Halloween, for the Rest of the World

One of the many Sitges costumes

On Sunday, I travelled by train to Sitges, a small beach town just south of Barcelona. This weekend was Carnaval and for that Sitges is the place to be. The best thing I can liken it to is Halloween in West Hollywood.

Carnaval is a much bigger holiday in Spain than Halloween. Although people know what Halloween is, most people don’t celebrate it. When I went out for Halloween, I’d say only one in ten people were dressed in costume. Carnaval, on the other hand, feels much more like Halloween in elementary school, where everyone is dressed as something, including the adults. It was fun to walk around this weekend, as I saw a great variety of costumes.

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A Sampling of Spanish Culture

Here is an advertisement that I often see when watching TV in Spain. Imagine not knowing ahead of time that this is an IKEA ad. Enjoy.

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Man It Was Cold!

            As I was checking my email on my yahoo account on Monday, a news headline popped up, like this one, that said there had been a bombing Moscow’s Domodedevo airport. Of course, all bombings have a chilling effect, but for me this one was more personal. I have been fortunate enough to have never been near a bombing, but this particular one caught my attention as I had flown through Moscow twice last year. What were the chances that I had been there?

        Our second quarterfinal game for the LEN cup was being played in Khanty-Mansiysk. The first round was at home, so for the second game we travelled to the home of our competition: Siberia, Russia. This is crazy enough in itself. How many people go to Siberia willingly? And more importantly, how many Americans go to Siberia? Not only was I getting the chance to travel to a such a foreign and inhospitable place, one that few American ever have the chance to experience, it was going to be in the dead of winter. To play water polo. In a pool.

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Columbus Day

Columbus Day was celebrated last month in both Spain and the United States, so it seemed like a good time to talk about some of the similarities and differences between these two different cultures that I am currently a part of.

I was surprised that both Spain and the US celebrate the same holiday. This possibility had never occurred to me. Well, of course, holidays like Christmas and Easter are shared across borders as Christianity is found around the world. But how strange it is that two other countries share a national holiday and that it’s even celebrated at the same time!? And what are the odds that I’m a part of both? I’ve gotten used to celebrating country specific holidays, such as Italy’s end of fascism, Spain’s day of the constitution, and the US’s day of independence – holidays that wouldn’t make sense to celebrate in any other country. It wasn’t until I remembered who sent Columbus on his fateful voyage that I connected the dots. It is clear why the US would honor the person who ‘found’ the country, but it never occurred to me that Spain would also honor Columbus. Spain doesn’t even hold any territories in the Americas anymore! Of course, once I thought about it, it is only right that Spain would venerate the person who started the movement that led Spain to have the largest empire at that time.

There are differences between how holidays are celebrated. In Spain, Columbus Day includes events that celebrate the glory of Spain. There is a parade of the army after which the King greets them. From what I have been told by my Catalan roommate, however, is that most people actually dislike this practice. Only the most patriotic citizens are in favor of it. She says that patriotic displays remind most people of the dictatorship of Franco. Since the Catalans were particularly oppressed, they are especially against this patriotism. A second complaint is typical to all citizens everywhere: the parade costs too much money for little return!

In the US, we always observe Columbus Day on a Monday and often now the holiday is not even observed. Instead everyone works as usual. In Spain, Columbus Day is always celebrated on October 12th. Since it falls on a Tuesday this year, Monday is also a de-facto holiday. On Tuesday, almost everything is closed, very similar to Sundays. Monday, because it only links the holiday to the weekend and is not a holiday itself, is not observed in the same manner. Most people don’t have work or school. However, some people work and more stores will be open. The same phenomenon is found when Columbus Day falls on a Thursday; Friday will become a de-facto holiday. Unfortunately, as the holiday falls on a Wednesday next year, the only day off the Spaniards will get is Wednesday.

This is a very different mentality than the US. Since I have been here, we have already celebrated three holidays. The first was La Mercé, which is the major festival of Barcelona. There were so many activities I couldn’t attend them all. There were the procession of the giants (Gigantes), the fire run (Correfoc), the human towers (Castellers), live music, performances, etc. Columbus Day (Hispanidad) was the second holiday, and All Saints Day was the third. To me it seems that the Spanish take any excuse to have a holiday that they can!


A roommate in Barcelona from last May shared this newspaper article with me. Basically, it says that Columbus had stayed in the same apartment as we lived in! I’m sure many people have claimed this, but this story has the added benefit of being written by a historian.

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Sunday Funday

Today was supposed to be an exciting day in Girona at the All-Saints Festival, but instead this happened:


I broke the glass on the door to our laundry/balcony-like room!

Last night, I had planned to catch the 8:45 train this morning to Girona, where I was going to meet my roommate to see the Castellers at 11. The castellers are human towers built from groups of men standing on each other’s shoulders. You’ve likely seen a picture of them. After the castellers, we were going to spend the rest of the day going to whichever other events of the festival we desired. Then I was going to return to Barcelona in time for Halloween.

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A Visual Representation of Things I Do in My Free Time

#1: What takes up most of my time:

The books I brought from home

I’ve already made it through 5 books in the two weeks I’ve been here, and I still have 6 months worth of newspaper comics. I hope to finish most of the books before Christmas.
#2: Due to my roommate’s insistance:
#3: Spanish class and intercambios
#4: Writing – for the blog but mostly for myself
#5: Playing the guitar and listening to music
#6: Sightseeing in Barcelona and nearby
#7: Photographing polo
#8: Eating good food and hanging out with friends
#9: Making fiestas
#10: Doing anything else fun or interesting I come across
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Book Review: The Shadow of the Wind

A few nights ago I stayed up until 5 in the morning trying to finish a book that held me enchanted. This book, part mystery, part a book of wisdom, and part a story of growing up, kept me unable to go to sleep without getting to the last page and reaching its satisfying conclusion. The book drew me into its pages in a number of ways, starting in a flash, and then building up steadily until the final burst at the end of the novel. This book, called The Shadow of the Wind, was recommended to me both because of its outstanding story and because it is set in Barcelona. There is no better time to read a book set in Barcelona than when one is actually living here. I read the novel with Google Maps open so that I could see exactly which streets the characters were traversing, but it would be just as thrilling with no knowledge of Barcelona. Though it was originally written in Spanish by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I read it in English so that I could understand every word.

I was enthralled with the book in its first chapter. It included many things that I love in a novel, a strong beginning, mysterious places, and a love of books. It is only a few pages into the novel when I knew that I would thoroughly enjoy it. Daniel’s father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and describes it thus:

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel” … “This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of a person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens. This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though. When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they have only us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”

I love to read stories about people who share my passion for books, as they can understand the wonder that a good story brings. How time can disappear, and how even holding a book in your hand can bring a sense of contentment. They are people who love words for their own sake, who know the knowledge, wisdom, understanding one can glean from a well-written story. This sentence describes accurately the feeling I have when looking for a new book to read:

“I leafed through the pages, inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books, and stopped to read the start of a sentence that caught my eye.”

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Barcelona vs. Madrid

Weekends in the fall mean Charger football games. In the last few years, the San Diego Chargers have actually put together a decent team. I say ‘decent,’ since the Chargers should have won the Super Bowl at least once, but always lose in the playoffs. Everyone has high expectations for them, but the Chargers never do as well as their hype. Most people in San Diego are apathetic about our sports teams at best. They only seem to care when one of the teams is doing well. Then people will root enthusiastically and proudly sport team jerseys. There seems to be quite a large portion of Charger fans these days; however, I think there are few die-hard fans. Many San Diegans are oblivious to the teams even when they are doing well. The Padres, unlike the Chargers, have been terrible for way too long. Very few people nowadays are proclaiming their support for the Padres. Probably most people go to games just for the fun of attending a baseball game, not because of their love for the team. I am not calling San Diegans fair-weather fans, just unconcerned.

However, things are very different in Barcelona. While there are some ‘haters’, most citizens of Barcelona root enthusiastically for their soccer team, F.C. Barcelona. I don’t think that the fans would be much less supportive of a losing team. However, Barça did very well last year. They won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the Champions League. The city went crazy when they beat Manchester United for the Champions League title, which cemented their treble. Everyone rushed the fountains in Plaça Catalunya. There was cheering and banner waving for hours and cars honked their horns in the time with team cheers. Even in less important games, everyone finds a place to watch the game. They go to the stadium, attend away games, watch in their house, or join friends at a local bar. The newspapers report detailed descriptions and explanations before and after each game and the players are revered. F.C. Barcelona also has the biggest stadium in Europe and can pack in almost 100,000 screaming Barça fans.

I had the pleasure of watching Barcelona play their main rival, Real Madrid, last Sunday. I am not quite sure which rivalry is more heated, F.C. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid or USC vs. UCLA. Both rivalries extend far beyond the field of play, so wins and losses have a deeper significance than just pride. Barcelona’s rivalry with Madrid extends even to economics and politics. I joined members of my club at our restaurant to cheer on Barça. The room was packed full of people who cheered and booed whenever something significant happened. We witnessed one goal and many fantastic defensive stops, as Barcelona ruled over Real Madrid 1-0. Because the club is near Camp Nou, Barça’s stadium, we were able to witness the massive number of people going to and from the game. Normally on Sundays, the streets of my neighborhood are quiet. Most people are just out for an evening stroll with their dogs. Every store is closed, so the streets are used for relaxation before the workweek begins anew. With the number of people out for the game, you would not know it was Sunday. It parallels what happens every Sunday in the United States, but with much more vibrancy. I guess I’ve just traded one type of football team for another.

The same weekend I also had my own personal Barcelona vs. Madrid experience. My team travelled to Madrid to play C.N. Moscardo. We took about an hour long flight to Madrid in the morning and were bused to the club. We had a long and relaxing lunch there and played our game at 4:30. We knew going into the game that the referees would not be unbiased. It is similar to a Los Angeles team travelling to San Diego or vice versa, but with a greater dislike. We found the referees were as we expected. I swear that I saw one of the referees smirking at some of the calls he made. I don’t believe that they were purposefully trying to hamper the game, but they did not make our lives easy. Luckily we won 22-12, but we should have let fewer goals in. I was glad to leave and head back to Barcelona after the game. The pool was indoors, with a warm air temperature and a much too warm pool temperature. I felt like I was burning up during the game. The outside was colder than Barcelona, so I was glad to head back home. A few of my teammates and I sampled the Barcelona nightlife afterwards to celebrate our win. All-in-all, it was a fun and victorious weekend for Barcelona.

Força Barça!

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