A literary love story
I come from one country where St George is the patron saint (England) and I live in another (Catalonia). His day, which fell last Thursday (23 April) is not a public holiday in either of them, but the way it is celebrated in the two places could not be more different. In England, mention St George’s Day too often and you’ll probably be looked at a little strangely by most normal people, who associate the dragonslayer and his flag with football hooligans and ultra-right-wing politicians and are too embarrassed to make much of what could be a national celebration. Nor does anyone really want it to be a holiday, falling as it does, far too close to Easter on one hand and the two existing Bank Holidays in May on the other, and the only signs of it you’re ever likely to see are a few flags fluttering from church towers.
In Catalonia, on the other hand, no one really wants 23 April to be a holiday for fear that Sant Jordi, as it is known, here, might be spoiled. Because if ever there was a model for what the day could be like in England, it’s a Catalan Sant Jordi, which instead of sport and skinheads is all about literature and love. Over the past 15 years it’s become my favourite day in the calendar, as I was happy to inform the host of the local radio programme who interviewed me last week about the differences between Sant Jordi and an English Saint George’s Day.
The first thing I do when I get up on Sant Jordi is open my present. It’s a book. In fact, it’s always a book because the tradition here is for every wife or girlfriend to give their partner something to read. As it happens, I had two books this year, one from my wife (the latest Nick Hornby) and one from my son (a Catalan novel about the end of the Spanish Civil War). The tradition isn’t one-sided, however. While women give their men books, men are supposed to give their women roses, both as tokens of love.
Now, before anyone can criticise this as sexist and wrong, with its tacit assumption that all women are soppy and illiterate, I should say that, in our house at least, tradition has been modernised. So my wife gets her book too (this year it was a Catalan novel she’d said she was interested in reading). That doesn’t mean, though, that she misses out on her rose. Quite the contrary: I’ve spent years searching for the perfect one for her. I haven’t found it yet, but every year I think I’m getting pretty close. Hunting the rose does, however, require time and that’s why I always make sure I haven’t got too much work on for Saint George’s Day.
I leave the house early, before the crowds get too big. All along the streets, makeshift stalls are springing up, decked in the red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag. Sometimes I wonder what the people who run them do for the rest of the year, because every Sant Jordi they’re here. Gipsies, students, charities and political parties will all be happy to sell me the flower I need, but I pass them by. Too small; the wrong colour; wilting; too fussily plucked of its outer petals – plenty of faults will put me off. Instead, I head for the centre of Barcelona, where the plumpest, reddest, most succulent roses are sold for Sant Jordi. Just out of the metro and they’re looking better already, although the crowds are thicker here.
There are plenty of stalls selling books, too, for those who didn’t manage to buy one before the day. Queues are building up as people wait to have their purchases signed by their favourite authors. Sant Jordi isn’t a day of rest for writers. Almost all the authors on the Catalan literary scene and many from further afield (this year Ken Follett was among the big names) are pressed into service for autographs and radio interviews. Translators are not forgotten either, largely thanks to the work of APTIC, the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Catalonia, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog.
Not for the first time my mind turns to some of the mysteries of Sant Jordi. Where do all these people come from? After all, this is supposed to be a working day, but someone almost everyone seems to escape for a while to buy their books or roses or just to walk in the streets and savour the happy, relaxed atmosphere. It’s infectious. In ponderous crowds that would normally have me chewing my fingers with frustration, I’m content to go with the slow flow. The weather helps too. Despite it being at a time of year when it’s probably most likely to rain in Catalonia, somehow the sun always seems to shine for Sant Jordi, and this year is no exception. It’s a beautiful spring day: no jacket required.
Now I’m getting near to my target: the part of the Ramblas where the flower stalls are. And there, sitting among a hundred others not quite so beautiful, is this year’s rose. Perhaps it isn’t quite perfect, but, then again, its appeal may well lie in that very imperfection. A few euros and it’s mine; half an hour later it’s my wife’s. The hunt is over for another year.