Catalans love their traditions. Calcot festivals, or “calcotadas,” are a popular activity this time of year. A calcot is a green onion the size of a leek. They’re about three feet long. You grill them over an open fire, peel off the charred outside, dunk the remaining part in a delicious romesco sauce, then tilt your head back and basically deepthroat the thing. There are towns here that put on citywide calcotadas. Thousands of people show up. Lord knows how many more would arrive if calcots actually tasted halfway decent.
Correfocs are also big-time fun here. “Correfoc” literally translates to “fire run.” Often times when there’s a parade or a festival here, Catalans will include a correfoc as part of the festivities. A giant group of people dresses up like devils, arms itself with fireworks of varying finger-and-eye removing capabilities, then shoots the fireworks straight into the crowd while dancing around like Manson family members.
My favorite tradition, though, is the castell. “Castell” is Catalan for “castle.” They’re giant human towers made up of people standing on each other’s shoulders. They can sometimes be as many as ten “stories” high. There are whole festivals dedicated to building castells. Castells are often just incorporated into other events. They’re one part Cirque de Soleil, one part drunk rednecks who should really know better.
The bottom level of “castellers” grabs hold of each other to form a sturdy foundation. Then the castellers who will form the second level start at the outside of the base and walk along the shoulders of the poor saps on the first level until they reach the center. The third level walks all over the first level then climbs up the backs of the second level and sets up. This process continues until the desired number of levels is reached.
The highest tier always consists of some featherlight eight- or nine-year-old kid who scrambles up to the top and raises his or her hand to signify the castell is complete. When the kid does this, the whole crowd stops holding its breath for a moment to cheer. Then the kid climbs down the backs of all the people on the levels below like a monkey descending a coconut tree. (I don’t think monkeys actually climb coconut trees, but it’s still a cute image.)
Pam loves castells, too. She thinks they’re a wonderful metaphor for life. The whole community coming together. The older, stronger adults on the bottom working to support the child so that they may reach new heights.
I think it’s a different metaphor for life. I see it as kids walking all over their elders until the kids eventually do something stupid that sends them crashing down, whereupon they break the necks of everyone who was trying to help them.
My neighborhood of Gracia has its own team of castellers. They practice three days a week just a few doors down from our house. They perform every so often in the plaças around here with a few teams from other barrios in Barcelona. Last fall, Pam and I were strolling through the neighborhood one Sunday morning and came across our local team in action. We stopped to watch, along with a few hundred other people.
While we watched the castellers prepare to pile on top of each other like a game of reverse human Jenga, one of the team members who wasn’t participating in this particular castell began chatting in Spanish with us. I’ll call him Jordi, because odds are in my favor. He was in his fifties and could not have been more cheerful. He went through the usual questions. What’s your name? Where are you from? Have you seen castellers before?
We told him that we were from the United States, that we’d seen castellers before, and that now we actually lived very near where his team practices.
“Oh! Would you like to join?” Jordi asked me.
I’d actually been considering joining the team, so I told him yes.
I started mentally going through all the things I’d need to do before joining the team. I’d need to improve my Spanish, develop some basic strength in my legs, core, and upper body, and pay my health insurance. I had just gotten to “revise my will” when Jordi grabbed my arm and started dragging me through the crowd towards the base of the castell that was about to be built.
I felt we were rushing things.
Jordi took off my hat, jacket, and glasses and handed them to Pam, who had followed me through the crowd. Then he began introducing me to several castellers. They looked as excited to see a complete amateur guiri joining their ranks right before an exhibition as I felt about being there.
He began jabbering away with his teammates. I didn’t understand what all they said back to him, but their tone suggested that “are you fucking kidding us?” might have been a fairly accurate translation. A bit of pointing and gesturing followed, and I was eventually put into place near the outside of the first level. All I had to do was hang on to the waist of the guy two people in front of me, thereby making a sandwich of the guy directly in front of me.
Jordi gave me a few tips before he left.
“Keep your head down.”
I assume this was so I wouldn’t see it coming when the eight-year-old lost her balance at the top and crashed down on me, leaving me to enjoy Spain from a wheelchair.
“Put your head on his back,” Jordi said, pointing to the complete stranger directly in front of me who I was now essentially spooning in a public square.
Suddenly I felt two guys come up behind me and do the same thing I was doing to the two guys in front of me.
Now I definitely felt we were rushing things.
As I snuggled with my new best friends, the casteller band began playing. I have actually never seen their instruments before (spooning joke goes here), but they sound more or less like trumpets being played through bagpipes. As they belted out their traditional Catalan ditty, people started climbing over me. I got a few people’s feet on my shoulders (castellers perform barefoot.) One or two people used my head as a handrail to keep their balance (Here’s a tip for you future castellers: if you need to regain your balance, don’t lean on the cleanly shaved head of the terrified guy who’s sweating profusely.) After about two minutes, people stopped climbing on me. Everyone seemed to have taken their positions.
I had absolutely no idea how tall the castell was or how many people were in it. Jordi had instructed me to keep my head down, and that’s where I kept my head. Down, and resting gently on the lean, well-muscled shoulder of the young man in front of me. No one was actually standing on my shoulders now since I was close to the outer ring of castellers. Everyone had climbed over me already. I figured it was smooth sailing from here on out.
And that’s when I started falling forward. We were all packed in like sardines, so you’d think it would be hard to fall down. Well, let me tell you there’s some fluidity involved in making a castell. The whole thing sways back and forth, even at the bottom level. I don’t know why I started losing my balance. Maybe the guys behind me were pushing too hard or the guys in front of me were getting tired. All I knew at the time was that I was getting dangerously close to having 40 people land on my head, and the heads of everybody around me.
I started listening for the inevitable horrified gasp from the crowd, but what I actually heard instead was almost worse. They all let out a collective groan.
While I slaved away in the middle of some weird, Catalan, pseudo reach-around party, the little monkey-kid who was supposed to climb 25 feet in the air supported only by my awesome quads and delts chickened out. She climbed about halfway up, then made a hasty retreat. After she slid all the way down, we had to disassemble the whole thing. There are no do-overs in castells. People started climbing back over my feeble shoulders and my sweaty dome.
Pam said later that the little girl looked down and got scared of the height. My guess is that she looked down, saw that I was involved, and quite rightfully said, “You’re all nuts. I’m out of here.”
So my first foray into casteller-ing ended in defeat because some cowardly kid decided she was too good to embrace the traditional Catalan deathwish. I was a little bit disappointed, but I still got an amazing adrenaline rush. In some ways, castells are like NASCAR races. It’s great if the kid makes it to the top and waves his hand, but deep down inside people still get off on the crashes.
Jordi was waiting for me when we were done, a fresh beer in his hand. He clapped me on the back and congratulated me for, well, for not getting everyone killed, I guess. I met a few more members of the team. They seemed more relaxed and open to chatting now that we were all safe and sound. A few of them threw some English at me. One man in his sixties was from Germany and had been living in Barcelona for several years. Another fellow was from Belgium. It turns out that the Vila de Gracia castellers are always looking for a few good men.
Or maybe they just want some dumb immigrants to use as cushioning when their children lose their balance.
And now, some bonus footage. This video is from a major festival in Tarragona. If you’re squeamish, don’t watch from 1:40-2:20.