. I guess that the other guests thought us ignorant not to understand where we had ended up, but we decided to stay. Our children simply needed to warm up a bit before we continued our walking tour through the windy streets.

On anther occasion, in the medieval town Hondarribia (north-east of San Sebastián), we tried our luck at the stylish place Sebastián, but the waitress who welcomed me when I stepped in, decided to double check with the manager when she saw our oldest son and all of a sudden the reservation list was full. I do not have anything against restaurants which have it as their policy not to accept small children – in all honesty, I doubt that my wife and I would have been able to enjoy a meal in this restaurant’s quiet, classic atmosphere with our children around – but I would have preferred to be told so, rather than to receive a poor excuse.

Fortunately, one of the highlights of Basque cuisine are pintxos (finger food on a toothpick) and they are served up in bars where small children disappear in the general noise. Therefore, we did not miss out on culinary experiences, we just did not manage to have any of the extraordinary dinners which so many other tourists to the Basque country talk about.

Good Friday in Zaragoza

I am a plan addict while my wife is prepared to follow caprices. Yesterday evening, we were on our way home from a mini-vacation up in the Basque Country (País Basc) and my intention was to get us to Vilanova’s small neighbour town Cubelles in time for their Good Friday procession (processó de Divendres Sant) starting at 22.00. I cannot claim that my wife was particularly excited about the idea, but here Easter is not celebrated in such spectacular ways as in other parts of Spain, so this was one of the few alternatives there were.

Or that was until the radio reminded us about the procession in Zaragoza (Saragossa) and I realized that we were only half an hour away from there. I did not need to persuade my wife – we needed a stop. For our children it meant that they could have a proper dinner instead of a snack along the road and for her it was a chance to get a first glimpse of a city where she had not been yet.

For those who want to see it all, the Good Friday procession of Zaragoza lasts for six hours – all in all there are 24 confréries taking part. Our family, however, lasted less than half an hour. Our boys are still very small and for the two-year-old, the constant and heavy drumming and what he called the witches – the participants with their covered faces and cylindrical hats (capirotes in Spanish) - were quite scary.

We did not have time for sight-seeing, but will come back, possibly already during the summer and Expo Zaragoza 2008. A word of advice for anyone who plans to go within shortly, is to look out for temporary road signs. Our new GPS (a tomtom) had a tough challenge with all the detours – those of the procession on top of those which are there due to the Expo - so we were struggling to find our way through the construction works at the entries and exits of the city.

I am convinced that the procession of Zaragoza was bigger and more exciting than any of the Catalan Good Friday traditions, so I am happy to have been “crazy” enough to change my plans. But I would not promise that it will happen again.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Vic - The Sausage Capital of Catalonia

You know that you are not in Sweden when you leave a bridge from the 11th century, pass by a hostel dating from the same time and then, all of a sudden, stand in front of a Roman temple from the 2nd century. I am aware that Catalonia is so full of historic monuments that it is impossible to do them all justice, but find it unforgivable that (at least our 2003 edition of) Lonely Planet does not even mention Vic.

This town is located on a plain in the Catalan heartlands (in 2004, 60% voted either CiU or ERC) and has a university of growing importance. The town centre is concentrated and most of it is a pedestrian area dotted with architectural treasures. It is smaller than the old towns of Barcelona or Tarragona, but a lot more well maintained and clean. We especially liked the church bell tower in a style typical for inland Catalonia but of an impressive size.

On Saturdays, there is a market on the Plaça Major where, among other things, you can buy the the town’s famous cured sausage, fuet de Vic. The road to Vic from Barcelona is scenic and in excellent conditions. We warmly recommend this town to those who seek an alternative to another daytrip to the coast.

# Check out Vic’s
tourist web-page in English for further information.
Vilanovins interested in quality cured meat can find a branch of the co-operative Plana de Vic down in the Eixample de Mar area.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Save the Eurovision!

Do you know what your Swedish friends did on Saturday? More than 4 million Swedes are estimated to have watched when Charlotte Perrelli and her song “Hero” qualified to represent Sweden in the coming Eurovision Song Contest (ESC). The total population of my native country is only 9,1 million people and I seriously wonder how many dictatorships can beat penetration figures as high as these. Nowadays, Sweden sings in English, but except for that, we are very conservative. Check out “Hero” on YouTube – the music and the choreography show that the entry comes from a country where the ESC is still taken seriously.

That is not the case in Spain and when Chikililicuatre won the Spanish final with “Baila el ChikiChiki”, less than 2 million people watched the program although the population is five times that of Sweden. The title of the show “Salvemos Eurovisión” (“Let’s save the Eurovision) does not seem to have helped much.

And that is a pity. Not that I am a big fan of Eurovision music in itself (I ought to add ‘any longer’, since I am Swedish) but there are values which this event promotes better than any campaign initiated by EU bureaucrats. If only once a year, this competition gives us an opportunity to feel united as Europeans. It is one of the few media experiences which we all share, which is also produced in Europe (as opposed to all US made movies). Except for that, what other means than the ESC do small states have to remind the world of their existence? To me, it is not surprising that most states in Eastern Europe have become eager and highly competitive participants.

Now, international recognition, is that not what Catalonia yearns for as well? Apparently, Scotland is starting to understand the marketing value of taking part as a separate nation. Why do not people here do the same? Catalan TV3 is not yet a member of the European Broadcasting Union, but regions can be and once they are, at least theoretically, they have the right to participate in the ESC under their own flag.

For the semifinals and final in Belgrade May 20-24, 2008, it is too late, but why not have a Catalan entry in 2009? Not only the Catalan nation but also Spain would benefit - the latter would gain a neighbour who would most likely vote for them (in the ESC, old animosities are fast forgotten, look no further than last year’s voting within former Yugoslavia). If this happens, I am confident that audience figures from Catalonia alone will top those we currently see for the whole of the Spanish state. “Salvem l’Eurovisió!”

Remarks: An entry with a similar content can be found on “Wirdheim i Katalonien”, my new blog in Swedish.

Among Palm Leaves and Tractors in Vic

On Palm Sunday (diumenge de rams), Catalan children receive symbolic palm leaves from their godparents – elaborate and decorated palmes for the girls and simpler straight palmons for the boys – which they bring to church to have them blessed. The event serves to commemorate how Jesus, according to the tradition, was greeted when he rode into Jerusalem before his passion.

Since we are not particularly religious, but also since we have all our relatives abroad, my wife and I decided to let our small boys experience some parts of the tradition by taking them to the fair of Vic (Fira de Rams), whose origins can be found in the sales of handicraft palm leaves but subsequently has expanded to be a general agriculture related trade show.

The building of human towers (castellers) and a competition in motor saw sculpturing offered nice secular alternatives to morning mass, and since the town was already full of people when we arrived, I have a feeling that were not the only ones to skip church. Our sons could have shown more interest in the horses and donkeys on sale, and less in the tractors and agricultural machines, but except for that we had a very nice Sunday.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Highly Proportional Catalan Nationalism

The electoral system gives the nationalist parties an exaggerated parliament representation - that has been repeated time and again since Izquierda Unida (IU) lost more than half of their seats – and through South of Watford I have found a chart which can be used to show the absurd effects.

There are two figures for each party, of which the first one shows the actual number of seats in the new parliament, while the second one reveals how many seats the same party would have if the whole of Spain would have been treated as one constituency. With 1,2% of the total vote in Spain, but concentrated to three Basque provinces, PNV gets 6 seats. At the same time, IU receives only 2 seats although they were voted by 3,8% of the electorate. Clearly, this must prove that nationalist parties are always better off than a small party which appeals to voters throughout the state.

In fact it does not. What we see is an effect of an electoral system which systematically gives a higher weight to small provinces although that is where we have the least proportional allocation of parliament seats.

Catalonia, the other nationalist stronghold, serves as a contrast. The chart reveals that CiU would have 11 parliament seats whatever method is being used. The reason for that is that most of the CiU seats come from populous Barcelona, where each individual vote has a weight below the Spanish average and seat allocation is highly proportional.

Take note that not only PNV but also PSOE and PP would lose parliaments seats with a more proportional allocation. Keep this in mind next time you hear that the Spanish election system give an unfair advantage to the nationalists. It is such a nice story that it will be repeated although it is not true.

Remarks: Since the chart used in the article was made, due to late incoming votes from abroad, 1 Barcelona seat has been re-allocated from CiU to PP, i.e. CiU will have 10 seats in the new parliament and PP 154.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Save Acebes!

The TV3 satire show Polonia is the only program which I follow regularly. Tonight they offered a 90 minute long live “election special”. The format allowed the comedians to be up to date with the latest developments and, although I must admit that I prefer the more distilled recorded version, there were some highlights.

Mariano Rajoy, who apparently still enjoys the confidence of the core of PP, has announced that there will be changes in the party’s leadership. Eduardo Zaplana will not continue as parliament spokesman and it seems that general secretary Angel Acebes will have to leave as well. And that is why Toni Soler and his team have started the campaign “Save Acebes” (, on behalf of all 'humorists'. Because without him, programs like Polonia simply will not be the same.

That did not prevent PP members Rajoy, Acebes and Dolors Nadal from joining forces to show their support for Catalan Indepence. The logic was simple: if it had not been for Catalonia, PP would have won the Spanish parliament elections. So let them be independent, if that is what it takes!

Suitable for a winner, Zapatero came jumping in only at the very end, supported by his euphoric cheerleader Carme Chacón. When she stopped screaming “Nos a votado, la niña de Rajoy”, the prime minister could finally start singing his optimistic song “Apoyaré (YMCA) – todo lo que me pidan”. “El Zapaterisme en estat pur”, as Soler himself summed it up.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Costa Brava in Vilanova

About a week ago, Vilanova’s centre of contemporary art La Sala (C/ Joaquim Mir 12) opened up photo exhibition with the subtitle “Memories from the Costa Brava”. Here, people who are bored with our own flat coast, la Costa Daurada (the Golden Coast) can find ideas for their vacation planning.

I cannot say that my wife and I managed to pinpoint any differences in style between the two photographers Francesc Català-Roca and Xavier Miserachs Ribalta, but we truly appreciated their works - all in black and white and taken during the years 1950-1965.

Among them there is a photo of a menu in English, probably still an exotic phenomenon when it was taken. On the Costa Brava of our days, I doubt that artistic photographers would consider anything in English an inspiring motif.

My personal favourite is a photo of a man who casually holds four small sardines behind his back. In a special section, there are a few pictures of famous people where our eyes immediately fell on Salvador Dali having a swim in the sea.

The exhibition will hang until May 11 and La Sala’s slightly odd opening hours are Tuesday-Saturdays 18.00-21.00 plus Saturday-Sunday (and holidays) 11.00-14.00. I assume that all funds were used to remodel the place so, unfortunately, they do not up-date their web-page.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The Miracle of Girona

Since Sunday, Girona is the only province in Spain where PP does not hold any parliament seat. Before the elections, ERC in this province warned that they risked to lose 1 seat to PP, since it was more or less impossible for PSC or CiU to win it. So what we have seen happening must be a small miracle. ERC lost 1 seat, but to PSC, not to PP. In the end, PSC did not need to win as many votes as ERC had calculated, due to the fact that all other parties lost votes. With the results at hand this is obvious, but the complexity of the Spanish election system made it difficult to predict the outcome. To sum up, the 6 Girona seats were allocated as follows; PSC: 3 (+ 1), CiU: 2 and ERC: 1 (-1).

In Lleida, PP was more successful and won over the seat which had been held by ERC. The 4 Lleida seats were allocated as follows; PSC: 2, CiU: 1 and PP: 1 (+1). A detail for CiU to take note of is that although they managed to keep their seat, they lost many of their voters from 2004.

Tarragona used to be considered a stronghold for ERC, so it must have hurt that the party lost the 1 seat which it used to have here. The 6 Tarragona seats were allocated as follows; PSC: 4 (+1), CiU: 1 and PP: 1.

The result in Barcelona offered surprises until the very end of the counting. Throughout the election evening it seemed as if ICV-EUA would be able to keep their 2 seats, but then they lost 1 of them. Late in the night came another change, when 1 seat went from PP to CiU. Thanks to that, CiU has more seats in the new parliament than in the old one. For PP it means that they did not manage to increase their number of seats from this province. The 31 Barcelona seats were allocated as follows; PSC: 16 (+2), CiU: 7 (+1), PP: 5, ERC: 2 (-2) and ICV-EUA: 1 (-1).

For the whole of Catalonia that gives us the following sums: PSC: 25 (+4), CiU: 11 (+1), PP: 7 (+1), ERC: 3 (-5) and ICV-EUA: 1 (-1).

It deserves to be mentioned that the new party Ciutadans/Ciudadanos did not get the 1 seat which they aspired to win in Barcelona, nor did they manage ot win seats outside Catalonia. Personally, I am convinced that this is the beginning of the end for that movement.

Of a greater magnitude are the difficulties the elections have revealed for the left-wing Catalan nationalists, most notably ERC (- 5) but, unfortunately, also for Joan Herrera’s ICV-EUA (- 1). As a consequence, yesterday among the opening items on Spanish and Catalan TV news, we could here that Joan Puigcercós of ERC has resigned from his functions in the parliament of Catalonia, to be able to concentrate on the party’s program for the future.

To blame the ERC's losses on the bi-polarisation of Spanish politics or on the useful vote (el vot útil) for PSC is to take a short cut in the analysis work. Possibly, we saw some abstention among Catalan left-wing nationalists - voter turnout on Sunday was not the high 76,0%, as registered in 2004. However, 71,2% is by no means a low enough share for the elections to be declared illegitimate in Catalonia. Altough some people here do not want to acknowledge the Spanish Parliament, a vast majority does. In a democracy, that is what counts.

Reasons to Celebrate

Vilanova i la Geltrú has at least two reasons to celebrate the results of yesterday’s elections:

We have nice beaches, but this is an old industrial town. Therefore, PSC is always strong here. This time they beat their old records – more than half of those eligible to vote decided for their list (50,1% vs. 43,5% in 2004). I cannot claim to have felt it in the atmosphere on the Rambla today, but this town must be quite content with Zapatero’s victory. That, if anything, serves as a proof that Vilanova's voters did not punish the government for last year’s chaos in public transportation.

At least 20,0% (vs. 19,0% in 2004) of the town - i.e. the CiU voters - will have celebrated the fact that vilanovín Carles Campuzano, will keep his seat in the Spanish parliament.

Personally, I am a bit sad to see that many of my neighbours stayed home yesterday, in spite of my calling on them to vote. Voter turnout dropped to 71,0%, from 77,7% in 2004. That says a thing or two about the authority of this blog.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Pregnant Woman Delivering Parliament Seats

PSOE/PSC have been declared the winner of the Spanish elections. In his first public appearance tonight, Zapatero started off by naming all victims of ETA terrorism during his previous four year’s of government. Some will claim that the murder of socialist Carrasco two days ago swung the vote, but I do not believe so.

In my eyes, conservative PP has done a poor job in opposition. They have not focused on the vulnerability of the Spanish economy and labour market, but have spent all energy on family values (anti-gay, anti-abortion) and an unrealistic project of a united Spain, disregarding the strength of many of the regions. Officially, PP considers it a victory to have increased their number of seats in the parliament (from 148 to 154), but since their objective was to form the new government, that statement is not very credible. Party leader Rajoy will most likely be forced to step down within shortly.

When translated into seats of the parliament, it becomes obvious the PSOE owes their success to their Catalan branch PSC and campaign leader Carme Chacón. In the new parliament, four of the five new seats for the socialist government (from 164 to 169) come from here. In spite of her pregnancy, Chacón has been highly active throughout the campaign and managed to win voters from all other parties, in all Catalan provinces (PP in Barcelona being the only exception).

The elections 2008 have seen a strong tendency towards a bi-polarisation of Spanish politics – in most provinces only PSOE and PP are strong enough to win seats. With that in mind, it is understandable that Catalan CiU declares it a victory to have maintained their 10 seats in the parliament. This means that CiU holds the balance - they are the only political party which alone can offer Zapatero a stable majority. Tonight, top candidate Duran i Lleida did not want to talk about it and instead underlined that everybody knows what his party stands for: "They will respect Catalonia" (Respectaràn Catalunya), was CiU's main election slogan.

In her speech, Carme Chacón said: “Many thanks, Catalonia. From all of my heart” (“Moltes gracies, Catalunya, de tot cor”). She knows where the new socialist votes come from. So far, Zapatero has not revealed the same gratefulness to this part of Spain. However, the game has only begun and, personally, I believe that the PSOE/PSC government would benefit from seeking CiU's support.

The coming four years will not be easy, neither for Spain, nor for the new government. But if Catalan politicians play their cards well, these can be relatively good years for Catalonia.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Girona or Spain?

The weather is nice but Vilanova is quiet. I hope that all our neighbours are busy voting. Party preferences but also voter participation and the election system in itself will be important factors in determining who wins the biggest number of seats in the parliament (las Cortes Generales). After 20.00 the election results will start to be reported and some ours later, one of the two big parties – PP and PSOE – will be declared the winner. According to all reliable polls, neither of them will come out with an absolute majority, so the small parties will play a key role in deciding who forms the new government.

Thanks to a fellow expat, I have found which offers bloggers the possibility to publish the election results minute by minute. Personally, I look forward to monitoring outcome on all three levels: the Spanish state, Catalonia as a total but also the individual Catalan provinces. The focus of international attention will be on Madrid, but the seat allocation in Girona might offer more suspense.

A Week for the Book

Many Catalans with children of school age have difficulties to help out with some of the homeworks. Nowadays, public education here is mainly carried out in Catalan, a language which today’s parents were free to talk with family and friends when they grew up, but were not taught to read or spell properly. During the Franco era, Catalan was banned from being used in radio, TV, churches and the school system.

Only after the dictator died in 1975 could Catalan start to claim back lost territory. To encourage people to begin reading in their native tongue, in 1983 the first “Week of the Book in Catalan” (Setmana del llibre en Català) was organized in the Barcelona Sants train station. This is now an annual tradition and although Barcelona still holds the biggest celebration, several smaller towns have joined.

Yesterday (Saturday), Vilanova’s bookstores and public libraries took the help of volunteers – most of them local, but also some foreigners – for the public reading of an, apparently, famous book called La Plaça del Diamant by Mercè Rodoreda. I doubt that the event created new readers of Catalan literature, but consider it a nice demonstration of interest in a language, whose future people still dare not take for granted.

Friday, 7 March 2008

United Against Terrorism

Isaías Carrasco Miguel was a 43 year old former town councillor of Arrasate-Mondragón in the Basque Countries. Today, at 13.30, he was brutally shot down in front of his house and with his wife and daughter as witnesses.

The political parties of Spain are stopping their election campaigns and thus cancel the last meetings originally planned for tonight.

As a former town councillor (2003-07) Carrasco had the right to a body guard but had decided to do without. Obviously, he did not appreciate what cowards terrorists can be when selecting their victims.

ETA has hereby entered into the election campaign in the most disgusting way. To murder a democratically elected politican is an act which all political forces must immediately condemn. In Catalonia, this has already been done, unanimously. I understand why there is Basque nationalism, but there are no excuses for terrorism.

A Reflection on Convergència i Unió

Convergència i Unió (CiU) is the right-wing party of Catalonia, but it is also the modern, right-wing political force which the whole of Spain so desperately needs. In the European Parliament, CiU belongs to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (where, from a Swedish perspective, we also find Folkpartiet and Centerpartiet). Their appeal is broad since, in fact, they are a federation of two parties.

# Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) is the bigger party. It was founded, among others, by Jordi Pujol as a union of different groups of Catalan nationalists, but is now a liberal party. Its leader, Artur Mas, heads up CiU’s activities within the Parliament of Catalonia.
# Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC), has a longer history and forms part of the Christian Democratic political tradition. This is the smaller party and, more importantly for the coming elections, where top candidate Duran i Lleida belongs.

During the coming years, the whole of Spain will have to face up to a number of challenges. It is true that we have had very strong economic growth during Zapatero’s four years as prime minister, but now we are following the rest of the world into a recession. That is when the lost competitiveness of Spanish companies, the high inflation and the unemployment bomb which threatens to explode among construction workers will demand urgent attention.

To ride through that turbulence, I am convinced that a PSOE government will benefit from gaining CiU’s support, rather than to have to depend on parties to their left. CiU’s program suggests measures to make the Spanish economy more dynamic, in order to create wealth and job opportunities. We find proposals to make the labour market less rigid through a "flexicurity" system as well as concrete plans for improving infrastructure (by road, by air as well as by railway). For long term success, they stress the need of quality education and investments to support innovation driven business development.

CiU counts on strong support from big industry as well as from SMEs and self-employed people. As opposed to PP, however, their program does not scare away typically non-conservative voters (feminists, gays etc.). The only right-wing people who will not feel at home within their framework are Spanish nationalist but, let us be realistic, this is Catalonia. While CiU manages to describe and defend the society I nowadays live in, PP does not. CiU are Catalan nationalists, that is a fact, but that does not disqualify them from serving as a source of inspiration for the rest of Spain.

A bonus with CiU is that Carles Campuzano from Vilanova i la Geltrú is the fourth name on their list for Barcelona, and since they currently holds six of the seats for this province, he is likely to be a member of the new parliament. That makes him the only representative of our town, something we have learnt to appreciate after the transport chaos which we went through last autumn. Possibly, Campuzano will not manage to make the other politicians respect Vilanova, but I promise to be content as long as he continues to do a good job for society as a whole.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Esquerra v.s. CUP

The movement CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular) and ERC have a lot in common. They both want independence for Catalonia, they fight to defend the Catalan language and culture and share values on social policy and economic organisation. However, for the coming elections CUP calls on people not to vote. They disagree with the political class of today and especially with those politicians who claim that they want power for the sake of Catalonia, but end up supporting the centralist oppression of society here (read ERC).

Probably wary not to stir up a conflict with potential voters, ERC is surprisingly passive in answering the criticism from CUP. Instead, they highlight what can be the consequences of non-participation among left-wing voters. In a YouTube clip, ERC is currently sending out a warning that, due to the Spanish electoral system, as little as a 1.000 votes can make a difference in the province of Girona. One of the seats which ERC currently holds, might end up with PP.

CUP is strong in Vilanova. In the municipal elections 2007 they could celebrate that Eduard Pinilla won a seat as a town councillor. How can the same CUP now claim that non-participation in elections is a way to reveal their lack of legitimacy? Let us remember that Pinilla's success came in elections where only 52% of the electoral roll cared to go to the polls. The Catalan participation in the elections to the Spanish parliament will easily beat that, so which ones are more legitimate?

In his work Dirty Hands (Les Mains Sales), Jean Paul Sartre lets Hoederer ask Hugo:

How you cling to your purity… Purity is an idea that belongs to a fakir or a monk. You intellectuals, you bourgeois anarchists, you make it an excuse for doing nothing. For doing nothing, for resting still, with your elbows glued to your sides, wearing gloves. My hands are dirty. Right to the shoulders. I have plunged them in mud and blood… Do you imagine you can govern innocently?

Although I do not particularly agree with ERC’s program, I consider that they do the right thing in accepting the realities of politics. You have to compromise in case you want to achieve something here and now.

CUP’s alternative is to replace the existing Spanish institutions with new ones for the Catalan Countries (els Països Catalans), probably a vision attractive also to ERC voters. But even if ERC and CUP join forces they are a minority in Catalonia and so their new society remains a dream for a distant future. Until they reach there, is CUP convinced that splitting the Catalan left is what they really want to do?

The Useful Vote - on the Spanish Election System

With the high number of parties represented, I have assumed that the seats of the Spanish parliament are assigned through proportional representation. That is only partly true. The constituencies are the same as the provinces and the reason for the distortion is that each province has the right to a minimum of 2 seats (plus 1 each for Ceuta and Melilla). Using this method, the first 102 of in total 350 seats are allocated. Only the remaining 248 are split proportionally based on the number of inhabitants with permanent residence (N.B: not according to the electoral roll) of each province. For us foreigners, this means that although we are not entitled to vote, we are taken into consideration when seats are allocated to the province where we live.

This results in a situation where the value of a single vote is not the same throughout the state. That, in turn, gives the parties incentives to think in terms more typical for “first past the post” systems, when they decide were to spend time and money during the election campaign. For examples, let us use figures from the last elections (2004) to see how 47 seats were allocated to the 4 Catalan provinces.

Barcelona (where Vilanova i la Geltrú belongs) is Catalonia’s by far biggest constituency. In 2004, 3.052.310 people cast their vote to elect representatives for 31 seats. We could thus say that there was 1 seat per each 98.462 voters, or that you needed 3,2% of the vote to win 1 seat. The smallest party represented was ICV-EUA which won 2 seats thanks to 6,5% of the total vote of the province.

Lleida is the other extreme. With 234.244 people voting in 2004 and 4 seats in the parliament, each seat cost 58.561 votes (substantinally lower than in Barcelona) but roughly 25% of the total vote. The smallest party represented was ERC which won 1 seat thanks to 21.5% of the votes. PP, with 14.6% of the vote, did not win any seat in this province.

Tarragona and Girona had 6 seats each in the outgoing parliament, so the proportionality of the allocation is slightly higher than in Lleida, but very far from what we see in Barcelona. We can therefore conclude that any new party has bigger chances of winning parliament representation by focusing on Barcelona, rather than on any of the other Catalan provinces or Catalonia as a whole.

The system also has implications for tactical voting, so it is not surprising that some Catalan parties talk about the useful vote (el vot útil). As an example, in Tarragona in 2004, the last seat went to PP, the 4th biggest party with 17.0%, while the 5th biggest party, ICV-EUA reached only 3,8%. In this year’s election, has ICV-EUA invested enough in their Tarragona campaign to radically narrow that gap? If not, one could argue that a left leaning Catalan nationalist should rather vote for a second best option like ERC, to make sure that they keep their 1 seat, rather than to hope for ICV-EUA to reach the number of votes needed.

I was already looking forward to the outcome of the elections on the state level, but now the vote allocation of each province will be exciting. And let us remember that although they differ in value, it is clear that every vote counts.

# The methods used for allocating votes or calculating the percentages needed for a seat are not the correct ones, but merely serve as simplified approximations for my argumentation.
# Under no circumstances do I instruct people in Tarragona to only vote for parties which already have seats in the parliament representing their province.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Small is Beautiful

The second TV debate between José-Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy Brey has just finished and I am quite happy that it was the last big one before the elections. Possibly, it is due to the two-party format, but at an early stage tonight I was bored with the aggressive confrontations and the mutual avoidance of answers.

Many people in Spain live in provinces where PSOE and PP are the only alternatives in case you want to vote for a candidate with a realistic chance to win a seat in the parliament. I am very happy that this is not the case in Catalonia.

In a couple of hours we will have the results of the polls on who won tonight. Whoever that is, I am confident that one conclusion will be that the TV debates have not had any major impact on how people will vote coming Sunday.

Therefore, I ask all Catalan parties to stop complaining about not being present tonight and instead focus on presenting their own messages in a positive way. If I were a citizen of this country, I would be more inclined to vote for you now than two and a half hours ago.

Monday, 3 March 2008

ICV-EUiA are Like Watermelons – Green Surface but Red Inside

I must admit that it took a long time before I took notice of him. It was only last autumn, when people commuting from Vilanova to Barcelona by train had their travel time doubled during several weeks. Most Catalan politicians showed their discontent, but one of them stood out as more committed and more articulate; Joan Herrera. Last Saturday he visited Vilanova.

Herrera’s party, ICV-EUiA, does not demand independence for Catalonia but rather wants for Spain to be a federal, plurinational state. I like that, especially since they combine it with a positive attitude to the European Union but also a desire for political decision making to be as decentralised as possible.

Moving over to social policy, this party was a driving force when Spain gave homosexuals the right to not only get married, but also to adopt children. Now when they fight for cost-free abortions with minimal restrictions and also for a ‘death with dignity’ – the right to euthanasia - I feel a bit challenged, but would agree in the end.

Spain’s two big parties, PP and PSOE, rarely agree on anything, but when it comes to environmental issues, Herrera reveals that they can be sadly similar. When they last were in power, both parties spent 97% of the money aimed for railway infrastructure on the high-speed train AVE, and 3% on the rest of the network. At the same time 3% of the people in Spain will take the AVE regularly, while 97% use the other train lines. Here, ICV-EUiA obviously has a role to play.

Then we reach economic policy and Herrera claims that Spain’s strong growth indicates that wealth has already been created and that it is now time to re-distribute. He wants to raise minimum salaries and pensions as well as build more protected housing and finance it through increased taxes for companies and rich people. In his society, companies simply have to accept new responsibilities. Now I start to feel uncomfortable, and realise that words like competitiveness and entrepreneurism are being left out of his discussion.

I plan to keep an eye on Herrera during the coming legislature and I am confident that he will prove faithful to his ideals. However, he finished his speech in Vilanova by stressing that to "rebel is to exist" (“rebel·lar-se és existir”) and that is where I feel too boringly realistic to follow him. I hope that he will attract many people to his progressive program, but I am not one of them. I am sorry.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Visiting the Joan Miró Foundation with the Children

One thing which we really like about schools here is how the teachers let famous Catalan personalities inspire the children. Already as a three-year-old, did our oldest son start to explore the works of Joan Miró, among others the huge sculpture Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird) and it must have made quite an impression on him. Last Friday, he brought home a clay version of it from school and he had made it on his own initiative. We are, of course, as proud as only parents can be.

To feed his imagination, last weekend we brought both our children to the Fundació Joan Miró on the Montjuic. Due to bad planning, we had to start with a lunch there, which I do not recommend. My wife and I enjoyed the unexpectedly elaborate dishes, but our children did not. Nor is the restaurant layout particularly child friendly.

When it was finally time to visit the collection, we had already made plans to take turns with the children, but did not have any problems to enjoy it together. The two-year-old liked the wide corridors and was particularly exited with the small outdoor area. His older brother topped that by showing a bit of interest in the art as well, above all for the big and colourful pieces.

At the reception, visitors with children can ask for the leaflet ‘Miró en família’. It is in Catalan (we never checked whether it was available in other languages) and, among other things, gives a list of details for your children to identify in the paintings and sculptures – the typical three hairs, two different kinds of stars, the moon and, yes, even the vulva, of which Miró’s art admittedly offers a generous amount.

The visit made our oldest one feel just as inspired as we had hoped for. As soon as we came back home he asked for his scissors, his felt pens, and glue and paper and then concentrated on work. About half an hour later he proudly presented the result: an AVE train. Well, at least it was painted in many colours.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Fighting for the Vote - a Who is Who of the Catalan Candidates

In Catalonia, to run a public debate between the top candidates from the province of Barcelona has become a tradition and tonight (Friday) was the big night.

For a Swede, used to multi-party system, I must say that this felt quite familiar. There were the five representatives, each eager to win the vote for their party but at the same time fully aware that, after the elections, some of them will need to co-operate in order for a government to be formed.

On face value, this was a debate between PSC (PSOE) and four opposition parties, but in reality everybody knows that incumbent PSOE can at least count on passive support from ICV-EUA, CiU and ERC in order to keep PP out of power.

The two-hour debate was held on five separate topics: social policy, economics and infrastructure, challenges for the future, Catalonia’s relationship with the Spanish state and, to conclude, a possibility for each candidate to request for the audience’s vote. Nowadays used to talk shows on Catalan and Spanish radio, where all people try to speak at the same time, I was surprised by the correct tone and the relatively limited amount of interruptions.

I cannot say that any of the representatives presented any news to their party program, respectively, so instead I prefer to make a personal reflection on the politicians.

Carme Chacón (PSC) is a fresh young face in the sitting government. She did a good job in not only asking people to vote for her, but also asking Catalonia to vote - for the sake of Spain.

J.A. Duran i Lleida (CiU) presents right-wing policies in a non-aggressive way. That we have to create wealth before we can re-distribute it certainly makes sense to me.

Joan Ridao (ERC) appeals to me with his unaffected and rational reasoning. The question is whether his reluctant potential voters, whom he needs to convince to go to the polls, see him the same way.

Dolors Nadal (PP) follows her party tactics well. They do not hope to win over voters and therefore have decided to stir doubt about PSOE’s policies to make people lose interest and stay at home on election day.

Joan Herrera (ICV-EUA) forgot to smile during the first half hour of the program and therefore lost one of his biggest assets. Then started the discussion on infrastructure and as soon as he could talk about trains, he revealed what a good debater he is.

Albert Rivera (Ciutadans/Ciutadanos) deserves to be mentioned although he was not allowed to take part today, since his party is not yet represented in Madrid. As a protest, he waited outside the TV3 studios during the debate. I do not particularly agree with his party’s program, but he obviously has a strong fighting spirit.