A recent article from a fellow Barcelona blogger who writes for a local magazine, reminded me of a draft post that I started on 14 September 2010, a few days after my daughter's 7th birthday party. (I told you I had a backlog!)
Having children in a foreign country gives you behind the scenes access to an event filled with cultural differences, which provide a deeper understanding of the local culture. The Birthday Party.
We have hosted several birthday parties at our home since moving to Barcelona. With each party, I have adopted some local customs and yet, probably still leave some parents wondering "what kind of birthday party is this?" After attending birthday parties regularly (read, at least two a month) for the past two years, I have a better grip on how a kid's birthday party operates here. I really love going to the parties and noting the differences and similiarities. After all, most cultures celebrate birthdays, but how it is done can be completely different. And since we have been celebrating birthdays since our first birthday, it is surprising to realize how ingrained birthday customs so that operate on autopilot during parties.
Don't be surprised when your child brings home a birthday party invitation the day before the party. Seriously, the day before!!! I don't think I will ever get used to this one. The first time it happened, I perceived the parents as poor party planners. But then it happened again and again. Chats with the other expat moms assured me that this was totally normal. Even with short notice, Catalan parents make a big effort to have their children attend the party. No wonder everyone found me strange, when I sent a "save the date" email for my son's party.
You can also forget about a big gift opening scene at a Catalan birthday party (at least in all the parties I have attended). Commonly, in the US, the birthday child will open all of their presents surrounded by their guests. In Catalunya, upon arrival, the excited guest runs as quickly as possible, with gift in hand, to find the birthday child. After a hug and two-cheek kiss, the guest gives the gift and it is immediately ripped open on the spot. At first I thought it was a bit out of control, but I have taken a liking to this approach. I find the moment is what gift giving should be - a shared moment of appreciation between the giver and receiver. Although it makes gift tracking for future thank you notes a bit difficult.
In the United States, themed birthday cakes are so common that you can buy a cake decorated in any theme at the supermarket. Go to the supermarket here in search of a basic cake and you will find something that looks like a grown-up cake. You won't have better luck going to a bakery either. (Although, in the 2+ years I have been here I have seen several specialty US-style cake decorators appear on the scene.) Judging by the size of the baking supply and ingredient section in the markets, I don't believe making decorated birthday cakes, let alone baking* period, is a big activity for Catalan parents. (*At least from my US-centric view of baking breads, pies, cookies and cakes. And who can blame them with two bakeries on every block!)
A typical birthday cake from a bakery or supermarket | Cocina Con Luz Verde
Within our circle of local friends, the moms do typically bake a very simple birthday cake. Perhaps a chocolate cake with an M&M-type candy spelling the child's name. Or maybe it is the Catalan version of the "sheet cake" - bizcocho or a thicker coca (like the first picture with three cakes) with sprinkles and a chocolate shape cut-out on top. Usually the cakes are less sweet and have a more dry texture compared to US cakes.
In the US, even the most inexperienced baker will whip up a decorated birthday cake. Parent magazines and websites always give instructions. It is easy to find cake decorating stores or little decoration trinkets at the supermarket. Heck, you can give take a cake decorating class at your local craft store. While a few cake decorating classes are popping up in Barcelona there is not the abundance of cake decorating options to be found. At the first birthday party we had here, I made a red cake with pink candy jewels and edible flowers. A local exclaimed, "What is it? Can we eat it? I have never seen anything like it." At first, I thought she was worried about the health aspects of the red food coloring. (My kids do attend a Waldorf school.) Turns out, she really has never seen anything like it at a birthday party.
Typical American ingredients are hard time find - powdered sugar comes in a plastic shaker tube (not near the quantity needed to make frosting) and vanilla, don't even get me started (I have to trek to a special shop for it). Of course, I don't expect to find American ingredients here, but powdered sugar and vanilla extract seem fairly basic baking ingredients in many Western cultures. When we first moved here, I sawed open about five azucar glace shaker bottles to speed up my frosting creation, which resulted in shards of plastic sprinkled throughout the frosting. All that effort and I had to dump it in the trash. Now, I buy powdered sugar by the kilo from a cake decorating store in Madrid and other ingredients at a specialized restaurant/patisserie supply store in Barcelona.
If the birthday party is held during the week, it will typically be after school, during the berenar (catalan) / la mirienda (castellano) time. Which is about 5 pm and would probably end before 8 pm (well before dinner). A few weeks ago, we went to a group birthday party (another common practice of holding one party for several classmates) on a Saturday that started at 4 pm. We left at 9:30 and we were one of the first families to leave! If the party is held on the weekend, it may start earlier, but must be observant of the Catalan's strict oberservance of "el tiempo de la comida" (lunch time). Catalans eat lunch at 2, 3 or even as late as 4 pm on the weekends. One of my son's parties started at 11 am on a Saturday. A Catalan friend was wondering if we would include lunch because it was such an odd time for a party. Although we had a ton of tapas, empanadas, pizza and Spanish tortillas, I thought for sure we would not have to worry about lunch because the party would be over by 2 pm. I was wrong. The party lasted until 5-6 pm. Thank goodness we had lots of food, even if it wasn't a typical Catalan lunch, people weren't hungry (I hope). Recently, we were at an American birthday party that started at 12 and lasted beyond 4 pm. Around 2 pm, some cheese or ham sandwiches were passed around. There wasn't enough for all the kids, so I assume it was not thought of as the lunch option, as probably the American family already had lunch before the party. In between party games, I noticed one Catalan family had packed a "tupper" (Tupperware) for "la comida." Perhaps word got around that the Americans don't serve a proper lunch at birthdays, so you better bring your own.
Many Catalans live in pisos (a large apartment/flat), so they tend to hold birthdays at parks or indoor play spaces. Since we have never been to a "ludoteca" party, check out Joanna's experience over at The Metropolitan. At a park, parents will bring folding tables or cover the permanent ping pong tables with a table cloth. A grandparent's house with a large backyard or a masia (old, large Catalan country home) are also possible party locations.
As I mentioned in the "time" section, if the birthday party is going to extend over the time of la comida, you can expect to have more hearty tapas or finger type foods, like pizza. I have been to birthday parties where all the children sit down and eat their lunch together before having cake. During other times of the day, you can bet that there will be Spanish tortillas, jamon and pa amb tomaquet. You will probably find some trays full of sandwiches filled with chorizo, jamon dulce or cheese (but never mixed together) and for those with a sweet-tooth, nutella. And like most parties in the USA, you can find bowls of nuts and potato chips too. At some point bottles of cava will be passed around for a toast (for the adults). Coffee is a must, especially since the party may last at least 5 hours. If the party is at the park, coffee will be brought in a thermos and served in small plastic espresso cups, complete with small plastic spoons.
So, this turned out to be a truly LONG post and there is still more I could write about Catalan children's birthday parties. Overall, I have found birthday parties here to not be the competitive parenting sport they can be in the USA. But this could also be a result of my kids attending a Waldorf school and most of our Catalan friends originating from that circle. If you have been to a child's birthday party in Spain what was your experience? Have you ever attended a children's party in a foreign country or with a different cultural origins? Write a comment and share your experience.
** For local expats, I will do a follow-up post with links to the locations where I buy my party and cake decorating supplies in Barcelona and Madrid. **