The week of Sant Joan

This week brought with it a delightful mid-week fiesta, the day of Sant Joan. The Catalan holiday combines a celebration for the summer solstice with a day commemorating the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

If you are a boy lucky enough to be called Joan, then June 24 is your name day — like a second birthday, complete with gifts, family celebrations and maybe even cake. In fact, most Catalans that are named after saints have name days as well as their birthday, how great is that! I am yet to find a Saint Linden…

The 24th might be great for Joans, but it is the night of the 23rd that is the big verbena. Fireworks, bonfires and all-night parties happen on this ‘Nit de Foc’ (night of fire), welcoming the Spanish summer and symbolically burning the old to make way for the new. People get together to share cava and an oval-shaped traditional cake, the Coca de Sant Joan. In this region it is also common to snails, a local delicacy.

Apparently the number of fires has decreased over the years, presumably in response to safety concerns. I have to admit I stifled a gasp at a celebration that promotes fire during the summer! This would never fly in Australia. Nonetheless, the firework stores in Tortosa had queues coming of out their doors for several days leading up to Tuesday night, and children of all ages (seriously, I saw a two-year-old have a go) have been throwing noisy crackers in the street for a week or more.

But when the big night came, the fires in town were overshadowed by natural entertainment in the form of a huge thunderstorm that flashed and rumbled and drenched poor Tortosa for over an hour. The lightning was very spectacular, but it put a dampener on many of the parties in the surrounding suburbs. In the end we had to set off our meagre collection of crackers next to a supermarket car park that had become a temporary lake.

Our firework stash and subsequent display.

Wednesday, the public holiday, is a day for the beach. Rest and recovery after a big night. We had left the abuelos to their dancing at 2am on Tuesday, and so were up relatively early, ready for a fun day celebrating Sant Joan in Tarragona.

Couples dancing to a band by the river at about 2am on the night of Sant Joan. Notice the drenched paper tablecloths…

Tarragona is a moderate city about an hour from Tortosa, rich with Roman history and a wonderful place to explore. We wandered around the old city walls before joining the throngs of families celebrating with paella by the sea. Later on we slept off the paella on the beach, as instructed, and then rounded out the day watching some castellers build their best human towers in Tarragona’s central square.

Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona
Paella marisco and a castell in Tarragona.

I am now writing this in 36 ºC heat, with nothing but sunshine in the forecast, so it seems we have welcomed summer correctly.


The week I wrote about science instead

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences of living and working in Spain, hoping to fill the gap that I discovered when frantically Googling ‘how to live in Spain as an Australian’ before we left home. I enjoy sharing what we see, what we eat, and where we discover in this largely unknown region of southern Catalonia. It might be useful for others to know how we survived the administration process, and what to expect. I write for my friends, my family, for Past Me, and hopefully for future visitors.

One of the other reasons I started this blog was to tell stories and snippets from my research, which (until I got here) was mainly about historical weather observations in Australia. This topic is an amazing combination of history and science, of characters and statistics, and throughout my PhD I was determined to tell those stories to more people than my patient friends and obliging parents.

And so this website is a combination. Una mezcla. Part professional, and part…not. Sometimes I feel bad about this. I want to say sorry to those who have arrived here looking for info on Australia’s climate history, and are instead bombarded with pictures of Catalan booze. Equally, I want to apologise to my mates who want to keep up to date with our adventures here, but have to wade through the science stuff that they may find boring. I worry too, that when it comes time for me to find another job, this quasi-professional approach might bite me in the backside, as I have shared too much of my personal life.

But you know, most of the time I do not want to apologise. To take that young person’s phrase that I don’t completely understand, I’m sorrynotsorry. Just like any profession, scientists don’t do science all the time. Sure, we may appreciate the world in a different way, but we are still living in that world, and occasionally doing non-sciencey things, just as accountants do non-accountanty things, and waitresses do non-waitressy things.

And maybe one day a potential young scientist might come across this blog and realise that he can be passionate about clinical psychology AND about his random love of baking dog-shaped cakes, or that her love of physics with her goal of visiting every football stadium in the world can co-exist happily. Or perhaps a skeptic might stumble here looking for details about historical Victorian weather and find that the scientists who study this stuff are real, complex people too, and may think twice before publishing something hateful on her blog.

Who knows. But either way, this week I finally put together a small tale about Melbourne’s meteorological history. Light on graphs, but effective at making me homesick, this is a summary of some key sights to see in Melbourne if you are on a nerdy science tour. Enjoy! Or don’t.

The week of the flies

The amount of aerial wildlife is one of the lovely things about living in Tortosa, a regional town so close to the Delta Ebro wildlife reserve. I’m not saying I’m a twitcher, but in the immortal words of The Eels, I like…birds.

Pigeon house.
Classic pigeon house in Tortosa (pigeons MIA)

Pigeons, sparrows and swallows are ubiquitous of course, occupying the nooks and crannies in the old and abandoned buildings here. We’ve even started calling old, derelict structures ‘pigeon houses’, because they seem so at home. At sunset, swarms of swallows practise their flying acrobatics over the river, catching bugs, pulling shapes and generally having a wonderful time.

Evil seagulls surrounded by the feathers of their latest victim

Additionally, we have regular visits from water birds that travel up the Ebro from the Delta region. There is a white egret that greets me most days on my walk to work, as well as the occasional purple heron (I think), and tern. H even saw a kingfisher once! Two giant yellow-legged seagulls rule over a broken jetty near the university. These guys seem to be pure evil – I have seen them with the bloody corpses of at least four pigeons, and last week I watched one of them eat a whole snake! Maybe not ideal neighbours but they certainly make me walk faster.

Apart from feather friends, occasionally I also spy tiny microbats flitting about near dusk, looking for dinner bugs. They are magical little mammals, about the same size as swallows, and are apparently crucial for keeping insect numbers down. Butterflies and flies also buzz about, as you would expect, and yesterday I saw my first Catalonian dragonfly.

But not all flying things are fun, and not all wildlife is welcome. This week we met another member of the flying Tortosa family: the mosca negra, or black fly. These tiny little beasties have been around since about the mid 1990s, and have been ruining vueltas and sleeping with the window open ever since.

This article has a great quote comparing the mosca negra with a mosquito:

“If the mosquito is a neurosurgeon that bites with a probe, the black fly is a butcher that scratches the skin and makes you bleed,” said Raul Escosa, member of an Ebro river environmental board.

They love hanging around the river at dusk during the warm summer months, which is a real shame because going to the river at dusk is an official pastime here. Their bites are nasty and can cause very serious reactions in some people: swelling, days and days of itching, and general annoyance. Just writing about it makes me itch!

Recently there have been some chemicals dropped over the river to reduce the number of black flies, but I don’t know what effect it will have on the population (or the water quality for that matter).

The past week has seen record temperatures in the Tortosa region (subject to data verification of course, this is a science blog). As our apartment has no air conditioning and limited circulation, we are facing a nightly decision to sleep in suffocating heat with the windows closed, or sleep in constant fear of black fly attack with the windows open.

Fortunately, we have been let in on the secret solution to these nasty little flying hatchets. Natural Honey. Yep, this unassuming moisturiser contains traces of citronella, and keeps the black flies at bay while leaving your skin supple. This combined with some citronella candles at home have kept us relatively bite-free so far, which means more sunset bird-watching for me!

Natural Honey
Natural Honey – the unassuming hero in our war on mosca negra.

The week of translation

This past week C3 had the honour of being published in the local newspaper. A half-page spread on who we are and what we do. It’s the start of a regular column for researchers at the university and for our group it was a great, if complicated opportunity for some science communication.

Why complicated? Well, the people who were most excited about the opportunity included myself and a PhD student from Hungary. We both speak and write in English but only un poco Castillano and no Catalan, the language of the publication.

It was a shame then that the instructions for submitting the article were also in Catalan. In our excitement to get started, we naturally assumed that 2.500 caràcters meant that the newspaper wanted 2,500 of our finest WORDS about regional climate change research.

The group met, and brainstormed, and my Hungarian colleague (who is a scicomm superstar in her own country BTW) got to work. It was only 5 days before the deadline (when 2000 words were ready to go) that we realised only 2,500 CHARACTERS were required! Obviously.

So the detailed, friendly essay about our centre was reduced to a neat 600 English words without too much ‘discusión‘. Great work team.

Next, the translation. This was one of the most interesting communication experiences I have been involved in. An English article written by one person whose native language is Hungarian, translated by another whose mother tongue is actually a dialect of Catalan from her home town, with special comments from an extra helper (this guy) about how to translate some English words into other English words that would make more sense in Tortosa’s own unique form of Catalan.

For example, ‘outreach’. How do you describe this simply in English? I tried for ‘public communication of science’ and we settled on the Catalan word for communication (comunicació). That was until our translating extraordinare hit upon ‘divulgació‘, which means communicating out among the community, in programs at schools and with the public. Which is outreach! I felt like I had stepped out of a science department and into a linguistics boardgame.

‘Instrumental research’ was another doozy. Now normally this would mean ‘super important research’, but in our case, we actually mean research about meteorological instruments. Google Translate did not take kindly to that.

In the end I think we are all fairly happy with the results, and no one has called us with any skeptic rants yet, so that’s good. Let’s see what happens next month.

Here is the article in all its scanned glory:

The opinion page of Setmanari Ebre, a weekly local newspaper, featuring us!

It roughly translates to…

The third floor of the campus

International climate research at Terres de l’Ebre

The Centre for Climate Change (C3) ( is a young research institute at the Campus Terres de l’Ebre of URV. Although it is a rather small scientific community (currently with 15 members), a group of enthusiastic and committed senior and junior climate researchers work together here.

The institute is based in the Terres de L’Ebre region not only because of the stunning natural environment and landscapes, but also in order to facilitate the synergy between C3, and the nearby Observatori de l’Ebre and IRTA (El Instituto de Investigación y Tecnología Agroalimentarias).

C3 is focused on researching, outreaching and sharing knowledge in the fields of climate reconstruction and assessment of climate variability and climate change.

The centre is well-known internationally due to its high-quality research on recovering climate information in different countries. The data rescue and database building tasks are implemented by working in international collaborations within projects supported by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Besides the main research line of the centre we add year by year new and interesting fields of climate science to our research profile, such as analysing extreme events (e.g. heat and cold waves or drought), paleoclimatology (i.e. reading climate information from non-direct sources from the past such as tree rings or ice cores) and instrumental research (e.g. calibrating and improving the meteorological measuring devices). We will introduce these activities in more detailed in our upcoming articles.

A couple of months ago a sky blue banner stretched over the main street of Tortosa advertising an event called International Symposium Climate-ES 2015. Well, what was that exactly for and why is it important to organise such events?

First of all it was a unique opportunity for climate scientists, experts from the industry and also from the media to gather, share their results, their experience, their expectations and even their doubts as well as to initiate collaborative solutions to tackle the regional challenges of climate change.

Secondly, the purpose of this international ‘meetup’ was also to discover the latest scientific achievements regarding the Iberian Peninsula since the last comprehensive report on global climate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published last year.

There were almost 100 attendees giving a talk, presenting a poster or participating in the round-table conversations during the three day symposium. The sessions covered all the hot topics of recent climate change discussions.

C3 is active in the Terres de l’Ebre. If you want to know more about our activities, our Climate studies and the Climate Change, we invite you to read our next article.

The week we drank

Just to be clear, we actually drink every week. Water, obviously, plenty of fresh orange juice, and the occasional beer or bottle of cava. But this week I finally achieved Catalan Drink Bingo, and I had to tell someone!

There are many popular tipples to taste while watching the world go by here in Catalonia. Some you may have heard of, others perhaps not. But to achieve bingo, you gotta taste them all. Get your pencils out, it’s time to play…


1. Cerveza

Although we are discovering more and more local craft beers (like Tortosa’s own Lo Gambusi), cerveza on tap is pretty much limited to Damm Estrella, Cuzcampo, or if you’re lucky, Barcelona’s own Moritz. Oh, or you can have Damm Lemon, which is 60% beer, 40% lemon. Beer is everywhere here – it’s probably harder NOT to have one!

Una cervaza waits patiently for lunch in the sun
  • Average price for a canya (pot): €1.50.
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time.

2. Vino

Spain is famous for its delicious wine, and Tortosa is very close to Terra Alta, a not-so well known wine growing region that produces some lovely shiraz blends. There is also a lot of Rioja from the northwest of Spain which is famous for its delicious tempranillo. If the wine is not so delicious, just cut it with some gaseosa (lemonade) and you have yourself a refreshing glass of tinto de verano, or summer red wine.

Vino tinto
A glass of Terra Alta vino tinto with lunch
  • Average price for a copa (glass): €2.50 (often free with lunch).
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time. We’ve seen abuelas drinking red with breakfast.

3. Cava

Ahh cava. The bubbles that don’t need a reason to celebrate. Cava (xampany in Catalan) is Spanish champagne, produced mainly in Catalonia to the west of Barcelona. It is fantastically cheap to buy, and H is yet to find a bottle he doesn’t like.

Two glasses of delicious cava at our bar downstairs, Rosa del Vins
  • Average price for a copa: €2.50, but often you need to buy the whole bottle for €6–20.
  • Appropriate time to drink: all the time, according to those same abuelas.

4. Sangria

I always thought sangria was a bit of a tourist drink, and maybe it is, but now that summer is here you can get your sang’ on at most bars, particularly those with a terrace in the sun. You can have typical red wine sangria, made with vino tinto, some lemonade, a liqueur (often brandy), and some fruit, or a cava sangria which is similar but white and fizzy. We’ve been told that the fruits and liquids must be combined up to 24 hours before consumption for the drink to legitimately be called sangria, but are yet to test this extensively. Research continues, the things we do for science!

Sangria in the sunshine at the seaside. Spectacular!
  • Average price for a jarra: €8–€20, depending on your vista.
  • Appropriate time to drink: when the sun is shining.

5. Vermut

In this part of the world, ‘let’s go and take a vermut’ is similar to ‘let’s go grab a drink’. It’s pretty much a verb. Before lunch or dinner, and on weekends, people head to beach bars (or chiringuitos) or any kind of bar for an aperitif. Vermouth (vermut) is having a revival at the moment, and many bars and pubs make their own version of this sweetened and herb-infused wine treat. It is served on ice, with gaseosa on request, and garnished with a slice of orange and one or two anchovy-filled olives. I’m not even kidding a little bit about the anchovies.

A vermouth with chips in Barcelona. It tasted better than it looks, promise
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.00.
  • Appropriate time to drink: pre-lunch or dinner, Sunday morning.

6. GinTonic

Now things start to get serious. Although you can also buy all your other mixed drinks here, the gin and tonic reigns supreme as lord of the beverages. Multi-paged gin menus are standard, with garnishes ranging from standard lemon to lemon rind, strawberries, cherries, rosemary, juniper berries and pepper. And that’s just the gin half. You also need to pick your tonic, one that matches the fruity, floral or crisp nature of the gin. Served in a huge glass and prepared lovingly by even the most hardened barman, Spanish gin and tonics are in a world of their own.

A saffron-infused gin with tonic if you don’t mind!
  • Average price for a copa: €5–10, depending on your gin and your tonic.
  • Appropriate time to drink: At the start of the night, at the end of the night.

7. Café

So you’ve gone out, worked your way through the first six drinks on the list, and now it’s morning. You need a coffee. But which one? This excellent infographic shows you just how many different coffee variations are available in cafes and restaurants across Spain. Taking a coffee is an important part of the Spanish daily ritual, so it’s easy to drink yourself through the list, from a café solo (an expresso) to a bombón (a shot of coffee with the same amount of condensed milk). I have a cortado descafeinado de sobre (a sachet of decaf in a small cup of hot milk), pretty much a decaf magic!

A cortado with cake
  • Average price for a café: €1.50.
  • Appropriate time to drink: at the start of the day, morning tea time, afternoon tea time, before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, after dinner.

8. Horchata

Not just the name of Vampire Weekend’s first single from their second album Contra, horchata is actually a sweet milky drink made from tiger nuts (or chufas), originally from Valencia, and reserved for the summer months. The first time I drank it, I thought it tasted a bit like Clag, but now that it is warm and sunny, it tastes more like sweetened soy milk. It is traditionally served from horchaterias with fartons (hehe), long fingers of pastry covered in icing sugar.

H hoes into a horchata in Barcelona
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.
  • Appropriate time to drink: after school or on the weekend, when it’s warm.

9. Leche Merengada

And finally, the last square on my bingo card, leche merengada. A colleague told me about this drink last month, when the ic-ecream shops in town reopened after their winter break. Leche merengada is a kind of milkshake mixed with sugar, egg, a bit of lemon zest and some cinnamon. H thought it tasted like citronella candles when we drank one on the weekend, but I loved it. Not bad as an ice-cream flavour either!

A tasty leche merengada, complete with cinnamon on top
  • Average price for a vaso: €3.
  • Appropriate time to drink: after school, on sunny afternoons.

Best of luck with your own round of Catalan Drink Bingo. Please tell me what drinks need to be added for season two!