Category Archives: Culture

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Midsummer Madness

It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of.  When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre.  I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.

Flash-well-dressing
Well-dressing at Flash, the highest town in England

A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.

Flash-teapot-parade
Residents of Flash celebrate the annual well-dressing and ‘teapot’ parade

In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.

Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.

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elderflower-web1

Elderflower Champagne

I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.

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The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.

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This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!

To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water

700g sugar

Juice and zest of four lemons

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)

A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)

1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.

2. Dissolve  sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.

3. Add elderflower flowers,  lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.

4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.

5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).

Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!

Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!

If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).

Elderflower Cordial
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.

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earth-stars

Earth Day

I’ve never thought too much about Earth Day. It seemed like one of those forced opportunities to do something we should perhaps be doing every day, like Valentines Day to show we love someone or Mother’s Day to appreciate our Mum. But then, over coffee the other day, I had a conversation about where the names of the days of the week come from. I was sure I had learned this as a child, and felt it ought not be surprising to hear that they are named for the planets*
I’m living in Spain at the moment, and a lot of my time is spent trying to get my tongue around a foreign language. It often brings up discussion about the meaning of words, so when i heard this, I sat down and went through the days of the week in all the languages I know, to see if the theory fitted. In Spanish, it’s easy to see that Lunes – Monday, is for the moon – la luna. Even in English, Monday – Moonday makes sense, and it follows too in French – Lundi; in Welsh – Dydd Llun; in German – Montag… You get the picture.
Martes in Spanish, for Mars; Miercoles for Mercury; Jueves for Jupiter ; Viernes for Venus; Sabado for Saturn and oh, Domingo? Well apparently Domingo was re-named for Our Lord’s Day – Dies Dominica in Latin.
Try this yourself with languages you know. The days of the week are often the first things we learn, so we don’t have to be fluent to know them. It’s interesting that most languages have followed in some way or another, often taking the local name for the god of that planet – Thor (the god of war and thunder) stands in for Jupiter, for instance, which gives us Thorsday in English but also Donnerstag in German, where donner means thunder.

There are a few anomolies. I like the prosaic Mittwoch (Wednesday) in German, meaning literally mid-week. And I love the Scandanavian Lordag (Saturday), which is from Old Norse laugardagr, meaning washing day.

After the fun and games of testing our language knowledge and our grasp of ancient mythology, one thing stood out. Not one country had chosen to name a day of the week after Earth. Somehow, we clever humans have once again neglected to honour the place that gives us life. This amazing, complete eco-system which is right beneath our feet. So suddenly, Earth Day makes sense. If only we could have one every week.

* I later learned this was the Classical line-up of the planets in Hellenic astrology, which was established around …..and includes the moon and the sun.

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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.

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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.

Shadow-Grid-web

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.

Immaculaute-Conception2

“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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