It’s party time in Barcelona. There’s no circus in town, but there is just about everything else. In fact many of you may be surprised to learn that today is a public holiday here, and indeed it may surprise you even more to discover that the holiday is only Barcelona. This situation is strange for many outside Spain, and draws attention to the fact that decisions about public holidays (and of course, many other matters) are taken at three levels: national, autonomous community, and municipal. (Oh how well I remember the days of travelling round Europe, and needing to change money on just the day………that everything was unexpectedly closed). It also draws attention to the prevalence and social importance of public holidays and festivals here. Of note too is the way these holidays draw attention to that unique combination of the traditional and the modern which characterises contemporary Spain. (Actually, to be really pc here I should say ‘the modern Spanish State’ since this is the terminology adopted by those of its citizens who do not especially consider themselves to be Spanish, there is no equivalent of the British/Welsh/Scottish/English classification here, and Catalan, Basque, and Galician football teams are definitely not encouraged in the new ‘multicultural’ Spain).
La Fiesta, at least since the days of Hemingway’s book, is considered to be quintessentially Spanish. (In fact it would interesting to ask just how many of our stereotypes about Spain come from this book, and how many of our opinions of Catalonia are influenced by the other, Orwell, book). Spain is about Flamenco and Bulls. Well not exactly. One of the interesting questions raised by the book is in fact its title. For Fiesta is untranslatable – unless, that is, you allow the Catalan equivalent ‘festa’ as a variant, but then again, here there are, in general, no bulls. (Off topic slightly, but to show how controversial all this is, there was a big argument last year when a theatre company from Sevilla wanted to stage a version of Biset’s Carmen in one of Barcelona’s theatres using a live bull. Both the municipal authorities in Barcelona – socialist – and the Generalitat – nationalist -rose to a man – and woman – and declared this to be impossible under the protection of animals regulations – Almodovar, it will be remembered has been having similar problems. An alternative venue was suggested: a bull ring. This ‘compromise’ was rejected amid cries of ‘cultural discrimination’. The case went to court, and the battle continues ).
So Fiesta remains untranslatable (as do those other Spanish exports to the English language, siesta, macho and patio…….quite what merit this fact reveals on either party I will leave for another post). Another term closely associated with ‘festa’ is pont (or puente: bridge). This effectively is what is known in the UK as a long weekend, but here it has reached the status of art form. This is because, in contrast with the Uk situation where bank holidays ex-Xmas and New Year all fall on Fridays and Mondays, in Spain, and in much of continental Europe, the days rotate with the date. This means that the interesting days are Tuesday and Thursday, since everyone tries to take the Monday or the Friday to make a real holiday of it. Such additional days tend to be classified as ‘recoverable’ (by working overtime etc) and hence do not come from normal holidays. There is even the possibility of an ‘aqueduct’ in December, since 6 and 8 December are both holidays, and if they fall on a Tuesday and Thursday…..well you can imagine. Suffice it to say that for the industrial sector December is a problematic month, since straight after this we have Xmas. As I said, Spain is a unique combination of tradition and modernity.
Now back to the Merc? itself. As an introduction I can do no better than cite the English presentation in the Barcelona equivalent of Time Out (the appropriately named Guia del Ocio).
Like the City itself, the Festa de la Merc?, Barcelona’s fiesta mayor, is a multifaceted celebration which allows everybody to programme their own fun during the five days of events. This year’s edition is built around different thematic areas from which visitors can pick and choose the activities they want to take part in: Peace, Tradition, Fire, Participation and the Sky….
Yes five days, and just one week after the start of the school year! Peace, tradition and fire, an interesting combination I feel. The peace part should be obvious. Ever since the Iraq war, and Bush senior’s notorious comments about the city, the ‘peace label’ has become part and parcel of the marketing image (the Catalans always were good at turning disadvantage into a business opportunity), along with the Sagrada Familia and the Olympic stadium. Among the traditional elements you will find the regular parades of ‘gegants’ (giants) and diables (devils) along with the inevitable dragons, the Catalan dance ‘La Sardana’, and the impressive human edifices known as Castells (or castles – which may, or may not, have originated in China). Perhaps the most authentic and impressive component of these ‘festas’ though is the omnipresence of demons and fire. This has to be ancestral. And the most important part: the huge ‘correfoc’ through the streets of Barcelona. A veritable celebration of paganism originating at the very doors of the Cathedral itself. Splendid, and well worth the visit next year if you really do need an excuse to come and visit us.