13 July 2013

Today I found notes for something I was going to write about Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver. Looking at unfinished pieces is terrifying: you start to wonder whether you’ll finish anything; you don’t recognize this stranger who’s writing; you begin to worry about the continuity of the self, mortality, etc.; worst of all you usually wind up deciding that even if you’d finished it when you still remembered what you were thinking the idea wasn’t all that great to begin with. So. I’m going to try to write this one. It’s more for my benefit than for yours.


The third time I saw Volver (2006) I checked it out from the Casco Viejo branch of the municipal library in Bilbao. This would have been three years ago, sometime in the spring: the fifth floor of an apartment with a balcony overlooking the river, grey-green light, lots of vermouth. There was a director’s commentary. Almodóvar, kind of using Penelope Cruz as a sounding board, started to talk about patios: “En La Mancha,” he said, “los patios son esenciales. Un gran parte de la vida se lleva a cabo en estos patios. … Son patios mucho menos alegres que los andaluzes, mucho más austeros, porque la vida de allí es una de interiores. Las calles … son calles vacios.” And a little later he repeats himself: “Otra vez: Esto es la típica que lleva manchega. No tiene nada que ver con la andaluza: blanca, con zócanos, aspiras en flores, sin ningún adorno.”

Back when it was in theaters Stateside I’d enjoyed the film in the same way as, I imagine, most cinephile international audiences: as another archetypical extrusion from Mundo Almodóvar, all eyepopping reds and darkhaired women with wild eyes and gazpacho and Madrid Madrid Madrid, the same kind of aesthetic place as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988). You know, Spain. (Here’s A.O. Scott for the Times: “The action in Volver moves back and forth between a workaday neighborhood in Madrid and a windswept village in the Spanish countryside. Really, though, the movie takes place in a familiar, enchanted land—Almodóvaria, you might call it, or maybe Pedrostan—where every room and street corner is saturated with bright color and vivid feeling…”)

And while I don’t want to suggest that this was a misreading, exactly, it occurred to me that day that Almodóvar was talking about a film that was much more particular and regional than the one I’d watched, full of signals that I wasn’t equipped to decode.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born in 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, Ciudad Real, “un pueblo de pocos ricos y muchos pobres.” [1] His mother wrote poems and read to him at night. She made extra money by writing letters for her illiterate neighbors. His father was an arreiro, a mule driver; he made wine at home and would haul barrels of it to market. Trucks and highways put an end to mules, and the family moved to a town outside of Cáceres, one of the two provincial capitals in Extremadura. None of these are places you want to be from: goats, high arid plains, hot as shit in the summer, cold as fuck in the winter, at the edge of all things. They call places like this (and places like Jaén) España profunda: “deep Spain.” But Cáceres had a cinema. Pedro watched movies, remade them in his head. When he was 18 he left for Madrid and never looked back.

Penelope Cruz’s Raimundo is, in fact, a kind of biographical stand-in for Almodóvar— she grows up in a baroquely-named pueblito in La Mancha, flees it for Madrid, severs ties with her past, estranges herself from her mother, who is literally a living ghost. Her escape from it mirrors his; so, too, her eventual reconciliation with her origins. The film basically dramatizes Almodóvar’s coming to terms with his own past. (Also it’s a Technicolor domestic pulp, a multigenerational family saga played for laughs, and a ghost story.) Almodóvar, as it happens, makes this explicit in interview after interview: “He vuelto a mis propias raíces y a la memoria de mi madre. Me baso absolutamente en mi vida, mis recuerdos, y los de mi familia.” And: “Este película me reconcilió con mi infancia.” [2,3]

This autobiographical trajectory, La Mancha to Extremadura to Madrid, intersects with no Spain I ever became fluent in. The center is a blank page; I lived in peripheries. When Volver travels from Madrid to Alcanfor de las Infantas, fictional wind-scoured pueblo with the highest rate of insanity in the country (literally: ‘mothballs of the princesses’) the dialogue suddenly starts picking up manchego inflections. I can just about perceive it, but I don’t actually understand. At one point in the commentary Almodóvar starts laughing with Cruz about how typical of La Mancha something Sole has just said is—está en mala cojónada— which is so colloquially rural I can’t even find an internet reference. (It means she’s in a bad mood, but it seems like the reason why is…her balls hurt?) It’s something like watching Fargo with no sense of Minnesota as a discrete place, a setting where regionalisms are being faithfully rendered and occasionally parodied. This film isn’t set in Spain, because Spain doesn’t exist; it’s set in La Mancha. What’s La Mancha? I have no idea.

When you’re foreign—and n.b., maybe this is only true or surprising if you’re in your early twenties and abroad for the first time in your life, maybe I’m naïvely stating the obvious, but this is how it was for me, back then—you’re suddenly blind to a thousand internal signifiers, coded images meant to be apprehended in an instant. They’re too obvious to articulate. (Here’s Barthes, in Mythologies: “For the Blue Guide, men only exist as ‘types.’ In Spain, for instance, the Basque is an adventurous sailor, the Levantine a light-hearted gardener, the Catalan a clever tradesman and the Cantabrian a highlander.”) Stereotypes are characters in the stories that cultures tell.

And it becomes important to be fluent in your local stereotypes—quick, show me Cantabria on a map—even if there’s a turtles-all-the-way-down quality to how typologies, more and more specifically-targeted, end up demonstrating their own incoherence. (Spaniards are like this, sure, but then Basques are like that and Andalucíans like the other, and then in Andalucía of course nothing could be more different than the sevillanos, who are all pijos riding like white stallions to the fería and swilling manzanilla and never leaving the capital, and the jiennenses, who are bent over backwards from spending all day in the olive groves and drink beer and…) You know those Levantines and their light-hearted gardening.

Accents display class and status: On mainstream Spanish sitcoms Andalucíans are country bumpkins, the comic relief. To speak in andaluz dialect is actually to already be setting up the joke. And because it’s (surprisingly?) tricky to hear accents in a language you’re learning—certainly almost impossible to notice, in a film with subtitles in a language you don’t speak at all, the different ways that characters sound—you’re blind to this signaling, to the joke being set up. You wonder why everyone in the audience is laughing. Which opacity can be interesting, in and of itself—you know something’s being communicated, but can’t see quite what it is…

(I’m reminded, though no good example comes to mind, of novels of a certain age or cultural remove—you get what’s clearly meant to be a telling detail, but have to kind of guess at what it’s supposed to signify.)

Almodóvar filmed in a pueblo in Ciudad Real fifteen miles from the one he’d grown up in. I’ve gone back to my roots, he said, and to the memory of my mother. And: In La Mancha, the patios are essential. Most of life takes place in them. They’re much less joyful than those of Andalucía, much more austere, because life there is one of interiors. The streets are deserted. Again, he said: This is typical of La Mancha. Nothing to do with Andalucía: white, with zócanos, you breath in flowers, without a single decoration. (Did I mishear? Was it that they were hung with flowers?)

When he was a child he’d sit with the women of his family in the patio—really more of a enclosed courtyard? is that the better translation?—of their home, like the Fellini alter-ego in 8 1/2. Pueblos in La Mancha seem as closed as fists. The film opens in a graveyard on Día de Todos los Santos, dozens of women shrouded in black frantically cleaning gravestones while the insane-making wind blows and the dust settles everywhere—something there, I suppose, about the nature of women’s work: domestic, undervalued, endless, like so many of the details of the murder of Penelope Cruz’s abusive rapist husband, which have to do with once again cleaning up after him. I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find, what on earth a zócano is— some kind of stock or wooden stand for a loom, I think.

This film reconciled me with my childhood, he said.

How much do you miss? How much does it matter? All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the me who watched this in college & liked it & ended up going to Spain & had to reconcile the actual country with the myth of that country he’d built in his head, he was getting a very different enjoyment out of it, seeing very different things, than a Madrid theater audience, or again the audience Almodóvar screened it for in his former hometown, or indeed Almodóvar himself, the resonance of language & gesture, the nostalgia, the reasons he’d made it in the first place. Perfect transmission is of course a fantasy. I like the bit in Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text where he asks rhetorically whether anyone has ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word. “Proust’s good fortune,” he adds in parenthesis: “from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages.”

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).

Alacranes en su tinta

23 March 2010

Today I want to tell you about Alacranes en su tinta, which I started over Christmas & then left on my bookshelf for a while & then finally finished a week or two ago. I wrote in January, ‘I’m about halfway through, and haven’t gotten to the plot yet,’ and the reason why is, it turns out, because the novel consists of a few different pieces patched together, like a lurid quilt.

The first is a shaggy gastronomical tour of Bilbao, in which our narrator, Pacho Murga, embarks on an endless cab ride on New Year’s Eve, 2000, for undisclosed but apparently urgent reasons that have to do with (poisoned? we’re not sure) oysters. The narrative immediately grinds to a halt. We flash back to some months previous — he’s been cut off by his rich, hotel-dwelling father, and is lurching around having expensive taste in wine. Eventually he meets Antón Astigarraga, an eccentric alcoholic (with, we already know from the back cover, a tormented past) who whips up elaborate & delicious pintxos — deconstructed tortilla con patatas, a cup of foie-gras in a wine gelée and caramelized pear, a gazpacho of cockles & frozen cream in virgin olive oil, deboned quail thighs in a puff pastry sarcophagus . . . —  in a hole-in-the-wall in Casco Viejo. Also a pair of twins who own a bar — called Twins, in English — that specializes in dry martinis. They no longer speak to each other, for reasons that may or may not have to do with an infamous sexual substitution enacted on Ava Gardner in New York in the 70s.

When I left off, the Twins had just been found dead in an apparent dual murder, the present tense of the narrative was still in that damn cab, and the atormentada venganza promised by the back cover (which anticipates the plot by at least 150 pages) was nowhere to be seen.

At this point, a lengthy confession signed by Astigarraga is found, entitled Confessiones de un catador de Franco, and the bulk of the novel is taken up in relating this story, back in the late 60s, with a whole new narrator (there are occasional interjections from our poor, benighted Pacho Murga, who we’re realizing is a little dimwitted), and it’s a doozy, all sex-and-death and monstrous improbabilities.

In brief: catador (not in my dictionary, but I figured it out) means food-taster, which is to say that Astigarra’s father, and later Astigarra himself, taste Franco’s food before he eats it. Astigarra becomes the point man in an ETA plot to poison Franco, masterminded by his uncle Patxi, and things, of course, go horribly awry — Franco decides at the last minute that he’s a little carsick and not hungry, the food, already poisoned, is eaten as leftovers by Astigarra’s loyal father, who dies instantly, and Astigarra himself, who’d been promised an antidote, discovers it was a placebo,  & is sent into a years-long coma in which is is completely conscious, but unable to move, see, or communicate, for years, with nothing to think about other than the fact that his father is dead & his own death was part of his uncle’s plan all along.

While he’s under, he devises elaborate plans of revenge for the five architects of the plot, one of whom is a Jesuit who is sexually molesting him the entire time he’s in the hospital. The others, apart from tío Patxi, have become a famous opera singer, the coach for Bilbao Athletic, and ‘an important Basque politican.’

Well, now we’re in a narrative that is somehow tedious & overwrought at the same time — he becomes the priest’s lover just so that he can kill him, does the same thing to the opera singer, eventually joins ETA (to get closer to tío Patxi) & takes refuge in France (picture France in the 80s, ETA guys crowding the Basque bars just across the border, the French police not doing a thing . . . ), falls in love with a French girl whose father is a chef, learns how to cook, and then — just as things were getting back to normal, right? — she’s killed, tragically!, by a GAL assassination squad.

I’ll say this, at least I learned something. Because who or what, you ask, is the GAL? Well: turns out that during the 80s, a far-reaching conspiracy in the Spanish government siphoned public money to fund a deniable splinter group of French & Portuguese mercenaries & moonlighting Spanish national police called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), whose purpose was to range up & about French & Spanish Basque country kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating ETA members, or people associated with ETA members, or people with Basque names.

Really, you say? Yes, really. The whole thing was exposed by El Mundo in ’87, and there was a trial (well — just read the wikipedia article; I’m not pretending to know any of this). And before the GAL, there was the BVE, the Batellón Vasco Español, which did for the post-Franco UCD government in ’75-’81 the same thing the GAL did from ’81 to ’87 for the PSOE. Apparently the GAL was in large part responsible for ETA’s continuing existence post-Franco.

Incidentally, there’s more ETA in the news this week — an ETA member killed a French policeman, which used to be absolutely against the rules (France was referred to by ETA as ‘our sanctuary,’ and the deal was that they’d use it as a staging area but refrain from violence). Meanwhile, an ETA member has disappeared & then been found dead mysteriously. Red graffiti asking, in Basque, Where is Jon? has erupted all over the walls & alleyways of Bilbao.

The political graffiti is always painted over in less than 48 hours. A friend of mine is taking pictures. In one of them, a long Basque sentence, red, on the wall of the river walk on my way to the market, the only other thing I can understand is PSOE-GAL, which is clear enough, really.

Anyways. The GAL assassination launches Astigarra right back into it: he kills tío Patxi, and the Athletic coach, in feats of arson & torture that seem unlikely to say the least, and then we’re brought more or less up to the present, where he’s planned, in a huge féte at the newly-built Guggenheim catered by his pintxos restaurant (brought to prominence by our narrator, who has been used!) an assassination attempt on the last remaining conspirator, that nationalist politician, who as it turns out is none other than the lehendakari Jon Ander Txoriburu!

The lehendakari is the Basque head of state. In a novel set in Bilbao, this reveal — killing the lehendakari in the Guggenheim — is the rough equivalent of staging your American novel’s climax as, I don’t know, a death struggle featuring the President of the United States on the roof of the Empire State Building.

Naturally, everything goes wrong, including a burro chase through the Richard Serra installation. It turns out, at the end, that our narrator has eaten poisoned oysters, and, in a surreal closing dialogue that reads like a college stage play, that the cab is driven by something that may or may not be God posing as a Galician, and that our protaganist died some time ago, and is being driven through a strange & desolate country that is no longer Bilbao, and then everything fades into the middle distance, punctuated by distant radio reports and broadcast Christmas carols.

It’s all entertaining enough, I suppose, even if the pacing is a little stop-and-go and the prose style reads exactly like a columnist-turned-novelist, which is to say, nice turns of phrase from time to time, lots of sex & torture, some name-dropping . . .

Here’s a nice sentence from early on, about a good wine: ‘. . . un tinto de Ribera del Duero, un Protos reserva del noventa y uno, fuerte y redondo como una buena blasfemia.’ (p. 52) — A red from Ribera del Duero, a ’91 Protos Reserve, strong & rounded like a good blasphemy.  (Obviously, good blasphemy is no substitute, rhythm-wise, for buena blasfemia, but I can’t quite finesse it.)

In the end, it more or less confirms my suspicious that mediocre fiction is a great training-ground for someone reading in a second language. There’s lots of quotations & references threaded in — you even get the entire Olentzero children’s song in Basque & Spanish — and some undigested historical references.

I’ve got a stack of Spanish books from the library on my desk now, including an historical novel set in Cadiz, 1811, and Jordi Puntí’s Maletas Perdidas (Lost Luggage?), which is his long-form followup to his widely acclaimed (and still not translated into English) story collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Txakoli (& kalimotxo)

10 March 2010

Romería, José Arrúe (1977). Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

“El tercero era un tal Txomin Oronoz, alias Txordo (cerjijunto), un silente navarro de Elizondo, el experto en explosivos. Era adicto al kalimotxo, innoble brebaje cuya paternidad o al menos bautismo se atribuye al sediento poeta bilbaíno Gabriel Aresti.”

Alacranes en su tinta, Juan Bas (p. 188)*

Kalimotxo, (that innoble brebaje, Bas calls it — more on his weird, weird little novel tomorrow), is one of those things you discover quickly: the Basques, you’ll be told, drink (the person telling you pauses here, scandalized) wine and coca-cola together. Yes, true: In the midst of some of the best wine country in Spain, Bilbao’s youth adulterate their plonk with litres of coke, apparently since 1972, when during fiestas in Getxo (in the origin story, it was still called Getcho then), a massive quantity of wine spoiled somehow & to save the party, it was mixed with gallons of Coca-Cola so that nobody would notice.

Truth is, though, mixing cheap red wine with whatever’s at hand is kind of a Spanish national pastime (see: tinto de verano). In Aragón & parts of Navarra they call it cubata del pobre — ‘poor man’s cuba libre.’ Elsewhere in Spain, the spelling is knocked into castillian orthography & it’s called calimocho, or sometimes rioja libre. It tastes about how you’d think. The sallow 15 year-olds who are its primary consumers are called kalimotxeros.

Txakoli is a different story altogether — it’s a local white wine, very dry & acidic & served cold, didn’t even have a denominación de origen until about twenty years ago (some types were only certified eight or nine years back). Before that, it was all homemade. “Now,” a teacher from my school told me, “they even make it with grapes!” It used to be like battery acid, she said. You needed a stomach made out of steel to drink it.

But these days, it’s gone & refined itself — there was an article in the local paper about a big tasting in Madrid, it’s become trendy like Argentinian malbecs were a couple years back. There’s three main regional varieties, some of which (I drank this kind in San Sebastían) are kind of frothy, almost fizzing. In bars, they pour it into flat-bottomed glasses from a great height, or you drink it at village fiestas out of a porrón, which is this glass decanter with a spout that you hold about three feet over your head.

That’s, at least, what I did on Sunday afternoon, at the going-away party for a Basque bartender-friend who’s studying in Poland for three months. Look closely at the left part of the Arrúe painting, at the guys with the accordion & the guitar & (probably, although I can’t see it) an alboca — that was more or less the scene in Plaza Nueva three days ago: virtually everyone I knew in the city trooping through the streets of the Casco Viejo, playing traditional Basque music, dancing, drinking txakoli (an excellent accompaniment to fried seafood), drawing a crowd, little kids running alongside us.

When I get my hands on some good photographs I’ll try to tell you all about pintxos.


*Translated: “The third was one Txomin Oronoz aka Txordo (“Unibrow”), a taciturn Navarrese from Elizondo whose specialty was explosives. He was crazy for kalimotxo, that bastardized concoction fathered, or at least baptized, by that thirstiest of Bilbao’s poets, Gabriel Aresti.”

(This has to be some kind of joke that I’m not getting — one of Bilbao’s most famous Basque-language poets was a kalimotxero? If you say so, Juan Bas.)

A note on Basque spelling: tx is pronounced ch, and knowing that gets you a long ways towards being able to read it out loud.

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.


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.


3 February 2010

“…Many writers feel that the Reconquista in Spain in particular paved the way for expansion in the Americas by supplying tested institutions, practices, and techniques for conquest, control, and settlement. Cortes sometimes described Aztec temples as ’mosques.’ Much of the same has been said of British conquest and settlement in Ireland from the late sixteenth century. Some scholars feel that one can exaggerate the extent to which Ireland was a ’blueprint for America.’ But one cannot deny that the settlement of Ireland produced a particularly tough and re-settlement-prone subculture: the Scots-Irish. These people had by far the highest rates of overseas migration in the British Isles in the 18th century. The same is true of the Andalusians of Spain and the Cossacks of Russia. These groups were the shock troops of European far-settlement, and they had been produced by earlier, closer, settlements.”

— Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, James Belich, p42.

What I wouldn’t give to have known about this book a year & a half ago, so I could have looked at its bibliography before going to Andalucía. There are two or three Jaéns in South America for this very reason. Have I mentioned that I miss English-language libraries?

Via zunguzungu, whose archives I’ve been rifling through in my spare time. The Tanzanian material especially elicits, first, a shock of simple, self-centered recognition: You see someone has had a similar thought and rejoice that the private fastness of your mind has been mirrored outside of yourself, affirmed. (The pleasures & difficulties of teaching 7 & 8 yr. olds, or kids who may have already been given up on; or the mild affront of going to a different foreign country after you’ve just gotten used to living one where you know the language & get around . . . ) The second thing you notice is that he writes with uncommon humility coupled with insight — hey, you say, maybe I could stand to be more like that! This kind of close reading of the yearly output of a stranger writing in an intimate setting feels a little stalkerish, but then it’s kind of nice for me, at least, to see how someone else dealt with the broadly similar problem of chronicling via blog time spent in an unfamiliar culture. — Anyway, that was a couple years ago, & he’s writing about his dissertation & strings of stuff about cultural artifacts (The Wire! The Office!). You don’t need me to tell you to read him — I don’t have a readership, after all — but I wanted to do more than a bare sourcing & dragged myself into a whole expository paragraph, so here we are.

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.)


25 January 2010

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s 1869 map of Basque dialects,
via, of course, wikipedia.

Basque is an ancient language which has no surviving family members — whatever classificatory tree it was a branch on withered & died a long time ago, & it’s all alone in these low green hills, crouching amidst a veritable horde of Indo-European tongues, everyone counting the same from Sanskrit all the way over to Galicia — and it doesn’t look or sound or operate quite like anyone else, or even any of the other minority languages in Spain, not like in Valencia where there are street signs bilingual in valenciano , or in Galicia (gallego), or in Barcelona (catalán).

This isn’t really my field — I’m just trying to give you an idea, because when I go home to the wide, placid wilderness of America I’m reminded of how strange this is for most of the people I grew up with, the notion of all of these little languages right on top of each other, all interrelated & almost-but-not-quite mutually intelligible & mostly different from village to village. And meanwhile, we grow up (I did, at least) in the States, on what’s essentially a 3,000 mile long island where everybody talks almost identically, even if in Boston they’ll pretend not to understand you if you ask for a milkshake. I’m remembering right now the polite incomprehension of everybody I tried to explain this feeling to over Christmas, & probably overexplaining now.

You know the definition of a language, right? (A language is a dialect with a navy.) So. There’s between six and nine Basque dialects — to start with, one for each of the three provinces of País Vasco, plus Navarre, plus those bits of ethnic Basque France — which is one of the reasons why I can never get anybody to pronounce village names alike. This is also because most placenames have changed, at least on the maps, since Franco died & the Basques got limited regional autonomy. Every place has a castellano name & a name in euskara, as well as various spellings: Bilbao is also Bilbo, San Sebastían is Donostía, Vitoria is hyphenated with Gastiez. The province I live in is Vizcaya or Bizkaia. The pueblo I teach in is called Galdakao now, but it used to be Galdálcano, and, depending on who you talk to, some people still pronounce that ghost of an n.

Incidentally, the EU has a commission on regional & minority languages, & one of the ironic effects of the attempt to preserve these languages has been to standardize them, give what used to be an extremely localized, oral patchwork of dialects (deprecated by government schools & oppressed to greater & lesser degrees) a standardized dictionary & spelling — that is, to preserve linguistic diversity by reducing linguistic diversity. Imagine for a moment the fights that break out over the phrase “six to nine” when I talk about Basque dialects, the quarrels that it elides, and then extend that over the entire continent.

As a non-native speaker of Spanish, though, conversational Basque sounds, if you’re not paying attention, a lot like Spanish (the vowel sounds, for instance, are the same).  The inflection, the rhythms of speech, aren’t, for the first couple of seconds, noticeably different from locally-accented Spanish, — but none of the words are even close to recognizable. The other day, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge & a teacher came in and asked if anybody wanted coffee & I did a doubletake because I had no idea what he’d just said. It’s as if, imagine, someone came up to you and began speaking in what you thought sounded like English, the same conversational tone, but all you heard was nonsense. The reason this is at once both unsettling & familiar for me, too,  is because I’ve only been fluent in Spanish for a little while, and feeling like I can’t understand a word people are saying to me is something I remember viscerally.

Word stress & rhythm of speech is different from Spanish, actually (stress patterns are extremely different between dialects, too, which is why nobody pronounces village names alike), but given the number of Spanish speakers who speak Basque as a second language & Basque speakers who speak Spanish as a second language, living here I think it’s much harder for me to figure out which is influencing which.

One last thing. When referring to Basque, even in Spanish, you usually say euskara here (the lack of a capital is a habit I’m picking up from Spanish). Spanish itself is most commonly referred to as castellano, which isn’t so surprising in a region that calls a tortilla española tortilla de patatas instead. What is surprising is that that’s what I already called it, because I lived in Andalucía last year, and I think the reason’s the same. Andalucíans may learn castellano in school, because the dialect from Castille has always been the dialect with the navy — but they speak andaluz. And  while in the rest of the country andaluz is just a debatable name for a hick accent used in television shows to signify comic relief, it’s their own. Spanish isn’t Spanish in Andalucía — it’s castellano, just like in here in Basque Country. It emanates from Madrid via newspapers, literature, government proclamations, fluorescences of culture, reconquests, cervanteses, a royal academy. It has a navy.

Previous attempts to write about Basque Country:

Swordfish Bars