Saturday, 24 December 2011

Bon Nadal!

Yuletide festivities are once more in full swing: shops are stuffed with all imaginable objects, piled high in mountains as tall as a Tibetan yak; shoppers suffer the customary irritation of other shoppers pipping them to the last novelty egg-timer; tinsel, baubles, and pink glittery penguins festoon the windows in a bid to attract potential customers or polar bears; twinkling stars and presents illuminate the streets of Cassà; and a big tree imposes itself in the middle of the square, lacking a few decorations on the lower branches because a few years ago people used to steal the bulbs. Sounds just like home.

However, Christmas in Catalunya is very different from Christmas in Britain. Christmas in Catalunya means talking shit. Again.
Santa Claus, with his snowy beard, red suit, jolly chuckle, and habit of breaking and entering via the chimney on Christmas Eve, is evidently far too unbelievable a character for the sceptical Catalan children. Enter the cagatió. The 'shit-log', as the name suggests, is a bit of tree with little twiggy legs attached and a smile painted on what is supposed to be the face that is designed to be given a good beating (think John Cleese à la Fawlty Towers). And what happens is this: the children feed little tió biscuits and orange peel, possibly given a bit of a stroke and have some songs sung to it, which is to encourage it to 'shit' presents on Christmas Day. On the day itself, children are allowed to whack the log with another stick and out come the sweets and fruit, as if by magic, from underneath a blanket. Santa with an organic twist, I feel.

As for the religious aspect, many people feel that is has been grossly obscured over recent years by more material priorities. There is indeed much truth to this observation, yet I would like to put forward another side. The Catalans have their splendid tradition of the Nativity scene, or the pessebre as it is known as here. They are taken quite seriously, with all the figures in their rightful places: Mary and Joseph, looking down at their new-born son; the shepherds gathered to pay homage; baby Jesus swaddled in his manger; the caganer squatting somewhere around....
The 'what?', do I hear you collectively cry? The caganer. This is blatantly the most important person in a Catalan pessebre. He is the one with his pants down in the corner, possibly with a bit of stomach trouble, relieving his bowels. Why such a person exists is a little hazy: one story has it that he is actually one of the shepherds and got caught short; other arguments suggest that it is another manifestation of the typical scatalogical sense of humour here. Whichever way we look at it, this little tradition is one that should be more recognised than it currently is, if only for a giggle.

The curious thing about a Catalan Christmas (for us) is that the day for opening the main presents isn't until the eighth of January, when the Kings arrive. It is slightly more realistic, given that we celebrate the birth of the Son of God in December, that the presents would come along with the kings a week or two later. After all, travelling through sand isn't as unproblematic as people may suspect. However, I am willing to bet that it was a slightly better journey than the one I endured in order to get back to England, for the Three Wise Men had wisely chosen to go via camel, not with a certain air company (let's call them Ryan's Air) who had decided to slash about 99.9 recurring % of their flights from Girona. Prices were of biblical sums and when I finally arrived in Manchester had to suffer the shame of smelling like a brewery, since the baggage-handlers had taken about as much care with my rucksack as the Duke of Edinburgh with his diplomacy skills, and left one of my two bottles of French chestnut beer smashed to smithereens and coating all my lovely Christmas clothes in eau de bière. Whilst attempting to clean up a bit on the train up to Carlisle, I managed to cut myself on a piece of glass. All the Kings had to worry about was draw straws to decide who should give baby J the best present of gold.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Vive la France!

Yes, alright, I know....a few months ago I was slating the French and saying it was a great pity we couldn't use Jeff Goldblum to frighten them all back to where they belong, and never fear - there will always be a space in my heart for light-hearted racist banter. However, I must give them credit for things they do well: mainly cheese, sleaze, rudeness, old people, and cats. I base this entirely on thorough, unbiased research; a random trip across the border where people immediately started to drive in a totally erratic manner and where merde smeared the pavements and cobbled streets, sprinkling romantic shine to any town.

It started, funnily enough, with a cat and an wizened old man in Figueres, who found my friend and I strolling the streets before breakfast. A dentally-challenged man, so he was, and apparently ocularly impaired - he found it extremely difficult to keep his eyes fixed on ours instead of roving up and down our legs; a most terrible affliction. We'll never know whether we followed the cat or the cat followed us, but we were led straight to this gnome-like creature who vehemently disapproved of all things feline. By this time, I was convinced that the black cat was an enchanted girl whom the old man had bewitched, and she was asking for help in the rather bizarre manner of lying on its back whenever we called it, as if asking to have its belly rubbed.
 After the encounter, we made for France and much of the same. Not only were there cats everywhere - in trees, on cars, on gateposts - but there appeared to be a running theme throughout the place. Le chat qui rit is a restaurant so incredibly posh that they distainfully declined to serve us even a coffee. The cat was evidently laughing because potential customers are lured by the promise of smiling cats and a wonderfully decorated interior only to be spurned, sent away, pining for what can never be.... Obviously, the cats are somehow in league with the townsfolk, one who was probably a witch. I came to this conclusion after the evidence laid so forcefully at my door: she shouted at us, in French, from her window (something about private parking) then immediately demanded our company and kept us standing for twenty minutes whilst she spat all over us and her beard; I truly tried not to stare, but there was something bewitching about her wiry moustache hairs that mechanically moved up and down and side to side like a puppet's strings. If we hadn't left when we did, I'm certain we would have been transmogrified into some hairs on her upper lip - if anyone goes missing in the south of France, that's where to look.

So on to the très important business of luncheon: we tucked into a bella sandwich de steack, sauce barbecue, oignons, salade, fromage, tomate, poitrine fumée, et cheddar. Ah, que sounds so wonderful, so glorious, so French. It was a burger with bacon with cheese. It is a gift the French have, to have something so totally ordinary and dress it up with a fancy name - it's like making Katie Price elegant. Except that this burger was actually tasty.
And, oh, the sleazy men eyeing us up and down. Even with my thick winter coat I felt stripped and bare of all dignity. (Never mind I was wearing a miniskirt.) No wonder they had condom machines on the streets - just in case you were up for a quickie in front of the pharmacy, presumably because then, if the condom split, you could simply nip in for extra emergency contraceptives.
So, oui. I have ranted against the Fench in stereotypical British fashion. Yet polite people did help us when we were lost. But they were Catalan, so it doesn't count.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A Caçar Bolets!

Finally. This has been on my to-do list for over a year now, and the deed has been done: looking for mushrooms.

I'm not talking about nonchalantly, lazily, half-heartedly mooching about a chain supermarket, vaguely looking at the price and wondering whether they're too expensive and thinking you probably won't use them anyway. I speak of the getting to grips with nature once more, rolling down hillocks of rotting leaves, hair snaggling in twisted knots of trees, mud seeping up your trousers with the silent determination of a paedophile outside an orphanage.

Hunting for mushrooms is a very traditional Catalan event taken with such seriousness that when you find a place, fertile and full of all things fungal, a pact of secrecy must be sworn. If you ever divulge aforementioned secret don't be surprised if you end up with a donkey's head next to you on the pillow - this is the degree of seriousness we're talking about. Usually, it is an event that takes place in the early autumn, since the climate at this time is customarily the optimal conditions for mushrooms: sunshine and rain.
This year, however, the weather has been weird and, quite frankly, inconsiderate. So the joy of rummaging through loam and the odd cache of empty Estrella Damm beer bottles was postponed until this last month. Two of my close friends and I were up near Figueres on a beautiful sunshiny day, tramping through heavily wooded areas, armed with a basket of a size which (in retrospect) was terribly optimistic. Our, or rather my, squeals of excitement every time anything mushroomy was found pierced the otherwise tranquil pine forest. Squeals which were then almost immediately followed by huffs, sighs, and general displays of disappointment when my knowledgable Catalan friend informed me that they were dolents - bad. I even managed to find some that were extremely dolents. Evidently, I was unintentionally bent on poisoning everyone.
It was a marvellously educational day, though. I learnt many things about the forest, a few species of mushroom and how exactly one is supposed to check if they are indeed comestible (by looking both from above and underneath the cap of the mushroom). The resident Mushroom Guru also showed us a mushroom amusingly and pleasingly called pet de llop - 'fart of wolf' or, rather boringly in English, the puffball mushroom. For those interested, the Greek is 'lycoperdon pyriforme': lyco meaning 'wolf', perdon from 'break wind'. Anyway, I have no idea where the wolf figures in all of this unless the Big Bad Wolf made the Three Little Piggies laugh raucously whilst stepping on one and farting simultaneously; hence the revenge plot of deconstructing their architecturally rather flimsy domiciles. They brought it on themselves. I imagine that the farting bit of it comes from the green cloud of spores emitted when one stamps rather viciously on the mature mushrooms. It is quite satisfying, and I urge anyone to try it if they are having issues with aggression - much better than a stressball.
 The above picture shows the extent of our pitiful collection of mushrooms. To be honest, though, I was just happy to be out the house doing something - even if it was clambering and squatting and doing all manner of things unladylike, with nothing to show but a handful of frilly rubbery mushrooms and muddy trainers. Next year, I'm taking a pig.