Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Christmas vacation is giving us some nice opportunities to travel. We´ve had a stretch of very pleasant weather, and decided that it was time to go down and visit the Mediterranean Sea. Málaga is a very popular destination along Spain´s Costa del Sol. We received varying recommendations from our friends. My students told me it was the coolest city ever, and that we had to go there. Another friend said that it´s an ugly city, and it doesn´t have a pretty old-town district like Córdoba´s Judería. Take a look at the pictures and judge for yourself:

Although Málaga doesn´t have a conventional old-town area, it´s actually an older city than Córdoba or Sevilla. It was founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th century B.C., with the original name of Malaka. It was taken by the Carthaginians in the 6th century B.C. The Carthaginians lost it to the Romans in the 3rd century B.C. in the Second Punic War (this was the war in which Hannibal marched his elephants over the Pyrenees). The Visigoths moved in during the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. They were in turn defeated by the Moors in 8th century A.D. The Moors held it until Fernando and Isabel, Los Reyes Católicos, conquered it in 1487 and made it part of the kingdom of Spain. This is a city with a lot of history. Beneath the Picasso Museum, there were the preserved foundations of an old Phoenician residence and a section of the Phoenician city wall (6th century B.C.), an old Roman fish-processing factory (3rd to 5th centuries A.D.), and a ducal palace (16th century A.D.). The ruins were much more interesting than the Picasso museum itself; unfortunately, no cameras were allowed.

We´ve gotten pretty good at navigating Spanish cities. From the train station, we went directly to the Alcazaba, the Moorish castle / fortress on a hill overlooking the city. One of the informational signs advanced the theory that the hill was the reason that Málaga had been continuously occupied for so many years; other Phoenician cities in less defensible locations simply disappeared. We took the coward´s route of catching a bus up the hill to the Castillo Gibralfaro, but we did enjoy the walk back down the hill afterward. At the castillo was a remarkably good and economical outdoor restaurant. We enjoyed our afternoon comida sipping Moscatel (a sweet wine which is a specialty of Málaga) and enjoying the view of the Mediterranean. Ah, Spain!

Probably the most enjoyable part of the day was a stroll along the beach. It´s been a long time since we´ve been able to walk on the sand and hear the crash of the waves. The temperatures were in the 60´s; comfortable, but not exactly swimming weather. We may have to spend a weekend here when it warms up a bit. We picked up a couple of seashells from the sand. They definitely look different than the shells you´ll find on an Oregon or California beach.

¡Feliz Navidad a todos!

Monday, December 22, 2008


This week’s expedition with Llega Como Puedas was an ascent of Lobatejo, the second-highest peak in Córdoba province. Of course, that´s not saying much; the highest peak, La Tiñosa, is less than 5,000 feet in altitude. Take a look at the pictures at:

Lobatejo is in the Subbética, a natural park (not to be confused with a national park). We left from the pueblo of Zuheros, only about an hour´s bus ride from Córdoba. Zuheros has a neat-looking castle which I´d have liked to explore, but that wasn´t in the agenda.

Despite the fact that we´re near the end of December, the weather was spectacular. I´d brought my heavy jacket, and I really needed it for about the first forty-five minutes of the hike. After that, I was just carrying it around. I´d also brought my poncho, which is undoubtedly the reason that we didn´t have any rain.

There were a lot of sheep grazing the meadows of Lobatejo. Spanish-speaking sheep, of course, who say “be-e-e” instead of “baa.” It´s very interesting hearing the local animal dialects. For instance, cats say “miau” instead of “meow,” dogs say “huau-huau”, and roosters say “qui-qui-qui-qui-ri.” I never thought “cock-a-doodle-doo” made much sense anyway.

The walk was a very enjoyable mixture of trails, cross-country walking, rock clambering, and beating through undergrowth. The official distance was 23 kilometers. Even so, it took a good eight hours. The cross-country parts really slow you down. It also underscored the downside of charting a route using GPS. GPS will tell you that if you go down the slope in this direction and follow that little valley, you´ll hook up with the dirt road. It won´t tell you if the slope is covered with loose shifting rock, or if the valley is choked with spiny bushes, or if there´s no opening in the farmers´ wire fence. But nothing stopped our intrepid group.

There were some rather nasty stretches of slippery mud. At least once, my walking stick saved me from taking a fall; I´m becoming a real believer. One of my friends wasn´t so lucky. He slipped in the mud and landed hard on his left arm. He may have broken his wrist. This was the first time I´d seen the Llega Como Puedas rapid-response team in action. I hadn´t realized it, but the group had a designated nurse. She efficiently examined the wrist, cleaned it up, wrapped it in an Ace bandage, and put the arm in a sling. I hope to never have to make use of the service.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas 2008

We thought that we would post a link to this year's Christmas card for those of you who read our blog, whose e-mail addresses we do not have.

Link to the card:


The year started out in the regular way,
At a regular job, earning regular pay.
But we wanted adventure, to escape the rat race,
And Scott yearned to teach in a Spanish-speaking place.

Soon he won an Assistanceship in the south of Spain,
Though our son said that now we were truly insane!
Some friends applauded, while others said “Odd!”
And my Dad exclaimed: “Tell me he’s not quitting his job!”

Throughout the whole summer arrangements were made,
What to do with the house and the bills to be paid.
We learned how “just stuff” can tie you to earth,
What could we give up? What was it all worth?

How to pack life in a 50 pound box?
What’s most important? Books, computer or socks?
What will we need? What can be bought there?
We researched Córdoba, with excitement and prayer.

Finally our visas arrived amid cheers,
An adventure in Spain for almost a year.
We stopped first in Amsterdam, and then on to Paris.
Explored the French countryside…driving didn’t scare us!

Back in Paris, we hopped on a night train to Spain
In Córdoba we landed, till June we´ll remain.
We found a small piso near Plaza Colón,
And I set to the task of making a home.

Scott’s loving the teaching, with the students he’s tops,
While I work on Spanish, and learn where to shop.
We’ve learned of braseros, for warming our toes,
And we’re losing weight walking where ever we go.

Córdoba’s a blend of the old and the new,
And we’re living more simply as Córdobans do.
We’re making new friends and sharing traditions,
Thanksgiving on Friday, the Spanish rendition.

It’s a much different world here, surprisingly so,
It changes perspectives, and in some ways we grow.
For the next great adventure, it’s Italy and Rome,
For we need to see Europe before we come home.

Our adventure’s exciting, this side of the pond,
Still our thoughts stray to friends and to those we hold fond.
We hope that this poem finds you all in good cheer,
To you, Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Feliz Navidad

It’s Christmas in Spain, and it is an entirely Christian celebration. This is not the Happy Holidays of America, but rather a celebration of joy that ignites the entire city. Most Córdobans will tell you that they are not very religious. But babies are always properly baptized, children attend to their Catechisms and First Communions are huge family celebrations. Where in America, Christmas has become largely secular, with street and store decorations centering around Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree and good old fashion greed; in Spain, it is all about the birth of Christ. Homes hang out banners of Baby Jesus and stores proudly display Nacimientos (Nativities) or Beléns (Bethlehem Towns) which elaborately depict Bethlehem and the entire Christmas story from the Annunciation, to Mary and Joseph´s flight to Egypt. In one Belén, one of the Reyes Mago (Wise Men) is shown arriving on an elephant. The Wise Men are very important in Spain, for it is the Magi that bring the gifts on January 5 (Twelfth Night). Alas, Spain has not entirely escaped greed either. In another Belén, farmers work in fields, while shopkeeper and artisan go about their daily business, as Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. Shepherds and their flocks converge on the stable to see the Baby Jesus. Later, Romans are shown carrying out Herod´s order, as mothers plead for their children. Another interpretation shows both Spain and the Americas, complete with an Atlantic Ocean and a Mary and Joseph looking for lodgings in America. And yet another Belén includes a rising and a setting sun, with heavens filled with stars as elaborate angels proclaim the Holy Birth.

These Nacimientos and Beléns began appearing a couple of weeks ago, and more are showing up each day as Christmas approaches. Crowds fill the plazas in the evenings to “ohh and ahh” over the latest Belén. Some of these are life size, others are miniature, and it is interesting to see the each interpretation. I understand that the Belén has origins in Italy, but the Beléns that we have seen have a distinctly Spanish feel to them. The newspaper published a listing of where the coolest displays could be found (although they did not promise that all their information was correct, so sometimes we find ourselves on a “wild Belén chase.”) You can see pictures at:

This afternoon we attended a children’s program of Villancicos, which are Spanish Christmas Songs traditionally sung by children, telling the story of Jesus. The songs are mostly about walking to Bethlehem, or about the Wise Men´s journey, or about the shepherds coming to see the Baby Jesus. There is nothing of the seriousness and reverence that you hear in most of our traditional Christmas carols; these are songs meant to entertain children. The program was precious and eagerly attended by the children. Not entirely different than what you might see in a Christmas pageant at your church. But quite unusual to the American perspective as this was at the local Botanical Garden. For parts of the program, the children were up on the stage acting out Nativity stories or marching about the room on their way to Bethlehem. The funniest part was when they had the wise men coming to visit. Three of the children, two of whom were little girls, were outfitted with bushy black beards. (We´d post one or two of the songs on this blog, but don´t want to run afoul of any copyright laws. If you´re interested in hearing a song, contact us by e-mail.)

We had both thought that Christmas would be anti-climatic without the cookie party, and all the trimmings of Christmas. But rather, the enthusiasm in the streets spreads into the homes, and we are not feeling any lack. In Spain, this is Christmas, everyone is invited to the party. It is entirely wonderful.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Politics of True Multi-Culturalism

Spanish politics are interesting in a way that we just don’t experience in the United States. To understand this, you have to know a little of the history. During medieval times, the Iberian peninsula was a patchwork of warring Christian kingdoms and Muslim caliphates. Alliances were constantly shifting. The foundations of the kingdom that we now call Spain was formed in 1469 when Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragon, married Isabel, heiress to the thrones of Castilla and Leon. (This is the Isabella who later hocked her jewels to finance Christopher Columbus’s crazy scheme to sail west to China.) When Fernando and Isabel came to their thrones, their combined kingdoms covered most of modern Spain. When they kicked the Muslims out of Granada in 1492, they pretty much established the traditional borders of Spain.

“Spain” therefore includes a number of different ancient kingdoms and cultural groups, many with their own customs and even languages. The last 500 years has been a history of trying to bring all of these groups together into one national identity, with mixed success. To call the language “Spanish” is a bit of a misnomer; it is actually Castellano, the language of Castilla. Other languages, such as Catalán (from Cataluña), Gallego (from Galicia), or Vasco (from the Basque country) have as much claim, but they weren´t the rulers. At least Catalán and Gallego are romance languages, closely related to Spanish, French, and Italian; Vasco is a pre-Indo-European language which has no relation whatever with Spanish. During the mid- 20th century, the dictator Franco tried hard to suppress all of these regional cultures and turn everyone into good Spaniards. This had the predictable effect of causing a resurgence of regional pride in the local cultures. After Franco died, the constitution of 1978 created “autonomous regions” to allow some self-rule by the local cultures.

Unfortunately, this local pride sometimes goes to ridiculous extremes. This is illustrated by news stories in the Spanish newspapers, stories which generally don´t get much attention in the USA.

The first example comes from the Basque country. Spain has an annual bicycling event, the Vuelta Ciclista, something like the Tour de France. For years, the route has not gone through Euskadi (the Basque region) because of threats from the ETA, their home-grown terrorist organization. (Recall that in the Madrid bombings of 2004, the government originally tried to blame the Basque separatists.) The ETA has been greatly diminished in recent years, due to a number of high-profile arrests and a decided lack of popular support even in Euskadi. Therefore, the Vuelta Ciclista proposed that the route end in Euskadi. The response from the “nacionalista” Basque government was no. They said, “Euskadi no es España (Euskadi is not Spain).” Now, try applying this to the United States; can you picture someone saying, “Minnesota is not the United States”? It just doesn´t compute.

Another example occurred in Galicia, where a father pulled his daughter from a music school because the school would not teach her in Spanish. The school only taught in Gallego. The father took the position (reasonable, I think) that Spanish instruction should be available in Spain. That one is still being fought out in the courts.

The third example is from Cataluña, probably the richest area of Spain, which has historically not been pleased with being ruled from Madrid. In Barcelona, the city government is forcing businesses in the downtown area to post signs in Catalán rather than Spanish. Several businesses have said that they would close before doing so. Face it; there are hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking people in dozens of countries all over the world. How many people speak Catalán? I can see where the businessmen would want to appeal to the larger market.

The “nacionalista” movements are not universally supported, even in the areas with the most cultural pride. When Tonya and I travelled to Barcelona last month, I asked a cab driver if we´d have any trouble since I spoke Spanish and not Catalán. I liked his reply: “Bah! If you go into a shop and they insist on speaking Catalán, go to another shop.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Tonya was feeling better Saturday morning (she had a nasty cold last week), so we decided it was time to visit Sevilla (Seville, for you Americanos). We’ve become good at looking for the cheap train tickets; I was able to find seats for 8,20€ each (each way, of course, but still a good deal!). Take a look at our pictures at

We´ve become a little more travel-savvy after a few months here. Therefore, rather than paying a taxi driver to take us into town, we took a bus. With hindsight, that may not have been the best way to enjoy Sevilla. The bus route took us through drab neighborhoods, and the overcast skies didn´t help. It started us off with a negative impression of the city that took a little time to eliminate even after we´d made it into the pretty part of town. (Although Tonya still says it´s an ugly town.)

And the pretty part of town really is nice. One day wasn´t enough to see all of the things we wanted to see, and we´d have liked to spend some more time in the places we did see. We started off with the Palacio de la Condesa de Lebrija, then went on to the cathedral and the Alcázar. At this point, we decided that we deserved to relax and enjoy some tapas and drinks. That pretty effectively filled the day. (Note regarding tea: in Sevilla, Tonya was served hot tea made with milk, rather than water. She declared it the best hot tea she´d ever had.)

The Palacio was built in the 1500´s and extensively remodeled in the 1800´s. The Condesa used it mostly to house beautiful artwork that she´d collected during her world travels. There are magnificent Roman mosaics, Italian sculptures, and Moroccan furniture. She was quite a modern woman for the late 1800´s, the first to graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sevilla.

The cathedral is the third-largest in Europe, behind only St. Peter´s at the Vatican and St. Paul´s in London. We ascended the Giralda bell tower, along with a gazillion other tourists, to enjoy the views of the city. Interestingly, the Giralda has ramps to the top, rather than stairs. This dates back to the Muslim days, when the faithful could ride their horses to the top of the tower for their five-times-a-day prayers. Sadly, people are not on their best behavior in crowded tourist locations. We were jostled and pushed and elbowed by fellow human beings from all over the world.

The Alcázar (castle) is magnificent. The original structure was built by the Moors in the 10th century, and expanded by King Pedro I in the 1300´s. I almost wish we´d seen it before we went to Granada, because it just doesn’t get to the same level as the Alhambra. (One can´t help making comparisons.) The gardens are prettier, though, and I wish we´d had more time to stroll about. There´s something for another visit.

The downtown Christmas lights were ceremoniously lit this weekend in Córdoba, and we´ve been enjoying them in the evenings. We got back to the train station last night around 9:30, and took the long way home. See the pictures at

Spain doesn´t seem to have the Christmas excesses of the United States, but the local merchants are trying hard to get everyone to spend lots of money.

Hopefully we didn´t overdo it, because Tonya´s feeling pretty run-down again today. Monday is a holiday, so we´ll take it very easy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pictures from Thanksgiving, Palacio Viana

As promised, here are the Thanksgiving pictures:

We've also included a small group of pictures from the Palacio Viana:

I go past the Palacio Viana every morning on my way to the school, but it took us a while to get around to going in for a visit. I expect there are still a number of hidden delights in Córdoba. This one is really not a palace at all; it´s the house of the noble Viana family, which occupied it from the 1500´s until the 20th century, when they donated it to the city. It´s a lovely series of patios and gardens, completely shut out from the rest of the city by high walls (other than one tantalizing view through an iron-barred window from the street). There´s also an interesting museum inside, although they didn´t allow pictures. The only way to visit the museum was with a guide, and the only guide was Spanish-speaking, and she got rather "tetchy" when I tried to translate for the English-speaking members of the group. (I suppose I was interfering with her delivery.) The most fun part of the Palacio was in the Patio of the Gardeners. It has ivy hedges along the walls, which were unremarkable during the day. We returned in the evening, when all of the other visitors were gone, and discovered that the hedges were filled with hundreds of birds´nests. The birds had come back to enjoy the peaceful nearly-tourist-free evening, flying about in huge flocks and making the most lovely music imaginable. What a very pleasant experience!