Ilivetolearn's Blog

March 18, 2007

the writing on the wall

Filed under: on the road,random quotes,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 3:34 pm

According to a Quien quiere ser millonario question, the Alhambra of Granada is the most visited monument in Spain—over 2 million people a year. The other choices were the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (the end of the pilgrims’ trail, Camino de Santiago), the Mesquite (mosque now cathedral) in Cordoba, and the Altamira cave. We’ve been to all four, though not in the cave itself–only the reproduction. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the scholar who excavated the cave in 1879 and led the 25-year fight to recognize the paintings as prehistoric, was spelunking with his 9-year-old daughter, who apparently looked up and said, “Mira, Papa, bueyes!” (“Look, Daddy, buffaloes!”)

I thought of the neck-craning necessary at Altamira when I went to the newly-unveiled memorial to victims of the terrorist bombings at the Atocha train station. The third anniversary (3/11) saw a solemn ceremony in which the King and Queen silently laid a wreath at the memorial—no speeches, no efforts to politicize. The installation itself is a glass-brick cylinder, nondescript from the outside, but when viewed from the brilliantly blue cave-like space below, quite impressive. The inner cylinder is inscribed with messages left on a wall set up at the bomb-site, in dozens of languages including Catalan, Gallego, French, German, Italian, English, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese. Every single one is a plea for peace; voices of sympathy, support, reconciliation, and explicit rejection of retribution echo as you gaze upward. Quite moving.

I’m guessing it will be one of the most-visited monuments before long, especially considering that Atocha is the crossroads of
long-distance trains, commuter trains, Metros, and buses. Maybe 9-year-olds will be inspired to look up and remind their parents of what’s important.

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March 16, 2007

mannequin/model/real woman

Filed under: Spain — ilivetolearn @ 7:59 pm

The current hoopla over a transplanted TV show is about Cambio Radical (literally, radical change). In the US this was Extreme Makeover, or a later incarnation I once watched in horrified fascination called The Swan (the unspoken subtext being The Ugly Duckling). The premise–that the participants improve their appearances not only with diet, exercise, and dental work but also with cosmetic plastic surgery–has provoked anger among consumer groups, feminists, and doctors, who argue that presenting plastic surgery as something you shop for like groceries, and consider having just in case your husband might leave you for a prettier woman, is degrading for women and violates accepted medical practices. This despite the fact that Spain leads Europe in rates of plastic surgery, thousands of people travel here from the UK and elsewhere to have cheap safe procedures, and there is a Cirugia Estetica clinic practically on each block.

The minister of health, always a lightning rod for controversy (see March 8th), has also weighed in, no pun intended, on anorexia—not only by banning models with a BMI under 18 from the catwalk in Madrid’s Pasarela Cibeles (Fashion Week) but also in a new initiative standardizing sizes from store to store. The health department will measure 8,500 girls and women between 12 and 70 in an effort to determine the actual rather than idealized female shape, and then to size clothes accordingly. The law also stipulates that within 5 years all mannequins must be at least a 38 (US size 8).

Whether customers have liposuction at the Cirugia Estetica next to their favorite store to fit into that size is left unresolved. In the meantime, Cambio Radical is racking up a bigger share of viewers than Tengo una pregunta para usted.

March 13, 2007

Zapatero, man of the people

Filed under: food/groceries,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 2:48 pm

Spain is always taking popular TV shows from other countries and translating them into hits here. My favorite is the local version of American Idol, entitled “¿Cantas…o que?” (“Are you singing…or what?”)

One of the most recent is imported from France; J’ai une question a vous poser has become Tengo una pregunta para usted. (“I have a question for you.”) This is sort of a town-meeting show for elected officials and candidates, in which each of the 100 audience members gets to ask one question. Zapatero was the first guest and it was said his media advisors were hoping to make him seem more personable and approachable, less reminiscent of Mr. Bean, whom he resembles.

Unfortunately, the plan backfired. He not only addressed everyone–young, old, male, female—as “tu” even though they all used “Usted” (which made him seem condescending), but also when asked if he knew what a cup of coffee cost, he promptly replied, “About 80 cents.” In the real world outside the subsidized cafeteria where his gofers pay that much for his java, you can’t touch even a tiny cup for less than a euro. So he was lambasted for being out of touch. Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the oppositional Popular Party, is the next victim and you can bet he is busy memorizing the prices of bread and eggs.

March 11, 2007

Zapatero the feminist

Filed under: gender,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:53 pm

The hostess of a recent party asked the guests how we were going to celebrate International Women’s Day…this drew a complete blank for me. Well, she said, you women in the United States already have such a high status you don’t need International Women’s Day! Hmm. Here in Spain the government observed it by announcing a new sexual-equality law: political parties must present candidate lists with at least 40% women (except in small towns), and companies must have the same percentage sitting on their boards or risk losing certain government supports. It also increases maternity leave for mothers with premature infants (it’s already 10 weeks, and they can share it with fathers), and introduces 15 days of paternity leave. This IS cause for celebration.

Granted, Spain needs this kind of mandate. The number of women we see on the police force, say, or in the ubiquitous construction crews, or driving the municipal buses, is minuscule. Unemployment among women is about 15%, twice that among men. And there is the intractable domestic violence problem, which is not responding to awareness campaigns and newly-trained professional intervention. The culture has a long way to go to get over entrenched machismo.

I do think it curious that Women’s Day, which began in the US in 1909 (thanks to the Socialists), is now a national holiday in 14 countries—most of which are former Soviet republics. Vietnam is the only Asian country to observe it officially; this is where Wanda (the hostess mentioned above) recently spent three years, and was given a rose each March 8 on her way to work. I’d like a seat on a Board of Directors, please.

March 10, 2007

temple, cathedral, basilica

Filed under: on the road,random quotes,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:24 pm

Before we admired the chocolate Sagrada Familia, we toured the real thing, along with legions of other visitors. The group behind us waiting to pay 8€ each (cash only) was a “hen party” from the UK. This is big business now; not to be outdone by men’s stag parties, brides and their attendants book long weekends in Spain for a last wild outing before the nuptials. At least this set made it out of bed and to a cultural monument before noon.

Everyone considers Sagrada Familia Gaudi’s cathedral, but technically it is calledTemple expiatori de la sagrada familia—an expiatory temple. The chivo expiatorio, Biblically, is the sacrificial goat; figuratively, it means scapegoat. Gaudi purposefully named the church to remind people of the Jesus “qui tollis peccata mundi” (who took away the sins of the world). He was very pious and clearly felt this was the greatest work of his life. When chided about the slowness of the construction (now slated to be finished in 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death) he is said to have replied, “My client is not in a hurry.”

Though Sagrada Familia cannot be a cathedral (it is not the seat of a bishop) it is a basilica. This designation comes straight from the Pope and is based on three criteria: Is this a holy place? Is it a place of special prayer, devotion, and vibrant piety? Is it a citadel of faith? Apparently only about 55 Roman Catholic churches in the US (out of over 20,000) have made the cut.

As for the Ross-Carmean family, most of us were left a little cold. I can see the genius of Gaudi in the whimsical/inspirational carving, the mathematically-perfect spiral tower staircases, the idiosyncratic stained glass, the mixtures of marble, the pillars like tree trunks—but in the end it’s a dusty chaotic construction site overrun with hung-over Brits. I’ll have to come back when it’s finished and in actual use to experience the vibrant piety.

March 9, 2007

the art of chocolate

Filed under: food/groceries,on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 12:05 pm

One of our favorite parts of Barcelona is a “museum row” near the Jaume 1 metro station, where 14th to 16th-century mansions have been converted into gemlike showcases for textiles, pre-Columbian art, and an enormous Picasso collection. At Bill’s urging, Margo and I spent some time wandering through deserted dark rooms, looking at stunningly-displayed artifacts of the Americas, including a metate (grinding stone). Then we all went around the corner to the Museu de la Xocolata and saw the very same type of stone, apparently not just for corn.

We had feared that the chocolate museum would be as tacky as Rome’s Pasta Museum, and we were almost right. Sponsored by the Barcelona confectionery guild and pastry school, it’s light on history and science and heavy on chocolate as an art form. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen several versions of the Sagrada Familia carved out of chocolate, along with historical tableaus, famous human and fictional characters, and a chariot drawn by four horses. There were some informative films, and I was amazed to learn that monks (who were among the first Europeans to enjoy drinking hot chocolate) somehow managed to get it exempted from the Lenten fast. It’s one of the things people most often give up for Lent nowadays.

And yes, there is a café in the museum and we indulged in a cup. The local dippers are not churros or porras (fried extruded dough as in Madrid) but rather a lady-finger-type pastry.

March 8, 2007

modern art/culinary arts

Filed under: food/groceries,on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:49 am

Before our trip to Barcelona we took Karen and Doane to ARCO, Madrid’s annual modern art extravaganza at the convention center near the airport. Bill had been there last year with Evan’s IB art class and raved about it. Unfortunately we didn’t know that Thursday, the day we chose to go, was reserved for professionals…press, artists, government officials, dealers. Discouraged but not deterred, Bill convinced one of the staff that we owned a gallery but had neglected to carry our business cards, and we got in free. The next day, when it opened to the public, we would have had to pay 30 euros each.

Several times during our visit we crossed paths with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, who were actually looking at the art and discussing it with a huge entourage. We were reminded of this at the Barcelona Degusta show, as we tasted a Rioja and the winery owner we were chatting with offered to introduce us to Elena Salgado, Spain’s Minister of Health (we declined). She was strolling by with an almost royal-sized entourage, on her way to photo ops with wine industry bigwigs. This was a conciliatory gesture; a month or so ago they were all mad at her for an initiative that sought to limit wine advertising on TV, especially during children’s programming. The law was shelved and under-age drinking will have to be addressed some other way.

The drink of choice for the outdoor revelries of teenagers is kalimocho (kalimotxo among the Basques, who claim to have invented it): half red wine and half Coke. We asked a waiter once for a recommendation among the vino tintos, and he admitted that he only drank them mixed with Coke.

March 7, 2007

leaving the Multipla at home

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:06 am

This time we traveled by rail; at Atocha as we approached the platform I was pleased to see our train was labeled sin paradas (non-stop), but this turned out to be a cruel joke. In fact it stopped over and over for long unexplained intervals, and was ultimately 3 hours late, so we got to Barcelona at 2:30 AM. Not fun. But since Renfe has such a good punctuality guarantee we were reimbursed the entire fare. If the train is 20-40 minutes late you get 25%, if 41-60 minutes late you get 50%, and if more than an hour late—free!

Coupled with finding last-minute vacancies at the Hotel Principal, this made for an inexpensive trip. The street in front was torn up for construction and the block behind was the start of the red-light district, but the location was perfect for us—equidistant from the Teatro Liceu for opera and the Boqueria Market for food.

We saw an opera called Boulevard Solitude, a modern retelling of the Manon Lescaut story which, because it was in German with Catalan supertitles and there were no programs with convenient synopses, left us puzzled. No nudity in this one, though the principals did strip down to underwear. Afterwards we went to a highly recommended restaurant called Pla (the only reservation we could get was 11:30, probably because of all those foodies in town), where the food was great and the décor included votive candles on every conceivable surface including the stairs. Having heard that the solution to this place being overcrowded is a second joint down the street called Repla, and having a car called a Multipla, I began to wonder just what PLA means….but it turns out that it is the proprietor’s surname.

March 6, 2007

Catalan art appreciation

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:37 am

But of course we did see art; we spent hours at the Joan Miró foundation, deconstructing squiggles and blobs with the aid of the audioguide. In the first room there was an outstanding tapestry…somehow the Miró shapes and colors speak to me more eloquently when interpreted in textiles. We also loved the mercury fountain in its own glassed-in courtyard. Alexander Calder, like Picasso with Guernica, was commemorating a town besieged by Franco—in this case Almaden, a mercury-mining center. It was mesmerizing to watch the mercury cascading, playing its way through a typical Calder stabile. We amazed the kids with childhood memories of playing with mercury—“They let you touch it?”  Yes, and we made clay ashtrays as presents for our parents, too.

By the upper floors, stocked with later works in which Miró was at great pains to eliminate unnecessary elements, we were laughing as we stood in front of a painting that was nothing but a yellow circle, a red amoeba, and a blue triangle, listening to the voice in our ears saying “In this work it is clear that the peasant is wielding the ax as a threat to the bourgeois society.” The last triptych—three enormous canvases, each with one jaggedy black line—apparently represents man feeling imprisoned and yet not hopeless, but it left most of us cold. Not Bill, of course.

March 5, 2007

back to Barcelona

Filed under: food/groceries,on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 3:09 pm

We spent the first four days of March in Barcelona. The girls had Thursday and Friday off for no discernible reason–it was not a saint’s day or a holiday commemorating a brave but ill-fated incident in Spanish military history. Upon further inquiry, we were told this long weekend is a vestige of the traditional semana blanca (ski week), which schools in pre-climate change times gave in addition to semana verde (spring break).

We had our own semana verde (at least una mitad—half) since Barcelona was T-shirt weather during the day. It was also chock full of tourists. In Madrid and Pozuelo, we are startled to hear English on the streets; in Barcelona, between the Catalan, German, French, and Italian, it is more startling to hear Castilian Spanish.

Two events made Barcelona extra crowded. The annual marathon was run on Sunday, with 7,200 competitors. We watched and clapped and cheered at various places around town. And the huge convention center at Plaza España (exactly where the marathon began and ended) hosted four days of Barcelona Degusta, a mecca for foodies. We strolled and tasted and shopped. These activities, a visit to the famous aquarium, and a ride on the teleferico over the harbor helped us thwart Bill (newly dubbed The Art Nazi), whose ideal tourist itinerary is art museums all day every day.

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