December 30, 2011

Here and There: Nochevieja in Spain, New Year's Eve in the U.S.

In most respects New Year's Eve, a.k.a. Nochevieja, in Spain and the United States are pretty similar. In both countries it is customary to get together with your close friends, countdown to midnight, and celebrate the new year with some libation—usually cava or sparkling wine—and reflect (only briefly) on 'the days gone by' and the fresh new year ahead.

This said, over the years I've noticed some signature differences between the two countries which I'll share here.

• The perfect setting:
USA: A friend's house party – Most people will probably celebrate New Years in the US in a friend's (or friend of a friend's) house.
Spain: Go back to the pueblo or purchase an all-in-one night out at a club – While some people in Spain also celebrate at a friend's house, I think more people either head back to their family's pueblo, where the festivities can be intense, or they buy an all-in-one package night at one of the many clubs which cater to New Year's festivities in the city.

Time Square on New Year's Eve

Nochevieja at Puerta del Sol

• What to wear:
Spain: Fire-engine red underwear – I kid you not. In Spain, one tradition is that you should wear bright red underwear, which will bring you luck for the new year. (Sort of the way Anglophones wear green on St. Patrick's Day.)

• Balls drop, bells chime:
These two locations are not _the_ place to be for New Year's, and are really only filled with tourists and out-of-town visitors. But all eyes are probably turned to these two iconic squares at midnight. In the US people will often tune their TVs in to Time Square, while in Spain they'll watch the clock strike midnight at the Puerta del Sol...
USANew York City's Time Square – The traditional mark for the new year at Time Square is the drop of the bright shiny ball, which touches down at midnight.
Spain: Madrid's Puerta del Sol – In Madrid it is all about the clock striking midnight and the twelve chimes (las campanadas) for each hour which signal the dramatic ritual of the grapes...

A ball drops at midnight in the States

Bells chime at midnight in Spain

• Midnight rituals:

USA: Kiss your loved one – Given that this tradition is so common in the States, and happens in every single movie about New Year's, I've been surprised how little Spaniards are aware that, for Americans, it is important to kiss your partner first thing after midnight on the New Year. It is such a tradition that Americans have consecrated it in the way they know best, by creating movie after movie where the central plot device is that the frustrated couple finally come together for the big kiss (the example par excellence being When Harry Met Sally (1989)).
Spain: Las (doce) uvas y las campanadas – Be prepared! At midnight in Spain, it is a must to eat twelve grapes, each one eaten at the sounding of a bell marking the twelve hours struck at twelve o'clock. If you fail to do so it is very bad luck. (This tradition is probably only about 50 years old, but you wouldn't know it for how intense Spaniards can be about trying to meet this midnight challenge.)

Grapes ready for midnight, cava ready for toasting, Christmas turron ready for snacking

So important is this grape-eating tradition that in Spain you can find these
ready-made-for-two packages of grapes, each can with 12 peeled-and-deseeded grapes

• The right soundtrack:
USA: Auld Lang Syne – Again, given how traditional this song is for bringing in the new year in Anglophone cultures, it's interesting how little Spaniards know about it. But this song is a classic, and chances are, much like lovers kissing at midnight, you'll hear this song playing in the background in any cheasy American movie about starting off the new year. It's a nice song, and I confess I get a bit sentimental when I hear it. The whole point of the song is to remind us all that there are those people from long ago in our pasts, who might be worth remembering at this moment when we're looking forward.

"Auld lang syne" is Scots language for "old long since,"
meaning 'days gone by' or 'long, long ago'

• New Year obsessions:
USA: New Year's Resolutions lists – America's obsession with self-improvement thrives around this time of year. Starting January 1st you will hear much commentary about one's "new year resolution" (dieting an all-time favorite, landing a job a crisis-era close second). (Confessions: I'm writing my annual list of five things to improve.) This is not such a big thing in Spain, but very big in the US.

And I leave 2011 behind with that. Those are all the differences that come to mind for the moment. Please comment away if you can think of others.

Happy New Year! ¡Feliz año nuevo!

December 26, 2011

Film: Familia (1996)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1878.
So it's the holiday season, which means that most of us are deeply immersed in family… family dinners, family outings, traveling to visit the family and perhaps "with the family in tow". So we are all suddenly remembering the inevitable headaches, pet peeves, or frayed nerves that only family can produce in us. By the end of the holidays, perhaps we are even looking forward to the end, when we will finally get a vacation _from_ our families.

Or are we? I offer you this Spanish film recommendation, Familia (1996), while you are drowning in the heart of family season… a seemingly straight forward story about a family that gets together to celebrate the protagonist's birthday. Except that appearances aren't what they seem… You the audience _might_ think the protagonist, Santiago, is a bit overly-demanding or temperamental as the family patriarch, and you might start to wonder why the other family members all seem a little off-queue, jumpy or way too eager to follow his lead. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that something is not quite right. And, within less than twenty minutes, a movie that 'bore a family resemblance' to the usual serious filmic family drama quickly becomes a dark and humorous study in what it really means to come together and act like a family at such festive occasions.

One of Spain's many talented 'auteur' directors,
Fernando León (1968–) filming Amador (2010).
Written and directed by Fernando León de Aranoa—who's directed other movie greats including Los lunes al sol (2002) and Princesas (2005)—this movie has a really unique style, both serious and funny, both moody and lighthearted. So it's a nice change from the much heavier fare that is served up in artsy fartsy European cinema circles. The cast is also strong, meeting a difficult acting challenge of blending social realism with situational absurdism. Juan Luís Galiardo plays the lead character of Santiago. (You might recognize him as the mayor in Lázaro de Tormes). This was one of Elena Anaya's first film roles, and she excelled, and she has gone on to become an important lead actress in Spanish cinema (and is currently getting a lot of buzz for her role in Almodovar's latest edgy movie, La piel que habito (2011)).

Left: the young Elena Anaya playing the part of a rebellious teenager in Familia.
Right: Anaya today playing the captive in La piel que habito.

Spain even has this adorable peculiar bureaucratic
document, "el libro de familia", which is issued
to each married couple and which includes an
official register of all the children they have...
though it may soon disappear from usage.
And, of course, family is the backbone of Spanish culture. A few years ago I heard a Spanish sociologist give comparative stats about Spain and US, and one of the more striking differences he pointed out was that Spaniards see their parents face-to-face much more frequently on average than Americans, weekly if not daily. Indeed, probably the vast majority of adult Spaniards will, at minimum, see their parents at least once on the weekend (probably for Sunday lunch); most college-age students stay at home while they go to school rather than moving out into a dorm or their own apartment as they would in the US (indeed, many stay at home after college, into their late twenties); and it is much, much less common in Spain than in the US for people to move away from the city where they grew up and where their parents live. It is my personal theory that Spain's economic crisis has fallen much more lightly than formal economic statistics (or noisy Anglophone news) would have you believe, because Spanish families and social networks (the old-school meaning of this) have mobilized to help each other "make do" through informal means that macroeconomics accounting doesn't really capture. 

It is this ever-present, ubiquitous feature of family life in Spain, which provides the ironic counterpoint to the family in León's film, which is anything but conventional. Even if you think you can't take anymore family, after all the holiday overload, you'll still enjoy watching Familia. It disassembles "the happy family" and then builds it back up, leaving you entertained but also wondering… What does make "the happy family" happy?

December 24, 2011

Those Perfect Gifts: Gifts Made in Spain

I'm wrapping up (pardon the pun) my series on gifts to buy in Spain, though surely it will return next year. It occurred to me, following a conversation with a colleague who saw the blog and one of these entries, that many of you may have mistakenly thought I was getting some kind of compensation or profit for promoting these products. 

Alas, that is not the case. I'm clearly not enterprising enough. I have featured products that I love, and that I want people to buy and help out their makers (and maybe even, in some small way, help Spain out of this economic crisis). So I didn't wait for producers to offer me pay, many of whom probably couldn't have. While I did notify them afterwards, it was as much to draw attention to the blog (among their fans) as to hope they might literally re-pay the kindness. Though I should say that often their response was quite kind and appreciative. Many thanked me for the attention, which flattered me since my blog itself is still quite a humble affair. One of the producers I featured offered to buy me a coffee the next time I passed through his town... but couldn't offer me any product. 

Which is fine. I wouldn't expect that (I would _love it_ and appreciate it, but never _expect_ it). Many of these Spanish producers are humble, small-time businesses who can't throw away their margin of profit on such small-fry media advertisements on blogs. By shining some attention on them, rather than on the many tacky and cheesy things that tourists purchase here in Spain (that are "Made in China" and reproduce "Hemingway paradigm" stereotypes), my hope is to help out these locals in what has been a tough time for all. And in the process, provide a cultural study of things… since culture is not only to be appreciated, but also often to be consumed.

One funny difference with Christmas in Spain are all the Santas climbing balconies...
Since most Spaniards don't have a chimney, Santa has learned to enter by way of the "balcón".

So here I offer a recap of this season's gift ideas, since probably many of you will continue to go shopping over the holidays, particularly those of you who are visited by the Three Kings on January 6th and not by Santa tomorrow. And maybe some of you will be visited by family over the holidays, and they'll want to buy some souvenir to take back with them... not to mention the start of "rebajas" (post-holiday sales) shopping season starts January 7th, and you'll want to get those things that Santa forgot. These ten gift ideas are a great starting point for getting a taste of Spain:

6) Spanish jamón – While I didn't write this entry particularly thinking of gift ideas, its popularity among expat readers (gauged by comments and page hits) suggests that jamón would make for a nice gift for those of you residing in Spain.

9) A belén to decorate the home with during the holidays

10) Or maybe some Spanish music or a Spanish movie

And there are really still so many more gifts to recommend: Spanish lace products ("de encaje"), pottery ("alfarería"), abanicos (those classic Spanish hand fans), a Spanish soccer team jersey (Barça or Real Madrid... or maybe the Spanish National Selection's jersey)... Not to mention products that other expat bloggers have been recommending this season: assorted local hand-crafted productsclassic Spanish Xmas sweets (e.g. turrón, mazapán) or other Spanish foods to take back home with you… and still more, I'm sure. So this is "to be continued" until next year. For now, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and wonderful holiday break! (Oh, and if you're still looking for ways to dress up your gifts or home with smart holiday decorations, you might check out these links on creative gift wrapping and seasonal home decor.)

Bon Nadal!

December 23, 2011

That Perfect Gift: Freixenet Cava + Chocolates

"El niño de Freixenet," iconic ad
for the company from the 1920s
So today, apparently, is the highest volume shopping day for Christmas in Spain. (Very naughty of all of you putting it off to the last minute!) I imagine most of you late shoppers are buying perfume or watches (this is at least what all the ads on TV seem to be for). But if you've manage to skip all the other ideas I've posted, and are still wondering what to give as a gift, I have a very simple and classy suggestion: a bottle of Freixenet's "cava" (a.k.a. Spanish sparkling wine) accompanied by a box of cava-friendly chocolates.

You may recall that I visited the Freixenet bodega this past September. It was fun, and the cava I tasted was delicious. But I've actually been a fan of Freixenet's for over a decade now. They've been exporting to the United States since the 1930s, and unlike the over-touted bottle of French champagne, a bottle of Freixenet in the States is usually only a bit more than $10, which is a very cheap option for such a fun and fancy drink. (You'll recognize the bottles… they're the dark black ones with the gold lettering on the label.)

Every year around the holidays Freixenet releases its annual widely anticipated "Felices Fiestas" ad campaign, so I'm taking this opportunity to throw my weight behind this Spanish product, to recommend it as a solid last-minute gift to buy for perhaps a party, a Christmas dinner, or (hopefully) a very romantic holiday evening with that special someone. (It is also the libation of choice for celebrating your winnings from "El Gordo".) Before continuing, a clarification. Freixenet is pronounced "Frey-sha-net". The "t" at the end _is_ _not_ silent… the word, after all, is Catalán, not French! 

Photo of the main entrance to the Freixenet Headquarters in Sant Sadurní d'Anoia

So, to continue, like all high-end alcoholic beverages, Freixenet has always had a advertising presence. One of its more iconic ads was the famous boy "el niño de Freixenet" seen in its commercial posters in the 1920, and which has become a kind of company logo. But starting in 1977, with a Xmas commercial featuring Liza Minnelli, the company ushered in a new era in its advertising, inviting famous people, often foreigners, to be the seasonal spokesperson for its cava. (There's good reason for this seasonal ad campaign: about 40% of all cava produced is sold around this time of year.) The basic formula behind Freixenet's Christmas campaign is to have some famous person, or to pair up two famous people, and then mount some visual spectacle around them where the color of cava features prominently. Also regularly featured are "las burbujas de Freixenet," the cava bubbles of the drink personified as showgirl-style dancers.

Spanish actress Maribel Verdú playfully dressed as "el niño de Freixenet" in the 1998 holiday ad

Rather than try and explain it in words, and to explain how it has come to be a routine feature of Spain's holiday seasonal landscape, here I list for you the stars featured over the past 35+ years, with the occasional annotation of more memorable ads, and when possible a link on their names leading you to the YouTube video of that year's ad (this blogger gives a nice historical summary of the campaign here):

1977: Liza Minnelli
1978: Club de Natació Kallipolis de Barcelona, as "las burbujas de Freixenet"

1979: Burbujas de Freixenet
1981: Gene Kelly [with the "burbujas de Freixenet" depicted as the rain from "Singing in the Rain"]

1982: Norma Duval, Cheryl Ladd and Anne Margret

1987: Victoria Principal [then famous for her role in the TV series "Dallas"]
1988: Josep Carreras
1990: Inés Sastre and "Superman" Christopher Reeve
1991: Don Johnson [then famous for his role in "Miami Vice"]

The Freixenet ads are also fodder for cultural commentary. In this video you can see
Martes y Trece parodying the 1993 Kim Basinger Freixenet Christmas ad.

1994: The stars of "Belle Époque" [which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film the year before]
1997: Meg Ryan
1998: Alejandro Sanz, Maribel Verdú, Laura Ponte and Ainhoa Arteta [Maribel Verdú - dresses like the famous "niño de Freixenet" logo image]
2000: Lorin Maazel and "las Burbujas de Freixenet"
2001: Penélope Cruz
2002: Pilar López de Ayala [the year she won acclaim as "Juana la Loca"]
2003: Paz Vega
2004: Nieves Álvarez and Pierce Brosnan [spoofing his James Bond image]
2005: Gabino Diego and Demi Moore
2007: Martin Scorsese spoof directs a short film, that is actually a commercial for the drink 

I'm sure part of the popularity of this year's ad was the national pride in Spain's amazing
Synchronized Swimming Team, a regular medal winner in European and Olympic contests.

2010: Shakira [This makes sense given her World Cup hit song, the year Spain wins]
2011: Sara Baras and José Carlos Martínez [flamenco dancing]

Don't they just make you want to go out and buy a bottle of cava? In a way, by choosing famous people at the height of their fame, Freixenet has created a kind of yearbook of Christmas past, capturing the spirit of each year by giving the moment in time a face to remember it by. (And there are different types of cava for different tastes. This blog gives a nice explanation of the label in Spanish.)

Well, in addition to cava I recommend you get some chocolates. On our trip to Penedés, the very classy B&B we stayed at in Capellades gave us a complementary bottle of cava with a box of white chocolates that were an excellent accompaniment to the drink: Crackania from the Catalan company Casanella Xocolaters. I don't know that you can find these in the States, but you can here in Spain and I highly recommend them. They have "polpa de raïm" (grape pulp) in them, which is naturally the perfect flavoring for a sweet companion to sparkling wine. But in the US you can also order "Rabitos" through, which is a similar idea (though with figs)… a sweet extra to blend with that bubbly fun of cava.

The perfect cava accompaniment: "polpa de raïm" + coconut shavings + white chocolate

You're certain to have a Merry Christmas with this combination!

Postscript: Oh dear! After writing this entry and posting it to go up later in the week, I discovered that Sangria Sol y Siesta had already written on this topic. Needless redundancy. Though as is always the case, in these situations, I can take some comfort from the fact that our approaches to the subject are fairly different.

December 21, 2011

El Gordo: Lottery-mania in Spain

I don't usually endorse playing the lottery, which is often correctly disparaged as a glorified tax on the poor and a poor investment strategy. (Though I am myself an occasional sucker for scratch-and-wins… it's the instant gratification! Stocking stuffer anyone?) So when I first got to Spain I was a little startled by all the lottery-mania. There are lottery booths everywhere, officially sanctioned lottery shops with long queues, everywhere, and even school kids who will sell you lottery tickets as part of their end-of-year fundraising campaign for school trips or such. And the buzz on the street surrounding the lottery of all lotteries, el Gordo, a.k.a. la Lotería de Navidad, come Christmas-time is incredible.

Believe me when I say that tomorrow morning, at 9:15AM on December 22nd, the entire nation of Spain will be tuned in to listen to the results of the "Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad" (Special Draw for Christmas). What needs to be said is that this lottery is different. Okay, so the odds of winning the big prize are still horrible. It's probably still a bad investment, financially. But when you situate the Xmas lottery within its historical, cultural, and social context, you discover that it has a lot more going on with it than most. Which is why I am going to break it down for you here…

Our lottery purchases this year. We bought one "décimo" from the new numbers,
and two "participaciones" from the local Falla plus one participación from our horno.

First, the history. This lottery is billed as being the oldest and largest lottery in the world. By most accounts the first Spanish Christmas lottery draw antecedent for this present-day one happened in Cádiz in Dec. 18, 1812. Which means that this lottery is almost 200 years old! The first time it was called the "Sorteo de Navidad" was with the draw on Dec. 23rd 1892. To give you an idea of how culturally important it is, the Lotería de Navidad was even held during the Spanish Civil War, though there were two separate ones held in 1938, one in Burgos (by Franco's side) and the other in Barcelona (by the Republican side). Still, it just goes to show that even civil war can't dampen the excitement that Spaniards feel about this lottery.

"La fábrica de sueños" (the factory of dreams) 2011 official ad for the Christmas Lottery

This is what an official "décimo" looks
like, which can be purchased for 20€
The key to understanding why there is so much interest lies in understanding the social pressure networks that drive participation. I'll get to that in a moment, but let me start by explaining the mechanics of the Christmas lottery… This year it has changed, though only a bit. There are 100,000 numbers sold (números 00000-99999). (Up until last year the highest number had been 89,999, but this year they've added 90,000-99,999. They've also upped the amount of prize money.) However, if you are wondering how it can be that there are only one hundred thousand numbers, yet millions of players, the key is to realize that they sell multiple copies ("una serie") for a single number. The amount of these varies year to year, but this year they are issuing up to 180 copies for each number. (They anticipate selling 90% of all numbers and series offered!) Which means to buy all of a number's series you would have to spend 36,000€! (Below I'll explain how this is something that business/offices/fundraising groups do.) The next level down for playing is to just buy one "billete" or official ticket for a number, yet even this will cost you 200€. For this reason, most individuals would buy a "décimo" (literally a "tenth", because it is a tenth of a ticket) for 20€, which is the smallest officially sold way to play the lottery. 

Yet the most popular way to play is through "participaciones" which are partial tickets printed informally by a group playing together ("jugar en peña") or by organizations or businesses. These "tickets" (which I deliberately place in quotation marks) take the form of photocopies of the original billete (to be handed around the office as vouchers) or are printed on unofficial tickets featuring the said business's name, and a stamp certifying that the ticket is a valid proportion of the possible winnings. The participaciones that are sold at local businesses are usually either 3€ or, less often 5€.

The two numbers played by our local Falla Trinitat, two participaciones, one sold at the horno,
the other at a local flower shop, which we buy every year to support Fallas in our neighborhood.
To review the terminology:
"número" - 100,000 of these, sold for a total of 3,600,000,000€
"serie" - 180 copies for each número, each valued at 36,000€
"billete" - a single ticket for the número, which costs 200€
"décimo" - a tenth of a ticket, sold for 20€
"participación" - some fraction of a serie or billete, usually sold for 3€ or 5€
Hopefully you are still following me. Here's where it gets more complicated, but also more exciting. The payoff!  Below I've made a diagram of the different prizes, split up between the standard big prizes first, followed by special prizes that supplement the draw, but also make the actual draw itself more exciting!

Prize name                        Prize amount (billete)     /     (décimo)    /  (participación, 2.40€)
1 "primer premio":           4,000,000 euros               400,000€          48,000€
  (a.k.a. "el Gordo")
1 "segundo premio":        1,250,000 euros              125,000€          15,000€
1 "tercer premio":               500,000 euros                50,000€            6,000€
2 "cuartos premios":          200,000 euros               20,000€    –        2,400€
8 "quintos premios":            60,000 euros                 6,000€              720€
1,794 "1,000 euros" prizes:        1,000 euros                    100€    –            12€
  (a.k.a. "una pedrea")
More special prizes:
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el Gordo:
20,000€ / 2,000€ / 240€
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el segundo premio:
12,500€ / 1,250€ / 150€
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el tercer premio:
9,600€ / 960€ / 115.20€
• 297 prizes for those tickets whose number shares first three digits of
el gordo, el segundo, and el tercer premio: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 198 prizes for those tickets whose number shares first three digits of
the 2 cuarto premios: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 2997 prizes for those tickets whose number shares last two digits of
el gordo, el segundo, and el tercer premio: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 9,999 reimbursements ("el reintegro") for those tickets whose number shares last digit of el Gordo: 200€ / 20€ / 2.4€
So in total 2,520,000,000€ in prize money where a total of 15,304 numbers (which jumps to 27 million when you consider all the multiple copies in a serie) will win something. Yet maybe, so far, those of you who are lottery skeptics are still thinking, "Fine, but it's still just throwing away money." Your odds of getting anything back (including the measly reintegro) are only about 15%, and the odds of winning "el Gordo" are astronomically small: 1 in 100,000 or a 0.001% chance.

You can use this online tool provided on the Christmas Lottery's website to check
whether you've won something, in case it's too confusing trying to figure it out on your own.

The "bolas" placed on the
"alambres" of a "tabla"
What you need to understand is the _ritual_ surrounding this event. It is way more than a lottery, it's a cultural happening. On the morning of December 22nd, all cameras are tuned in to the Palacio de Congresos de Madrid where there are two lottery drums ("bombos"), one small and one very large, which are filled with "bolas" made of boxwood ("boj", a light sturdy wood). The small drum holds the balls with the prize amounts on them (a total of 1807 balls) and the large with the 100,000 balls for each possible numbers. Starting around 9AM and over the next three hours, all 1807 balls will be drawn with a corresponding number and placed on a "tabla" with wires ("alambres"), where each tabla holds around 200 "bolas" of each type (number and prize amount), nine tablas in total.

Los niños del Colegio de San Ildefonso
holding up the winning numbers in 2009
But what is the most iconic feature of the draw are "los niños del Colegio de San Ildefonso", children from a very old school and orphanage who literally sing the winning numbers as they are drawn. For each tabla four kids will stage the draw, two who stand behind the drum (ready to assist), and two in front who read (or really sing) from the bolas, one singing the prize, the other the lottery number; and then they rotate out for another set of kids, thus involving over 30 on stage and more than 60 kids in total from the Colegio. (Traditionally these kids were orphans, a.k.a huérfano, but that is not necessarily the case anymore.) So tomorrow morning you will see people listening at work to their radios or watching TV as these kids sing the many numbers and prize amounts, broken periodically by the discovery of one of the big prizes and commentary about it. (Kids from this orphanage have been singing lottery numbers since 1771!) This cadence has become a ritual harbinger of Xmas for Spaniards, and I promise you that you could sing out "mil euros" with this particular intonation and any Spaniard would immediately recognize the cultural reference. 

To give you an idea, I'm embedding a two-minute audio clip from the 2008 draw around the moment when "el Gordo" was drawn:

About 40 seconds into this audio clip you will hear them discover "el Gordo".

And then there is the social significance, or as one British newspaper nicely put it, "It's the taking part that counts." As I was saying, there will be office pools for each number, schools will use this lottery-selling for fundraising, and it's even one of several ways that Valencia Casals raise money for their March Fallas. These groups sell a participación for 3€, where 2.40€ is toward the purchase of a proportion of the possible winnings, but .60€ is a donation to the cause in question. Needless to say, participating in all the numbers circulating in your neighborhood or place of employment is like buying your neighbor's kid's Girl Scout Cookies, even if you're on a diet you just can't say no.

Last year's official Christmas Lottery ad, which played upon classic fairytales, was also quite elegant.

The result is that el Gordo is one of the few lotteries that is actually economically redistributive… rich people play it, too, which means that it is not a poor man's tax. And the social pressure to play works (although let's face it, people also play because they want to win!). Based on past participation, the average Spaniard will probably buy around 71.28€ in tickets. (Though there is regional variation… Loterías y Apuestas del Estado, the official lottery organ, predicts La Rioja people will buy the most (106€ worth), followed closely by Castilla y León (102€); whereas Ceuta (17.10€) and Melilla (16.92€) the least, with Canarias (42.56€) and Baleares (40.55€) also far below.) We "only" bought 29€ in tickets this year, mostly wanting to support our much beloved horno and local falla; but my mother-in-law regularly buys a ton because she's a school teacher, and thus embedded in a lot of social networks all peddling selling their number.

And when you watch the news the night of December 22nd, you understand why everyone participates. It's great! You get images of bars in small towns, or some business somewhere in Spain, where everyone shows up happy because they all pooled in on some lucky number. (To get a feel for it, watch this RTVE news clip from 2010.) Those interviewed will be crying, not only because they won, but also because all their closest friends and family, or their favorite bartender or baker (both important neighborhood institutions!) also won the winning prize. They'll invariably interview the lottery office or stand that sold the lucky ticket (such a boon for them), whose stand will most certainly display that fact next year and will also certainly have more customers in the future. And there will be all the commentary about the many superstitions and debates over why el Gordo does or does not fall more frequently in one region or another… Commentary over whether the prizes were "bien repartidos" (well distributed) throughout Spain. (In 2007 and 2010, for example, there was, whereas in 2009 the big prize fell all in Madrid.) Much like "el Clásico" between Barça and Real Madrid soccer teams, el Gordo is one of the much watched and much lived recurring events that becomes _the_ big happening in Spain for a few days, the thing everyone is talking about.

Nope, she didn't win el Gordo. She sold it. But this propietaria of an official lottery shop
 has good reason to be happy. She can display these signs, which will ensure
she has regular traffic from superstitious customers in the years to come

Cava is a must for celebrating your lottery win. Here is bar owner and winner of
"el Gordo" in 2010, seen surrounded by his customers in a modest town of Barcelona,
many of whom are also winners since they purchased tickets from him.

And then by Christmas Eve it all quiets down again. The winners are settling into their new wealth, while the rest of us are distracted from our bad luck this year by all the gifts we are now eager to open. But wait! Then there is _another_ major lottery: el Niño… the special lottery held on January 6th, i.e. "el Día de los Reyes Magos". And, while by no means as big an affair as el Gordo, is widely followed, too. And even once the special lottery season has passed, and people are steeped in "rebajas" season shopping, there are the many other routine lotteries that Spaniards can't seem to get enough of. And on it goes.

So Spain is a lottery-crazed country. While I pass on most of the other ones, this lottery, el Gordo, is special.

December 19, 2011

Local Vocab: "El belén" – The nativity scene as a Spanish Xmas tradition

Our less-than-traditional belén, which
we bought at Intermón Oxfam. I wanted
one that would remind me of home.
One very typical Spanish tradition around Christmas time, which I encourage everyone to pay attention to for the next few weeks is "el belén" (Bethlehem, a.k.a. the Nativity scene). 

For starters, it is common for people here to have a miniature belén in their homes, perhaps in a hallway or in some display spot, as an essential holiday decoration. So there is a lot Xmas paraphernalia for building simple, personalized or incredibly elaborate belenes. Putting out the belén goes hand-in-hand with putting up the plastic Christmas tree as 'must dos' in preparing for the holidays.

My in-laws' more conventional belén has just the basics... Center: Mary, Joseph, and Jesus;
the angel, cow, and oxen; Right: the Three Kings ("los reyes magos"); Left: the shepherd boy
plus sheep... and "el cagador" (discussed below)

Probably the best place in Spain to go shopping for new additions to your
belén is La Fira de Santa Llúcia, in the center of Barcelona for two weeks
in December. The specialty at this market fair is Nativity scene decorations
as well as other Christmas paraphernalia.

Though in Madrid there is also the Mercadillo navideño de la Plaza Mayor

One curious fixture of the Spanish belén is "el caganer" (Catalan for "el cagador" or the crapper). Apparently, this guy has been a classic member of the belén family display in Catalonia since at least the 18th century, he wears a traditional regional cap, and has even managed, perhaps not surprisingly, to take on some degree of Catalan symbolic cultural importance as its signature contribution to the Catholic tradition. (It is important to note that this piece is _always_ placed somewhere discretely on the edges of one's belén, far away from the baby Jesus, _never_ at the center with the Holy family.)

"El caganer." This Catalan figurine and humorous twist on the
holiday belén tradition is, well, kind of gross, or honest, depending
on how you see it. It has fast become a fixture of most Spaniard's home display

Here you can see the National Selection Soccer Team, available for sale
 as "el caganer". Needless to say, you can also find this figurine
 for most political figures and famous people.

If you are into it, there is a real collectors opportunity in Spain with these
decorative nativity scene pieces, as there are thousands and thousands of them.

But in addition to this home decoration tradition, there are also some impressive large display belenes that you can probably visit in your Spanish town. And I'm not talking about the city Nativity scene (usually placed outside on the Townhall Square, a.k.a. "Plaza del Ayuntamiento"). Private aficionados collect or make pieces until they have a spectacularly large miniature Bethlehem with thousands of pieces.

This image, Valencia's town hall nativity scene on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento,
would look familiar to Americans, though the Three Kings are usually featured more prominently
since in Spain they (more than Santa Claus) are traditionally the ones kids expect gifts from.

In and near Valencia, there are two really nice publicly displayed (though not free) belenes, worth making the trip to see. The easier of the two to get to is the belén in the Catedral de Valencia on the Plaza de la Vírgen, which this year has around 300 figurines. (Open: M-F 10-13.30h, 16-20h; Sun. 11-14h.)

One of the figurine scenes in the Catedral de Valencia's annual belén.

But the more impressive one is in the town of Meliana north of Valencia. Melchor Almela Lagarda, member of the "Asociación Belenista de Valencia," started this "Belén de Roca" together with his family in 1990. (You can get an idea of the time and effort invested in it, by looking at the photos of their "Cómo se hace el belén" webpage.) At more than 50 square meters in size, and with more than 5000 pieces, it is a spectacular thing to see. (Open: Everyday 11-14h, 16.30-20.30h. You can get to Meliana by the metro (Line 3), and it's a few minutes walk to it from the "Meliana" metro stop.)

This family owned belén in Meliana is really worth the trip just
 out of town. The detail and elaboration is pretty incredible.

Both the Cathedral and Meliana belenes will be up well into January... or at least, that is, until the weekend after Reyes (on January 6th). The detail and craftsmanship on these belén figurines and Bethlehem settings are pretty impressive. So whether or not you are into the whole Christian Christmas thing, I highly recommend going to it at least once. (And for those of you who do not living near Valencia, you can look here or here for the Association of "Belenistas" from your town to see if there are some similar belenes near you. After a quick search, I found that in Madrid there is a display that sounds pretty impressive in the Galería de Cristal del Palacio de Cibeles, among othersPlease post here if you find one you really like!)

December 16, 2011

That Perfect Gift: Spanish Footwear

So for this gift idea I had to go straight to the expert: my mother-in-law. She is an avid shoe-shopper, and shoes ("zapatos"; or as an industry, "calzado") are an important local industry in Spain. Put more succinctly, Spain is a shoe-making country. While Italy often gets all the attention internationally, I think Spain can match Italy for number of shoe manufacturers and quality brands. (Here I'm not speaking as an economist… I don't know the actual stats, but on a crude, utterly biased impression alone, I sure I'm right about this.) And, at least up until a few years ago, before the euro-dollar exchange rate shifted dramatically, quality shoes in Spain were seriously cheaper than in the States. (Spanish brands still are cheaper here.) 

So, while I confess I am not much of a shoe shopper, much less for women's shoes, even a shoe-style-challenged chap like me recognizes that shoes in Spain are excellent, stylish, comfortable, and affordable, a winning combination.

A quick scan of the website for the "Federación de Industrias del Calzado Español" (FICE) gives you a sense of the national presence of Spanish shoemakers. The major industrial areas for footwear production in Spain are the following: Elche, Elda, Villena, all in Alicante, and Vall d’Uixó in Castellón (Community of Valencia)… indeed, in 2010 the Comunidad Valenciana region was home to about 64% of all shoe manufacturers ("fabricantes")… followed by these other regions in descending order... Almansa and Fuensalida (Castile-La Mancha), Arnedo (La Rioja), Mallorca and Menorca (Balearic Islands); Illueca (Aragon) and Valverde del Camino (Andalusia). According to export stats from FICE, Spain predominantly exports to France and then other EU countries, though it also exports to the US and Japan.

• The brands:
A perusal of Spanish brands starts to give you an idea of the range of styles and high quality of shoes from Spain, but above all, of the incredible number of companies out there. Since this list is going to get pretty long, I'm keeping things succinct by annotating in parenthesis brand highlights (e.g. gender focus, locale of home base). You quickly see what I was saying about a serious concentration in Alicante, and also a strong showing on the Balearic Islands... both regions with a long history in shoe production.

Fashionist Carrie Bradshaw
wearing some "Manolos"
We can start with high fashion. Easily the most famous shoe designer to come out of Spain is Manolo Blahnik (women's). Carrie Bradshaw, in Sex in the City, made his shoes famous through her shopping obsession with them. This shoe designer was born on the Canary Islands (his mother is Spanish), but eventually moved away, and today the brand is based in the U.S. So once Spanish, but now more international. Still, it is probably not an accident that he came out of Spain. There are plenty of other established fashionable Spanish shoe brands.While they do not quite reach the same level of acclaim (or sticker shock), here is a list of some other higher-end shoe labels: Paco Gil (women's, Elda in Alicante), Brenda Zaro (women's), Bay shoes (men's, Mallorca), Pons Quintana (women's, Menorca), Carmen Poveda (women's, Alicante), Farrutx (Inca in Mallorca), Martinelli, Pedro Miralles (women's, Elche in Alicante)... and I'm sure I'm missing some others.

Something tells me I can't afford these Manolo pumps, but they sure are pretty.

At the mid range (i.e. where us mortals deign to shop) probably the most visible and recognized Spanish brand is Camper (from Mallorca). As is the case for many of these Spanish brands, Camper was the result of a younger generation shoemaker, Fluxá, from a long line of shoemakers, who decided to branch of from the family business and begin to build a national and then international brand. Another upscale shoe label, Lottusse (men's, Mallorca), is also from Fluxá family.

But Camper is just the tip of the iceberg, with many other Spanish brands who are starting to sport an "Hecho en España" (Made in Spain) label showing pride in the country's impressive industry. So here the list gets pretty long, though I (or really my mother-in-law) can vouch for most of these labels: Pikolinos, Panama Jack, Zinda (women's, Elche), Hispanitas (Petrer in Alicante), Pielsa (men's), Callaghan (part of the Grupo Hergar, in Arnedo, self-proclaimed "Ciudad del calzado"), Lodi (women's, Elda), Looky (women's, Menorca), Vulladi (home-wear and children's, Elche), Patricia Miller (women's)... And there are a few brands that I believe fit in here, but don't know from personal experience (again, i.e. from my mom-in-law): Magrit (women's, Elda), Amante (women's, Elda), Ángel Infantes (men's, Albacete in Castilla-La Mancha).

Then there are the slightly more affordable shoes priced in the mid to low range. In this group Wonders is the most recognizable. (I noticed the other day that the soles of my wife's Wonders shoes say: "Made with Love in Spain". Excellent!) But here there are also some newer, colorful brands, including 24 horas (Elche), Snipe (which makes natural, ecological shoes; based in Valencia!), La Cadena (Munilla in La Rioja), Valverde del Camino, Tejus (Alicante), Segarra (boots, Valle de Uxó in Castellón), Victoria (youth... in particular "bambas" or "zapatillas", Logroño)... and probably many more as well.

And this is _not_ an exhaustive comprehensive list of all the Spanish brands there are for shoes.

• The local styles
In addition to these many brands, there are a few styles of footwear that evolved from local Spanish shoe traditions.

Perhaps the most established and increasingly exported Spanish style of footwear are "menorquinas" sandals, or "abarca de Menorca". These simple, modest sandals are based on the humble, functional shoes that farmers and fieldworkers traditionally wore on the island. Today you can find them in all different colors and designs, from simple to incredibly elegant and expensive, but the base of their popularity is as a typical tourist purchase when you visit the islands. Though you'll notice that everyone, tourists and locals alike, wear them on the islands in the summer. When we visited Menorca this summer, we bought ourselves a pair of Ria menorquinas. Ria is probably the most famous of brands on the island. And remember how I said that Menorca is one of several major footwear producing regions? Well, there are hundreds of Minorcan shoe brands each with their own line of sandals in this niche market.

Another traditional Spanish shoe, "espardenyas" (which comes from the catalán word, "esparto," a kind of textile made of grass) is from the Catalán region. This local style comes from the very old style of shoes, "alpargatas", woven sandals, the origins of which probably go back to the ancient Egyptians, but whose introduction to Europe can be traced back to the medieval period in Spain and France. (Though similar shoes are also found in the Americas during the same period). For this style of shoe, one of the better known manufacturers is Castañer—yes, another not-yet-mentioned Spanish brand!—who specialize in more modern versions of this classic shoe.

• The Shops (in Valencia):
So given all these great brands and local styles it goes without saying that Spain is a great place to go shoe-shopping. But where to do it? Here I'm afraid I'm limited by my local(ized) knowledge, or more accurately that of my wife and mother-in-law. I can only recommend specific shoe shops ("zapaterías") in Valencia, but these three are tops: Zapa [C/ Don Juan de Austria 34, 46002 Valencia; t: 96 394 17 83], Aviñó [Paseo Ruzafa, 4, 46002 Valencia], and Yacaré [has three locations, but we normally shop at: C/ Colón 42, 46004 Valencia, t: 96 351 06 20].

But there are hundreds of local shoe shops in every major Spanish city. I'm sure if you go to any major shopping area you'll find some good ones, and then you just have to keep your eyes out for these tried and tested brands.

Again, I'm really not a shoe person. But after living here for many years, and more so after having investigated this story, even I have come to acknowledge that these Spanish shoe producers have elevated a craft to the level of an art. And they have done so with a certain practicality and modesty or lack of pretension that deserves some recognition. They are at the forefront of a culture of style and creative imaging, which embraces tradition (without clinging to it) rather than losing touch with it. So you really can't go wrong shoe shopping in Spain.


Finally, an observation on at least one noteworthy cross-cultural footwear difference between the States and Spain. If you're living in Spain, and especially if you're living with Spaniards, you'll want to get some footwear to wear around the house. I've discovered that most (if not all) Spaniards feel a really strong impetus to _never go barefoot at home_. While it is not overtly due to any concern with cleanliness—floors could be clean enough to eat off as far as they could care—I would say that Spaniards find the idea of somebody walking around the home without sandals (sandalias) or flip flops (chanclas) to be unhygienic and therefore a bit repulsive. (Note: wearing socks is not sufficient; it needs to be something that qualifies as footwear.) So I suppose they land on the opposite end of the spectrum from Americans, many of whom habitually go around their homes barefoot, and certainly Buddhists and some Asians who would ask you to remove your footwear before entering the house. So pack a pair of slippers or flip-flops when you visit them. (Or better yet, go shoe shopping once you get here! Menorquinas, anyone?)

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