Alta allela (cava)

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

This one’s going to be a quick note about a small victory: in this case, an organic cava producer called Alta Alella. Good wines, coming, as most cava does, from Catalunya. They’re close to Barcelona, between the towns of Tiana and Alella, hence the name: Above Alella.

But where does Allela’s name come from? Time for a trip to Catalán wikipedia!

Documented for the first time in 975 AD in a contract for the sale of land “marking the limits of the west”, a nice machine-translated turn of phrase, then two decades later there’s a saint named Feliu from there mentioned during a land swap, something something marriage something something monastary. Eventually purchased by the monarchy and a royal town (“royal” here meaning Kings of Aragon, who were also the Counts of Barcelona) for a long while thereafter.

Fine fine. Nothing terribly useful so far. But wait: here’s the coat of arms! And here I learned something I didn’t know, I don’t think, which is that coats of arms often sounded out the names of the places or people they represented, which makes sense in a preliterate society. These are called in French & Spanish armas parlantes, armes parlantes, speaking arms, and in English, canting arms, which is to say singing arms, from Anglo-Norman canteventually from Latin cantare), which I think is kind of lovely. Go back far enough and these are often thousand year-old clues in heraldry to shifts in dialect, pronunciation, accent.

The town of Alella is carried into battle (or, today, marked on taxis) by the sign of a—oh ok, I’ll let them say it:

«Escut caironat: d’atzur, mig vol abaixat contornat d’argent; la filiera d’argent. Per timbre una corona mural de poble.»

That’s the language from the most recent municipal ordinance in May 2001, but the important thing is the wing, ala, silver & lowered in midflight (medio vuelo bajado, mig vol abaixat), from whence Alella, more or less. The town of the silver wing lowered in midflight.

The Alta Alella bottling on the list, “Bruant”, is a general French (Catalán too?) word for any bird of the passerine family, the same way we’d say songbird.

Cava, by the way, is what happened when the Spanish were forced by the French in 1972 to give up calling their century-old tradition of champagne-method sparkling wines “Champañas.” Vino de cava, the newly-invented legal term of art, referred to the caves (cavas) in which the bottles slumber during secondary fermentation & aging.



3 May 2013

Every adjective used to describe retail employees in the Times’ most recent foray into Brooklyn:

“freckled, young”
“grizzled, older”
“hirsute, Mediterranean-looking”
“scruffy, ponytailed […] sweet-tempered”
“affable, heavily tattooed”
“sweet, languourous, British”
“calm, bespectacled”

Hipsters—who I don’t, for the record, believe actually exist—can be distinguished by: hair; synonym for “nonthreatening”.

Streets, edible

18 May 2012

Constantinople had a thousand churches and insuperable walls landward and seaward. On the main approach to the palace, only the perfume merchants were permitted their trade.

The housing bricks and paving stones, they said, could boil down into soup; the place was steeped in root, and leaf, and fruit.

Lemon peels crushed in the gutters of the streets scented the early mornings where he used to sing . . .


Arcadia, Jim Crace
“Byzantium,” Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, Harper’s Magazine
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon



19 April 2012

A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it. The same might be said of streets, in the sense that they serve other purposes besides carrying wheeled traffic in their middles. Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.

Todd Solondz: Sure. You know, when I was young and growing up in the suburbs, where there was nothing to excite me, no real culture or stimulation, no real adventure, I thought all the time about how one day I’d move here and my life would be like this. I’d live and work in Manhattan, and there’d always be something happening. And in the end, for me, it’s not so much about the theatre and the museums and galleries and so on. It’s about the streets, and the life of the streets, and the endless parade of different kinds of people, and how you can never get enough of it. It’s always there and you never grow tired of it, just going out and walking or sitting and watching it all.

Churchill, on a visit to a poor neighborhood in Manchester, saying, with his odd and signature mixture of real empathy and inherited condescension, “Fancy living in one of these streets—never seeing anything beautiful—never eating anything savoury—never saying anything clever!”

The streets, despite the artillery strikes, were full of life: at the antitank barricades, children with paper helmets, perched on top of the obstacles, were waving wooden swords; I passed an old woman pushing strollers full of bricks and even, crossing the Tiergarten toward the zoo bunker, soldiers chasing a herd of mooing cows. At night it rained again; and the Reds, in turn, celebrated Lenin’s birthday with a brutal riot of artillery.

The children invented a game for themselves that involved hurling a stocking, which has been tightly packed with dust, through the air like a rocket, and as it falls it creates an entire cloud of dust. The youngsters play this game a lot, although it has been forbidden by the management. —Anonymous, Memorandum to Dep. Chairman of Moscow City Children’s Commission, re: Children’s Command, Barybino (1936)

In Paris all was still turmoil. That very night, my father would hear artillery trains passing along the outer boulevards. No one could know if the explosions meant victory or defeat. “From the towers of Notre Dame you could see the heads of the Russian columns appearing, like the first undulations of a tidal wave on the beach.” So writes Chateaubriand and it is likely true, or most of it.

They were now entering the centre of the city, an off-white grid of frozen canals and deserted avenues, lined with impressive Neoclassical & Art Nouveau buildings. In the twilight, their incongruous stuccoed, statue-haunted silhouettes, rising darker against the darkening horizon, gave the eerie impression that they had been cast down from the sky like palaces from another planet. You could not, by any stretch of the mind, imagine an architecture less adapted to its surroundings. An Ideal City punished and banished to the Far North for its marble hubris, it loomed titanic and mad . . .

Luanda was not dying the way our Polish cities died in the last war. There were no air raids, there was no “pacification,” no destruction of district after district. There were no cemeteries in the streets of the squares. The city was dying the way an oasis dies when the well runs dry . . . . Thanks to the abundance of wood that has collected here in Luanda, this dusty desert city nearly devoid of trees now smells like a flourishing forest. It’s as if the forest had suddenly taken root in the streets, the squares, and the plazas. […] The building of the wooden city, the city of crates, goes on day after day, from dawn to twilight. Everyone works, soaked with rain, burned by the sun; even the millionaires, if they are physically fit, turn to the task.


Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapusciński
Aurorarama, Jean-Christophe Voltat
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
Europe Central, William T. Vollmann
“Interview with Todd Solondz,” Sigrid Nunez, The Believer
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
“The making of Winston Churchill,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

Body measures

9 November 2011

“In the 1860s and 1870s, Thomas Montgomerie, a British surveyor working in India, deployed one of the most extensive and rigorous applications of body measures in mapping Tibet and other areas of central Asia. […] Montgomerie recruited two Himalayan cousins, Nain and Mani Singh, and spent two years teaching them surveying techniques. He trained them to walk with a pace of exactly 33 inches, or about 2,000 paces per mile, regardless of terrain. Disguised as Hindu lamas, or pundits, a Hindu term for “holy men,” the Singhs kept track of distance with counters camouflaged as Buddhist rosary wheels. The wheels were equipped with 100 beads instead of 108, the traditional number on a rosary, and the Singhs dropped one bead every 100 paces. Using such methods, Nain in particular managed to measure large sections of Tibet including Llasa. The resulting information helped Montgomerie compile a map of Tibet and central Asia, which among other purposes assisted the British in their brutal invasion of Tibet four decades later.”

World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, Robert P. Crease (2011)

This I find interesting — pundits used to be holy men! The ‘pace of exactly 33 inches.’ How on earth do you train for two years to regulate your pace “regardless of terrain”? What’s the curriculum?

But then, that kicker — “. . . four decades later.” Space, once measured & surveyed, can be taken. Anything with a grid reminds me of Haussman’s boulevards: the poor’s Paris barricades impossible; the artillery has a good line-of-sight. Rosaries used to have 108 beads, but it was a useless number, and did not serve. The whole idea of surveying & standardized measurement as prerequisite to conquest seems to me like those old, old tales where to know someone’s name & speak it aloud is the most powerful magic, the one that grants you absolute control.

You and your cousin: you spend two years training your body to mimic the regular precision of a machine, and press yourself up against the country so that it can be measured, and a generation later . . .

Polska so far

18 April 2011

Blogging is a lot like letter-writing, in that silence builds & has a weight all of its own.

The only book I have left here in Tarnów (tourist slogan: Polski biegun ciepła — The warmest city in Poland, finally in the mid-60s & sunny today, a few tentative green buds, tulips being sold out of plastic buckets) is the first volume of the letters of Samuel Beckett (thanks sis!) — and paging through at random I find him, in December of 1931:

Dear Tom,
Forgive me for not having replied to you before this. All kinds of imaginary melancholy circumstances to excuse me.

And a year later, in August:

Dear Tom,
Forgive me for not answering the first of your last two letters. I did write, but it turned out such a jeremiad that I refrained from posting it.

And, oh, let’s say May of 1938:

Dear Tom
Forgive my not writing before. It has been people, people, people, until I wonder what horrible thing has happened to me that I have so little peace any more.

So here we are, and the only way to break silence is abruptly, like dropping a glass on the floor, so that I’m too busy scrambling around with a broom & pan to waste too much time with apologies.

I’ve been here, teaching English full-time at a private school in this small, provincial city (an hour and twenty minutes by train from Kraków) since the beginning of January, and I’m faced now with the distinctly odd feeling of having to measure cultural difference against two different baselines — not just Stateside but Spain, as well.

Generally I can’t be the wide-eyed cultural spelunker I was when I lived in Jaén or Bilbao; I don’t speak the language, I can’t pick up a newspaper, I’m nearly always in a classroom. But here are a few things I can tell you about Poland, if you like.

I am a child here, a rank beginner — after three months, I can finally order things off of menus intelligibly, and say that it’s sunny, or My mother is intelligent & friendly or How much is a ticket from Kraków to Tarnów? or The red blouse is made of silk. I can say Excuse me and I don’t speak Polish and I’m an English teacher.  But for most of my first few weeks I functioned in virtual silence in public, smiling and nodding and occasionally reverting accidentally to Spanish, getting my point with grimaces, gestures, yes, no, please.

Polish is western Slavic — closest to Czech and Slovakian, same general family as eastern Slavic languages like Russian or Ukrainian, and southern Slavic like Serbo-Croatian or Bulgarian. A funny thing happens when you talk to Bosnians — Polish has an all-purpose profanity, curwa, which gets used as punctuation in the same way as the Irish use fucking or the Spanish say coño, and it literally means something like whore. In Bosnian Serbo-Croatian (related language!) it’s basically a clinical term for prostitute, or at least that’s what some Erasmus students from Bosnia-Herzegovina told me in a hostel in Kraków. And young urban Poles use it, again, almost every other word. It was to these backpackers as though everyone in Kraków were wandering around calling everything — inanimate objects, themselves, any conceivable action — whores. (A possible exemplary sentence: Whore, Danka, I can’t get whoring up this whore of a bed.) I’m trying to think of something in English and its many dialects that works alike — something that’s obscene but technical in one place, and multifarious & interchangeably profane in another — but I can’t quite find an analogue.

What else? The Polish currency, złoty, is literally the word for gold — imagine plopping down pieces-of-eight every time you buy a loaf of bread. Peppery and spicy are the same word, which gives you an idea of how hot Polish food is. (Not at all. Lots of pepper cloves, though.) Hungarian goulash is widely served on potato pancakes, but the Poles have taken the half-dozen or so types of paprika that Hunagrians use and revised them down to blandest possible. Other foods: Gołąbki is pork-stuffed cabbage, but it literally means pigeon. Żurek is this sour white soup — kielbasa, potato, other things — that packs a kick, a little like salmorejo in Andalucía. With salmorejo the mysterious kick is vinegar; in żurek, it’s fermented rye.

At first glance, Polish has so few cognates with English that it’s totally indecipherable — I’ve had an easier time reading menus written in Swedish than figuring out what I’m ordering in a Polish restaurant. But sometimes you get a welcome surprise — the Spanish word for Belgian waffles is gofre, and the first thing I bought on my way to my first day on the job in January was from a shop with a sign reading GOFRY — all right, I thought, this I can handle.

What else? I’ll wade, reluctantly — acknowledging I’m completely out of my depth here — into culture. You can’t talk about Poland, really, without getting into religion & post-Communism and I can’t really do this any other way than ham-fisted, gesturing at it. So here we go.

Spain is a Catholic country, in that it’d been held in a traditional religious timewarp by Franco until the 70s, and nine out of ten people self-define as Catholic, and in March of 2008 someone left the severed head of a pig on the construction site of a new mosque in Sevilla, and starting this week the streets fill up with the baroque pageantry of Semana Santa, flowers raining from the sky, Holy Mother & crucifixion tableaux swaying down the streets, hooded co-fraternity brothers carrying lit tapers and walking barefoot, trumpets echoing off every wall.

But people don’t go to church in Spain (El País did an infographic on the precipitous decline in church weddings, with the notable exception of heartland-type Real Spain holdouts — Jaén, La Mancha). And the saints’ days & festivals, the hiking up to the Castillo de Santa Catalina to fry sardines & drink beer, the burning of olive bonfires for San Antón, the fallas in Valencia — these are as much cultural as religious for most people. More, I’d argue.

Here, in Tarnów? The churches throng, bars close early for each of the 40 days of Lent. The seminary in Tarnów has giant residential dormitories with pointed towers; I see young people in a clerical collars every day on my way to school. There is, of course, John Paul II — streets, statues, pictures.

What else? Communism, of course. All of my students over the age of 35 studied Russian in high school. In classes when we study past tense, my adult students talk ration booklets and waiting in line for 6 hours as children in front of dingy storefronts to get food. As you’ve imagined, anything built in the last fifty years is concrete, and the 60s-era districts of Poland are distinctly unlovely — Tarnów’s Renaissance main square and Kraków’s undestroyed city center set aside.

And — I can’t not mention this, but it’s properly the subject for a very carefully written essay — all of this is not even to begin to scratch the huge, unmentionable warping of Polish culture since the Holocaust. The first shipment to Auschwitz was out of Tarnów, which pre-WWII was 70% Jewish. Three-fourths of the fucking city! It’s not just the death, although that’s horrific enough.

Ellipses are the only conceivable response. Writing about it is like trying to write a void.

I have class in an hour, but I’ll try — with the inevitable apologizing — to correspond better, and more often.

Semana santa

8 April 2010

— Palmsonntag (Palm Sunday), Anselm Kiefer (2006). Via History of Our World.

A short time later, when the carpenter was taking measurements for the coffin, through the window they saw a light rain of tiny yellow flowers falling. They fell on the town all through the night in a silent storm, and they covered the roofs and blocked the doors and smothered the animals who slept outdoors. So many flowers fell from the sky that in the morning the streets were carpeted with a compact cushion and they had to clear them away with shovels and rakes so that the funeral procession could pass by.

One Hundred Years of Solitude p. 144

Between Palm & Easter Sunday, all of Spain goes on holiday. The prices of plane tickets & hotel rooms go through the roof, the rhythms of city life change. The South is transfigured into something very much like a García Marquez novel — that is, into a place where magical realism isn’t a prettified aesthetic choice but rather an attempt to render the world accurately.

This time last year in Jaén, flowers rained from the sky & got under my collar, into my hair, piled in drifts around my feet, had to be swept from the streets. Women sing to the Virgen from wrought iron balconies. From every corner of the city echoes the sounds of distant drums. The pasos — the, um, Holy Week processions, we’ll say, to make it Anglophone — are a big, big deal. Every city, every village. Christs & Virgens on giant candlelit altars held on the shoulders of dozens of men hidden by velvet drapes, only their feet showing, sway, back and forth, in time. Massed horns play music that sounds exactly like the stuff Ennio Morricone composed for those Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. In Sevilla, on the night before Black Friday, the paso lasts thirteen hours & stretches for what looks like at least a half-mile, maybe more. Little kids run up between the hooded figures — the pointed hoods & robes of the cofraternities look, disconcertingly to Americans, exactly like KKK outfits — to collect the wax that drips from their candles.

We’re in the territory of archetypal Spain, tourists writing breathlessly, the Spain of painted tile & flamenco & dying bulls & baroque Catholicism that you get in dozens of travel accounts, the place all dressed up & exoticized — which still & all can’t take away from the strangeness of it when you’re actually there, but which makes it feel kind of cheap in retrospect.

Anyway: Up here things are different. There are still processions, of course, but the scale isn’t the same — they’re much smaller, the altars even, and the energy on the streets is totally different. Bilbao’s still a working town, and it empties out during holidays, becomes sleepy & dull. Everyone’s out of town. You see more graffiti making fun of the pasos, more people frankly antipathetic to them. In the south, even if you weren’t religious, Semana Santa pasos had an integral cultural component they don’t seem to here, and people weren’t as eager to disavow them.

Then again, a big reason that Semana Santa is still this big today is Franco, who held Spain in a kind of anachronistic timewarp for a half century. During the Second Republic, bullfights had become unpopular, and the left frequently tried to ban them (the Cataláns always hated them — they’ve just outlawed them as of last year). Catholicism was the same way — a lot of churches burned during the Civil War, a lot of irreligious peasants. It makes me wonder where all of this will be in twenty or thirty years, once the post-Franco generation is middle-aged.

I’ll leave you from a picture taken last year by a friend of mine from a rooftop in the Alameda de Hércules of la Macarena, that 13-hour paso. (Yes: It’s called La Macarena).