Having firmly landed at Barcelona airport with the Ryanair welcome jingle still echoing in my ears as I take the first steps of my Great Year Abroad Adventure, I decide to commemorate this momentous occasion by purchasing my first periódico (and can of Fanta Lemon). Eager to sink my teeth into some authentic Spanish articles and practise the lingo, I begin to read. And immediately want to cry. I don’t understand a thing! Thus begins my first Catalan experience – an unexpected confrontation with the strange language of which they are fiercely proud. At first glance, a sort of written hybrid between Spanish Castillian, French, Italian – very much Romance-based – but which adopts a bizarrely Eastern European quality when spoken. So much so that Spaniards from other regions within the Peninsular refer to them, both affectionately and derogatively, as los polacos (the Poles), and on numerous occasions I was convinced I was overhearing conversations between a couple of severe Russian gentleman, rather than the two mature Catalan amigos that I would turn around to see.
It wasn’t long before I started to sample the typical, local cuisine, aside from frequenting the wonderful fruterías and panaderías which peppered almost every street of the city, aching with fresh produce and tantalising smells. Each café – whether a ramshackle bar with mismatched, rickety tables and chairs, or a rather more established eatery – served a menú del día, around €8-9 for 2 courses, bread, drink and dessert or coffee.
All dishes would be homemade and very much Catalan, some of the most common being: escudella i carn d’olla (a stew-like soup made with any meat and vegetables available), botifarra amb seques (sausage with white beans), escalivada (grilled, mixed vegetables seasoned with olive oil, salt and garlic), and of course crema catalana to finish (a lighter version of the French crème brûlée). In hindsight, gaining a stone and a half over the course of the year was not such a surprise…
On one occasion, I found myself invited on a day trip into the heart of Catalonia to partake in a calçotada – a seasonal celebration of local produce in the form of calçots (“young onions” which look rather like leeks). Thousands of people descended upon the village of Valls to enjoy the open-air street markets and squeeze into the restaurants, where long tables heaved under bread, olive oil, tomatoes, meat, wine, and, of course, the calçots, piled roughly on to platters that appeared to be hacked from pipes. In true Catalan fashion, there is a very particular way to eat them – after tying a plastic bib around your neck, the whole onion is stripped of its blackened outside layers (due to being grilled), dipped into a heavenly tomatoey, almondy, creamy sauce, and guzzled down in one. Inevitable dribbly mess and loss of dignity swiftly follows, but the taste and novelty of it all is most worth it!
A lot more could be said about culinary Catalan delights, especially moving on to the subject of Christmas (Nadal), where nougat-like turrón and infamous xocolata amb xurros are but a teaspoonful of the typical festive fayre, but another very popular local peculiarity is the caga tío. Roughly translated as “Christmas log”, but more literally “pooing dude”, this is traditionally a big trunk of wood, decorated with a friendly face and santa hat, behind which parents will place presents and cover them and most of the log with a blanket. On Christmas Eve, or Day, it is ordered to “poo” and beaten with sticks so that the presents pop out of its back end, much to everybody’s delight!
My year-long Catalan experience culminated with the Festes de Gràcia – a week of street events and parties in one of the neighbourhoods of Barcelona, where the streets are brightly and imaginatively decorated, each with a different and original theme. At the end of the week, people flock to the main plaças to behold the impressive castellets – human towers which become worryingly high, with children as young as 4 or 5 scrambling to the top and shooting one hand up in the air to officially finish off the tower, much to the concern and disbelief of the audience! This is followed by the fantastic correfocs – whereby giant figurines of dragons are paraded throughout the streets, spraying sparks and jets of fire into the crowd, who run screaming for cover, the idea of “health and safety” not even considered (far too British anyway).
So many Catalan peculiarities, so little time, and there are countless more wonderfully obscure traditions which I was lucky enough to experience during my time in Barcelona. I went out expecting a few dual-language road signs and independent bank holidays, and came back with a fascination, passion and respect for this diverse culture, and even with a certain comprehension of the language.