Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Pixaner i Caganer

A few days before Christmas 2006, my two sisters, my aunt Margaret and I laughed ourselves silly as Anna explained to us the ins and outs of Catalan Christmas. Rather than Santa and stockings, the Catalans have a trunk. But not like a chest with presents. Instead, a dead tree with a face drawn on him. He is called the "cagatió", which means the "shitting uncle". The children chant to the stump and ask him to shit them presents. We leave Santa food to be nice; the Catalans leave the cagatió food "so that he shits more presents."

This Christmas I came Barcelona to see the cagatió for myself only to discover the Catalans do much weirder things for Christmas.

They are big fans of nativity scenes. They do them well. Rather than being all soft and wintery, the three wisemen look like they came straight out of the desert. They have turbans and wear robes. The background in front of which the porcellan characters stand is quite detailed. Anna's dad even went to two different Christmas markets just to get a new baby jesus because the old one broke. As you can see, he didn't even suceed.

In these scenes, the Catalans like to include a pixaner or a caganer. Pixaner is Catalan for pisser and caganer means shitter, both as in the guy who pisses or shits. Right in front of this gorgeous nativity scence there is a Catalan in traditional clothing wearing a red hat (in front of the tree) taking a dump!

Here are lovely pictures of the shitters and dumpers that I snapped at the Christmas market right in front of Barcelona's main cathedral. They are quite detailed in that they show not only the stream of urine and and a man poised to take a dump, but also a pile of feces.And I took all this pictures with a SLR camera, so you can click on them and zoom in to see the Christmas spirit in detail!

They also turn celebrities into caganers such as soccer player Thierry Henri and French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

You can order your own from this website. http://www.caganer.com/

Merry Christmas

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ich bin ein Berliner

I remember learning from my grade 12 history teacher about the time JFK came to Berlin and made a fool of himself. You all know what I am talking about. He came here, equated the residents of Berlin to the Romans, and said that he took pride in the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner". According to my high school history teacher and North Americans more generally, Mr Kennedy made a slight grammatical mistake and as a result told the German masses that he was a jelly filled doughnut because a Berliner, in Berlin, is a jelly doughnut. Makes sense.

Walking around Berlin, you can see postcards with JFK's phonetic spelling "isch bin eein Bear-lin-er." On more than one occasion, Germans have told me "Ich bin ein Berliner" and it was somehow clear to both he and I that he had made a clever allusion to the 1961 speech. And so the Anglos and the Germans go on happily together in Berlin.

We say or read "ich bin ein Berliner" and chuckle.

They say it and smile.

This exchange has happened many times and will keep happening. What neither of these linguistic groups bothers to do very often is to ask each other why it makes us smile. For the Germans, "Ich bin ein Berliner" means I am a Berliner. And by Berliner, they mean a person from Berlin. They have never heard of the jelly doughnut mistake. It in fact takes a decent amount of time to explain to them that every Anglophone but me is not enlightened. They don't think he made an ass of himself. A jelly doughnut is in fact called a Berliner everywhere in Germany except for in Berlin! And even if it did mean doughnut, as native speakers, they are capable of making the distinction between "I am eating a Berliner" and "I am a Berliner".

My history teacher is one of the reason I am still studying history. It may have even been a reason that I first came to Berlin as a tourist. It definitely made me think JFK should have had a better translator.

And it was all a lie!

If you listen to the speech, those aren't laugs but cheers (contrary to how I interpreted the sounds when I was 17). If I wasn't so far along in this history and German thing, I think I might quit.

Monday, August 27, 2007


The other day I met a Spanish girl named Inma. I never realy caught her name given the oddness of it. Based on what I was hearing, I sort of assumed it was Igma or Irma. I kinda thought it was Ingmar as in Ingmar Bergman, but pronounced a la española (i.e. poorly).

A couple of days later, I finally demanded that Anna tell me what the hell Igma's name was, to which I discovered it was Inma. Anna then told me that Inma is an abbreviation of Inmaculada. As in la Inmaculada Concepción. And apparently that is not even weird.

People in Spain are named Immaculate, or Inma for short.

And by the way, according to Wikipedia, the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary in her mother rather than the conception of Jesus in Mary.

The Immaculate Conception is, according to Roman Catholic dogma, the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus without any stain of original sin, in her mother's womb: the dogma thus says that, from the first moment of her existence, she was preserved by God from the lack of sanctifying grace that afflicts mankind, and that she was instead filled with divine grace. It is further believed that she lived a life completely free from sin. Her immaculate conception in the womb of her mother, by sexual intercourse, should not be confused with the doctrine of the virginal conception of her son Jesus.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The perfect tourist

This weekend I left Catalonia behind and headed for the Costa Brava, which incidentally is very much in Catalonia. A Catalan friend has an apartment in the super touristy beach town of Lloret and she invited Anna and I to what I thought was going to be a typical Catalan experience. Instead, I was met with hordes of Germans and Dutch tourists. Although I stuck to my standard policy of making Anna ask for directions so we wouldn't sound like foreigners, she did so speaking slowly and with the opening phrase, "Perdone, ¿habla español?"

In this ethnic German enclave of Southern Europe, I was confronted with a very troubling dilema: I was the archetypal tourist. Not only am I blond, the other friend that we went with was German! I got a funny look from a Iberian-looking lady as I walked down the street speaking German with a 12-pack of beer in my arms, but I told myself that that woman had it all wrong. Sure I talk the talk and walk the walk. And I might even go straight for the € 4.50 12-packs when I walk into the grocery store. But I was superior to these tourists. I came to Lloret for the beach and to enjoy myself; any excessive beer consumption on my part was no greater in Lloret than in Barcelona.

When I walked down the main street in Lloret, I was attacked by Polish and Russian restaurant and dance club promoters. Again I felt they misunderstood things when they so inappropriately spoke to me only in English. I felt their question "Where are you from?", intended as a way of roping me into a conversation, didn't fully allow me to answer. After saying Canada a few times, I switched to saying "Barcelona". That shows them for labeling me as a tourist. I confused them.

After all, I was different than the typical German or Dutch tourist who comes to the Spanish Costa Brava for a week of partying and sunbathing, even though I carry 12-packs down the street and look like all the others.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Columbus was Catalan

There are several advantages to living with a rich minority that is oppressed. Such is the situation of Catalonia in Spain. Spain hates the Catalans so much that all they want is the Catalans to be Spanish. Such contradictions are common, and, as a result, you have to think twice about everything you're told because it makes no sense. Much like this opening paragraph.

This morning I was told that last year the Spanish government vetoed a bid by a Catalan gas company to buy the Spanish state electrical company for reasons of pure hatred of the Catalans and instead let a German company buy it. The logic in Catalonia is clear. Madrid wants to screw us and would rather sell off national industries to foreigners than to let, for one second, the Catalans benefit from Spain.

The craziest story of them all, however, is that Columbus was a Catalan. Our narrative goes that Columbus was from Genoa and got the kings of Castille to finance his trip to the Indies. The consequence of Columbus, I might add, was to increase Castillian power within Spain and to make Spanish a dominant world language, leaving Catalan in its provincial dust. Nevertheless, the Catalans will tell you that Columbus' real name was Cristòfor Colom. The statue of Columbus in Barcelona only fuels this confusing fire.

The basis of the Catalan argument is that Columbus' writing in Spanish and Genoan used Catalan or Portuguese phonetics. I even found an article on-line debating whether his writings in Spanish should be considered part of the Catalan literary canon! The other strong-point of this mystifying claim is that because so little of Columbus' early life was known, how can you refute the Catalan claim?