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).

Born standing up

25 February 2010

Church & bridge of San Antón, oldest in Bilbao. Via carpantillo (flikr).

Anywhere worth going to in Spain will already be crowded by the time you get there. This is partly because bars (in Basque Country, in Andalucía, in Catalunya) are shoebox-sized conflagrations of smoke (filled, depending on where you are, with bartop trays of pintxos, or forested with hanging legs of cured jamón, festooned with strings of garlic & dried peppers, or there are giant barrels of wine with metal spouts, or painted tile, espresso machines . . . ) — they’re standing room only, usually, and often people spill out in knotted groups into the narrow medieval streets, even in the light Basque rain, & stand holding beers or crianza.

But it’s mostly because eating & drinking in Spanish cities is a complicated dance that takes place on a mysteriously shifting intersection of place & time. I don’t just mean the comparative rigidity of the midday meal, la comida, when the streets empty out & the siesta is sacred, because really that’s truer in Andalucía than anywhere else (here in Bilbao, shockingly, I’ve seen stores open at 3 pm. It must be a northern thing.)

No, I mean that streets themselves change, they are modular & fluid. The steel shutters that close the stores rise & fall, the signs are lit or unlit, terraces laid out & bright or else stacked & chained, so that wandering the old towns you are even more lost at night than you used to be, nothing looks the same as it did that morning. Streets crowd to the bursting or are ghost towns, bars and cafés and restaurants too.

(And often those three places, the place you come to in the morning to read the paper & have your coffee in tranquility & the one you eat in at midday — two plates, bread, wine, coffee, dessert — & the bar you crowd around at night to shoulder around beers, are the same place, the essential unit of Spanish eating-and-drinking: the café-bar. With both its shelves of liquor & its espresso machine & its kitchen, not always open, so that not just the streets but the places themselves never stay the same, are modular & fluid themselves.)

Crowded, empty — it all depends on a kind of Spanish eating-and-drinking differential calculus: the day of the week, the time of day, summer or winter . . .

I feel like I’m drifting off into illegibility, so let me try to be specific. My friend was trying to show me around Barcelona one night, & we were accompanied by a number of impatient Swedes, and suddenly it seemed that nothing that should have been open — the cheap champagne bar, for starters — was open at all, on this Wednesday night; the plaza where normally at ten or so the young people start to swarm to drink out of bottles & skate was empty. Barcelona, she was explaining to the impatient Swedes (I nodded, we understood each other) worked by zones — you ate dinner here at 9, you had a drink over there at 11. If people weren’t where they were supposed to be, something had happened. We put our heads together.

As it turned out, we realized, it must be Ash Wednesday — carnivales had been the previous weekend, ending on Tuesday with the funeral of the sardine (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Martes Gordo — in Bilbao it’d been on a Sunday, people wearing black & mock-crying while the sardine, giant & wearing a floppy purple hat, was burned in effigy outside the opera house on top of a bier of sticks) — and so the entire city was hungover, including the bartenders. Nobody was going out. Places were shuttering left & right around us.

Surely, the impatient Swedes said, there was somewhere to go.

No, we said. There is nowhere to go. This is how things are here. Anywhere in Spain worth going will already be crowded by the time you get there. If it’s not crowded, something’s wrong.

It’s no use peeking in & seeing the roiling cloud of smoke, the mass of dark coats, the napkins & cigarettes & broken glass mosaics on the tiled floor & saying, Too crowded, let’s try another one. You have to dive in, there’s nothing else to be done. The city is a dance, it follows a rhythm, & you are always a few steps behind. My first year in Jaén I called it the Spanish bat-signal. It was as if implanted at birth in the brain of every Jiennense was a transmitter that guided them unerringly to the right place at a given time.

I think this particular kind of crowd logic is unique to the places I’ve lived here. I don’t remember it being the same in, I don’t know, Boston.

You’ll be taken to, say, La Granja — a staid old café in the Plaza Circular with a wood bar, polished brass railings, starched old men serving coffee — on a Friday night, a particular Friday night, where suddenly it’s become a live music joint, there’s a band playing, the lights are off, everyone’s drinking cuba libres at two in the morning. Later, you’ll try to repeat the success with some foreign friends, guessing blindly, & find nothing but a quiet bar, a couple of old men sucking down vermouths.

You’ll try to plan a nice dinner in Gracía, in Barcelona, and find a couple of places via guidebooks & online reviews, only to find the two restaurants you’ve chosen shuttered, inexplicably, on an empty street. A block away, on c/ Verdi, swarms of families walking, old people, students, children, every place open & clamorous. You throw up your hands & decide to choose by sight.

And then when you finally think you’re getting the hang of the dance (ok, 8:30 & still early enough for Plaza Nueva, you think, or: 11 now, Somera will be filling up, or: Sunday noon in Sevilla, time to wander over to Alameda de Hércules and have the first beer of the day) you’ll be thrown off-balance by something big — a local saints’ day or festival, a national holiday, a change in the weather — and suddenly what was closed is open, what was open is closed, up is down and down is up, streets filling & emptying as if they were waterways with drains & sluicegates.

And everybody is standing bolt upright, leaning on the bar to eat, talking incessantly, gesturing with cigarettes. Don’t even bother looking for a table. In the winter, the doors are kept open, & the coats stay on. Some places have hooks beneath the bartop to hang them on. Or you pile them on top of the cigarette machine. Small ignitions of lighters (mecheros — I thought they were matcheros for over a year because I never had to spell it), floating ash, pintxos in Basque Country or Navarre, tapas everywhere else (the Cátalans are not big on tapas, & have banned bullfighting . . . the Basques hate flamenco & don’t drink sangria). Nothing to be done but follow the noise & see what’s going on. It’s not worth planning too carefully — you’re never sure which city you’ll be stepping into, where the crowded places will be.


14 February 2010

Lord of the Birds, Graciela Iturbide (1984), via.

I’ve always loved the little-used collective nouns that English accumulates — your shrewdness of apes, your exaltation of larks; clattering of jackdaws & mumuration of starlings. Just to list them is to become intoxicated by the accumulation. (We forget, of course, that even the commonest ones, flights & flocks & schools & herds & gaggles & troops, look odd from the outside, in translation, obscure groupings.) The most esoteric & the loveliest attach themselves to birds, & so when I think of nouns of multitude I remember Graciela Iturbide, whose photographs I saw at an exhibition at the Getty in ’08 — looking for them now, I can’t find the two I liked best, one of a cloud of birds suddenly frightened from a tree, hundreds of them surrounding it like a halo, & the other of a veternarian’s arm holding a pelican (I think?), backlit into shadow in front of an x-ray of its bones, the two inverted mirrors of each other, the bones white on black, the bird black on white.

Over Christmas I read John Crowley’s Ægypt & wrote down in my commonplace book a little moment on p. 254: ‘“exalted” as Axel said, by wine.’ What if, as with nouns of multitude — parliament of owls, siege of bitterns — there were verbs of intoxication? Exalted by wine, melancholied by gin, belched by lager, peated by scotch, embittered by ale. Extemporized by brandy . . .

Surely you can think of some better ones.

Carnivale in Bilbao, as I’ve said, brass bands in the streets, light rain, txiquiteros singing through glasses of crianza, the whole city in costume from the children to adults, groups, multitudes, in theme, disguised collectively. I’ve seen gingerbread men, firefighters, fields of strawberries, snowmen, professionals of every occupation, an entire army of playing cards armed with spears attacking a float manned by the Queen of Hearts in drag. And still, it should be said — this is nothing compared to Venice, to Cadiz. Halloween is the palest shadow.

Briefly noted

12 February 2010

Snowing in Bilbao yesterday & today — nothing like the storms 5,000 miles away to my left, but there are hailstones in the street & patches of unmelted slush & on the low hills that circle the city (Bilbao is el botxo, they say here, ‘the hole’) there is a covering of bright, white ice & snow that shines in the morning; I look at them from my window when I wake up. And despite all of this, I’m not as cold here as I was last year in Jaén, shivering in an uninsulated house, the hot water out.

El botxo — I thought something this morning, breath smoking while I huffed my way up the hill to school in Galdakao, something about this city I’d never thought about before: What is Bilbao doing surrounded by hills? This seems like an irrelevent question — it’s on the river, it’s a shipping hub — but it’s really not if you’ve lived in Andalucía, where every old city is elevated and has a fortress at the center. No fortress, in Bilbao. There were walls, but the only trace of them is near the church & bridge of San Antón, symbols of the city. Bilbao wasn’t a city, really, not more than a village, until after the Reconquista, after the colonization of the New World, after iron was discovered in the hills & it became a shipping center — that is, Bilbao, unlike every city in the South, is a post-industrial city, and it feels so natural it was only now, this morning, that I was struck by how strange it was to live in a Spanish city that wasn’t fortified, that hadn’t been built in the face of five centuries of intermittent warfare.

In K2, a bar named after the mountain with free wifi & good music that I use as my office in the afternoons, there are dreamcatchers & Indian headdresses made out of colored paper hanging from the ceilings (Penacho de Toro Sentado, reads one). It’s Carnivale, of course, which is why they’ve decorated — I’m dressing up as Clark Kent, myself — but that still doesn’t explain the weird, cartoony cultural appropriation. (There is a toy ax taped to the wall in front of me.)

In Corazón tan blanco, things are beginning to come to a head — Marías has accumulated a certain number of disparate elements, developed them, brought them to a point where now we are in the present (the present perfect, usually, but that’s Castillian Spanish for you) & he has begun to arrange them on the table & put them in relation to one another. The Macbeth references which began with the epigraph itself (from which the title is taken) have piled up, are beginning to be repeated — the impossibility of translating ‘thinking so brainsickly of things,’ which Marías’ narrator renders as vacillating between pensar con tan enfermo cerebro and pensar tan enfermitizamente con el cerebro (I wonder how this is worked out in the English translation?) — and the English fragment, amidst all this Spanish, repeated: “I have done the deed.”

There is a nice bit that asks whether we read literature or look at art for conocimiento or reconocimiento (that is, for understanding, or just for recognition? The parallel is neater & more elegant, of course, in Spanish).

What else? I learned the Basque word for ‘rainbow’ yesterday. I’m baking an apple pie tomorrow, which is the furthest thing from a tarta de manzana even though it’s the only way to translate it. Over on my tumblr, I’m puzzling over a quotation from Tom McCarthy that ends, “The Internet reifies a logic that was always already there,” & I mention this because I don’t usually use that scrapbook to write at length, but it ended up long, & I could use some help in the comments.


8 February 2010

A failed disposable camera picture of my desk in Boston in ’08. Two photographs tacked to the wall are visible: An artists’ photograph printed in Harper’s of a controlled fire set in an empty model home in Britain to train firemen, & a newspaper picture of the Iraqi minister of the Interior blindfolded & tied to a chair in his office after he was arrested for corruption.

I got up earlier this afternoon, still at the same café, to order another coffee & I put out my cigarette while I straightened. While I walked away what was left of it was still smoking in the ashtray, a kind of signal or trace. It reminded me, when I sat down again, of those effective & precise signifiers of absence (that is, of former presence) that crop up most often in crime fiction — the detectives are just seconds too late, & there’s still a thin coil of smoke coming up from the ashtray.

I suppose, overused, these verge on cliché — the flapping curtains in the open window, the still-warm, slight imprint in the empty bed — but the physicality of the best of them is moving. I read a Chilean poet once, I can’t remember who, it was a friend’s bookshelf in Ronda, & I still remember a turn of phrase — someone had come home to find that a person close to them had been taken by the special police, had been disappeared. An empty saucepan or a teakettle sat on a hot stove, smoking, ‘dry as a bone,’ the water all boiled away.

I can’t think of other similar moments in fiction, but perhaps you can.

People disappear sometimes in Basque Country, too (not in the same way as in Chile! — I want to add, because parallels are cheap), & the stories you’re told about it are typically difficult to make a single clear sense of. A friend works in a pueblo east of here, way up in the mountains, & five people were detained a few weeks ago in 3 a.m. raids with — from her high schoolers’ perspective, at least — no explanation. They were spirited away in the night & nobody knows what’s happened to them. This, at least, was what she was telling me, what her kids had been talking about in class in their mixture of Basque & Spanish. The same thing happened last fall — there were massive demonstrations in Bilbao. My friend brought it up at a party, to a Spanish woman, who listened with a particular kind of expression on her face & then said, politely but firmly, “There must have been a good reason.”

Which is to say, Don’t trust your kids to give you an accurate sense of what’s going on out of their own feelings of persecution.

This morning while I was taking my coffee at the bar in the Mercado de la Ribera,  I read in El Correo about the cache of explosives recently seized in Portugal; ETA, it seems, has been making noises about car bombs, attacks on airports. Most of their leadership is in jail — if you look at the wanted posters you see a bunch of rural kids from the pueblos. An ongoing season of crackdowns & detainments that started this fall, probably not all justified, probably not all unjustified.  I’m in over my head. I didn’t mean to start writing about this again. I’m just trying to give a sense of what’s left, what’s hanging in the air.

San Blas

3 February 2010

Today is the feast day of San Blas (English: Blaise), patron of the throat. Here (by here I mean “in Bizkaia,” as one of the teachers at my school was quick to tell me: “Just in Bizkaia — not in Gipuzkoa”) you wear something — I didn’t quite catch what, a medallion or a ribbon, I’ll tell you when I find out —  around the neck for a certain number of days in his honor, and groups old men, in the Basque way, wear checked kerchiefs & berets & roam the old town singing in the streets. The church dedicated to him is in Arenal, across the river, and on my way here to write this there was a crowd spilling out the door of the church and into a line that stretched down the side of the street.

For San Blas they also sell a kind of flat, unleavened pastry made with oil, anise & a sugar glaze that someone brought to school a few days ago, and also a kind of small, hard donut (buñelo) out of what I think is the same dough.

(Gipuzkoa, incidentally, is the neighboring province, capital San Sebastian, which is a cosmopolitan seaside town & retreat for the wealthy — French menus, world-famous chefs, exquisite pintxos, a beach. There is a provincial rivalry.)

Market day

1 February 2010

I love the Mercado de La Ribera (Signs in Basque say: Merkatua).  They have creamy, unsalted butter wrapped in paper from Burgos; thick, fragrant stalks of leeks (puerros, a word I learned last week); apples, avocados, cherries, oranges at the fruitstands; fresh eggs piled in wire baskets; forty different kinds of cheese & homemade arroz con leche in little containers; five different kinds of mushrooms (setas are the wild ones harvested from the hillsides, campiñones are the white button kind); heads of garlic & dried red peppers hanging in bunches; buckets of dried beans, spices, peppers . . . And this is just on the third floor, to say nothing of the fishmongers on the ground floor or the butchers on the second.

The market looks a little like a big yellow train station. It has skylights & colored glass windows & mosaic tiles on the outside. Two-thirds of it is rubble, right now, because it’s being massively renovated, but the last third is still open. I go twice a week, Mondays & Thursdays in the morning.

Last week I found out that one of the fruitstands sells reusable milk bottles for 0,40€ & has a machine with farm-fresh milk that you fill up for a 1€ per litre. This in particular is a revelation, because Spanish milk is always sold in cardboard boxes, quadruple-pasturized and irradiated (“UHT”) & stored at room temperature in stacks on the floor like bricks, & it tastes like chalk.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep me happy, the market features the best idea ever: a bar on the top floor, right underneath one of the skylights, so that you can have breakfast when you come in the morning (café cortado & a croissant) or a caña & a tortilla while you’re finishing up.

But really, the reason to do my shopping here in addition to all of this, and in addition to the prices (I walk away from the fruitstand, my arms sagging, having let go of 2,50€; I try six different cheeses & pay less than a euro apiece), is that in a market you do something you don’t do in a supermarket, which is talk to people. The women at the fruitstands tell you which fruits are good: Not that one. That one isn’t for today. You want this one. You find yourself in the position of having to know the names for things. After a little while you’re recognized, both because you’re one of the few foreigners (my castellano is getting more noticeably accented because I’m trying to get rid of my andaluz; people ask me where I’m from) and because you’re young, and a man, and I don’t really see many other muchachos shopping at market. I almost said, because not a lot of Spanish boys my age cook, but I think that’s truer in Andalucía, where I knew tons of young adults who lived exclusively off of their mothers’ food, frozen in tupperware, than here in País Vasco, which has a food culture (so many chefs come from San Sebastían).

Still and all, it’s a delight just to talk to people, to feel like you’re part of a city, to see a smile of recognition, to have someone tell you when you’ve forgotten to withdraw enough cash that you can pay her the next time you come in, to return to your kitchen with fresh, real things, to chop vegetables, in place of going to the crowded aisles of the Carrefour Express ten minutes’ walk away in  Zabálburu to feel lonely & listen to the piped-in American pop.

(I found a butcher, too, a German family-run place in Ensánche that makes its own currywurst & sausage & stocks this spicy imported brown mustard you squeeze from a tube that you can’t get anywhere else, also shockingly cheap; the owner is exceedingly pleasant & trilingual in Spanish, English & German.)

Now the only thing I buy in a store are staples, rainy-day food — canned tomatoes, vermouth, flour, pasta, sliced bread. I meant to wait on writing this until I had pictures, but I’m still looking for a place to develop my first roll of film.