Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Dorset,Uncategorized

May 1, 2014

Dorset: North of Spain 10

Tags: , , , ,

Gold_Hill,_Shaftsbury,_Dorset,_EnglandThe logical thing to do when returning is to take the same route from whence we came, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises.  This is especially true when you are traveling with kids, because they generally don’t appreciate hearing sentences like, “Let me just pull over a second and ask this man where we are.”

So, I should have done that, but didn’t.  I much prefer to go back on an alternate route, just to discover something new.  We did; and that was, getting lost in England is easy.  Finding your way back is not.

We veered onto the A330 and headed west towards Exeter, generally in the direction of Cornwall.  According to my calculations, I would only have to do this for a dozen miles.  I was looking for a crossroads that would indicate a turn south towards Dorchester.  This never came.  It never came because a majority on the panel of experts of the British Road Network felt that kind of information was superfluous, and that mentioning the location of smaller, vastly less important towns was far worthier of mention on a sign than lowly and forgotten Dorchester.  So I bypassed my exit at a considerable speed, positive that the route I was looking for was still ahead.  After another ten miles of stellar summer English countryside, the very landscapes that inspired Thomas Hardy over and over again, I realized that if I didn’t do anything about it I would eventually send our vehicle off a cliff into the Atlantic.   

                So, I raced off the highway and onto a country road that headed south and hopefully towards a familiar name.  The route was so narrow that it allowed for just enough room two vehicles as long as neither of them exceeded the width of a mini.   Something must be said for these harrowing experiences, but I usually pay for them at a theme park and with the guarantee I won’t die as a result.

                We coasted into Shaftesbury, an ancient town whose earliest buildings have all but disappeared from existence.  Little has survived from before the 18th Century, making it on paper the kind of town which no one in England would give two hoots about.  The name Shaftesbury may not be familiar to most us from abroad, yet anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a bookstore or souvenir shop in Dorset will have undoubtedly come upon its famous Gold Hill, an extremely steep cobbled street lined by traditional thatched-roofed stone houses.   It must be the most common photographic image of Dorset.  The lane is also famous for being the setting for one of Britain’s most beloved commercials of all time, promoting Hovis Bread.  It was filmed and launched back in 1972 and directed by none other than a young and then unknown Ridley Scott.  The ad shows a boy pushing his bike up the hill with a degree of difficulty to deliver loaves to a neighbor and final customer of the day, who lives at the very top.  Reaching the summit is described as being “on top of the world” in the voice-overed mind of the child.  The impression is understandable.   Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the English countryside explodes in all directions.  I know this from the picture, of course, just as anyone who has been to Dorset has.

The commercial is quaint, twee and heartwarming, but I was initially puzzled by its lasting fame.   After a few viewings I began to understand and came to the conclusion that it was one of those otherwise insignificant cultural nuggets which for some reason appear at the right time in a society and become lodged permanently in the memories of a whole generation.  Or two.  Every country has its treasure trove of peculiar icons that seem to mean something only to its residents.  They are brief and modest rebellions against globalization.

The Hovis bread commercial is said to have been a hit because it depicted the essence of rural life in England, with a heavy dose of nostalgia to boot.  It is fitting they would choose this spot to film it.  Dorset still possesses that yesteryear allure that attracts the British tourist in search of that lost and forgotten past of a fondly recalled simpler life.  It was become a kind of generic Main Street for the nostalgic.  At least, that’s the sense I get. I didn’t know Gold Hill was there, though I had seen the picture already.  That is a blunder in advertising.  People didn’t associate it with any town in particular. 

I was focused on other things, in reality; on what street would take me back to Weymouth and was just happy to see a traffic light because it meant I was in civilization and able to get a better understanding of just how far off course I had gone.  Fully confident of my orientation skills but no longer sure of the way I worked them, I fled to a gas station and sought the assistance of the first person I came across, who happened to be a young man of about 20.  He was with his mates.  He had a slightly unkept, up-to-no-good look, the kind of kid I certainly would have avoided back in the States, now that I think about it, unless I wanted to end up on one of those reality shows about “Unsolved Mysteries”. 

But the funny thing about the British, from an American’s point of view, is that no matter what their appearance may be, it’s the goddamn accent of theirs that makes them somehow so appealing and worthy of the fullest trust.  They could be holding to your throat and telling you that they are going to take all your money but first sodomize you for an hour, and just because of that charming intonation of theirs, you’d find yourself saying, “Hey, that sounds just fine by me.”

 Now, I can’t say what this kid would be like when the pubs close, but he was surely helpful then.  He kindly explained that I was heading in the right the direction and that I was to first pass through Blandford Forum, where I would see signs for Dorchester, i.e., the capital of the county.  Blandford is only about from 15 miles from Dorchester, but to my surprise, the disoriented traveler would not be provided with irrefutable proof that he was not lost until he was practically at the edge of town.  Oh well; every country has its quirks.

                The trip back was taking longer than I had anticipated, but as we struggled to orient ourselves, we did get to enjoy the back roads of rural England.  The tree-lined lanes, the thick hedges, the green and golden fields that formed the most attractive patchwork nature and man could jointly produce.  Each turn afforded yet another bucolic and ideal setting for yet another Hardy novel.  We wove through hill and dale until we glided into a town called Iwerne Minster, which had been was commended in the 2010 for its charm in the Best Kept Villages in Dorset contest, an annual competition run by the Dorset Community Action.  This was no gratuitous distinction.  All it takes is for a quick look around the countryside for you to realize that the competition is stiff.  Just about any hamlet in those parts could out-quaint the vast majority of Spanish communities.  They are just that cute.  You could almost imagine Mrs. Tiggy-winkle emerging from any of those homes to sweep the front entrance with a nice thick broom full of long bristles.

Iwerne Minster had apparently stood above the rest in this category making me wonder just what it would be like to inhabit like that.  It seemed almost unthinkable that a dog could ever poop on its sidewalks; no drunk would puke in its bushes; no lewd sex act ever performed or heinous crime committed inside the walls of its homes.  I was sure no habitual human behavior went on in there.  Ever.

It was while traversing this town that we drove by a pub called the “Wild Garlic”, which I pointed out to the girls because I loved the name.  Little did I know that it was a recently started up restaurant and B&B run by a Masterchef winner Mat Follas, a British celebrity I had never heard of before.  It had apparently been opened just a few months before, and apparently was closed down just a few months since then.  This was a town for hedgehogs and bears donning rain gear, not gastronomic sybarites.   Didn’t Mr. Follas realize that?

We carved our way through the rest of the county and, without great difficulty but a great deal of patience, managed to return to Weymouth with a sense that he had finally made it to familiar surroundings.  The roundabouts.  The port with the scores of masts rising into the sky, the families coming back from their dinners at restaurants.  The day coming to an end, and the town coming to a close.  It comforted us.  After just three days, Weymouth had become our new home. 

Images of Spain

April 26, 2014

Great Spanish Traditions: Driving home at the end of Easter break

Tags: , , ,

Semana SantaMany people back home ask me how I spend my Easter Sunday and I always tell them the same: In a car, on a highway and with a handful of swear words on hand and a head full of ways I would like to commit violent acts.

     It’s a reasonable enquiry considering Spain has a big reputation for being such a deeply religious country, with KKK-like brotherhoods parading about scores of towns and cities toting floats depicting anguished images from the passion of Christ.  But that occurs days before when everyone commiserates with the suffering of the Savior on the eve of his crucifixion.  The part about his coming back to life, the happy-ending resurrection, that triumphant “Hey, he really is the Son of God after all”, is overshadowed by the fear of running into one of the worst traveling days of the calendar.  It’s a kind of Sunday after Thanksgiving to the tenth power.

     There was a couple of years there when I took time away from this activity and stayed in Madrid, time off to recover from repeated ordeals.  But I finally returned to one of Spain’s greatest traditions: Operación Retorno.  The photo actually shows traffic heading in the opposite the direction, towards the feared Alicante, but the sense of helplessness it conveys is virtually the same on the way back. 

     There is really nothing complicated about experiencing this great custom.  Just spend a weekend about 500 kilometers away, pack your car, get behind the wheel, and head for the nearest highway that takes you back to Madrid.  Then you look for the first traffic jam you can find, pull up at the end of the line and participate. 

      In the past, returning from a coastal place like Alicante meant the backup usually started a few yards from where my car was parked, some 350 miles from Madrid.  It could go on for days.  But this time I was regressing from the north, and that made things slightly more tolerable.  The electronic panels spanning the road informed the traveler of any impending doom, and on this occasion indicated that we could expect “slow traffic”, which I took as a good sign since it suggested we would be home in two hours instead of the usual four or five it might normally take.  The traffic adopted the classic worm effect, crunching and stretching out throughout the countryside of Madrid.  Every kilometer we advance counted as victory toward a common goal: reaching Fort Living Room before insanity set in. 

      To say you returned to Madrid on Easter Sunday without considering homicide is a true indicator of just how involved you are in life here.  It’s a necessary part of your training in Spanish culture.  It’s like mastering the subjunctive mode in Spanish, or watching from beginning to the final credits of the Eurovision song contest.  No one wants to go through with it, and yet everyone should. 

Madrid

April 21, 2014

Madrid, Mon Amour

Tags: , , ,

I woke this morning to the sound a misty rain blanketing the sky.  What a relief!  Well, for once we had a Semana Santa without having to pull out the umbrellas every day, and the procession floats didn’t have to kick it into high gear to get back to the church.  En abril, aguas mil (In April, a thousand waters), that’s the saying, the distant relative to “April showers bring May flowers”, though “hasta el 40 de mayo, no te quites el sayo” (Until the 40th of May, don’t take off your raincoat) hints that the wet weather might be around for a while…and often is.  We got a break this time, we really did.  All week they had been forecasting that damper cooler weather would be moving into the country and ruining the fun for everyone, but for the most part it just kept getting pushed off and off until about midnight last night, when I came out of the Círculo de Bellas Artes movie theater and felt the sprinkling begin.  Bellas Artes is one of the oldest cultural centers in Madrid.  It also owns a grandiose old world café with an outdoor section that spills out onto the Calle Alcalá.  The inside, is all marbly and might be something you would see in those old fancy hotels.  The rest of the building offers small but generally interesting art & photography exhibits, conference rooms, a large ballroom, etc., but the real reason most people come these days is for the chic rooftop bar, which was once just a rooftop, which was once only a rooftop with lookout of the center of Madrid, but now is a happening place for the hip, and not so hip, because I go there from time to time, taking that quality down a notch.  Prices are up there with the height of the building, but nothing out of this world, especially for anyone who has travelled to London, Paris or New York.

On this occasion, I was at the movie theater (there is also a regular theater), which I hit from time to time because they usually have decent film cycles featuring different directors or actors or even themes.  The best thing about it is that the same movie usually has three or four showings, unlike the filmoteca, meaning you don’t normally have to hipcheck some college professor in line to ensure you have a ticket.  This month they were featuring the late French director Alain Resnais, who just passed away last month.  It was Hiroshima, Mon Amour, his classic innovative film about, love, loss and memory.  It wasn’t the easiest film to watch, one of the densest 90 minutes of celluloid I have taken in for some time which drags a little, and probably not for everyone, but an intensively beautiful and provocative film, all the same.

Let’s not forget these places in Madrid.  Let’s not forget love.  Let’s remember we have memories which teach us to forget.

North of Spain

March 14, 2014

Dorset: North of Spain. 8

Tags: , , ,

1375282168433We visited a souvenir shop on the way out, picked out a few postcards we ended up not ever sending, snacked on a soft ice cream cone and then plotted out the next couple of hours.  We walked down the pretty streets of Salisbury thinking of where and what to eat.  As I salivated as we went by every pub, my daughters suggested Burger King, and since we had made it through the cathedral with my being beheaded, and the Stonehengey-thing still looming, I thought it was a good moment to compromise and allow them to perk up their spirits with some crappy food.

                It did the trick.  With kids happy and ready for the second half of the day, we explored the town a little more.  Salisbury was certainly attractive and pleasant to visit, but perhaps because I was used to medieval heavyweights back in Spain like Toledo, Segovia or Santiago de Compostela, I have to admit I felt a little letdown.  I know it’s not a fair judgment since the two countries have such contrasting appearances, but I can’t help thinking I was expecting more.  Oh well, the section around the cathedral was truly awesome.

                We went back to the car and headed for the big challenge of the day: the blocks of rocks. 

                I have to confide that, on one hand, I was very excited about seeing Stonehenge but at the same time terrified of what I would find.  I had heard that it had been cut off from the public and only could be viewed from a distance; and that the crowds, oh the crowds, rivaled 5th Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day.  What kind of cultural experience would I end up impressing on my daughters?  Reverting to my teaching techniques, I kept expectations as low as possible to avoid excessive disappointment in the end, and relied heavily on the long-term effects to visit would have.

                “I know you may not find this enthralling, but, trust, ten years down the road, you’ll be thanking me for it.”  A decade was a very comfortable margin to snatch a victory from defeat.  And, if worst came to worst, at least time would heal that wound.  But I had lived similar experiences when I was there age, and even I can tell you that I have come to appreciate such bizarre tidbits of knowledge, like declining Latin words, years after considering homicide when having to study them by force.   Learning can be such an odd process.

                We departed Salisbury and, after bumping up on my first curb of the trip, a space judgment flaw that afflicts people used to driving on the other side of the road, we coasted north to the final destination of our day. 

Stonehenge is located on the famous Salisbury Plain a 300 square mile stretch of open land which has served as the backdrop of many literary tales.  Aside from that, it turns out to be a real task trying to ascertain just exactly where the Neolithic monument par excellence is and what or whom it belongs to.  Research is no good.  If anything, it serves to distance you from the truth.

It appears that Stonehenge is nearby a few different towns, but not technically within the boundaries of any.  A kind of no man’s land.  From my understanding, it is owned by The Crown, which suggests the royal family could pop down there at any time and munch on some cucumber sandwiches while reclining on the blue stones, but in reality it refers to everything that embodies the government (executive, judicial and legislative) of the United Kingdom.  In a sense, everything but the monarchy per se, if I have got it right.   So, the monument is owned by the country, and managed by the English Heritage, which takes care of many of England’s most cherished historical sites.  The surrounding land, some 2,000 acres in all, is maintained by yet another conservationist body, the National Trust, which I used to think ran the show when it came to England’s heritage, but apparently it’s not that easy. 

We glided up a long straightaway, leaving soon-to-be new visitors’ center to our right and, once on top, made for the makeshift parking lot in what otherwise would be a meadow for sheep. The English Heritage prides itself in making dozens of its properties available to the public for free, but it certainly finds a way of making up for the difference in heavyweights like Stonehenge.  Entry costs something like 14 pounds, 9 if you are a child.  Then you have a 5 quid fee for parking – unless you were a member of the Heritage or a ticket-holder, neither of which applied to us.  You’d think that since they would be having me fork over a handsome sum to see the rocks on the Salisbury Plain, the least they could do was foot the bill for the parking lot. 

                Enough of the complaining.  Despite my fears of masses of multitudes turning the afternoon into something like the New York State Highway on the weekend of Woodstock, to my surprise, the visit, while hardly intimate, was manageable.  I was just reeling to get inside.  Considering it was early August, it could have been worse. 

It was also one of the most international moments of our visit to England that year.  Down in Dorset, a foreigner is a Liverpudlian whose mother is from Glasgow.  At Stonehenge, English is just one of the dozens of languages filling the air.

                The visit takes you through a short subterranean exhibit with murals that prep you for the big moment.  Since the big moment was all that I was there for, we passed through rather blithely and headed for the ramp. 

There is certainly something liberating about emerging from the time tunnel they guide you through and rising up to the open plain with the family of ancient and noble stones cracking the horizon.  The vastness of the open area muted the magnitude of the people speaking there.   Stonehenge is hands down the most famous prehistoric site in the West, and to say you’ve been that close to it, sends a chill up your spine regardless of the multitude surrounding the circle.  Say what you will, but I didn’t see it as a letdown.

My daughters feigned disinterest at first, claiming that every child under the age of fifteen there was complaining as much as them.  “I just heard a boy saying how boring it was.”

                “He was speaking German.  How would you know?”

                “You can tell.”

                “You can, can you?”

                “Yeap.”

           There is little mysterious about how to visit the site.  You start at one point, something like one o’clock, and go counter clockwise for a full loop until you have observed it from 360 different angles.  It may seem simplistic to say, but I can tell you that the changing perspectives are worth it.  The weather was typically English fickle climate.  The balmy and mostly cloudy skies allowed for persistent changes of light and depth. Not sure if I would ever return, I went for another around, doing my best to tune out the crowds.

        The girls ended up loving it; I knew they would.  After looping around slowly, we sat down on the grassy prairie, pulled out a couple of packs of Walker’s crisps, or chips, as the Americans would say, and gazed at the timeless structure endlessly, the way you do when bewitched by the dancing flames in a fireplace. 

         The girls enjoyed it, I tell you.  And I no longer had to tell them “Ten years from now.  Ten years from now.”  Two thousand years ago had suddenly become now.  Ten years into the future had turned into now.  Now was all of time encapsulated, beneath the expanse of a bone-white sky and in a silence only broken by distant windy voices and the crunching of brittle chips.  Or crisps, as the British say.

Images of Spain

February 28, 2014

IMAGES OF SPAIN: The “telefonillo”

Tags: , ,

DSC_0069First of all, just coming up with an acceptable equivalent in English seems to be a challenge for translators around the world.  Go to linguee.com, a well-intended but often errant translating reference service which, instead of computing the word or phrase that you are looking for into another tongue, provides you with a series of previous attempts done by other human translators who have contributed their texts.  It is an interesting approach because it can assist you in finding that elusive linguistic transformation you seek, but on more than one occasion, it helps you realize that there are a lot of incompetent experts out there, and reaffirms yourn faith in technology.    

        Here are some of the jewels the unwary investigator might get duped by:  “entryphone telephone” (which is more of a definition than a translation); “little phone” (a half-hearted literal translation, especially since there little “little” about it); “telephone/monitor” (this time a physical description of the modern models); “portable phone” (there is hardly anything portable about this fixed fixture – your 50kg washing machine is easier to remove); and finally “intercom” (which probably stands as the closest relation). 

         Coming from residential Greenwich, Connecticut, I didn’t encounter a telefonillo at all in my youth, aside from a friend’s house which was so big one was used to communicate between members of the family.   Ironically, one of the few homes I know in that town which actually use one of those systems from the outside gate is my original house, which breaks my heart.  It was sadly transformed from a home which was so open that every living creature around for miles, children, dogs and cats, felt free to trespass as they pleased, to a kind of cold and uncharacteristic fortress of sorts. Alas!  These things happen I guess. 

         You just never saw one, even on TV.  From the movies I watched, I thought that in New York you either had a doorman do the screening, or lived in one of those neighborhoods where people shouted from the street, “Hey Tony!  You home?!”

         The telefonillo is a ubiquitous feature of every flat and many independent houses, and in my opinion is that their charm resides in two features: their apparent poor manufacturing and their sketchy reliability. 

         The first is apparent from the minute you hold the receiver in your hand.  So light and airy, it seems to be hollow, and you are tempted to pry it open on one side to check if there is anything inside keeping things in order.

         I suppose appearances could be deceiving if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these specimens end up working about as pitifully as you would expect them to.  Such is the case, that for the most part, I consider these malfunctions to be a standard part of the device’s performance.  Sort of like the scratchy inaudible speaker system on New York commuter trains.

         One thing that almost never fails is the strident buzzing sound that raids the silence of your abode to announce that someone on the street wants to reach you.  If your building doesn’t have a doorman, more often than not it some poor sod trying to slip into the building to mete out publicity into the mailboxes.  You can usually pick up on that because the buzzing is short and it spreads throughout the building, as the brochure deliverer relies on the basic laws of probability.    

Picking up the receiver and answering is no guarantee that you will discover who is on the other end, because, as you will be able to see, one of four situations may occur, and they all have an equal chance of becoming a reality:

         1)    You hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.

         2)  You cannot hear the person downstairs > They can hear you.

         3)  You can hear the person downstairs > They cannot hear you.

         4)  Neither side can hear the other.

         As you can see, you have really about a 25% chance of communicating with the voice on the other end. Either that or you end up conversing with neighbor from the flat two floors down who has also picked up.

          “¿Diga?”

          “Who’s this?”

         “Who’s this?”  He replies with the same question because he isn’t given to shouting out his name to a total stranger.  During this period, the commercial postman is trying to interject and get inside the building.  “Can you open me up?”  But the others aren’t listening. The round of questioning can go on perpetually, until one gives. 

           “I’m in 5B.”

         “Well, I’m in 3A.  Why can I hear you?”  The neighbor is Spanish and after decades of cohabitating with these gadgets you would think he was more familiar with how they normally work; what he should have been asking was how we were able to hear the man from downstairs.  “There is something wrong with this thing.  We gotta get the maintenance guy in to fix it.”

         “Can you open me up?”

          “No!” cries out the other neighbor.  Try later.

      I hang up and wash my hands of the matter.  The guy with ads will finally coerce someone into letting him in.  It never fails.  I have mixed feelings about those people.  I know they are doing their job, but I just don’t like the fact they assume we have to open the door for them.  Especially when there is a box outside.

        The final obstacle is the button that actually lets you in.  I would say that more often than not, it fulfills its purpose, but rarely without an air of mystery, since once you have let go and checked to see if they are inside, there seldom is a reply.  Occasionally, you detect a distant echo as if they are calling you from a cave “I’m in!”, but generally, silence is the answer.  And if you have decided to let in some stranger who claims to be a person only out to stuff mailboxes, you pray their intent was not something more malicious.  Thank God Madrid is generally a very safe city.

         Some friends of mine prefer the machine-gun method of pressing the button, requiring that I time pushing the door open with the moment.  Statistics prove I often need to ring up again.  I don’t know why they do it that way.  Maybe tradition.  That makes sense, because many of the traditions that we all hold dear make any sense at all, which eventually constitutes a dear part of their charm.

Spain

January 24, 2014

Helping You Locate Barcelona

Tags: , ,

Everyone once in a while I dabble in a little nationalism-bashing, not because I am wholly against the idea of fighting for independence if that is what the collective feels and believes, nor do I dispute the historical justification for such a credence, or at least the right to defend it.  What gets my goat, ever so slightly, is the insistence on manipulating information for the sake of God knows what…because it really makes no sense to me.

            Just the other day I was looking up some information about a town outside Madrid called Villarejo de Salvanés, because I was in a café there studying the wildlife there and decided to rummage around the fee encyclopedia to see what it said about the town…in English, which wasn’t much, to be honest.  My eyes were distracted by the list of other languages that have decided to include entries on the subject.  I have become increasingly fascinated by the number of tongues that have joined to the club.  Personally I find it a celebration of that facet that sets us apart from so many other objects in this world, but I do get a kick out of how many of these languages actually make the effort to get on the record.  Latin appears in many.  Esperanto, too.  And regional tongues such as Asturian and Aragonese have joined the ranks.  I guess this is the ideal way to bring international attention to your otherwise unknown language, and that is fine with me, but it is interesting to study the sometimes subversive forces acting behind them. 

            Take Catalan, for example, a minor but healthy language in today’s world but one with a chip on its shoulder the size of a log.  Economic, dictatorial and natural, let’s not forget, forces led to the encroachment of Castilian Spanish for many decades, but this Romance tongue, which is a kind of blend of Spanish, French and Oc, I guess, has managed to persevere quite well, thanks. 

            Enter politics.  With Catalan nationalist sentiment continually on the rise, and the possibility of a referendum looming, the people who support this region, its language and culture, go to great lengths to pretend they don’t belong to the country they belong to. 

            So, I slipped over to Catalan to see what they had to say about the town, rather surprised that they had anything to say about it.  I looked at the summary on the right and noticed that they referred to the country of Spain as a state.   Most of you would not be familiar with the word games that are played in Spain, but the use of the term “state” instead of “country” implies almost a sense of control rather than belonging.  At least that is what I used to think, until I realized that the word was used for all political nations.  The entry refers to Catalonia as a “país” or “country”, due to its cultural and linguistic identity.  At least says it is located in Spain.  If you skip over to “Barcelona”, you notice that it is defined in the entry as a city located in the Iberian Peninsula!  Oh, that country thing is not important.   The extremes people will go to avoid the facts; and that’s considering it is printed in a website which should stick to the facts.  Manipulation of information?  Absolutely.  That happens a lot.  That happens a lot, I tell you.  Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist.  And if we don’t mention it, it won’t.  God help us!

Spain

January 9, 2014

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: HISTORY OF SPAIN’S AND THE UNITED STATES’ RELATIONS 1

Tags: , , ,

Galveston, Texas, has always been associated in my mind with catastrophic tropical storms.  It’s just the way it is.  After all, this coastal city of some 50,000 inhabitants was the victim of the worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life that the United States has ever seen.  The hurricane that plowed through on September 10, 1900, left behind between 8,000-12,000 deaths.  No cyclone has come close to inflicting such a lethal blow on a populace.  In fact, it is said that the combined number of victims of all the other tropical storms to affect America (some 300 in all) doesn’t even match it.  It was that devastating.

      One clear factor was the absence of adequate forecasting back then.  The residents were not aware of what was to befall them.  Foolhardiness played a part too.  The weather bureau director of the town, a man by the name of Isaac Clines, just nine years before announced that, what many considered to be an obviously recommendable seawall for the emerging summertime resort town, was entirely unnecessary mainly because strong storms would never make landfall there.  So no barrier was erected.  Galveston was built on a sandy island whose peak elevation is only nine feet high, yes, that’s a whole foot below a basketball hoop, and it’s located on the western banks of one of the world’s most active tropical storm breeding grounds.  So it is safe to say the town was heading for disaster.  You could also claim with equal confidence that Clines was in no way suited for the position he held.  

I hadn’t given much more thought to Galveston until recently when I learned that it was named after a Spanish military commander, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, who led a brilliant campaign for his country and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.  The soldier really has nothing to do with the town, having died 51 years before it was officially incorporated.  But a Spanish explorer in the 1780s decided to honor an early settlement in his name because, it should be noted, around that time, Gálvez was an outright hero in that corner of the world, considered by some to be the savior of the American cause.

Few people have ever given Spain the credit it was due for its contribution to the American Revolution, or the Guerra de Independencia, as the Spanish call it.  American history teachers and textbooks key in on Lafayette and the French role, but it can be argued, and quite convincingly too, that Spain’s appearance and support was just as vital and, in many ways, more successful than France’s, since the latter went bankrupt when the conflict was over on 1783. 

The Spanish worked masterfully by entering the war late, sweeping the British in the South when they were already nearly crippled, and emerging from the Treaty of Paris with a handful of recovered territories and renewed prestige.  It wouldn’t last long, but I guess it good while it lasted.

            While at the time a waning world power which had recently taken a licking during the Seven Years’ War (The French and Indian War in America), Spain still had the means and the experience to pose a threat to its rivals, and welcomed any opportunity to inflict damage on them.  The fact that the same family ruled in both Madrid and neighboring France only served to cement the alliance. 

            The motive was mainly geopolitical, there is no doubt about that.  If not, why else would two monarchies, one especially autocratic, support a revolution bent on ousting a king and forming a republic?  Those would have been dangerous ideas to support.  But I guess screwing over the British and grabbing some land was far more tempting (as well as shortsighted) than realizing they were putting themselves into danger down the road.

       Once war broke out in the colonies, the other European powers made a point of it to supply the insurrectionists with the material and arms necessary to combat their English foes.  Eventually the French were persuaded to join the conflict and not long afterwards the Spanish, in June 1779, declared war and got in on the act.  Gálvez, who was already actively, though covertly, aiding the American side, was then commissioned with the difficult task of breaking the British control of southern waters and borders.  Success would mean a major setback for the British and they knew it.

Gálvez headed an almost motley force of Spanish professionals, American revolutionaries, native American Indians, slaves and other individuals of unknown origins and aims.  With an army of fewer than 2,000 troops, he managed to take Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile and finally, with the help of much needed reinforcements, laid siege to Pensacola, the most important British stronghold in the region.  The English finally capitulated and the south was now free of their presence. 

Gálvez carried out one of the most tactically sound campaigns of the war, achieving his objections not so much by brute force, as he lacked the numbers to overwhelm the enemy, but rather by ingeniousness.  Students of military operations have nothing but praise for his performance.  On top of that, he wasn’t one of those sissy members of the Spanish nobility who were granted a high rank based on his family name rather career performance.  He earned his place because he fought bravely in a number of wars and was wounded on now fewer than three occasions: once quite seriously while fighting the Apaches, again while in battle in Algiers, and a third time at Pensacola.  He was a stud.  A real Spanish macho.

The claim that he saved the war for the Americans is an exaggeration because the British were already showing signs of fatigue from their own personal Vietnam. And Parliament had all but lost its patience with the inconclusive results.  Win a battle, lose a battle.  It didn’t matter.  The war was going no where.  Save for some unforeseen miracle, like Washington and the entire continental army being struck by a meteorite, British defeat was all but a sure thing.

But there  is no doubt that Spain played a key role in expediting the outcome.  And yet, so little is discussed about the role of the Spanish in liberating of the colonies from the English crown that even students on the subject come upon its story with a degree of surprise.  Is it possible that Spain’s self-promoting problems go back that far?

Madrid,Spain

January 6, 2014

Cheers for Fears

Tags: ,

The sun has emerged somewhat for the first time all year, which is only five days old, mind you, but since this isn’t Vancouver, it seems like an eternity to Madrid.  I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say it’s sunny, but rather a dusty purplish hue of the kind you might see on a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. 

I’ve heard several complain that the year is off to a bad start, that the murky climatic conditions are representative of the country’s mood and future, but the optimists have something different to say.  It means, they claim, plenty of water for the countryside and that in turn spells good news for agriculture which, in turn, augurs a period of bonanza. 

Liberal interpretations aside, four days of rain is never a bad thing in Spain because, as anyone who has spent an extended period of their life here can tell you, you just never know when it will show up next. Summertime can come and go with nary a drop from the heavens.  So, we take what we can get because every little bit counts.  I just wish things could be spread out a little more evenly. 

             Yesterday was January 5th, the Eve of the Epiphany, The Twelfth Night, Three Kings’ Day, and with it Spain’s particular version of Santa Claus.  The shops all opened their doors in hopes that the final rush will turn their otherwise listless Sunday into proof that the rains have brought better times.  

Just down the street, Nuno’s, Madrid’s famous pastry shop, has a line thirty-long going out the door as people patiently wait to purchase his award-winning roscón, or Three Kings’ Cake.  It’s been that way for the past three days.  The TV was there just yesterday making its annual visit.  I’ve tried them…they are all right…but you will not get me to wait in unfriendly weather conditions just to sink my teeth into one.

            Last night the Three Kings will descended upon hundreds of cities and towns and parcel out millions of gifts to millions of nail-biting children in one final Christmas effort to close out the season.  While the rest of the world has dumped most of its trees at the designated town drop-off center, Spain, in true Spanish fashion, has taken the festivities just a step further.  Madrid’s parade runs along the Castellana Street, and last night’s version was a particularly bright and cheery, especially considering it drizzled for most of the event.  Three American marching bands added a good measure of upbeat high school flavor to the cavalcade and for some reason, the general impression that I got was that people were plain happy to see 2013 go and start afresh.  It wasn’t a good year.  Another loop around the sun waiting and hoping and praying for better times.  It rained…we cheered; it rained…we cheered. 

Madrid,Spain

January 4, 2014

Taxis and Schumi

Tags: , ,

I was relieved to find out that Madrid’s public transport system had decided not to jack up its prices again as a way of ringing in the New Year.  Once a haven for the economically and ecologically minded, like so many other aspects of this city, transportation has lost its luring luster.  Not long ago, you could still purchase special rates like ten trips for ten euros to anywhere in the city.  Then the company figured that colleagues in other cities were charging double that and that they, the ones in Madrid, were being perhaps just a little too generous with the population. Now the starting rate to go anywhere is 1.50€, and if you buy a single at one of those machines, how far you want to travel will have a bearing on how much lighter your pocket will be when the transaction is completed.  And trust me, you don’t have to wonder a great distance for cost to rise.  Airport transport was another fine example.  There is an airport bus that used to take you from the center of town to Barajas for a near laughable 2 euros.  And the metro would tack on just a 1-euro supplement to your normal ticket for the extra effort of coasting you in within walking distance.  Too good to be true?  Yeap, it was.  Clearly something was not right.  You just don’t give good service for low rates.  The EMT, Madrid’s bus transport service, decided 5 euros was more appropriate.  That meant a 150% price increase.  The owners of the company must have come to an agreement with Metro de Madrid, logically, and followed suit, by setting the cost at 5 euros too.  If you are traveling light and have the time, it’s a great alternative to the hefty fees of a taxi, generally around 30+ euros all said and told, but a 500% supplement rise is a bit abusive in my book.

            I haven’t taken a taxi yet, so I can’t say how things are there.  I certainly wasn’t going to grab one on New Year’s Eve, where they tack on a hair-falling 6.70 euros just because it’s the final (or first) night of the year.  I’m sorry those poor souls have to work on a night like that, but sticking you for that amount (plus the 2,90€ start-up fee), just to say “Please, take me to…” is simply unreasonable.  Even more so when you think other cities with generally more prosperous residents don’t go there.  Plus, considering your standard Tuesday night in January drivers would otherwise people scraping for customers, the guaranteed business should be welcome.  Why punish them with an extra cost that 230% hirer than the initial one?

            Oh, well.  I guess I shouldn’t gripe.  Things could be worse.  Look at Michael Schumacher, for example.  A six days ago he went skiing with some friends and now he’s been that long in a medically induced coma trying to suffer severe head injuries as a result of an accident whose cause is not quite clear.  The original version was that he was plunging recklessly down a steep slant outside the main slope, or the piste, if you want to sound European, which many accepted as fact since part of his success and brilliance as a race car driver had to do with the temerarious in which he performed on the race track.  What could you expect from someone always living on the edge?  On top of that, apparently his son was with him, which made it doubly scandalous, no matter how bad you felt for him.

            The tides have been turning since then, and though many point out that it shouldn’t matter how it happened, the fact is…the facts can and are important.   We like to be the ones to publically announce otherwise, but that’s just to get what I call “talk show applause”, where people routinely assert opinions that no one really agrees with or believes in but which everyone is afraid to admit.  So, we all clap.  A lot.

Plus, watching how the media handles these subjects fascinates me.  It’s a straightforward story; there shouldn’t be much to it.  But there is.  Honor.  First there was word that he was helping out a friend, then the son of a friend, but now the German tabloid Bild claims Schumi was with a group of friends and their children and was pulling up the rear to make sure everything was all right.  He then noticed one of the children, a young girl, having trouble, and he swept over to aid the damsel in distress.  Somehow that led him some twenty yards off the track (the piste, please) where he encountered a rock and lost his balance, causing him to crash into another one.  According to his longtime manager and press spokesperson, Sabine Kehm, he was not going fast at all.

Now Bild is known for its sensationalist reporting, and as a German periodical, it will obviously want to come to the defense of one of that country’s greatest sports legends.  But their version does depart notably from the one presented up to that point.  Essentially, the only thing the two have in common is that he was skiing and hit a rock.  The addition of the little girl may very well be true, I am in no position to question that, but should it turn out to be fancy, or highly distorted fact, well then I am liable not to consider Bild as a reliable news source ever again.  The online version did provide a video which traced more or less the tracks down the slope.  I am a chicken when it comes to skiing, but even I could tell the slope, sorry piste, was tame enough. 

So, what I don’t get is how a man with his skiing experience, on a slope so gentle a billiard ball would come to a stop, and while assisting a young girl with complications should end up striking a boulder so hard that his helmet would actually split in two.  It cast doubt on the story of his true speed as well as the quality of the helmet.  Oh well, we should learn the truth soon enough.

Here in Spain, a country with a healthy following of Formula 1 racing, coverage has been complete and support widespread for a recovery, to begin with, and a complete one if possible.  Criticism went out to two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who took 24 hours to actually send a twitter of support to his previous rival.  On top of that, it was something heartwarming like “Get well soon!” followed by a few other rather impersonal remarks.  Oh well, it could have been worse.  Hamilton, the British driver not always known for his camaraderie, posted a Twitter picture two days later of him skiing.  Gracias.

Madrid,Spain

Faith in a World that Makes Sense

Jetlag and drizzle has dominated the dawn days of the year.  The former was good for the first night since it was New Year’s Eve and I could make it through much of the night feeling almost like a true Spaniard.  I have always liked to go out, but even in my heyday, 4:00 a.m. was about my limit, whereas the real revelers would push on until morning rush hour.  I have done that, just never been a big fan of it.  My body just gives in.  The Spanish are in no hurry on New Year’s Eve.  Sometimes they will hang around at home and play games like charades until three or four in the morning and then announce, “Ok.  Let’s go out!”  I have trouble dealing with people who carry on to Lady Gaga at the same time farmers are rising to milk their cows and my brother is knotting his tie on his way to the 6:00 a.m. express to Grand Central.  I become irascible and just plain nasty.  But since the biorhythms of my body were about six hours behind, I managed to appear alert and even amiable at three in the morning, when I was at a friend’s house and actively participating in their karaoke game.    My voice only sounds good when I am alone and uninhibited by an audience.  But when I stand before a listener, be they a couple of friends, everything falls apart…or at least that is what the damned machine on the TV seems to indicate, using words like “bad” or “terrible” and at best, an occasional “acceptable”.

            By four in the morning my body began to slouch in its seat and my jaw hang low, and instead of turning into the kind of guy who would spark a riot, I was starting to look like Stephen Hawking, but without the brains.  By the way, I was encouraged to see that another writer in this world, one is far more famous and accomplished than myself, admitted in print that Hawking’s famous “A Brief History of Time” was incomprehensible.  Not entirely, I feel.   The first eighty pages are pretty much easy to follow, but all of the sudden, you slam into this brick wall and say with a dozy look, “Huh?”  You read it several times and if anything it becomes less clear.  The writer warns you of this, but you read on fearlessly all the way to the end, close the cover and say, “Ok, let’s see what’s on ESPN” in hopes you will find renewed faith in the world that makes sense.

            My friend Luis told me he was about to go too and asked me if I minded waiting a few more minutes.  As my body had showed signs of slipping into the first stages of a coma, I did not put up a fight.  He popped a cigarette out of his pack and slid it into his mouth meaning we’d be there a little longer.  Time was as relative and incomprehensible as ever.