Thursday, 24 April 2008

Saint George's Day / El dia de Sant Jordi 2008

Last year, when I wrote about how Saint George’s day (el dia de Sant Jordi) is celebrated in Catalonia, I did not yet work with pictures in this blog. Since this event is very colourful, this year I decided to do the opposite.

For the fourth year in a row, we have stayed in Vilanova, although I am fully aware that the biggest and most extraordinary book and rose market takes place on les Rambles of Barcelona. Possibly, I will take our children there next year, but I am not sure yet. I will certainly be impressed with the crowd of people, but at the same time our sons will miss the chance to see Vilanova’s own giants and dragons and I will miss the feeling of walking around with a big rose in my hand, greeting neighbours who all do the same. That is the charm of a small town.

From a commercial point of view, this day usually represents 10% of the annual book market turnover and it is estimated that 6 million roses are sold. Personally, I received El Juego del Angel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Admittedly, it is in Spanish and not in Catalan, but I have never planned to become a hardliner, although my wife thinks I already am.

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Sí, sí, confesso haver rebut la versió castellana del nou llibre d’en Zafón per al dia de Sant Jordi. Però, perquè no? És un bon exemple de la meva integració en la societat catalana d'avui en dia. Si no em creieu, mireu les estadístiques de venda.

Per la quarta vegada, vaig passar-me aquest dia a Vilanova. Pot ser hauria d’anar a la capital l’any que vé, però encara no estic convençut, ja que la nostra festa és tan bonica. No fa falta que un suec us expliqui aquesta tradició en català, i en anglès ja vaig fer-ho el any passat. Enguany vaig voler afegir unes fotografies, alhora captant la bellesa de les parades i la gran quantitat de gent a la nostra Rambla. Com podeu veure, em va ser impossible. Quan vaig apujar la càmera una mica, vaig perdre els llibres i les roses, i al contrari, abaixant-la, ja no es va veure la gent. Per això heu de confiar en la meva paraula – l’ambient era fantàstic.

Monday, 21 April 2008

The Ugly Duckling / L'aneguet lleig

Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque) is a city of which I had a picture long before we moved here and I must admit that it was not very favourable. I used to think of it as a harbour, dominated by low buildings of corrugated steel but without people. Anyhow, this was the city I most wanted to visit when we went to the Basque country (Euskal Herria) - not only because of the Guggenheim, but also to understand why this place is more and more popular with tourists.

Now afterwards, I cannot reconcile the two images – the Bilbao of my prejudice and what it really looks like. I guess that there are big wharves and shipyards up along the coast, but to my big surprise you do not even see the sea unless you leave the centre. Instead, we found a well-maintained historic town built along a meandering river and totally surrounded by lush, green hills.

Not long ago Bilbao used to be seen as an industrial town which probably would not recuperate as jobs moved to cheaper places in the world. Fortunately enough, the Basques did not accept that destiny and decided to turn the most populous town of their country into its capital of knowledge. The Guggenheim was not the cause of the change, but clearly one of the most remarkable results.

The halls in the interior of American Frank Gehry’s shining metal construction are spacious and equipped with elevators, so we did not have any problems to manoeuvre the two-year-old in his push chair. The four-year-old, for his part, was happy to recognise some of the works of art, since my wife was well prepared and had let him colour print-outs of Jeff Koons’ Tulips and the 12-meter tall flower covered Puppy. However, that could not match his excitement when I let him walk as he pleased (I cannot write run, since that is not allowed) in the huge metal spirals of the Fish gallery.

After the museum we went to the Old Town (Casco Viejo in Spanish), where the area of the Siete Calles is said to have some of Bilbao’s most interesting nightlife. As you understand, I am not able to tell you whether that is true. We are a typical family with small children and therefore limited our adventure to a lunch and a long walk.
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Comentari en català: Bilbao és una ciutat preciosa i és una llastima que no vam poder passar-hi més que un dia. Com encara fa pocs anys que vam arribar a Espanya, per a nosaltres és molt difícil comprendre que feia tan de temps que el nucil antic de Bilbao no es renovava i que la costa de Barcelona es veia com una zona de treball i no cap com un actiu de l’encant de la ciutat. Ambdues ciutats serveixen com bons exemples per a Vilanova i la Geltrú d’això, com es pot canviar el perfil d’una ciutat. L'Eixample del Mar és un primer pas i ara tindrem una altra gran oportunitat amb la nova zona verda del Parc de Baix a Mar. Espero que sapiguem aprofitar-ne.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Proudly shopping Carrefour / Carrefour obert aquest diumenge

We often shop at Carrefour since their hypermarkets offer a great assortment. On top of that, some of their private label (Carrefour-branded) products are good quality. Today, for the first time, we come home from a stop at Carrefour Barnasud (Gavà) not only loaded with shopping bags, but also with a feeling of helping an innocent victim.

I do not believe that Carrefour has supported the independence of Tibet, as many Chinese apparently claim that they have, but I certainly think that Mr. President Sarkozy is right in asking China to respect human rights in case they want him to take part in the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing.

It is a pity that the French ambassador to Beijing, Herve Ladsous, worries so much about his contry’s trade with China, that he now tries to appease its leaders and expresses his regret about the protests we saw when the Olympic torch made its way through Paris.

If the Chinese turn against a hypermarket chain because of the French President’s highly justified comments, then we here in Europe can do the opposite. Carrefour in Catalonia is open tomorrow Sunday. Vive la France!

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Comentari en català: Fins ara no vaig escriure res en aquest bloc sobre els meus hàbits de compra, però veient que els xinesos protesten contra Carrefour, vull desvetllar que a mi, personalment, m’agradan els hipermercats d’aquesta casa.

En el
Diari de Vilanova d’aquesta setmana, el Salvador Baig va comparar l’ocupació per Xina de Tibet, amb aquella per Espanya de Catalunya. Encara que no m’agradi la comparició – aquí vivim en un estat democràtic, mentres que pels tibetans la democràcia només és un somni – sóc d’acord amb l’idea que el Tibet mereix la seva independència, si la volen la gent que hi viuen.

Els xinesos protesten contra Carrefour, perque pensen que donen soport als independentistes tibetans. Quina valor comercial li aportaria això? Carrefour no és un ONG i em sembla més que res còmic que els xinesos no ho comprenen. I que el president francès, en Sarkozy, demana als xinesos que respecten els drets humans si volen que ell participi a l’inauguració dels Jocs Olímpics - això no és demanar massa. Sabieu que els hipermercats Carrefour tenen obert aquest diumenge? Vive la France!

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Two Languages/Dues Llengües

I have had this blog for more than a year and I feel that it is time for a change. Not long ago, I started a blog about Catalonia and Spain in Swedish, which makes it possible for me to write fast comments without having to worry too much about the quality of my language.

Now the time has come to revise Wirdheim in Vilanova as well. When I started this blog, I had two objectives, both related to integration. While I judge that I have been very successful with the first one - to learn more about Catalonia, our adopted country – I cannot say the same for the second objective - to create a meeting point for expats living in this town. Looking at statistics, this blog has more visitors from the USA than from the town of Vilanova. Visitors from Catalonia are in minority while those from the world beyond always dominate. That was not what I wanted and to change that, I have decided to add comments in Catalan as well. It will be more time consuming, but it can be done.

Since I would not have the patience to write the same text twice, I will give the languages different roles. In English, my intention will be to discuss about Catalonia in general and Vilanova i la Geltrú in particular for foreigners who plan to move here or who already live here. Naturally, also short term tourists might benefit from the content. My comments in Catalan will be reserved for questions and doubts and will, hopefully, provoke a bit of debate as I develop my skills in the language.

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Comentari en català: En les meves últimes entrades vaig afegir unes poques frases en català. Tot i que encara no m’arriba el vostre aplaudiment, he decidit formalitzar això com el nou format del bloc. La meva esperança és que serveixi com una invitació a la nostra ciutat adoptada (Vilanova i la Geltrú) i també a la resta dels Països Catalans per debatre les meves opinions.

Reconec, que encara em queda molt per aprendre del català, però el bloc pot donar-me una oportunitat adicional per practicar i utilitzar la vostra llengua. Sense intentar, sense equivocar-nos no tindrem èxit.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Vilanova Grand Marina - Barcelona

In the competition for investments, Vilanova ought to focus on projects where it has natural strengths and I consider our excellent conditions for outdoor sports to be a sadly undersold asset. A high profile addition to the already existing marina might finally change that. 'Vilanova Grand Marina – Barcelona' – the name is long, but every word adds to the meaning.

Rich people are becoming richer and that increases the demand for certain products and services, among which we find super yachts. Measuring from 20 to 60 meters, this class of boats require highly specialised marinas. Since they tend to be used only during the summer, they need space to moor up, but also guarantees of high quality maintenance. Except for that, the marinas need to provide accommodation for the relatively big crews as well as smooth communication for the yacht owners.

Vilanova’s proximity to the Barcelona airport combined with our existing infrastructure along the coast makes our town suitable for this initiative. In March, the municipal government approved the drawings of the buildings, while the construction work of the quay area is well under way and will open in time for the peak season 2009. Already now are quay-berths up for sale for prices ranging from 269.000 to well above two million Euros.

The new marina will occupy 100.000 square meters, out of which 30% is reserved for the service area. What remains to be built are two 18 meters tall coating halls, which will become new landmarks from both our beaches, but to reduce the visual impact the top 6 meters will be made of sky-coloured glass. Adjacent there will be two workshops staffed with cabinet-makers, sailmakers and electricians. A special crane – the biggest of its kind in Spain – will have the capacity to launch boats weighing up to 800 tons.

Thanks to this, Vilanova will have the chance to up-grade itself to the league of quality tourism and it is expected that the town will gain 120 job opportunities directly and 300 indirectly. In 2011, after the shipyards move away from their current location next to the Plaça del Port and this space can be turned into a restaurant zone, even more business opportunities will follow. And, best of all, Vilanova Grand Marina – Barcelona will be open to the public, so that all of us who already live here will have a chance to at least look at the beautiful boats. I have not found any expert’s comments on these development plans, but to me they look great. May Puerto Banús outside Marbella soon feel us breathing down its neck!
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# On you can find a picture of what the new marina will look like.
# Vilanova Grand Marina – Barcelona has a stylish logotype, but their web-page is not yet operational.
# Most data used in this entry comes from el Diari de Vilanova, the issues of March 20 and April 11, respectively.
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Com he escrit en anglès, sóc totalment d’acord amb aquest projecte tan adequat per la nostra ciutat, però em sorprèn que els periodistes del nostre 'diari' local el presenten sense preguntes crítiques. Escriuen que els naus es construiran “amb un material que imitarà el color de les roques.” Que és una manera poètica per descriure gris o beige? - els mateixos colors que solen dominar en polígons industrials.

Dono per descomptat que el tractament de les aigües residuals i els químics dels tallers sigui correcte, però tanmateix m’agradaria llegir més sobre aquest tema. No oblidem que la platja on ens banyem comença al altre costat del moll. Avui en dia la cura del medi ambiental és un argument de venda.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Vilanova Regaining its Circus Profile

This weekend, with the Festivalet de Primavera, it is a circus time in Vilanova. As the diminutive of the Catalan word for festival suggests, it is not a grand scale event but it has a symbolic value since it is a chance for this town to gain back the reputation it used to have when we talk about circus in Catalonia. The kind of circus I refer to is, of course, cirque nouveau, i.e. no sad animals lead around in the ring, but a focus on entertainment; acrobatic skills, choreography and humor, all at the same time.

Back in 1997, it was the towns Reus and Vilanova i la Geltrú which started to organize the annual festivals Trapezi. For financial reasons, in 2001, our town decided not to participate, but that resulted in such a strong public protest that it was back already the year after, however, since then with a lower profile. While Reus will celebrate the big “Trapezi – la fira del circ de Catalunya”, May 14-18, with proper performances, “Circ Trapezi/Vilanova”, May 30-June 1, will be a presentation of acrobatic acts and happenings in public places around the town. Our version of Trapezi is true to the European tradition of vagabond artists visiting fairs and marketplaces but, let us be honest, it is a low-key event.

Therefore, the Festivalet de Primavera – in a way a public rehearsal for Trapezi and coming tours during the summer - serves as a reminder about Vilanova's intentions. Most of the artists who participate also live here under the scheme Centre Residència La Vela. This is a permanent meeting point for circus training and production which these days consists of two tents, a number of caravans for the artists to live in and an administrative office. The initiative to La Vela was originally taken by our ajuntament, but last year the Catalan government decided to up-grade the status of circus among cultural expressions and I guess that La Vela was a good starting point, since it already existed. In 2008, the Generalitat will contribute € 520.000 (ten times the amount in 2007) as an investment to improve the quality of the facilities.

Yesterday afternoon (Saturday), we went to the outdoor show by Cruzando el Charco, a Chilean circus company which has just arrived here. Since we appreciated what we saw, but felt that it was much too short, we changed our plans and stayed for the Gala (inside the main tent – this show will be repeated today Sunday at 12.30.) by La Vela’s residents, as well.

The location of the Festivalet adds to the natural attraction of circus, since you are in fact invited to where the artists do not only practise but also live. Surrounded by the typically Mediterranean rural landscape of the Masia d’en Cabanyes, at least my wife and I slowed down and relaxed, although we were only a few hundred meters away from the populated areas of the town.
If not before, so in 2010 when Catalonia’s national centre of circus will open up at Forum in Barcelona, there will be more competition for the money. Still, I hope that that Vilanova will continue to promote this art, not only because I like it, but also because we have some kind of a brand to preserve. What we saw at el Festivalet today were not top class artistic skills, but that does not matter when you come as close to the action as you do here.

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Uns amics de Barcelona no han volgut venir per veure aquest 'festivalet'. No tenen cotxe i pensen que la comunicació en tren amb la nostra ciutat és força complicada. Personalment hi seria d'acord però, clar, això no vull reconèixer en anglès, com és un secret nostre. No tinc res contra en ZP, però que la Maleni seguirà com ministra del Foment...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Very Basque Saint Jean de Luz

If I asked myself whether I really wanted to see Biarritz during my family’s short holiday in the Basque Country (Euskal Herria), that is nothing compared to what I felt about Saint Jean de Luz (Donibane Lohizune). I could not have been more wrong so, for a change, I am happy to have a stubborn wife. (Com veieu, té ella per menys la base per ser una bona catalana, tot i que encara sempre prefereix el castellà.)

They say that this town is the most Basque of the beach resorts on the French side of the border, but as in Biarritz and Bayonne, I can not claim that we heard any Basque spoken in the streets. Under no circumstances does that diminish the uniqueness of this place. We started our sight-seeing walk from the northern end of the Bay of St Jean de Luz. If you look at a map you will understand why historically it was so popular with fishermen and whalers – nature is protecting it from the hard waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

We followed the dock which becomes higher and higher the further south you walk. I guess that it is there to protect the houses from the tide and it is amazing that a huge stone construction adds to the beauty of the coast. After having descended, at the mouth of the river la Nivelle, we were surprised to see the relaxed atmosphere of the beach replaced by the active, but still picturesque one of the fishing port.

Before heading back to the car, we of course made a stop at the church of Sain-Jean Baptiste. Its façade is quite plain, but the inside is totally different from anything I had seen before. Multi-tier wooden galleries along the walls gave me a feeling of being in a theatre with balconies, rather than in a church. I assumed that these galleries were built for the great wedding which was celebrated here in 1660 when the Sun King Louis XIV of France reached peace with Spain by marrying María Teresa.

Now I know better. Apparently as late as 1962, Basque churches still made use of such galleries to separate men from women during mass. And was not that exactly what I had been looking for – the proof that St Jean de Luz is typically Basque?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Still Candidate Zapatero

The formal parliament debate on who is to be Spain’s prime minister started at noon today and was adjourned right before midnight. We all know that José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero will be elected in the end, but officially he is not there yet. In fact, tomorrow morning there will be a first round of voting where it seems that he will not receive the required absolute majority.

Before today, the Basque nationalists PNV had not excluded that they would vote for him, but judging from the tone between them and Zapatero by the time the debate ended tonight, I find it highly unlikely they will do so. On the other hand, over the day a more inviting tone evolved between Zapatero and the Catalan nationalists CiU, although the latter already at an early stage declared that they would not vote for him.

Comments on Zapatero’s opening speech of the debate follow the political colours of individual newspapers. As a foreigner who lives here and whose future depends on the development of Spain, I was pleased to hear him focus on economics and propose measures to halt the current slow down.

Since the cost of living is high compared to average salaries and since unemployment in the construction industry is rising fast, PSOE’s proposal to build 1,5 million new subsidized apartments over the coming ten years comes with good timing. That nobody should have to choose between having a job or having children, that there must be a stop to gender-related violence and that the government is committed to put an end to ETA terrorism are some of the other things I liked to hear. However, I was concerned that Zapatero did not come back to any of the points on which CiU had advised that they wanted to receive clarity. Not surprisingly, the first reactions among the Catalan parties were that the government wants to re-centralise the state.

Only after critical remarks in Duran i Lleida’s (CiU) speech, did Zapatero finally reveal that he had taken note of the Catalan requests. The long demanded balances fiscals (comparisons of what autonomous regions contribute to the state through taxes versus what they receive back) will be published already within two months. Except for that, PSOE is decided to fully implement the estatut de Catalunya, albeit Zapatero foresaw that the negotiations on the financing of transferred responsibilities will take some time. Finally, and more symbolically in my eyes, the new government promises to add the transfer of fresh water from Rhône in France on the list of possible long-term solutions to Barcelona’s water crisis.

If Zapatero is not elected prime minister tomorrow, there will be a second round coming Friday. Then a so called single majority will be enough, so Spain will have a new prime minister. Personally, I will be disappointed if CiU do not abstain from voting against Zapatero. In today's debate, both sides opened the door to future discussions. Zapatero even made the comment that the CiU’s participation in the governing of the state is in the interest of the whole of Spain, and especially, in that of Catalonia.

I would go one step further: If there can be a co-operation without rushed commitments, it gives the Catalan nationalists a chance to stay true to their ideals. At the same time, it saves Catalonia from turning into the scapegoat for all unpopular decisions which the new government necessarily will have to make due to the recession. Finally, is makes it more difficult for PP to criticise the government for being in the hands of Catalan nationalist interests. That will be a good outcome not only for Catalonia and the rest of Spain but also for the smooth relationship between the two.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Real Estate Crisis Affecting Public Funds

The Catalan real estate industry goes through difficult times. Some people blame it on high interest rates, which make it more expensive for people to pay their mortgages, while others think that an expected future fall of housing prices is the main cause. The end result is the same – demand for houses and apartments is declining.

In Vilanova, the consequences can already be seen in the high profile development of l’Eixample de Mar - the huge area which historically used to house a Pirelli factory. The pace of the construction works has now been adjusted to the lower number of interested buyers. At another housing estate, Residencial Les Llunes, the 100 appartments of the first phase were sold out fast last year, but out of the 125 available in phase two, only 50% have been sold so far, and it is estimated that the rest sell will sell only one per month. The figures are disappointing, but so far Vilanova seems to be spared dramatic price drops. People who buy real estate here tend to use it as their primary residence, and not for speculation or as weekend apartments.

It is obvious that a lower need of construction workers will result in higher expenses for unemployment benefits. However, the crisis will affect also the income side of public funds, since throughout Catalonia and the rest of Spain, municipal governments have started to rely on construction related taxes and fees.

In Vilanova in 2007, the loss of income was 1,2 million Euros compared to the original budget. While licences for new buildings (ranging from single family homes to industrial facilities) peaked at 150 in 2006, it fell to 86 in 2007. To further underline the negative trend, of the licences requested last year, 61 came in during the first six months, and only 25 during the second half of the year.

Again, Vilanova seems to cope relatively well with the new situation, at least according to local mayor Joan Ignasi Elena (PSC). He underlines that the municipality closed 2007 with a surplus and that estimates on what the government will bring in from the construction industry in 2008 have already been written down. According to him, the town’s finances are “in order and on a sound footing” (“en ordre i sanejades”). Local opposition CiU are much less confident. They call for an independent audit to be made since they expect that the government is making use of funds originally destined for investments to pay for current expenses. For the smooth running of the town administration, let us hope that the mayor is right. The real estate crisis is far from over.

This entry is largely based on information presented in the latest issue of the Diari de Vilanova.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Politics of the Drought

They say that most future wars will be fought over water. If so, the current political situation in Spain gives us a foretaste of how difficult it will be for the UN to solve such conflicts. For the last six years there has been a shortage of fresh water in Catalonia. Natural reservoirs are currently below 20% of their capacity and if the level falls any further a state of emergency will be declared and restrictions imposed also on private households.

On the supply side, the back-up plan to bring in water in tanker ships from desalination plants in Almería is already being implemented. At the same time, old wells have been mapped with the intention to see whether any of them can be restored. Measures are being taken on the consumption side as well. Maintenance of the pipe system is improving in order to minimize the losses during transport. Recently, limitations came into place for the use of water in swimming pools as well as for public greenery. As a result of this, an experiment is currently carried out on the Plaça de la Inmaculada Concepció here in Vilanova, where the lawn has been replaced with artificial grass.

But this is far from enough, and that is why some Catalan socialist politicians now ask for solidarity from the rest of the country (i.e. Catalonia; la visió del país). Both Joaquim Nadal (Councillor of Town and Country as well as Public Works) and the mayor of Barcelona, Jordi Hereu, want preparations to be made for the transfer of water to Barcelona from the river Segre. They underline that the water will only be used as a last resort, but that there is a need to start building the infrastructure now to have it finished by October when it might be needed.

Now this is a highly sensitive issue, above all with fellow socialists on the state level. PSOE is firmly against the 2001 version of the National Hydrology Plan (Plan Hidrológico Nacional; P.H.N.) as proposed by PP during their latest term of office – according to which water from the river Ebro was to be transferred to Valencia and Murcia – and the Segre is a tributary of the Ebro.

So what solutions are there then? CiU, the opposition in the Catalan parliament, favours supplies from the French river Rhône by tanker ships. Compared with the water from Almería, it would be more environmentally friendly in the sense that it is river water and would not cause a need to waste energy on desalination, but can be an alternative only on a medium term. Another remedy will come when Barcelona’s own desalination plant in Baix Llobregat becomes operational. Finally, farmers at the mouth of the Ebro are prepared to sell redundant water from their already existing transfer to Tarragona. The last proposal has the advantage of being achievable short term - all it takes is a connecting pipe between Vilanova's neighbour towns Cubelles and Cunit (the border between the Barcelona and Tarragona provinces).

If worst comes to worst, ecologist Josep Peñuelas suggests that a temporary transfer from the Segre is not such a bad option and underlines the difference between this and what was once outlined in the P.N.H. The water from the Segre will be used to solve short term problems in an existing urban area, while the transfer from the Ebro was intended for new housing developments in until then uninhabited land.

Among the capitals of South Europe, Barcelona stands out for its poor water situation although the city has a low average per capita consumption. It goes without saying that the issue needs to be addressed long term. If the discussions which we see now are repeated next year, it will risk to damage the city’s reputation.

Short term, we all know that the problem will be solved, one way or the other, and I guess that is why one Lavanguardia commentator allows himself to joke about it. Since the coming Expo 2008 in Zaragoza will be built around the theme of water, he proposes that there be a special hall dedicated to the water conflicts within the Spanish state: Valencia versus Catalonia, Castilla - La Mancha versus Murcia etc. He also calls on Aragon to be generous and send us some water, at least during the months of the Expo. If not, there is a risk that a smell of sweat will reveal which of the visitors come from Barcelona.