For my 1986 Christmas vacation I decided to travel to Barcelona with Roser Ylla Janer, a Perceval co-worker with us for a one-year practicum, staying with her family on their rural estate winery several kilometres south of Vic, Osona, and in her absent friends’ flat in the city.
Not being a citizen of the EEC, I needed a visa for travel through France, obtained with some difficulty at the French consulate in Genève—much paper work and a 24-hour wait—because of a new French law in reaction to fears of terrorism, France having a terrorist movement of French nationalists working closely with the German RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion), an increasingly growing and complex problem.
Across the lake and around Genève, the French Army now had extra soldiers stationed near and at the border—machine guns, bazookas, jeeps, barb wire, and road blocks much in evidence at the main border posts and at all the small village crossings, nightly 20:00 to 7:00, seven days a week.
Certain elements in France were becoming fearful and untrusting toward foreigners, with growing anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Added to this the student protests against the Chirac government, in Paris and the other big French cities.
On the periphery of all this, the Swiss felt quite smug and secure in their little country, and as we heard more than once, “La Suisse, elle en a raison d’être comme elle est dans un monde pareil” (Switzerland has good reason to be as she is in such a world as this).
Nonetheless, we took the opportunity to travel, despite the striking SNCF (Société Nationale de Chemin du Fer) since Monday the 22nd, arranging to drive down with a Spanish friend working in Camphill Beitenwil in Berne, via Genève, Lyon, Montpellier, and Perpignan to the border, there boarding the famous RENFE Tialgo [sic] at Port-Bou just before dawn. The train runs on a different gauge of track from the French and most European systems. Our friend was on a mad dash for Madrid, but willing to bend his route for this detour.
We passed Girona at about eight, arriving in the winter sunlight Sunday, December 28, 1986. Cataluña was to be the only region of Spain I have visited to this day. This region is basically its own country, a people proud of their language and culture, with a strong, quite evident separatist movement popular with the young, many of them university students.
We were abundantly blessed with sun and blue skies. We walked Las Ramblas, passed the Casa Gaudi, extensively visited La Sagrada Familia, walked the port area and many back streets.
The first evening we met three of her longtime female friends on Las Ramblas, treating us to a high-class Chinese dinner in a pricey, exclusive establishment on a nearby side street—not the kind of Chinese cuisine you would traditionally find in North America. This was Mandarin-style exuding an aura of some past royal dynasty. I can not remember exactly what we ate, but I do remember it was many entrées and much variety, delicious, and very clearly I do recall that we five worked our way through several bottles of a strong, clear alcohol much like sake, likely a Chinese rice spirit, and in each bottle of probably a litre in volume was preserved a scaly, grey baby dragon much like an iguana, ugly as sin, but we pickled ourselves with the stuff, becoming increasingly lively, boisterous, and wildly talkative as the night progressed.
As best as I can remember, her family’s masia (Catalan villa) and vineyard was just west of route C-17, Autovia de l’Ametlla, across from the commune of El Hostalets de Balenyà, a municipality in the comarca of Osona, part of a small but traditional wine-making region, a mix of small family-owned wineries and some larger cooperatives, predominately growing the native red grapes Garnatxa (Grenache) and Ull de Llebre (Tempranillo), and the white grape Picapoll.
Their masia was a typical farmhouse for the region, of considerable size under a pan-tiled roof, evenly square in dimension, originally meant to house several branches of the family, having held three daughters and two sons before they all married and moved out—except for Roser. The living quarters were all on the upper floor, as the ground floor sheltered the animals at one time, the rising body heat keeping the human inhabitants warm in winter, now exclusively used for their winery. A large sun room was furnished with wicker chairs and what we North Americans would consider love seats, and as the show piece a large portrait, oil on canvas, about 3 x 2 metres, of Roser a few years younger. Its colours were vibrant and modern, and I believe she had posed in what resembled typical woman’s attire of ancient Greece.
Catalunya is an autonomous region since 1979, made up of the four provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona, with its institution of self-government, Govern de la Generalitat, that ties itself to old, traditional forms of Law and Government, enforcing the Catalan Civil Law system although most of the justice system does remain under Spanish authority. It consists of a Parliament, an Executive Council, and a President. But some want complete separation from Spain.
The evening of the 28th we attended a sold-out concert in Vic, Lluis Llach, a popular singer and songwriter on the piano, whom I have enjoyed and admired ever since, although I do not understand a word of Catalan.
Upon hearing Roser was visiting with a Canadian friend, her friends had got us into the show, front and centre, despite no more available tickets. And the separatists made up a large part of the crowd, the hall packed to the rafters, Catalan flags waving, much singing, cheering, and shouting of political slogans—Lluis in favour of the cause. Several of them, some translated by Roser, asked me about Québec separatism and René Lévesque—seemed quite knowledgeable on this subject. The Catalan anthem “Els Segadors” (“The Reapers”) was repeated a few times that evening.
We ate with her family several times, the memorable one being New Year’s Day—half the day eating and drinking, a variety of sophisticated, flavoursome foods each accompanied by select wines and sweeter ones between courses—some from their winery, others locally and foreign, and probably some Penedès or Alella too—with all her siblings and their families present.
Looking at my remaining, hurried, pencil-scribbled notes on loose tattered graphing paper, I will attempt to recall some of the foods.
We started with entremesos (hors d’oeuvres) of tasty cold plates of prime quality smoked and cured sausages and meats such as fuet (a salami) and longaniza (local spiced sausage), slices of cheese and olives, asparagus, and anchovies. Then several amanides (salads) including potato salad with olives, esqueixada (a salad of raw desalted cod), escalivada (roast aubergines, onions, and red peppers), and xató (curly endive lettuce, cod, and anchovies). This was followed by sopes (soups). Finally la carta (the menu) of various courses like butifarra amb mongetes (a stew of Catalan sausage with white beans), bacalla a la llauna (salt cod with tomato, garlic, and parsley) and various other fish and seafood dishes, the special Catalan stew escudella i carn d’olla, more salads and some vegetable sides including espinacs a la catalana (spinach sauteed with raisins and pine nuts), slices of bread rubbed with tomato known as pa amb tomàquet. Hours later dessert wines, coffee, some kind of cake, and a variation of my favourite dessert, crema catalana (cinnamon and lemon-flavoured Catalan crème brûlée).
Later in the evening, after Roser and I circled the farmhouse holding hands, we listened to a cassette of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for the spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. We sat on her large brass bed, plump with many pillows and an eider duvet, all in white, first sipping some dessert wine, kissing and cuddling, but the night ending in some long-forgotten disagreement, possibly something to do with our future and her parents’ hopes and wishes, revealed piece by piece. Like the night before, with bedtime very late again, I was quickly off in deep slumber in a guest bed a few doors down the hall from Roser.
A few days earlier I had already been warmly welcomed with open arms and soon I had the distinct impression, later officially confirmed, that they hoped to marry Roser off on me, even though I was definitely not Catholic nor Catalan. Roser had always been the rebellious one, the black sheep, but nonetheless loved. They were irritated and somewhat shamed she was not yet married.
I almost took the bait after a wonderful ten days there, but in early January, soon after our return to Perceval, upon serious, objective reflection, decided against this. By then our Libra-Scorpio incompatibilities were overshadowing our friendship.
In the meantime, we also spent much time in the city, highlights for me seeing again La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell with its thousands of mosaic tiles and pieces, both by Antonio Gaudi, also his Casa Gaudi. And the Catedral Santa Cruz in the old part of the city.
One evening we also rode the local train a little down the coast to Sitges, enjoying a sunset stroll on the beach. Roser said this village is a favourite of the gay tourism trade, some moneyed gays even settling down here, buying up some of the pricier real estate.
One noonday meal down in the harbour out past the Monumento de Colón (tall column with a statue of Christopher Columbus), at a tiny sidewalk restaurant specializing in seafood, we had something with mussels, clams, scallops, and calamari along with a bottle of white wine between us, then a long dockside walk out along the quais.
All the wonderful weather disappeared the day of our departure, buffeted by heavy rains and fierce winds by the time we crossed into France, easier travelling, we initially thought, by bus from Barcelona due to the Tialgo [sic] [kindly corrected by the comment below. Thank you] being booked full as the French railway strike was still in full effect.
But the buses were many and full too, and so it was a long crowded bus ride back to Genève—long delays at the Spanish-French border with the French authorities fine-tooth combing over every traveller’s passport. It was a luxury getting back on the trains, the efficent Swiss trains, for the last bit into St-Prex.