10 things you didn’t know about Castellers

When I said I was moving to Catalonia, a friend said I should join the human pyramid teams. I laughed at the idea.  But here I am nine months later, a weedy, British casteller, embedded in the mass of bodies above.  So here are some insights from within the castellers:

 

Castellers de Vilafranca form a human tower called "castell" during a biannual competition in Tarragona city

1.They’re not human pyramids: English descriptions of the castell tradition normally describe the formations as human pyramids – but they’re not: they’re human castles.  The word ‘castell’ literally means ‘castle’ in Catalan.


Catalan

2. Castells are Catalan: Human tower building is very Catalan; it is considered a proud symbol of Catalonia’s culture, independent of Spain. In my group of 100+ castellers, I am told I am the first international member.  Having said that, it is a little known secret that the idea actually originated in the folk dances of southern Spain.

Pinya Diagram

3. It starts with a pineapple: 90% of castellers are positioned in the ‘pinya’, or ‘pineapple’, at the base of the tower. People in the pinya have two purposes: 1). To be stood on and support castellers above and 2). To be fell on if the tower collapses.  Glamourous, I know!  But what’s great is that it genuinely feels like everyone is valued equally – whether you’re down in the pinya or sky high.  Until recently, the pinya was formed by leaders shouting instructions but now apps and diagrams are used to create this kaleidoscope of human bodies.

pinya 3

4. What is it like to be in the pinya?  Sweaty.  Very sweaty.  Remember that these castells are being performed in thirty degree heat and you’re effectively spooning with about 70 other people.  Being in the pinya can make it hard to remember why becoming a casteller seemed a logical life choice.

music 2

5. The music is key. The performances are accompanied by stirring casteller music.  The different stages of the song coordinate with the different stages in the performance.  This means that technically even if your head is wedged between an armpit and an ankle, you should be able to figure out what is going on above you.  To be honest, I rarely know what’s happening but the music heightens the drama and radiates out through the pinya and crowd beyond.

close together

6. It’s all about the social side. When I first went along to a castellers training session, I wore leggings, trainers and a sports top, expecting weights and exercises.  But it’s really not about the sport and you don’t do exercises.  Both training and performances are more like chat, chat, tower,  chat, chat, chat, tower and so on…  And this is the great thing about it: it’s a welcoming community of people brought close together (literally) by a common goal.

competition

7. It’s a competition – and yet it’s not. At performances, normally 3 colles meet to “compete”.  Each team scores points for the height, complexity, construction and deconstruction of the castell.  But normally, as a fellow casteller explained, it’s more about competing against your own team’s past performances than against other teams.  Hence, you’ll see that members of the blue team might help in the pinya of a green team.

Falling

8. It’s risky. Castellers make it seem easy – but trust me, it’s not.  Castells are made of gritted teeth, quaking muscles and dripping sweat.  There is a reason that the people at the top wear helmets; when the teeth, muscles and sweat fail, it’s a long way down.  Not to mention the injuries which come with being crushed by the weight of those above.  As one teenage girl explained, “Some people think I’m crazy to continue.”

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9. The clothes. Castellers typically wear a black band (faixa), a shirt, a bandana, bare feet and white trousers.  Why?  Hard to say really!  To be fair, there is some logic behind the pirate-inspired costumes.  The black band acts as both a back support and a ladder rung for the climbers.  The shirts are different colours for different colles (teams).  The bare feet allow better grip – just like it did for pirates.  The white trousers … There is no valid reason for white trousers. I don’t have any; I have to wear white pyjama bottoms instead.

exaneta

10. The exaneta: The child who climbs to the top is called the exaneta.  They often start as young as six and their role is crucial.  The moment they cross the top of the tower and raise their hand signals that the construction is complete.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that their hand is raised with four fingers, signifying the four stripes of the Catalan flag.  They rarely seem nervous – but their parents always make up for their lack of nerves.

10 things that make an English girl say sorry:

I have a very English apology to make: it seems I say ‘sorry’ too much.  So much so that a friend has recently started hitting me every time I say ‘sorry’ without just cause.

In my defence, it seems it isn’t just me; according to the research, the English really are polite.  One study found that the average English person says sorry at least 8 times a day.  Another found that the average Brit says ‘sorry’ 1.9 million times in their life.  And to top it off, google (the most academic form of research), shows that the most common auto-fill question is ‘Why are the English so polite?’

However, it seems my aggressive friend does not see this English background as ‘just cause’ for saying sorry.  And as I see this friend daily, unless I want to end up black and blue I’ve got some work to do.  With this in mind, I have some confessions to make before I embark on the road to Sorryless-dom.

Here are 10 things I say sorry for (without just cause):

1. Not knowing the direction or the time when a stranger asks.

2. Walking into another person.

3. Being walked into by another person. (I’m not alone: research shows that 80% of English people will apologise if another person barges into them).

4. Almost being walked into by another person.

5. Walking into a table – or any inanimate object for that matter.

6. Sneezing.

7. Playing a bad shot in tennis therefore meaning that my competitor wins a point.

8. Doing badly in an assignment.

9. Doing well in an assignment.

10. Rainy weather (– because clearly this is my fault).

And, of course, I have found myself saying sorry when my friend hits me for saying sorry.

Sorry.

Getting naked in Spain

My Britishness is difficult to hide; my skin glows white and I still speak Spanish like a toddler.  But most British of all, I find getting naked in public horrifying.  For me, trying to blend in in a Spanish changing room is an absolute nightmare. 

First, getting changed.  To give you some idea of my public nakedness to date, as a Brit, I have been brought up to obey the following rules of changing room nudity:

A Brit’s guide to getting changed:

  • Step 1: Choose the corner bench (for added privacy).
  • Step 2: Wrap yourself in your extra-large towel and clench it between your teeth.
  • Step 3: Extract (with some difficulty) your clothes from beneath the towel shield.
  • Step 4: Tuck in your extra-large towel – firmly.  
  • Step 5: Shuffle to the shower (while avoiding eye contact).

In contrast, as far as I can tell, Spaniards feel very little difference between having their clothes on and having their clothes off.  In the changing room, they chat naked, stroll naked and look in the mirror – naked.

And don’t even get me started on the changing room showers.  Why are there no shower doors? It may just be my gym, but there are no doors.  The first time I went to the gym showers, I kid you not, I did a quick recce of the doorless situation to see if people were wearing swimming costumes to wash.   The answer: a revealing no.

Ok, I may be exaggerating the differences slightly – but seriously not much. And I’m not alone: statistics reveal even more: 63% of British women feel uncomfortable naked.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is good thing.  I mean, let’s face it, British changing is a far more time-consuming and difficult process.

But despite this, I can’t imagine myself blending in at the gym anytime soon – not without a fake tan and a personality change anyway.

Catalan Easter Food

My sister has given up chocolate and all things sweet for 40 days and 40 nights.  Why?  For Lent. In the UK, people traditionally eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) and then they give up a sweet food in the run up to Easter.

In Spain and Catalonia, people party day and night for carnival and then they eat traditional Lent sweets in the run up to Easter; I know which country I prefer!

Here is your guide to Catalonia’s top foods for Lent and Easter:

  1. Buñuelos (Eating only 1 buñol is simply not possible)

These mini doughnuts, known as Lent fritters (buñuelos de Cuaresma), are eaten throughout Lent.  (To be fair, buñyols were traditionally used as a way of getting through the traditional forty days of giving up meat).  There are a number of variations to try: buñyols de crema (cream-filled), buñyols de vent (literally wind fritters: air-filled), buñyols del Empordà  (a bit denser and common in Girona).

  1. Tortell de Rams

This ring-shaped marzipan cake, decorated with candied fruit, is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter).  Godparents give the cakes to their godchildren.

  1. Mona de Pascua

On Easter Sunday, godparents once again give a traditional cake to their godchildren: the mona de Pascua (Easter cake).  In the past, these round cakes were topped with the same number of hard-boiled eggs as the age of the child.  Now, they are chocolate masterpieces: chocolate palaces, topped with chocolate eggs, chocolate spidermen, chocolate princesses, chocolate spongebobs…

Once again, you have to give it to Spain, these chocolate masterpieces go above and beyond the chocolate eggs we give at home in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speaking Spanish in Catalonia

“No hablo catala.  Puedamos hablar en español?”  Many times this request for Catalans to speak Spanish is met by a couple of minutes of Spanish followed by a couple of hours of incomprehensible Catalan or occasionally by an outright Catalan “no”.  This can leave Spanish-speaking foreigners, isolated, unable to understand, first, the conversation and, second, why Spanish speakers won’t speak Spanish.

For many international people, explaining that they can’t speak in Catalan but could instead speak in Spanish, seems a completely reasonable suggestion.  To start with, Catalan is spoken by an estimated 9 million people whereas 350 million speak Spanish as their first language: naturally, more people can speak Spanish as a second language. Secondly, from a foreigner’s perspective at least, Girona is in Spain and therefore it doesn’t seem wrong to ask a Spaniard if they could speak Spanish.  But having lived in Girona for over six months now, I’m beginning to understand why some Catalans are reluctant to speak Spanish.

It’s political

First, the choice to speak Catalan or Castilian (Spanish) is political.  Throughout history, the Catalan language has come under attack time and again and consequently many Catalans feel a strong need to protect their language.  Most recently, under Franco’s dictatorship (ending just 42 years ago), the Catalan language was banned in all public spaces.  This means that all Catalans aged 50 or over are likely to remember a time when Catalan was banned, Catalonia was marginalised and children were beaten at school simply for using their mother tongue.  When you look at it like this, my request that someone speak Spanish to me no longer seems quite so innocent.

It’s super political now

Indeed, many Catalans would argue that this attack on the Catalan language continues today.  In particular, the strong Catalan Independence movement considers protecting the Catalan language as crucial to protecting and strengthening Catalan identity.  On top of this, the central Spanish government continues to put pressure on Catalonia to invest more education time on Spanish rather than Catalan: a linguistic attack which feels hauntingly familiar to many Catalans.

Not everyone is bilingual

In fact, it is said that by the time Catalans leave school, education data shows that their Spanish equals that of students elsewhere in Spain.  However, this is not to say that all Catalans are comfortable or even fluent in Castilian.  One reason that I think some Catalans won’t speak Spanish to you is simply that they feel unable.  (However, this is normally only the case with those from extremely rural areas).

It’s confusing

Conversely, having lived in a mix-pot of Catalan and Castilian, some Catalans are so comfortable with both languages that they are almost unaware of the difference.  This is because Catalan-speakers are used to communicating perfectly through speaking Catalan and listening to Spanish replies.  This is true in cafés, shops and, most importantly, families with Spanish immigrants.  A child might grow up at a bilingual dinner table where the mother speaks Catalan, the father replies in Spanish and everyone understands.  This means that Catalans often don’t realise how hard it is for Castilian-speaking foreigners to understand Catalan and also that Catalans may switch between the two without realising.  Catalan – Castilian – Castilian – Catalan… You can see how the languages could begin to blur.

Bearing all of this in mind, asking a Catalan to speak in Spanish to me no longer seems so simple.  I mean, imagine if a Catalan friend asked me to speak in American English because they had studied American English.  (And y’all imagine that I was capable of speaking in an American accent and lingo too!)  Firstly, I wouldn’t want to: I’m not American!  The British define themselves as different to Americans just like some Catalans define themselves as different to Spaniards.  Secondly, I would quickly switch back to the language I am most familiar with.  And finally, I would forget how difficult British accents are if you’re not familiar with them.  Or imagine, you asked a Kiwi to speak in an Australian accent.  Or an Austrian to speak with a German accent… The list goes on.  When you look at it this way, it seems completely normal and reasonable for a Catalan to speak in Catalan to foreigners.

Note: Please note that this article includes lots of generalisations and stereotypes.  I have no wish to offend anyone but it is very difficult to talk about differences between people without generalising.  Many Catalan people that I meet and many Catalan friends are incredibly patient with my poor Castilian, … or my English.  It is as a result of conversations with many Catalans that I now understand the complexities of the Catalan-Castilian dynamic: I’m certainly still no expert.

Questions for a Brit abroad:

Being a foreigner sometimes feels like you’re on a bizarre quiz show.  Round 1: Royalty, Round 2: Languages, Round 3: Tea… The questions range from the curious to the hilarious and reveal some of the cultural differences between the UK and Spain.  Here are my top most frequently asked questions:

  1. You want milk with your tea? Are you sure?

Yep, I’m quite sure!  For me, nothing beats a normal cup of tea with milk and sugar.  But as I have discovered, it’s not a “normal” cup of tea here… it turns out it’s an English Breakfast with milk.  Who knew?

2. Why do you love the Queen?

Because, she’s epic – and because she doesn’t choose to go shooting elephants for $25,000 dollars a day in the middle of a recession, like the Spanish monarch did.  Enough said!

3. Which foreign languages do you speak?

(Ashamed pause).  I always feel slightly embarrassed by this question, particularly because, normally, the person speaking is asking in English: in a foreign language.  However, I tend to respond by noting that I learnt French and German at school. (I also tend to neglect to mention that this education doesn’t mean I can actually speak the languages).

4. But I don’t understand… Don’t you love your family?

Yes, I do love my family (but being British, declaring this in public makes me squirm).  And being British, I don’t feel the need to live close to them.  Catalans, who often live just around the corner or just upstairs from their parents, seem to find this bewildering.  In fact, they often seem to see it as a possible indication that I am somehow inhuman or emotionally malfunctioning.

5. So … BREXIT?

Out here, when someone breaches this topic, they don’t even need to form a sentence: the word ‘BREXIT’ sounds like a big ass question mark and joke all on its own.  To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be much need to ask whether I voted to remain or leave, as let’s face it, right now, I’m living in Spain.

6. Why don’t you wear more clothes?

Don’t worry, Mum, I am wearing enough clothes; it’s just a lot warmer here.  A cold day for a Catalan is like a short-donning, suncream smearing summer’s day for the British.

7. When do you eat dinner? … Don’t you get hungry in the night?

As with many nationalities, the Catalans, who eat at 9 or 10 pm, find our eating times baffling.  Likewise, I still haven’t fully adjusted to their custom of eating late at night and have found myself trying to enter empty or closed restaurants at 7 pm on more than one occasion.

8. What?

This is the response that a lot of my jumbled Catalan / Castilian attempts get… Fair enough, I did once confidently ask a shop assistant to bring me a church (rather than an ankle boot).

The 10 Funniest Spanish Insults

I’m beginning to understand why people call the British polite.  It turns out that when it comes to insults we have nothing – literally nothing – on the people of Spain.  You can try “Plonker”, “Minger” or even “Tosser” but let’s face, a Spaniard is just going to laugh! Our insults just can’t compete with the pure creative genius of the Spanish.

No doubt you are now quaking in your boots at the thought of an argument with your flatmate or an encounter with a driving nutcase.  But do not fear: whatever your nationality, I have got 10 fantastic Spanish insults lined up for you:

  1. Hijo de las mil putas = Son of a thousand whores

    In English, ‘you son of a bitch’ is a pretty forceful insult.  But, as I have said, the Spanish really do go above and beyond: this Spanish insult means son of, not 1, not 10 but 1000 prostitutes.

  2. Que te folle un pez = I hope you get fucked by a fish

    To be exact, I am reliably informed that this threat is to be performed by a swordfish.  My initial reaction to this was “Hahaha .. ha … ewww!”  I mean when you stop to think about it … well, it’s not a pleasant thought.

  3. Cap de suro (Catalan) = Head of a cork (Meaning “dimwit”)

  4. Hijo de un hyena = Son of a hyena

  5. Que ta la pique un pollo = I hope a chicken pecks your dick

    This insult was the one where I reconsidered drawing visual images of the insults…

  6. Pollas en vinagre = Dicks in vinegar (Meaning bullshit)

    … And this insult was the point at which I put the colouring pencils down.

  7. Te voy a dar una galleta = I’m going to give you a cookie (Meaning “I’m going to hit you”)

    Don’t underestimate this one!  For fellow bakery lovers, this one can be very misleading.

  8. Pintamonas = One who draws monkeys

  9. Me cago en la leche que te han dado = I shit in the milk they gave you

    Yep, the Catalan and Spanish celebration of poo doesn’t end with Caga Tio (the pooing log which replaces Father Christmas in Catalonia).  In fact, there are a few more along these lines … “Mitja-merda” (“Half-shit” in Catalan), “Me cago en tu puta madre” (“I shit on your whore of a mother”) and just to really make sure you’ve got it covered: “Me cago en todo lo que se menea” (“I shit on everything that moves”).

  10. Vete a freίr espárragos = Go fry asparagus

    And last but not least, my absolute favourite Spanish insult, because just why?

(Note: I have come across some Catalan phrases but more commonly Castillian phrases or versions of insults.  The majority of the above are therefore Castilian phrases and I have highlighted the Catalan ones).