Tradition: Holding Spain Back or Holding it Together?

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has warned that the country is in “extreme difficulty”.  The statistics for Spain are shocking, even in a world becoming used to terrible economic data.  According to Eurostat, 5 million of the 17 million unemployed across the euro zone, are in Spain.  The unemployment rate here, at 24.3% is the highest in Europe (yes, higher even than Greece).  But even more socially devastating is the 50.5% unemployment among the under 25s.

Some argue that Spain’s enduring traditions, many of which I’ve written about in this blog, are contributing to their economic woes by taking too many working days out of the year.  During Semana Santa, for example, cities and towns stop functioning as normal and the streets are gridlocked for a week with parades and celebrations.  If it was only Holy Week, perhaps it wouldn’t have a significant effect on the economy, but in Spain, and particularly Andalucia in the south, one lengthy fiesta follows another.  Just two weeks after Holy Week in Seville, there is another full week of festivities for the annual Feria, when the whole city decamps to a fairground south of the river to party night and day.  Seville, as ever, does it bigger and better than anyone else, but every town and city has its own festival.  In May comes the annual pilgrimage of El Rocio; half party, half religious festival, when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Spain spend up to 4 days travelling to a small town in Huelva Province to pay homage to a statue of the Virgin Mary. 

On the positive side, all of this local colour draws much-needed tourist visitors to the country.  Andalucia, the most populous and impoverished region of Spain, which includes the Costa del Sol as well as being the home of flamenco, bullfights and the biggest and best festivals, has seen an increase of 10.4% in foreign visitors in the last year (and 8.1% nationwide).  Tourism is the only growth industry in Spain.  By contrast, the number of people unemployed nationally in the devastated construction sector is now higher than the number employed in it.  The various festivals also create employment directly, not just in the seasonal service industries, but for craftsmen whose products make an essential contribution to the festivities: from silversmiths and embroiderers to candle makers and florists, as well as the tailors who make the penitents’ robes and the party flamenco dresses.

On the downside, productivity is lower in Spain than anywhere in the EU, with the exception of Greece and Portugal, and it’s not only due to the frequent festivals.  As the European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO) tactfully puts it “In Spain, official working hours differ from actual working hours. This imbalance is probably due to cultural patterns that are different to those of other countries.”   The long and late lunch break (usually 3pm to 5pm) doesn’t coincide with timings in the rest of Europe, making it difficult for businesses to communicate with other European countries.  Because of the heat (especially in the south), workers start the day early, but often don’t return to work after leaving for lunch at 3pm, especially during the summer.  The heat is punishing and it is understandable for manual workers, but less so for office employees, who have air conditioning.

Expats – here for the quality of life

The traditional lifestyle is bad for productivity, but great for morale.  Spain comes second out of 10 European countries in the uSwitch Quality of Life Index, while the UK is bottom.  Spain has the most holidays, the most sunshine and highest life expectancy – no wonder it’s also by far the top choice for Brits considering emigration within the EU.  While record numbers of young Spaniards are flocking to the UK looking for jobs, the number of Brits moving to Spain is still increasing year on year.

It is evident that morale is also sustained by the strength of tradition here.  In April, for example, after a week which included a general strike opposing labour reforms and an austerity budget, people put their worries aside to immerse themselves enthusiastically in Semana Santa.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s hard to imagine the atmosphere, with every street filled with tens of thousands of good natured people, united in their passion for this custom – the closest British equivalent I can think of is the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the Mall.  It’s impressive that such ceremonies have survived little changed in Spain over centuries, and are still embraced wholeheartedly by people of all ages.  The lack of cynicism is striking.  And it’s not only the rituals and fiestas which unite communities in the face of hardship, but the maintenance of traditional extended families and networks of friends who support each other in real practical ways, as well as providing emotional sustenance.

Dancing in the streets – even protests turn into family fun days out in Seville

It may appear old-fashioned while much of the western world is moving towards modern uniformity – but the solid structures of tradition seem to be holding together a society that, in the current harsh economic circumstances, you might expect to see collapsing.  Tradition in all its guises is both Spain’s strength and its weakness. Reform is inevitable and necessary in the face of the catastrophic economic situation, but it will be a struggle for the government to change a culture written into the country’s DNA – and I will join the Spanish in mourning its passing if they succeed.

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The Barber of Seville

“Just go in there and take your dress off”.  The shock must have shown on my face because the three women sitting at the sinks having their hair washed all laughed.  But it’s not what you expect, is it, when you walk into a hairdressers?  “Only if you want to” the receptionist soothed hurriedly.

The lovely Maribel

I’d been nervous about going to a new hairdressers anyway, and especially a Spanish one where my grasp of the language might not be advanced enough to explain what I wanted – this was not a good start!  Since I was wearing very little underneath my new summer dress, I opted to keep it on and wear the proffered robe on top of it.

Things improved as I found Maribel, the co-founder of BRN Concepto who was doing my highlights, reassuringly beautiful with fabulous hair herself.  She was also lovely and patient with my poor Spanish so I got two hours of enjoyable Spanish practice chatting to her as she worked.

Jeff – a calming and welcoming presence as well as a great cook

And then there was the wonderful Jeff.  Originally from Singapore, Jeff had been to an American university and lived on the west coast for some years before coming to live in Seville with his Spanish wife, so his English is fluent.  He’s the resident cook (yes, this hairdressers provides delicious snacks too).  He’s also a fountain of knowledge and an artist to boot – he showed me photographs of some of his truly beautiful paintings.

It’s an Aveda salon and very smart, with all the latest gizmos, such as the robotic-looking colour accelerator.  While having the highlights removed and my hair washed I enjoyed a wonderful massage chair and was treated to home-made pink lemonade and entertaining stories courtesy of Jeff.  Heaven!

Bruno at work – mobile tucked under chin!

Then it was time for the cut and the eccentricities returned with the other co-founder of the salon and chief cutter, Bruno.  Fortunately, by this stage my confidence and good humour had both reached very high levels, thanks to the service so far.  Bruno began working fast, grabbing handfuls of hair and chopping at it viciously.  Then he spotted some friends outside, waved wildly and dropped the great chunk of long wet hair he was working on slap into my face as he dashed outside to greet them.  When he returned his mobile phone rang, so he answered it and chatted with it tucked under his chin while he continued his work…  He got me to stand up and did most of the cutting in that position, in what seemed like a reckless freehand fashion – zooming the scissors through my hair without guiding comb.

“I am the best hairdresser in the world” he announced modestly, as he dried my hair.  “Look how sexy this is.  British hairdressers are very very good technically, but they have no flair” he assured me.  Well, I have no complaints.  It cost almost as much as my brilliant hairdresser at Trevor Sorbie in Brighton – but I was happy, not to say relieved, with the results.

The finished product (shame my eyes are closed…)

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Fabulous Feria

It’s like a week-long wedding celebration, only better, because you can swap venues at will – as soon as you tire of one crowd, you can move on to another.  And everyone gets to wear the beautiful dress, not just the bride!

It’s extraordinary how Seville society throws itself into this annual event – the Feria de Abril – with unrestrained excitement and glee.  The venues are hundreds of individual stripy tents called casetas, laid out in streets which are each named after a Sevillian bullfighter.  The casetas, owned by families or groups of friends, are decorated as a home from home; with net curtains, paintings and mirrors on the walls and traditional wooden furniture painted with flowers and wildlife.  At the back, through a doorway, you find a less adorned space with a full-length bar serving drinks and tapas – here the men tend to hang out, away from all the frills.

Inside a caseta

During the day, horses and carriages share the streets with promenaders on foot.  Feria originated as a gypsy horse and cattle fair in the 19th century and although it’s morphed into a week-long party, with the only trade in food and drink, people still come on horseback in traditional costume.  The horses ‘park’ in rows facing the casetas, while their riders receive drinks from friends and relatives.  The dress of the horsemen and women is a sober grey with black or grey hats, a stark contrast with the flamenco dresses in every colour imaginable, which surround them in the streets – copied from the original gypsy women who came to the fair

Everyone is dressed up, from the tiniest tots, and the little girls look wonderful in their miniature flamenco dresses – but I wasn’t sure about it for myself.  I thought I’d feel a bit foolish and out of place in the Spanish costume: as a pale-faced blonde I’m an obvious ‘guiri’ – a foreigner who stands out like a sore thumb.  I spent one day in normal clothes and the second day dared to wear a beautiful red flamenco dress.  It felt fabulous!  And the Sevillians were very kind and pleased I was joining in, rather than scornful as I’d feared.

We were very lucky to have been invited to a friend’s caseta and that was our passport to several others.  The very generous, warm Sevillian people we met there insisted we accompany them to their own casetas and we ended up doing the caseta equivalent of a pub crawl around the Feria.  We were plied with drink – mainly rebujitos, a mix of Manzanilla sherry and lemonade, but also beer, mojitos or wine – and food in the form of a wide variety of delicious tapas.  Embarrassingly, no one would let us pay.

Dancing Sevillanas - the little girls were far better than me!

Feeling the part in my dress, I was persuaded to try the Sevillana traditional dance – a kind of flamenco with very complicated arm and foot movements, at which I was laughably hopeless, but we had great fun attempting it.  While a live band plays the sevillanas and women and girls take turns to dance in the small crowded space of the caseta (very few men attempt it), the older people sit around the edges watching and judging.  As a guiri I was excused, but they are unforgiving of natives who don’t get it right, and muttered criticisms could be heard during a lull in the music, much to my amusement and my friends’ ire.  Sevillian women seem to have the dance in their blood though, and even the smallest children move instinctively to the beat – while I couldn’t even understand the complicated clapping at the beginning…

Leave it to the experts...

People complain that Feria isn’t a place for outsiders and it’s true that the main action takes place in the hundreds of little private parties where locals meet their friends and families and exchange hospitality.  Although the fronts of the casetas are open, so you can get a tantalising glimpse of what’s going on inside (heaven for nosey parkers), there’s usually a security guard standing at the entrance so you need to be able to mention the name of someone who invited you.  I have been known to blag my way in, but you do need quite a bit of chutzpah to run the gauntlet.  There are large public casetas run by the municipality and political parties, which are open to everyone, but to be honest they are pretty soulless, huge tents with catering tables and plastic chairs and not a very attractive place to hang out. 

Even as a tourist though, it’s well worth going to see, especially during the day with all of the horses and carriages and beautiful dresses in the streets.  The horses have to leave the Feria grounds by 8pm and then a clean-up operation takes place, with giant hose-pipes, so that the streets are waterlogged with liquidised horse manure!  You have to tiptoe around for a while, lifting the heavy skirts of your flamenco dress above the ordure, reminding us of the roots of this extraordinary event.

After the clean-up - tiptoeing through the liquid manure...

I’ve written about night time Feria for The Guardian newspaper: you can read my article here if interested – http://bit.ly/GuardianFeria]

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Hey Macarena! La Madrugá

Sevillian men don’t wolf whistle – they shout ‘guapa’ (pronounced gwapa) instead, meaning ‘good looking’.  It’s regularly bandied about as a greeting between women friends, as well as a sign of appreciation by a man for a woman, and offends no one here.  I was somewhat taken aback however, to hear it being shouted at the Virgin Mary.  Or, to be more specific, the Virgin Esperanza Macarena, reputedly the most beautiful of all of the effigies of the Madonna paraded through the streets of Seville during Holy Week.  Joselito, a famous Sevillian bullfighter in the early 20thcentury, was so enamoured of her, that he bought 5 emerald brooches to adorn her robes, which she still wears today.  When Joselito was gored to death in the bullring in 1920 aged just 25, they dressed the Virgin in black mourning dress for a month.

Crowds and Nazarenos wait for Macarena to come out of the church

This starts to give you an idea of how the Spanish mix their religion with folklore and sentimentality.  Make no mistake, however, their devotion, whether to religion or tradition, is deep and serious, even if some of its manifestations seem strange or trivial to the uninitiated.  As the Virgin Esperanza Macarana passed among the crowds of thousands in the early hours of the morning on Good Friday, (known here as La Madrugá) held aloft on a float decorated with church silver, candles and flowers, no one spoke.  I’m serious, no one spoke! Normally, even a handful of Spaniards will be so noisy you can’t hear yourself think, but there was silent reverence from the enormous crowd as she passed.  Some wept, held hands, crossed themselves or kissed their partners, but all were rapt – from young men with Mohican hair styles to elderly men and women and their young grandchildren. Then, someone in the crowd shouts ‘Macareeena!’ and a nearby group responds loudly ‘Guapaaa!’ – repeated three times, in a bizarre, yet endearing adaptation of three cheers.

Here she comes - Guapa!

There are six processions during the night of La Madrugá.  Macarena starts first, at midnight, and doesn’t finish until 2.30pm.  That’s 14 hours walking through the streets wearing a hood that covers your face and long robes; some in bare feet, carrying crosses and candles – and it’s not just a handful of people, there were nearly 3000 in the Macarena procession.  Pity too the costaleros taking shifts lifting the punishingly heavy float, precariously balancing the precious Madonna, several hundredweight of silver, and lit candles several feet tall.

Jesus del Gran Poder is a 17th century statue, as is Macarena

Another much-loved statue paraded the same night is Jesús del Gran Poder – Jesus of the Great Power, from the church of the same name in Plaza San Lorenzo.  Macarena and Gran Poder have a bit of history.  In the first years of the 20thcentury the two brotherhoods had a row.  The processions are carefully timed because all have to take the same route on the approach to the Cathedral, which every procession passes through.  Macarena, a bit of a party girl, kept being late every year, so that the Jesús del Gran Poder procession had to wait an hour or two in one spot until she passed.  Tired of this, one year the Gran Poder just went ahead of Macarena and a great dispute followed.  In the end, the Macarena brotherhood conceded that Gran Poder could go first – but ever since, they send a band of men dressed as centurions on the day of the processions to the church of Jesús del Gran Poder, to confirm that they can go first.  Another astonishing sight in this week of astonishing sights.

Macarena's centurions returning from their mission at Gran Poder

The contrast of all this with our focus on Easter bunnies and egg hunts is stark.  I haven’t seen one chocolate egg here in Seville – though I’m told mini eggs can be found at Lidl if I get desperate.  When I told my parents that Maundy Thursday is a holiday here, because of its particular significance to Spanish people, they responded that it’s important in Britain too, and mentioned a service in the local church which involved washing of feet.  Yes, Maundy Thursday is quietly important to church-goers in the UK, but here in Seville it’s a city-wide ‘happening’, not entirely religious in nature.  The whole of Seville is out on the streets during the day dressed for the occasion.  Women of all ages wear the famous large mantilla hair combs, with black lace veils and fitted black mourning dresses, to remember the imminent death of Christ.

Maundy Thursday - beer and prawns beside Macarena church

Some of them will have been to church, for others it’s just a tradition nowadays, but all of them were crowded into tapas bars and restaurants, drinking and eating in large noisy groups of family and friends, enjoying the holiday.  As one Sevillian friend said to me “Here we can mourn Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection all at the same time”.

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Semana Santa Pasos

For the past week the fabulous Semana Santa Pasos have been on display in churches all over Seville, waiting for their outing during processions which start today and last for a week.   Sadly, after waiting months for much-needed rain, it has arrived at the worst time, and is forecast to continue.  So much work goes into preparations for Semana Santa for months in advance, but if there is any chance of rain the pasos and penitents stay indoors.

The Virgin's robe on a paso in Iglesia del Salvador

You can see why.  The pasos are covered in expensive fabrics and gold leaf and the effigies of Christ and the Virgin Mary are often valuable antiques in their own right.  I’m staggered by how huge and heavy the pasos look up close, and pity and admire the men (costaleros, see them practising uncovered in previous blog) who are hidden beneath, carrying them for hours through the streets.  The gold is just gold leaf on wood, or it would surely be impossible, but the silver is genuine.

Silver detail

Before being placed on the pasos, the Virgin Mary’s everyday clothes are changed for her spectacular Semana Santa robes.  This is done privately, and only women may change her dress.  In addition to all the silver polishing, it’s a special task for some to melt the ends of the huge candles to ensure they all reach the right height for the display and stay in their holders.  Gorgeous flower displays are often added too for the big day.

Paso in Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

In my neighbourhood of Alameda today, I saw the occasional Nazarene (penitient), walking through the rain to their church, hoping that their parade would still take place.

Barefoot Nazareno & Guardia Civil

I’m pleased to say that early this evening, the rain stopped and some of the postponed processions were able to take place – fingers crossed for the rest of the week.

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Preparing for Easter Madness

Children help prepare the paso at Hermandad de Los Estudiantes

Just one week to go and everywhere in Seville preparations are being made for the biggest religious festival of the year, Semana Santa.  Next Sunday – Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) – kicks off a week of highly theatrical parades through the streets, in a mixture of devotion and partying that only the Spaniards can pull off.

Seville is renowned for having the most spectacular Holy Week celebrations anywhere in the world.  Each church in Seville has its own brotherhood (hermandad) of laymen, who take part in processions wearing hooded robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, and carrying floats bearing life-size effigies of Christ on the cross and the Virgin Mary grieving.  Between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, 58 processions of up to 2800 penitents each, take place night and day, watched by crowds of close to a million people.

Costaleros in training for Semana Santa

The staggeringly heavy floats (or pasos), laden with church silver, statues, flowers and candles, are carried above the heads of dozens of heavily sweating men, the ‘costaleros’.  During Semana Santa, the costaleros will be hidden beneath the rich fabric that skirts the base of the float like an altar cloth, but during the weeks beforehand, they can be seen practising, unadorned in the streets.  The biggest guys get this job, and it is not a pretty sight!  Bellies hanging out of vests, trouser legs rolled up and protective fabric wrapped around their heads like turbans, they are packed closely together to maximise the lifting power.

Church silver coming out to be polished

For weeks, young people have been sitting in church doorways, polishing the huge and intricate silver pieces that form part of pasos, and last weekend the brotherhoods began to assemble the huge floats.  I was lucky enough to see this happening at the chapel of the ‘Estudiantes’ (students) brotherhood, allied to the University of Seville.  They make a lovely family occasion of it, inviting the youngest child in the families of brotherhood members along to help, followed by an afternoon tea.  It’s all pretty chaotic inside the small chapel.  As adults construct the float, which reaches almost to the roof, dozens of small children stand underneath in place of the costaleros, enclosed like battery hens in a cage.  The float is temporarily held up on supermarket trolley type wheels and is regularly moved to aid assembly in the small space, which results in all the little kids stumbling around underneath – quite alarming to watch for a health and safety conscious Brit..!

Children 'helping' in the construction...

I do admire the way Spanish people involve their children in everything though – all of the families’ youngest had been invited by personally-addressed letter to help with the preparations, and they clearly love being involved.  It may also help explain why the tradition has carried on unchanged over centuries, as each new generation takes ownership from an early age and children even play at Semana Santa, looking forward to being old enough to join the grown-up parades.

Children play 'pretend' Semana Santa

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The 3 Kings Cometh

3 Kings

Tonight’s the big night when the 3 Kings deliver presents to homes all over Spain.  Children have sent their letters via the Kings’ pages, telling them they’ve been good, listing the presents they hope to receive – and now wait excitedly for the big day.  Today, the eve of  ‘Reyes Magos’, the 3 Kings arrived in town in a parade called the Cabalgata.  Loud bands herald large floats from which people in fancy dress hurl sweets at the crowd.

The boiled sweets are thrown with such force that they are in danger of  ‘having someone’s eye out’ as my mother would say… but the crowds love it, screaming for the sweets to be thrown their way and scrabbling for them as though they were made of solid gold.  The really keen ones bring carrier bags and even bin bags to collect them in!

The great sweet grab!

The floats vary from the classical (ancient Egypt) to modern children’s classics such as Narnia, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and Dora the Explorer!  It was hilarious hearing adults shouting ‘Dora, Dora’ to encourage children on the float to throw something their way.

Dora

It’s a fantastic atmosphere, everyone completely uncynical and enthusiastic about the tradition, and although the route is long and lasts about 4 hours, the crowds are huge everywhere.  Having watched the whole thing once from a vantage point in the north of the city centre, I walked back towards my flat via the supermarket to stock up.  This delay was a big mistake – I found myself trapped on the wrong side of the parade, which had progressed to my neighbourhood, and I was treated to watching the whole thing again!  This time in the dark and the floats looked even prettier with their lights on.  

At last it ends and I can make my way home, past the clean-up operation in hot pursuit… 

Que buen dia! Great fun had by all.  I wonder if the 3 Kings know where I live….

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