07 November 2011

Coming attraction:

Català, mallorquín, castellano: the politics of communication

Els castellers de Mallorca

[This took place on 15 October - I had problems uploading the video, so I'm finally posting now.]

Already four years ago, in Tarragona, we saw this incredible sculpture of the castellers, and at the time I never thought I'd see the castellers in real life.  As it turns out, the castells were declared as having UNESCO Intangible World Heritage protection status in 2010.

I got to the Plaça de Cort really early, which was good because I got a primo spot on some built-in benches of the Palma city hall, perfect for watching everything.  The building itself is really rather interesting, because of the aforementioned built-in benches and an exaggeratedly large cornice, making it clear in 16-18th century architectural vernacular that it is a publicly-minded building. 

The first to arrive, besides an old lady and me, was the ambulance crew.

Soon enough, people started to arrive wearing similarly-colored shirts, and then all of a sudden I started to hear shouting, chanting, then nasally-sounding instruments, and then gigants in motion!  The castellers were coming down the street, en masse!  The home team, Els Castellers de Mallorca, made a small castell, a pilar, and sent a kid up to the balcony of the city hall, the other two teams, els Al·lots de Llevant, and els Margeners de Guissona, also made pilars, and then the fun began with the castells.

In the video, you'll see the gigants leading the parade of castellers down the street.  Gigants are huge puppets used during festive occasions all over the island, and each town seems to keep theirs on view in the city hall when not in use.  The smaller demon gigant is especially used on Mallorca during the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot on 17 January.

As they were parading up the streets, the castellers were also putting on their long black sashes, called faixa, which are like cumberbunds supporting their lower backs (important) and are also used as like stairs or footholds when people are climbing up the castell.

At the base of the castell is the pinya, the mass of people at the base.  At the center, they are holding hands in a circle, and then each person behind them supports the arms of the person in front of them, and so on and so on:
The pinya forming

I liked seeing this because I thought it was a lovely metaphor for the kind of world I want to live in, starting from the point that everyone is supporting each other, and people from the different teams join in to support the team who is actually making the tower.  Everyone's prepared to get stepped on a little, and the tower might collapse, but they're all there to stay supportive to the end -- and the metaphor can keep going on and on and on.  Maybe the video will inspire some continuations and/or variations of the metaphor.

In the meantime, there are instruments being played: a drum, and some grallas, which are double-reed instruments making the nasal-sounding accompanying music, called the toc - there are different songs for coming in, and the start of the music announces the start of the castell and seems to help create rhythm for the feat.

Playing the gralla

The each of the three teams took turns making a castell, and then finally the home team made one last attempt:

This is really worth watching, because [spoiler alert] the tower collapses towards the end of the video.  In real life, as on the video, it happened in slow motion, like it was expected but maybe it also would've been fine.  What's also awesome is the end of the end - it's all still a celebration of success and above all, teamwork!

The next Wednesday, I was in the teacher's room at one of the schools where I teach, and I realized that one of my colleagues is a casteller.  I was asking him about it, like why he did it (do you wake up one morning and decide you want to be a casteller?) and in addition to learning that the younger people in the middle sections of the tower are usually the ones who were at the top when they were smaller, meaning that everyone has years of practice doing this (they practice weekly) and there is a coordinating person. It's partly a cultural expression, and partly just a group of friends who hang out doing this every week.  When I commented on the collapse, he said, "oh, people don't usually get hurt just a few bruises maybe.  It's safer than playing football." I replied, "that's like saying it's safer to fly in a plane than it is to ride in a car." His response? "well, it is."  But how many people can say that their hobby has UNESCO World Heritage status?

02 November 2011

November is a month for writing!

Writer types of people are perhaps already familiar with November as NaNoWriMo, and of course it's Movember, but it's also the 30 Days of Independent Travel Project!  Hopefully it will help me to articulate some of the thoughts and feelings I've been having lately about travel.

The first prompt was about goals, and really, right now, I don't have any huge travel goals.  What I'd like to make some comments on is ch-ch-ch-change.

In the last year, I've become a lot less resistant to the idea of using a backpack as a way of carrying things while I travel.  This is directly attributable to the Hadrian's Wall Path trip, out of efficiency and necessity.  During my formative years in Rome, I would see people with outrageously huge packs wearing flipflops (can't be good for your feet) arguing in front of the ticket windows in Termini, and it just didn't seem like the kind of traveler I wanted to be.  So for years, I tried to project a more business-like, jet setter look with a black carry-on roller suitcase, which can be fine for intercity travel but is obviously impractical for tromping through sheep fields in Northern England.  When you stop and think about it, it's also impractical for the incredibly unevenness of urban streets, as well. 

Most of my distaste for backpacks comes from trips staying in youth hostels and sleeping in the back of a Volkswagen Eurovan with my parents in the early 1990s.  My reactionary travel style developed into a sort of middle ground, trying to seem as normal and cultured as possible while still keeping the budget low.  This usually ends up meaning means private rooms with shared bathrooms as accommodations and using a carry-on wheelie suitcase, and doesn't go much further.  Lately, I've also been thinking about how much the internet has changed the way we travel - comparison-shopping for flights and hotels, and I'm addicted to TripAdvisor reviews to give myself the sort of experience I want and expect to have.

A bit sunburnt, too!
Though the Hadrian's Wall Path trip caused me to go and buy a backpack, spending so much time on trains in Slovakia is what softened me to the idea.  Students traveling to and from Bratislava on weekends use big backpacks like I'd see in Roma Termini, and they clearly were also not backpackers.  Yet, as I plan and do more and more independent travel, and I think back on various journeys, really, deep down, I'm more of a backpacker than I'm often willing to admit -- and I couldn't do what I do otherwise.  I've picked up skills, habits and tolerances (making choices as an adult, not as a 4 year old, though that certainly helped!) doing this style of travel in Europe that have been making me dream of Megabusing it all over America (really? yes.) and I think I can accept the greater self-awareness and especially self-acceptance: 
Hello, my name is Maria, and I am a backpacker.

01 November 2011

Table Wine Marketing and Customer Loyalty

Last week, I walked into the school office because I had some paperwork to complete, and the two guys in the office were discussing their sandwich choices for the mid-morning snack.  I think it was only about 9am.  After my first class, I had two hours break, so I went to the cafe down the street for a much-needed coffee.

The cafe was busy, it's a nice local place and I've gone there often enough that the waiter has begun to recognize me.  Apparently they also serve the best frito mallorquin in the port, which I've yet to sample, but I can vouch for their coffee and sandwiches.  Anyway, in a busy cafe, and not just this one, I'd noticed that there are half-full bottles everywhere, and then in the afternoon they live on a sideboard in the restaurant.  Same thing at the cafe on the other side of the port where I often go with colleagues from the other school where I teach. 

When I got back to school, I asked the guys in the office about this - because all over the cafe, there were open bottles of wine, and in a few cases, liquor, on the tables.  I've never seen anything like it, and how do they figure out how to pay?  As it turns out, this is a local custom that is meant to help build customer loyalty.  See, the bottle of wine, because it's just table wine (though obviously drinkable), costs maybe 2 or 3 Euro.  If they charge a Euro a glass, they'll make the cost of the bottle back fine, and it all evens out (though that attitude on a large scale may be what's causing the economic situation we're finding ourselves in here in the Mediterranean states).  The same goes for people who like to put a bit of liquor in their coffee; people like to put their own in because it makes them feel like they're trusted customers, and it all evens out and the cafe still makes a profit.

The guys in the school office compared it to the bottomless cup of coffee in American restaurants, with the interjection, "but how could you drink that stuff anyway? One cup of that and I'd be straight to the bathroom!"  Here in Mallorca, it's just snack time, a glass of table wine, and 'marketing'.

folding bicycles, an infatuation story

Here's my sweet little vintage folding bike, which I love and already know I will have trouble parting with.  It's a now-defunct Basque brand, GAC (Garate, Anitua y Cia).  When I took it into a workshop because the front tube needed replaced, the guy pointed at all of the other bikes he had available as rentals, and commented on how this one's like new and he has to replace the rentals annually.

I might add that the photo doesn't do it justice because it doesn't show the chain guard and glorious crank case as well as it could.  Doing some internet-based reconnaissance, I realize I acquired it for a steal, considering its condition, and if I was serious at all, I probably wouldn't be using it for daily use -- but then what fun would it be?  It has front and back lights which work with a little motor that engages onto the front wheel, carries my groceries well and it's becoming recognizable around town.

It reminds me of this Eska I spotted this summer in Nová Sedlica:

Because really, for all that we speak of mid-century modern design, which can be all sexy and jet-setty and Corbusian and all kinds of adjectives I love, this is it.  These bicycles are the epitome of European mid-century modern, because they embody the post-war European working class -- we've moved on from Ladri di biciclette, now this is something everyone can have and afford, and in a sense the only thing that makes these bicycles special now is that they still exist.  What I also like is that while these bikes are on the surface opposites: fascist/communist, Basque/Zemplín, red/blue, etc they're essentially the same folding bike (though the GAC has some lovely bourgeois curves) to be sold to the same people at the same time, just in different places. 

My soft spot for this style of bicycles comes from a delightful ride along the Barceloneta back in 2007 -- back home, I've got a steel Chinese-made model from my university years, and I'm looking forward to even more delightful rides with this one.

Cap de Formentor and Talaia d'Albercutx

The day we went to Cap de Formentor, it was overcast, wanting to rain, creating the drama of the Mediterranean in the autumn and winter.  This is one of the most famous areas of the island, and it certainly didn't disappoint.

This picture was taken from ~300m above sea level.
Farther up the windy road (built by an Italian) from the Mirador de Mal Pas is the Talaia d'Albercutx, which I can see from my window.  I've seen it described elsewhere by an English person as a "pepper pot" but this short article is really worth a read for the history of watch towers on Mallorca.

On the way up to the watchtower, there's ruins of an abandoned project of some kind, with the accompanying street art.  This one declares that we're on liberated land.
Going up to the top of the watch tower requires climbing a wire rung ladder to a middle level and then up another and some scrambling through a hole in the floor to get to the top level.  It's the sort of unregulated, slightly unsafe historic European thing that would never happen in the US for fear of lawsuits, which is of course what makes it so fun and also slightly terrifying.

And at the top of the tower, proof of Roma caput mundi.
The highlight were the wild goats everywhere, of whom sadly I was unable to catch a good photograph.

Tots Sants

Today is one of my favorite holidays (see here), perhaps because of how understatedly visceral it is.  Further, cemeteries are one of the most interesting places to visit in a new place -- they say so much about the customs and traditions of the locals, which is especially meaningful here, where sometimes the locals are hard to spot.  You can tell how special a day it is when even Lidl, which is open Sundays, is closed for the holiday today.

Little Spanish ladies dressed in black, in the way that you know they're in mourning clothes because it's not quite a chic look.  Others dressed in work clothes carrying buckets and brooms into the cemetery so that they can clear off the tombstones to get them ready for the new flowers.

I didn't expect the cemetery to be so paved.  There was no space in the cemetery for anything to be planted, everything is covered in stone.  There were some beautiful statues and even more beautiful typography on the stones.

The fall flowers were beautiful, lots of mums but also lots of gladiolas.  It makes me remember the defiantly red gladiolas on Antonio Gramsci's grave last time I was in the Protestant Foreigner's Cemetery in Rome, quite possibly my favorite cemetery I've yet been to.  Here, what was missing was the candles - which truly do add more visceral layers to the experience - but we had the sun, so no complaints.

This feast makes me wonder why we don't really celebrate it this way so much in America - quite possibly the commercialism of Halloween does truly eclipse it, and it's really too bad, because this is what it's about.