Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock


November 16, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: What would James Joyce Say?

Tags: , ,

A whole helluvah long time ago when I was in my first year here and still had a vision of Spain with the innocence of a virgin, I was in my host family’s home and lounging on my bed, which was one of those low-rise thingies that were still the standard back then.  They were known as camas individuales and I have always been curious to know just who that individual was on whom they based the dimensions.  What I can say is that safety concerns due to inordinate height from the top of the mattress was not an issue.  If ever you were to roll over the edge and let gravity take over, your knee and elbow would break the fall before you actually initiated your descent.


Anyway, as I was saying.  I was flipping through the International Herald Tribune, which was the only main source of news from abroad back then, when I stopped and stared at a startling full-page ad that read in big letters, “Today, even James Joyce would feel Catalan.”


I grimaced as I shifted my position in the bed and read on.  “What the heck is this all about?”


It turned out that the whole deal was seemingly about San Jordi (the feast of St. George), which is on April 23, in case anyone is interested, which I’m sure they’re not.  San Jordi is the patron saint of Catalonia, which is why so many males from that region go by that name.  April 23 is also International Book Day, the anniversary to the day and year of both William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. Yes, they both kicked the ink well on the very same day.  Talk about your loss to literature.  The Catalans have a very nice tradition of giving a book and a rose as a present on that day.  No doubt it is a custom which counts on the fullest support of the florist and publishing guilds.  It’s also so veeeery European chic. I happen to think it’s a very cool idea.


Anyway, that provides a little context.  But that only solves part of the mystery.  Why in an English-speaking language newspaper? And why all that money thrown into sharing a local but obscure custom?  I’ll tell you why.  Because it really wasn’t about San Jordi at all.  You see, once the reader got past the eye-catching headline and the quaint story behind the day, the announcement got down to the meat of the matter.  The pretext, the excuse, the real reason.  The whole fuckin’ kit a caboodle.   The rest of the information provided went something to the effect: Catalonia is a nation with its own language, its own history, its own traditions, etc…and so on, and so on.  We’ve heard this all before.  Does this all sound familiar?


This wasn’t an opportunity to share cultural diversity for the benefit of those who wish to know more about world; this was a piece of independence propaganda shrouded in a clever bit of publicity, which included the name of several well-known writers who, if we were to go by the claim, would also possess a special affinity for Catalonia that day.  It was also posted and, presumably, paid for by the Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional government.  The year was 1991.  Way before the economic crisis, or the rampant political scandals or any other recent development the ill-informed reporter mentions.   What was happening back then in that neck of the woods? Well, Barcelona was readying itself to host the summer games of 1992, an event so costly it obviously needed to look to numerous sources for financing.  The central goverment was by far the biggest public investor, footing 37.7% of the bill, compared to 18% that the regional government chipped in.  Then the Catalans showed their appreciation in one of the baffling ways possible…by trumpeting to the international community they have really nothing to do with Spain.  What a bunch of sweethearts.


What does this show? Simple. It shows that back in the early 1990s, the campaign to sell the independence story to the world was on its way. The world wasn’t listening very much, but that didn’t matter.  Maybe one day it would, and that was OK by the nationalists.


And what about Joyce?  What would he have to say after all? Would he feel Catalan?  Your guess is as good as mine.  He probably would have wanted to have as little to do with the issue as possible.  But there was little he could do about it because he was dead.  For a long time.  As were the rest of the referenced authors. The nationalists had cunningly chosen to tag opinions to people who could no longer give their own opinions.




November 11, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Honest Abe

Tags: , , ,

The pro-unity Spaniards may not be able find the answer they are looking for in the American Revolution, but they can come upon something more to their liking down the road of our relatively brief but intense history.  You must understand that the average Spaniard naturally sees the United States as one (not necessarily always happy) nation in which regional independence movements are unheard of.  People are first citizens of the United States and then of their respective states, if they so choose to feel that way.  That’s a fairly accurate depiction of the U.S. today, so you can’t blame them, but it wasn’t always like that…at all.


When I have a some extra time, I say, “Have a seat, and let me tell you a little story.”


Twelve score and 1 year ago, our Fathers initiated the control of a territory with a growth potential like nothing mankind has ever seen before or since, and created a nation under the notion that all men were equal.  Their interpretation of equality would naturally be questioned by today’s standards, as they didn’t have women or black slaves in mind, but you could argue that they did get the ball rolling.  It was, in fact, the issue of institutionalized bondage that would lead the country into its most important and lasting internal crisis in its history.”  That much most people can grasp.  What has escaped many is that behind it was a constitutional standoff – a power struggle.


You see, even though the thirteen colonies had what you could call a common ancestor, that is England, they had managed to acquire a feeling of individualism that led them to believe and behave as if they were practically little nations joined in a federation.  Its residents felt a greater allegiance to their state than to the country as a whole.  Never was this more clearly illustrated when, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, then an officer for the United States Army, and one with a distinguished military career at that, was faced with the dilemma of which side to join.  Nowadays, that seems unthinkable, but back then it was a fairly common debate.  He was in fact opposed to the secessionist movement of the South for constitutional reasons, and so expressed it in writing.  But loyalty to his state was the question.  In short, he felt no state had a right to leave the union, but if his state of Virginia did choose to do so and was attacked, he would be left with no choice but to defend it.  Even if that meant abandoning his sworn duties to the federal government.  His decision is one of great controversy to this day, but let’s not go there.


What was at stake was the very future of the United States.  And regardless of the outcome, things would never be the same.  Abraham Lincoln was fully aware of this and summed up the trascendence of the moment brilliantly in his now famous Gettysburg Address.   It is unquestionably one of the finest speeches ever delivered in history, partly because it was so short.  The quintessential example of “less is more”.  Edward Everett, the Massachusetts politician and the main speaker of the day (can you imagine a time when the president’s oration took second billing?), devoted no fewer than a staggering two hours to his intervention before uttering to a, no doubt, relieved crowd, “Thank you for listening.”   And he still apparently didn’t get his point across. He was later said to have praised Lincoln for doing in two minutes what he couldn’t convey in 120.


“Damn straight!  Honest Abe wouldn’t put up with no bullshit like that.”  Maybe they didn’t word it that way in the heart of Madrid, but something to that effect.  While Lincoln’s stance was true, the flip side was that the South was just as determined to have things seen their way…and sent up half a million armed men to help pursuade the federal government.   Four years and 600,000 deaths later, the matter was settled and everyone was friends again…sort of.


So why should Spain care?  You see, nearly two score years after democracy was finally reestablished in this western European nation in 1978, the situation has an eerily familiar ring to it – with the exception, thank God, that we have not been plunged into a civil war.  Behind the age-old debate on how these regions fit into modern Spain is the issue of what the constitution has to say about it.  That is, just as Lincoln argued that the South didn’t have the right to leave, so says the Constitutional Court here, as it tries to contain the movement through judicial means.  And, of course, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and company subscribe to this wholeheartedly.  Spain is indivisible.  That’s what most traditional Spaniards purport.  They are dumbfounded by all this extremist separatism and struggle to comprehend while anyone would ever want to leave it.  They adopt an almost Eastern philosophy approach: that’s just the way things are.


The way things are is that Spain is still a very young democracy, which is ironic for one of the oldest countries in the world, and this current situation has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone but me.  Especially from a country with the delicate situation that it has had for such a long time.  This was almost bound to occur.


Forty years ago, while Americans were lining up to watch Animal House and Grease, in Catalonia people were queuing to participate in the last official referendum.   Ironically, Catalonia was the region with the fourth highest percentage in favor of ratifying the constitution, with 90.46% voting yes, with 70% participation.  Many pro-separatists will argue that things have changed, and undoubtedly they have…in every scenario and in many ways.   But can the same really be said of Catalonia and the rest of Spain?  Are things really that different, or, have they changed in a way that they appear to be?




November 3, 2017

The Catalan Chronicles: Independence Day

Tags: , ,

Every once in a while when some kind of humilliating debacle grabs the headlines, people here reach for the sky and clamor, “Spain is different!”  They look at me all bummed out and whimper, “I bet these kinds of things would never happen in the U.S.”   What they want to hear me say is that they are right and explain that in America Puigdemont would be doing time in Texas long ago.  Not that Lone Star State is known for coming down hard on political outlaws, but the name does somehow satisfy the Spanish’s basic understanding of places in the United States where no criminal would ever like to be incarcerated. And, as you can imagine, saying “he’s doing time in Rhode Island” just doesn’t have the same effect.  So, I give them what they want.  I provide comfort.   “Oh, he’d be picking up soap every day in Waco, trust me.”


They nod firmly, pleased by what they have heard.  “Fucking-A.  That’s the way to do it.”


Then I get to the sad truth.  Unfortunately, when people Madrid here look to American history for solace, they don’t always get what they bargained for.  This is why. The War of Independence came about by:

  • A people with no prior history as a nation.
  • Separatists who claimed they were being robbed by the state.
  • National leaders who created their own parliament to legislate their next moves, and…
  • Ignored British laws, overlooked judicial decisions and flat out defied royal decrees, and…
  • Declared independence unilaterally, the way it’s usually done, folks, and…
  • Renounced an institutionalized monarchy and proclaimed a republic, and…
  • Propagated their message through a fairly well-oiled propaganda machine which often highly distorted the facts, and…
  • Counted on less than half the population for support, at least at first before the British came in and started breaking heads.


What do you know.  Essentially this is an outline of many of the ingredients that go into the Catalan independence movement.  Many of the acts and actions that many of us find unacceptable, all the illegal measures, the sedition, the inciting of passive and not so passive resistance, were also perpetrated by the Founding Fathers of my homeland.   Ironically, the Catalans could make a case for their secession by using the birth of the United States as a model.  Shit.  Does Puigdemont know about this?  I’m not sure if anyone (much less his own supporters) cares what he thinks at this point after he bolted to Belgium, but you never know.


Plus, the American movement wasn’t exactly the same, was it?  To begin with, times were quite different back then.  The colonists had already left England a century and a half before looking for the freedom to do as they wished.  They were already predisposed to no longer putting up with the kind of crap you had to deal with in Great Britain, and that sense of freedom would only augment with time.  The people did not get the proper representation they deserved and had little say in how their land should be governed.  The monarchy back then was a lot more powerful than the figurehead is today.  And even though George III was not the evil authoritarian that my elementary school textbooks made him out to be, it was clear he was not keen to make things easy for the colonists.  So he used force.  A lot of it.  Not only did that damage the British cause, it also triggered an unexpected complication.  As Howard Zinn put it, “victory was made possible by the existence of an already-armed people.  Just about every white man had a gun, and could shoot.”


And they did.  The active participation of the French and Spanish, who were always game for screwing over their arch-rivals, proved key too.


The American Revolution was also very much of a transfer of power from the wealthy in the United Kingdom to the wealthy in the colonies.  The driving forces behind America’s inception was none other than the ruling class of the New World, which meant there were no members badly in need of a proper haircut and wearing bizarre T-shirts two sizes too small marching down the aisle with a smirk as they voted for to break away from the motherland.  There were scores of grown men who also could have done with a visit to the barber, but who owned so much money, land and slaves, they couldn’t give a damn what others thought.


Catalonia’s ruling class (economic power), on the other hand, made it very clear in the early days of October that it had no intention of joining in the seccionists’ games.  Logically, they saw nothing but trouble from being kicked out of the European Union, and told the leaders of the movement (in probably less cordial words) that they could basically go perform lewd acts on each other and enjoy their freedom on their own.  The threat of leaving the euro can do that to individuals and entities of substantial wealth.  I wouldn’t know personally, but I figure that’s the case.


What’s more, the region does have its own parliament, its own governing laws, its own fiscal administration (that means they can tax).  It has been granted the right to have its own police force and schooling system.   As for democracy, no fewer than 11 regional elections have been held (in addition to the national ones), with pro-Catalan parties dominating.  One can hardly say they have been victims of mistreatment over the past 40 years since the Franco regime disappeared  (that is, from a time when they really had a good reason to want to separate); they have enjoyed plenty of autonomy, as well as plenty of chances for the independentists to want to garner enough support for their cause.  But that doesn’t seem to have happened as of yet.


Does any of that really matter when your final goal is to become your own country?  When you’ve got it in your head that you will not rest until to you pull down every last Spanish flag, do you care about those details?  Not really.  You just ignore the facts and plow ahead.  Your mission is not over.  And that’s where things get messy.


October 29, 2017

Tha Catalan Chronicles: John Hancock

Tags: , ,

So, one of my brothers texted me Friday saying, “Catalonia declares independence.  Wow!”


I wrote back almost instantaneously, “It’s about time.  Took ’em long enough.”


I could sense his puzzlement.  “Aren’t you shocked?”


“Actually, I’m relieved.”


Not that I was embracing the announcement as something good for Spain, or Catalonia for that matter, because it isn’t; it was just that it was like the tenth time in two weeks the president of the region, Carles Pudgemont, was supposed to make this proclamation and his political stuttering was beginning to get on my nerves.  It stirred the New Yorker within me.  “Get on with it, already.  Don’t be a pussy.”


For weeks we have had to listen to “we are going to declare independence, we declared independence, we suspended our declaration of independence, maybe we declared or maybe we didn’t declare, if we did declare it we aren’t going to tell you, next time we are really going to declare it, we mean it, we really mean it, and on and on,”  The climax came when Puigdemont announced Catalan independence on October 10th and 40% of the population was brought to the brink of a communal orgasm, only to backtrack 8 seconds later and say, “but let’s wait for another day.”  It was a baffling and unprecedented show of political coitus interruptus.  I honestly don’t think anything like it has ever happened in history…so at least they have that to say for themselves.


Anyway, on Friday he finally mustered up the courage to do it; through a silent vote, mind you, so that the Spanish authorities couldn’t point the finger at anyone.  I guess it’s an astute move from their point of view, but it isn’t quite what you’d call the ballsiest gesture in the world.  Not the kind of intrepid defiance you’d expect from these things.  No valiant individual standing in front of an approaching tank and what not.  Certainly not in the spirit of the American declaration 241 years before when each and every rebel present personally signed on the dotted line for King George III to view.   John Hancock, the famous statesman and merchant, wrote his name so large you could read it from across the room.  It was essentially an autographed version of him flipping the bird at the British monarch.


In fact, the only one to show their vote was a member who voted “no” in the parliament session, and possibly because he didn’t want to be mixed in with the secessionist crowd.  Most of the opposition parties had already left the room anyway, so the decision was a foregone conclusion.


Oh well, different country, different century, different circumstances; best not to compare the two too much…but I will one day, trust me.


Anyway, the point is, though I had no plan to write about this subject, a number of people in my circles of friendship have suggested the idea, and so far I have eschewed the idea fearing I would be getting stuck in a quagmire on a very sensitive issue…and I would be.  In other words, I was being a pussy.  But the hispanologist within me, the historian inside, has gotten the better of me.  That and my better half is tired of me standing in front of her with a coffee mug in my hand grousing to the backdrop of morning radio, “Can you believe what they said?!  That’s outrageous!”


“Honey, it’s eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.  Go tell the rest of the world and let me sleep.  Thank you.”


OK, so I will tell the rest of the world.  I’ll be a John Hancock.  That’s the queerest thing I think I’ve ever written, but I’ll leave it in.  You don’t get to “be there” for a country on the verge of falling apart every day, so I might as well make the most of it.  Plus, while there is a growing percentage of balanced reporting on the issue, still too much of what is published and posted out there is superficial and doesn’t even come close to understanding the complexity of the conflict; nor do many of the fly-in reporters have the knowledge of Spain as a whole to approach the subject with the know-how that one needs.  I once saw a link to an article titled “The Catalan Crisis in 300 Words”.   Sorry.  Can’t do it.  It’s almost insulting the writer should try.   The first section went like this:


What is Catalonia?
Catalonia is an autonomous region in north-east Spain with a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years.
The wealthy region has its own language, parliament, flag and anthem. It also has its own police force and controls some of its public services.


Let’s ignore the fact they had to even pose the question (though that should give you an idea of how unfamiliar people are with the subject).   Everything about that text is essentially true.  There isn’t a single lie there.  It’s also one of the most misleading statements in writing, because what the writer has basically done is describe half a dozen regions in Spain, and if you remove the “its own language” factor, he is depicting all of the regions of Spain.  To suggest Catalonia is unique in this sense grossly misrepresents the truth about Spain overall (and much of Europe for that matter).  Based on the information, I’d say some of the other regions have a much stronger case for independence (many were their own kingdoms for God’s sake), and they ain’t bitching day and night about how bad life is them.  But maybe the author didn’t know this.  Maybe they did.  Or maybe the fact they had only 300 words to emit a fact fart out online hindered getting the full story out there.  And this is where things get messy.  Maybe they should stop trying to sum complex issues up in 300 words.


I hope this will be a fascinating sociological and historical anaylisis that goes beyond the Ramblas of Barcelona, or even the frontiers of Spain.  Nationalism is a perplexing easily misunderstood topic.  I don’t even know what it means half the time.  So, I’ll do my best; but if anyone out there is familiar with the way I do things, you can expect some surprising but relevant angles.


So, just what the heck is going on?  We’ll take a look.  But first, I’ll have to tell you how I feel about it in general.


October 15, 2017

Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Celts & Bunnies

Tags: , ,

If there ever was a time a teacher of mine devoted an iota of their lesson plan to a bunch of stone age graffiti inside a dank cave in the north of Spain, it would have amounted to little more than an utterance before moving on to the other side of the Mediterranean where things were really hopping.  The Middle East, and more specifically Mesopotamia, was rather busy establishing what would end up being the bases of all of modern civilization.  A daunting task, to say the least, and it certainly kept their minds occupied.  Nowadays a region often maligned for being backward, in the dawn of ancient times, Mesopotamia and its peoples were at the head of the progress pack in almost every way.  Let’s see just a smattering of what our friends from Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia (and later Phoenicia and Egypt) would contribute to the betterment of mankind: agriculture, irrigation, metalworking, medicine, writing, engineering (including dams and large buildings), urban design, the wheel, coordinated transportation, arithmetic, accounting, banking, money, astronomy, and, of course, beer and winemaking.  And that’s just the important stuff.


So there was good reason for the teacher to focus our attention on developments there, but that doesn’t mean nothing was shaking in other parts of the Mare Nostrum; we just weren’t privy to it.  The Iberian Peninsula was quite active, if you want know, and even if you don’t, I’ll be telling you about it anyway.
Just what was it like back then?  Legend has it, and this seems to be confirmed rather fervently by wishful-thinking environmentalists, that the land was one lush forest.


So fraught with vegetation was the territory, according to the story handed down over the generations, that the classical Greek geographer, Strabo, was said to have claimed that a squirrel could cross the span of the land, from coast to coast, without ever having to touch the ground.   A shocking bit of news if you are in any shape or form familiar with the average landscape in this country, especially around the middle part.  Either the plains were really once that loaded with forests or the rodent was equipped with bionic legs.


There is, however, yet another explanation: it’s total bull.  Strabo never mentioned the animal, let alone its extraordinary feat.  That’s reason enough to cast doubt on the whole story.  Has deforestation taken its toll on the country over its three thousand years of history?  Why not.  My home state of Connecticut was nearly stripped naked in just two hundred before the forests began to come back, so there is no telling.


Chances are, though, the change was not as dramatic as some would like to believe.


While the red squirrel still exists in Spain, the Spaniards are fascinated by this little creature and can see packs (of people that is) following them all over Retiro Park, the tru boss by numbers is the one and only rabbit.  In fact, and this was a big revelation for me when I first heard about it, the very name of the country has its origins in this lupine creature.  Word has it, the Phoenicians, we’ll get back to them in a little while, were so bowled over the infinite number of bunnies hopping around that they name the land I-spn-ya (land of the rabbits).  I shit you not.  Some hardcore Spaniards question this theory through and through, feeling it isn’t dignified enough, especially when you consider the animal is also used in Spanish as a connotation for female genitalia, but it seems to be the story that holds up the best.


In addition to a ton of rodents of different sizes and shapes, there was also quite a bit of human activity.  Not necessarily the kind that erected 500ft pyramids or who laid down the foundations of the modern legal system, but they were certainly keeping themselves busy staying alive.  This was when I learned that there were lots of them. To simplify matters they came in two basic forms: the Celts and the Iberians.


“Really?  The Celts?  The ones who lived in Ireland?  The ones who gave us basketball in Boston?”


My friend Pepe insisted that it was true.  “The even have their own bagpipe.”
Well, it turns out once again, that my old friend Pepe was telling the truth.  The bagpipe has existed in the northwest of Spain since the Middle Ages and probably made its way to the British Isles later.  Who would have guessed?  The same can be said of the Celts themselves.  Recent genetic studies show that many original Britons and Irish are closely tied  to the Celts from the Spain, DNA-wise,  and most likely came from that region when the fishermen sailed up to those parts around 6,000 years ago.  What do you know…that really must irritate the Brits to no end.  And that, of course, gives me a good laugh.


Anyway, as I was saying.  You had your Iberians and Celts and when they met, took a fancy to each other, and got drunk and horny, they produced Celt-Iberians.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  There were literally scores of tribes and nations roaming around the land.  Here is just a sampling:  you have your Vettones in Extramadura, your Vaccaei in the Salamanca area, your Lusitani in Portugal (that’s where they get the name of the ill-fated ship the Lusitania), the Carpetani in the middle of the land, the Oretani near Jaen, the Turdetani in Andalusia, the Astures in Asturias, the Vascones in the Basque Country (they have always been there), and so on.  There’s just no end to it.  Some were more advanced than others, but true progress wouldn’t come until the boys from the other side of the Mediterranean showed up.  Then things really started rolling…as we will see.


September 24, 2017

Our Spanish Wine of the Week: Depaula (V.T. Castilla)

Well our first and last “wine of the week” was posted two weeks ago, which means that, after just two weeks, I can already tell that our pledge for a weekly “wine of the week” series will probably not be happening at all…which, of course, is what makes this series so special.


Not that we didn’t try, mind you.  The other day we pulled out a Monastrell from D.O. Jumilla and struggled to come to terms with the fact it wasn’t meeting our expectations.  We will be kind and not mention the name of the wine or its bodega because the jury is still out on that one.  Either it was a powerful kick-in-the-butt wine that got out of hand, the way Jumillas can sometimes get, or a bottle that went awry in the shop, which can sometimes happen too.  In any event, if we give it another try, we’ll let you know.


Monastrell, by the way, is the Spanish name for the Mourvedre (a.k.a. Mataro) variety, if that means anything to you.  And if it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.  All you need to know is that it’s a heavy-duty red wine grape, and its popularity abroad has soared thanks to the versions from D.O. Jumilla, an appellation located in Murcia and the province of Albacete, but mainly associated with the former.   So synonymous have grape and D.O. become that people often think they are one in the same.


This week we went back to this variety, partly because Lorena was very disappointed with the previous choice.  It wasn’t her fault, but that didn’t matter.  When she gets that determined look on her face, it’s best to step aside and let her take care of things on her own.


She picked one out from a winery called Bodegas Ponce, which is based further north in the province of Cuenca.  This was surprising because, though Monastrell is planted in those parts, its current fame, as we now know, has mainly come from D.O. Jumilla.    No one thinks of Monastrell up there.  Just what was up with that?


The wine is called Depaula and the author here is a winemaker named Juan Antonio Ponce.  He has garnered fame on the international wine scene for taking an otherwise obscure Spanish variety known as Bobal and turning it into something classy and worthy of your dinner table.  This also gave the somewhat unnoticed D.O. Manchuela where it was made a bit of recognition out there.  La Manchuela is a zone that covers vineyards in the south of Cuenca and northern and eastern Albacete.


The thing is, Ponce clearly seems like a person who enjoys exploring.  His first incursions into Monastrell territory actually came from Jumilla, which explains why the bottles up to 2014 denote that D.O.  But more recently, the winery is reported to be getting its raw material from a few vineyards near Tobarra (Albecete), a town which is technically within the limits of Jumilla.   Apparently these particular vineyards are just outside the border, meaning that even though they are more less from Jumilla, they can’t be called Jumilla, and because they aren’t Manchuela because they are nowhere near Manchuela, they can’t go by that moniker either.


The answer?  VT Castilla.   It’s the all-encompassing appellation from Castilla-La Mancha that wineries often go to when they find themselves in these situations. This issue represents just another example of the Great Spanish Wine Region Mess, on which I will comment further when I have more time…and when I feel like it.


The fact that Depaula’s source comes from land with slightly different soil and at a higher altitude is important because it may have had a hand in why it is so distinct from the usual meaty Monastrells you get from the variety’s cousins a little further down south.


Depaula,  which is named after his first-born daughter, is noticeably softer and fruitier.   We thought it had a delicate aroma (which is no small feat for a Monastrell) and was a well-balanced and elegant wine.  Consistent.   No funky surprises going on once it reached your mouth.  Ironically, I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever tried.


On top of that, the price was incredible.  I think we purchased our bottle at one of those over-the-top shops in the fashionable Madrid neighborhood of Chueca, but it generally goes for anything between 6.50 and 10.00€, which is close to a steal for what you get.


We paired it with grilled white tuna ventresca (belly) and Spanish jamón ibérico mainly because that was what was lined up for dinner.  I had nothing to do with it.  Lorena did the honors this time and was spot on.  The meal was a success and the wine, well, I think we are going to give it a well-deserved four stars out of five.


September 16, 2017

Cosas Que Nunca Me Contaron de la Historia de España: Aníbal

Cuando era chaval, recuerdo que se decía que la conquista de los romanos del mundo conocido pasaba necesariamente por la derrota de los cartaginenses, unos tipos de parentesco fenicio que querían dominar al Occidente de Mediterráneo.  De hecho, ya lo hacían, lo cual les sentaba bastante regular a los hijos de Rómulo.  Es que la presencia de los cartaginenses impedía el desarrollo del diseño de supremacía total que tenían en mente los proto-italianos.  Un estorbo, vamos.  Así que, llevaron la disputa a la calle y a pelear.


El profe nos contaba que hubo tres guerras entre las dos potencias y que las llamaban las Guerras Púnicas porque “púnico” se refería a fenicia (Phoenicia), que eran los primos de los cartaginenses.  Todo me pareció un poco traído por los pelos pero era uno de esos taquitos de información que me venían bien para presumir en un examen o aburrir en una fiesta.


Al tema.  Al grano.  Siempre nos centrábamos en la Segunda Guerra Púnica porque en ella luchaba el macho más macho de todos, ese semental que sigue provocando man-crushes entre los militares más masculinos del mundo: Aníbal.  The one and only.  Ya llegaremos a él en un minuto, pero primero un poco de background.


Para mí siempre fue un error saltarse la Primera Guerra Púnica porque era igual de interesante, o más.  Los dos candidatos a la hegemonía del centro del Mediterráneo se daban mutuamente paliza tras paliza durante veinte años mientras disputaban el control de esa zona, sobre todo de Sicilia y Cerdeña.  Posiblemente nunca en la historia tantos hombres hayan dado sus vidas por estas dos islas.  Fue brutal.


Lo impresionante fue cómo los romanos consiguieron ganar.  Empezaron la contienda sin una marina para luchar contra la mejor fuerza naval de todos los tiempos.  Pero la suerte estuvo a su lado.  Según cuentan, encontraron una nave cartaginense abandonada en una playa y se pusieron a estudiar sus características.  Pronto empezaron a construir réplicas…clones…copias exactas.  Aprenderían rápido y acabarían venciendo a los cartaginenses en su propio juego. Listos, flexibles, pragmáticos y tenaces.  Por algo llegarían a ser los amos de la Edad Clásica.


Roma se llevó las dos islas, y Cartago la humillación de ser derrotado.  Pero el asunto no estaba ni olvidado ni resuelto.  Ni mucho menos.  La potencia cartaginense trasladó sus intereses hasta la península ibérica, donde podían hacerse con las riquezas minerales que se encontraban allí.


Por fin.  Aquí es donde España entra en el escenario.  Cartago empezaba a dar cada vez más importancia a estas tierras, fundando ni más ni menos Cartago Nova (Nueva Cartago), lo que hoy se conoce como Cartagena.  Tuvieron unos cuantos encontronazos con las tribus de la zona.  Fue una lucha complicada, pero consiguieron tomar control de casi la mitad de la península.  También estaban los romanos, como siempre, conquistando nuevos territorios por su lado y vigilando a sus viejos enemigos.  Digamos que era una especie de guerra fría.


Los cartaginenses triunfaban bajo el mando de Amílcar, que parecía casi invencible hasta que se quedó atrapado en un río bajo el peso de su propia armadura y se ahogó. Eso no mola.   Resulta que era algo vencible.


Normalmente se entiende la pérdida de un general tan valioso y tan respetado un golpe mortal para un pueblo, y seguramente hubiera sido así si no llegara a ser por un factor diferente, una anomalía en la armonía de la lógica, una fuerza de la naturaleza. Un hombre entre un millón.  Tomó las riendas su hijo.  Era aún más bestia, más audaz, más pesadilla para los romanos que su padre.  Se llamaba Aníbal.


En 219a.c., este general jóven cercó Sagunto (Valencia) y al final lo conquistó.  Este acontecimiento provocó una nueva guerra entre las dos potencias.   Quizás fuese la excusa para un conflicto ya anunciado, pero lo que resultaba sorprendente para mis limitados conocimientos era que las hostilidades empezaron en España.   O sea, todo comenzó en España.  Fascinante.


Aníbal partió hacia el norte con ganas de dar una lección a los romanos.  Los cartaginenses eran principalmente expertos en la lucha naval, pero no tanto en lo que se refiere a las batallas campales.  Por eso tenían la costumbre de depender de fuerzas extranjeras.  El ejército de Aníbal fue compuesto de tropas de muchas partes, pero buena parte eran iberos, con sus temidas espadas llamadas falcatas.  También había combatientes baleares que tenían fama de usar los tirachinas mejor que nadie.


El general condujo a su ejército hacia el norte, entró en Francia, cruzó de manera asombrosa el Ródano, e inició su ya legendario paso por los Alpes.  Ahora bien, yo he estado en los Alpes y puedo dar fe a que es una tierra nada fácil para cruzar a pie.  Ni ahora, ni nunca.  No fue hasta hace relativamente pocos años (y gracias a la sangre, el sudor y las lágrimas de unos cuantos españoles agujereando esa enorme masa de roca) que el ser humano llegara a ser capaz de burlarse de la naturaleza.


Si rebobinamos unos 2.200 años, la empresa tenía que ser brutal.  Además de los 95.000 efectivos, hubo 37 elefantes que, desde luego, se tendrían que sentir un poco fuera de lugar.


Desde el punto de vista militar moderno, la idea era una locura y una insensatez, y se ve.  Dos tercios del ejército perecieron, y solo un puñado de los elefantes.  Son cifras totalmente inaceptables hoy en día.  Pero psicológicamente, era una proeza espectacular.  Demencial.  Y una vez en Italia, el cabroncete (dicho con cariño y envidia) se rehizo y emprendió una marcha por la península que asombró el mundo.  Dio tunda tras tunda, culminando con la victoria más grande de todas en Cannas, cuando prácticamente aniquiló el aparato militar de Roma.


Con eso, Aníbal aseguró su lugar en los anales de la historia de los grandes líderes…pero para mí hubo un gran pero: no terminó el trabajo.  He didn’t get the job done.   Y eso es lo que cuenta.  Fue como uno de eso deportistas que baten todos los récords pero no consiguen ganar un campeonato mundial o un grand slam.  El tío no supo llevarse el anillo a casa.  Roma aguantó, acosó a los cartaginenses en España y ganó tiempo.  Y todo el mundo sabe que no se puede dar tiempo a Roma.  Si lo haces, tarde o temprano pasará factura, como le pasó a Aníbal en la batalla de Zama. Game over.


Los romanos empezarían su larga y bastante dolorosa dominio de Hispania, cambiando para siempre el rumbo y destino de este país.


September 12, 2017

Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Altamira

Many years ago I went to meet up with my parents while they were traveling in the south of France.   It was the beginning of the 1990s and getting around the Old World was considerably less traveler-friendly than it is today due to a highly European glitch in the system: the strike.  The common strike.  The almost everyday strike.  You see, you had your common bus strike, your common train strike, your common subway strike.  I tell you, no one knew more about how to restrict mobility than the European public transportation system.   Nowadays it seems as if the old-fashioned walkout has gone the way of the Walkman.  Except for the metro (it would be a year without Christmas if they didn’t let you down at least once), taxi-drivers (because they just do), and the people at Barcelona’s Prat Airport (for some reason, they are always in a bad mood in summertime), unions aren’t sticking it to their bosses the way they used to.


I could devote the rest of the post to narrating everything I had to endure just to get to say, “Hi Mom and Dad, I’m here!”, but I’ll spare you that part of the odyssey and sum it up by saying that, after two days (it should have taken about ten hours max) of struggling to reach my destination, which included an unsolicited night at a train station hotel, I ended up walking down some country road in the middle of the Dordogne trying to hitchhike to the chateau hotel where my parents were staying. By then I had already tried every known mode of transportation.  All that was left was my thumb.  But I eventually got there.


The trip that my parents had chosen had been organized by Columbia University and it was mainly cultural in nature, though everyone knows that no trip to the south of France is ever entirely cultural.  One of the stops scheduled between the delectable meals and copious wine tastings included a visit to the legendary prehistoric paintings cave Lascaux.  Though my personal drawing skills were and are no doubt similar in appearance, my actual understanding of primitive art at the time was limited, I’ll confess. But I did know enough to recognize that the prehistoric site we were about to engage represented something like the Wimbledon, the Louvre, the Bolshoi, the Sistine Chapel of holes in the ground.  In fact, that’s just how the guide who conducted the tour described it.  Except she said it in French and made it sound we were entering sacred ground.  She had Frenchy short hair (minus the beret), wore little makeup, librarian’s glasses and donned a sexy khaki field work dress that made her prêt a excavate on a moment’s notice.  What can I say?  That’s the way French archeologists must be.  She led the tour quite well, and it certainly was an impressive place.


I returned to Spain and, once back on the couch of my pad, told Pepe all about the adventures.  He was sitting in a worn armchair which should have already paid a permanent visit to the local junkyard.  In fact, I can’t be sure it hadn’t been rescued from one. Pepe, who was still waiting for the call of a lifetime, took a drag from his Fortuna cigarette and shook his head.  “Lascaux?  You gotta be kidding me?”


“Good job, don’t you think?”


“What do you mean, good job?  Those frogs always beat us to it.  It drives me nuts.  How could you go there when you have the best cave art in the world here.  Right in your own backyard?”


“I didn’t know that.”


“Of course you didn’t.  It’s not your fault.  This is all part of the great British smear campaign against Spain.  Ever since Sir Francis Drake, the world’s only pirate to get knighted by a queen, this country’s reputation has never been the same.”  I had no idea where this was going.  I had always been taught Drake was a cool guy.  Apparently not, but we’ll get to him later on.


Pepe went on.  “Don’t you know that in Cantabria, our beloved Cantabria, there is a cave called Altamira?”


“Isn’t that the cannibal place?”


“That’s Atapuerca.”


“That’s right.  Couldn’t you vary your names a bit?  This is all very confusing to me.”


“Don’t get me sidetracked.  Altamira is the finest collection of rock art on this planet.  They call it the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art.”


“That’s interesting.  That’s just how the French guide described Lascaux.”


“How original!  They copy everything.”  He stood up and tucked in his shirt.  “Listen, I don’t collect my unemployment check until tomorrow.  If you want, we can go down and you can treat me to some cañas and I’ll tell you all about it.”


I was kind of wiped out from all the traveling but I didn’t see a way out of it.  “All right, let’s do it.”


Europe is without a doubt a continent chock full of memorable examples of prehistoric symbols, drawings and paintings.  They are mostly located in caves because those dark and protected places happen to be ideal for their preservation.  Altamira is one of them. In fact, it’s a lot more than that.  It was discovered in 1868 by a local man named Modesto Cubilla, who was out hunting with his dog.  Actually, we should give the dog credit for revealing its existence.  Cubillas didn’t seem to venture very far and, from my understanding, didn’t know there were paintings inside, but he did tell Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola all about it.  Sanz was one of those local lords who, because of their ties to nobility and sizable estate, had the time and the means to devote their energy to the sciences, just for fun.  In this case, paleontology was his thing.  It would seem that he didn’t give much importance to what Cubilla had to say, because eleven years would pass before he decided to take a look.  In 1879, he wandered up with his eight-year-old daughter María and sent her inside to see what was up.  I don’t know about you, but my 2017 perspective struggles to comprehend why this man would have his little girl, who would have been in the third grade at the time, explore an uncharted cave on her own given the obvious potential dangers one could encounter.  But I guess those were different times…or Sanz was just a coward.  In any event, the girl shouted back from the bowels of the grutte the now famous exclamation, “Daddy! Look!  Oxen!”


Maria hadn’t really regarded depictions of oxen, but just about every other known fauna was there.  Horses, deer, boars, mammoths, reindeer and especially bison.  Lots of bison.  The artwork is remarkable not only its use of color and shading, though they are evidently first rate.  There are also indisputable examples of the artist taking advantage of the relief of the rock to give the impression of volume.  The depiction of the bison whose body is curled in a ball to fit the stone sticking out of the wall is my favorite.  It’s a masterpiece. The work of an anonymous genius.  Proof of the importance of creativity in terms of the workings of the human brain.


These paintings are said to have influenced numerous artists since their discovery, but they must have been a source of frustration because after 17,000 years, you get the feeling things in the art world have not progressed that much.


The quality of the artwork is such that at first a number of experts, who happened to be French obviously, questioned its authenticity.  “Questioned” is an understatement.  They outright accused Sanz of faking the paintings, or of being duped by some other sly individual into believing they were the real McCoy.  Those practices weren’t unheard of back then.  But years later, when the French discovered similar paintings in their own caves, they began to change their minds.  Naturally.  One scholar even had the decency to admit formally in Anthropology magazine that he had made a mistake.  By that time, however, Sanz had been dead for some ten years so he could not see his battered reputation restored to the dignity it deserved, but the posthumous bit of recognition was better than nothing.


When Lascaux was discovered in 1940, the sensational find awed the world, eclipsing Altamira and relegating it to a distant second in world common knowledge.  Once again, the French proved to have a knack for having so many aspects of their culture take center stage, much to the frustration of the Spanish.  Something similar happened to other legendary 20th Century figures like Picasso, whom far too many people still believe was French.  Though he spent many years in France and died there, he was born in Malaga, lived many years in Barcelona and expressed his love of and concern for Spain in this art throughout his prolific life.  Ironically, Picasso is once said to have claimed that “After Altamira, everything is decadence.”  That could easily be apocryphal, but it sounds like something he might think.  Who knows.


The problem with dark and protected places is that once they aren’t so dark or protected, gases like oxygen get in start to do what gases like oxygen are so good at: corrode.  They also foster the growth of fungus.  Both side effects have led to a severe curtailing of visits by human beings.  The original site is now closed to only an exclusive few each year.  The rest of us mortals have to settle for a replica nearby.  You can also view of life-size facsimile of the sala grande in an underground room outside the entrance of Madrid’s excellent archeology museum (MAN) right in the heart of the city.

Spanish a Wine,Spanish wine,Spanish Wine of the Week,Uncategorized

September 8, 2017

Our Spanish Wine of the Week: Dido 2015 (D.O. Montsant)

Tags: , ,

For our first week, Lorena and I have started with a wine from a little known wine region in the Spanish region (that term should really tick the secessionists off) of Catalonia called Montsant.  Partly, because I know a thing or two about these wines, and partly because, the way things are going, we may not be able to call them Spanish long from now.


Most people people have never heard of this region because they don’t read my book and therefore don’t learn about these things.  This is not a personal thing. The 47 people who did buy my book 15 years ago learned a lot.  The rest have relied on unreliable sources.  That’s their problem.  Even today, with all that is available online, it’s shocking how little even the experts know about Spanish wine.  Shocking because I was shocked fifteen years ago. Shocking because little has changed since then. But the world has changed a lot.  Donald Trump is president of the United States, my friends. It’s something we should remind ourselves about every single day before we brush and flush. We don’t say it enough.


Anyway, Montsant is located in the province of Tarragona and it literally forms a ring around the more well known wine region of Priorat, which took the country by storm in the 1990s by launching some of Spain’s most exclusive wines.  This had to do with the high quality of the old vines, its limited production and the unique minerally characteristics of its wine.  They all translated into specialness, which really means hefty prices per single bottle.


Why are we talking about Priorat if we want to hightlight Montsant?  It’s to provide a little context.  Montsant used to be a subzone of the Tarragona wine region until it separated (that seems to be a Catalan thing) and started up as its own denominación de origen in 2002.  You get the feeling that Montsant is kind of like the poorer relations of the highly touted Priorat, that cousin who has to stay in your pool house instead of the local hotel, but we can assure you that it stands on its own just perfectly well, thank you.  Priorat’s wines are excellent, especially because they are so different, but they tend to be special occasion bottles, unless you own an island or two.


Montsant, on the other hand, tend to be a mighty value for your money, and they don’t compromise on quality.  Without trying to sound too much like a sponsored article, Venus La Universal’s Dido, created by Sara Pérez and Rene Barbier, is a perfect example.  These two winemakers each come from families with roots deep in Priorat and beyond (The Barbiers have been at it since the 13th Century, so I kind of feel I can trust their know-how without risking it).  All the same, their presence in Montsant seems to have given them more freedom. This red made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Merlot and Syrah, just blows your mind a way.  It takes a little time to get up and running,  but it once it does, there is no saying, “Let’s put the cork back and finish it tomorrow.” There is no tomorrow.


Lorena, who has far finer senses than I do, noticed the leathery aroma open up to something more like redcurrant.  It was full-bodied but silky smooth.  It evolved wonderfully throughout the meal and she enjoyed finishing it off with a bit of chocolate.  And all for little more tha twelve euros.


We’re praying Venus stays in Spain!


September 6, 2017

Cosas Que Nunca Me Contaron de la Historia de España: Tartessos

Tags: ,

Hace un siglo, ser arqueólogo debió de ser una carrera profesional emocionante.  Mucho más que lo que uno puede sospechar.  Incluso hoy, los nombres de algunos de esos eruditos-aventureros nos suenan bastante familiar a mucha gente.  Howard Carter, sin ir más lejos, hizo historia cuando se asomó por un hueco de la entrada de la tumba de Tutankamón y contestó a la pregunta que si veía algo.  “Sí.  Veo cosas maravillosas.”  Y tan maravillosas.  Solo la totalidad de una tumba egipcia real perfectamente intacta; la máxima expresión del esplendor de una de las civilizaciones más fascinantes que jamás hubo.  Ni más, ni menos.  Cosas maravillosas.  ¡Qué discretos son esos ingleses!


Algo parecido pasaría al alemán Heinrich Schliemann cuando anunció al mundo que había encontrado a la mítica ciudad perecida y desaparecido, Troya, urbe lanzado a la memoria eterna gracias a la Ilíada de Homero y a las películas de Brad Pitt.  Se dice que Schlieman, como muchas celebridades en el mundo, sabía promocionarse, pero hay reconocer que supo buscar un lugar al que todo el mundo le sonaba y, mira por donde, supo encontrarlo.  No se puede decir que en ocasiones utilizó los modos más delicados a la hora de excavar, la dinamita, pero está claro que la disciplina de la arqueología estaba todavía en pañales entonces y haría falta esperar unos años para irle puliendo.  Aun así, el tipo lo logró y su fama, que dura hasta hoy, no se la quita nadie.


Posiblemente algo parecido tenía en mente su compatriota, Adolf Schulten, cuando se empeñó en mostrar al mundo que realmente existió una ciudad podrida de oro, plata y joyas llamada Tartessos.  Dejó los explosivos en el sótano y llevó sus palas rumbo a unas tierras que, según mis conocimientos sobre el mediterráneo de esa época, no tendría que existir casi nada: Cádiz.  ¡Qué ignorante era yo de chaval!


Schulten, que ya había ganado fama en España por descubrir Numancia, buscó y buscó, pero dio con nada.  Así que siguió buscando.  Se dice que llegó a obsesionarse, como es lógico, pero no encontró su añorada ciudad.  No lo ha hecho nadie…de momento.


Como os podéis imaginar, fue mi compañero de piso Pepe quien me habló de Tartessos por primera vez.  Hasta tenía el libro de Schluten en nuestro piso, con sus fotos en blanco y negro.  Mientras me lo contaba, le salá la vena que les sale a algunos españoles cuando quieren presumir de un pasado más glorioso que jamás nadie pudiera imaginar.  En parte porque era un producto de su imaginación.


“Dicen que era la ciudad más rica y más importante del mundo conocido.  Ni Roma ni Grecia en conjunto pudieran competir.  Pero nadie lo sabe, joder.”


“En eso te doy la razón.”


Toda la razón.  En España, a casi todo el mundo le suena el nombre de Tartessos, pero fuera del país, podría ser una salsa para tus patatas fritas.  Eso se debe a varios factores, si queréis saber mi opinión. Por una parte, no se puede decir que el mítico reino cuente con unas referencias históricas irrefutables.  Lo que queda de los escritos de los tiempos de antigüedad son todos posteriores y no especialmente precisos.   Hacen referencias ambiguas y ponen nombres diferentes como Tarsis, Tarshish, Tartessos o TRSS, y lo ubican más allá de los Pilares de Hércules (el Estrecho de Gibraltar). Si las comparas con los casi 16.000 versos que forman la épica de Homero, no hay color, vamos.


Luego los resultados de las investigaciones y excavaciones han son concluyentes.  Una casa aquí, y puñado de objetos de oro allí, un poblado allá.  Algunos parecen encajar mejores que otras.  Pero falta mucho.  Es como si tuviéramos 50 piezas de un puzle de 1000 e intentáramos reconstruir una historia.   Casi imposible.  Por eso ha habido tantas teorías sobre esta legendaria ciudad. Una ha llegado a postular, con poco éxito naturalmente, que se trataba del mítico continente perdido de Atlantis.  Chorradas.


Cuanto más investigo menos descubro, como suele pasar con estas cosas.  Últimamente los expertos tienden a recurrir al cómodo “seguramente no existió nunca.”  Hay que ver.


Lo que sí se puede afirmar es que algo había.  Algo más que una tribu que construía casas circulares.  Parece ser que había una pequeña civilización que se dedicaba a trabajar con metales y no se les daba mal.  Cuando los fenicios llegaron en búsqueda de comercio, que es lo que les ponñia, el intercambio de bienes se complementaba con un intercambio de ideas y tecnología.


Pronto se descubrió que la zona estaba repleta de recursos que interesaban a los pueblos en el otro lado del mar.  Se cree que la región experimentó un rápido crecimiento en riqueza que duraría varios siglos y que dicha bonanza económica fue espectacular.  Las calles estaban hechas de oro y los retretes de plata y cosas por el estilo.  Tenían tanto que no se sabía ni qué hacer con tanta fortuna.  Sé cómo es.


De repente, pluf.  Todo desapareció, lo cual invitaba a algunos a aventurarse y afirmar que en realidad se trataba de Atlantis.  Nada que ver.  Tampoco hay indicios de un terremoto, ni maremoto, ni moto de ningún tipo por ninguna parte.   Se piensa, como es lógico, que el factor más determinante fue que los fenicios, es decir sus clientes, fueron en buena parte aniquilados por los persas.  Eso nunca es bueno.


Desde luego sería mala suerte.  Es posible que fuera el primero de estos altibajos económicos que tanto han azotado a España a lo largo de los siglos, hasta hoy en día, incluso. Mucha caña, mucho boquerón y mucha alegría. pero ya sabemos…cuando llegan los persas…a joderse. ¡Vaya legado!