In which I graduate from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

I’m lying of course.  Even I can’t do a degree in three weeks.  But ….. I have been a distance learner at this seat of learning, and I’ve loved it.  I’ve exchanged my 1970s student life, putting the world to rights in the refectory or the students’ union bar for on-line discussions with Anglophones with the hugest variety of life experience.  I’ve exchanged echoing lecture theatres for my own study, where the lecturer delivers his or her piece at exactly the hour that suits me, and repeats it on demand.  I’ve exchanged official reading lists for comments and suggestions from fellow students, based on newly discovered shared interests.

All this is thanks to FutureLearn.  They publicise courses on every subject you can think of, and lots that you can’t.  Some are paid-for courses right through to professional qualification or degree level.  But many of them are not. Universities in every continent run short free courses and they want us to be their students.  If only I’d seen Hanyang University’s Introduction to Korean before we went two years ago!

No matter.  What I saw a few weeks ago was this – Getting to know Catalonia: An introduction to the Catalan language , culture and society.  What timing!  Emily and Miquel are buying their first home together and Emily’s had promotion in her job in Barcelona.  Catalonia’s going to be part of our lives.

It didn’t begin well, and I whinged to Emily that I’d signed up to a piece of propaganda from the Catalan Independence movement (‘What did you expect’?).  In fact however, we’ve had an overview of economics, history, literature and the arts and popular culture and it’s a solid grounding for further study.

What’s made it has been the fellow-students.  I’m sure some people do what’s set in front of them and are happy to leave it at that. It’s probably all they have the time or inclination for.  For a hard core of us though, it’s our colleagues that have made the difference.  The civil servant in the Welsh office at the time when their bilingual policies were being developed; the Catalan who observed that there is no ‘standard’ Catalan, so in the media, do you use the language of the Balearics, the North West or the Central provinces, or even (who knew?) the Catalan spoken in Alghero, Sardinia ?  The Irish chipped in, and Swiss Germans, and other linguistic minority groups.  All this provoked lively discussions about language, and languages that have been suppressed (as Catalan was, unsuccessfully, and as Occitan was in France, largely successfully).  Every topic has had us helping each other out.  Most of us are woefully badly read in Catalan history and literature, so we share ideas about more accessible material.  Away from the lectures, the tutors barely show their faces, and that’s fine.  It is a free course after all, and we have proved that self-help works.  In just three weeks we’ve established a learning community where we have given something, and taken a lot, and are the richer for it.

I’ll be on the look out for my next free course from FutureLearn soon.

Every time I open the coursework, this is the image I see. An ariel view of a human tower in the making: Catalan cooperation at its finest.

From Pennines to Pyrenees

We’ve crossed the Pyrenees again.  To visit our daughter in Barcelona.

A view of Barcelona from Port Vell.
A view of Barcelona from Port Vell.

And then we shall cross them back again.  To visit our friends in Laroque d’Olmes.

A view of the Pyrenees from between Laroque and Foix
A view of the Pyrenees from between Laroque and Foix

We’ll be in touch when we get back to England again.

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is a bit of a grumpy day for me.  Nothing festive happens.  It’s just the day for dismantling the Christmas tree, packing baubles and Christmas wreaths away for another year, and reading through Christmas cards from old friends for the last time before they’re taken off to some recycling point.  The house looks sparse and bare, and maybe in need of a spring-clean.

I think of Emily over in Barcelona. She’s not at work today because Twelfth Night is Epiphany.  It’s the day on which Spanish children at last get their Christmas gifts, because the Day of the Three Kings is when legend has it that the Magi presented their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.  As Emily points out, the main downside to this late arrival of gifts is that this is the very last day of the holidays: school tomorrow, and no time to get to play with those new toys.  Still, today is another chance to party and enjoy a family feast.

Our caganer is clockwork.  He does back-flips.
Our caganer is clockwork. He does back-flips.

It was Emily who may have been responsible for our finding ‘el caganer’ in our Christmas stocking this year.  If your Catalan isn’t up to translating this, let me explain.  It means, um, ‘the crapper’. El caganer is a little fellow in Catalan costume, squatting with his trousers down, and defecating.  Why?  Well, he’s a traditional part of Catalan nativity scenes. Maybe he’s a fertility symbol.  Most people these days prefer the idea that it shows that great or small, we all have the same very basic needs.

Caganers on a market stall.  Anybody you recognise here?
Caganers on a market stall. Anybody you recognise here? (Wikimedia Commons)

So these days at any street market, you can buy caganer figures who represent the Pope, the Queen, Barack Obama, a whole range of footballers – any personality you can think of.  And they’re just the same as us.  Even if it’s Twelfth Night, I don’t think I’ll pack away our little ‘el caganer’ just yet.

Galette des rois, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Galette des rois, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A dusty miller.
A dusty miller. (Wikimedia Commons)

And when we lived in France, Epiphany was the start of the Galette des Rois season.  As guests anywhere, you’ll be sure to be offered a slice of this almondy pastry confection.  Part of you wants the good luck of being the person to find the ‘fève’ within your slice.  This used to be a lucky bean, making you king for the day.  Nowadays it’s a small china figurine, and maybe quite collectable.  I’ve just been looking unsuccessfully for our little fireman ‘fève’: goodness knows where I’ve hidden him .  The downside of finding the lucky bean though,  is that it’s your turn to make the galette next time round.

Parts of Europe seem to be having fun.  Ho hum.  Here, it’s all too easy to be aware that there’s January to get through before we can think of the days lengthening and the arrival of Spring.

The Bunkers of Barcelona

No sooner back from England, than we were making tracks for Barcelona.

Why?  To help daughter Emily and her flat-mate move.

A trailer load Barcelona-bound
A trailer load Barcelona-bound
Saturday saw us leave Laroque with a large and unwieldy trailer load of cast-offs for Emily and her flat-mate’s new home. Two beds and mattresses, a table, a blanket box, a linen basket, a bike, ephemera from the kitchen, all kinds of detritus.  We’d spent an afternoon on Friday packing the load, carefully, and with lots of thought and planning.  Ten minutes after we set off on Saturday, it became unstable.  We stopped and rejigged, went on a few miles… and more of the same.  It started to rain, with quite high winds.  We stopped a third time, bought more rope (OK, washing line.  It’s all we could find), really had a good go at things, and finally, we had a steady load that got us all the way to Barcelona, in said wind and rain, as far as the frontier.  Hooray!  In Spain, the sun shone.
In Barcelona, we unloaded, unpacked, fetched and carried, and did our best to get the new flat …er …  ship-shape.  Sunday morning, while the girls played house, Malcolm and I were off duty.  What to discover today?  Well, look one way from the street outside her flat, and you’ll see far below you, the sea.

Yes, that's the sea down there.
Yes, that’s the sea down there.

Look the other way, and you’ll see far above you…. bunkers.

Bunkers above
Bunkers above

Those bunkers are among Barcelona’s lesser known secrets, and they looked intriguing.  It’s a toughish climb up there, but stop for breath, and your reward is increasingly dramatic views of the city spread far below you.

View part way up.
View part way up.
At the top, there are battered concrete remains: the bunkers that were built by Spanish Republican forces in 1937 in their efforts to defend the city.  Little could be done against the air power of the Nationalists.  The Republicans were under-resourced, and their best hope was to use this high vantage point as both a look-out,and a place from which to launch protective curtains of artillery fire.
Once peace was restored, the bunkers came into use once more: a chronic housing shortage in the city meant that right up until the 1990’s, the site developed into a shanty town, housing up to 600 residents, though the council resisted providing services such as water and refuse disposal until well into the 1980’s.  Remnants of this improvised town can still be seen in vestiges of tiled floors.
Now, you’re most likely to make the trek up here to get the very best views of the city: better than from Tibidabo.  It’s not the view those Republican forces saw.  From up here at La Rovira, you look down on a modern city: recent tower blocks dwarf the older buildings, though your attention will always be caught by the spires of la Sagrada Familia, still under construction.  A highly-recommended excursion.  Get yourselves there before everyone discovers it.

Climb down again: this is what you see.
Climb down again: this is what you see.

Postcards from Girona

We had a mid-week break in Girona last week.  Because I needed the dentist.

Despite the general all-round good quality of the French health system (though it’s not what it was), dentistry does not on the whole measure up.  Ask anybody round here to recommend a dentist, and they’ll either say ‘not mine, definitely not mine’, or suggest someone miles and miles away with a weeks long waiting list.

So when my daughter over in Barcelona recommended her dentist in nearby Girona, it seemed too good a chance to miss.  A quick holiday in a town on the ‘to-visit’ list, a chance to see Emily, and a pain-free set of teeth.

The dentist there sorted things out, but said he’d need to see me again.  So we realised we didn’t need to dash round on some frenzied must-see-everything-double-quick self-imposed tour.  We took our time.  We wandered up and down the narrow stairways that make up the ancient Jewish quarter, walked the old city walls, and spent time in the cool shaded Jardins d’Alemanys.  There was time for an early morning coffee, a relaxed meal, a cool beer in shady squares among the narrow back streets.

In its day Girona has been invaded by Romans, Muslims, Franks, enduring over 30 sieges in 800 years.  As Robin Gauldie, travel writer says: ‘It’s like Barcelona in miniature, with all the history, heritage and great food but without the insane traffic’.  We don’t need the excuse of a toothache to go back.  There are churches to visit, museums to explore, gardens to relax in, meals to enjoy.  There are riverside walks, and the countryside beyond.  So much to do and see, but all within walking distance of the ancient city centre.  Roll on my next dental appointment.

To view any of the pictures in a larger format, simply click on the image.

The cops and robbers of Barcelona

Christmas in Barcelona.  A perfect way to celebrate.  Son and daughter-in-law were there too, and we all stayed in Emily’s flat, since her flatmates had gone away.  Perfect times for us don’t make for interesting reading for others: the balmy weather, meandering round the endlessly fascinating streets as desultory sight-seers, coffee stops at the outside tables of bars in picturesque squares, shopping at temptingly- stocked shops and market stalls in the cosmopolitan quarter which is Emily’s home, eating out or sharing tapas at simple neighbourhood restaurants….  Here’s the story in pictures.

So something had to come along and spoil it.

The car and Barcelona don’t go well together. Even driving in and out of the ill-signposted city is something we always dread.  With a superb and cheap public transport system, we’d have liked to have left the car at home, but it was stuffed with extra bedding, presents, bits and bobs Emily needed from home, so when we arrived, we unloaded and then took it off to park elsewhere for the duration, since she lives on a square with little parking.  She’d taken advice, and suggested a quiet nearby corner of town where a Spanish friend said it would be safe and out of the way.  Once there, we checked, and checked again that there were no restrictions.  One morning, we popped up and checked yet again.  All was well, so we left it until we were packing to go….. walked to the street where we’d left it…… No car.

Stolen!  Panic! What to do next?  Contact our insurers, see if we could sort out one-way car hire between Spain and France?  Would insurance pay? What about replacing the car, which we’d newly and expensively fitted out with snow tyres?  How could we possibly afford that? Emily rang the police, who promised to call back once they’d made enquiries.  After a couple of hours to-ing and fro-ing, we learnt that the car wasn’t stolen, but had been towed away because of parking infringements.  There should have been a notice stuck on the road where the car had been, telling us what had happened: but there was nothing there. We’d need to go in person to the Police.  There are three sorts here: those belonging to Barcelona itself, local Spanish police, and the national service.  We went to see the Barcelona lot, a 20 minute walk away.  Eventually they tracked our car down – thank goodness for Emily’s command of Spanish – to the Spanish police’s car pound at the last stop on the metro line.  If we went with ID and 239 Euros, we could have out car back……

Walk to metro.  Impatiently sit out long journey.  Emily spends time texting Spanish friends.  They’ve all had similar experiences: ‘It’s to try to fill the city’s empty coffers’, they explain. Track down car pound.  Join disgruntled queue of fellow-sufferers. Pay up.  No choice.  Receive form on which to write our grounds for appeal. Try to make our way back to Emily’s from a completely unknown part of town – we get good at buying time by circling roundabouts twice.  All the time fuming at the loss of precious hours with Tom and Sarah on our last day together.

Heigh ho.  Even run-ins with the Police however, can’t take away our memories of a wonderful Christmas break.

Bon viatge! Emily’s off to Barcelona….

When my generation graduated, back in the early 1970s, it never occurred to any of us that we wouldn’t get a half-way decent job in a field that interested us.  By 2010, it was a different story.  Emily’s first taste of work, post graduation, was as casual bar staff for a national pub chain.  Mind you, these posts now seem to be exclusively reserved for young graduates and the occasional favoured undergraduate.

Emily all checked in and ready to go at Leeds-Bradford airport
Emily all checked in and ready to go at Leeds-Bradford airport

After that, it was a bank: that was pretty soul-destroying too.  Because all the time, what she really wanted to do was train as a teacher. And these days, you need lots of voluntary experience before they’ll even consider you.  How do you get that alongside a day-job?

Then she had a lucky break.  She spotted an advert from CAPS, an organisation supplying English Language Assistants to schools in Barcelona.  She applied.  She was accepted.  And today – she went.  She’s flying over, and she and the other successful candidates will spend a day (and a night) together, being briefed, before going tomorrow to meet the families they’ll be staying with.  School on Monday.

She’s looking forward to meeting the people she’s staying with.  She’ll be trading spending time with her six year old boy twin nephews, for staying with another family with 6 year old twins – girls this time.  She’s wondering if the Spanish she’s managed to learn over the last few weeks will be any help at all – or whether only Catalan will do.  She’s looking forward to being in Spain, to finding out if teaching really is for her, but most of all to the Big Barcelona Adventure she’s already started writing about in her blog

And we’re looking forward to a few excuses to go and visit her there.

Sagrada Familia: bound to be on Emily's visiting list