Category Archives: Culture

blossom-web

The Community in Gardening

I’m three months into my new life in Barcelona, this city of sunshine and history where millions of tourists every year take selfies in front of ancient ruins topped off by a blue sky. The visitors all seem excited and the locals love it, but some days, I just can’t find my joy. Despite the sunshine flooding the city, our comfortable flat in the Gothic quarter is shrouded in gloomy shade and I find myself staring at the Roman wall outside our window as if to ask it, what now? Despite its undoubted sense of history, the wall, like any other wall, is cold and hard, whereas my longing is for something soft and green.

On Saturdays, I take the Metro to the top of the city, where a group of anarchists have created Can Masdeu, a community in an abandoned building that used to be a leper colony. I join with a group of permaculture gardeners to weed vegetable beds and plant seeds. The soil is thirsty and even in February, when my friends at home in Wales are brushing the snow from their boots, I have to tie my hair up from the nape of my neck to seek relief from a cooling breeze. The sun warms my back as I bend to pull the ragged stems from the ground. It’s therapeutic, weeding, and the company is convivial. Our communal lunch afterwards is a protracted, Spanish-style affair, held outside on a long table under the trees.

Can-masdeu-lunch-web

Something is different here at Can Masdeu. The consumerist grind of life in the city is stalled. It is not all about money, or reputation, or getting ahead. Here, I can relax and be myself. However, living in the city doesn’t need to be an inherently disconnecting experience. In Melbourne, for instance, the amount of spare land, rooftops and shared space that is being turned over to community gardening grows (!) year upon year. Quite aside from its ample parkland, Melbourne’s people have decided that it’s time to grow food in the city. Barcelona is catching on to this. In the urban barrios of El Born and Poble Nou and here, in Can Masdeu, I have spent time learning about vertical gardening, balcony composting and most importantly, I’ve made friends. There’s something about gardening that frees my soul to connect. After all, if someone has made time in their busy life to mess about in the dirt, I feel it says something fundamental about their character, their priorities and, in this context, their politics.

When I lived in Wales, I heard and watched stories of guerilla gardeners, thinking all the time how cool it was that people were digging up the concrete to plant trees, but never realising how essential it was for their well-being. After all, I lived in the countryside and tended my own garden whenever I liked. How could I know the deep importance of this radical act? An article I read the other day told about some research that measured to what extent people become depressed while living amongst concrete pavements and bland street architechture. The writer proposed that what the brain needs to function well is natural landscape. My first reaction was ‘duh!’. Another piece of stupid research to prove something we all knew already. But the planning of modern cities tells us different. We don’t know these things. We don’t understand the degree to which humans need nature. We are only just beginning to quantify the damage to our own mental and physical well-being from being cooped up in grey, dull labyrinths. Bob Marley published Concrete Jungle in 1973, but then, the poets and mystics always know these things first. For the rest of society, it might take an epidemic of mental illness, an avalanche of child obesity and ADHD, or a wave of climatic emergency to prove what the ancients have always known.

We need Nature.

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Cathedral-tree

A City Meditation

The other day I woke with a voice in my head. “No words” it said, over and over. Sin palabras (I’m learning Spanish). Accompanying the voice was a sharp headache, which sent shock waves through my being when I moved too quickly. The message seemed clear to me. “Slow down, shut up and listen!”

Light-Cathedral

However exciting, the noise, activity and distraction of city life can be overwhelming. Whether a brief visitor or a long-term resident, we often lack the resources to carve out quiet time. A friend of mine, who is an artist in London, once gave me some advice. “In the country, there is lots of space outside, but in the city, I find I need to create more internal space.” It reminds me of a question once asked on a meditation retreat. “How can we “go out” whilst “staying in”? How can we be in and of the world whilst maintaining the equilibrium and peace of mind we need to negotiate our days with grace and clarity?

Ancient-tree

I felt I needed some air, so I took myself out into the street and sauntered into the square nearby. At the stroke of noon, a tinkle of church bells began to peal and I couldn’t help but follow the sound. Still walking ever so slowly, I felt my feet connect with the cobblestones, my hands reaching out to stroke ancient Roman walls. I found myself led to a garden, where fresh water flowed through an ornate fountain. I was drawn to the way the light fell into the courtyard, spilling shadows over ornately-carved doors. Bustling tourists hurried past me with cameras, clicking and moving on, clicking and moving on, while I paused, breathed, contemplated.

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In Barcelona, it’s not difficult to imagine the sacred amongst the ordinary. Around every corner, yet another stunning cathedral reaches heavenwards and at regular intervals, the Christian call to prayer rings out across the jumbled rooftops. Whatever our beliefs, with a little imagination, we can make these spaces our own. We can bring our own sense of what is holy.

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My journey that day led me to take a seat in the sun and enjoy the music from a talented busker playing jazz music in the plaza. An ancient palm tree told tales of long ago merchants and scholars…a centuries-old Jewish place of worship offered up long-held secrets…an intriguing mural gave insight into a local community and a hidden school yard sheltered children playing freely. I was moved to regard the older residents of Barcelona ambling through the place they know so well, and for a moment, my mind stopped its ceaseless racing and my senses gathered in close. For a while, I tuned in to a different pace and time. More at home, both within myself, and without.

#light #shadow #silenttour #simplyliving #Barcelona #ceramics

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Caganer-traditional-web

Barcelona? Poo!

On top of the Restaurante Salamanca, the temperature says 22 degrees. In the beachside cafe, tourists sit with a jugo de naranja y cafe con leche, carefully guarding their wheelies against opportunistic thieves, but the real action is taking place down underneath the promenade. For the Barcelona retired community, this sunny wednesday morning in early December is perfect for gathering to play dominos and sink a cerveza or two.  The mood is upbeat, and why not? The sun is warm, the sea is sparkling and life expects nothing more from them than this. We, as newcomers and foreigners, are still trying to attune to it.

Barcelona-beach

Yesterday was a holiday. A holy day. Unlike in Melbourne, our last adopted home, where the religion is sport and the public holidays coincide with major sporting events, this is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which celebrates the moment that Mary, Jesus’s mother, was conceived. Husband is still wondering whether to take his allotted day off work, or whether to go in anyway, when a drumming outside our window takes us to the balcony. Outside, a procession is snaking its way through the narrow Gotico street and has paused outside the tiny Capella de Sant Cristòfol de Regomir.

Capella-de-sant-cristofol

This chapel honouring the patron saint of travellers has been there since the 15th century, built at the gate in this Roman city wall to which people would bring their prayers before setting sail from the nearby port.  On St. Christopher’s day in 1907, the first cars were brought here to be blessed and the tradition remains to this day, although it still amazes me that cars continue to squeeze through these passageways at all. Today,  cars have given way to humans and the procession brings church elders, children, a cohort of trumpeters and finally, majestically, the Virgin Mary herself, teetering down the street hoisted upon a wobbling litter. The porters wear white gloves, but their wrists show strain as the weight of huge carriage shifts from side to side with their gait. Adorned with flowers , the Virgin seems precarious, but the followers follow anyway, tapping their way down the rough pavings with tall, silver-topped staffs. All around, church bells ring out to welcome them, as they must have done for centuries in this ancient city.

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“Shall we go out for breakfast then?” asks Husband, still undecided about whether to go to work at some time. “Sure” I say. It feels like a party out there.”

December 8th is the beginning of Christmas in Spain. The markets are already flourishing, selling all manner of Christmas gifts and decorations, but most significantly, offering rows and rows of caganers, the traditional  figures of a little pooping Catalan peasant boy. We first encountered this phenomenon when on a visit to Barcelona a few years ago. In a shopping centre, a huge statue of Santa Claus squatted, his trousers around his ankles and a giant turd on the ground underneath him. We were amazed, not to say confused, and didn’t understand until now that it is a symbol of good fortune. That it represents the fertilisation of crops for a good harvest in the year to come. On the market stalls, it also seems to represent a symbol of equality, as now one can buy a pooping statuette of any famous figure, from Queen Elizabeth to David Beckham to the Pope himself. We all do it, of course, and we all need to eat in order to keep doing it. It’s the circle of life and a reminder of what is important to all of us, regardless of our supposed status.

Caganer-celebs-web

I don’t know how many compost toilets are in operation in Barcelona city. The waft of sewer-smell that drifts past my nostrils from time to time suggests not many, but who knows, with this symbol so widespread in the popular imagination, perhaps there is room here for a humanure revolution. The collected waste could be transported out to the Catalonian countryside and used to grow nutrient-rich soil. As floods rage in the UK and bushfires rampage through Australia, climate change is most likely to effect Spain by way of drought. Perhaps, by turning towards dry composting toilets, we also could stop needlessly flushing drinking water away and the pressure on Barcelona’s sewage system would be – ahem – relieved.

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