Why do Catalonian nativity scenes feature a man pooping?

Some places have downright odd traditions and rituals.

As I wandered through some outdoor Christmas fairs in Barcelona, Spain, last weekend, I found many stalls specializing in crèches and figures for nativity scenes.

Fira de Nadal at the Barcelona Cathedral
This stall at the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral sells crèches. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

One figurine caught my eye because it seemed so bizarre: El Caganer. In polite translation, it means “the defecator” or one who poops.

He usually wears the traditional Catalonian red cap, a white peasant shirt and squats with his pants pulled down and a pile of excrement on the ground behind him. (See featured photo at top.)

El Caganer can be found in Christmas nativity scenes, but not in the manger. He’s usually tucked away somewhere, presenting his gift to baby Jesus, so to say.

Yes, the Catalonians are somewhat obsessed with crap. They’re not the only ones.

Scatalogical humor is part of our modern global culture, whether you like it or not. Over the last few years, it’s received a bit of a boost with the insane popularity of the poop emoji. Although the poop emoji appeared in 2010, it didn’t become one of the most popular iPhone emojis until 2016. Now, it can be found on earrings, hats, cupcakes, balloons and more.

poop emoji
The iPhone poop emoji (Apple)

The origins of El Caganer go much farther back than that of the poop emoji. In his book Barcelona, author Robert Hughes, traced the caganer as a folk-art character to the 16th century. The story goes that he became popular as a nativity figure in the 19th century.

The caganer also has appeared in more modern art, including by Catalonia’s own Joan Miró. He painted a baby squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921 and the surrealist “Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement” in 1935.

The Farm by Joan Miró
Catalonian native son, artist Joan Miró, painted a baby (a caganer) squatting near his mother washing clothes at a cistern in “The Farm” in 1921. (Wikiart)

At the Christmas fair (fira de nadal) in front of the Barcelona Cathedral and the one in front of the Sagrada Familia, I saw rows of traditional caganers for sale. (These stalls sell many other figurines to basically create an entire village, complete with miniature animals, pots, jamón and looms.)

At tourist tchotchke shops, I also saw caganer figures in slightly larger versions on celebrities like Elvis to politicians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and even FC Barcelona soccer stars. (See photo at end.)

Why? I’m not exactly sure where this affinity for poop comes from, but it’s real.

Catalonians have “an abiding taste” for scatological humor and place the value a “good crap” on level with that of a “good meal,”Hughes writes. An old Catalonian folk saying goes “Menjar be, cagar fort, I no tingues por de la mort”or “Eat well, shit strongly, and you will have no fear of death.”

Cagier figurines
Many tourist tchotchke shops in Barcelona sell caganers modeled after celebrities, politicians, soccer stars and others. (Wikimedia Commons)

Say cheese: Small Northern California creamery makes cheese by hand

Say cheese.

Cheese is such a big part of the American diet that it’s used to make people smile.

We love cheese. We eat a lot of cheese (each American consumes nearly 37 pounds of cheese a year) and we’re expected to eat more cheese.

The Dallas Morning News recently published an article I wrote about five artisanal cheesemakers in western Marin County, Calif., about 35 miles north of San Francisco. They produce some of the nation’s best cheese — from cottage cheese to brie to blue.

During my reporting, one of the cheesemakers, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., let me observe its small production process unclose and take a tour of its creamery. I thought I’d share what I learned there.

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery
Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery is housed in a remodeled dairy barn. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The dairy run by the LaFranchi family, owners of Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. in the tiny town of Nicasio, will be 100 years old in 2019. Its cheese operation, however, will only be 10 years old next year.

The LaFranchi family uses 100 percent certified organic milk from cows on their 1,150-acre certified organic ranch to make eight farmstead cheeses at the on-site creamery. All production, aging and packaging is done on site. The creamery also has an attached retail shop and tasting room.

Following in the footsteps of their Swiss-Italian ancestors, the family’s first product was an aged mountain cheese thanks to help from Swiss mentor Maurizio Laurenzeti. He isn’t a family member, but makes cheese in the same Ticino region of Switzerland.

“Maurizio’s cheeses were the inspiration for the line of cheeses we make,” said Rick LaFranchi, part of the third generation that runs the dairy and creamery. “We went [to Switzerland] in 2007 to make cheeses with him.”

Here’s Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s cheesemaking process:

1. Workers milk 450 cows daily on the 1,150-acre certified organic ranch. Each morning, a tanker delivers 300 to 1,000 gallons of fresh milk from the dairy to the creamery, which is in a remodeled dairy barn.

2. The milk is quality tested before being pasteurized in a high-temperature, short-time process by high-tech machinery installed in May.

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Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. head cheesemaker, Aaron Langdon, currently follows a single-vat, single-batch production process to make one type of cheese a day. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)3. The pasteurized milk is pumped into a large vat and heated to a certain temperature (that’s confidential). Head cheesemaker Aaron Langdon adds cultures and then rennet (a coagulant) to help the cultured milk solidify it.

4. In a little while, curds start to form in the vat. Langdon stirs this curds and whey mixture and then drains it into molds for the desired cheese shape. It takes six hours from fluid milk to the finished cheese (before aging).

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5. Workers move the cheese molds to a nearby temperature-regulated room for a few hours or overnight, depending on the type of cheese.

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6. The cheese (all types except Foggy Morning, an award-winning fresh cheese that’s soft like formage blanc but a big tangy) is put into a brine solution for a few hours to 24 hours.

7. The cheese goes into a warm room called a “hastening room,” where it starts to form a rind. Here, the cheese is flipped daily so moisture doesn’t set in for inconsistency, Langdon said.

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8. The cheese goes into an aging room, which are recycled shipping containers, set at various temperatures. Aging can take a few days to months. Foggy Morning, for example, is left for just days. Its bold, washed-rind Raclette-style San Geronimo cheese is aged up to 6 months, Langdon said.

9. Some cheeses go into a washed-rind room for four to six weeks, where the rind is washed by hand in brine every day.

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“We focus on quality, and try to be as consistent as we can be from batch to batch,” said Langdon, who’s been making cheese for 13 years.

This summer, Northern California residents Annie and Peter Gommers paid their second visit to the creamery to buy some San Geronimo cheese.

“What we like about this place is that it’s most like European cheese,” said Annie, adding that Peter is Dutch. “It’s organic and it’s not outrageously expensive. Farmstead is very special and needs to be supported.”

If you visit, you may see some of the LaFranchi’s cows on nearby rolling, golden hills dotted with California oak trees.

Note: I didn’t duplicate much from my story in The News, so please read that for more information about Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., including staying on the ranch, and the other four cheesemakers.

What’s your pleasure? travel

We know more Americans traveled last year, and now we know more about who traveled and how they traveled.

Most people traveled for pleasure, not business, and most of that travel is within the United States.

U.S. leisure travel increased about 2 percent last year, accounting for 80 percent of all U.S. travel, according to the U.S. Travel Association (USTA).

Overall, airlines carried a record 965 million U.S. passengers* in 2017, up 3.4 percent from the previous high in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). More than three-quarters of those passengers (742 million) were on flights within the United States.

Airline passenger traffic 2003-17

Travelers were more likely to choose closer-to-home destinations with paid lodgings, but not necessarily a packaged flight, according to travel research firm Phocuswright. In fact, air and cruise purchases declined in 2017, and prepackaged vacations were flat, it said.

Leisure travelers spent $718 billion in 2017, nearly double the amount spent by business travelers and up 5 percent from 2016, according to the USTA. Food and lodging were the top two spending categories.

Here’s how those USTA numbers broke down for 2017:

  • Travelers spent $257 billion on food at restaurants, grocery stores and bars, accounting for 25 percent of all U.S. traveler spending.
  • Travelers spent $220 billion on lodging, including vacation homes and campgrounds, accounting for 21 percent of total U.S. traveler spending. Although more than two-thirds of U.S. travelers (68 percent) stayed in a hotel, that declined from 73 percent in 2016, according to Phocuswright.
  • Spending on auto travel rose 8 percent, mostly due to higher gasoline prices. Phocuswright also found that the number of car rentals also increased slightly
Phocuswright travel trends
Leisure travel trends from 2014 to 2017. (Courtesy of Phocuswright)

U.S. air travel continues to rise this year. As of April, the number of air passengers was up about 5 percent from a year ago, according to BTS statistics.

* Passengers on domestic and international trips traveling on U.S. or foreign airlines.

Road tripping this summer? Free apps can help before and during your journey

If you’re like many Americans, you’ll be hitting the road this summer or fall for a family vacation.

Last week, I wrote about some of my favorite road trips. Now, here are dozens of free mobile apps to make planning your road trip — and driving it — easier and more fun.

Planning your road trip

Download the AAA Mobile app to map routes and find food and lodgings along the way. Google Maps and Waze also will do this (other uses below).

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Image by Matheus Bertelli via Pexels License.

Roadtrippers will help make sure you don’t miss any must-see landmarks or off-the-beaten path stops along the way. Browse categories from historical markers to hiking to amusement parks, read about each site and add it to a to-see list on the app.

Type any location into the map-based Findery free app to access notes that other users have left about the place (a walk they did there, tips, photos) or browse the latest notes. You also can leave a public note or make it private.

TollGuru will help you calculate gas prices and tolls for your journey by vehicle type, including RVs and towing a trailer.

If you plan to drive on major U.S. interstates, GPS-based iExit will help you plot where to take pit stops. The default mode shows a summary of amenities, such as gas, toilets, coffee, playgrounds and camping, at upcoming exits in real time, but you also can search upcoming exits for a specific service. The app can be helpful while driving.

While on the road

Google Maps is still the best way to steer clear of traffic snarls and accidents that could cause delays. If a faster route opens once you’re on the road, the app automatically changes your directions. Similarly, Waze will help you find a faster route based on crowdsourced, real-time reports, and it can send you speed-trap alerts from other users.

GasBuddy will find the lowest gas and diesel prices anywhere based on crowdsourced data. Just type in a city/state and voilà.

Magic Mountain Parkway highway sign
Apps can tell you that Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park is just off Interstate 5 near Los Angeles. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

There’s nothing worse than not being able to find a bathroom when you need one. In addition to iExit, two apps will help you find just toilets. You can search Flush Toilet Finder‘s database of 100,000 public bathrooms worldwide (no Internet connection needed). On SitorSquat (powered by Charmin), clean locations get a green “Sit” rating; less desirable ones get a red “Squat.”

GPS-based Glympse lets you temporarily share your real-time location and estimated arrival time with friends, family and others.

You’ll find many apps to help you find overnight lodgings. Airbnb is one of the most versatile. It’s everywhere and you can filter searches by price, type of accommodation, wi-fi service and more. Try Hotel Tonight for discounts on same-day bookings or seven days ahead. I also like the TripAdvisor app (on iTunes and Google Play for its user reviews, photos and deals.

If you want to eat something other than fast-food and truck-stop fare while on the road, Yelp will help you find the best places to eat and drink in many U.S. towns and cities. User reviews are helpful for quality, service and meal recommendations.

Happy travels!

Road trip? California Highway 1 section in Big Sur set to reopen in September

California Journal

Visitors to California can look forward to the reopening of one of the most scenic parts of California Highway 1 that winds along the Big Sur coastline in September after being closed for more than a year.

Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, is the state’s best-known scenic byway, starting near San Juan Capistrano and ending in Mendocino County.

California Highway 1 shield
(SPUI via Creative Commons)

Highway 1 winds for hundreds of miles along much of the state’s coastline, hugging cliff tops and passing through some of the state’s best tourist spots. Visitors will see California’s largest cities, many beaches, Redwood trees, Elephant seals, boardwalks, lighthouses, missions, wineries, Hearst Castle and spectacular coastal views.

Currently, however, you cannot drive along Highway 1 past Ragged Point just north of Hearst Castle to Big Sur. The detour route winds inland and adds about 30 minutes to the drive. The featured photo at top of California Highway 1 in Big Sur is about a mile north of Ragged Point looking south. (Fred Moore via Creative Commons)

Caltrans closed that section of road in April 2017 due to dangerous conditions. One month later, a massive landslide — one of the biggest in state history — occurred there at Mud Creek. (An earlier mudslide in March 2017 destroyed the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which is used to access Big Sur from the north, but it reopened in October 2017.)

 

Big Sur northward view
This view of California Highway 1 near Big Sur includes Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to the North. (Astronautilus via Creative Commons)

The treacherous stretch of Highway 1 around Big Sur has seen upwards of 60 road closures since 1935. A Caltrans report detailed 56 road closures from 1935 through mid-2000, but there have been many more  since then.

San Quentin Prison inmates and locals, like writer John Steinbeck, built Highway 1. It opened in 1934.

Q&A: What the Alaska Airlines and Virgin America deal means for travelers

Alaska Airlines on Wednesday completed its purchase of Virgin America, kicking off a merger process it hopes to complete within three weeks.

The Seattle-based parent of Alaska Airlines paid $2.5 billion for Burlingame, Calif.-based Virgin America, a week after getting approval from the U.S. Department of Justice contingent on Alaska Air Group Inc. reducing the scope of its code-share agreement with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline based in Texas. Alaska expects to receive approval from regulators and Virgin America shareholders by Jan. 1.

The merger Alaska and Virgin America will create the nation’s fifth largest airline, with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations in North America, Costa Rica and Cuba. Based in Seattle, the combined airline will be a West Coast powerhouse, with hubs in Seattle; Portland, Ore., Anchorage; San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Here are some answers to questions travelers may have:

Q. Where can Virgin America tickets be bought online?

A. Starting Dec. 19, customers can buy Virgin America tickets at AlaskaAir.com. They also can continue to buy tickets at VirginAmerica.com for the immediate future.

Q. Are there any new routes?

A. The combined airline will offer new daily flights to Minneapolis; Orange County, Calif.; and Orlando, Fla.; from its San Francisco hub starting in summer 2017. The schedule will be announced on Dec. 21, the same day tickets to those places go on sale.

Q. Will the Virgin America name and/or experience go away?

A. Travelers should not see “major changes” to the Virgin America product or flying experience in the next 12 months. Alaska said it’s “conducting extensive customer research to understand what customers value most” and hopes to have a decision about the Virgin America brand in early 2017.

Q. If you have an existing flight reservation, what should you do?

A. If you have an existing reservation, your reservation remains the same, and each airline’s current travel policies still apply. If you have a flight on Virgin America, check in at a Virgin America counter. If you have a flight on Alaska, check in at an Alaska counter.

Q. What changes will loyalty program members of each airline see?

A. Alaska Mileage Plan and Virgin America Elevate will continue to operate as separate programs. Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights and elite members will receive priority check-in and boarding on each other’s flights. Starting Jan. 9, members of both frequent flier programs will be able to redeem award travel on both airlines and Elevate members will be invited to open new Alaska Mileage Plan accounts.

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Courtesy of Alaska Airlines Group Inc.

Q. What does the merger mean for California customers?

A. The combined airline offers 289 daily flights to 52 places in California. Just from the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 113 daily flights to 32 destinations.

Q. Will Alaska’s fleet change?

A. Alaska said it has not made any long-term decisions about its fleet. For now, Virgin America’s Airbus A319 and A320 jets will join Alaska’s all-Boeing fleet.

It remains to be seen how the Alaska and Virgin America merger and their different styles will shake out. Virgin America is known as young, fun airline with cabin mood lighting and touch-screen personal entertainment. Alaska has invested in technology, such as luggage tags customers can print at home, for more efficient operations.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works – and we’re confident fliers will agree,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement. “The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

Travelers can find more answers on an Alaska web page designed for that purpose.