Skip to main content

3. Culture of Catalunya a Return Home


Those of you who have been reading along, by now you can tell that I was affected by my time in Catalunya. As I've stated several times in the past four posts, there is much to share.

It all began when I was notified by DO Catalunya (Consell Regulador de la Denominació d’Origen Catalunya) that I was a finalist in a blog writing competition. Would I be attending the BlocDOCat gala in Barcelona? That only allowed for two weeks to arrange my first visit to Barcelona and Catalunya. And maybe I was also an award winner.

During my time touring DO Catalunya wine country with Anton Castella, and Manuel from Madrid, the other finalist not Manel, we discussed what DO Catalunya represented. We touched on the topics of flexibility, freedom, and balance. Little did I know how this would relate to my understanding of the Catalan people.

Part 3

This is Part 3 of my series of posts about Catalunya, what I experienced and what I learned. I believe it will take at least eight posts to cover all I want. At least eight. I learned a great deal. Of course, there will be information on Catalan wine. You can jump to the Outline if needed. On this post I will touch on some of the cultural differences I noticed and adjusted to. I will avoid demographics and politics.

"It was a wonderful, relaxing afternoon with Anna Maria telling stories about growing up and going to school in a French convent. She had two favorite nuns, one was blonde the other was black. She carries with her a photo of the blonde nun. Speaking with me in Spanish, she slowly slipped into French without realizing it. It was very sweet, especially when she sang in French the song the construction workers made up about the two pretty nuns."

26 June 2016
Lunch with Anna Maria.

Cultural Adjustments 

Catalans do not consider themselves Spanish. Some who live in Catalunya will tell you they do, but they are not Spanish. If you read Part 1 History of Catalunya, you should understand why. It took me three days to understand this and to become sensitive to that fact. This is reflected many times over in the culture. I had to remind myself, they are not Spanish. Similar, but different.

It took a few days, but I eventually connected some of the unspoken rules and social mores of the Catalan people. Manel and Crystal were helpful. My degree is in Cultural Anthropology. While I never practiced, one of the skills I was taught was observation. Observation is a useful tool when you don't know the local rules and customs. Observe the social interactions, the behavior among groups of individuals, take notes and be flexible. Adjust your behavior.

Saturday market in Palamós.
Nit de Sant Joan

My plane arrived in Barcelona on Thursday the 23rd of June, that night was the "Nit de Sant Joan" or St. John's Eve. The 24th of June is celebrated as "St. Johns Day" and a public holiday in Catalunya and Spain.

Saint John's Day is the mid-summer solstice celebration. It is associated with the birth of John the Baptist, born six months before Christ on the 24th of June. As I learned, you will not get much sleep on the night of the 23rd, Nit de Sant Joan. After sunset, we strolled down to the beach, it was a loud, crazy celebration. Bonfires, rockets in the air, explosions from powerful firecrackers, scooters zipping around, kids hanging out, families drinking Cava, and it was crazy loud. The fireworks and firecrackers went on all night. We ate pasta that night at 2 am.

Friday the 24th of June was a public holiday. Some restaurants were open, but the wineries were all closed. When we visited Priorat that day, we enjoyed the road and villages mostly to ourselves. But there was no opportunity to wine taste. Plan accordingly.

St. John's Cake.

On Sunday, Anna Maria brought a traditional St. John's cake to share. It is a delicious pastry containing nuts, candied fruits and anise seeds. The baker who made the cake is a friend of hers and owns an artisinal bakery.

*I found a couple of recipes: 1. Recipe for St. John's cake. 2. Recipe for St. John's cake. You can try baking these at home yourself.

*Link: Excellent article on St. Johns Day and St. Johns Day traditions.


As I mentioned in Part 2 Language of Catalunya, "Everywhere I went in Catalunya, I heard Català spoken. It is the dominant text on signage, though often, Spanish is written besides the Català. If you have a knowledge of Spanish, then I think you could manage quite well in Barcelona and  the rest of Catalunya."

Spanish, Castilian Spanish, was spoken by many of the people I met and interacted with. You will find that Catalans are typically bi-lingual, they speak Català and Spanish. I found English to be less common, though my English was always accommodated at the wineries I visited (even if it meant calling the winemakers daughter at 5:30 am to be my translator).

Català is not Spanish and it is not a derivative of Spanish. Some 10 million people speak Català. It is its own language, like Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. It is a romance language also based on Latin. Let's be clear about that.

After my time spent in Catalunya, I find that my desire is not to focus on trying to remember the Spanish I have forgotten, but instead to learn Català. Language is a reflection of the culture. And I am drawn to this culture, it felt familiar and comfortable.

*Note on Profanity: When I was in college, I studied Spanish in Mexico for a quarter. At the time, I was a Spanish major and a soon to be Spanish minor. My mother is Mexican, so I am no stranger to the sound of Spanish. Plus I have certain cultural expectations when it comes to the use of language. My point is, I heard no profanity from Catalans. It was not part of the 'style' of conversation. I discussed this with Manel, and he said in private, with good buddies, maybe there would be swearing. But not in public. 

Hello and Goodbye 

People were friendly. At least everyone I met. It helped to be with family, especially since they speak Català. I grasped only a few words of Català and used them when I could. Hola = Hello. An obvious word and sounds almost identical in Spanish. Thought the "H" is slightly more pronounced than in Spanish. I used "Hola" frequently and took pleasure in saying it to everyone I met. Then there's, Adéu = Goodbye. After "Hola" you use Adéu all the time. Plus I enjoyed saying it, "Adéu". There's more in Part 2 Language of Catalunya.

It seemed to me that people were friendlier and more polite than I am accustomed. My customer service side enjoyed this and reveled in the frequent "Hola" and "Adéu". And then there's the cheek kissing.

In Catalunya, one of the first cultural behaviors you will catch onto is the greeting; it consists of a right, then left cheek kiss (cheek to cheek, kiss the air). This is between two women or a man and a woman; friends, family and when you meet colleagues in social situations. It is a friendly way of saying hello, and also goodbye. I adapted quickly. For intimate friends and close family, you get three cheek kisses.

It seems so impersonal, and distanced at home that we only shake hands. And some people don't even like to do that. I've observed some cheek kissing in urban settings at home, but few, it is not common. I felt quite at home in Catalunya. I miss those cheek kisses.

Late lunch at Restaurant Batlle, Garriguella, Girona.

It is common knowledge that time is experienced differently on the Iberian Peninsula. I can attest that this is true in Catalunya. Generally, there is less of a rush to be punctual. Except for traffic during rush hour, and trying to get to the airport in time to catch my flight. Usually, the pace was to my liking. When you visit, you must be aware of the difference in times when people eat lunch and dinner. Much later than in the States. And expect multiple courses, paced to allow for eating, discussion and wine. And there is always dessert with the meal. Always. I'll go into more detail about the wonderful meals I enjoyed in a future post dealing with Catalan Cuisine.
Lunch: Lunch will start around 2:00 pm or so. And last two hours. Yes! Only restaurants are open between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. Quite civilized.

Dinner: Dinner will start after 9:00 pm and possibly much later. Don't be surprised to see it is midnight once dinner is finished. Roll with it. I'll share which restaurants I ate at in the Catalan Cuisine post. The food was, Molt bo.
Work: Office work begins later in the morning, around 9 am, and will last longer into the evening than we are accustomed to in the States. I think it is worth it.
While I was in Catalunya, I lost my usual sense of time. I had to adjust and go with the flow. Also, I made the mistake of taking my Pebble smart watch. My cellphone was in airplane mode the entire time, to avoid international data roaming fees. My cellphone did not know where it was, and never displayed the correct time. So my pebble watch never had the correct time either. Next time I will bring a real watch.

Glass of Cava to enjoy while shopping for wine at Club del Cep

Some Firsts 

In Catalunya I experienced several firsts. My first walk through a 115 year old grape vineyard. For me, that was super cool seeing such old vines still producing fruit. My first use of a unisex bathroom, at a wine shop no less. Bathrooms were private and had locks. Not a big deal, except when I bumped into two ladies and only then realized it was unisex. And the first time I was given a glass of Cava, in a wine shop, because we were shopping for wine. Drinking Cava while shopping for wine? Quite civilized. Speaking of wine. 

As I filled my glass, again, Manel said, "If you empty the bottle, they will refill it." Ah, I was just beginning to learn.

Always Wine with Meals

Of course I must mention wine. Catalunya has over a 2,000 year long history of wine culture, wine making, wine trade and wine consumption. It is a distinct part of the culture. And wine was the reason I was brought to Catalunya. I wrote about Catalan wine, and was asked to visit Catalunya, to experience Catalan wine, food and culture and to share what I learned.

One afternoon during lunch I asked Manel, "Do you ever have water with lunch?" His response was matter of fact, "Water? We only have wine with our meals."

House wine at El Coro restaurant. 

Manel and Crystal took me to a few small, family owned restaurants. They had daily menus with a reasonable fixed price. Typically, you select two entrees from the menu, included with the meal are salad, dessert and a cafe corto, as well as a house table wine. The table wine was often unlabeled, and usually came from a local cooperative. These table wines are made only for restaurants. The wine was always good. And included with the meal.

Manel did have to educate me my first day in Catalunya about the table wines. We were at the local restaurant, "El Coro" and I was enjoying the food, company, conversation and wine. As I filled my glass, again, Manel said, "If you empty the bottle, they will refill it." Ah, I was just beginning to learn.

In upcoming posts I will share my wine and winery experiences. It is the reason I was sent to Catalunya and the reason I am writing. But there is more to share first. The wine information is worth the wait.

Cafe Corto

After your meal, lunch or dinner, you will be offered a coffee, that is a cafe corto, cafecito, or cafe solo. It is an espresso shot in a small cup. Sugar is on the side. The cafe corto as I learned, are habit forming. I miss having my small shot of espresso after my meals.

The People

Gradually, as I adjusted to the culture, I began to notice a look. An intensity that I did not recognize but took note of and eventually associated with being "Catalan". It is a look in the eyes, an almost hard gaze. It challenges and welcomes you to challenge back. At times I felt tested. I experienced this directly several times without understanding.

"Priorat was far more rugged than expected. Steeply terraced mountain sides, narrow winding roads. I often say that the more the vines struggle the better the fruit. In Priorat I believe the same can be said for the people. Truly humbling physical effort is needed to tend these vineyards on slopes steeper than I could manage." 25 June 2016, William Pollard Jr.

Looking at new vineyards at Bodega Ca N’Estruc

The look I began to associate with being Catalan, was discernible in the faces of the people I met and interacted with. After a week, I began to realize it was a look of strength. The strength of a people who have endured. Who know how to work together, with strength of will and a great determination. Distinctly Catalan. Manel guided me to this understanding. He shared videos of the Castell competitions, the Catalan human pyramids. Again, I was touched deeply.

Medieval city wall of Montblanc in the province of Tarragona.
"Castell" means castle in Catalan.

Castell - Human Towers

Are you familiar with the Castell competitions in Catalunya? "Castell" means castle in Catalan. The tradition of building Castells originated near the city of Tarragona. It was first documented in 1712. Over the course of the 18th century, it spread to other towns and cities. In the last 50 years it has spread to the rest of Catalunya. Castells are human pyramids/castles. The layers of the Castell are assembled quickly in order to put minimal strain on the lower castellers, who bear most of the weight.

As I came to understand, by watching youtube videos, and discussions with Manel, Castell competitions build community, celebrate Catalan culture and test strength and resolve. They are distinctly Catalan. The following video is captioned "Life is full of difficulties."  

On November 16, 2010, Castells were declared by UNESCO to be among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. wikipedia reference.
Note: A castell is considered a success when stages of its assembling and disassembling, can be done in complete succession. The assembly is complete once all castellers have climbed into their designated places, and the enxaneta climbs to the top and raises one hand with four fingers erect (a gesture associated with the stripes of the Catalan flag). The enxaneta then climbs down the other side of the castell, and the remaining levels of castellers descend from top to bottom until all have reached safety. The layers of the tower are assembled quickly in order to put minimal strain on the lower castellers, who bear most of the weight. The disassembly of the castell is often the most treacherous stage of the event.
Note: The enxaneta, is the smallest and youngest. And often a girl.  

That Intensity  

Watching videos of Castell competitions with Manel, I saw that intense look on the faces of those building the towers of people. That look I did not at first understand, it was there, especially on those on the bottom, taking the weight of those above. An intense look of strength of will, capable of exceeding what had previously been accomplished. 

The Castell is formed of human bodies, young, old, women and men. Both the effort and success are celebrated. Even in failure there is success and the adoration of the crowd. The Castell competitions test the strength, balance, flexibility, adaptability, endurance and strength of will of community. The shout of the crowds, pushing bodies, fierce faces, the heat and perspiration. Together. Together in the effort. Failure is not a loss. Teams of castellers are composed of  people from the same village. I met some of these people. I recognized them without initially understanding. It was in the eyes and the unspoken challenge.

I felt quite at home in Catalunya.

My next post will be about Catalan cuisine.


Popular posts from this blog

Review: Sho Chiku Bai, Unfiltered Sake

Last month in Seattle, I purchased a bottle of Nigori sake at Uwajimaya. Uwajimaya is one of the largest Asian grocery retailers in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been visiting Uwajimaya for almost 40 years. When I was much younger, I’d buy model ship and plane kits, Japanese comic books (manga) and I never left without at least one steaming Humbow in hand. Today I buy the manga for my son; while I still enjoy the tasty steamed Humbows, now I never leave without at least one bottle of Sake in hand. Uwajimaya has a terrific selection of imported sake. This most recent visit, I left with a bottle of Sho Chiku Bai Nigori sake. Nigori sake is generally the sweetest of all sakes, with a fruity nose and a mild flavor, making a great drink to complement spicy foods or as a dessert wine. Typical sake is usually filtered to remove grain solids left behind after the fermentation process; however Nigori sake remains unfiltered, resulting in a cloudier beverage. Before serving, the bottle must

Spirit Review: Ole Smokey Tennessee Moonshine White Lightnin' @OleSmoky

Today I have crossed the line from wine to spirits. At 100 proof the Ole Smokey Tennessee Moonshine is definitely turning up the volume (ABV 50%). "Moonshine, white lightning, mountain dew, hooch, and Tennessee white whiskey are terms used to describe high-proof distilled spirits, generally produced illicitly...The word "moonshine" is believed to derive from the term "moonrakers" used for early English smugglers and the clandestine (i.e., by the light of the moon) nature of the operations of illegal Appalachian distillers who produced and distributed whiskey." Source Wikipedia My family is no stranger to Moonshine.  That is, my great-grandfather and grandfather were not strangers. Evidently the family occasionally produced their own spirits on their Oregon ranch. My grandfather told me about his younger brother getting into his dads stash with predictable results. Grandmother also told me stories about midnight runs and secretive deliveries d

A Special Oregon Pinot Noir with Eastern North Carolina Inspired Ribs #OTBN #winePW 10

Open That Bottle Night - A great excuse for a Wine Pairing Weekend.  February 28th was Open That Bottle Night - I selected a bottle of wine I helped blend using barrel samples of Pinot Noir from R. Stuart winery in McMinville, Oregon. I was saving this bottle for a special occasion and knew it was likely time to open and drink. I hoped it had improved. "Blending wine is no task for mere mortals."   - William Pollard Jr.  Our Wine Pairing Weekend group decided Open That Bottle Night would be an appropriate occasion to pair our selected bottle of wine with something special as well. After some consideration, I decided North Carolina ribs would likely pair well with my special bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. For this post I'll review the wine first, then provide the recipe, and wrap up with the results of this wine + food pairing. *Note: What is Open That Bottle Night? Wife and Husband columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher invented Open That Bottle