Saturday, December 20, 2003

Well, it's Christmas in Barcelona and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of politics, of course. Actually, before we get into that, it's time for the year-end obligatory piece on the Catalan holidays. Let's list some peculiarities:

a) There are often family gatherings on the 24th, 25th, 26th (only in Catalonia), 31st, and 1st. Each extended family will do something on one or two of these days, and if you've got a couple or three extended families, you may find each one occupied. On New Year's Eve one normally stays home with all the folks watching TV (all the stations bring out TV specials with big stars) and then goes out after eating the grapes at midnight.

b) Everybody in Spain "eats the grapes" at midnight on the 31st; you eat 12 grapes, one with each stroke of the bell. It's the universal good-luck tradition. I insist on peeling and deseeding mine first. They think I'm a weirdo, but they'd think that anyway. This tradition either a) goes back to time immemorial or b) was started by some guy who had some grapes to sell back in the '20s. Most likely it's a real tradition from somewhere in particular that became nationalized in the '20s or so. I'll have to ask my mother-in-law on this one.

c) Church bells in Spain strike once on the quarter hour, twice on the half, three times on three-quarters of an hour, and four times on the full hour. Then, and only then, after the four strokes for the hour (known as the cuartos), does one begin to eat one's lucky grapes, one on each of the twelve strokes for twelve o'clock midnight. Therefore, everybody reminds one another not to start eating the grapes until the cuartos have finished. One year on TV1 the reporter blew the call and started counting with the cuartos and so everybody in Spain had bad luck that year or something awful like that. It's still talked about today.

d) La Vanguardia has several much-loved idiotic traditions. They have a poetry contest and some kid with at least one Catalan surname who writes about peace and why don't people just understand wins every year. They write the same story every year the day before the Christmas lottery, for example, explaining that they've been drawing annually since 1836 or whatever and that the first prize has hit in Madrid 38 times and in Barcelona only 21 and that numbers ending in a five are the most commonly drawn for the top prize and all that. Also, they insist on running their annual article about caganers and how the foreigners just don't get it and think it's silly. But the foreigners are really the silly ones, of course, because they don't have all these great time-honored Catalan traditions to follow.

e) Caganers are these figurines, little guys wearing red barretinas (the Catalan national hat, rather like a cross between a beret and a stocking cap--yes, I think it's pretty retarded-looking too) squatting down and taking a dump. The dump is always brown and curly, resembling a Dairy Queen chocolate ice cream. These things are placed in your pesebre (creche, Nativity scene, whatever you call it where you come from) behind the stable and the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus and the camel and whatever. I think it's just anal gross-out humor, which the Catalans are notorious for appreciating (they love movies like Porky's, and Blazing Saddles is considered a classic here), but I've heard convoluted explanations like it's innate Catalan irony and scepticism and independent-mindedness showing itself in irreverence toward that which is to be worshiped. Or whatever. Anyway, whenever a foreign reporter comes across these thingies, which are on sale at the street stalls of pesebre stuff near the Cathedral during the holidays, he does a human interest feature story on the little buggers because they just don't do stuff like that in Kansas.

f) The Christmas lottery is drawn on December 22, next Monday, and it's a long-standing national tradition. 200 series of 66,000 different numbers are sold. The thing is that a full ticket--one series of a number--costs 200 euros, so the tickets are parceled out into decimos (one-tenth of a ticket) for the ordinary Joe at 20 euros. If your decimo is the lucky number drawn for first prize, you win 10,000 times 20 euros, that is, 200 grand. There are 1999 other people who have the same decimo you do and have won the same 200 grand. In addition, there are several other quite lucrative second, third, and fourth choices. The fun is that traditionally, neighborhood groups buy up a bunch of decimos, parcel them out, and sell them in portions of, say, two euros each with a 50 cent extra charge for the benefit of the group. That would mean that a maximum of 20,000 people might own pieces of the winning number and get twenty grand apiece. So the TV reporters always announce that the money has been "muy repartido" and that it has hit in "un barrio popular". That is, the tickets were sold in small pieces to a lot of people in the area of the lottery administration where the tickets were originally acquired. It's kind of a more Socialist or more communitarian or whatever kind of lottery--instead of one guy hitting it for fifty million bucks over the next eighty years or whatever, several thousand people, many of whom know one another, hit it for twenty or forty or two hundred thousand euros, paid in cash with no taxes on it. The TV shows the celebration live; they always cut to the lottery shop and then to a bar with a bunch of working-class folks swigging cava. If you're going to bet, this is about the best bet you can get on a lottery, as the payout is half the money collected and there are no taxes on winnings. I always buy a few two- and three-euro tickets, and hit a fourth prize in 1998 for about $1600 in money of that time.

g) Typical holiday food: Chicken or turkey, roast, with either shrimp or prunes or both. Chicken soup for New Year's, with carn d'olla, which is this large meatball cooked with the soup. Don't ask what's in it. Sort of a steak stew with wild mushrooms called fricando. Expensive fresh fish. Inexpensive frozen crustaceans. Turron, which we'd call almond brittle.

h) You have to listen to this damn song that goes

Pero mira como beben los peces en el rio
Pero mira como beben por ver a Dios nacido
Y beben, y beben, y vuelven a beber
Los peces in el rio por ver a Dios nacer

over and over whether in a supermarket line or a cafe or anywhere else where they've got the radio on.

I wrote a different version:

Pero mira como beben los chungos en el bar
Se quedan sin dinero, te salen a robar
Te quitan la cartera y vuelven a beber
El poli en la esquina no lo ha querido ver

I like mine better, though I wrote it while living in the Virrei Amat neighborhood, which was rather more chungo-ridden than here in Gracia.

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