January, 2003
 
After an extensive trip to the U.S. which included Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas with friends and family, we returned to Barcelona on Dec. 26-27th, on a seemingly endless flight from Los Angeles via London.

We arrived in Barcelona at about 10:00 PM, and soon discovered that the holiday season was far from over. When we left Barcelona in October, we had been driven to the airport by a guy in the marina, a much less expensive alternative to taking a taxi. "Call any time," he had said in parting, so we called him when we arrived back in Barcelona. "Sorry mate," he said over the background noise of the bar, "I can walk, but I can't drive tonight." Good thing Barcelona has great public transit. It took us over an hour lugging some heavy suitcases, but we got safely back to the marina and fell into bed to recover from jet lag.

In Spain, Christmas Day is more of a religious than secular holiday. Neither Santa, Father Christmas nor St. Nicholas have really taken hold, though their images are seen. (We heard about a strange Catalan alternative, a character shaped like a Yule log which spurts gifts from one end when struck like a piñata, which kids do on the 25th, but never witnessed this so we'll discount this rumor.) Instead, there are the Three Kings, who arrive on January 6th, the twelfth day of Christmas (Epiphany) and bring gifts to good children, and lumps of coal to bad ones. So when all the stores in the U.S. are having post-Christmas sales, the Christmas shopping season here was still going strong!

Even after our short stay in Spain, we knew that the Spanish stay out late, and we reckoned that for the New Year, this would be even more true. On New Year's Eve, dinner doesn't begin until 10 p.m. or so, and then the partying starts after that. We old folks hoped to get a leg up on this by taking a nice long nap from 4-7 p.m. Around 11:00, as we were leaving to go into town, we encountered the Brits from the boat alongside us, all dressed up in tuxedos and long dresses. They were clearly off to a different sort of New Year's party than we could afford! They warned us that upon their return they might renew an auld Scottish custom called "first foot", in which a dark-haired neighbor shows up at one's house with a lump of coal and some spirits, to bid good morning to the new year. Then off we all went, they to their high-class event and us to Miguel's, a local bar.

There is at least one bar per block here, often 2 or 3, where Spaniards can be found from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. or later (many discotecs and night clubs don't open until 2 a.m.). Miguel's (it has a real name which no-one uses) has lately become a favorite among the yachties, so we expected a warm welcome there. When we arrived, we found the iron gates drawn across the door, but we guess we looked like yachties, so they let us in. Miguel announced (in English, though he also speaks Spanish, Catalan and German) that there would be 2 parties that night: "the party" in the bar area, consisting of us yachties, and "the party party" in the restaurant downstairs which would start later, last longer, be louder, and have dancing. We were welcome to join that as well, if we liked. "The party" would cost 9 euros (essentially $9), which included one glass of Cava (the local champagne) plus a drink and some snacks. Also included were 12 grapes per person; it's a Spanish custom to eat one grape for each clang of the church bell as it tolls midnight, thus ensuring good luck for the new year. We had seen little cans containing 12 grapes for sale in the stores -- a great example of entrepreneurial effort, as these cans cost about 80 euros each, while bunches of grapes sell in the market for 1.60 euros a kilo! Not knowing that Miguel would provide grapes, we brought our own.

The 20-30 cruisers in the bar area included Americans, Canadians, Dutch, German and Brits, none of whom we had met before (though their boats are all in the same marina as ours), and all but two over the age of 50. At midnight, we drank our cava (which cannot be called champagne because France controls that name -- you may know the cava brands Freixenet and Cordoniu, which are exported to America); and some of us ate our 12 grapes as the bells tolled midnight. Strangely, we forgot to sing "Auld Lang Syne", the first New Year's in our memory we haven't done so. We heard lots of fireworks, but decided we preferred to stay put indoors. "The party" continued merrily with cava flowing, while "the party party" began to heat up downstairs. The cava went to Andi's head far too quickly, so Rob escorted her back to the boat around 2 a.m., then rejoined "the party". He also stopped in briefly at "the party party," discovering that the latter consisted of Spaniards in their 20's all dressed in black and dancing to rock music. While they were friendly enough, he was assuredly out of his element. By 3:30 a.m., he felt that he'd sufficiently welcomed 2003 and wandered back to the marina, leaving some cruisers behind at "the party" while "the party party" kept going strong. (Miguel told us later that it broke up around 7 a.m.)

Rob came aboard Akka just after the folks from the boat next door had arrived and had begun to play guitar and sing along. So he grabbed some scotch and carried out "first foot" (though he had to apologize for not bringing any coal). Andi slept on. The next-door get-together broke up around 5 a.m. We've seen the photos; it wasn't pretty.

Andi managed to get up about 1:30 p.m. for a walk around town. Rob reluctantly got up at 4 p.m., mainly to be able to say that he had seen the light of day on the 1st. We were not alone in sleeping late; as far as we can tell, no-one was up that morning, unless it was before they went to bed.

In the U.S., that would have been the end of the holiday season, but remember, we still had the Three Kings to come. For the next few days the stores were packed, as Barcelona shopped and shopped. We spent some time looking at a few of the many "pessebres" or crèches set up around the city, including about a dozen in a special exhibit at the Museum of the History of Cataluña. These pessebres varied in style from primitive paper cutouts to detailed realistic figures, and in size from finger sized figures to full scale, and were quite interesting. But by far the most remarkable feature, present in about half the pessebres around the city, was the "caganer" or shitter. This is a small figure, usually behind the manger, who is squatting with his pants pulled down. Under his ass is a little pile of shit. According to our Barcelona guide book, "Catalans value regularity and value the well-formed stool as the ultimate good, the sign of fertility and fortune." As Dave Barry says, we're not making this up.

On the afternoon of January 5th, Barcelona's harbor was officially closed so that the Three Kings could sail (well, motor) into town on the big three-masted schooner "Santa Eulalia", which was built in 1908 and is berthed a little way down the city embarcadera from our marina. At 5:30, a series of rockets went up, giving a 21-gun salute to the arriving Kings, who disembarked at the base of the statue of Columbus, right at the bottom of the Ramblas (the wide avenue filled with kiosks and tourist attractions, running from the waterfront to the center of town). The mayor welcomed the Kings with the keys to the city (so they can get into peoples' houses and leave the presents) and some long boring speeches. We don't know what he said, of course; it was all Catalan to us.

Then the Kings got into four antique cars (we're not sure who was in the fourth car; maybe the Mephistopheles character, about whom more later) and moved off, escorted by 8 uniformed guards on horseback who looked for all the world like the guards at Buckingham Palace, only younger. We were a little disappointed that the show seemed to be over, but as we walked back along the embarcadero toward our marina, we noticed that the crowds, far from dispersing, were getting thicker, lining both sides of the street that runs along the water. So, as darkness fell, we took up positions behind 5 rows or so, about half of whom were children, and waited to see what would happen. Soon we were rewarded by a parade of floats, each elaborately decorated and carrying groups of costumed people, with others in the same costumes walking and dancing in the street in front of each float, waving big banners -- we had the feeling they might be members of some kind of fraternal orders, like the Masons. The people perched on the floats had bags of plastic-wrapped candies, which they tossed into the crowd. Every time a barrage of candies pelted the crowd, the spectators all scrambled to pick up the candy that hadn't been caught. This gave us a good view of the floats, as the crowd in front of us were all on their hands and knees! Even after more than half an hour, we looked down around our feet and saw that there were no candies lying there.

Eventually, the Three Kings arrived, each on his own float, to great applause. Of course, they threw even more candy to the crowd. Then came a float with a human skeleton half-buried in a pile of coal, with people all dressed as skeletons; they threw no candy, and the crowd was pretty subdued. That float was followed by another, carrying a man with a microphone who was haranguing the crowd. His remarks were met with loud boos and whistles. He ended by asking the children "¿Have you been good?" to which they all shouted "¡Si!" He was followed by yet another float with a skeleton in a pile of coal. All three floats were labeled in English, "Mr. Moffatt". We're not sure what all this was about, other than its obvious relationship to the myth that bad children receive no presents, only lumps of coal. Is there a fourth figure, in addition to the Kings, who goes around distributing all that coal? Is this some form of Mephistopheles (note the similarity of "Mr. Moffatt")?

There were more floats, and much more candy, and everyone had a great time. If the children ate all that candy, there were some sick kids later that night!

We repaired to Miguel's for some tapas and cava before retiring. We hadn't written any letters to the Kings and forgot to leave out our shoes with treats for them and their camels, so received no presents or lumps of coal. Just delightful memories of Barcelona at Christmastime.