Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Archive for August, 2016

Spain

August 25, 2016

Where do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 7

Just who exactly was Pedro Naharro is a matter of little debate: no one knows. Extensive research cannot be conducted on the subject because so little reliable information is available. There probably never was any in the first place, so scholars, if any really made an earnest effort to discover the truth to begin with, seem to have devoted little more than a coffee break to the finding the answer. To date, the first significant reference to the town did not come until the mid-16th Century with the “Relaciones Topográficas de Felipe II”, a kind of Domesday book of Spain. The most likely theory, based rather heavily on the man’s last name, was that the man in question was what they called a “repoblador”, that is, a settler from the north who had come after the Reconquest of those lands from the Muslims to help repopulate Castile. In this case, Pedro or his family would have come originally from Navarra, at least that is what we can surmise from his surname. And chances are he did so after being given the go ahead by King Alfonso VIII, who told members of the Knights of Santiago to resettle the land. But this may all sound rather new to you, so let me backtrack.

       You see, when the Muslims invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711, after a sorely miscalculated tactic by the Spanish rival to the throne (he essentially invited the strongest and fiercest fighting force of the world at that time into the country), and after a fateful battle to check the encroachment (most historians called it a one-sided slaughter), they gobbled up the Visigoth kingdom in record time. By 719, nine tenths of modern Spain and Portugal was under Umayyad control, and six years later, more than half of what is modern-day France fell too. The situation could not have looked bleaker, but the tides were beginning to turn. On one hand, Charles Martel “The Hammer” of the Franks handed the Muslims their first major loss at the Battle of Poitiers, and in the northern region of Asturias, a rebel leader named Pelayo, later to be called the first of what would become centuries later modern Spain, checked the Islamic invaders advance in a small encounter with huge morale consequences.

       But the going was slow. What took the northern Africans a dozen years to conquer, Christians needed approximately five centuries to retake. Swift they weren’t, but certainly tenacious. The constant warring left the middle of the country with its endless open plains and limited natural protection a rather insensible place to make a permanent home. Never a particularly densely populated region, by the 10th Century, it must have been one of the loneliest spots on earth. The local kingdoms chipped away at the Muslim control and to ensure the invaders would not return, peppered the region with castles, so many in fact, that the territory became known as Castile, Land of the Castles. As I have said before, the Spanish from those parts weren’t prone to imagination, but they had a knack for getting to the point. The monarchs also encouraged their subjects to return to the center plains of the country. In this case it was Alfonso VIII who, after retaking the city of Cuenca, gave the order for people to resettle. Both policies met limited success at first, since the borders flexed back and forth for two hundred years before they began to see the fruit. But in the long run, they allowed Castile to establish itself in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula.

       So it was, supposedly, that Mr. Naharro at some point decided to build a permanent home near a natural spring whose supply was generally so reliable, a veritable treasure in those parts, that beasts and men alike could count on its flowing nearly year round. Just when that occurred is uncertain. The town website itself informs that little is known about its founding and devotes most of the section to talking about other subjects, which should give you an idea of the historical blackout any researcher is facing. But a fairly good educational guess dates it at around 1200, a fairly recent incorporation by Western European standards, but a good 148 years before the Black Death, 240 years before the printing press, 292 years before the official Discovery of America, and 440 years before my hometown of Greenwich, CT was founded…one of the oldest towns in the United States.

       Though there doesn’t appear to be a historical document indicating just what Pedro devoted his professional life to, legend has it he owned a “venta” or country inn. That’s how Javi described it when I first asked him. “Yeah. He was some guy who had an inn. There are a lot of them around here. Travelers needed a place to eat, sleep and shit.” From a scholarly standpoint, his assessment is lacking in weighty academic fundament, but he probably wasn’t far off. Ventas were common and necessary in those parts and they are still found today. There are even drawings depicting his home as a venta, so it seems entirely legitimate. The town continued to grow and became a part of the Order of Santiago network, I will tell you more about that a little later, and consolidated. Whatever it was Pedro dedicated his life to, eventually a small settlement grew nearby, and the town received the name by association with the spring. The reserves that were certainly abundant enough to earn him local fame seem at some point to have dried up and never come back. The town built a fountain dedicated to the woman who would walk ridiculous distances in order to fetch a pail of water. The monument was inaugurated in 1995 with several lively spouts of water bounding into the air. A month later, the water was cut off for an unspecified period of time. It’s now been twenty-one years. This is a very dry region, I tell you, which is why the olive tree, the grape vine and the Holmes’ oak are all so happy to grow and live here.

Spain

August 18, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 6

Buildings and houses in La Mancha (and for many parts of Castile for that matter) can be so wanting in style and elegance, so heavy on plainness to the point they border on utterly dull, that a visitor may reach the conclusion that Cervantes’ decision to have his main character lose his mind, burst out of town and seek thrills elsewhere, be they as disturbing as impaling windmills in full motion, was not a stroke of genius but rather an understandable and premeditated determination to seek mental relief taken by any half-reasoning human being from those parts. It can be just that stark.

        But it also makes it equally deceiving.

       For within the thick walls of many of those dwellings lie interiors which belie their austere shells. Take Javi’s family’s place, for instance. On the outside, it is actually a step up or two from the average, being a handsome stately home in the town, but little would suggest the beguiling settings on the other side. A respectable front hall which leads directly to a covered atrium, clad in marble, well populated with plants. And furnished with wicker chairs and a couch and plump cushions, a wrought iron table topped with glass. It’s also considerably cooler than the outside.

       This leads to a strategically dark living room, a perfect den for watching TV and taking refuge from the heat, with a fine wooden dining room, next to a large kitchen for Spanish standards, with a bead curtain in the door that takes you outside to a covered porch, equipped with a spray to chill the air and followed by a patio with a large pool, wood-fired oven for baking barbecues, and a grill. In short, a veritable luxury. Once inside the walls, there seems little need to go anywhere else.

         Jav’s place was by no means an exception to the rule.  Dozens of homes in that town boasted similarly impressive decors.  Nor was La Fuente special in that sense.  If you penetrate the town line of La Seca in Valladolid, your first inclination is to execute a three-point turn and depart as soon as possible.  On a Friday night it can appear so desolate that you might think that the place was three deaths away from becoming a ghost town.  What most newcomers don’t realize is that they are parked above one of the nation’s largest white wine reserves, and taking a jack hammer to the pavement would most likely provoke a golden-green tinted gusher a hundred feet high.  The town is practically floating on vino.  This is the home of the evermore popular Verdejo white wine of the Rueda region.  Here, many residents may give the appearance of modesty, they often look just a notch above a homesteader, but they are so filthy rich they don’t know what to do with their money.  The fact that their homes have a tendency to look like county jails rather than mansions has more to do with the fact that the Castilian mentality is not fond of ostentation.  A stroll around the El Escorial palace built at the height of Spain’s empire should help illustrate that.  It also helps keep everyone in the dark on just how much you have.

        In any event, in search of some bread as well as a little culture, Julia and I walked up to the tahona. The streets of La Fuente de Pedro Naharro, like so many of these towns, have little to offer the tourist aesthetically, at least on the surface. Yet, it is the very simplicity of the walls, entrances, windows, colors and pavements, it is their almost total lack of charm which, in my opinion, gives them a charming authenticity that is worth taking a second and third look at. I just find these town irresistable.  When I say these things, people sometimes look at me the way they do individuals who sit on street corners an bark like a dog, but I can’t help it.  La Mancha is so alluring it’s almost hypnotizing. Javi would later ask me why I take pictures of tired tobacco stores and weathered frameless windows, and I told him, “because this is the invisible Spain I love so much. These are the minor details that are so much a part of this culture that we, and especially you, see every day but no longer bother to see anymore.”

         That tahona as a business, on the other hand, may become truly invisible if things don’t change soon. Unfortunately, it may be the fact that they do change that makes the threat all that more real. A tahona, we may as well get to this point, is nothing more than a place with a large oven where goods are baked, especially, bread, which isn’t necessarily the place where they sell it, known as the panadería. That’s the technical difference, but in modern times, things have become vaguer. Many panaderías now use small electric ovens designed specifically to finish baking half-baked (if you’ll excuse the word) dough in order to serve warm and fresh loaves which have become so popular in Spain these days. Are these tahonas? Not really. There are also places where they actually prepare the bread from scratch and bake it on the premises, but owners call it a panadería, not a tahona. At least that’s what happens in a city or large town.

        The fact is, the term “tahona” appears to be slowly falling into disuse, but it’s in a village where things tend to be treated differently. Here they are almost like miniature factories, and the goods they produce may be dispatched directly from the shop itself or distributed to grocery stores, or other outlets.

       In keeping with the surroundings, the tahona in La Fuente is so unassuming you wouldn’t even know it’s there. A small stairway leads up to the ubiquitous bead curtains draping from every door in those towns. Inside on the left was a small room with a counter and empty shelves, as if I had just entered a market from a former soviet state.

       The two men at the looked uncannily like a comedy team. One short and, well, robust. The other taller and, while not thin, certainly lower in weight. And he wore glasses which gave home a distinguished air, no easy feat considering he was surrounded by glossy balls of dough. The tall one ably took the spheres and with one thumb managed to mold them into ribbed doughnuts, not unlike French crullers, with an ease and precision, it seems hardly possible that any machine could best him.

        The shorter man led me to the oven a kiln so large it sailed up to the ceiling. It was covered in white tile except for the mighty iron mouth which read “Juan Ferré Matheu”, the name of the manufacturer. The company started production in 1893, but it has since ceased to operate. Fired by wood, the baker swears “it’s been on continuously for fifty years.” I wasn’t sure if this was a bit of an exaggeration, but after a long look around the place it would seem that very little else had changed since 1966, so I could see no reason for their extinguishing the embers for the sake of novelty.

          “And we can’t turn it off.”

          “Why not?”

       “Too dangerous?”  That made me step back a little.  Why?  Had years of nonstop usage turned the kiln into a nuclear oven?  Would failure cause the grapes in the nearby vineyards to glow at night?

         “What would happen?”

         He shook his hand ominously.  “I don’t want to think of what would happen.”

       “Me neither.”

       In the meantime, they just kept on baking.  Behind us was a wooden shelf with a pile or two of French-bread style loaves which customers could walk up to, pick out and pay for. Next to that stood a tall cart, twenty or more levels high, stacked with black metal trays, all bent out of shape, laden with rows of oblong cookies.

        “So, you make those too?” The question was obvious.

       “Yeap. About 70 to 80 bags a day. The doughnuts too. Look.” He opened the door to the hearth and inside was a large plate which could be rotated to maximize space. “Then I use this wheel,” located on the outside, “to turn it. That’s all there is to it.”

      “I can make cookies, cakes, bread, even pizzas. Even roast, but we aren’t supposed to do it. Affects the flavor.”

       “He also cremates dead bodies for a cheap price,” joked a customer as he passed by.

         “Don’t listen to him! What a comment!”

      Everything about the bakery teams with craftsmanship, and technology appears to have very little place there, no matter how rudimentary it is. The thermometer to the left was busted and my guess it hadn’t been in operation since the days Franco was alive. Accurate temperature readings are normally vital to baked goods. How did they do it?

        “How? That’s easy. I just open the door to the oven, stick my hand in like this,” he demonstrated it personally in case I didn’t understand. There must have been something about the look on my face that suggested to him I needed visuals.

      “And I wait for a few seconds. If I have to pull it out, that means it’s very hot and less time.”

       Well, there was no argument that logic fully supported his technique. It also probably explained the wide range of toasted cookies. But that was the fun of homemade products.

      He took us around back to a room which served as little more than a playground for people who suffer from Diogenes syndrome. A solid two inches of myriad crap blanketed the floor, but there was one item of interest at the back…a projector.

       “This used to be the where we would hold community events,” the ‘used to’ part was self-evident. “This was the local movie theater. You can see where the holes for the projector came out of on the wall. They’ve been sealed since then. Can you see them?”

       I could, even though most people no longer did. “What will become of this place when you retire?” It didn’t take a lot to see that day was not far off for either of them.

       He shrugged his shoulders. “God knows.”

Spain

August 17, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 5

“Julia!” yelled back Javi to his wife before he left for the finca to prepare the country house for the next guests. “Take Brian to the tahona. He’s gonna love it.”

        “Javi, you’ve told me this 100 times. I will!”

        “Just wanna make sure. I know he’ll love it.”

        “Don’t worry. We’ll go see it.”

      “Brian!” he called up to me, but I was on the living room couch with bags under my eyes and begging for a little more rest. It was my second full night back from the United States and anyone who has been in my position knows that is when the effects of jetlag are at their most devastating. There is no reconciliation with slumber because there is no slumber at all. Unconsciousness departs and forces you to face the unforgiving drawbacks of prolonged lack of rest. It’s a form of torture that long-distance travelers must accept with dignity.

       In theory, country life often offers some measures to counter the problem. The climate in the center of Spain helps too. It is bone dry and that means temperature changes swing like a pendulum. The blistering daytime heat of a 105ºF can vanish once the sun goes down, and you may even find yourself reaching for a sweatshirt before the evening’s over. That’s also good for the grapes, by the way, so that they don’t stress out. In Madrid, by contrast, the heat is absorbed by the concrete throughout the hours of light and then radiated outward well into the early morning hours. The Spanish often compare it to an oven and after 25 years of on-the-job field work here, I can personally attest to the accuracy of the analogy. If I were a piece of dough, I might start swelling at any moment.

         And the absence of city life. The outdoor cafés in Madrid are filled with customers who feel the need to talk to each other from distances of two feet as if they all were used to living next to an airport runway. And I also have the fortune of having the city send a fleet of sanitation trucks to my corner to recreate the Battle of Britain every night. Not once, but twice. Then there is a third round at two in the morning, but I’m not sure what that’s for. All I know is that shatters your REM phase.

       Javi’s home was the perfect place to combat these problems.  The peace, quiet and coolness should have made nodding off a fairly straightforward proposal.

         I was sharing a room with Javi’s eight-year-old son, Alex, as his room had the only available extra bed. Our friendship had gone back a long way, as far back as the day he was born. I had spent some time in Javi’s apartment years before when Alex was just three and he was in the midst of his negative stage in life, a period when the answer to everything is an unequivocal “no”, for which I then baptized him as the one and only “Mr. No.” It’s basically stuck since then.

         To many of my friends’ kids, I am the “Tito” Brian, which sounds like I am a former dictator of a Balkan nation, but it’s generally just an affectionate name for a faux uncle (“tío” in Spanish) who is kind of a loser and a loner at the same time.
Lying on our backs on our respective beds with the light on, we discussed the general state of affairs in our lives. Actually, we focused more on his situation, since listening to mine would have run the risk of scarring him for life.

         “How is the summer going?”

         “Good.”

         “What have you been doing?”

       “Stuff.” That was a good sign. Kids who say “stuff” show promise. It’s a universal trait of noncommittal communication.

         “I hear you have camp tomorrow? Looking forward to it?”

         “Nope.”

         “Why not?”

         “Don’t know anything about it and I want to stay home.” A noncomformist, I thought. Good for him.

          “Well, give it a shot. You never know.”

          “I have no choice,” he admitted. A realist, I thought. Makes sense.

          “That’s a good point. Let’s try to get some sleep.”

          “Can we turn off the light? Mom wants it on because she thinks I’m afraid of the dark. But moms are always thinking we are afraid of everything.”

          A courageous kid. A sensible one too. “That’s fine with me. Night.”

        Alex wasn’t out like a light, he was out before the light went out. Kids are often like dogs. They can just click on and off like that. I can normally do the same these days because I’m getting older and don’t care about anything anymore. But this wasn’t going to happen that night. Every silver lining has a cloud.

         You see, making the most of the coolness of the night air requires opening a window which, in addition to letting the lower temperatures in, also allows for a lot of flying creatures in search of human blood. Mosquitos aren’t attracted to everyone, according to studies, so I guess I happen to be one of the unfortunate individuals they find irresistible. The Spanish like to say, “that’s because your blood is sweeter,” and while this certainly has nothing to do with anything – I tend to take any culture’s folkloric medicine with a great deal of suspicion, apparently there really are a number of scientific reasons why those bastards go after some people more than others and make lying in a bed at night about as pleasant as being buried up to your neck in sand.

         Here are some things that seem to contribute to this differentiation: blood type (O, is the classification of preference – mine is A+ and one of the least appealing, so you could scratch the “sweet blood” thing), carbon dioxide emission (generally larger people are greater producers, an overabundance of skin bacteria (that I could not measure, beer (certainly a probable contributor, but experts question this point for a lot of reasons – I just don’t know what they are), pregnancy (well that speaks for itself), clothing color (maybe), sweat and body odor (now we were getting closer) and, as usual, just plain genetics – the universal culprit of just about everything that goes on with us.

       Regardless, considering that just about any factor, save being knocked up, could have contributed to the invitation, the point is, word got around the insect neighborhood that I was in town, and before you knew it, the room had more airborne objects swirling around than Dubai International Airport. What’s more, the little peckers would hover right up to the ear and give me warning of the slaughter that was to come. They would say it with that high-pitched hum that induce a handful of ideas so violent and evil in nature the fact that any human could have conceived them would be enough to land them in jail. To avoid the bloodbath, I had to turn on the light, apologize to Alex, wait patiently while the bugs unwittingly alighted on a wall and SMACK! incrust them in the surface. Seven deaths later, I turned off the light, fell asleep only to be jolted awake by my hand smacking my own body. It seems that a second, and possibly a third, wave of squadrons had arrived and were taking advantage of the fact I had lowered my guard. Y closed the window to prevent any more intruders, but that just increased the temperature by some 20º in that many minutes. Jetlag did the rest. The flying vampires didn’t seem to find to find my roommate as tasty, so I left him to defend for himself and plodded downstairs to the couch, where it was cooler, the WIFI was within reach and I could listen to documentaries on YouTube until I faded off.

         “Yes, Javi,” I answered with a scruffy voice not yet oiled by its first coffee. “I definitely want to see the tahona.”

Uncategorized

August 2, 2016

Where the hell do you think you’re going now señor Brian? 4

While Javi’s family’s vineyards spread out for miles in the province of Toledo, his family actually lives in a town over the border in Cuenca called La Fuente de Pedro Naharrro, the Fountain of Pedro Naharro, a curious and elegant name for an otherwise very ordinary town. To get there, you simply get on the 2-lane nacional, head for Corral de Almaguer, take a left, race off into the night down another straightaway towards Horcajo de Santiago, take another left and speed away to La Fuente, as they call it affectionately. 25 minutes of driving all said and told. At nighttime, when the traffic is light, it’s pretty much a breeze and it invites you to step on the accelerator a little more. The road knows few curves, the view is clear, and the driving is easy. Taking the back roads of Spain can sometimes be one of the most pleasurable and entertaining forms of getting around the country and the only true way of getting to know the nuances of the land. The nacionales, as they are called, are generally in excellent shape, but the regional and local roads can be a little more dicey. Still, I can’t think of a better way to experience the country.

               Spain’s highway system as a whole, I should point out, has surely come a long since the days I first came to live back in the early 90s. A simple look at statistics should help illustrate the point: in 1970 there were a meager 203kms of highway in the entire country. That’s about the distance between New York City and Hartford, Connecticut. By the time I had settled down here in 1991, the figure had shot up to 3,793kms, but even then not one of the six major motorways that radiated from Madrid like bicycle spokes was completed. Any long-distance trip required at least one section of knuckle-whitening circulating along a two-lane road while trying to overtake a truck full of wooden planks before getting slammed head-on by another hauling cement blocks. My premature greying, in addition to genetics, is due to this harrowing experience over the years.

               By 2014, drivers could enjoy over 15,000kms of highway to help them sail around Spain and reach most major destinations in a fraction of the time it once took. And in one piece. You see, one of the most profound consequences of this improvement in the nation’s infrastructure has been a gradual reduction in the fatalities on the road. Obviously there were several factors that have led to this decline, such as an increase in the average age of the average driver, more effective speed traps, greater awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence, buckling up on a regular basis, and better built vehicles, but it’s hard to deny the importance of this continuous upgrade of the road network.

                As in many countries, years ago the numbers were frightening. In 1960, there were a paltry 1 million vehicles on the road, and the poor conditions led to a staggering 1,300 deaths. By 1989, the number of deceased peaked to record numbers, though a little research suggested no one really knows how many people died on the road that year. One source indicated 3,086 victims, another put the figure at an astronomical 9,344, but I am inclined to believe the DGT (the equivalent of the DMV) statistics which reported 5,940. While that might sound stunning, consider the fact the last year the United States saw those numbers was in 1914.

               Now, with more than 31 million cars purring around, a mere 1,126 people lost their lives. Yes, that’s lower than the 1960 figure when there were 30 million fewer vehicles. Still too high, say some, but the 3.6 victims per 100,000 is one of the lowest rates in Europe, and it looks impressive when compared to 10.1/100,000 in the U.S.

              Where are these lethal run-ins bound to happen? On the secondary roads. Annually, between 75-90% of all deaths by vehicle occurred in these otherwise pristine, bucolic, peaceful lanes. Such violence amid such serene scenery boggles the mind, and nobody better than Javi knew that. His father was picked off by an oncoming car at an intersection in Horcajo some twenty years before and was killed in the act.

                A grim reminder as we approached that there is never really any need to hurry home.