Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Jo Parla Catala!

Well, not really, but I’ve started to learn, and that is important too.

In my class there are people from Somalia, Bolivia, Czech Republic, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Argentina, Columbia, Morocco, Philippines and Spain. Yes. There’s a young girl in our class from Spain and she’s learning Catalan too.

I asked the Spanish speakers why they were learning Catalan, when everyone could understand them anyway. They said, ‘Because we live here.’ Its not a matter of being understood or understanding. By learning Catalan we make a commitment to belonging to our new home.
I have been an English teacher for ten years. I know people complain that English is difficult. Some problems with the English language include pronunciation. Like ‘they were too close to the door to close it.’ The pronunciation of ‘close’ changes depending on its meaning.  The meanings of words may not mean what you think. For example ‘quicksand’ is not quick at all and boxing rings are square.

Catalan is both familiar and very complex for an English speaker. There are some words that are similar to both languages, like  patate/potato, llac/lake, oli/oil. However, the question I ask you is, why do that to your verbs? Why make it so difficult?

And why does a plant have to be a male or female? It doesn’t make any sense to me and just makes it harder to learn. It’s a new word and a gender. La mare is the mother. El pare is the father. We know, without doubt, that she’s a she and he’s a he. And then, the mothers turns into les mares. !!!???


I know what you are going to say – ‘because that’s the way it is.’ I understand.
I have a confession to make. When my best English student says ‘but it doesn’t make any sense.’ I say ‘look, it doesn’t have to make sense. You just have to learn it. Monkey see, monkey do.’  Looks like I’m the new monkey in town.

 Originally posted in Revista del valles.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Culture Abounds

Every week I am surprised by the little gems the Oriental de Valle holds within her landscape. History lies behind every stone. Stories and traditions unfold like an intricately designed tapestry. I can not help but be intrigued by the depth, the layers and the details.

This week I discovered dolmens and went to visit the one on the black mountain.  I have seen pictures of dolmens before, but I did not know what they were called, or that they were so prevalent in the Mediterranean area.

I am aware that this dolmen may sound rather dull to you, dear reader. You’ve probably ‘been there and done that’ and went on to more spectacular outings. However, for me, this dolmen is not just ‘one of many’ that exist in the area, but a symbol of continuity, common ground and humanity before the lines of countries were printed into text books. Dolmen have been found in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The aboriginals of Australia were nomadic people. The had no need to cultivate lands or build homes that lasted the seasons. We have cave paintings and relics of hunter gather civilisations.  The Romans never touched our shores. The Vikings, the Celts, the Goths – these were European stories told in schools when I was a child.

We had suburbs and malls, cricket pitches and story books full of places that snowed at Christmas and talked of far off places like Spain.

Thirty years later, I sit here, dwelling in the lands many of the stories of my childhood were built upon.

The dolmen remind us we are people who have continued to evolve, recreate themselves and adapt to the new circumstances. In these days of mass migration, of peoples of all regions coming together, it is rewarding to look back and see the commons in our human development.
As always, I send you thanks for being here. Thanks for taking me into the design of the great mosaic of Catalonia.

Originally posted in Revista del Valles 

Fabulous Food

Olive oil! Salt! Tomatoes! Bread!
What more can we ask for?
I laughed a when I first understood the expression ‘patomaquet’. Bread and tomato? That’s the typical dish of the area?
I was unprepared for the serious and staunch pride of this simple Catalan fare by its people.
‘si, si patomaquet!’
When I first saw people pouring olive oil onto their bread, I was quite literally horrified. In Australia, we’ve been well tutored in the risks of cholesterol and heart disease and we use a table spoon of oil to cook with. 

Here, you pour olive oil with indulgence and some sort of innate knowledge of the ‘right’ amount.
I grew up with plain British traditions and was often served ‘meat and two veg’. This means dinner was a lamb chop and two sorts of vegetables, one of them green and the other a potato.
In the 1990’s there was, at some levels of our society, a kick away from the traditions and a movement towards embracing the different cultures Australia had attracted. The Mediterranean one included.

The Mediterranean diet has been happily modified for the Australian palate. We drink more wine, we drink more coffee and we love our three p’s – Pasta, Pizza and Paella.
But again, the ‘real’ thing is not quite the same as it was back home.
For one thing, your olive oil tastes really really good. The friends I told you about last time, they were ‘ohhhing’ and ‘aaahhhing’ in a most embarrassing way every time they put something in their mouths.

The smell of olive oil is addictive.
Then you add a little salt, garlic, put it all onto a slice of white farm style bread. Place a few slices of juicy tomato on top! Ohhh! It looks like Australia is ready to add another P to our favourites – Patomaquet!

Originally published in Revista del Valles

Autumn in Granollers

Well, here we are.  Its well and truly Autumn. There is a collective sigh going around.  The days are getting shorter and we don’t have to get up at ungodly hours to see the sunrise.  Its pink in the sky at 7.30. A respectable time for the sun to rise.

People are starting to wear darker colours and orange is coming out of the closet.  Young people are getting caught at 8 in the evening in just a singlet while their arms change colour from the cold air.  Pumpkins are decorating some shops and there is a strange dried vegetable for sale in some bakeries. I asked what it was and discovered it was  a moniato. Ahh, that makes it clearer. Lucky for me I’m in the age of google. This vegetable goes under the name of ‘sweet potato’ in English speaking countries.  I love sweet potato with a bit of butter.
That reminds me, while you drip olive oil on everything that is going into your mouth, we (people from countries of old British rule) smother our food in butter. Butter made from a cow. My parents used to use ‘dripping’. Dripping is the hardened fat derived from slow oven cooked meat. They used to eat bread and dripping.

In Australia, the days of full fat butter have turned into days of olive oil margarine, or sun flower oil spread. Its not quite the same. All in the name of healthier eating habits. I’m sure things for you have changed too, but you are still dripping olive oil on everything and eating chocolate and croissants for breakfast, just like your parents.

We’re not quite into the swing of the colder and darker weather yet. There’s a feeling of resistance in the body to adapt to change. Yes, we’re happy that the sun is not so strong, but its not quite cold enough for our favourite winter jacket or to pull out the big cosy blanket for the sofa.

Autumn is a season for change. We have two and a half months left before the end of the year. Do you remember your New Year Resolutions? Its never too late to get back up on the horse you know. I’ve promised myself to learn how to make a great cake, to eat dried moniato and speak enough Catalan that I will confidently say ‘jo’ when someone asks who is the last one. What are you going to do, in this season of change?

Originally published in Revista del Valles

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hugs and Kisses

Last month my son started school here in Granollers. He is learning Catalan. However, the language is only half of the journey into understanding another culture.

We are both struggling with verbs, pronunciation and  trying to remember the masculine or feminine of your nouns. We say ‘the’ and you say ‘la’, ‘el’, l’, ‘les’, ‘els’. That’s the easy part.

The difficult part is getting used to the high emotional tone of some of the people here. Casual conversation sounds like an argument. ‘What are those people arguing about?’ I ask. ‘Oh, nothing. They are discussing the weather.’ Oh.

People here generally greet each other with two kisses. If I offer my hand for a handshake, some people are offended and force me into a hug and pressing of cheeks and kisses that sound in the air and is felt sometimes upon my cheek.

Affectionate displays are not so common in Australia. Men do not usually kiss each other. The closest Australian men get to close physical contact is a hard slap on the shoulder and a manly ‘G’day mate.’
I remember watching the soccer/football in Australia and being surprised by the hugging and close physical contact of the players.

My son is also experiencing difficulties in accepting the physical approach of other students at his school.  He asks why the other students keep hugging him, patting him and generally touching him. I try to explain that it’s a different culture, that people are very physical here and demonstrative.

In actually fact, I think it’s a healthy change in our lives. I think something that was missing from my childhood, was the comfort and caring of friendly physical touch. I was very happy to see the other children coming and embracing my son at school. He shrunk into his body, but I think with some practice he will improve. He’ll get used to hugs and touch and be able to receive the kindness for what its intended. As a sign of affection and comfort.

In the spirit of positive cross cultural exchanges – un abracada!

 Originally posted in the Revista del Valles 

‘Caganer in Cagalunya’

There is a Christmas Market in the Porxada selling decorations for the festive season. My son wants to build a little nativity scene. We have never done this before.  He is very interested in the Romans.

While we were admiring the little statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and toga draped Romans, we also came across a little man with his pants down squatting in a most surprising position. We discovered the ‘pooper’, or as he is named on the internet, the Caganer.
Truly, to the uninitiated, it’s a shocking thing to see amongst the wise men, shining stars and angels.

A traditional Catalan caganer from the front.

It seems the custom started in the 17th century, but nobody seems to know why it started or why it is still popular today. Now it is part of the Catalan tradition, and can also be found in other parts of Spain and in Portugal and Italy.

Coming from a reserved and rather dry British culture, it’s hard for me to see the humour in such a thing. I can only surmise it was an act of resistance, the same way the Catalans are symbolised by the donkey, instead of the bull as of other parts of Spain.

However, from all accounts, the Catalans are practical, pragmatic people who like do not like to stand on ceremony. They are straight forward, to the point and say things like  "menja bé, caga fort i no tinguis por a la mort!" (Which was translated as Eat well, shit strong and don't be afraid of death!)

If I think more along these lines, I must say I was also shocked when I first heard people swear  by defecation on God, Mother Mary and Jesus  in what seems to be the most disrespectful way to my ears.

I have also heard that you beat a ‘poo log’ for presents at Christmas time?

My son came home from school the other day laughing and saying ‘Cagalunya’. At first, I told him that this was disrespectful, but after further consideration, and all the pooping going on, maybe its not such an ill fitting name after all. 

Originally posted in the Revista del Valles

Image thanks to Wikipedia