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SPAIN: Some observations from Catalunya

Hank Levin sends "Some Observations from Catalunya. Summer 2003"

Background: My wife and I spend each summer in Catalunya in a village on the Mediterranean (the Maresme) near Barcelona. She was born in Mallorca and lived in Cordoba and Madrid and is a Spanish resident, as well as living with me in New York, after some three decades in California. We own a flat in the old section (casco Viejo) of our village and intend to spend much more time there in retirement. Each year we take notes about the changes that we have observed from the previous year. Here are some of our observations.

Tattoos and Piercings: We were overwhelmed by the observable increase in tattoos and piercings, especially among young, middle-class teens. Tattoos tend to be large rather than subtle, and they appear to be ubiquitous among persons between 15-20, and frequent among other populations. Especially noticeable was the increase in tattoos among women and girls. Moreover, the tattoos are displayed boldly because of the scant dress (low-cut bodice, bare abdomens, bikinis, thongs, short skirts and shorts, and toplessness on the Mediterranean), so they are there for display. We also saw many jeweled ombligos (navels) and even women in their thirties, children trailing, with piercings.

More startling to me were the piercings. The numbers of persons with multiple piercings would be impressive even in the Haight or the East Village. Most typical were piercings of the nose followed by small rings in the nose, lips, nipples (boys and girls), and navel. Prominent also were posts protruding from the tongue and just below the lower lip. There are relatively few tourists in this part of the coast because there are no accommodations (this is not the Costa Brava or Barcelona). So, don't blame it on the tourists. But, do blame it on MTV.

Clothing and Music: Middle class teenagers have adopted ghetto dress. This consists of loose-fitting jeans and other pants (both long pants and shorts) with the crotch at the knee and at least two inches of underpants showing. In the U.S. this style of rapper-dress displayed the top of boxer shorts. Here the girls wear underpants in lace and colors and even thongs with skin showing from below the waist strap on each side. When we asked parents why they let their children dress this way, we were told that it is the moda (fashion). Parents are very permissive.

Gangsta Rap is common among the chiringuitas (the beach cafes used for music and youth partying at night). The lyrics are filthy, violent, and anti-female, as well as racist. Most of the listeners don't have a clue about the words, but they get hooked by the music and sway to it with a moronic grin. The sales of rap CD s are greater than any other type of music according to the manager of one of the main music stores. If the stuff were translated to Catalan or Castellano and played within earshot of parents, this trend might be somewhat buffered.

Smoking: Although smoking is still prevalent relative to the U.S., statistics show that it is declining. Officially, about half of teenagers smoke, a substantial decline over the last decade. Marijuana use is up to about 16 percent among teenagers, according to a national survey. Cocaine and amphetamine use is rising, but still at single digit levels. Generally, there is concern about substance abuse. Most of the blame for the rise is attributed to Ecuadorian and Colombian immigrants who are considered to dominate the trade along, with Hashish smugglers from the Zaghreb.

Obesity: This is a bifurcated population. The youth and young adults are slender and look very good on the beach. There is a serious problem of anorexia among female teenagers who are under tremendous pressure to look good . But, the story among the adults beginning in early middle age is quite different. Exercise is not an obsession here, and there are only a few gymnasiums and health clubs for adults. Some of the men play futbol de la sala, a version of soccer on a small pitch. But, obesity is very noticeable among both men and women in the 40 and over set. Fast food joints of all types have increased and are getting customers, despite the prevalence of the traditional Mediterranean diet. McDonald s outlets predominate and seem to have lines of youth. Surprisingly, their prices are not cheap. One can get a three course dinner at lunchtime in most restaurants in our area for about 8.5 Euros (less than $ 10.00). The menu will have first plates of gazpacho, sausages and mushrooms, Catalan salad, smoked salmon or cod with toast; a main dish choice among beef, several fish, fiduea (noodles prepared with seafood), calamari, etc..; and dessert (flan, crema catalana (custard), yogurt, fruit, ice cream; excellent bread, mineral water, and a full bottle of wine for two diners. McDonald's gets more than 5 Euros for its version of Big Mac, French Fries, and Soda.

Lifestyle: The big changes are among the youth. For those of us who have gone to Catalunya for many years, much continues to be recognizable. The work day consists of two parts: 10 AM-2 PM and 5 PM-9PM with a siesta honored by all businesses in our village other than restaurants. Each restaurant offers a menu at a fixed price that varies from day-to-day, and lunch is taken at a very leisurely pace. Waiters never bring the check unless it is requested. It would be considered rude beyond belief to bring the check in order to hurry diners away. And, people smoke (ugh) and discuss politics without much regard for time. Some of us also go home and take siesta seriously, sleeping off the soporific effects of the meal and wine.

This year was particular warm. Temperatures approached or exceeded 40 degrees Celsius in the Barcelona region and much of Spain and Portugal, almost every day for three months with little rain. Escaping the heat was a big deal, so air conditioned cafes and outdoor promenades with sea breezes were very popular. The jewels of the summer calendar are the fiestas for the patron saints of the villages. Fiestas of Sant Joan (Saint John) are very popular in our area. The Fiesta typically lasts at least a week and consists of dance exhibitions (the Sardana), poetry readings, sporting events, a few religious events (in our village bringing the fire from the mountain to the church in honor of Sant Joan and then breaking out champagne for the entire village poured directly into the mouth from glass vessels) and a few masses at the Church. The larger events engage the entire community such as the sardineria where huge barbecues are set up on the beach and large sardines are sold cheaply along with bread that has been brushed with garlic and tomato. You purchase enough fish for family and friends and roast them on the grill, sometimes dripping them with olive oil, and eating them with the bread and wine or beer (also sold) on the beach. As it gets dark at 10 PM in this clime, the fireworks begin. The display is overwhelming with far more investment than what we used to say in the Baylands in Palo Alto. It is a really joyous event.

Another event for which the entire community turns out is a variety show (entertainers brought in from Barcelona) with songs and dance. About half of the songs are old favorites such as "Besame Mucho", "Dancing Cheek to Cheek", "New York-New York", and half are Catalan, Spanish, and Latin American. All of this begins at 11 PM. By 1 AM the dance floor is open to general dancing, and all ages dance (they take dance lessons as a community here), no matter what the rhythm to a live band. Dancing goes all night and culminates at 5:30 when the sun rises here with hot chocolate and churros (free) in front of city hall. [Churros are dough sticks dipped in batter],

There are concerts for children and teenagers and classical music in the Church during the week. There is also the parade of the gigantes (figures of an enormous gentleman and elegant dama de Catalunya dressed as at the turn of the century) as well as cabezudos (persons wearing large heads of personages) and the other appurtenances of the traditional procession, with a band playing traditional marching tunes, dirges, and so on. There are far more events than these. When our feria is finished, we wait a few days and to to the Feria de Mataro or the Feria de Argentona, so there are enough festivities for party goers all summer. These are just Ferias de Sant Joan, but there are also Ferias de Montserrat or de Sant Pere (Peter). And, of course since everyone has a saint's name, they have parties at their homes on their saints days for which we were constantly purchasing books or cava (sparking wine) as gifts.

It is also common to have block parties in which tables and chairs are set out in the narrow streets of a neighborhood. Everyone brings a potluck and shares in the cost of beverages and a band. The villages erects lights, chairs, tables, and trash receptacles. Fortunately, the Mayor lives on our block, so we are treated very specially by the town.

The Village: There are democratic elections for Mayor of the village. He is known by almost everyone and runs a U.S. campaign in terms of signs, slick brochure on his accomplishments, and gladhanding. As it turns out, he is a very impressive man who seems to run things well. Our plaza was swept every morning and washed down with water pressure hoses once a week; there were many trash receptacles and clean streets throughout; the police walk through the streets and are friendly and visible; the beach is cleaned mechanically every morning; and there is a process for registering complaints officially and a process for reviewing them.

Spanish Bureaucracy: This hasn't changed much over the years. The party in power, the PP, promised prior to the last election a one window policy. This is quite a laugh. In order to get our car registered, we made 19 trips to the various agencies. We made a mistake and brought a car from the U.S. That means one begins at customs. Customs requires many different forms, including ones that have a rubbing of the car serial numbers. Unfortunately, cars in the U.S. have the serial sealed on the dashboard pressed up against the windshield so that it can be read, but not touched. It is also smaller than the European letters. We had to convince Aduanas that this was official and legal, but they did not accept that. Thus, we had to get an affidavit allowing us to have the letters stamped in the metal under the hood. Having got that document, we went to the auto dealer, who charged 50 Euros. Unfortunately, the metal on our Toyota Camry was too hard, so the stamping made a poor impression, and the rubbing was not legible. This led to more pleas to authorities, who told us that it was Trafico, Hacienda, or ITV (other agencies) that we would have to deal with, but they would not accept it. Anyway, a month and 19 trips and more than $ 2,000 Euros more paid over these visits to different agencies, as well as a check on my wife's criminal record, and the need to pay an intermediary (Gestoria) to get a Spanish engineer to translate and approve the specifications (copied from the manual) and costing $125 Euros. We finally got the plates.

Politics: There was increasing talk about independence and a lot of debate about the candidates in the upcoming election and which party would support independence. We do not know what the polls on independence mean, but we found most people whom we spoke with favoring it (whatever form they meant). When flags are flown, they are Catalan. We saw Spanish flags only on official buildings of the Spanish state. Conversations also flowed around the hated Real Madrid soccer club, which had just got Beckham from Manchester United to add to Ronaldo and Figo, three of the best players in the world. Barca (Barcelona) did not do well this year, and the future looks foreboding.

There is a clear upsurge in the pressure to use Catalan. More official documents have been shifted from Castellano to Catalan, and an increasing portion of the university courses are in Catalan. Catalan is clearly the first language of instruction in schools. Although students also study Castellano, they often lack vocabulary or make grammatical errors because of their lack of use of this language.

The U.S. was roundly castigated for its foreign policies, and conspiracies abounded. The most important one with a large number of adherents was based on a book by a journalist, Pilar Urbano, which asserted that Bush and Bin Laden jointly planned the World Trade Center attack for mutual benefit. Urbano's book was referred to in all of the newspapers and on the talk shows which are prevalent on Spanish TV. Rumors with a bit of fact attract a lot of attention and credibility here. We were also told that Israeli s carried out the bombing because all Jews were told the day before not to come to work, and none were killed. When we mentioned that the New York Times listed the names of all of those who died and that there were hundreds of Jewish names (including the brother of my son s fiancÚ), they claimed that the New York Times is a Jewish paper that may have made up the names and obituaries. When we asked them about their evidence or proof, they said that they read it or heard it somewhere. We also noted that the Spanish newspapers publish opinion pieces and analyses on the same pages as the news , so that Robert Fisk of the Independent was published almost daily in La Vanguardia adjacent to the latest news from Iraq on the hostilities of that day. Fisk takes the usual anti-U.S. position that we did it for the oil and to control the Middle East, and that is reported as factual news alongside the latest events.

Immigration: In our village people were not concerned about robberies or crime. People would leave their doors open to get airflow, even when they left their houses. Robbery in the tourist sections of Barcelona was blamed on immigrants. We asked on taxi driver in Barcelona which ones. He identified the Romany (gypsies), Eastern Europeans, Moroccans, and Ecuadorians as the main criminal groups. Others whom we spoke with identified the usual suspects, these groups. El Pais found that 750,000 more people had entered the country than had left it in 2002, according to the airlines. Most of these were from Morocco. These do not include undocumented immigrants who cross national borders from other EC countries (there is little checking at the frontiers) or those who come by boat across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar.

Although immigration is an issue, discussion and debate seem relatively low level. In general, immigrants are taking low-level jobs. Black Africans are considered to be excellent workers relative to the other groups, and they seem to learn Catalan and Castellano more quickly. The interpretation of this is that their communities are small and heterogeneous in origin and language and highly dependent upon the larger society for work and support. In contrast, the much larger numbers of immigrants from the Zaghreb (North Africa) have a common religion and language and create their own tight communities, where they have less pressure to learn the customs and language of the mainstream. However, immigration issues were reported daily in both El Pais and La Vanguardia (the two papers that I read), suggesting that the these pressures are palpable and may be on the upsurge.

Economy: Relatively speaking, the Spanish economy is doing well. Unemployment figures are relatively low compared to the past. But, even these probably overstate true unemployment because so much of the economy is negro, that is subterranean or black-market rather than official. Many businesses will give a discount for cash payments for obvious reasons. Many workers are paid off the books . We asked a small business owner about this, and he said that everyone does it because his social security tax is 75 percent. We asked him "really?" and he insisted that it was that high. A Google check suggested that it was 37.5 percent, still very high. Bear in mind that social security in Spain covers far more services than in the U.S., such as the health care system, but it is still a big disincentive to hiring. Beyond that, it is difficult to discharge workers, although privatization and flexibility are increasing in the Spanish labor market. Spain is also considered a good place to invest, and foreign investment is doing well there.

Schools: The two big controversies around schools are about the teaching of religion and the poor results in science and mathematics. In Catalunya students will be required to take religion this year. They will have two options. One of them is Catholicism, which will be straight religious instruction. The other will offer a course in religion that is still vague, but seems to refer to comparative religion. The reason for this is to ensure religious freedom and the inclusion especially of Islam, and emerging protestant groups from Eastern Europe and Latin American (usually evangelistic) as well as Orthodox Catholics. The rationale for this is that students are no longer learning the values of Catalan society. (See above on tattoos, piercings, rap music, and dress.) This controversy is likely to be ascendant in the Autumn when the new policy must be implemented.

Also of concern in the news was the low performance of Catalan and Spanish students generally in science and mathematics tests. Comparisons in studies of international achievement place Spain near the bottom of all of the industrialized countries. Universities around Spain (including Catalonya) report that the average grades of their entrants in Science and Mathematics was about 4 on a scale of 1-10. My own interpretation is that hedonism has hit the youth of Spain.

Overall: I am an aficionado of Catalunya and Spain, and I am enamored by the people and the culture. We have many friends there and are treated with warmth and respect, even love. One problem is that we are overwhelmed with hospitality and too many social engagements relative to the need for tranquil times. Despite strong antagonism to the U.S. for its arrogance, power and foreign policy, we have been treated with kindness and grace. I mention this because my observations show both disdain and admiration. I feel the same about the U.S.

RH: What a mixture of the old Catalonia I loved and modern idiocy, of which pop is one manifestation.. I pointed out the difference between pop and folk. Sardana dancing and music are deeply moving, and, after sixty years I can still hear in my mind the beautiful, melancholy music.

Ronald Hilton - 8/8/03