I’d been relatively disappointed by my experience of Valentine’s Day here in Barcelona. I saw no cards exchanged, no gifts, no surprise flowers, and certainly no more public displays of affection than was usual. I found it strange, from a country where we certainly think ‘la gente’ (the people) are supposed to be far more romantic, passionate, and all that hot-blooded Latin type of malarkey. Valentine’s Day for us is ridiculously commercial, a trend I am coming to see I might as well write for all the major holidays, as the world becomes more and more obsessed with making money rather than caring about what everybody actually feels like, or how we should be acting as people; in England the holiday seasons are just a constant feeling of despair and frustration more frequently nowadays – I feel like I am constantly counting my pennies and scrabbling around in pockets in case a fiver has gone through the wash somewhere along the line, because every little helps when I’m aware I have to get a gift for the world and his wife.
I got rather nostalgic, though heaven knows why, when watching my weekly dose of English television and seeing the regular slog of ‘LOVE EACH OTHER’ adverts that crop up around the end of January towards Valentine’s Day – particularly sad that I couldn’t even receive that wonderful stroke of genius which is the 7p Smartprice ASDA gift card. Woe is me! Not that I would have even got anything back in the UK – nobody declares love for one another any longer on this special day reserved for only boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, partner and insert whatever applies here. I suppose you would now be wondering why I’m rambling on about Valentine’s Day when we’re now well into April and almost through to May. Perhaps I’m laying on a thick hint for next year, but that’s not the case – here in Catalonia, Valentine’s is replaced by Sant Jordi, or St. George’s Day to you and me. One and the same patron Saint of England.
The story that we know about George and his dragon is the same one reeled out here – ‘Sant Jordi i el Drac’ is the fable, in which the villagers of Montblanc are terrorised by a pesky dragon, who cheekily eats all their sheep and starts then picking on the people – the villagers decide to draw lots to see who will next be eaten by the dragon, and unluckily one week the Princess is drawn. Brave Jordi saves her by spearing down the beast, handily spilling blood onto a rosebush which flowered rather faster than normal, and plentifully. Thus the rose here has become a symbol of this day, and is given to a loved one, usually a woman or a girl. Lovers buy them for their partner, papa buys them for his wife and his children, and daughters wait desperately for daddy to come home so they can put their rose, bound with a ribbon bearing the Catalan colours, yellow and red, and teamed with a piece of straw, into water and left to dry for weeks on end afterward.
When you walk the streets of Barcelona and indeed, I am sure, anywhere in Catalonia on the 23rd of April, they are festooned with sellers galore, from the poor quality roses that seem to be dredged from a ditch, to fantastic creations even made from metal or longer-lasting material: ‘roses per sempre’ (roses for always). People are buying them by the dozen, handing them to little children, taking them back to schools and offices for the workers, and in general swept up like hot cakes, such is the popularity of this tradition. I had been told about it a few months beforehand by my German host family, but had not anticipated how big the day really is here. Along with a rose, it is tradition to be given a book, and in Catalonia alone around 7% of book sales for the entire year take place on this day, with roughly 17 million Euros being spent on ‘llibres’; astonishing, too, when you take into account how Spain is sinking further into recession than it has ever before. The reason for the book-giving is that St. Jordi also falls on World Book Day, plus on the anniversary of the death of both Cervantes and Shakespeare, and when it began to be seen as a day to celebrate literature; this tradition was widely accepted and taken on keenly. The new family I am with have three quite small children, which was nice for me as I got to listen to them reading their gifted books aloud that evening, and in Spanish (after six months here I’m now with a family who speaks Spanish and solely that at home). Although I already know the story of ‘Ricitos de Oro y Los Tres Osos’, of which title, I’m sure you’ll be able to guess in English, I was rather proud that I understood every word of it, even if it was a book for the 3-5 age gap.
On the television at night, the news has a big segment devoted to Sant Jordi, and they recount which has been the bestselling book of the day both in Catalan and in Spanish, a separate section for both. In a society where children seem to be reading less and less, and focussing more upon videogames and the Disney Channel, I found it very warming to hear children gushing the day after about what books they had been given, and reading avidly in class when they weren’t really supposed to be, so excited were they for their new books and the love that was given along with them. Family is much closer here than in England, and special holidays really show this – we seem to give because we feel obliged too, but here, family is much more than people you happen to share blood with. It’s hard to describe, because of course we all love our families, but here the bond is stronger, a mutual understanding that family should come before all else, even work. Should your mother become sick, your workplace will have little problem in giving you a few days off to be there for her, which I imagine would be much more difficult in England. I’d be glad to be proven wrong, but it’s just a feeling I have when I look at the families I’m surrounded by here, whom I have the privilege to stay with for some short months.
At our school, and most in the Catalonia area, it was a special day, and the morning was devoted to ‘story time’; first, one of those rare assemblies, in which a presentation was given about the story of George and the Dragon, to be followed by yet more stories, but in separate groups. Each teacher took bunches of children, all the way through from P3 (age 3) to Sexto (age 12), to recount a story about trees – last year being the International Year of the Tree, as our school got it wrong and thought it was this year. We then had to make a wall chart about said story. Many of the teachers seemed to view it as a sort of competition, and we had some real works of art put up on the walls later in the day. In my group, however, we let the children do most of the work, recounting the story of ‘Ana i la fada del bosc’ (Anna and the fairy godmother of the woods), and each child in a pair drawing the story out, and pinning the pictures to the branches of the tree I’d previously sketched out for them. The little ones coloured in some flowers, but managed to do it with more precision than the 12 year old boy designated to draw Ana and her beloved bike, which somewhat resembled a scarecrow with a dustcart. He commented that he was the next Picasso, being well aware that the rest of the school for the following few weeks would view his picture with the idea that it was done by a five year old, not someone seven years elder.
Sadly at 11.30, school returned to normal, although I am aware that in many of the classes the children made bookmarks, and drew pictures of books for the wall displays, coloured in pictures of dragons and shaped roses out of plasticine for mummy and daddy after school. In the English department, however, we couldn’t do any of this sort of thing, and regular service was resumed, although with relatively more high-spirited children than usual. I truly think England could take a leaf out of Sant Jordi’s book (see what I did there?) here and turn our St. George’s Day into a day of love, giving, and general celebration together as a population. St. George’s Day is now being more associated with drinking in the pub, granted not as much as ‘Paddy’s’ Day, and loudly proclaiming in racist tones about how excellent it is to be English, though not probably being able to spell or read properly in said language itself. Having worked in pubs for three years on our Patron Saint’s day, I know this is becoming more of a reality every year: whilst I am proud to be English and agree we should use this day to celebrate our nation, it is now carrying negative connotations because of the mindless few that spoil it for the rest of us with loutishness and ignorance.
I would be glad to see the shelves of shops lined with books especially for St. George, his memory as a Saint encouraging us to be generous, encouraging us to carry on using the gift of vocabulary and words to communicate and cherish one another in the way that we should as families, friends, and fellow people on this planet. I would be glad to see the roses line the streets, particularly when it paints such a colourful picture; and in your heart it makes you feel happy, puts a small smile on your face, and makes you feel good about the world, even if it is just for one day in the week. Jordi is more than just a symbol of love, it is a symbol of friendship, happiness, and beauty – a memory I will certainly hold dear throughout my life thanks to my short stay here.