Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for January, 2014

Spain

January 24, 2014

Helping You Locate Barcelona

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Images of Spain,Spain

January 2, 2014

Shake Your Booty

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You have to hand it to the Spanish.  They sure know how to make the most of any festive occasion, even when there isn’t any apparent one to be found.  They pull it out of their asses and turn an otherwise subdued atmosphere into a little shindig.  New Year’s is a fine example.  People often ask me what Americans do on New Year’s Eve, because many think the rest of the world stays at home with the family the way they do and prep for gulping down a dozen pieces of fruit at midnight.  My audience usually consists of people and pets ranging from 5 years to 75 years of age, and so I forego the part about folks drinking to the brink of language impairment and vomiting as a way of ringing in the New Year and address it with a sugar-coated “They go out”. 

            Many parties in other parts of the world rage for much of the evening, which is partially explains why people scream and shout like cowboys and embrace with such fervor before tumbling over and breaking the family glass coffee table.  It also helps me to understand why the Puerta del Sol seemed so subdued compared to cities of similar size.  They were just cranking up, and just as many people from faraway lands were puttering home, the Spanish were out in the streets heading for their first social commitment.  I didn’t show up at mine until 2:00a.m.

 

            On top of that, they don’t even need a crowd to have a party.  With just six of us at our family gathering, there was more than enough humanity to turn the living room into a makeshift disco, twisting and swaying to some of the 1960s finest one-hit wonders, like “Black is black” (Spain’s first nº 1 in the U.S., believe it or not) or the Shocking Blue’s (a Dutch group, this time) “Venus”, which was revived by Bananarama in the 1980s. These are still no-fail tunes at nearly any Spanish home.  Mostly it was the two older sisters who did the dancing, urging the three men, me included, to join in, which we did, though the elderly mother literally sat out. I secretively envied her because after all these years I just don’t find shaking my booty with four people in an apartment and with all the lights on, much less in front of an eighty-year-old woman that natural, who cheerfully clapped along.  But then again, if KC and the Sunshine Band (who by the way just played at the Rose Bowl) could go on TV donning goofy funky clothes and repeating the same line over and over for five minutes, I guess I could hold out for a gratuitous for the while for the sake of New Year’s merriment. 

     The Spanish love this, and I admire them for feeling so comfortable about expressing their joy without the least bit of worry or care about their image.  It’s funny, they often cry to me that they can’t speak foreign languages because they are too afraid to look ridiculous in front of others.  Then images of middle-aged Spaniards shimmying shamelessly to James Brown come to mind and I just laugh a little to myself.  That’s my Spain!