La Monyos – flowers in her hair.

Have you heard of La Monyos?

I hadn’t until quite recently when my partner told me about the mysterious eccentric lady who used to live in Barcelona and was often seen walking on the Ramblas

La Monyos

Her name was Dolores Bonella i Alcazar and although not much is known about her life, there are many stories about who she was and what happened to turn her into a seemingly crazy street lady.

Ets més popular que La Monyos‘ is a famous Catalan expression meaning that you are more popular than the much beloved Dolores or Lolita as she was known.

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We will remember Excalibur

My dog Bonnie, as many of you know, died in February this year after being diagnosed with a lymphoma in her abdomen. It is still something that hurts me a lot and some days I am knocked backwards by a memory which both makes me smile and cry. I miss her and I feel a large collie sized hole in my heart.

She died peacefully with both me and Pep by her side, in the peaceful gardens of Sant Nicolau. A kindly woman vet administered the injections and with a little sigh Bonnie left this earth.

So, I can’t imagine how the nurse Teresa Romero and her husband Javier Limon will cope with the pain of losing their dog Excalibur who was taken from their home by men in Ebola protection suits and killed by who knows who, in some place who knows where.

I have been following this story ever since we heard that Teresa, a nurse in Madrid had contracted Ebola after helping care for two Spanish priests who had been working in West Africa. They both later died from the disease. Teresa had volunteered for this work and did it with all possible professionalism and with more, she did it with love. She had received the training available and followed procedures but somehow the virus got through the protective layers of her suit and she became ill.

She had been back home and living a normal life before she got sick and so her husband and several other people who had been in contact with her were put into isolation only hours after she herself was taken into hospital.

This couple had no children but they had a much loved dog called Excalibur. Before leaving the flat Javier left food and water for him, not knowing how long he would be away. There were others who could come and take care of Excalibur if necessary and as it all happened in a moment of great crisis and confusion, he did the best he could, leaving the door to the balcony open so Excalibur could go outside.

But Ebola is a serious disease and of course access to the flat was forbidden. Excalibur spent a couple of days there alone while in the outside world there began an argument about what would happen to him. Teresa was fighting for her life and knew nothing of what was going on. Javier was trapped inside an isolated room in the hospital but was able to say he wanted his dog to be cared for in quarantine to see if he was carrying the virus or was not infected at all. The authorities made it clear they intended to go in and get the dog and put it to sleep, euthanise it, kill it…. use whatever description you want…. later Teresa called it an execution.  The health officials had no intention of waiting nor of consulting other experts in the field. The dog, in their opinion, was not important enough to save, nor to monitor under care and they would get rid of it.

A campaign grew on Facebook and other social media and I was able to follow the story on the page, Salvemos a Excalibur. People went to protest on the street outside the apartment. The police went in and broke up the crowds. One day a van arrived, men dressed head to toe in protective suits entered the flat, took Excalibur away and that was that.

I read lots of newspapers at the time, both in English and Spanish. Of course there were many who thought it ridiculous that such a fuss was made about a dog when there are thousands of humans dying from Ebola. People sneered at protestors and accused them of the usual ‘crime’ of caring more about animals than people.

But I felt strongly this was about more than a dog – and I care very much about the actual dog although of course I don’t know Excalibur and my grief for him was nothing like the grief for my own Bonnie. The people involved directly were Teresa and Javier. Their feelings were ignored by the authorities, their rights were not respected. At the same time there were reports in the newspapers that Teresa had somehow caused her own infection by touching her face with her hand when removing the protective suit.  This seemed an incredibly crass attempt to absolve the health officials from responsibility – perhaps for not providing good enough equipment, or doing enough staff training, or failing to have enough staff so someone would help Teresa remove her suit. Surely there would be an inquiry which would take time to analyse what had happened. How could anyone just make public statements in the days after Teresa became ill, naming her as the one who had made a mistake?  When she wasn’t able to respond as she was in isolation and was close to dying.

Excalibur showed up a system where panic and cover-up seemed to be the response to a problem rather than honesty and respect and integrity. 

In the days that followed there was a similar case in the United States which only made the Spanish authorities seem more inept, dishonest and stupid. The American nurse also had a dog but the US authorities took it into quarantine, released photos so we all knew the quarantine was comfortable and there were toys and home comforts. They were also testing the blood and furthering the scientific knowledge of Ebola which some say can be carried by dogs but there is still a lot to learn.  When the nurse (who also thankfully survived) and her dog were reunited there were videos of the happy meeting between them.

I cannot imagine how painful it must be to Teresa Romero and Javier Limon to see these films, to go over and over in their minds the last days of Excalibur and to know that he died without good reason and without the presence of those who loved him. At the time he died no-one knew if he carried the virus so of course he was not patted or stroked or given human love. How can they bear this pain on top of everything else? My heart aches for them.

Yesterday Teresa Romero came out of hospital at last and has gone to Galicia to recover at the family home. She attended a very short press conference and thanked all the staff who had cared for her – the nurses, the cleaning staff, the auxiliaries and the doctors. She was too emotional to speak about Excalibur but her husband read out her statement. She said that her dog was like a child to her and her husband and that killing him was not necessary.

Interestingly many of the news media ignored this part of her statement – all the films showed her smiling and saying ‘thank you’ but I had to search for the statements given by her husband. 

“The worse part of all of this is that our dog was not given a chance”

  • Ambulance staff in Cadiz bought their own Ebola protection suits as the ones provided were not ‘up to the job’
  •  Health workers in Madrid and many others are calling for the resignation of health minister Ana Mato claiming that the equipment and training provided are inadequate.
  •  Madrid regional health chief Javier Rodriguez accused Teresa Romero on public radio of lying about her symptoms and making mistakes which caused her  contract the disease. He later apologised.
  • After being released from isolation Teresa’s husband Javier said ‘they destroyed our life, they killed our dog and they nearly killed my wife’
  •  He will be seeking redress in the courts on behalf of his wife and their dog. 

The Vote on Independence will take place on November 9th 2014

I would love to explain why exactly I have not been writing here in the past months but the truth is I don’t really know.  I think about writing and take photos to illustrate interesting posts, I even talk about writing but then I do nothing. 
Or worse – I turn to Facebook or to my computer game of Borraco!
According to a wonderful and insightful blog post about procrastination by Wait But Why, I am wallowing in the ‘dark playground’ because my internal ‘let’s just play games instead’ monkey is scared that actually writing a post might be painful, or hard work, or even too difficult to complete. 
And if ever there was something I want to put off doing it is writing about Catalunya and the Independence vote.
It is a long and complicated story.  I arrived here just over five years ago without any knowledge of the political situation, or the history or the culture and as I am trying to read the news in Catalan gaining understanding is not easy.  That is partly why I have been writing this blog – to inform myself by pretending that I am informing you!
I can’t explain what is going on right now in Catalunya without writing a rather long post, but the day of voting is drawing near and in fact it is due to happen this very Sunday on November 9th.  As I write a blog about Catalunya, I must say something…. but where to begin, or more accurately where to stop?
I am going to dive in and just hope for the best. You may know the basics already but just in case you have been doing something else, here goes.
Catalunya is presently an autonomous region of Spain. But it wasn’t always like this – about six hundred years ago it was a powerful and independent country and even after it was swallowed up by Castille after a royal marriage, it still retained quasi-independence.  It has its own language, culture, history, habits and customs and the people feel very strongly that they are not Spanish.  This is a bit complicated as after various population migrations there are many people who are both Spanish and Catalan (and of course there are many other nationalities including Scottish!).  Everyone who lives here is considered Catalan if they want to be but it appears to me there are some people who are more Catalan than others.
We all know that Spain was a dictatorship under General Franco after his forces won the civil war.   One of the strong republican regions was Catalunya who fought until the end when they finally had to admit defeat. They then lived under a dictator who hated their region and mistreated their people, punishing them for having fought against him and generally trying to subjugate and humiliate them in all the ways that dictators enjoy doing, including banning the language and outlawing other Catalan activities. 
When Franco died in 1975 there began the period of transition to democracy – this is a very complicated part of the history which I am not going to try and explain but let’s assume that although it was good that democracy was chosen as the way ahead, unfortunately the powerful people at the time were still rather close to the old dictatorship. It was decided that there would be an amnesty and no-one from the regime was to be held responsible for crimes committed under the dictatorship and in fact those who had been part of it could even carry on with powerful positions.
Catalunya was one of the new autonomous communities and a legal Statute of Autonomy was drawn up to define what this meant. This is something that is important to remember because this Statute was not seen as fair at the time and when later it was amended it was an important step for Catalunya being seen as a nation.  In 2010 the central government in Madrid (which has wielded power over the whole country rather than sharing it democratically with all the autonomous communities), went to court (also run by their cronies) and radically changed the Statute leaving Catalunya weaker and humiliated yet again.
This brings us, more or less,  to recent years. The centralism of the Madrid government means that people in Catalunya feel increasingly angry about various unjust things. Remember that Catalunya was republican and has a strong history of democracy and that the central government is rather the opposite – the current ruling party, the PP,  has uncomfortably close ties with the old dictatorship.  People in Catalunya want a more just society and to protect their language and culture. They are subject to a thousand little daily humiliations, for example the courts of law require you to speak Spanish and it is almost a contempt of court if you try to communicate in Catalan. Watch the film Fenix 11.23 if you can!
The more that Catalan people called for change, the more intransigent became Madrid.  Also bear in mind that Catalunya is a wealthy region that pays a lot of taxes to the central government which are used elsewhere, even for building white elephant projects like motorways in parts of Spain with hardly any traffic or airports that are never used. Imagine paying through the nose and being insulted rather than thanked.  The Catalans are often accused of being difficult trouble makers.
We now have the scenario of an unstoppable force coming into contact with an immovable object. The Catalan president tried to negotiate with the Spanish Prime Minister about such things as the unfair taxation system and was send back home after being told there would be no discussion. 
People who had waited patiently for years hoping for change began to feel there was no hope within the present setup. There were further attacks from Madrid on the education system which in Catalunya uses Catalan as the main language. The fact is that children here – all of them – emerge from school speaking at least two languages, Catalan and Spanish. Children in Spain may or may not speak a second language but in general only speak one – Spanish. In Galicia they also speak Gallego and in Basque country, Euskera and these minority languages are also under attack.
The decision to have a referendum on independence was taken and the date chosen was November 9th. While they would have liked a binding vote such as the one in Scotland, this was quickly prohibited by Madrid and after weeks of threats and blustering, finally the courts (remember the cronies there) said it was illegal. If it went ahead the Catalan president could be arrested.  One  Spanish minister called for the army to be called in if there was trouble. 
This referendum was cancelled but another vote is planned for the same day, now to be called a ‘consultation’.   It has even less weight than the first one and will be run by volunteers and not Catalan government officials but still Madrid fears it so they went back to the courts asking for it to be deemed illegal.  
Now it is Wednesday and the television news is full of politicians talking about the vote.  Many houses on the streets have Catalan flags hanging from the balconies, there are buildings and trees wrapped in yellow to show support for the right to vote and posters all around town saying ‘to vote is normal’ ‘let the Catalans vote’.  
In Barcelona people tonight came out onto their balconies to do a ‘Cassolada’ which means banging pots and pans as a people’s protest to reclaim the right to vote.
The President of the Catalan government is saying the vote will go ahead even if it means he is arrested. It is now more a question of whether or not people are allowed to express their opinion. 
How can a country pretend to be democratic when there is such pressure to ‘put up and shut up’?   
It is easy to look at a large demonstration such as the one in Barcelona on September 11th and think ‘oh it is just another group of crazy nationalists’ but when you are there, you see they are normal people, families, old people, babies and dogs. They are not calling for independence because they believe Catalans are better than anyone else.  They are just totally fed up with being manipulated and subjugated and want to organise and run their own country along different lines from what seems possible in modern Spain. Catalan people have a long history of democracy and tolerance and they want to live with these values again.
I am uncomfortable with nationalism generally and with flag waving and the like but it can’t just be dismissed as a strange Catalan fever for independence. People who would normally be happy to just live quiet lives are coming out to call for the chance to vote, to be heard and to be treated with respect. Whatever your opinion on independence, you should be allowed to vote.
There is a deep and strongly held feeling that come what may, people should be allowed to vote on Sunday. How can it be otherwise?   This vote is only an expression of opinion but when the central government find it so frightening that it has to ban it completely and threaten even to bring in the army….. can Spain still  be described as a democracy or is its hidden and dirty past beginning to show through, like a stain that cannot be covered up any longer?
The longer I live here the more I see how the society is affected by what happened after the war, and perhaps even more importantly after Franco died. If there was no healing, no attempts to tell the truth, no official acknowledgement of wrongs done, no apologies, no opportunities for victims to be heard,  no strong policies to prevent ex-fascists from taking power again, no reconciliation with regions such as Catalunya, little creative inspiration towards making a new and more just society;  if all that is true, no wonder that there is such a lack of trust and a continued need to stand up to a government that feels like an oppressor. And I haven’t even mentioned the endemic corruption of most of the political classes in Spain and even in Catalunya. 
These are interesting times, and a bit depressing and even rather scary I have to admit. 
But at least I have managed to write down a little of what goes in for me while watching the process unfold. I told you it was complicated and it would be long!  Let’s see what happens on Sunday.

Open Doors at Hospital Sant Pau – but not for long!

On Monday I went up to Barcelona to meet a friend and we went to visit the recently restored modernist hospital of Sant Pau.  Until March 16th you can go and wander round this amazing place for free but after that some parts will be used as offices and as a conference centre and only a small part will be open to the public as a museum

There are 12 buildings in this huge complex and a landscaped garden with orange trees

It was constructed between 1902 and 1930 and is a must see for anyone interested in architecture in general and modernism in particular. I had no idea it would be so magnificent – everywhere you turn it is WOW!

For four years it has been under restoration with European grants and although some parts are still being worked on there are several buildings open for viewing

The buildings were the work of the famous Catalan architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner

The origens of the hospital go back to the 15th century when the Consell de Cent (the old parliament) brought together six Barcelona hospitals and started building the Hospital of Sant Creu. At the beginning of the 20th century the banker Pau Gil funded the construction of a new hospital to provide care for a rapidly rising city population, The result was the Hospital Sant Pau
He wanted his initials to be an integral part of the building  – so you find P and G in many designs

I am not going to go on any more about the history – we need all the space for pictures

I thought this was the caduceus but I now find it is the Rod of Asclepius which has only one snake

The caduceus has two snakes and wings and was the staff of the god Hermes.  Asclepius is a god of healing and medicine. The original Hypocratic oath began with the evocation ” I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…..”

The ceilings are worth a post to themselves

and the windows

 designed to let in the maximum light. They knew about light and space and the importance of beauty

Imagine being in a hospital ward with these roses all around the walls

Here is a picture of the women’s ward when it was fully funcioning

The exterior walls are also full of interesting details

The restoration has been as environmentally friendly as possible. The whole complex is heated using a geothermal system with all components hidden underground.  It is incredible to think of all the work that went into creating this restoration. One of the exhibition displays likened it to healing a very sick patient – first the diagnosis which revealed terrible deterioration and years of neglect, then creating a plan and making decisions, followed by intensive treatment  and now finally the result – a potentially vibrant and inspiring place to visit and work.

The pictures speak for themselves – this is an incredible place and if you have the chance to see it before March 16th then go!

Scottish – Catalan Independence

Todays conversation was with the owner of a campsite on the Black Isle near Inverness. He was the first person to say without doubt that he would be voting NO in the referendum next year. He doesn’t want to be seen as a foreigner in England and he believed that the leading politicians in the Scottish Nationalist Party are more left wing than Fidel Castro. He was also worried about the selling off of Scottish utilities to countries like Spain and France and China.
Interesting that on the one hand he was for keeping control of Scottish resources in local hands but against ensuring that those hands were Scottish ones.
He had heard of Catalunya but knew nothing nor seemed very interested in the situation there