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Victor + JFL

My wonderful friend Victor is a Valenciano, born and raised.  He is also one of my favourite things about Valencia.

Kind, generous, intelligent, and funny (assuming I translated his jokes correctly), he welcomed both JFL and I into his home and his circle of friends.  We met through a local language exchange, but our informal meeting quickly developed into a solid friendship – now he’s stuck with us for life, because I do visit (see: last year).

He is one of the good guys.

It is also through Victor that I came to understand some peculiarities about Spanish vs. Canadian culture.  Here are two examples that particularly stand out:

Space & Distance

  • Victor lives with his girlfriend in the family home (sans family) – a beautiful traditional farmhouse just outside the city limits, or as Victor says, “in the country.”  Over the course of the year he generously picked us up many times to drive us over for meals or social gatherings, noting how far away it was and the fact that we didn’t have a car.  Funny thing is, at the end of the year while staying with Victor before we returned home, we discovered that there is a local bus nary a 6 minute walk from his door, that drops you off in the centre of the city.  Couldn’t be easier.  In fact, this bus runs more often than most Vancouver buses, which made us feel awful about having him chauffeur us the many times that he did.

La Huerta

This anecdote taught us that the Spanish definition of “country” and “far” are very different from the Canadian perception.  While indeed Victor lives in the middle of small agricultural plots that have been farmed for many centuries, there are also all the urban amenities that one could imagine (e.g. grocery store, post office, bakery, hardware store, restaurant) within a 5 minute walk.

WALK.

That is not “country” in Canada.  In Canada country means driving for an hour on your tractor to get back to the farmhouse having never left your property.  Which speaks to the European perception of space and distance, completely contrary to the North American perception.  Interesting cultural difference.

In The Kitchen

  • Spaniards don’t bake.  Which is confusing, because there are bakeries on practically every corner, but just try to find some basic ingredients in the grocery store and you’ll feel like Indiana Jones on a crusade for the last bottle of vanilla in the city.  And don’t even try to borrow a mixer as nobody has one in their kitchen (they do have jamón holders galore).  Which means that Spaniards also don’t know the difference between butter and margarine when it comes to baking (in fact they often bake with oil).  For those who do bake, you know that this is the critical difference between mouth-watering goodness and a disappointing cookie that will make Valencianos think that Canadians have strange gastronomic sensibilities.  Which is exactly what happened when Victor purchased margarine instead of butter for our group gingerbread cookies (something they had never heard of).

Cookies

Disaster.

While the team had more than enough fun decorating them (a total novelty for our friends who had never made cookies… or icing… or baked at home), they were not so fond of eating them.  Upon tasting the cookies there was a series of polite, forced smiles noting that “maybe Canadian cookies are different.”

Sigh.

While I might have been confused on these two matters, I’m certain that Victor himself is pure gold and I can’t wait to host him in Vancouver where we will drive (more than 15 minutes) to get to the countryside where we can gorge on cookies and practice our spanglish.

Gracias amigo.

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Pincho Heaven

Peppers stuffed with tuna.

One word – pinchos.

Or pinxtos if you prefer the native Basque tongue of San Sebastian, the most famous city in Northern Spain.  Located in the heart of the Basque region, San Sebastian is a tourism hot spot.  With beautiful beaches, gorgeous architecture, and some of the best cuisine in the world, a stop here is a no-brainer.

No-brainers are my specialty.

So is bar hopping among the many pincho taverns packed into the narrow cobblestone streets of the old town.  With unassuming exteriors the only clue to the gastronomic wonderland that awaits inside, is the beautiful people spilling out into the streets with a glass of beer in hand a small tasty looking treat in the other.

San Sebastian

Pinchos (literally thorn or spike) are what most foreigners think of when they say Spanish tapas.  However a typical spanish tapa is more likely to be some greasy anchovies that sit under a cloudy plastic cover at your average corner bar.

Pinchos are heaven.

Typically these delicious concoctions consist of small slices of bread upon which an ingredient or mixture of ingredients is placed and fastened with a toothpick (hence pincho).   Almost any ingredient can be put on the bread, but those most commonly featured in San Sebastian are fish such as hake, cod, anchovy; tortilla de patatas; stuffed peppers; and croquettes.

Fancier...

Set up along the bars for self-service, the toothpick also serves as an accounting tally – in order to determine how much you owe at the end of your meal you simply count the remaining toothpicks on your plate.  However please note that this policy is not universal and could therefore lead to some embarrassing cross-cultural incidents (as you walk away from the bar with a loaded plate…).

Lesson learned – always check with the bartender about whether to pay up front or after consumption.

While pinchos originated in Basque country their popularity means that you can find them in most tourist centres around Spain – however for the real deal you need to head North.  In San Seb you can find a range of pinchos from your cheap greasy variety to a highly sophisticated selection that are so pretty that you won’t want to eat them.

But then you will.

Presentation is everything.

At the heart of pincho culture is a strong social element, fueled by the omnipresent social elixir, alcohol.  Typically accompanied by a small glass of txikito (rosé wine), or beer, patrons stand around the bar gorging on what could pass for pure eye candy but is in fact edible.

Have I mentioned how much I love food?

And just in case you manage to make it out of the pincho bars (we barely did), you can lounge on the beautiful horseshoe beach, surf at the neighbouring beach, hike up to see the Jesus statue, or check out some of the famous sculptures around town by Basque artist and hero Eduardo Chillida.

And then return to eat more pinchos.

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“I’m With The Bull”

Not a fair fight

It just didn’t seem like a fair fight.

One baby bull, a cheering crowd, and 2000 drunk Australians taunting the poor thing as it frantically made its way around the arena searching in vain for a quick exit.  One morning at el encierro (literally “the lock-up”) and my perception of San Fermin is somewhat tainted.

But I digress.

You’ve probably heard of the Running of the Bulls, yet another world-famous Spanish fiesta whose origins remain unclear.  While the official name of the festival is San Fermin (in honour of the local Christian martyr… yawn), the thrust of the festival is a practice that involves running in front of approximately six bulls that have been let loose on a sectioned-off course of the town’s streets.

Sounds silly/dangerous, no?

Working for the man...

It is.  Many people have died running and frankly I would not have gone if it had not been for Busabout.  Once upon a time, many moons ago, I worked as a tour guide in Europe for this fine little company.  As it turns out, one of my closest guide friends who I trained with, is now the Operations Manager, which led to an invitation to come and help out at the festival in exchange for free transport and accommodation.  A nostalgic trip down memory lane with a free Spanish festival to boot…

Done.

Thus I learned that the original purpose of the Running of the Bulls was to transport the animals from the off-site corrals to the bullring, where they would be killed in the evening (lucky ducks!).  During the early 14th century men would attempt to speed up the process by hurrying their cattle by running alongside them and goading the (poor) bulls.  Over the years it slowly began to turn into a competition, as young men would attempt to race in front of the bulls and make it safely to their pens without being overtaken.

The most famous Running of the Bulls takes place in Pamplona, Spain, but these days the event is dominated by drunk Australians keen on proving their masculinity alongside the occasional female runner.  This was not my favourite part of the festival.

Little drummer boy

Rather, the spirit of the community thoroughly impressed me, perhaps best embodied in over 1,000,000 people dressed in matching white pants and shirts, with red sashes and red scarves, wandering around the city.  Really you look ridiculous if you don’t dress up.  Of course for those who choose to participate in the opening ceremony, the bright white soon transforms into a sticky, neon pink.

What’s that you say?

Well, the opening ceremony can best be described as a massive orgy of sangria and champagne located in a sticky, crowded mosh pit while the sun beats down on the participants and the requisite Spanish fireworks explode overhead.  You see, from early morning until dawn, revelers spray sangria on everyone within sight, creating a chaotic and messy experience.

All of which is a reminder that alcohol is insanely cheap in Spain – why else would someone be willing to dump a litre and a half of it down someone’s head?

Runners arrive in the ring...

Every morning at 8am the actual bull run takes place, on the same set route that has been used for centuries.  Runners and spectators arrive early and hungover to line the street barricades, and secure the premium spots for entering the encierro.  The run ends at the Plaza de Toros (bullring) where runners stream in, breathlessly checking over their shoulders for their four-legged accompaniments.

But it doesn’t end there.

Having opted for the bullring and their live televised screens, rather than fighting the crowds for a glimpse of the run, we had no idea that the arrival of the runners and the six large bulls was just the beginning.  As we quickly learned, the adrenaline-pumped runners stick around in the plaza as a total of six baby bulls are released, one at a time, to the mercy of the crowds.

That’s right, one poor bull has to go back out and ‘fight’ the (mostly) men who have made their way into the ring.

Hot and fresh churros!

While one might assume that the bull would have the upper hand, in fact I sympathized for the bull, whose horns are wrapped in fabric rendering him less dangerous than usual.  Bolstered by this detail, the ratio of humans to bull, and potentially alcohol (though officially it is disallowed to be drunk and run), the poor bull was essentially tortured by the ego-inflated masses.

It made me sad.

Thus eventually we left the bullring in pursuit of a popular local churreria whose fresh churros date back centuries and therefore inspires a line-up around the block.  They didn’t disappoint.

And like all Spanish festivals, the bulls are just one element, with food carts all over the city, musicians, wandering giants and more.  Plenty to keep you occupied if you’re not into animal cruelty.

The churros alone kept me happy.

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Orgullo Madrid

Don't be a drag, be a Queen!

Pride celebrations around the world are notoriously happy events.  Think Glee characters only with more alcohol and less clothing (just as much singing and dancing).  Colourful, bright, full of warm fuzzy feelings and loud personalities (see: drag queens, leather kings and tattoos everywhere), they are some of the best parties I have ever attended.

Therefore it stood to reason that Spanish pride (aka orgullo), would be A-MAZING.

You see, the Spanish practically invented fiesta.  After almost 40 years of a repressive dictatorship (that was all “I hate art/freedom/women”), the Spanish immediately started celebrating at the end of Franco’s rule in 1975… and they simply never stopped.

And when the Spanish party, it’s never a one-day event.

JFL has a "mini"

No no, a minimum of a week, preferably three, for Spanish fiesta is the stuff that legend is made of.  In fact, you can find a unique regional celebration in almost every small town in this big ol’  country.  From the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona to La Tomatina in Buñol, be warned, Spanish partying can get messy.

So of course we had to check out Madrid pride.

With a large gaybourhood (La Chueca) located in the centre of the city, Madrid boasts a populated and visible queer community.  Despite their catholic roots, Spain has a very liberal attitude towards los gays.  In fact, Spain legalized gay marriage in 2005, two weeks before Canada did – impresionante, no?

And yes indeed, Madrid Pride lived up to the expectations.

Rainbows abound in La Chueca.

Let’s start with the fact that about 8 city blocks are blocked off for pedestrian-only traffic.  During the early evening the streets are filled with people of all ages and gender identifications, but by 2am they become jam-packed, at which point all diversity statistics fade into a blur of drunken revelry.

It’s possible that all the gay people IN THE WORLD were in Madrid.  Well, that’s how it felt.

And what makes a street party so much fun??  Aside from the energy, the ease of transport, the people-watching, the safety factor… you can also drink in the streets.  And if you don’t want to partake in one of the many of street stands offering “mini” cervezas and mojitos (think dinosaur sized), you are welcome to bring your own drinks in, provided there are no glass bottles.  Fantastic!  If you have forgotten your nalgene bottle, a courteous police officer will kindly offer you a plastic glass at no charge.

Viva España!

Blurry Silent Rave

While the utterly boring ‘parade’ was a let-down (floats had ten minutes of empty space between each other), the rest was not.  With five separate stages located around the neighbourhood, there was everything from a string of drag queen performances to a silent rave.

What’s a silent rave you ask?

Well, contrary to everything I know about Spain, the local municipality enforced organizers to reduce noise levels in deference to neighbours complaints.  While this might seem reasonable in most countries, in my experience Spain has rarely been reasonable when it comes to noise.  So, partiers were invited to download a free application on their smartphone, or tune in to a local radio frequency, to hear the live DJ… who was emitting no audible sound.  The result was a strange scene of dancing maniacs and confused onlookers.

Of course the four other stages blasted music until dawn.  La plus ca change…

Welcome to Christiania

Have you ever felt like you wanted to create your own city?

That’s exactly what the residents of Christiania did.  A self-proclaimed autonomous ‘neighbourhood’ with over 1000 residents, it covers 34 hectares in the centre of Copenhagen, Denmark.  Set in a beautiful parkland full of meandering green paths and quiet waterways, these anarchists snagged a particularly pretty corner of Copenhagen.

Clever anarchists.

Of course a green agenda has always been central to their manifesto.  As part of their commitment to the environment, the city attempts to maintain a car-free community.  However, under pressure from the Copenhagen authorities (due to the fact that residents do own cars), Christiania agreed to establish parking areas for residents’ own cars on its territory.  Still parking areas are very limited and resident only rules are strictly enforced.

But this is no Sim City.

Originally envisioned as a city ruled by its inhabitants, Christiania has gone through many iterations over her 40+ year history.  It all started in 1969 when a group of locals knocked down the fence that blocked off an old military area.  The neighbourhood became the centre of an anarchy movement promoting freedom and communal living.  Over the first few years the people of Christiania fought the police repeatedly.  In 1972 the residents came to an arrangement with the government and agreed to pay for electricity and water, a point of pride among local residents that ‘validates’ their right to live there.

Pick your poison

Currently the area has a unique status in that it is regulated by the Christiania Law of 1989 which transfers parts of the supervision of the area from the municipality of Copenhagen to the state.  Since this time Christiania has continued to re-invent itself, though at its core remains the commitment to a self-regulated authority.  To this end the community has always experimented with creating a society “built on a large degree of active participatory democracy dedicated to individual freedom and self-fulfillment.”

Funnily enough this ‘anarchic governance structure’  (I know, right?), looks strangely like a miniature version of more common governance systems  with regular meetings including the Common Meeting, Treasurer’s Meeting, Building Meeting, House Meetings etc.  All residents are invited to participate at these meetings and the distribution of money is decided at the annual budget Common Meeting, which typically turns into a series of meetings as a balance is rarely agreed upon in the first meeting.

So yes, it’s different, in that the Government of Canada (or Vancouver for that matter) has never asked me to vote on a budget directly (and I have some suggestions).

All of which makes for a fascinating case study… if it weren’t for ye olde potheads dominating the aptly named “Pusher Street.”  Yep, the cornerstone of every free society, Christiania has become a magnet for the drug trade.  While the community has pushed back strongly against “hard drugs”, pot in its many forms flourishes in the centre of Christiania.  While the use of hash remains illegal in Denmark, the authorities turn a blind eye to the flourishing trade in Christiania which attracts locals and tourists alike.

Sneaky photo accounts for the poor quality.

While I don’t have a problem with the legalization of marijuana (even though personally I am not a user, I see alcohol as infinitely more harmful), existing in the pseudo-legal environment of Christiania has created an unpleasant environment.  Walking through the centre of town, large burly men with intimidating tattoos and snarly faces dominate the space, creating an uncomfortable vibe for those of us there to explore the ‘freedom’ of the community.

Perhaps my impression of these fine gentleman was influenced by the fact that Swedish friends (a 65 year-old man and his two daughters) visiting Christiania the week prior, were viciously attacked by locals who were upset that the father took a photo of his daughters at a cafe within the grounds.  So they jumped him and beat him so that he had to go to the hospital – disgusting.

But a strong incentive for me not to take any photos within the grounds… viva freedom?

Cycletopia

Traffic jam

Among cyclists, Copenhagen has long been considered the promised land.  With almost 40% of citizens regularly commuting to work by bicycle, over 1.1 million kilometers are ridden every day.

This is likely the secret to Scandinavian beauty.

And to be clear, this is no weather paradise.  While admittedly, it is both flat and compact, it is still a northern city characterized by cold winters where the temperatures regularly dip below zero and it snows.

So what’s our excuse Canada?

Well, actually it’s not really our fault.  The big difference is that local government in Copenhagen has invested heavily in cycling infrastructure over the years.  With over 100 km of bike lanes and 22 different routes in the city, cyclists are considered (almost) as important as drivers.  And unlike the white paint which sometimes passes for cycling infrastructure, bicycle lanes are often separated from the main traffic lanes and have their own signal systems.

Cycletopia.

Family planning

As a foreigner unaccustomed to such sights, I couldn’t help but gawk at the onslaught of cyclists dominating the roadways.  From teenagers to grandmothers, to families carrying their children (and groceries, furniture, pets) in carts, cycling in Copenhagen is the norm rather than the exception.

And no, they don’t wear helmets.

However studies have demonstrated that the safety provided through the increased visibility that results from a large number of cyclists, can outweigh the benefits of fewer riders with helmets.  While no one disputes that wearing a helmet is safer, ultimately getting more people on bikes is even safer, and often helmet laws act as a deterrent to that goal.

Counter intuitive, but true.

Windmills

Of course the Danes have long been reputed for their commitment to the environment.  Crossing the transnational Øresund Bridge from Sweden you are surrounded on either side by imposing white windmills that tower out the sea, providing almost 20% of Denmark’s electricity.

In fact, the canal water is so clean that those clever Danes have even built a free public pool INSIDE THE CANAL.  While the jellyfish initially deterred me (they are apparently harmless), I eventually took the plunge and was decidedly, errr, ‘refreshed’.  The perfect ending to a day biking around the city.

Copenhagen – where hipster fashionistas meet environmental sensibilities.

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The Other West Coast

This is how Swedish people talk to animals.

Despite the abundance of international stereotypes concerning Swedish culture (blonde supermodels, pickled herring, superior design skills), I had more than one conversation with a Swedish person desperately concerned that s/he lacked a distinct culture and identity in the face of American influence.

Which (ironically) defines the Canadian identity.

Perhaps Swedes should really be concerned about being Canadian, as I felt very at home the entire time I was in the country.

However in the face of this general angst, here are some interesting elements of Swedish culture that are keeping it distinct from the rest of the world:

  • Midnight sun.  Despite the fact that in Northern Canada there is close to 24 hours of sunlight during the summer, I have never experienced it having spent most of my time in urban Canada.  However Sweden’s urban centres do, therefore the amount of light in Gothenburg was truly mind-boggling.  Sun + Midnight = Weird.

Swedish countryside...

  • Suburbs.  The connotation of suburbs in Sweden refers to low-income areas outside the city typically dominated by ethnic minorities and/or immigrants.  So, the opposite of North American suburbs thanks to “white flight”.  Perhaps just a language thing, but confusing none the less given that Swedish people speak excellent English.  In fact, perhaps even better than many Canadians.

The Simonsson clan (excellent English speakers).

  • Gender Roles.  Yes, my favourite subject, but also a pleasure to speak about in Sweden.  I consistently encountered men so grounded in their sexual identity (and otherwise) that I liked almost everyone I met (a rare feat)!  In fact, it was my male friends that kept raising feminist arguments as we sipped on our expensive beers.  Speaking of beer…

Swedish women are surprisingly strong.

Swedish men have, err, other talents.

  • Social Policies. Which can pretty much be summed up with expensive alcohol (ahem… I was a social policy planner so I have a pretty good grasp of these things).  Being the socially progressive paradise that they are, they have rejected the ridiculously cheap alcohol that characterizes southern Europe in favour of government-regulated prices.  Sort of like Canada.  The result = social harmony.

Gothenburg seawall for beer sipping.

  • Food.  Okay, this is where we seriously differ.  Not only do the Swedes spread caviar on their toast for breakfast every morning (and trust me, this is no luxury item!), they also have taken what was formerly known as cheese, combined it with every known flavour imaginable, and put it in a tube.  Something I would like to credit to the Americans but can’t.  Ugh.

Baconcheese.

  •  Community.  In line with all things socially progressive, the Swedish government also supports any group who puts forward an application to start a ‘club’, thereby encouraging the arts, music, sports, gardening etc.  For example, you want to start a band, you need rehearsal space and some instruments, you demonstrate to the government that you’re serious and BAM!, you have funds.  A-mazing and unique to Sweden as far as I know.

Even the lettuce looks better in Sweden.

So yes Sweden, you have a culture.  Let’s just hope there are not too many Swedes interested in starting clubs to expand their tube cheese varieties…

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