If you want to learn Spanish go to Salamanca. The boasted purity of the region’s accent and the acclaimed historic reputation of this beautiful University City are only topped by the density of students that the place attracts.
45,000 students (Cursos International and University of Salamanca official ), both Spanish and international, throng to the small but perfectly formed city, Spain’s answer to our Oxbridge perhaps.
Unlike those University towns this city knows how to party. All work and no play would officially make you Northern European here. If you expect to be able to gain access to the true Spanish experience from the classroom you’ve a lot to discover about the Hispanic ‘mode de vie’.
So it’s official, la vida es loca in España and with several public holidays or ferias (Spanish festival or fair) every month, it’s fair to say that partying is not only on the students’ agendas but is considered obligatory even by the city’s council.
In Salamanca its people celebrated one of the city’s main ferias last month; ‘La Virgen de la Vega’ (7th-15th September).
To many an Erasmus student’s delight, the council footed the bill for concerts in the main Plaza and tapas bars in the streets as well as putting on plays, bullfights and reduced-price cinema viewings in a manner reminiscent of the Roman games.
Despite being chastised often by my Spanish friends for making that fond generalisation that they and their countrymen spend each year partying excessively – it’s a mere 44 official days they’ll have you know, more or less depending on where you live, in comparison with a British 10 days of bank holidays – it certainly has struck me that the Spanish and even the Portuguese (I had the good fortune to run into one of Lisbon’s many ferias earlier this summer) approach the festival in an entirely different way to us Brits.
Politics aside for the moment, the feria itself is a cause for great curiosity among non-Mediterranean visitors. With the few English students I can track down here we often take time to reminisce on the recent festivities and exclaim how unlike anything in the UK these regional and city ferias are.
In England there is nothing between a good bit of cheese rolling and the mortgage-your-house-quick cost of a pair of Glasto tickets. Why not? Perhaps London, naturally, is a bit more outward looking and with their ‘Festival of Britain’ on the banks of the Southbank this summer I catch a glimpse of the community driven spirit that the UK seems to have largely eschewed in favour of the several thousand commercial music festivals that have flooded the market this year and continue to bleed the summer pockets of our country’s snotty adolescents.
The difference between our way of organising festivals and the Spanish way doesn’t, on the surface, seem important, or perhaps even comparable. On the one hand the British summer festival scene provides quality music and the chance for city dwellers to take their tent out of the loft once a year.
In Spain, on the other hand, these ferias can’t be said to be either innovative or particularly high quality. For a way of life that invented the daily siesta to facilitate the every day fiesta it seems that these festivals simply help them work out what day of the week it is!
In the middle one might cite Munich’s Oktoberfest, a cultural phenomenon and increasingly commercialized affair with a far-reaching fan base but a steady, and location-specific sense of identity. Plenty of Lederhosen on display here. One has to write off such bad behaviour as a cultural phenomenon!
The difference in focus though is tangible and the lack of community centric activities in the UK – the imported Notting Hill carnival being a notable exception – seems even more pertinent in a time of economic distress where a more feudal system of celebration could be the missing link in Cameron’s concept of a Big Society.
Forget all of us taking it in turns to run our local post office, how about being able to share a bite to eat with a neighbour you’ve probably never met before on your own doorstep! The local feria is good for local business too and the majority of the big restaurants in town have a specialised tapas bar they set-up for the festivities.
Now I’m not claiming to have found the answer for the reason London erupted into riots early this summer and I wouldn’t want to see historic institutions like Glastonbury and Reading Festival undercut but it strikes me that we are missing a trick in this department.
In any case this bread-and-circus mode of local government seems more of a habit than a canny tactic. At the same time while Spain despite the doom and gloom of their much more serious recession and staggering unemployment figures are giving one another a reason to stay alive, we continue to bang our heads against the sturdy door of capitalism charging one another to get our kicks on a national and even global, soon to be unsustainable, scale.
With the recent heat wave in the UK comes a suggestion from across the continent.
While Sarkozy and Merkel push for more economic austerity measures, the sound of the sweet Spanish fiesta whispers on the wind. Surely someone must have twigged that there’s a reason for just fewer than 14 million Brits to evacuate the UK and flee to Spain every year.
I think an amnesty is in order: London’s emphasis on the City in exchange for the true Spanish sense of a city. And if it all goes bottoms up, there’s always Germany to bail us out! La vida es loca indeed!