IT is one of the highlights of the Catalan calendar, but this year’s Day of Books and Roses, St Jordi’s Day, like almost everything else is going virtual because of coronavirus.

Usually, today sees tens of thousands of people throng Barcelona’s Las Ramblas and its myriad side streets, along with those in other towns and cities, browsing stalls selling books and roses, as Catalonia honours its patron saint.

It’s an event that’s a cross between Valentine’s and World Book Day, but social distancing and other measures in place because of the pandemic have taken their toll.

While the day itself has been moved to July 23, celebrations will be held virtually, with people being asked to come out on their balconies and “host” discussions online, while presents of books and roses can be bought online. Last year, we joined Catalans on the streets of Barcelona to gain an insight into this tradition of loved ones exchanging a book for a rose, with the help of Iolanda Batallé, director of the Institut Ramon Llull in Barcelona, which promotes Catalan culture abroad and will host authors’ online readings.

She told The National: “We have to think positively to adapt to this new situation: adaptability, flexibility and generosity.

“It was such a difference a year ago when we went to St Jordi. It’s so

important this connection of Catalan culture with books, with literature, with culture and it really defines us.

“So being confined today is for me as a publisher and writer and as director of the Institut Ramon Llull, it’s such a difference.

“Last year I started talking about St Jordi on TV and did a whole day of interviews and gatherings with people from bookshops in the streets, with writers, and that night we flew to Buenos Aires for a book fair.

“Today we are all in our homes, where we’ve been for 42 days doing tons of media work and conferences through computers and mobiles.”

Booksellers and florists have urged people to come out on to their balconies or patios to celebrate, at noon and 6pm.

Catalan authorities have promoted several initiatives, including one that encourages people to read texts aloud and share the recordings on social media.

The home of the Catalan government, the Palau de la Generalitat, is offering virtual YouTube tours, while the public diplomacy council, Diplocat, has organised an online international facility where people can send a virtual rose with a message in Catalan, Spanish or English.

The Salvador Dalí Foundation in Girona has its own digital plans, including persuading people to video their readings of texts by Dalí and his wife Gala and upload them to Instagram.

Batallé said balcony celebrations had been going on for the past 42 days, not that she’s counting: “Every day at 8pm we come out on to our balconies and we clap, sing and celebrate for all the doctors and nurses and all the people who are taking care of us.

“We had nearly 70 people and we had breakfast together today talking about this day, the importance of books and roses, but the cultural strategy we are working on for everyone. Then … every worker recommended a book or two they are reading these days and sharing their confinement with.

“It’s different, it’s the first St Jordi without touching each other, without hugging in the streets, sharing books and selling them and partying directly.

“But it’s also very beautiful because it makes very clear how literature and books make our lives through all these days of being at home. Books and the arts have kept us alive – we are transforming and re-inventing ourselves.”

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