Monday, 16 February 2009

On libraries and librerias - bibliotecas y bookshops!

It has to be admitted that I am addicted to books. I find it hard to go into a bookshop without purchasing something. At home in England we have accumulated books over the years, filling shelves to overflowing despite occasional culls and attempts to give books away to friends and relations. Now, although we have vast amounts of empty shelfspace here in our Vigo flat we really would prefer not to fill it all. Whatever we decide to do when our lease runs out here, we would prefer not to have to transport boxes and boxes of books. Minimalism is the word of the year: minimum clothes, minimum kitchen clutter, minimum books. Our music collection has been reduced to the MP3 player plus speakers and the DVDs we have brought with us have come without their boxes, causing some confusion if we want details but reducing the space they took up in suitcases for transportation.

So we investigated, found and joined the local municipal library, an old building just off Plaza de la Constitucion, on the edge of the Casco Vello. Joining was easy: fill in a form, hand over two photos and receive a card giving you the right to borrow up to six books and four DVDs. In most respects it is just like libraries everywhere but the system of cataloguing and placing books on shelves has no obvious rhyme or reason. If you know exactly which book you want to borrow, and if the computers are up and running, the computer system works fine: you note down the number of the book and go and find it on the shelf. But should you want to browse, looking for ideas and inspiration it is a completely different story. All genres are mixed; all authors are mixed; nothing seems to follow even alphabetical order. Amongst "literature" you will find "Learn English in six weeks". It is a total nightmare as the works by any one author can be spread all over the place.

This is a problem shared by most bookshops in Spain in my experience. Books seem to be placed on shelves according to, perhaps, their ISBN number rather than in alphabetical order of writers or according to genre. However, La Casa del Libro, the bookshop on Calle Velazquez Moreno here in Vigo proves to be an exception to this rule. A wonderful place, it has a section for Spanish and South American literature, others for foreign literature, works in Gallego, historical works, thrillers, best sellers and so on. Even better, the books are nicely, logically arranged in ... wait for it ... ALPHABETICAL ORDER!! It is a pleasure to browse the shelves, being very strong and resisting the urge to buy too much or too often, noting down names of authors and titles of books to seek out in the library.

La Casa del Libro, like many modern bookshops in many European countries, has its own cafe area. Not quite as stunning as the patio-garden cafe of the Feltrinelli bookshop in Pisa, where you go through the bookshop into an open patio with trees and plants, the Casa del Libro cafe is nonetheless a haven of quiet where you can sit and read the paper or chat with friends without the incessant babble of a TV set (omnipresent in Spanish bars and cafes) and, even more pleasant, in a smoke-free environment. Wonderful!

What the library has in its favour is the range of activities it organises. They do guided tours of the building itself every week, have visiting speakers and exhibitions and a range of activities for children, encouraging them to read and be creative. It also serves as an after-school club for children whose parents work full time and the basement of the building is regularly full of busy children aged from about six to twelve.

It was in the library that I discovered the existence of Clubs de Lectura. So in October I signed myself up for the reading group for Spanish and Gallego, one of the best things I have done. Once a week I go along and discuss books with a group of ladies - there was ONE brave young man but unfortunately he only lasted a few weeks. Perhaps we opinionated, vociferous, enthusiastic, mostly middle-aged ladies were too much for him. The library provides copies of the books for all the members of the group. Discussion goes on mostly in Castellano (standard Spanish) but there are a couple of members who INSIST on speaking Gallego all the time. So far this has not proved to be a problem. Since January I have also been attending the Club de Lectura de Frances, making sure that I continue reading and talking in French.

One final advantage for me, quite inintentional, was that my Vigo library card served as a form of ID. I was accompanying my daughter and her children to the airport in Oporto, across the border in Portugal. There is a handy bus service from Vigo to the airport and it was only as we got close to the bus station to catch the bus that I thought about my passport. I had come out on automatic pilot, leaving my passport safely tucked away on the desk in the bedroom. The last time I had done this journey no-one had asked to check passports and our taxi driver reassured me that he crossed the border all the time without problems: "somos vecinos". Famous last words!

At the first stop in Portugal the border police got on the bus and asked to see everyone's documents. I watched one young man being asked to leave the bus while they searched his bag. Uh, oh! Was I about to be thrown off the bus, obliged to phone home and ask Phil to come quickly with my passport? Would I be arrested? How had I managed to be so stupid?

But no, there was no problem. I explained to the very polite policeman that I was simply going to the airport and back into Spain. My only means of identification was my Vigo library card, complete with its photo. My daughter curled up in embarassement. "What is your nationality?" he asked me. The Portuguese like the British by all accounts. He wished me a nice day and we went on our way. Phew!!!!

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