Culture 22/04/2021

Sant Jordi and me: a love story

An autobiographical story by linguist and translator Mary Ann Newman, the driving force behind the celebration of Sant Jordi in New York

Mary Ann Newman
9 min
One of the illustrations created for the promotion of Sant Jordi in New York
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Sometimes in the small life of an individual, which normally proceeds smoothly, there is an accumulation of events that mark and change its course.

This happened to me around the most beautiful feast of Sant Jordi

Part One: The Seduction

In 1973, I was about to graduate from college. After my parents’ too-young death, I had taken a job at the university thanks to which I studied for free. This amazing job was at the International Student Center at New York University, in the building with the Romanesque tower on Washington Square. Mine was the first, smiling, face international students saw when they came to do their college paperwork.

I was a budding Hispanist. I had spent the Spring ‘72 semester in Madrid on the NYU program. If the new students spoke Spanish, I could attend to them in their language. This is how a group of friends started to form, some of them fleeing from recent dictatorships: Jorge from Chile, Víctor from Uruguay ... I also harvested a few from Spain, a very charming couple from Madrid, Charlie and Ana.

During my semester in Madrid I traveled all I could throughout the Peninsula. Night trains and hitchhiking. I was struck by Barcelona and everything Catalan. At NYU, part of my job was to read student dossiers. I came across the folder of a doctoral student in economics, who was coming from the Sorbonne on a Fulbright scholarship and talked about interdisciplinarity and other intriguing things. I took notice. The folder was misfiled. The double surname had confused the file clerk: I deduced that young Ms. Florensa Palau Senén was, in fact, young Mr. Senén Florensa Palau, and Catalan, to boot.

Senén also joined the group of more or less refugees. We often met at my house to eat, drink, play the guitar (hey, it was the 70s) and talk about a range of politics. In December 1974, Senén went home to Valls for the holidays, but Rosa, his sister, was on her way back from Barcelona, where her husband, Dr Joan Guinovart, had won a competition for a position at the university. They lived in Charlottesville that year, where Joan was doing a post-doc. On New Year's Eve, on their way back to Virginia, they stopped over at my house for a few days. Joan and Rosa inaugurated the guest sofa on which a good few dozens of Catalan guests have subsequently slept (the sofas have changed). We walked everywhere, from Chinatown to Harlem, and became friends.

From time to time, Senén would show up without advance notice at my house, perhaps when he was feeling homesick. He would tell stories of childhood in Valls, and Belianes, and Alcover, life beyond the big city. One fine spring day in ‘75 — perhaps on April 23rd —Senén showed up with a hyacinth in bloom. He told me all about the feast of Sant Jordi, the knight, the princess, the dragon, and the splendid explosion of books and roses that overflows throughout the streets of Barcelona. I retained every word.

On November 19, 1975, all the usual suspects were hanging out at my house. Amazingly, we were all together when we learned that the dictator had died, in the early morning hours of the 20th, Greenwich time.

I decided to see Spain after Franco. I was accepted into the NYU Master’s program in Spain, and the following February I was in Madrid.

On Thursday, April 22, 1976, I was studying at home. I had a leather-bound Finocam daybook, the kind that included the saints’ days. Around 4 p.m., I was checking an appointment and saw that the next day was the feast of San Jorge. All the images Senén had evoked flooded my head. I threw a change of clothes into a bag, and ran to Atocha Station.

The next day, at the Estació de França, they were tossing out huge packages of newspapers: it was day one of l’Avui, the first newspaper in Catalan since the Civil War. My first St. Jordi’s Day gift to myself was a brand new copy of l’Avui.

All the Florensas are great storytellers. In New York, Rosa had told me that I  had to visit Carrer Petritxol, the most beautiful street in Barcelona. Thinking the odds were good that there would be a pension on Carrer Petritxol, I walked up the Rambla in that direction. And there it was, the Pensión Colmenero. For 100 pesetas they gave me a room with a balcony overlooking the street; the shower cost 50.

Sant Jordi NYC 2021

I called Rosa to let her know I was in Barcelona. She told there was no way I was staying in a boarding house in Barcelona, and that she would be there in an hour to pick me up. Together we relished all the wonders of Sant Jordi’s Day, the springtime joy of giving a friend a fresh rose and rummaging through new books side by side with hundreds of other people doing the same. Everything Senén had told me, plus all my own sensations: the air, the smells, the sounds. I was overwhelmed when we went up to Rosa’s house.

The next day there was a big celebration, and they took me along. A large part of the Florensa family was getting together in Vilanova de Bellpuig, where Uncle Antònio had been the village doctor. He had renovated a house on the main square, and this was the inaugural meal. The menu was grilled snails, for the first course, and rabbit with snails, for the second — I noticed a bit of curiosity as to whether the American would be on board for the snails and the rabbit; they hadn’t met many Chelsea girls — and the setting was the first and fascinating total immersion in Catalan.

Joan had something in mind. When we finished eating, we headed toward Vallbona de les Monges. Joan told me all about the transitional style of Cistercian architecture and the life of the Benedictine monks. I was struck by the space and the cloisters, the calm and spirituality that you still breathe in there. Joan, however, is as crazy as he is brilliant, and he intended to introduce me not only to Vallbona, but to the whole Cistercian triangle, including Poblet and Santes Creus. (Joan tells me that we did only two points of the triangle—this is indeed more likely). In any case, it was many miles, and it was years before I realized just how many, because that day I was floating beyond time.

All of this would have sufficed to make me fall in love with the country and the people. But the next day, Sunday, they had organized a paella at the home of Marisa Florensa, Rosa and Senén's other sister. There I met her husband, Xavier Ortega, a professor of nuclear engineering (it was he who would write the response to Adolfo Suárez when he expressed doubt as to whether one could speak of nuclear engineering in Catalan), and Joan Figueras, a professor of electronic engineering, and the paella chef of the day.

(I have two lineages in Catalonia: the economists, scientists, and civil servants that originated with Senén, and the philosophers, writers, and occasional politician that originated with Xavier Rubert de Ventós. But the latter one began two years later, also in New York, and it's a whole other story. Needless to say, they overlap.)

Marisa and Xavier, however, still had one last plan for me. They swept me off in a car along the beautiful road that borders the Mediterranean to Sitges. If I hadn’t been sufficiently astonished with the Barcelona of Sant Jordi, Lleida and Tarragona (Nova Catalunya) and the beautiful Cistercian style, and all the terroir in between, Sitges, la Blanca Subur and the coastal highway were the coup de grâce. The grand city, village life, the terraced landscape, Romanesque and Gothic splendor, the Mediterranean coast ...

The return to Madrid was not easy.

Part Two: The Marriage

A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. My love for the great Catalan book festival, and all the images inseparably associated with it, has only grown with time and my devotion to books. It would be difficult to create another book fair as joyful as this one anywhere but Barcelona. Many components have to come together for it to work: the Mediterranean weather and an urban design based on boulevards and promenades that allows it to be held outdoors; the liturgical calendar and the richness of local legends; the original coincidence with the rose fair; and the existence of a powerful multi-secular publishing industry, and an editorial guild clever enough to fuse all these qualities in the service of the book trade. All of this makes both my book-loving head and the Oedipal heart of the daughter of a traveling salesman explode with delight.

Between that prodigious weekend and now I have done a few things with and for Catalan culture in the United States: Catalan culture classes at several universities (NYU, Williams College, Middlebury College) and translations of a few extraordinary books, by Xavier Rubert de Ventós, Quim Monzó, Josep Carner and Josep Maria de Sagarra. I tried to leave a footprint at New York University, first with the Barcelona-New York Chair (1983-1986) and then with the Catalan Center at NYU (2006-2011), both with the invaluable impulse of Pasqual Maragall, first as Mayor of Barcelona and later as President of Catalonia. No footprint remains. Some storm always blows up and sweeps things away.

After the closing of the Catalan Center, in 2013 I started the Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S., an American not-for-profit organization whose mission is to highlight Catalan culture within the great mosaic of American cultures. It is called Farragut is to honor the Minorcan immigrant Jordi Ferragut i Mesquida and his son, David Farragut, the first admiral of the American navy (this was Quim Monzó’s idea).

In 2014 I organized the first Sant Jordi Book Festival in New York, in collaboration with the Catalan Institute of America. We invited translators from many languages to take part, in order to spark interest around the Catalan festival, and we organized a lit crawl through DUMBO: in the first bookstore we read literature translated from Czech and Polish; in the second Armenian and Catalan; in the third Argentine and Angolan. As if we were bookish Pied Pipers of Hamelin, the audience grew at every stop. The grand finale, in PowerHouse Books, was a reading of Josep Carner's Bestiary — Jordi Graupera read the Catalan — in my translation, and a recital of Melcion Mateu’s poetry in Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s translations, read by the two of them.

Every year we do a Sant Jordi, and every year it grows. In 2019 the Delegation of the Catalan Government in the United States awarded us a grant for 2020. We had been planning lit crawls through five neighborhoods for months when the pandemic shut us down. I was stunned, but one fine Monday, March 23, I called my extraordinary collaborators, artists Laia Cabrera of Lleida and Isabelle Duverger of Paris, and suggested that we flip Sant Jordi into an online party. No sooner said than done: that afternoon they sent the landing page and I started curating.

The first Sant Jordi NYC online was a success in every way: over 4 days, for 8 hours a day, we presented literature translated into English from 24 languages — from Arabic to Uyghur, and Catalan the first among many—representing 41 countries and geographical origins. We had some 7,000 visits, from 56 countries, and they continue to grow to this day. You can check it out.

Throughout our pandemic 2020, many valuable and interesting online literary initiatives were launched. But Sant Jordi NYC was not, nor is it now, simply a series of self-recorded readings: it is a destination, with music, art, and even Augmented Reality. People who come, stay, and they come back. All kinds of organizations signed on: the Neue Literatur Festival, the cultural services of Iceland, and Switzerland, the Permanent Mission of the Principality of Andorra to the UN, the Futbol Club Barcelona, as well as publishers such as Penguin Classics, Penguin India, World Editions, Archipelago Books... It is all documented on the website.

Part three: The Almost Golden Wedding Anniversary

This year marks my 47th year celebrating Sant Jordi. The 45th anniversary is sapphire; the 50th is gold. The 47th has no specific emblem. But Sant Jordi NYC is celebrating it anyway, and has added a chapter that reflects everything from the meal in Vilanova de Bellpuig to the orchards of the Cistercian monks: every day at noon (from April 19th to 24th) we will set the table for a literary meal: the main course will be 30-45 minutes of conversations about Mediterranean food literature — from the Book of Sent Soví to Ibn Mubarak Shah and Josep Pla. Then Chef Jaume Biarnés offers us an aperitif of videos of the great Catalan chefs, each explaining a basic concept of the Mediterranean Diet: “How to Olive Oil,” with Ferran Adrià; “How to Greens,” with Fina and Martina Puigdevall; “How to Seafood,” with Mateu Casañas, Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch; “How to Legume,” with Marc Puig-Pey from the Alícia Foundation; “How to Dessert,” with Christian Escribà; and “How to Wine,” with Josep Roca. In collaboration with Diplocat and produced by Visual13. PEN Català serves up the dessert with readings, by Carlota Subirós and Isaias Fanlo, of beautiful Catalan texts about food, from Francesc d’Eiximenis to Montserrat Abelló. We are accompanied by Òmnium Cultural, Futbol Club Barcelona, the Institut Ramon Llull, Alsina and Aneto, and the Medieval Association of the Legend of Sant Jordi of Montblanc. What we will leave behind is a document of the inseparability of food, culture and literature in the Mediterranean Diet, and a Sant Jordi NYC that hopes to honor the great Barcelona festival of literature, roses, books, and dragons.

Illustration to promote Sant Jordi in New York this year

Happy ending

There is nothing like rummaging through books and buying flowers on the Rambla, or Passeig de Gràcia, or Rambla de Poble Nou, or Carrer Pons i Subirà, or Passatge Calders ... And on the rambles and promenades and torrents all over Catalonia. But now you know that in New York there is a branch of St. Jordi’s Day that will bring you surprises, and readings, and even international readers. And music, art, and webAR (invite a little dragon into your home). And recipes! This is your invitation to the party as of this year. Join us! Hopefully we will make it to the golden anniversary!

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