Catalonia.

I am finally back from travelling in Europe – 20 cities/ towns in 4 countries over 27 days. There are so many wonderful memories forged with good friends and so many take-aways from seeing the different places. It was so nice to see them again. Initially, it was quite odd to be walking beside them in a foreign land but after a while, it felt perfectly normal as though no time has lapsed between now and those days we had in Hong Kong. Cliche as it may sound, even though the different accents have thickened, the personalities still remain the same and the friendships strengthened. 🙂 It would take some time for me to write about all the various experiences in the different places.

I will start where the adventure begins.

Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain, borders France to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. It has four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. I visited 10 cities/ towns in 3 of the provinces (missing out on Lleida) over the course of 2 weeks. Catalonia has a mix of a lot of different things (so you don’t get bored of the place too easily) and this makes it a nice place to visit for a longer period of time. It is rich in history so you can easily spot the Romanesque, Gothic, neo-Gothic and Modernist architecture (Eva gave me a quick crash course there on how to identify each architectural style); it has plenty of mountains (civilizations tend to be located in the valleys of the mountains); it is blessed with beautiful cliffs and beaches by the Mediterranean Sea and it has plenty of festivals so culture and tradition is very much alive in this part of the world.

Catalonia lost its independence in 1714 and became a part of Spain. Last year, there was a huge wave of independence movement in Catalonia as people are increasingly dissatisfied that Catalonia pays the most taxes to the Spanish government but is the region that gets the least back in return. On the streets, it is hard to miss the numerous Catalonia flags hanging on the buildings (some of the flags were accompanied by a text “Catalonia A New European State”). There would be a referendum on independence next year in Catalonia. 2014 is definitely a significant year for the Catalans.

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It felt like a Catalan immersion programme as I stayed in Eva’s house, ate with her family and friends and greeted people with 2 kisses. Of everything that I miss in Catalonia, what I miss the most is eating typical Catalan food together and having good conversations over the meals with Eva’s family. Speaking of meals, one thing which took me a few days to get used to was the meal times. In Singapore, we eat lunch at 12/ 1 pm and dinner at 6/ 7 pm while in Catalonia, lunch time is typically 2/ 3 pm and dinner at 9/ 10 pm. Wine is also usually served during lunch and dinner in Catalonia.

There are some typical Catalan food that I really love. “Pa amb tomaquet” (bread with tomato) is simple to prepare yet delicious. It’s the perfect food on the breakfast table. The recipe is simple: rub the tomato on the bread, then sprinkle some salt and pour some olive oil on top of it. Jamón (a type of ham) could be placed on top of the bread. “Escudella i carn d’olla” (a typical Catalan soup) is delicious. The taste is slightly salty but not overwhelming. It consists of the soup with pasta and a plate containing the meat and the vegetables used to prepare the soup. “Mel i mató” (fresh cheese with honey) is occasionally served as dessert and it’s sweet and yummy. 🙂 “Truita de patates” (Spanish omelet) is easy to prepare yet delicious as well – cook the potatoes and onions and then beat some eggs and pour the eggs over the potatoes. I prefer these food to the more well-known cuisine such as tapas and paelle.

I really like the Catalan culture – people are very affectionate (they are certainly not shy to display the affection) and it’s easy to be quickly acquainted with people whom you newly meet and be part of the group. This is very different from the Singaporean culture whereby people care for each other in a more oriental manner so they take care of other people’s needs and public display of affection tends to be the anomaly. Furthermore, Singaporeans in general do not welcome new members into their groups, we tend to exclude more than include. Another thing I really like about the culture is that there seems to be an emphasis on unified actions by the people rather than personal glory. Places such as the Castle of Barcelona, the Santa Maria Del Mar and even FC Barca give credit to the people for making these places and football team what they are today. The Catalan culture is more family-oriented and there are many family-run farms, restaurants and shops. This brings about more personality as opposed to places that are run more by big corporations or the state. However, it also means that it is tougher to cope during economic crisis (like what Spain is experiencing right now) when collective action is needed. The situation is quite bad right now with 55 % unemployment rate among the young people. Catalans are more spontaneous – when people propose alternative plans (especially when a member of the family needs support), others just gladly accept the new plans. This is definitely different from Singaporeans who plan a lot in advance and hate to change their plans. I also witnessed how Catalans split the bills with paper and pen among friends.

There are also certain mindsets that differ between Singapore and Catalonia and Eva and I had so much fun talking about the differences and the problems associated with the mindsets in our respective societies. For instance, in Singapore, people do what their bosses ask them to even though they may not agree; in Catalonia, people question the authorities a lot and they do not do what they do not agree. In Singapore, people respect individuals who take care of their parents while in Catalonia, people respect individuals who take care of their children. Both of us agree that it is healthy for the nation and the society if people are more balanced in their thinking and attitudes but this demands for people to judge rationally and think critically about broader issues and it’s hard to obtain.

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