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La Merce

This past weekend, Barcelona hosted its biggest festival of the year, called La Merce! There were a bazzillion events around town all weekend and although I tried my best to get to all of them, I was unable. I did see some pretty incredible things, though, so hang on! (Also! I can't upload all of my photos here, so please check out Flickr for a more complete set!)

Friday night was the opening ceremony for the festival, which is held in tribute to the patron saint of the city, Our Lady of Mercy. I met up with a guy from work (from the Netherlands) and we watched a procession of cultural floats and groups enter Plaza de Sant Jaume, in the center of the city.

Annnd now, I interrupt this account of events with a news bulletin: There is much strife in the world right now. Obviously. But remember how I explained that a few weeks ago there was a demonstration in which a million and a half people took to the streets to assert Catalonia's claim for independence from Spain? Well things have continued to be interesting here as the 'regional leader' of Catalonia is putting continued pressure on the government in Madrid to dole out more respect (tax-money wise, of course) to the area (which has, by far and away, the biggest economy; and the most debt of all the regions in Spain). While not openly vying for state independence, the Catalonian government wants at least greater autonomy from the central government. Now, the PM of Spain is currently at the UN summit with all of the worldly leaders, but the consensus here is that he won't respond even after he gets back, since Catalonia is one of the only regions in Spain that is fiscally viable. It is going to make for an incredibly interesting couple of weeks. Now, At the same time, the metro and bus union here is Barcelona cannot seem to get along with the government either, and there have been two strikes in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, and the reason that I have explained this now, is that these issues trickled over into the weekend in the form of a very noisy and disruptive demonstration beneath the balcony of the residence of the Catalonian regional leader, which overlooks Plaza Sant Jaume. Large banners, explaining (in Catalan, so my translation is poor) the unions' grievances, had been hung in front of a large tv screen set to proclaim the start of the festival, and as the leader himself came out to the balcony he was greeted with boos, whistles and many an obscene hand gesture.


Once they had their fill, though, festivities commenced, which included authentic catalonian music and dance, along with the procession of los gegantes (the giants), dracs (dragons, more on these later), and castellers. The giants, as you can see from the picture here are huge mannequins, made to look like various important figures in Catalonian history. After the procession and revelry, my friend and I walked in the other direction from my house, into the barrio 'el Borne'. One of the ritzier neighborhoods in Barcelona, el Borne is home to many Catalonian restaurants, so we found ourselves sharing an inexpensive, and tasty, bottle of red wine over a dinner of Fideua- a dish similar to paella, with noodles and shellfish cooked in a delicious sauce and served right in the hot skillet. We topped it off with a local dessert called Crema Catalana, similar to Creme Brulee, and I had to be rolled from the restaurant.

Afterward, we walked toward one of the main festival centers, called Parc Ciutadella. Here they had four stages set up for different acts, including one specifically for kids (you wouldn't believe how late kids stay up here: it is not uncommon to see them walking around with their parents at midnight or one in the morning). One of the other stages had an act with about five performers which combined serious pyrotechnics with dance. It was pretty incredible to watch, as the twirled each other around while pouring lamps of burning oil, and breathed fire and all sorts of insanity. This is my first fire experience of the weekend, and left my clothes noticeably less burnt than the next...


I finally finished off my night (from 12 to 4 am) by joining other work friends at a different venue, further away from home, called El Forum. This is a concert-specific venue with acres of concrete and built so that multiple concerts can be held at the same time with minimal disruption between them. I saw two bands, one from Catalonia, of which I understood none, and the other from Madrid, so I understood little (music is really hard to understand for me still). It is easy to enjoy music for the music, though, and I had a great time meeting new people and hanging out with friends. And then I slept.

Saturday afternoon (I didn't make it up to see the morning), I went to play more voley playa before wandering through the old part of the city once more to see a parade with all of the dracs and gegantes this time. Finally I retired early so be ready for a full day Sunday.

I think that Sunday was the best day I have spent here. Around noon I walked again to the Plaza de Sant Jaume to see the biggest group of Castellers in the city, called Le Falcons. They did things on a much larger scale that the castellers from Poble Sec that I showed you earlier. One thing that I noticed was how happy they were after each successful attempt. I'm not sure how often something like that falls, but based on the way they celebrated after successes, it must not be too rare! Immediately following the castellers I walked to Parc de la ciutadella for more performances. I saw a couple of acrobats before the sun and humidity caught me and I needed a nap. I lay down in the grass for about a half an hour before being rudely awakened by a snuffling dog, haha. I was really startled, and they owner was really sorry, but I was unable to doze off again. Around 4 I saw a group of jugglers perform their act, which consisted entirely of juggling apples. It was a 45 minute show with an interesting story line and some very intricate juggling. Very well done!


At this point I had met back up with my Dutch friend, and we headed back toward the center of the city for the most anticipated event of the weekend, called the Correfoc, or fire run in Catalan. Hey kids, remember how we were never allowed to even buy fireworks, let alone shoot them at each other? This event allows the kid in every one of us to run free as groups from each barrio in the city created a Drac and accompanied it through the streets, holding pitchforks and lances with spinning fireworks attached to the tips, all to the thunderous beat of drums. The key here as a spectator and participant (you are both if you are either) is to cover all exposed skin with cotton clothing- of course I was in a t-shirt and shorts. They actually do two events: a kids one at 7 and the adults run at 8:15. After watching the kids one from the street, Maarten and I decided we had better find a bit more shelter to watch the adults, else risk being crispy by the end. We ended up finding a ledge cut into a building about 8 feet above the street opened up after the kids correfoc, so we scrambled up and got ready for mayhem. And mayhem it was. The dragon gate at the end of the street exploded with real fireworks and spouts of flame as the first runners streamed through, and the throng of picture-takers scrambled to get out of the way. For around an hour we dodged embers flying everywhere around us, before our eardrums had had enough and we scrambled away. For this event in particular, pictures speak louder than works, so check out the photos on Flickr. It was unbelievable. I escaped with only a small hole in my pants and two in my polyester knapsack.


After that excitement, we grabbed cheap tapas at a local pub and headed back to Parc Ciutadella for nighttime amusement. The act I really wanted to see was the juggler's nighttime show, but we got there early and saw something equally cool- a duo of robots with suits that lit up in harmony with the music and the story/dance they were telling. Pictures of this were disappointingly sub-par, but it was hilarious and well done. The juggler's show was great, though and featured lit-up balls and clubs changing with the music and flow of the performance. Outstanding.


Afterward, Maarten and I walked back into the city once more to meet up with another work friend, and we saw a concert in Plaza Reial. I found myself crawling into bed at 4 am once more!

Whew so Monday, there was still one more thing on my to-do list: the circus at Castell de Montjuic. I climbed the mountain once more to find myself among tons of children and young parents ready for a circus (by the way, every year Barcelona makes a connection with a different city around the world, and the majority of the performances here are by groups from that partner city. This year was Montreal! I didn't recognize any of the acts, but that was interesting!). The circus was great, if a little short. One thing I have never seen before involved a flexible beam that two of the performers held on their shoulders. Another performer could get on and they spent a few minutes with aerial acrobatics which were mind-blowing.


After the circus, I spent a few minutes admiring the outstanding views before returning home to organize photos and relax. Quite the busy weekend! It was tough going to work on Monday, to be sure.

So here are some more general thoughts I've had about BCN!

Spanish speakers have a really hard time pronouncing Doug, but can figure out Douglas just fine. I think that Doug is too close to 'Dog' for them to differentiate, so I have begun just introducing myself as Douglas. I was considering just going by Jose or Juan for a while... and then looked at the color of my skin.

Grocery stores charge 5 cents for plastic bags, and then make you bag your groceries yourself! That's a great idea! It gives an incentive to bringing your own bag, plus you buy less (and eat less) since it's embarrassing to spend ten minutes at the regsiter bagging your potato chips! I also love that if I am in the city and hungry, there are fruit stands every single block. A peach for 14 cents is the perfect remedy for a grumbly stomach.

I am still not close to being conversational in Spanish. My roommates are better at English like me, so I have a hard time forcing myself to speak Spanish with them. I'll get after it, though. My best opportunities are at work, where there are actually a few people who are weak at English. They like to work at it, but Spanish is actually better for those conversations. I can understand almost everything that is said to me, though, so I'm really excited!

WOW! Thanks for staying with me in the long post! Hope everything is great with you!

Hasta Luego!

Posted by dclift 19:42 Archived in Spain

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