I travelled to Spain for the second year in a row for the Christmas holidays, so captivated was I by her wiles. I flew on KLM via Amsterdam thinking it would be the most cost effective – which it may have been – but pleasurable it wasn’t. The flight was delayed by eight hours owing to a problem with one of the engines, which is always very comforting to contemplate before a long voyage. So, we had to squat in JHB International’s concourse. Another 11 gruelling hours’ flight followed after we eventually took off; and my, but aren’t the Dutch parsimonious with their meals, for they really were few and far between. And when they did arrive they had thriftily fused them with nouveaux cuisine, as they were miniscule.
My end destination was Barcelona; the capital of Catalonia, one of the 50 provinces in Spain. Spain is ranked in the Economist’s worldwide quality of life index as being tenth in the world, superseding even that of the United States, Canada, the UK, France and Germany (South Africa coming in at a paltry 92)! Having gone from being considered a “second rate citizen” of the world’s nations in the 19th Century, Spain has had a tumultuous climb back up to a position where she is regarded as a formidable force. Today she boasts the world’s eighth largest economy.
Barcelona is enchanting! She – curiously Barcelona is regarded as female in Spanish, whereas Madrid is male – has blossomed by virtue of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. During Franco’s dictatorship he suppressed Catalonians’ (as well as the Basques’) distinctive languages and identity… even the buildings in Barcelona weren’t allowed to be taller than those in Madrid. The Olympics (who will ever forget those two divas, Montserrat CaballÃ© and Freddy Mercury belting out the opening song?!) witnessed an urban renewal thrust which, by all accounts, has catapulted Barcelona into a tourist Mecca.
Coming from Harare, I could only but wander around like a country hick, gaping at the rich tapestry of divergent architecture, ranging from the gothic 10th Century Saint Pau del Camp to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. The Sagrada is a must-see. This sand castle in the air is literally breathtaking! The foundations were laid in 1894 and because its construction requires stone masons – a dying art – it will take an estimated further 25 years to complete. The architecture is quintessential Gaudi (he is interred there), a neo gothic mosaic of nature and symbolism. Be sure not to miss Gaudi’s La Pedrera and the Towers of Bellesguard too. How sad to think that his genius was once pilloried by the press of the time.
It is no coincidence that the Sagrada Familia (“Sacred Family”) cathedral lays at the centre of the grid system of roads in Barcelona, for family plays an integral role in the fabric of Spain’s society. The men are demonstrably tactile and loving with their children in public. None of this Anglo Saxon mucho macho codswallop here! It was heart-warming to see how tender and affectionate these Latino men are; kissing and cosseting their progeny in the most spontaneous and gentle manner.
And it’s not only their offspring that they’re tactile and affectionate with: I was quite convinced that I was the hit of the holiday season with all the men – straight and gay alike – planting passionate kisses on both my cheeks, the bear-hugs, the back-slapping; very touchy feely I thought, until I sadly realised that this was common practice and that I was not the only recipient.
The Civil Guards are to be found everywhere, strutting around in their slinking black outfits. Apparently the only criterion for their employment is that they have to look like Brazilian day-time soap hunks. Well worth jay-walking just to be arrested and frisked by them, I say.
Gay Latino men are brazen about their intent: there’s none of this coy, winsome fluttering of eye lashes. They’ll cruise you on the streets and come up to ask for your number, or more. Hussies!
Spain is a nation that still holds the siesta as sacrosanct, despite the sabre-rattling from the European Community about conforming to ‘common’ business hours. I was in my element! Virtually all businesses shut up shop at about 13h30, re-open at about 16h30 and then finally close at about 20h00. Everyone goes home for an afternoon nap. Very civilised I thought.
Tapas (appetisers) are with out doubt Spain’s most felicitous contribution (Paella and gazpacho aside) to gastronomy. Tapas bars are on every street corner and there are ready-made platters of olives, sautÃ©ed almonds, prawns, crusty bread with green, saffron, or paprika sauces squealing out your name beseechingly as you pass them by. I may have a peasant palette, as an ex lover once announced to me, but it sure did appreciate the Catalan concoctions on offer.
One word of warning: the pronunciation and spelling of penis is very similar to that of chicken, which would account somewhat for the alarmed looks and stupefied glances I received at a bar off the Ramblas when I had evidently ordered a Roast Penis Breast sandwich … with mayonnaise nogal!
Spanish is one of the romantic languages with its routes firmly in Latin and it oddly mirrors the patriarchal nature of the society which is very much still in evidence today. At a friend’s mother’s house I opted to wash the dishes after a delectable Zarzuela, a sort of seafood stew: not only was this met with a chorus of disapproval from the women, and you could see they weren’t just being polite, but it was viewed with suspicion on behalf of the male folk – was I attempting to upset the delicate balance of nature and give the womenfolk the wrong idea?!
Catholicism is by far the most popular religion – but only about 18 per cent of Spaniards regularly attend mass and further evidence of the secular nature of modern day Spain can be seen in the widespread support for the legalisation of gay marriage, making Spain the third country in the European Union to allow same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.
Christmas in Spain is as it should be – spectacularly festive and cold. Traditions abound over this season. In Barcelona, the Christmas fair of Santa Lucia has everything from nativity scenes – from the elegant to the ostentatious, Christmas trees, to Zambombas, which look like a bamboo stick affixed to the middle of a pot plant. You spit into your right hand and then masturbate the stick – I kid you not – until it kind of warbles out a strangled sound. The religious significance of this eluded me.
New Year’s Eve is big business, for the grape growers at least. For good luck, you’re supposed to pop a grape into your mouth, one for each month of the impending year, before the first twelve gongs of the New Year. No mean feat, I tell you!
The Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos (the Parade of the Kings) happens on the eve of Kings’ Day, the 6th of January. Each municipality throughout Spain sponsors this colourful mardi gras, with tens of thousands of people lining the route of their march. The Kings’ Parade in Barcelona is spectacular, broadcasting sweets to all the outstretched little (and some not so little) hands. It stretches on for miles and is framed by the kilometre upon kilometre of Christmas lights strewn from building to building. The Kings’ floats are accompanied by commercial ones like Coca-Cola and Pritt Glue … the birth of Our Lord combined with retail knockdown prices! Dios Mio!
The public transport system is an absolute dream in Spain. The undergrounds in the major cities traverse their length and breadth, and they run with almost Germanic efficiency. A digital billboard on each platform proclaims their impending ar