‘Important for our mental health’: Why Spanish culture has stayed open over winter

With entertainment venues shuttered across much of Europe, Spain stands out as a cultural oasis where people still go to the theatre and cinema or watch concerts despite soaring infection rates.

'Important for our mental health': Why Spanish culture has stayed open over winter
A cinema-goer in Madrid. Photo: AFP

“Having the chance to be here with you is a huge blessing and with all my heart I applaud the great efforts being made in this country to defend culture,” Mexican tenor Javier Camarena told Madrid's Theatre Royal last week after going months without performing on stage.

In the audience were 1,200 people in suits, fur coats and masks, often the FFP2 type, after having their temperature taken as part of a meticulous safety protocol.

Following a month's-long national lockdown at the start of the pandemic, Spain's cultural venues reopened in the summer operating with strict capacity limitations, well-spaced seating policies and bars and cloakrooms closed.

And since then they have never closed their doors, unlike in other countries such as France or Germany.

But it has meant a costly investment by the venues.

The Theatre Royal, where Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia attended a performance in September, said it has spent one million euros, part of which went on an ultraviolet light system for disinfecting the auditorium, the dressing rooms and even the costumes.

And the performers themselves are not exempt from these new rituals: as well as respecting the safety distance and protective partitions, the musicians must undergo regular tests and wear masks, except for the players of wind instruments.

'Safe space'

“We can and we must” put on these performances, Spain's Culture Minister Jose Manuel Rodriguez Uribes told AFP, who wants to show that culture “is a safe space”.

But the pandemic has forced some venues to temporarily shut, such as Barcelona's feted Liceu operahouse which closed its doors in November.

Under the combined pressure of nationwide curfews, public anxiety and economic pressures, many cultural venues are fighting for their survival.

According to Javier Olmedo, director of “Noche en vivo” association which represents 54 concert halls in the Madrid region, “80 percent have not opened since March”.

“It's a time of distress”

Many initiatives to bring people back to theatres and concert halls have popped up on social networks, tagged #SafeTheatre or #CultureisSafe, insisting they have not been linked to any outbreaks.

Marta Rivera de la Cruz, deputy head of cultural affairs in Madrid's regional government, readily acknowledges it is “concert halls and live music venues that are facing the most difficult challenge”, saying they will need the vaccine to be widely adopted “to get back on their feet”.

Until then, the authorities are looking at rapid virus tests.

The Teatro Real in Madrid on January 14, 2021. Photo: AFP

In Barcelona, 500 people attended a standing-only concert, grouped very close together but wearing masks who had been previously tested in the context of a clinical study carried out in December.

Eight days later, there was no sign of any infection.

It's an idea that could prove to be “the safest way to reactivate the entertainment sector”, says infectious diseases specialist Boris Revollo, who led the study.

'No sweat!'

At the Renoir cinema in the centre of Madrid, the cashier's voice crackles over the intercom: “Screen 3, at the back after the escalators”.

A risky outing? Not for Paloma Arroyo, 38, who has come to see a retrospective of work by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai.

“When you go wearing a mask, you don't talk. People eating popcorn is a bit dangerous, I've thought about that,” she jokes, saying such outings were important for protecting her “mental health”.

If public transport is considered safe, the cinemas are even more so, says Pablo Blasco, another movie-goer.

“I don't understand why other countries aren't doing this. It seems strange to me.”

A few hundred metres (yards) away, old promotional posters outside the Cafe Berlin, a popular live music venue, give nostalgic echoes of the world before the pandemic.

Inside, under bluish lights, the music is powerful and intoxicating, but with dancing banned, the audience can only wiggle in their small velvet chairs facing the stage where the DJ works his magic.

For Maria Llorens, a 20-year-old student, it's not ideal but better than nothing, admitting she misses “that party feeling, with people pressed up against you, and the sweat!”

The club has since closed until further notice due to the economic pressures brought on by the increasing restrictions aimed at slowing infections.

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Why a mouse called Pérez is Spain’s tooth fairy

When a child loses a milk tooth in Spain, it’s not a magical fairy that comes to collect it in the night, but a little mouse instead.

Why a mouse called Pérez is Spain’s tooth fairy

In countries such as the UK, the US and Australia when kids’ baby teeth fall out, it’s customary for them to put it under their pillow, hoping that a magical fairy will come in the night to take it away. 

The story goes that the fairy wants the tooth for her magic castle, all made out of teeth, and will pay children a reward by leaving a coin or two under the pillow instead. 

But in Spain, there is no fairy or a magic castle, instead, it’s a little mouse called Ratoncito Pérez who comes to collect it instead. Similarly, the mouse will leave a reward for the tooth such as a few coins, some sweets or small gifts. 

Sometimes you will spot toy shops in Spain that have built a tiny house for the Mouse Pérez outside their store. 

How did the story of Ratoncito Pérez come about?

The legend of the Mouse Pérez started out as a character in a story written by Luis Coloma. 

Coloma was commissioned to write the story by Queen María Cristina, for King Alfonso XIII (1886-1941), whom she affectionately called Buby, when he was eight years old and lost one of his milk teeth.

It is said that through the tale, the author wanted to teach the young king about the importance of brotherhood whether a person is rich or poor, good or bad so that he would become a great leader. 

The story goes that Ratoncito Pérez lived in a box of biscuits in a house in Madrid and every night would scour the city for teeth, visiting the homes of children who had recently lost them and leaving a coin under their pillow in exchange. 

READ ALSO: Why do Spanish parents pierce their babies’ ears? 

One night, the mouse meets King Buby when he loses a tooth and together they go on an adventure to meet Pérez’s family and help the poor people around the city. 

The original manuscript of the story was dedicated to D. Alfonso XIII and is dated 1894, but it was not until 1902 when the king was 16 that the story was first published in a book of short stories. 

Another edition was published in 1911, dedicated to the Prince of Asturias D. Alfonso de Borbón y Battenberg, King Alfonso XIII’s son. 

Although Ratoncito Pérez is the most well-known character who collects teeth in Spain, there are regional differences too.

In Catalonia there’s also Angelet or the little angel who comes to collect teeth, in the Basque Country there’s Maritxu Teilatukoa, a little ladybird who lives on the roof and comes down to fetch children’s teeth from under their pillows. And in Cantabria, there’s a tooth squirrel – L`Esquilu de los dientis

The concept of a little mouse who comes for kids’ teeth is in fact not so strange because in many other countries, it’s also a mouse and not a fairy that arrives in the middle of the night too. 

In France, parts of Belgium and Switzerland and some countries in Central and South America there’s also a tooth mouse.