Trans-Iberian

Trans-Iberian

Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.

Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.

Barcelona welcomes the summer with a bang

Por: | 24 de junio de 2014

Last night Barcelona celebrated Sant Joan: apostle and Christian proselytizer, he also went by the name Son of Thunder; a thumpingly good nickname if you can get it, and one that is rightly deserving of an outdoor celebration.

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Drummers on the beach in Barcelona.  Sharmeela Harris.

It’s difficult to convey the chaos and disorder of the night:  kids chase each other with half-lit firecrackers elbowed on by their parents.  War-like bangs echo around the seven-story, stone apartments, inducing very entertaining flinches from passersby.  Teenagers flick fireworks that fizz, bang then hiss out.   Smoke slowly evaporates into the warm nights air leaving the thick sulfurous odour between the groups lying on the sand.  The glimmering Mediterranean, now black, still entices a few swimmers and the next beach is just as randomly assorted as the previous. The celebration becomes more of a riot than an organised festival. 

The shoulder-shrieking cracks from five-euro fireworks rattle around the city every 23rd June. Not quiet summer solstice celebration (the longest day of the year was Saturday) and low on overt religious commemorations to Saint John, the celebration in the beach city of Barcelona takes on a vibrantly cosmopolitan quality.

DSC02476Celebrations outside the W building. Sharmeela Harris.

The smoke and fire make for a medieval backdrop.  A flame was carried from the Pyrenees that set light to bonfires around Catalonia yesterday, however bonfires are banned on Barcelona’s beaches - a confusing Health and Safety ruling given the groups of children who use the festival to learn the science of just how far you need to stand from a firecracker before you’re hit or lose your hearing. The impressive La Merce, the city’s beautifully unique barrio parties that will begin soon, Independence Day, and on, and on; festivals here are a wonderful visual treat for any citizen of Barcelona, however none are as cosmopolitan as St Joan; none reflect the city’s true diversity, and none reveal the city to be the emerging diverse metropolis that it is fast becoming.

Moving along the beach, away from the centre, the electronic music fades away and the vibration of live drumming increases.   Here, Barcelona showcases its rich cosmopolitanism: Indians dancing Bhangra to Brazilian drums, Germans hopping to an elusive samba beat. 

A tourist fresh to the city with a little knowledge of the Iberian Peninsula may mistake the fireworks and dancing for a Catalan celebration of Spain’s exit from the World Cup. (While Spain won their final game against Australia, they officially left the competition earlier in the day.)   Others would see the beach bound celebrations as the city resetting its summer clock: the holiday falls on a Tuesday, creating a ‘Puente’ whereby many will enjoy a long weekend and won’t be up for work today.  Where better to set the tone for summer’s forthcoming late nights and slow mornings than on the beach, two days after the sun was in the sky for its longest amount of time.   Not everyone swarms to the Barcelona’s sandy edge however; many locals leave for a quieter night along the Costa Brava.

Back in England the summer solstice is monopolized by the Druids who awake early to see the sun rise over Stonehenge and cop a psychotic feel at the spiritual force oozing out of the Neolithic stones.  For Sant Joan in Barcelona they start from scratch, creating the spirit themselves, drumming the sun awake instead.

Cee lo Green

“I guess the change in my pocket wasn't enough / I’m like, “F**K YOU! / And f**k her too.”

Not my words, you understand. But those of Cee Lo Green, from his hit F**k You

Also not exactly the words I would choose to be listening to while squeezed into the car with my girlfriend and her parents on a sunny Sunday afternoon drive back to Barcelona. But Rac105, it seems, begs to differ.

I listen, half intent, half embarrassed, as Cee Lo’s avalanche of petty filth comes drivelling out of the speakers. 

No one’s talking. Are they embarrassed too? My girlfriend’s parents don’t speak much English, but surely “f**k” is a universally recognised word? As for my girlfriend, she speaks English very well. She must have noticed.

But no.

“Weren’t you a little embarrassed by that song?” I ask her after we’ve arrived home.

“What song?” she replies, open eyed and innocent.

“You know, the one in the car with all the swearing?”

“Oh I didn’t notice it.”

This, I decide, only proves my theory: that swearing in a foreign language is impossible. 

Honestly, I’ve known foreigners who have spent decades in Britain and who speak note-perfect English. But they never know how to swear. 

There’s just something lacking: you might know what a swear word means in another language. You might have heard it employed a thousand times. But unless you’ve grown up with a language you’ll never be quite at home with the grandmother-bothering import of the choicest swear words or be able to put the requisite scorn into those hard “C”s and guttural “U”s.

As a result, when non-native speakers swear in English they tend to either A) go way too strong (the “C” word should probably not enter dinner-table conversation, no matter how well the night has gone) B) rather underplay it (“bloody” isn’t much of a curse) or C) get the word order all mixed up (as I discovered when a foreign friend told me “no, f**k off you” mid argument. I was torn between being insulted and the desire to tell her it should be “no, you f**k off”).

A similar flaw, I imagine, allows Spanish radio to play all sorts of expletive-laden ditties in English during its mid afternoon programming without a by-your-leave, from Cee Lo Green to Lily Allen’s F**k You (sample lyric: F**k you / F**k you very, very much”, once heard in a supermarket and never forgotten). The station may know the lyrics are a bit off. But no amount of translation will reveal the exact tone, weight and impact of the words. In any case, most listeners won’t care.

Of course, the immutability of swearing cuts both ways. Much as I want to, I just can’t get my head around swearing in Spanish or Catalan (something maybe the Consorcio para la Normalización Linguística should consider: “Swearing for foreigners” would be a guaranteed sell out).

And believe you me, I’ve tried. I really want to swear in Spanish: it seems a wonderfully poetic mix of communion wafers, shitting, virgins, whores and - more often than not - someone’s mother. But no one seems to ever get offended, possibly because it all sounds so lyrical when tumbling out of a Spaniard’s mouth.

Sadly, though, I make the very same mistakes of foreigners in English when I try to swear in Spanish: my tone is all wrong and I misjudge the situation, frequently bringing conversation clattering to a halt.

“What did you say?” my girlfriend will ask, eying my furiously.

“But you said the same thing last week!”

A roll of the eyes. “That was different!

For the moment, then, I’ve given up, defeated. I’ll swear in English if I have to and my Spanish will sport the linguistic decency of a nunnery.

My big hope, however, lies in my daughter. Growing up in Barcelona with Anglo Catalan parents, she will theoretically be trilingual in English, Catalan and Spanish. There’s someone who will surely know how to curse in a variety of different languages. I could learn a lot from her.

But only when she’s older. A lot older, in fact.

In the meantime I’ll have to keep her away from Spanish radio or face some very tricky questions.

*PS mothers, grandmothers, social services etc, I'm not really going to learn how to swear from my daughter. Don't worry.

El Rocio - Death in the afternoon

Por: | 06 de junio de 2014

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Picture the scene, an ordinary Thursday morning in Seville. The streets are crowded with a line of muscle-bound oxen, pulling gypsy-style caravans, all striving to outdo each other with an array of billowing fabric and garish colors. Proud Andalusian stallions flick their tails excitedly as a pedestrian skims their hind quarters. A dark-eyed young woman adeptly applies her lipstick, whilst sitting side-saddle on her steed, dressed immaculately in a polka-dot flamenco dress and matching flower in her hair. The beer is already flowing and the drums rolling, the excitement and expectation hang unmistakably in the air, as man, woman and beast wait impatiently to begin their  week-long round trip, taking them through the wild, Andalusian terrain to the object of their devotion, the Virgin of Rocío.

 

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Rocieros waiting to leave Plaza Salvador in the heart of Sevilla, destination: El Rocio


Welcome to the world of Romerías, which directly translated means pilgrimage, but bears no relation to the sexless, sterility of any catholic religious festivals I was forced to attend as a child. And nowhere tops the drama and spectacle of the Romería like ‘El Rocío’, the week-long festival that takes place in the baking Andalusian late springtime, where religion, fashion, flirting, booze and revelry join together in a heady mix that guarantees a week of sore feet and hangovers.

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The dancing and revelry starts as soon as the procession begins

But it’s that very combination of intense Andalusian sun, long days crossing the parched earth and even longer nights of intense partying, that each year has a somewhat less folkloric side effect; the unpalatably high level of equine collateral damage, with horses dropping dead on route from exhaustion and others dying at El Rocío itself from starvation, lack of water and colic. And this year as the hermandades (brotherhoods) set out slightly later than usual in the first week of June, the unforgiving heat promises to push the thermometers up to heat-stroke-inducing levels.

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Photo of dead horse reportedly taken in El Rocío in 2012

 Each year without fail horses, mules and donkeys perish, but the highest number of deaths was 25 in 2008, with 17 failing to make it back home last year. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, none were as a result of neglect or cruelty, and occurred rapidly, some dying in seconds. Animal charity Asanda begs to differ, compiling their own report by equine veterinary specialist Marta Gallego Torres, on the possible causes of death, in which it was concluded that the most likely were indeed ‘lack of water, stress and extreme exertion’. It went onto say that in contrary to the official verdict of a swift end, much more likely would have been an ‘agonizing and painfully slow death’.

But why do these avoidable casualties continue to happen? It would seem that amongst the more knowledgeable riders making the pilgrimage to El Rocío, there’s also a less-experienced bunch riding rented animals, with very little common sense or indeed interest in treating their mounts as anything other than disposable modes of transport. In other cases horses that are barely exercised all year are pulled out of their field, with no level of fitness and expected to last the six-day return journey. Not surprising then that some fall by the wayside. As humans we wouldn’t expect someone to run an ultra-marathon with no training, in Saharan temperatures, with little water, without expecting some fatalities.

But what to do? Different organizations try to take proactive steps to promote responsible animal welfare during the pilgrimage, such as handing out leaflets and providing volunteer vets on site. The official Plan Romero 2009 ‘Guidelines for the care of horses during El Rocío’ encourage riders to ‘be conscious that your horse is a living being and not a machine…. And to respect and treat it like the friend that it is. Horses tire, need feeding and decent water…. They are grateful for a loving treatment and an encouraging pat during the camino. If we don’t forget any of this, we will have started the journey in an appropriate manner, together with our loyal companion.’ For most animal lovers these would seem like rather obvious suggestions, but the fact that since their publication in 2009, 83 equine deaths have resulted, perhaps the touching sentiment has fallen on deaf ears.

As well as the El Rocío equine guidelines, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and the Environment provides an official veterinary presence as part of their ‘Operación Romero’.  But Asanda’s report calls for more vets both at El Rocío and on the pilgrimage route itself and for owners to immediately call on their assistance as soon as an animal shows any sign of physical distress.

A lack of interest in these statistics by the powers that be would suggest that these animal deaths are not considered worthy of prosecution. In Spain abandonment and cruelty to animals is punishable by law with potential fines of between €2,000 and €30,000, but the regular fatalities during this religious festival are rarely punished, mainly because proving they are not as a result of natural causes and are in fact directly related to abuse and neglect is extremely difficult. Last year not one of the 17 deaths (14 horses and 3 mules) was even reported to the police.

So, it’s just a matter of waiting and seeing. Some horses and mules will die during the duration of El Rocío, that is a given, in the same way that in UK that at least one horse will be put down at some point during the Grand National. Is it hypocritical then for me to come down so hard on the Rocieros and let the racing world off the hook? In part maybe it is, but in the racing world animals are generally cared for, trained, respected and rarely abused. Whereas at El Rocío, in some quarters, showing off and partying take precedent over the fair treatment of the animals that have duly transported the pilgrims to their week of fun.

In the end if every animal is cared for responsibly, not just as it makes its way to El Rocío and back again, but in the weeks leading up to the Romería and on its return, then this for me will be a sign of progress. And maybe, just maybe, fewer will die as a result.

 

A Courtly Love - The Moors & Christians Festival

Por: | 02 de junio de 2014

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I was not only transported to Spain, but whisked back through the ages to behold a panoply of valour, chivalry, fanfares, nobility and queen consorts schooled in the courtly code of conduct. Qualities which otherwise are lost in the mists of time, as well as for the foreseeable future.

The Moors & Christians Festival happened during The National Day of Valencia. I witnessed festive events, which included an historical re-enactment and a street parade. The National Day of the Valencian Community (Día de la Comunidad Valenciana) is held as an annual public holiday on the 9th October. On this day, Valencian crowds and many tourists, commemorate King James I of Aragon's overthrow of Moorish rule in Valencia.

The traditional holiday is celebrated throughout the Valencian community in south east Spain. It pays tribute to the battles fought between Moors (or Muslims) and Christians during the period known as Reconquista. In English, reconquista means re-conquest. Eventually, the Moors were defeated by the Christians, ending approximately 800 years of Moorish statehood in Spain; dating from the 7th century until the 15th century.

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Prior to attending the fiesta, I harboured some preconceived ideas of the Moors & Christians, or what a Valencian would simply call, Moros (Moors). I presumed that the spectacle might owe more to pantomime than accurate historical portrayal. Furthermore, I felt it might inflame a few people as a contentious issue, simply because the festivities may not tread lightly upon history, while also being construed as politically incorrect. However, while observing the celebrations firsthand, I realised that these preconceived ideas were unfounded. It was not a pantomime as such, although a few costumes were spectacular. It was more than a historical re-enactment or a commemoration of antiquated battles, because the festival is deeply rooted in the regional identity of the contemporary Valencian community.

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The yearly revelment is a form of reconciliation, not so much between occidental and oriental cultures, but between the echoes of those same groups found within the national psyche and very gene pool of most native Valencian citizens. There’s no doubt that the carnival atmosphere is about historical battles fought between the Moors and Christians, but it’s also a celebration of Valencian Moorish roots and Christian heritage. It’s an honourable stamp of identity. The fiesta gives closure to past conflicts for the autonomous community of Valencia. Ironically, these dramatic displays, which ritualise the pride, pomp, and circumstance of 'glorious war' become instead an affirmation of life.

Imitation reigns supreme at The Moors and Christians Festival in the city. It has been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. In this case, flattery flows uninhibited among both Moor and Christian alike, as if their forefathers from both camps were watching from above.

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The concept of 'Courtly Love' (or Fine Amor) enriched the Valencian people at the parade and re-enactment, where participants seemed to draw upon the dignified discipline, gait and countenance of a nobleperson. Fine Amor was a medieval European literary idea of love that emphasised nobility and chivalry. Hispano-Arabic literature in Islamic Spain practised a similar philosophy to Christian Courtly Love. Consequently, both groups of warring factions held shared beliefs, during the period of Reconquista. You may dismiss Courtly Love as nineteenth-century romantic fiction, but the echoes of its earlier origins and influences are revived in Valencia, albeit, with contemporaneous adaptations in tow. Who dares say where courtliness ends and uncourtliness starts in medieval literature, never mind from day-to-day? Nonetheless, The Moors & Christians isn't a prosaic daily occurrence and neither would it happily lend itself to fiction. It's an altogether different au contraire beast.

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There was a soupçon of Don Quixote's reverie concerning chivalric romance, among the senior men in period costumes at The Valencian Federation of Moors & Christians. These idiosyncratic fellows also resembled the characters featured on the BBC TV programme called, 'Dad's Army'. One particular time-honoured Spaniard, unsheathed an ungainly sword while all aquiver, exactly like Lance-Corporal Jones draws his bayonet. So-much-so that I expected the Valencian to say, "They don't like it up 'em!" I felt honoured to be among a humorous, endearing and socially respectable league of gentlemen, who could be ranked as the Home Guard of Valencia.

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Arguably, the Moors never really left Spain, because they still dwell in spirit (alongside the Christians) within the hearts of the Spanish. It's especially poignant in the Valencian region, where I heard the parade's ground marshal announce a roll call by shouting, “The Moors, here! The Christians, here!” Hence, he reassured the crowd that we were safe in their company, even if they were armed to the teeth. He'd also announce a loud and triumphant fanfare of welcome, if you ever arrive at the fiesta. That can be relied upon, and that epitomises the essence of Moros.

By Paul Louis Archer: Paul Louis Archer Photography

The audio slideshow is best viewed in Full Screen Mode:

 

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