Laugh Loudly and Carry On

First, I have to stress that I’m not comfortable using the words, “us” and “them,” nor with making generalizations about other cultures or people. I’m not qualified. However, I’m always curious and eager to give my opinion on anything — so what follows is just my own impressions. Are my impressions true? Maybe some of them are. Here goes:

You can probably never really see yourself as someone else does. But seeing ourselves abroad, we might learn a few things about being American. I’ve seen one thing clearly in French and Spaniards’ reactions to my traveling companion. Americans are seen as in eyes of these other cultures as super enthusiastic and happy about fairly ordinary things. My companion laughs a lot, especially in slightly awkward social situations…nice big belly laughs. Out loud. In France, especially, whoever he is talking to is shocked by this. They say, “No, really!” and look disapproving. That usually makes him laugh more. He can’t help it.

I’ve read that Americans are seen as “giddy,” by the French. I’d call it “jolly.”

Americans like to smile, laugh and be explicitly friendly; that is what feels normal and right.  For myself, I have a VERY hard time not saying, “Hi, how are you?” to waiters and shopkeepers. But they would find that silly and forward. In Catalonia, you just say, “Hola.” That’s it. Full stop.

Don’t get me wrong…people are kind and they are nice, just reserved. So if you are an introvert, you should be happy here because you don’t have to make an effort.

We lived in Latin America for nearly five years, and I remember there, especially in Mexico, greetings were warm and friendly – so maybe enthusiasm is a North American continent trait, not just American. Also, “Hola,” would have been a lame, lukewarm greeting in Mexico. There, we/they always said the equivalent of “Good Morning!” with a happy smile.

Catalonia does not consider itself Spain, and that is why they speak their own language first and Spanish second. I have wondered if, in far away Castilian-speaking parts of Spain (like Madrid), we’d hear, “Good Morning” and “Good Afternoon,” and the reason they say “Hola” here is because “Hola” is “Hi” in both Catalan and Castilian…  So starting a conversation with a stranger by saying “Hola” might be an unconscious way of stalling until you discover someone’s language. But that is Kristi-specuation.

Also, Americans wave to people – in cars, in crosswalks and so forth. No waving of the locals in this area. We wave anyway, as we cannot help it.

Friends here don’t hug either, unless maybe you are siblings and friends. That can be a problem for us Americans. Even though I am personally not a huge hugger, I just hugged someone today. Again, I couldn’t help it. She had been very kind to us our six weeks here and we were saying goodbye. So I did an awkward mix of the cheek kisses that were appropriate and American hug. I felt like a monster.

Not really. I don’t mind being a little awkward. Being comfortable with discomfort is part of travel.  Keep laughing loudly and carry on.


Still Celebrating in Catalonia

The holiday traditions of Catalonia are unique and, especially if you have kids, start on Dec. 8th and don’t culminate until January 6th.

We became aware of a couple of traditions celebrated here…

First: tio, or “log,: – every house and business has a small fireplace log that they feed tangerines or apples to starting December 8th (the feast of Immaculate Conception). The face of the tio is a cute smile and red hat. The rest is covered by a festive blanket. On Christmas Eve, the children hit the log with a stick and sing to it, asking for it to poop candy. Low and behold, when a parent pulls off the blanket, candy was pooped for everyone! (This tradition may have evolved from middle ages, when villages lit a large tree-sized log during the darkest days of winter and kept it burning until the days started getting longer.)

Human pooping figures are placed in the nativity scenes in homes by the children, a mischievous touch. A guy in blue shirt and a white cap is squatting with his pants down and a little pile of poo is underneath him. I haven’t seen any speculation as to how this got started, but it has really taken off, and you can get pooping figures of every celebrity from Christmas market stalls. We noticed Spongebob and the Pope, among soccer stars and world leaders.

Nativity scenes or “cribs” are very elaborate in homes and store windows and I’ve been inspired to step up my game next year. They have fountains and numerous tableaus. Entire shops and rows of stalls at the Christmas fairs are devoted to figures and structures for your scene. Of course, a new born Jesus is the center of them all.

New Years Eve comes with the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight. This is an obligation and the supermarkets were filled with little festive cups containing 12 grapes. You eat a grape during each “bong” of midnight.

But wait, there’s more!

Lucky kids get a gift from both Papa Noel on Christmas and the Three Kings on January 6th (Epiphany). But most are limited to Three Kings and the way the kids accomplish delivery of their lists of desires in the weeks before Epiphany is elaborate. In one scenario, the kings send their three ambassadors who set up embassies where the kids can visit each embassy, experience that king’s culture, and – or course – deliver their list there.

Finally, the towns have parades on the Eve of Three Kings Days that have the kings arriving majestically and with pomp and circumstance by camel, or boat or train – all designed to astound and delight the kiddos!




Mediterranean Diet

Spain has the highest life expectancy in Europe and Spanish women in particular have the second-longest living in the entire world. Spaniards get lots of exercise – I’ve been surprised seeing their walking and biking stamina. No one seems to be very chubby, either.

They follow the Mediterranean diet, meaning olive oil, fish and veggies are staples. But one question I have (and Google isn’t answering for me): if cured meats cause cancer, (and these folks love their cured meats,) do they have a higher rate of ham-caused cancer? Along with cancer from chorizo, salchichón, botifarra, or fuet?

Spaniards eat twice the recommended daily amount of cured meat. In late 2015, NPR did a story on Spaniards’ reaction to a dire WHO warning about cured meat. Quotes in the story have Spaniards chocking it all up to a conspiracy theory.

It seemed to me that a journalist would kindly check and see if Spaniards have higher rates of the type of cancer attributed to cured meats, but no! I can’t find any references pointing to rates of cancer by country or by consumption of chorizo!

Meanwhile, we’ve been pretty adventurous in trying some of the Mediterranean favorites – mostly seafood and mushrooms. We’ve eaten lots of steamed mussels, and a few other shelled creatures we don’t recognize. Tuna is found in most salads and many sandwiches. Anchovies and sardines are also omnipresent.

Mushrooms enjoy an exalted place in Catalonian food, and the most prized forest treasures are Bloody Milk Cap, Waxy Cap, Yellow-footed Chanterelle, Black Trumpety, and Panther Cap. Winter mushroom season is a big event. We tried a nice mushroom dish at a restaurant. Here are a few pics of our meals – I’m not a food photographer, obviously.

Mussels (left) and another snail kind of food – tasted ok!
White beans and sausage – common combo, wtih grilled potatoes and mushroom sause
Roasted Duck with Cranberry Sauce
Saffron Milk Cap mushrooms

Six Hundred Years Earlier…

My, but the walled cities here in Catalonia are old! The churches I was impressed with in Brittany are all six hundred years younger than the ones here. We hiked up to see an old chapel and read that it was destroyed by an earthquake, so they rebuilt it old monestaryin the late 900’s. And this photo is from a nearby monastery founded before 812.

The book “A Brief History of France told through Food,” (which you can check out from the local library) taught me a lot about the history of this region which I can sum up thus: a bunch of rich guys and religious leaders had a lot of power struggles that lasted around a thousand years before democracy arrived and made things a lot different. The wonders of democracy started here and are cherished here.

One of those power-struggling people was Charlemagne – who has been called the “Father of Europe” as he united most of Western Europe for the first time since the classical era of the Roman Empire.  It is said that the Catalan flag is from Charlemagne’s son, who used four bloody fingers to draw four red stripes on a wonded warrior’s shield.

The town we live near was established in the 900’s, when churches and monasteries and walls were built. The charming bridge we walk over to visit the Tuesday market was first mentioned in documents in the 1,000’s.

I never know how to incorporate ancient history into my world view.  Four hundred generations are too many to get a solid perspective, so here is what I do: I take a deep breath, lean my head against the old stones, and let myself feel small and unimportant, but not – never – insignificant.

Each of us is an important piece in the beautiful mosaic of history.

It is that Time Again

To Americans, Spain’s schedule seems foreign. (Like, another culture or something?)

In 1940, Spain’s dictator at the time, Francisco Franco, changed Spain’s time zone, moving the clocks one hour forward in solidarity with Nazi Germany, and though geographically nonsensical, it has remained that way ever since. (Because Spain is a member of the E.U., I forget that it was under a dictator for a long time, and still bears the social ills and scars.)

The sun rises late and sets late (clock-wise). For visitors like me, it just means adjusting to when you go out and about. We had to do that in France, too – as lunch is sacrosanct, and held from noon – two.

Here in Spain, nearly all shops and businesses are closed from around 1:30 until 5 pm. This is so you can go home and eat your main, large, family meal of the day. Then businesses reopen for three hours in the evening. So, workers might just have a light dinner about 10 pm. Or during a celebration or holiday, a large amazing dinner lasting half the night.

For residents of Spain, the daily upshot is that they get almost an hour’s less sleep than the average European and suffer from it. The government has been nudging toward changing the time zone, but change is hard.clock in barcelona

Festivities around the holidays were way too late for us. Even to go visit a living nativity scene or Christmas concert was out of our reach as they don’t get started until 9 pm. I feel like a real light-weight. But a well-rested one!

Daily schedules is just one example of surprising cultural differences found whenever and wherever we travel outside of the U.S. For me, it feels lucky to stay in one place long enough to get to know the rhythm of the day.

Daily Life

Just outside a small medieval town in Catalonia, at the end of a mile-long dirt road (which is at the end of a mile-long paved one-lane road), deep in oak and pine woods, you’ll find two houses. One is stone and has twelve bedrooms and twelve baths and a huge blue pool, with a terraced olive grove. Next to it, in garish yellow stucco is our two-bedroom place – the staff house for the big stone one. The homeowners visit seldom so they like to have someone living on the premises; hence our house sitting gig.  Both houses have typical small windows with interior shutters, heavy roof of thick with terra-cotta, and walls of a arm-length thickness. The big house is full of beautiful art (we can just peek in), and ours has – maybe the cast offs? There are five nice paintings on the walls here.

Lest you get too caught up in a vision of our glorious place, other than the paintings, there is little to commend the furnishings. We have two very uncomfortable, very old and stained love seats for sitting and a few odds and ends for dishes, but no paring knife. We do have a washer, but no dryer. This is fine except there is only one set of bedsheets, so you have to get those sheets washed early to get them to dry by bedtime. Especially since it is winter.

Back to the positive – this place has great heat and is toasty as can be. Also has a cute dining table with four chairs that I see are also extras from the big house – they are of a really cool rustic design.

We’ll be here a bit less than one more month. Our daughter is flying in for Christmas, so we are excited about that, and the opportunity to visit Barcelona with her (1.5 hour drive south).

Our house looks a lot like many farmhouses of Catalonia, some of which are depicted by the painter Joan Mir…


How we drove toll roads for free

It is odd to find yourself in an unknown country, by your own choosing and by your own actions. What were we thinking, heading abroad to Brittany and now to Catalonia, places we’ve never been? We are now into a new gorgeous wild countryside of ravines and mountains and rivers and people and customs we don’t understand.

And do we seem to find civil unrest wherever we go? Yes. Maybe Americans just don’t know how to protest stuff. All through France for the past two weeks, we’ve been forced to deal with a large social upheaval – and we encounter it because the protestors occupy every busy intersection coming off the the tollway, with cozy fires of burning pallets and friendly roadblocks. They let everyone through – but but they want to have their say first.

And not only do they let us through, but they’ve taken over the toll booths, so about half the time, we’ve not had to pay any toll on our long roll south to Spain.

And now we are in Catalonia, where they have been agitating for independence, protesting in Barcelona and staging events even in the little town we are nearest to.

However, outside the main areas of protest, everything proceeds normally as if nothing is going on. Foreigners wouldn’t know, however, there the main areas of protest are. Well, WE DO because of Twitter. Twitter is the main communication method of protestors, so if you learn the hashtags, you can be pretty informed. Twitter has been our new best friend these past two weeks, helping us avoid certain intersections and take back roads when things seem a little too energetic for foreigners to negotiate. If you haven’t read up, here is a current article. They make it sound like it is only in Paris, but that is not the case (now I’m the reporter!).