Traveling through a state of many countries

The United States of America’s is a country made up of 50 states and a few territories. Spain is a state that is made up of many countries. I know this to be true because an angel told me so last week.

Sabado, el 16 de Noviembre, 2019…Bilbao, Pais Vasco.

After the beautiful evening last night, we again woke to cold and drizzle. Immediately after breakfast at Poshtel, we turned in our keys, checked out and put our bags in the check room for safe keeping. Then we walked out into the cold rain towards the Guggenheim Museum for our tour. We strolled past Puppy, a 43 foot tall living sculpture of a terrier made from iron and flowers. Puppy, a monument to sentiment, was built in 1992 by artist Jeff Koons. He signifies confidence, optimism and security for the city of Bilbao as it transitions from an old industrial town to a modern service centered economy.

Puppy guarding the museum

When we arrived at the front door, the door was locked. We had arrived a few minutes before our timed entrance, so we had to wait in the rain. You would think that such a fancy designed building in a rainy environment would have an overhang built onto the roof for some shelter, but we stood out there in the cold rain. Puppy has been doing the same thing for twenty seven years without complaining once, yet here we were whining about a few minutes. The guard peered out at us unsympathetically from his warm, dry station as we watched the second hand slowly make its way around the clock. Finally, at the correct opening time and not one second before, he perfunctorily opened the door and let us in. We stood in line for the coat check and dropped off our wet clothes before exploring the museum.

Richard Serra’s Snake sculpture

Most of the art in the museum is of modern art and the collections were impressive. The architecture of the building itself is spectacular and is integrated into the river and its surroundings. I would show you more pictures, but they didn’t want people taking photographs inside. I did find one of sculptor Richard Serra’s Snake, which is a maze as long as a football field. We walked through most of it and the picture above does not give it justice.

After touring the museum, we had some free time to walk around the city. The rain stopped momentarily as we headed across a new bridge into the old town. Hearty rowers were in the inlet rowing a large scull against a strong incoming tide. These Basques are a tough people indeed!

Rowing against the incoming tide on a cold November Basque day!

Beth and I found a place with some hot soup where the locals were friendly and all huddled inside. Later, we walked around a bit and then met the group back at the Poshtel to pick up our bags and head to the bus. Our next stop would be Donostia, or San Sebastián if you say it in Spanish.

A new bridge connecting to an old town

The bus pulled into an underground terminal in San Sebastián and we grabbed our bags to hike to our new hostel, A Room in the City. The address is Easo Kalea 20, Donostia, Gipuzkoa. Yep, with all the Ks and Zs we knew we were still in Pais Vasco!

Like Dublin and Bilbao, San Sebastián is laid out around both sides of a river. Similar to Bilbao, the river has a large tidal influence. The air was clean and fresh….a welcome and noticeable difference from what we were used to in Barcelona.
It was raining here too. I was glad I had packed my rain pants, as this was the first time I had needed to use them on this trip. The group was to meet outside of the local McDonalds at 6:30PM. This was only our meeting point, as we were to tour the old town and sample pintxos at several local eateries.
Pintxos are small snacks typically eaten in bars. They have a strong socializing component, and are important in Basque society. They are similar to Spanish Tapas, but usually smaller. They usually have toothpicks in them, and owe their name to the Spanish word for spike (Pincho).
Our tour included three separate bars to try some. We divided up the large group into three smaller groups, each led by a local guide. Our guide was a man named Angel, who originally was from Chilean Patagonia. I visited that part of the world ten years ago and asked if he was from Puerto Natales, the gateway to the famous Torres del Paine National Park. He said no, that he was from a town north of there. I scratched my head. There are no towns just north of Puerto Natales. It is the first town after hundreds of miles of a desolate journey through a rugged archipelago. I traveled through there on the Navimag, a cargo ship with a few sleeping berths in 2009. The journey reminded me of Southeast Alaska, only more desolate, as there weren’t even any lights signaling remote cabins. The first lights we saw heading north were of the town of Puerto Chacabuco, about 3.5 days away. When I told him about that trip, he was surprised to learn that I knew about his country. Indeed he was from Puerto Chacabuco, in Aysen province. This was the starting point for a good conversation between the two of us. Again, Geography brings people together!

At our last Pintxo Bar

It was then that Angel and I talked about the different political situations in our respective countries. He said that the USA is a state made up of several states and that Spain is a state made up of several countries. So, I was telling the truth about an Angel telling me that.

Angel also described how the old town had been largely destroyed during the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s. Most of the town had been rebuilt since then and even though General Franco oppressed the Basque people during his dictatorship, he had a summer beach home here. After the tour, we strolled along the beach promenade at night and witnessed waves crashing across the jetty where the river met the sea.

In the morning, we loaded the bus and took a short trip across town to another beach and took some photos before heading back to Barcelona. We would make a stop in Pamplona, where the running of the bulls takes place every July, but I will leave that story for a later post.

Sculpture Art on the San Sebastián beachfront
Statue of Jesucristo overlooking San Sebastián (Donostia)

Chilled Whines and a Scary Costco in the Basque Country

Friday November 15, 2019….

After a night of tossing and turning worrying about oversleeping and missing our pre-dawn departure to the Basque Country, we heard the alarm sound at 5AM. The thermometer read 8C, a chilly morning….I got in the hot shower to revive my tired body and made a cup of thick instant coffee. After a quick bowl of cereal, we grabbed the bags we had packed the night before and headed to the metro, where once again one of our students had fended off another pickpocket attempt a few days before. Thankfully, we were riding an almost empty metro. We exited the Urquinaona station in the dark and made our way to the school, where a bus was already waiting for us.

Little by little students started rolling in and Rodrigo from SAE Barcelona checked off the names as they loaded their bags into the cargo hold of the bus. We were heading the the north coast of Spain, to the Basque provinces, where it was rainier and even colder than it was here. We heard that Glen, one of our students, wouldn’t be accompanying us on the trip, as he was in the infirmary.

The first stop in our long journey was to be the Vivanco winery, a traditional bodega in the La Rioja region, one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain. The drive there took six hours. We saw a great film on the bus called, “Ochos Apelledos Vascos”, which literally translates to “Eight Basque Surnames.” It is a good romantic comedy, starring my new favorite Spanish actress, Clara Lago. The film was in Spanish with English subtitles. You might find it on Netflix under the name, “A Spanish Affair”, which is not only an inaccurate translation, but it has little to do with Spain, since it is more about Basque culture. The Basques, like the Catalans, do not see themselves as Spanish even though they are part of present day Spain. Anyway, if you want an insight into Basque culture with a comedic story, I recommend this film.

Riding through the Meseta Central, we passed through Zaragoza and followed the path of the Rio Ebro for a while towards La Rioja. The Ebro is one of only five major navigable rivers in Iberia. It began to drizzle. The mountains in the distance were covered in a thick white blanket of snow. The hills nearby showed signs of recent snow just above the altitude of our Autovia.

On the right side of the highway stood a huge metal cutout of a bull, signifying our arrival into La Rioja region. La Rioja, lying inland from the Basque provinces and in-between Navarra and Castilla and León, is the largest wine producing region in Spain. It has been a productive wine region dating back to Phoenician times. Mostly the grapes are Tempranillo, although Graciano and Garnacha varieties are also grown here. The Rio Ebro flows nearby, and there are distinct climate zones within a short distance of each other, which allows for multiple types of grapes to be grown here, each area offering a different terroir. We pulled into the parking lot during a cold rain, so our tour did not take us through the rows of vineyards. I heard some whining about an outside wine tour. Our guide kept the outdoor lecture to a minimum as we quickly went back indoors to tour the museum of wine culture.

The vineyards of Bodega Vivanco

Once inside the museum, we saw the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, including ones from centuries ago. We also got a good lesson in viticulture and how the process of aging the wines and storage imparts different tastes to each batch. The barrels for aging are made from white oak, some of which comes from Kentucky. For a wine to be a Chianza, the period of aging must be a minimum of two years, with at least one year in the barrel. The aging in the bottle is just as important. Light must be kept to a minimum and a constant temperature is important. To be sold as a Reserva, it must be aged at least three years. Geography of the climate and soil are only part of the equation…..the market distance, shipping, and barrel production locales are also factors. Even my students who weren’t enrolled in the Economic Geography class were interested in this.

We went through the cavernous cellar stacked high with barrels filled with aging wines, a sight that would make Bacchus the Greek god of wine proud. Later, we went upstairs for a tasting of a few of the Crianzas.

Working up a thirst
Our guide explaining before the tasting

After sipping some wine, we walked back through the cold rain (I heard some whining), and loaded the bus for another 75 minute ride to Bilbao, the largest city of Pais Vasco……Hence the name for the first part of the title to this story. The bus parked near the river about 10 minutes from our hostel, so we trudged up the stairs in the rain with our bags to check into Poshtel. Beth and I had a private room, while the students had 8 to a room in bunk beds. A group of Washington students also traveled with us. Our room was freezing, so we cranked up the heat to 28C and changed into dry clothes and waited to go with the group to dinner.
Bilbao is a large city near the Bay of Biscay. It is the second most industrialized city in Spain after Barcelona, and was an important industrial city built on the production of steel due to the rich iron ore deposits nearby. It’s location on a narrow estuary made it an important port city, and much of its gastronomy is rich in seafood dishes. It rains a lot here due to its northern exposure and the east-west trending mountain ranges behind the city which trap the marine air. The city is undergoing a transformation from an old industrial city and transitioning to a more modern service centered economy. One of the anchors for this is the Guggenheim Museum designed by architect Frank Gehry. We plan to visit it tomorrow.

The Basque people are a hard working, proud and fiercely independent people who have a unique culture which is largely based on their unique language. The language is Euskara and they call their land Euskadi. It resembles no other language on planet earth and it’s origins have many linguists confounded. Some think it is the last remnant of ancient people’s who once lived in the Iberian peninsula prior to the arrival of Indo-European languages. One hypothesis states that the language is evidence that Earth was once visited by aliens from another planet, who landed in the western Pyrenees and on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, but left our planet because the environment was too inhospitable. The only thing they left behind was their language.

Franco also suppressed it under his dictatorship as he did with Catalan. Basque people are also found across the border into southern France. Parts of Navarra also have Basque speakers. Because they are hemmed in by two dominant cultures, they are very nationalistic. Although they speak both Spanish or French, they really appreciate it when outsiders use a few words in the local tongue. When you do, it really opens up the door to their hearts.

We headed out to dinner and sat together around two long tables. In typical Basque style, plates of many courses kept coming, from which we all shared. I eschewed the smelly Bacala, but enjoyed the tender steaks, salads, and mixed vegetables and the local wine. The last course was creme broulet and coffee. We were stuffed to the gills. Afterwards, I got a smile from the waitress when I said “Eskerrik Asko,” which means “Thank You” in Euskara. Hannah, who works at SAE and was on the trip with us, used to live in Pais Vasco, and knew some words. To remember how to pronounce it she said it sounds like “A Scary Costco”, so just think about shopping at your local Costco store on Halloween when the lights suddenly go out…..a good way to remember the word! When I left the restaurant I got another smile from the owner as I said “Agur” (goodbye).

We couldn’t believe how beautiful the night was as we stepped outside. It had stopped raining and the waning almost full moon was shining brightly. The air was clean and there was little wind. We wanted to take a long walk to burn off the huge meal, but the hostel did not want anyone wandering around with keys after 11PM, so we took a short walk down by the river and took a picture of the bridge at night.

Dinner Basque style
Bridge over the Ria….not a Rio
Bilbao por la noche

With that, we headed to the hostel and the room was warm by the time we got back. The first day of the trip was coming to an end….I will leave the rest of the trip for the next post.
Egun on eta agur!

A Surreal experience between the city of Besalú and the Romans

On a chilly Friday morning, we walked to Barceloneta rail station and boarded the metro to Urquinaona. The forecast called for a 60% chance of rain. When we left the metro to walk to school, we were greeted with a cool stiff northwesterly breeze under still clear skies. Beth and I walked down Avenida Trafalgar towards the school, searching for the bus that would take us to the medieval town of Besalú, about an hour and a half north of Barcelona towards the French border. Besalú is famous for its Romanesque medieval bridge built in the eleventh century and its Jewish bathhouse which is one of only three surviving Mikvahs in all of Europe. Most of our students had signed up for the trip and we found that some of the Washington students would also accompany us, as well as a few interns from the school.

Since the bus was nowhere in sight and it was still chilly, most of us went inside and upstairs to the school to either warm up or use the restroom before the bus ride. Finally, we saw the bus pull up and we all gathered to load for the road trip. Most were eager to get out of the city, even if only for a day. We passed by a defunct bull ring which had the Star of David emblems designed on its side, along with some seemingly Muslim architecture. We turned onto the wide Avenida Meridiana through the Sant Andreu neighborhood and towards the Autovia heading towards Girona and the French border. It felt good to see countryside again, even at 120 kph.
Soon the traffic slowed and all three lanes came to a stop. We sat there on the Autovia for at least 30 minutes as fire trucks and ambulances raced by on the shoulder. Finally, we inched forward as all three lanes merged into one. On the side of the road, the shell of a completely burned car was still smoldering. Since there was no apparent accident, was it a car fire caused by overheating, or another act of vandalism by Catalan separatists? The acts from the last month were still fresh on our minds.

The mountains to our left rose higher and higher as we continued north through the valley. At last, we pulled into a parking lot on the outskirts of Besalú, as the streets in the town could not accommodate the bus. We walked over the fortified bridge over the Fluvia River into town. The bridge is not straight, but takes an L shape to take advantage of rock in the riverbed.

We stopped to take individual and group photos here. Some of the students are First Generation college students with their first study abroad experience, so the school gave out certificates and took pictures of them on the bridge.

COCC students in Besalu

Since we were behind schedule from the burned car and the traffic on the Autovia, we had only about 30 minutes to explore the tiny town before meeting at the Can Quey restaurant for a group lunch. Beth, Raoul and I did a circuit inside the walls of the medieval city. Besides visiting the ruins of the Jewish bathhouses, we strolled alongside the walls of St. Vincenc church built in the 11th century, but sporting bullet holes from the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

After a hearty lunch of traditional Catalan cuisine, we piled back into the bus for a 40 minute ride to the town of Figueras, home of the Dalí museum. Salvador Dali was a famous Catalan painter and sculptor, well known for pushing the boundaries of looking at the world in different ways. He collaborated with other types of audiovisual artists and was a student of the sciences. His style, which rejected realism, attempted to attract public attention and shock the reader. He was very eccentric and was criticized for being narcissistic. When I took an art appreciation class as an undergraduate, I admit that I didn’t really get him.

Clouds were thickening as we disembarked the bus and walked toward the museum. The exterior of the building was quirky, with eggs atop the roof of the turret, and loaves of bread pasted to the exterior walls. Above the entrance to the building, statues of disemboweled people with submarine sandwiches on their heads peered down at us over a figure of a person whose head was an egg of gold.

As we entered the building, I chose to join a group where the guide who led explained his works using the Spanish language. Most of the students and Beth went with the English speaking guide.
Our guide was a 40 year old woman who was Spanish, but who used to live in New York City in Greenwich Village. I knew that neighborhood, so we quickly made a connection. She was very knowledgeable and spoke clearly, so that I understood about 98% of her explanations. She explained the history of Dali’s life, his influences from renaissance thinkers, the events around the Spanish Civil War, and the meanings of the symbolism in his art. I came away from the museum with a different appreciation of him. One of his most famous works is called “the persistence of memory”. Many are pictures within a picture. Some thought he must have been a drug addict, as his works seem to be influenced by hallucinogenics, however he was not. Some said he was a genius, others said he was mad. Actually, how much daylight is there between the two?

Portrait of his wife
Looking up at a boat from the ocean bottom.

Some of us slept on the bus on the way home. Some surely had vivid dreams……that were surreal! We got back to town about 9:30PM and headed back to our respective homes. It had been quite a day from beginning to end. And we still had Saturday and Sunday to go.

Well, where do the Romans fit into this story? That would be on Saturday. We looked at the weather for the weekend and it seemed that Saturday would have the better weather of the two weekend days, so I went online and booked a rental car for 24 hours beginning at noon on Saturday. We would head south down the coast with two items on the agenda…..the small village of Renau, and the large city of Tarragona.

The day started out with great weather. We took the train to the airport and rented an Ibiza from Cami at Enterprise. She remembered us from a few weeks ago when we rented a car to go to Andorra. We headed south just a few minutes after noon.

To both avoid tolls on the Autovia and to take in some beautiful scenery, we took the winding coastal highway down the Costa Daurada towards Sitges. Since it might takes us all day to get to our destinations that way, we hopped back onto the Autovia and tried to find Renau. Why there? Well, my buddy from college is named Pat Renau. He always wanted to go there and he is the one who told me about it, so I am going there on a vicarious expedition. That’s an idea for my next business plan…..Vicarious Expeditions Inc…..we’ll do your vacation for you if you can’t and we will document it for you. Now, we just have to figure out how to make money with this idea!

On the edge of town

Renau is a small village of maybe 200 people, with old houses surrounded by vineyards. I did see one empty lot for sale. Maybe Pat could retire here!

Next we headed to Tarragona, a city of about 900,000 inhabitants, about a fifth of the size of Barcelona. The draw here is the Roman ruins. The Romans did not favor Barcelona, as its harbor was shallow and location not as optimal as that of Tarragona. Outside of town we spotted the Devil’s bridge, an aqueduct built by the Romans to bring water from the mountains to the town.

Once in town, we found a place to park on the street and walked to several sites. Daylight was quickly fading, so we skipped any indoor museums and went for the old walls and the coliseum by the sea. Some of these ruins reach back to the second century B.C. Below are a few photos…….

Park in downtown Tarragona with modern buildings across the street

With darkness quickly falling, we had planned on staying in Tarragona and returning the car by noon the next day. However, we got what we came for, so we decided to save our Euros for another day and drove back to Barcelona that night. We took the inland two lane road and made it safely back to the airport, where we took the FGC train to Passeig de Gracia and transferred to the L4 metro line for three more stops. When we came out of Barceloneta station, we were thankful to be in our own bed in the next few minutes and have a whole day off on Sunday!

McCanns in the Emerald Isle and the meaning of 2 November

Last weekend, Kathy was to make her way back to the states via Aer Lingus, with a change of planes in Dublin. Since it was her first trip to Europe, we talked her into a two day layover on the Emerald Isle on the way back, and all three of us left on the same plane on Friday. We booked an apartment in the heart of town on the river Liffey near the Temple Bar district and planned on seeing the capital city on foot for a couple of days. An obligatory visit to McCann’s Bar on James St. was also on the agenda.

We had a snafu right out of the gate. After two and a half weeks of riding the metro without incident, with me always riding up the escalator Directly behind Kathy to protect her backpack from being robbed, I was handling her big suitcase and did not guard her back for the first time since she arrived in Barcelona. When we got to Placa Catalunya to take the bus to the airport, Kathy found that her backpack was open at the top and her wallet was stolen. Thankfully, she still had her passport, so we called to cancel the credit card. The thieves are very professional here, and it leaves one with a sour taste on the Barcelona experience, but we continued on to the airport to spend one last weekend together.

We rode into town in a double decked bus on the wrong side (left) of the road. We checked into our apartment and were underwhelmed. We had two sets of keys, on for the outside doors of the buildings and one for the door to our apartment on the third (fourth) floor. As in the rest of Europe, the ground floor is floor zero and the first floor is above that. We used the outdoor keys for three different doors, before getting to the elevator. The building had an odd shape, with a hallway that went to nowhere.

Hallway to nowhere outside of our apt. Door

Another quirky thing about the place was the design of the bathroom, in which the toilet must have been placed in that location for a one legged person, since the side of it touched the wall. I joked that this was more evidence of why the Irish people never colonized or conquered other peoples…more evidence of their ineptitude. Since I myself am Irish, I feel more comfortable in criticizing my own people.

Need to ride this side-saddle!

The first day, we crossed the river on the O’Connell st. Bridge and strolled around the grounds of Trinity college. We then visited the Dublin castle, and found that most of it was built by invading Vikings. That afternoon, we also discovered why Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle”, as fresh rains soaked us. The polar front jet stream was overhead and the air was chilly. The cold and damp chilled us to the bone even though we had warm jackets and raincoats. We found shelter in a restaurant in the Temple Bar section of town, so named for Mr. Temple who bought the land on the river bar and then built it up after the river was confined by building stone walls.

Schooner on the River Liffey in the middle of town
Dublin Castle

Saturday November 2 was the day I wanted to do something special. I clearly remember last year’s November 2, and I vow to do something memorable each year on this date. This year would be a pilgrimage to McCann’s Bar with my only sibling who was a McCann by birth, and my wife who is a McCann by marriage.

Last November 2 was a day I will never forget. It was a day that I made a new friend and lost an old one.
I had worked 40 straight days without a day off, so I headed out east of town to a special place I have camped before, tucked away in a remote corner of the Deschutes National Forest. It was a cold night, and I set up my tent close to the car down an abandoned logging road and set up my folding chair and opened a beer. Soon afterwards, a chipmunk approached and hopped up on a stump and stared at me seeming to beg for food. I told him to forget it and that I don’t feed the animals and that winter was coming and he should spend his time preparing for it and not begging from me.

The chipmunk tilted his head and stared back as if to say, “I live here. Don’t you think I know that?”

I replied, “ Yes, I guess you do know that, but I bet you don’t know WHY it is getting colder!” With that, I gave him a lecture on Physical Geography, explaining earth-sun relationships, layers of the atmosphere, properties of different gases of the atmosphere, the differential heating of land and water…..essentially what I would lecture to my students in a climate class. Since he listened more intently than most of my students do, I kept on explaining. We became friends. I named him “Chirpy”, as he would occasionally comment back with chirps. Every once in a while he would jump down off of the stump and run around in circles, as if I had just blown his mind with new information about the world he lived in. Each time he would jump back up on the stump as if to say, “Tell me more!”

When it finally got dark and it was pretty cold, we both said goodnight and headed to bed. It was then that my thoughts turned to Mike Van Meter, a colleague who was having a difficult battle with cancer. I spent the next hour thinking of him and praying for him and vowed to contact him when I got home the next morning.

When I woke up at dawn, frost was all over the tent, so I packed up and drove back into town, got a coffee and went home. It was then that Beth told me that Mike had passed last night, close to the time he was on my mind. Since then, I will try to do something memorable every Nov.2, while reflecting on what is important in life; the people we care about, and the environment we live in and share with other living beings. It also reminds me how ephemeral our lives are here and to cherish each moment that we have breath.

With this thought in my mind, I am strolling in a light drizzle towards McCann’s Bar. At each crosswalk I look down to a reminder to Look Right as I cross the street. We pass by the Guinness factory, a couple of distilleries and finally spot McCann’s. We take our pictures outside (maybe our 2019 Christmas card?) and step inside

Kathy and Mick McCann in Dublin

The bar was almost empty, except for the bartender and one slumped over patron. I asked if any McCanns were around, as I wanted to buy a round for any McCanns. I got off easy, as the girls didn’t want to drink anything but water, and both the bartender and the patron had different surnames than ours. So, I can say I went to my namesake bar in Dublin and bought a round for all the McCanns there. I ordered a good craft red ale and counted my blessings and thought about Nov 2 and how I would remember this one as well.

It’s a McCann thing!

We are now back in the warm weather of Barcelona. Kathy is safely home in Connecticut. We have plans to go to Pais Vasco in a couple of weeks and to Prague the weekend after that. We think of all of you and will count as among our blessings anyone who has taken the time to read this post all the way through!

The independence movement

Today, the Spanish courts convicted a group of Catalan politicians for sedition for their roles in the Catalan separatist movement that took place two years ago. During class this morning, we were made aware of the verdict as hundreds of marchers were protesting in the street while helicopters flew overhead.

We were warned ahead of time for the past couple of weeks what might happen if the verdict came down hard against the accused. Their defense was that they did not start the movement, but that they were only acknowledging the free speech of their constituents. The central government in Madrid views them as a threat to the state, and each of the accused received sentences between 9 and 13 years in prison. We have seen the independence flags since our arrival, and noticed yellow ribbons displayed in apartment windows too. Signs saying “Libertat Presos Politicos” (freedom for political prisoners) are ubiquitous throughout Barcelona, even though the city is split 50/50 between pro independence and pro nationalist voters.

Protesters are hitting the streets as I type. I am watching a newscast in Catalan which shows the police at the airport, and some outgoing flights have been delayed. Street protesters closed off some of the main arteries in the city such as Leitana, La Rambla, and Gran Via de Corts Castellanes. Further north in Girona, ultra conservative pro-independence groups are trying to shut down the rail lines between here and France.

one must have an understanding of the history of the region to fully grasp the severity of the situation. Although I don’t have any skin in this game and will not attempt to sway anyone to either side, the Catalan people have suffered their share of marginalization throughout their history. The most recent was after the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when the dictator Franco took over for 40 years. He hailed from the northwest province of Asturias, and tried to erase the Catalan culture from the landscape. Almost nothing was published in the Catalan language during those years. A couple of centuries earlier, the Bourbon dynasty severely punished the Catalans for supporting the Hapsburgs. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that they have a hatred of being dictated to by other cultures. Today, Barcelona and the province of Catalunya are important to the overall economy of Spain, with more being sent to the central government in Madrid in taxes than that which comes back.

I do not know how well the news in the states is covering this, but you can get some of the story at bbc news, or from a centrist Spanish newspaper called “El Pais”, which can also be read in English. The Catalan newspaper “La Vanguardia” is more right leaning, but may give those of you who read Spanish a different perspective.

What an interesting time to be here!

Flags in the Cultural Landscape

I have always had an affinity for flags, not only for their bright colors, but for the meanings behind them. The specific term given to people such as myself is “ vexillologist”, a fancy name. I am cool with the more colloquial term “flag dude”. We study the meanings of the shapes and colors, and more importantly, the cultural importance imparted to them by those who display them.

As I stroll through the twisted, narrow alleys of the old city on my way to work, I see an abundance of the Catalan provincial flag, as well as many variations of it. I do spot some Spanish national flags, as well as some flags from South American countries, but they are far outnumbered by flags of Catalunya. I don’t ever remember ever seeing many Oregonians flying the state flag of Oregon more often than displaying the Stars and Stripes. The expression of pro-nationalism in Catalunya is ubiquitous in the cultural landscape here in Barcelona.

My students are learning to read the cultural landscape every day. For you non-geographers, the cultural landscape is everything that you see in the landscape which is modified by humans, which you can perceive with your senses. These things reveal the values, hopes, norms of peoples, which manifest themselves in the building styles, dress, diet, customs, etc. of a particular location or region.


The flag above has an interesting story recalling Catalan bravery and Catalan exceptionalism from a folk hero of the ninth century, Guifre el Pelos ( Guifre the Hairy). The legend goes that Guifre was mortally wounded in battle and that his blood was smeared over his oaken shield. The yellow represents his shield and the four red stripes are of the four fingers of a bloody hand wiping the shield. His legend grows stronger as time goes on. All sorts of nationalists need a hero to hold up to the masses.

Other variations of this flag are more recent. The triangle with the star in the middle over the original flag were probably influenced by more recent resurgences in Catalan nationalism in the 1800s, as they are similar to the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rico, who gained their independence from Spain in the early 1800s.

The flag with the yellow triangle is probably more likely from the 1930s, either because there wasn’t enough money for multi colors, or their was a more Marxist sentiment at that time.

Pro independence flag

The blue triangle flag definitely makes the statement for the independence movement. By comparing the percentage of these flags to the percentage of them displayed in other barrios (neighborhoods), one can tell the political leanings of various neighborhoods around the city.

Yesterday, on the way to school, I took a new route up the alley with the name of Carrer de Assaonadores (street of assassins). I will have to read more history to see which of the many bloody battles which took place here over the centuries. I saw two Uruguayan flags at two different balconies, probably showing migration from that South American country to Barcelona. Further up the street I spotted two foreign flags flying from the same balcony, the Palestinian flag and the Tibetan flag. This probably shows Catalan solidarity for other occupied and oppresses around the world. I hope you look at flags differently now, or at least are looking deeper into reading the “Cultural Landscape.”

My First Blog Post

Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.

Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.

I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.

Your feedback is welcome and encouraged!

Mick and Beth McCann

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

All I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a kid is to go explore the world that we live in. For the past several years, I’ve been able to visit many unique places, both near and far, and use those experiences to teach others about the world that we live in. As of now, I’ve been to 50 foreign countries and all 50 states; climbed 37 state high points and visited the home stadiums of 18 professional baseball teams. I look forward to this opportunity to live in Spain to better by Spanish and learn some Catalan along the way. I also get to share this experience with my best friend and wife of 28 years, Beth.

Blogging about this experience will help me to be more keenly aware of my surroundings so that I can include important details about the sights, sounds, smells, and the vibes of the places that we visit and hopefully leave a record of what Catalunya was like in the Fall of 2019 for other professors and students who take the study abroad experience in the years to come so that they can compare changes over time. Hopefully, it will help to bring awareness to our study abroad program to keep it viable in the future.

A much younger me…
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