Monthly Archives: July 2011

I am not your señorita

Or, open-mouthed ogling and how to not/deal with it.

Taking the piss

A couple of years ago a feminist collective in Barcelona mounted a provocative campaign. They put together a map showing sites across the city where women could legitimately urinate in the street. As I understand it, the objective was twofold; to protest against the few and far-between public toilets provided, and to highlight the very different stance taken by the authorities and society towards the respective genders’ need to spend a public penny.

I’m going to skip over the first objective with a neat “yeah, it’s crap, give us more toilets”, and alight swiftly onto the second. I admit it, I was shocked. Not at the idea of women taking a leak on the streets (let’s just all agree that’s rank whatever your gender) but at the fact that this particular double standard had never even occurred to me before. Normally I’m quite on the ball with these things, you could say.

I mention this campaign not in the hope that more portaloos start to grace Gràcia’s cobbles, but to raise in a rambling, roundabout manner, the topic of this post – sexual inequality on Spanish streets.

Now, I’m as over-eager as the next person to disassociate myself from the potential pitfalls of generalisations, but here’s some anecdotally verifiable observations. Men on the streets here STARE at me. By which I mean, they look me up and down and then hold my gaze when I look back at them, rather than look away in embarrassment at having been caught out catching an eyeful. Some of them make soft clucking noises, as if addressing a farmyard animal, as I come into their line of sight. Others deliberately slow down their cars and motorbikes to make sure they get a really good gander as they scoot past, tongues lolling out of their mouths.

Yet others, in a posse, pull over their car to kerb crawl alongside me, gesturing and suggesting that I get into the vehicle as I walk along the pavement in broad daylight.

And this happens to me several times every single day.

Pissed off yet?

My Spanish friends here, understandably under some duress, offer up a few different theories for this behaviour. First, maybe Spaniards are just more ‘expressive’ than their stiff-sphinctered British counterparts. (Ah yes, you’ve got to love a useful euphemism.) But, if that’s generally true, where are the equally uninhibited females signalling their irrepressible attraction towards the not insignificant number of nubile male specimens?

OK, they concede, it’s probably because I’m a lone female here – an easy target, without the protection of a symbolic male. And I’m a foreigner to boot. Although, now that they come to think about it, it does happen to Spanish girls too. Maybe after a lifetime of this I too would have learned how to live and let ogle.

I’ve spent weeks trying to downplay how much this issue is bothering me, as well as ranting at anyone who’ll listen about the gross injustice of it all (sorry, Jorge). I may have moved to a machista culture, but I’ve also moved from one western European country to another. The looks and stares are dirty and dehumanising – in an instant they leave me livid, vulnerable, and even cause me to subconsciously check what I’m wearing that day, which enrages me even more. God only knows what reaction I’d get if I went about more scantily clad (god forbid, when it’s 30+ degrees).

We haven't turned around.

Flip the finger or turn the other cheek?

I’m the first to admit I’m not dealing with this well. I mean, I’m not exactly some ingénue, uninured (I know, but it should be a word) to the ways of the world. Do I walk on by, feigning dignity as the catcalls follow me? Do I retort with an insouciant and yet witty comeback in Catalan, just to really freak them out? Or do I gyrate, whirling dervish-like, on the spot, go right up to their faces and start screaming about not being meat? You see the dilemma.

Slutwalking

As it happens, I’m writing this on the same day that Delhi holds its first ‘Slutwalk’ protest march. This is a movement that started off in Canada, after a policeman there advised women ‘not to dress like sluts’ to avoid being victims of sexual violence. It’s since spread to cities like Boston, London and Mexico City, but as far as I know, women of southern European countries have yet to appropriate the movement as their own.

So, sick of dealing with ‘casual abuse’ on the streets of this city and of being expected just to accept it, I’m calling for an official Slutwalk protest march down the Ramblas. Bring your basques, fishnets, high heels – hell, even come on stilts. Just not this passive silence

 

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The salsa class

It’s summer in the city. It’s sunny. It’s seriously humid. And the fact that I’m in Cataluña rather than Cuba is apparently incidental. Señores, it’s time to salsa.

Let me start by saying that I know what you’re thinking. On learning of my salsa-esque leanings, friends back home have pretty much reacted uniformly over the years. “You?!” they splutter. “Salsa?! But you’re so……”. Inevitably, this sentence would end in one of two ways. The more tactful among them would eventually collect themselves, and complete with something along the lines of “sophisticated” or “in control”. Others, more wanton, didn’t hold back. “You?! Salsa?! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

It’s fair to say that my UK-based salsa experiences left a lot to be desired. First there was the Brighton nightclub I visited with my sister (back in the day).

Taking a break from all that not dancing

Think sleaze, slime, and other slithery words. Think things you might put in cauldrons. That’s a fairly apt description of the men in that place. One particularly memorable specimen approached us with the immortal line “I like sisters, I do”, shortly before we dispatched him down some nearby stairs.

Then came group classes in Edinburgh. I actually had high hopes for this. The female teacher was Scottish, we could identify, she was a kindred Celt but at the same time could summon up Suzy Qs like nobody’s business. But sadly, it wasn’t to be. One two three back two three one two three back two three, she said, and kept saying for the next ten weeks. Not to mention the most excruciating indignity – thanks to my height (I’m 5’ 9’’) and lack of male subscribers, every week they made me be the man. Doing everything backwards and in the opposite direction didn’t exactly stand me in great stead for the future.

Which brings us to Barcelona and 2011.

The Mojito nightclub in L'Eixample

The Mojito Club is an “international Latin club that creates a space which encourages creativity”. They may be pausing on every fourth beat but alarm bells are still sounding, and I’m really glad I didn’t see this bit of branding before I signed up for an intensive summer course.

Above the basement nightclub is the salsateca school. As usual with these things, I am the only non-native in the class of around 20. (Thankfully I had remembered to check beforehand if the lessons would be in Catalan or Spanish. A lesson harshly learned after three hours spent in a Zen meditation class conducted in Catalan some weeks back. I emerged having understood “Ommmmm”.)

Thank god there's air conditioning

Much to my relief, there’s a good mix of men and women this time. I don’t quite manage to escape embarrassment, though – on the first night the teacher goes round the room getting everyone to say their name, and all is going well until it’s my turn. “Yuli? Huley? Shula?” and so it goes on, till virtually everyone in the room has chimed in with their particular variation. (Thanks again parents for giving me a name that 99% of the Spanish population has no hope of pronouncing.)

Andrés, the Uruguayan teacher, and Trini, his female Spanish counterpart, kick off proceedings with a brief display of how terrifyingly good they are, and then it’s our turn. Most folk catch on to the old one two three back two three pretty quickly, and Andrés tells everyone to get into pairs so we can practise as couples.

At this moment some cherished myths start to debunk themselves in front of my eyes. It seems not all Latin men have rhythm in their souls. In fact some of the Spanish guys in the room look positively stricken. The machos, of course, have to contend not only with remembering the steps but with leading the chicas, who depend on their every signal to know what move they’ve to make. I immediately decide that I’m having none of this, and promptly infuriate the first of my partners. “Que no”, he hisses sternly, “you have to wait until I tell you to turn right”.

“¡Rotamos!” orders Andrés at an opportune moment, and the girls all duly move on to the next guy.

My second partner has clearly been relishing the chance to practise his English with a native. “Where you from?” he shimmies, as I’m trying to let him turn me round without making it painfully obvious that I’m having to duck four feet below his arm at the same time (and I’m wearing flats). Just as I’m trying to think of a polite way to tell him I really can’t converse in Spanglish above the music at the same time as learning the steps, I’m birled overenthusiastically onto the next guy.

And finally, just as the class is about to end, the studio door opens and in walks a guy done up as a waiter carrying two large bottles of Cava and umpteen paper cups. An older Andalucian gent steps forward, and I recognise him as the one who had informed me all in all earnestness as we rotated round that he couldn’t help being a great dancer since all Andalucians innately are. He announces that today is his grand-daughter’s first birthday, and he’d be honoured if we would all raise our cups to celebrate. This is a genuinely touching moment, and I start to feel guiltily churlish about my intention to parody proceedings for my own selfish blogging purposes. Having said that, I suppose they’ll never see it. They think I’m called Chulieeeh.

foot after salsa class

Dancing through the pain

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¡Que aproveche!

For a language boasting over half a million words and replete with the precisest of terms, English is woefully lacking when it comes to translating this oft-used Spanish imperative. The nearest we come to it is ‘bon appetit!’, and even that we have to plunder from French. It still amazes me how often you will hear the phrase in Spain. I only have to start unwrapping the tin foil from my packed lunch at work and six different people pipe up merrily with “¡Que aproveches!” “Thanks”, I mutter, fully absorbing the irony as I contend with slabs of desiccated gluten-free bread.

The thing is, the phrase isn’t applied exclusively to culinary contentment – it’s equally valid in a range of contexts. When pushed for the closest English phrase I would translate it as ‘Enjoy it!’, but the verb in Spanish carries other connotations – of making the most of something, taking full advantage of it. This ‘joie de vivre’ (here we go again) is a refreshingly different way of approaching life, and I’ve been trying to work out exactly where it comes from. And why it’s such an attitudinal leap from what I’m used to.

I fear we have to start with a nod to the glaringly obvious – life in flip flops. There is absolutely no doubt that living in a sunny Mediterranean climate and skipping down the street to work in the morning with no jacket on or umbrella in your handbag does wonders for your happy stance. It’s not just a blast of vitamin D you’re getting; it’s constant exposure to ultraviolet optimism.

People with signs offering free hugs

People offering 'free hugs'.

But that can’t be the whole story. For a start, I may gaily trip down the street in havaianas, but the majority of the working Catalan population does not. Barcelona is not languorous mañana territory – people here work bloody hard. (Let’s not forget ‘la Crisis’ which the country has found itself in over the last few years.) There’s a saying in Andalucia that the Andalucian works to live, whereas the Catalan lives to work. Another one I particularly like is the joke that wire was invented by two Catalans pulling on a coin.

The other thing is, of course, that the fact that it’s sunny here every day is no great shakes to the natives. Well obviously it’s toasty – it’s July, they say. I can only smile wryly as I realise they’ll never appreciate why I walk around thrilled and desperately grateful that summer finally equals sunshine.

In that case, where does it come from? Is it the fact that Spain is still developing, so adopting a go-getting attitude is essential? Is it just some inbuilt national characteristic that has been around for centuries? I hate to say it, but I think what I’m noticing is simply the gulf between a positive outlook on life and the positively po-faced mindset of my homeland. Of which I too am guilty.

So is there a downside to all this unabashed and opportunistic getting the most out of life? Hmm. Based on just over two months in the country I suspect there may well be a darker side to this aspect of the Spanish psyche. The logical culmination of all this ‘aprovechando’ must be a selfishness, an expectation that it’s somehow your right to get what you want. The verb is also translated in English as ‘to exploit’, with both the positive and negative nuances that carries.

Mostly, though, I have to say I’m up for this lesson in life. Wringing every last drop of pleasure out of your experiences is no bad philosophy for anyone, least of all a decidedly dour Scot. Life is indeed for the living. And on that note I’m off to the beach.

photo of Barcelona beach

Aprovechando to the max.

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From the magic fountain to a magic mountain

What the summit of Montserrat, Cataluña’s most sacred mountain, reminded me of had been bugging me throughout the entire journey up there. I had heard the chain described as ‘saw tooth peaks’, but another image was gnawing away at my mind as the thankfully air-conditioned coach headed west out of Barcelona. It was the first time I’d been out of the city in two months and I was relishing the prospect of seeing the landscape from a different perspective.

main view of Montserrat

Main view of monastery

Montserrat is many things. A mountain, clearly, but also a monastery, shrine, home of the much venerated Black Madonna (a wooden statue that now sits behind protective glass), a prestigious school for choirboys, a site of pilgrimage and a spectacular spot for hiking, rock climbing and other such physical pursuits.

Its name in Catalan literally means ‘serrated mountain’, which made me think of the word jagged, which in turn prompted Alanis Morissette’s lyrics on jagged little pills to come to mind. Just at that point I grasped the image my mind had been groping for…those long fungal fingers reminded me of the white asparagus stems they sell in jars here, all clumped together in white knobbly extremities. (Or quite possibly, a bunch of knuckles.)

So, with Alanis’ plangent wails in my ears and the taste of vegetable brine in my mouth, we ascended.

statue at Montserrat

Jenga, anyone?

History has never been my strong point, but it might be useful to give you a wee bit of background on the place and its cultish status.

Apart from the sheer beauty of the natural setting, and the unusual formation of the stone monoliths, the main focal point of Montserrat has always been the Benedictine abbey, called Santa Maria de Montserrat. Monks are still very much in residence, and their ages range from 25 to 95 (although the average age is around 65). It also houses one of the oldest printing presses in the world (the first book was published in 1499), which is still going strong today. This is despite the intevention of Napolean’s troops, who saw fit to burn its entire output at the start of the nineteenth century.

The Virgin Mary is said to have put in an appearance in what’s now a grotto just down from the monastery, in the ninth century, and her likeness is reified in the statue of ‘La Moreneta’ – the Black Madonna. The little dark one is held in extremely high regard by Catalans, and it’s said that most locals have made an overnight pilgrimmage to the site at least once in their lives. (Obviously I intend to interrogate all future Catalans I meet to find out how true this claim actually is.) In the mid-nineteenth century the then Pope declared that the Virgin of Montserrat should be the patron saint of Cataluña, and she still shares this honour with Sant Jordi.

inside of church

Black Madonna presiding over mass

What I find intriguing, much more than the spectacle of people prepared to queue in the roasting sun for two hours to touch the statue’s glass case, is what this mountain retreat has come to symbolise within the Catalan psyche. The whole aura of the place is one of defiance. Napolean’s troops may sack it, but some plucky monks spirit away the precious statue. More than a century later, Franco’s henchmen lurk in the foothills,  but leading Catalan thinkers take refuge in the lunar-like landscape. And even in the absence of political persecution, hermits have sought out its crabbit crags for centuries – in what constitutes the ultimate snub to society.

Candles for prayers

The confection of coloured candles

In a sense, even I am embodying this spirit of defiance, in my staunch refusal to be moved by anything other than the frankincense. Maybe Alanis was right. It’s a jagged little pill.

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