Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Broken Arm

The Junta changed our health insurance company from Sanitas to Asisas with the new school year. Happily, I haven’t had any reason to try out the new health plan…not until last week, that is. I managed to fall and break my left wrist. A Colles fracture of the radius, for those who know about such things.

The incident occurred during my first game of padel, sort of a combination of tennis and racketball. The padel itself looks like the result of an unholy union between a tennis racket, a ping-pong paddle, and the vice-principal’s dreaded “Board of Education” back in junior high school. I brilliantly snagged my foot on the bottom of the net and fell in the perfect manner to maximize the damage. My friend José drove me to the hospital, and Franci came over on his motorcycle to see what was going on. Our wives were all visiting at Esther and Franci’s, doubtlessly giggling about us silly men. The doctor (Doctora Consuelo, which can translate as “comfort”…love the name) had to set the bone in a highly disagreeable procedure that I’d recommend avoiding if possible. I’m now sporting a lovely cast.

My friends agreed that we needed a more dignified story to post on the web page for the padel group. The official story, therefore, is that I was on my way to the padel court when I noticed a shoe falling from above. Looking up, I saw a small child hanging from a third-floor balcony, in imminent danger of falling. With no thought for my own safety, I shoved a moving car out of the way and leaped several meters to catch the child as he plunged toward the cobblestoned street. Despite having broken my wrist while diverting the car, I was able to save the child from what would have doubtlessly been a fatal impact. The full story, along with this picture, was posted on the web page.

Some of you will remember Bob the octopus, who I use in the children’s classes. Bob suffered an unfortunate accident around the same time…the kids filled me in on the details. Bob was playing with his friend Popo the crab near the beach, when he saw that Popo was in danger from a giant wave. He pulled Popo to safety, unfortunately trapping one of his arms beneath a rock. The grateful Popo took Bob to the Under-the-Sea hospital, where he was fitted with a cast. Happily, he has enough remaining arms that he doesn’t expect to be inconvenienced at all. His friends have been amusing themselves by autographing the cast (using waterproof markers, of course).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fuencaliente

This was not the most interesting hike I’ve done with Llega Como Puedas; much of the walk was along flat, straight, and dusty roads. Still, there were some pretty views. I found the pueblo of Fuencaliente particularly appealing. See the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/Fuencaliente#

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Pronunciation Snafus

For Spanish speakers, pronunciation of English words can be very difficult. The Spanish language has only five vowel sounds, and the English language has no less than fourteen. To them, the words “red”, “rid”, and “read” sound nearly identical. This can lead to some amusing misunderstandings.

The other day in class, I was explaining the word “guy.” I pointed out that a guy could be any male, saying, “For instance, Pepe over there is a guy.” Pepe looked startled and said, “No, I’m not!” Yes, you guessed it. He thought I’d said “gay.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Perol

The perol (pronounced pey-ROL) is a fine Córdoban tradition. Not a Spanish tradition, and not an Andalucían tradition, but a Córdoban tradition. You probably won’t find it in your Spanish-English dictionary. In my old dictionary with all of the older, little-used words, I find the definition “Metallic container in the form of a half-sphere.” In Córdoba, however, the perol is an all-day picnic out in the country. It has all kinds of eatables and drinkables, but it always involves a big pot of Córdoba rice. This is not paella, as our friends always hasten to inform us. A paella is cooked in an oven, but the Córdoba rice is cooked over a fire. In the old days it would have been an open campfire; nowadays there is generally a stove available somewhere. It’s enough of a custom that there are businesses that do paid perols for the tourists. Proper Córdobans turn up their noses; doing a perol with a paid staff is missing the point. Whatever else you can say, it’s a fine way to spend a day in the country.

The occasion for Sunday’s perol was a fortieth-birthday celebration for our friend Franci. His wife Esther had been planning this for some time. It was to be a surprise, but it’s a bit difficult to do a surprise perol, since you have to get the birthday boy out to the country. Also, Esther wanted to make sure that we could go under cover in case of rain, always a possibility at this time of year. When I asked her how many people would be there, she said, “Oh, eighty or a hundred.” Wow. We must remember that Franci has six brothers (I think). Counting wives and kids and Esther’s family and all of the friends, the numbers add up pretty quickly. We ended up at an ermita, a church building very similar to the one we saw at the Pozoblanco romería last spring. It’s the home of some hermandad. Esther’s uncle had been an important church official in Córdoba. Although he’s now retired, he still had enough clout to get us access to the building.

The building was very cozy, lined with heavy wooden tables and with a big fireplace. The walls were covered with photographs of romerías and festivals and weddings going back to the 1930’s. It had a nice, big, old-fashioned kitchen and an ample tree-covered yard. Happily, the weather was nice, so we were able to do all the serious business of eating outside. The event had a level of organization that I hadn’t expected. They had brought rags and big water tubs to wash the outside chairs and tables. There were appropriate bathroom supplies so that we wouldn’t have to take advantage of the church stocks. Everybody brought a dish to share, as well as the characteristic big, round paella pans.

Eventually, Franci showed up. The cover story was that a friend had taken him out motorcycling, and was responsible for getting him to the ermita. Franci was appropriately surprised. As I heard later, he’d expected that something was going on, but didn’t realize how big a crowd would be there. He’d been giving Esther a bad time, saying that he wanted to do something for his birthday. She’s been putting him off, saying that everyone was going to be out of town that weekend, and that they’d do something the following weekend. Although it was his birthday, of course he had to lead the preparation of the Córdoba rice. That’s his traditional job.

After everyone had their rice, we took a stroll with a number of people. It was just getting to twilight, and had cooled down a bit from the afternoon heat. Unfortunately, I was so full that it was a bit uncomfortable. No matter how much I try to pace myself at these sorts of events, I always end up eating too much. When we returned, there were the obligatory desserts. Tonya’s apple pies were a big hit.

As if responding to some unspoken signal, everyone began stacking the chairs and tables shortly afterward. We ended up getting home around 8:00. That was kind of nice; usually, when we go out on something like this, we have to be mentally prepared to be out until the wee hours of the morning. Spanish social events are not for the weak.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cerro Pedro Lopez

We had perfect weather this weekend for another Llega Como Puedas hike in the Córdoba Sierra. Since the excursion was so close to home, there were a lot of people in the group. Not that I don’t like having lots of people come, but it tended to make the trail a bit crowded. See the pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/CerroPedroLopez#

Theoretically this hike was shorter than last week’s (15km, versus 20km), but it felt longer. That may be because it involved a lot more ups and downs. I was happy to have my ski poles on some of the steep cross-country inclines.

The nice part about this hike was that we got to see some ruins: a Roman bridge dating from the first century A.D., and a Caliphate bridge dating from the 9th century A.D. It’s interesting that after a year in Andalucía, I can identify a Muslim bridge just from the shape of the arches.

Now, the Roman bridge isn’t the well-maintained one that people usually associate with Córdoba. Both of these bridges are remote from the city, and have been left to fall into ruin over the centuries. As you can tell from the pictures, the Roman bridge is doing better than the Caliphate one. The fact is that structures do not stay looking pristine over long periods of time without a consistent program of maintenance. In previous centuries, people weren’t necessarily interested in keeping the original design of the structures when doing upgrades. As a result, most of today’s well-preserved medieval (or earlier) buildings are curious mixtures of styles spread out over multiple centuries. When you see something that hasn’t been maintained…like these bridges…you can see what they must have originally looked like. Of course, you need some imagination to see past the ravages of time.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bob the Octopus


You can use the strangest things as teaching tools. When I began teaching younger kids this year (outside of Gran Capitán), I went looking for appropriate visuals. I found Bob the octopus at a little shop, and bought him for 3€. He’s turned out to be one of the better purchases I’ve ever made. I use Bob while talking to the young kids; whoever is holding Bob gets to talk, and everyone else has to listen. The kids love him.

Bob seems to have become something of a celebrity. The other day, I was teaching a class of Gran Capitán students that I hadn’t met before. At the end of the class, I asked if they had any questions. I was taken aback when one of the students asked why I hadn’t brought Bob. “How do you know about Bob?” I asked in surprise.

It turned out to be complicated. One evening, I had come directly to Gran Capitán after teaching a group of younger kids. When I opened my backpack in the teachers’ lounge, some of my colleagues saw Bob, and so I told them the story. Ana, a French teacher, was apparently impressed. So impressed, in fact, that she told one of her classes that I was using Bob the octopus. And voila! Bob was suddenly famous. He’s in great demand; I may have to hire an agent for him.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Naked in your own home

From here in Spain, we’ve been following with some amusement the story of the guy who was arrested in Virginia for being seen naked in his own home. This morning, I had an interesting conversation with one of the other teachers. He was completely mystified by the story, for two reasons. First, what was the big deal about someone being naked? There are nude beaches all over the place in Europe, and for a child to see a naked man is just not unusual. Second, why were all those windows uncovered? Here in Córdoba, not only are all the windows protected by heavy grates, but they are covered by persianas (flexible metal coverings). Spanish people have a perfect horror of people being able to see into their homes, and they seem to think that the streets are crawling with robbers. (I haven’t seen any particular evidence of that.) Of course, all this has the unfortunate side effect of making most home interiors rather dark.

Ah, cultural relativism!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vereda del Pretorio Hike

I officially kicked off the new season with Llega Como Puedas, the hiking club that I’ve been enjoying so much over the last year. My first hike was to Vereda del Pretorio, in the Córdoba sierra. I enjoy all of the LCP excursions, but they generally mean a pretty long day: one to two hours on the bus each way, and an extensive drink-beer-and-chat session afterward. It’s not unusual to leave at 7:00 in the morning, and not return until 8:00 in the evening. Since we stuck close to home this time, there were no long bus rides. I had a very pleasant hike and was back in my shower by 4:00.

The city of Córdoba extends a little way up into the sierra, so the trailhead was actually within city limits. The first part of the hike follows the path of the old Roman road (the Praetorian road) which ran from Córdoba to the mines in the sierra. The landscape is very reminiscent of southern California; lots of oak forest, and pretty dry. Some of my hiking companions found it a bit hot, but I thought it was perfect hiking weather. Though I neglected to apply sunscreen, I didn’t get sunburned at all.

Though enjoyable, it wasn’t one of the more scenic hikes I’ve done in Andalucía. You can see the few pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/Vereda_del_Pretorio#

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Language Exercises for Students

During the last year in Spain, I’ve been making lots of use of teaching tools. Books, newspapers, videos, Internet pages; there are lots of possibilities. There is an amazing amount of video resources available on YouTube. Songs are good for the children. Bingo is a big hit (“There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name….”). Kindergarten games like Simon Says, more advanced games like Twenty Questions or Scrabble…all of these offer a teacher opportunities to make students learn without realizing that they’re learning.

The one seemingly obvious resource that I don’t like to use is Hollywood movies. From a technical standpoint, they use a lot of slang, and the actors don’t tend to speak very clearly. Students who try to watch American movies usually come away feeling discouraged when they can’t understand what they’re hearing. And as for the content….well, the next time you’re watching a Hollywood blockbuster, think about how it sounds to someone who is trying to learn English. If you want to learn how to swear, of course, they’re a great resource.

Recently one of my students watched the movie American Gangster (about black criminal gangs in New York City) and came back with lots of questions. Now, how do you explain a sentence like “Ain’t y’all n----rs never seen no hoochies before?” That led to an interesting discussion about inner-city language, and how there are some words that you just don’t use in America under any circumstances.

I do not propose censorship of movies. Still, I’m afraid that our movie industry isn’t doing us any favors in how America is viewed in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Teaching small children

The new school year has begun, bringing with it a whole crop of new children. In addition to my formal teaching at Gran Capitán, I have a number of new private students. These include a group of seven-year-olds and a group of ten-to-thirteen-year-olds. I’ve been getting unexpected enjoyment out of teaching the small children; up until now, I’ve mostly taught adults and older teenagers. Of course, the private groups are much smaller, with five or six kids. That seems to be an ideal class size.

There are also unexpected pitfalls. The other day, I was reading “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to them (a considerably tamer version than we read in The Thousand and One Nights). The kids were getting serious cases of the giggles whenever I’d mention Ali Baba’s name. My mind was in English mode, so it took a little time for me to catch on. “Baba” in Spanish means….drool, or slobber. Sigh. You’d think that after a year in Spain, I’d be more sensitized to these sorts of things.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Submerged Economy

Recently I read a very interesting article in the Diario Córdoba, the local newspaper. The economy is bad all over the world, but Spain is second only to Italy in Western European unemployment. In certain areas, the unemployment rate is around 30%. When unemployment gets this high, governments begin to worry about increasing crime and social unrest. But none of this is happening in Spain. Why?

As an emergency measure, President Zapatero (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) extended unemployment benefits. The unemployed people can receive an additional 420€ per month, an amount widely considered to be a joke. In Spain, it is estimated that there are over half a million people who qualify to receive the additional payment. However, only 28,000 people have signed up. Why?

The answer, according to this article, is that the “submerged economy” is booming. Even though unemployment is very high and the economy is in the tank, there is actually more money changing hands on the streets. People who accept the symbolic 420€ per month must also attend employment training classes. However, most workers choose to spend their time working in undocumented jobs which actually bring in money….money which is not subject to the high Earned Value Taxes.

This illustrates what can happen when a government becomes “too” socialist, but maintains a free market. Businesses will choose to operate under the radar, rather than going out of business because they can’t afford the high taxes. The people who really pay the price for this are the workers. By working in undocumented positions, they are much more exposed to abuse by employers. Of course the government attempts to enforce the labor laws, but the sheer number of workers and businesses makes it a near-impossible job.

Is there a lesson for America in all this?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Year in Córdoba

Today marks our one-year anniversary in Córdoba. We left the United States from New York´s JFK Airport on September 15, 2008, and arrived here on September 24, 2008. I never thought we'd ever be out of the United States for an entire month, let alone an entire year. It's been a year of ups and downs, of joys and traumas, of unexpected problems and unexpected blessings. We'll be back in the USA next year, but I have a feeling we'll never be the same.

Return to Switzerland

During our few days in Switzerland in June and July, we had lots of rain. Everything was beautiful, but we would have liked to have more time to explore. Upon the recommendation of the locals, we came back in September. Good recommendation. We didn’t avoid the rain completely….that would be a lot to ask in Switzerland…but in our week there, we had two gloriously clear days and four overcast-but-with-nice-temperatures days. In my book, that’s pretty darned good. See the pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/Switzerland_September2009#

To maximize the number of new places we visited, we took a different route this time, flying into Zürich and driving a rental car through Lucerne and on to Lauterbrunnen. The northern part of Switzerland is green and hilly and pretty, but it´s in the south that you see the magnificent Alpine scenery. We stayed at the same hotel where we stayed in July, although a different room. It had all of the expected luxuries, except a shower! There was a handheld sprayer in the bathtub, so we were able to make do for the week. I didn´t complain….much.

The Jungfrau area doesn´t have the highest peaks in Europe (those are in the Caucasus), or even in the Alps, but it does boast the Jungfraujoch, the highest railroad station in Europe at 3,454 meters (11,332 feet). From the Jungfraujoch, you can go walking across a glacier to Mönchsjochhütte, one of those pleasant mountain hüttes, where you can have a drink while enjoying the mountain scenery. That’s a civilized way to go hiking….take the train or the cable car up to the high places, and then walk along relatively level trails. It felt a bit strange to enjoy views from the peaks without having to sweat to get there. Another nice view was from the Schilthorn, where they’d just finished filming the latest James Bond movie.

During most of the week, there was good visibility in the valleys, but the mountain peaks were in the clouds. This created an interesting sensation when ascending in the cable cars…you’re enjoying a beautiful view, and then suddenly it’s as if you’re inside a ping pong ball.

This trip seems to have marked the transition from summer to autumn in Córdoba. When we left, it was over 100⁰F and we had the air conditioner running. When we returned, it was 70⁰F and raining. Wow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Beach Weekend

Córdobans tell us that July and August in Córdoba are the worst… and they are not exaggerating. It is hot! Okay, not as hot as Phoenix is in July and August, and the hills are a golden California brown, so it doesn´t feel as oppressive as the desert. But still, 105 degrees is hot, especially when coupled with a little humidity. The heat is a wee bit easier to deal with in Spain than in the USA, mainly because no one is expected to do anything between about 2:00pm and about 5:00 pm, and generally not before 10:00 pm. I have been managing, but we´ve both been going a little stir crazy, trapped in the apartment because it is too hot to do anything, even at 11:00 pm. Scott suggested that we go south to a beach in Cadíz or Malaga for the weekend, and the idea of getting away sounded lovely.

But… it dawned on me that what appealed to me were my memories of our beach trips in Oregon. Pleasant walks along the sand in comfortably warm temperatures, relaxing in the shade with a book to the sound of the waves, romantic sunset strolls… You get the idea. Lying in the sun has not been my idea of a good time since I was in my early twenties. I am very fair skinned and I burn very quickly. The sun is not my friend. And, my experience with Mediterranean Beaches has not been particularly enchanting. It consists of a day on the French Riviera, in Nice, France when Scott contracted sun stroke and one trip to Malaga in the winter. The Riviera, in my opinion, was a big zero. I loved our hotel in Eze, but the rest… I do not understand all the hype. The Riviera beaches consist of hot stones. Even if I had wanted to lay out in the sun, those beaches are not especially appealing. The beach in Malaga was okay… not Southern California by a long shot, but at least some sand. Still, it is really hot, so maybe the beach would be better. We decided to go south to Torremolinos, just west of Malaga, in the renowned Costa del Sol of Spain. If nothing else, it would get us out of the apartment. Besides, it was our 28th anniversary after all.

And… It was hot… Miserable actually walking to the hotel, and then waiting for a couple of hours for the hotel staff to show us how to operate the air-conditioning, which was not intuitive. But after that, it was fabulous! In the heat of the day, we found a place in the shade by the pool. It is amazing what a dip in cool water will do for your outlook on life. In the very late afternoon, we went for a walk along the very pleasant beach. The beach at Torremolinos is very different from those in California, Oregon or even Hawaii. The beach ranges from fine to coarse sand, to small pebbles in some areas, and slopes quite steeply into the water. We bought some floats and went bobbing in the gentle waves. Floats are a must, and an ideal way to experience the Mediterranean. Like so many places that we have been, I could go back.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cines de verano

In summertime, with the heat, people in Andalucía live by night. (Like the vampires, I suppose.) One of the many late-night diversions are the cines de verano (summer movies). These are like drive-in theaters, but without cars. You come in with your munchies, or even your dinner if you like, and sit watching a movie under the stars. This week with the Perseid meteor showers, it makes for a nice show. There’s a snack bar complete with alcoholic drinks….the most popular is the “tinto de verano”, sort of like a wine cooler, with red wine and soda water on ice. It creates quite an agreeable atmosphere. The first show is never earlier than 10:00pm, and there’s generally a second show after midnight. Night owls of the world, unite!

One interesting thing with watching movies in Spanish is that they don’t translate the titles directly. A direct translation of a title won’t always work in the other language….for instance, the Spanish movie “Abrazos rotos” by Pedro Almodóvar would translate as “Broken Hugs”, which just sounds odd in English. It’s a marketing decision; you want a title which sounds good to the people who’d be seeing the movie here. Here are some of the more entertaining examples of movie names translated into Spanish:

Animal House => Desmadre a la americana (literally, “Wild party, American-style”)

Blame it on Río => Lío en Río (literally, “Trouble in Río”…notice the rhyme)

Child’s Play (remember “Chucky”?) => El muñeco diabólico (literally, “The diabolical doll”)

Men in Tights => Las locas, locas aventuras de Robin Hood (literally, “Robin Hood’s crazy, crazy adventures”)

Sometimes, the movies also have unexpected surprises. The recent movie of “Che, guerilla”, based on the last days of Che Guevara, had a cameo appearance by Matt Damon as a German priest (or a journalist? not completely clear) in Bolivia. You know, Matt Damon seems to speak pretty good Spanish! Maybe his voice was dubbed, but it sure sounded like him. According to what I read online, his Argentine wife Luciana Barroso has been teaching him.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Feria de Santiago

A few weeks ago, our good friend Lola invited us to the Feria de Santiago at her pueblo of El Garabato. Now, we’ve seen the big ferias in Córdoba, culminating in Semana Santa with all the processions through the streets. In addition to the big events, there are myriads of small processions in even the smallest pueblos. People hasten to explain that these aren’t religious events; although they parade the religious images through the streets, they’re mostly an excuse to stay out late and eat and drink and chat and drink and listen to music and drink and dance. Oh, and they drink a bit too.



In the heat of the summer, nothing of importance happens during the day. We arrived in El Garabato after dark to visit with Lola’s extended family and have a bite to eat. Oh, and a little something to drink as well. We wandered out to the plaza (even the small pueblos have a central plaza, though it may be little), where the procession was supposed to start at 9:30. The priest hadn’t yet arrived, but that was no problem. Everyone passed the time chatting and listening to music. Oh, and there was a little drinking.

Around 10:00, somebody called the priest, who actually lives in a larger pueblo called La Carlota. It turned out that he’d forgotten about the procession, and said to go ahead without him. Everyone agreed that this called for another drink. Someone explained that the priests don’t really encourage these processions; for some reason, they don’t think they’re terribly spiritual events. Go figure.

The procession was smaller, and the image was much smaller, but everyone enthusiastically paraded down the streets. There was a small marching band, and fireworks from time to time. Once back in the plaza, we all enjoyed flamenco dance demonstrations from the kids in the local dance schools. The heat of the evening naturally called for more drinks. Around midnight, we went back to Lola’s mother’s house for the real cena. (We still haven’t really become accustomed to these late night meals, but it was quite good.) Then it was back to the plaza for more music and dances and….you guessed it!...more drinks. We finally got home around 3:00 in the morning.


All in all, it was quite a fun excursion. Oh, did I mention that there was some drinking?



Sunday, August 9, 2009

England

The temperatures have been topping 100 degrees F pretty much every day here in Córdoba, so Tonya and I decided that it was time to visit England and get out of the heat. We have to take advantage of these travel opportunities, because God knows we won’t be in any financial position to do so when we return to the USA. We did escape the heat, but I must admit that I didn’t expect to need sweaters and coats in August. Umbrellas, of course; it is England, after all. You’ll see spots on many of the pictures…. these are genuine English raindrops on the camera lens.

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/England_August2009#

This was a very pleasant trip; it was the first time we’ve been in an English-speaking country since last September. We’d visited the north of England a few years ago (York), but this was our first time down south in London. We had about two and a half days in London, and reached the conclusion that it wasn’t nearly enough. There is a lot to see! Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norman….all these different cultures, as well as those which came before, have left their marks. On this trip, we managed to hit several (but not all!) of the big tourist draws: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the Tower of London, St. James Park, Hyde Park, St. Paul´s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, and others. We’ll see if we can manage to get back.

We headed west from London to Salisbury, where they have possibly the most beautiful cathedral in the world. Here they have one of the best-preserved of the remaining copies of the Magna Carta. This was the list of laws signed under duress by King John in 1215, one of the first to place practical limits on the powers of the king. It forms one of the bases of Western law to this day.

One of our big goals for this trip was to visit Stonehenge. We got our first glimpse of it on my birthday. This is another of those sites that ended up impressing me more than I’d expected. The sheer size of the stones is overwhelming, and moreso when you consider that all of this was constructed between 3000BC and 2000BC, without the benefit of the wheel or metal tools. We even got to see a group of modern-day Druids doing a ceremony in the middle of the circle.

A bit further north in Avebury is another of the stone circles which seem to abound in the area. The main ring there is a good quarter-mile in diameter, with many of the original stones missing. (Medieval priests encouraged the faithful to destroy the pagan works.) Nobody is completely sure of the purpose of the stone rings. Stonehenge has many alignments with the position of the sun on midsummer and midwinter day, too many to be coincidence….but why? An observatory? A temple? Whatever they were, they were important enough for these ancient societies to devote a staggering amount of manpower to them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An interesting breakfast in Germany

It wasn’t widespread in Germany, but we did encounter some of the rules-based society that we’d have expected. At our hotel restaurant in the Black Forest, we came downstairs one morning for the buffet breakfast. We filled our plates, took seats at a nice table by the window, and began to eat. In a few minutes, a waiter came by and wished us good morning. He asked for our room number, and when we told him, he said, “I’ll show you to your table now.” He indicated a table far off in a dark corner. All of the tables were equivalent: the same number of seats, and the same number of place settings. We told him, “We’d prefer to sit here by the window.” He got a strange expression on his face; not angry, just dumbfounded. “But that is your table,” he said. We repeated, “Thank you, but we’d prefer to sit here.” He left, and we didn’t see him again that morning. Of course, he also didn’t ask us if we wanted coffee or tea.

The next morning, we were a little more prepared. When we came down to the restaurant, there was a hostess waiting. She said, “I’ll show you to your table,” and took us to the same dark corner. We told her, “Yesterday, we sat over there. Is it all right if we take the table by the window?” Again, the same dumbfounded expression. The hostess must have had a little more decision-making authority, because she finally gave an elaborate shrug (which said more plainly than words, “But what else can you expect from those crazy Americans?”) and seated us by the window. A few minutes later, the waiter from the day before came by and again wanted to take us back to the dark corner. We told him, “Oh, the hostess seated us here.” No further problems.

Ah, those cultural differences!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Playing Cards

I mentioned briefly in one of the previous blog entries about different styles of playing cards in other countries. You can see pictures of them at

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/PlayingCards#

The Spanish deck is 48 cards, but traditionally the 8’s and 9’s are left out to make a 40-card deck. The German deck is 36 cards, but traditionally the aces are left out to make a 32-card deck. This all sounds a bit arbitrary, but think of all the arbitrary rules in card games that you’re used to playing!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Great European Vacation: The Alps

We saw a lot of very pretty places on this vacation, but I must say: the Alps are the prettiest place that I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. This is a very strong statement from someone who’s been to Yosemite, to the Grand Canyon, to Zion….but I stand by it. The Alps are much greener than the big American mountain ranges I’ve visited. Also, they are generally much steeper and craggier. I think that the Alps must be younger, geologically speaking, than the Rockies or California’s Sierra Nevada. See the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/AlpsJune2009#

We’ve only been to the Jungfrau area of Switzerland and the Dolomites of Italy, but I’m eager to see more. Incredible mountain vistas…and so very peaceful and restful. In these areas of Europe, hiking is a much more civilized activity. There are cable cars to take you to the top (or very near the top) of the mountains! You hike (or in our case, wander slowly, admiring the abundant colorful flowers and butterflies) to a restaurant and have a lovely lunch at the top of the mountain, or in the middle of a meadow. I’m sure there are more remote areas where the serious mountaineers go. But without going to too much trouble, there’s an awful lot of nice scenery available. There was much spinning in flower covered meadows (eat your heart out Julie Andrews!), but we never managed to figure out which one of the flowers was the Edelweiss. We had cloudy weather and afternoon thunderstorms for most of our stay, which meant that we had to get up and going to take advantage of the morning weather to go hiking. We didn’t take the cable cars to the tops of the mountains in Switzerland; they were all fogged in, and there was no view. But we plan to return, hopefully in September.

A nice addition to our hiking experiences was the music of the cowbells. Yes, cowbells. Many of the cows in the area are belled, and the resulting random notes create a lovely background symphony as you hike the trails. These aren’t the harsh rectangular cowbells like the ones I’ve normally seen in the USA; these oval-shaped bells create a beautiful, pure tone that is a real pleasure to listen to. Tonya bought a couple of different-sized bells that we’ll use as wind chimes to remind us of the Alps.

Driving from the Jungfrau region back down into Italy, we had to cross right over the backbone of the Alps. I was really looking forward to the vistas we’d get as we went over Grimsel Pass (2,165 meters or 7,100 feet high…and that’s just the pass between the mountains!). In one of the great tragedies of the era, it was raining heavily for the early part of the drive, and we were socked in with fog as we got up to the pass. At the top, the visibility was about 50 feet. Sigh. As we were coming down the other side, the clouds cleared up somewhat, so we did get some nice views. But I felt a bit cheated.

One unexpected treat was in Bolzano, Italy (or Bolzen. This area of Italy is German-speaking, so all of the towns have German and Italian names. The Italian names were a project of Mussolini, who took the reasonable attitude that Italian cities should have Italian names.) You may remember some years back that there was a human body recovered from the ice in the Alps, and it turned out to be 5,000 years old. (For more information, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi_the_Iceman.) The Ice Man (Otzi) is in a museum in Bolzano, along with much of the clothing, weapons, and tools that were found with him. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how people lived in the ancient Alps. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures in the museum. From the examination of the body, it appears that Otzi died a violent death. There is some scope for imagination here; I’m surprised that no one has attempted to write a historical fiction based on it.

The Great European Vacation: Germany

It has been a dream of Tonya’s to visit Germany ever since high school, when she studied the language for two years. The dream has finally come true. You can see the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/Germany_June2009#

We crossed into Germany from the Austrian Tirol area, entering the southern area of Bavaria. We continued on to the lovely medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, across to the Mosel and Rhine Valleys, then down the French border to the Black Forest. Germany is a pleasant country, but it was pretty much flattened in WWII, so much of it has been rebuilt within the last 60 years. Tonya acknowledges that her German dream has come true. She also says that she doesn’t feel any particular need to go there again.

For us, the main attraction of Bavaria and the Mosel and Rhine valleys was the castles, particularly along the Rhine. Back in the middle ages, any nobleman who could scrape together enough money to extend a chain across the Rhine could then halt commercial traffic and extort….excuse me, charge….tolls from the passing merchants. This was a big source of income. Unfortunately, it also slowed the economic development of Germany for many centuries. After the slow disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire (which, according to one historian with a sense of humor, was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) in the 1400’s and 1500’s, Germany fought the nasty Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), which left much of the area in ruins. It remained a patchwork of little kingdoms which wasn’t unified as a country until Bismarck did the job in the late 1800’s.

My favorite castle was Neuschwanstein, built in Bavaria by Mad King Ludwig. When you read the history, it turns out that Ludwig may have been unfairly named. “Ludwig the Odd” was probably more appropriate. He was declared insane in a power grab by his ministers. Now, Ludwig’s younger brother Otto was truly the crazy one; he didn’t last long as king.

The medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was a victim of the Thirty Years’ War. It had been economically prosperous up until that time, but was conquered and plundered several times during the war. Over the following centuries, it never recovered. While other cities such as Frankfurt and Munich were modernizing and becoming powerful, Rothenburg limped along with its old medieval buildings. At some point, “old and run-down” became “charming and medieval”, and Rothenburg enjoyed an economic rebirth as a tourist destination.

Our last destination in Germany was the Black Forest. It’s a very pretty area, and we had several nice hikes. Still, it may not have been smart to visit it on the same trip with our Alpine hikes; it sort of pales in comparison. The most interesting thing was an open-air museum with a number of 17th and 18th-century farm buildings which had been physically moved to the site. Some of the buildings had still been occupied as late as the 1960’s.

One interesting side note: I think I’ve written that Spain has a different deck of playing cards than America. In America, we actually use the French deck: 52 cards with suits of spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. In Spain, they have a 48-card deck with suits of gold, cups, swords, and clubs (which look more like cudgels). It turns out that Germany has still another style: a 36-card deck with suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. I’ll be darned. Naturally, we had to buy a deck. A friend loaned us a book with a variety of card games from different countries, using the different decks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Great European Vacation: Italy

Italy was really not the main objective for this trip; we passed through to spend a few days with our friends in Florence, and then we dropped them off in Milan. We then returned to Milan a few weeks later for our flight back home. Still, even in that short time, we had some nice experiences in Italy. (In all fairness, part of our adventures in the Alps was in northern Italy…but the Alps will be the subject of another blog entry.) See the Italy pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/Italy_June2009#

A note for traveling in Europe: make sure you have a small car. I insisted on an automatic transmission which is not very easy to rent in Europe. So unfortunately, an automatic for 4 adults and luggage was a much larger car than we would ever want to drive in Europe. Actually, it would have looked about average on an American highway, but we’re in a different world here. We named it Gigantor. (Who’s willing to date themselves by admitting that they remember the Gigantor cartoons?) We ran into more than one sticky situation driving that car. I will never forget the evening we were coming home from Florence (we were staying outside of town in a Tuscan villa that was updated in the 1500’s; the same family has occupied the villa since the 1700’s). We were driving down a road that was little more than 6 inches wider than the Gigantor, with another car trying to pass us going the other direction. Size and determination finally won. The other car backed up to a wider section of the road so we could pass each other.

Milan is not Rome; it is not Florence; it’s a large industrial town, mostly built in the 1800’s. Not normally a top-tier Italian destination, although it has a nice cathedral (duomo). Still, the big draw of Italian cities is the art. In Milan, and we were treated to a couple of Leonardo da Vinci paintings. There is a lovely “Madonna and Child” at the Sforza Castle, and “The Last Supper” is nothing short of spectacular. I hadn’t realized how large “The Last Supper” is; it’s really a fresco rather than a painting, and covers most of a wall. It’s best that we visited it now, rather than a couple of years ago. They’ve recently finished major restoration, removing five hundred years of accumulated grime and candle soot and over-painting to reveal what’s left of Leonardo’s original work. And what’s left is quite impressive. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures there. A very indignant guard swooped down on a tourist who dared to ignore the “No Photography” sign, and forced him to delete the images from his digital camera.

As we were exploring Sforza Castle, there were lots of the normal historical information signs. It was a bit depressing to read them in this case; Italy was in a state of political turmoil pretty much from the fall of the Roman empire until modern times. There wasn’t even a single country called “Italy” until the mid-1800’s; it was a patchwork of city-states and Papal territories in a state of continual war. Milan changed hands many times over the centuries. We read about the Lombard invasion; the Spanish occupation; the Austrian domination; the French occupation; the civil war. Nasty.

Leaving Milan the first time, we headed north along the shore of beautiful Lake Como, getting teasing glimpses of the Alps ahead of us. We had traded in Gigantor for a much smaller car (we named this one Little Dent), which made for a lot calmer driving.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Great European Vacation: France

Wow. What else can you say about five weeks driving through western Europe? This has really been one of the aims of the Spanish adventure; to take advantage of the opportunities to explore Europe. And this may be the only opportunity we ever have to do all of this.

Life is good. The vacation was wonderful, but five weeks is a loooong time to be on the road. Or maybe not, by European standards; other friends of ours have been doing comparable trips. There are just so many wonderful places in the world to see. This time we tried to balance the cultural sites with nature. Cities are great, but museums, cathedrals and the like can get old after a while, even when you enjoy them. There is so much to write about that we’re going to split it between a number of blog entries. You can see the first set of pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/France#

We started the vacation with a night train to Barcelona, and then a quick train across the border to Perpignan, France. We rented a car and tootled our way north and west. By now, we’re old hands at navigating our way across Europe; we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS.

Our drive began in Languedoc, home of the medieval Cathars or Albigensians. This area wasn’t part of the kingdom of France until the 1200’s, when Pope Innocent III declared a crusade to eliminate the Albigensian heresy (and, of course, to assist France’s King Louis VIII in a land grab). It took 20 years to conquer and annex the area. Looking at the rugged mountains and the isolated castles, you can see why it took so long.

We continued north and stopped to see the Cro-Magnon cave paintings in the Dordogne Valley. Fascinating, it is amazing the detail. They used the cave walls much the way one might see a picture in the clouds. In the dim, flickering light, the pictures have a three dimensional quality and even seem to be moving.

We met some friends in Paris, and spent a week touring around the city. A trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower is more than worth the wait. Versailles, the Louvre, Monet’s gardens…one can drown in Paris. Although, I am not sure what all the hoopla over the Mona Lisa is. The “must see” Da Vinci´s are in Milan.

After Paris, it was on to the French Riviera for a few days. From there, we went on to Italy, but that will be the subject of the next blog entry.

Friday, May 29, 2009

May in Córdoba

May is party month in Córdoba. Once the renewal was confirmed, we could relax and enjoy ourselves a bit. The parties come one after another; first Las Cruces, then the patios, then the feria. In between are the horse shows featuring the pure-blooded Andalucíans. Of course, Tonya and I managed to get ourselves a little bit sick, so we haven’t been able to take full advantage of the festivities. Also, the weather is beginning to warm up, so we’re not quite so active as we’ve been. Still, after all, it’s been a fun month.

Las Cruces is still another excuse to get together and drink and dance and eat snails. At various locations in the city, large crosses are set up in the street, decorated with carnations. They’re pretty, I guess, but nothing particularly spectacular. People have hastened to tell us that there’s nothing particularly religious about Las Cruces, and they’re right. To really enjoy the crosses, you need to go see them with a group of friends after dark. There are awning-covered bars with all manner of eatables and drinkables, and usually music playing (either live or recorded). With sufficient alcohol, you get right into the spirit of the street party.

The Patio Festival is a uniquely Córdoban event. Many Spanish houses are built around a central patio. I’d always thought of this as a Mexican style for houses, but it makes sense that they were following a Spanish tradition. With the climate here (and in Mexico, if you think about it), an open central area allows more airflow through the house. I’d always thought that the patio houses were for rich people, and it’s true that many elegant homes are built with that floorplan. However, the more common case is the “casa vecina”, or the neighbor house. A number of itty-bitty family apartments are built around a central courtyard with a shared well, kitchen, bathrooms, and washtubs for laundry. It was a housing style for very poor people who couldn’t afford their own homes. According to our friends, this was still a very common living situation as recently as twenty years ago. In a situation like that, I can see how you’d come to really love or really hate your neighbors. Anyway, it’s a point of pride in Córdoba for people to dress up their patios for the annual competition. Take a look at the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtonya2/CordobaPatios#

The month culminates with La Feria, which developed from the old livestock fairs, like the county fairs in America. So far, I have to say that La Feria hasn’t seemed like much. There are the normal carnival rides, complete with American cartoon characters (although here, Tom and Jerry are known as El Ratón Vacilón y El Gato Comilón). Of course, there’s a Spanish twist on it; many of the women are in traditional flamenca outfits, and you see riders here and there on their Andalucían horses. The real attraction of La Feria is the casetas, little awning-covered displays set up by many different groups: the cofradías (religious brotherhoods), the political parties (including the Socialists and the Communists….yes, there are quite prominent displays promoting solidarity with Cuba, complete with the inevitable portraits of Che Guevara), and local businesses. Again inevitably, they include bars with eatables and drinkables and music. We went out with a group of teachers from my school on Wednesday afternoon. It was fun, but way too hot. Some of the casetas have ceiling fans, but they’re not adequate when the temperatures get up to 100⁰F (and yes, the temperature got that high….summer is going to be interesting here). We had a better time the next evening; we went out much later with some other friends. Once the sun gets lower, it’s not so bad. And after the sun goes down, it’s positively comfortable.

We had an interesting experience last week. One of our friends here had some American guests (his brother had spent some time in America on an exchange program many years ago, and they still have a cordial relationship with the host family). We all got together for a Córdoban cena. Our friend only speaks a bit of English, and the Americans spoke almost no Spanish, so I was doing some translating. What struck me is how much we’ve acclimated over the last year. Things which seemed delightfully foreign to the visitors seem commonplace to us now. We have to be careful not to stop seeing the wonderful things around us! I took a look back at some of the pictures we’d taken when we first arrived last September, and found myself thinking, “Now, why did we take a picture of that? It’s just a street!”

So that’s May in Córdoba. And now, we’re off for the great summer vacation!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Planning for a Wild & Crazy Adventure

As we head into the second year of this Wild & Crazy Adventure, friends question how we can manage such a lifestyle. So let me take a couple of minutes and explain how we planned for this incredible experience. Anyone can do this. Really…

When Scott first brought up the idea, my first response was not “No”, but rather “How will we pay for it?” Being the consummate accountant, I set to calculating how much we would need. We settled on a 6 month adventure. This meant that we needed enough money to live on for 1 year, a 6 month adventure and 6 months living expenses for when we return. We hoped to be able to take a leaves of absences from our respective jobs, but knew we could not count on that. So we would need something to live on when we returned, while we looked for work. Scott wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country, so I researched the cost of living in different countries. Be prepared for the initial gasp, because the amount will seem impossibly large and unreachable. So we set to saving money… Where did we find the money to save? First off, we cancelled our 401K contributions, that meant a tax hit every year, and also a willingness to postpone retirement, but we felt it was worth it. Given how the market has performed in the past year, I don’t think it was a bad choice. The next step was to rein in the unnecessary spending. It is amazing how much money one can spend without really thinking about it. It took us about 2½ years to save the required amount. It should have taken us longer, but Scott’s bonuses were larger than anticipated.

Above all, when you calculate the amount that you think you will need, be conservative. You never know what the future holds. We saved for a 6 month adventure, but it turned out that Scott was offered a 9 month position. Still, our expenses have been far less than anticipated, so we are stretching 6 months into 2 years (not bad!). The additional time requires renting the house. (Something that is quite emotional for me. Cross your fingers that the renters don’t destroy my home.) The budget will be pretty austere next year, travel will be curtailed quite a bit, but all and all it is manageable. The experience, I am sure, will be worth the sacrifices.

Believe it or not, the hard part is not saving the money to fund the adventure, but rather being able to take that final deep breath, join hands, and jump. You have to be willing, at least in spirit, to let go of everything that you are accustomed to and leave your old life behind. That final jump will open your horizons and challenge your perspectives and ideas that you have always held to be true. Understand, that no matter how willing you are to make that jump, and no matter how much you prepare yourself for the experience, the jolt of culture shock will punch you in the gut at least once in the first couple of months, an even occasionally afterward. Recall my earlier blog entry, last November I sent home for chocolate chips, brown sugar and measuring cups. They were required.

Before we left, I spoke with someone who had been sent to live in Germany for 6 years. She told me that she recommended the experience to everyone. She also said that I would learn things about myself, my husband and my marriage that I would never expect. After 9 months in Spain, I can attest to the truth of this statement. I have learned that under the stress of “all things foreign”, I am quite emotional. I have learned that I am still quite the rebel, especially when I feel that I am being forced into something. And that my dear husband, although he no longer “walks on water”, will stand patiently by my side in my temperamental moods. As I am the consummate accountant, Scott is “the eternal manager”, and in the absence of something to manage, he will create something to manage. I think that the stress, (and it is stressful living in a foreign country where everything that you know, believe and are used to may no longer be true), has been more of a challenge to our relationship than anything that we have ever dealt with before. Even more stressful than teenagers. But I would not hesitate to do it again. The benefits far outweigh the inconveniences.

We are staying a second year…

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Another Year in Spain

Believe it or not, we're going to be in Spain for another year! When it came down to returning to the USA, Tonya and I agreed that we weren't ready for the Spanish adventure to end just yet. And living expenses in Spain have been pleasingly lower than what we'd budgeted. I just received word that the Junta de Andalucía has renewed my teaching contract for the coming school year. This has caused some nail-biting over the last few weeks; I sent in my application at the beginning of March (almost 3 months before my contract was to run out), but didn’t get a reply until this week (less than 3 weeks before). That’s cutting things a bit close.

So here we are. We miss all of you back there, but the call of faraway places has continued.
With regard to practical matters, we have the house rented out, so with luck that will cover our mortgage payments while we're out of the country. All of our belongings are in storage awaiting our return in June 2010. We'd have been OK going back to the USA, but it would have caused some inconveniences; since there are renters in our house, we'd have had to rent another apartment!

So the adventure continues. We have a real expedition planned for June. After the school year ends, we're going to take a night train to Barcelona, and then another train on to Perpignan, France. There we'll rent a car and head north, stopping in Carcassone and Dordogne. In Paris we'll hook up with some college friends. After a week there, we'll take a train down to Nice. We'll rent another car to drive through Monaco and into Italy, on down to Florence. After a couple of days there, we'll drop off our friends at the Milan airport, and continue north into the Swiss Alps. We'll cross back into the Italian Tirol, on across the western end of Austria, and into Bavaria. We'll visit the medieval city of Rothenburg, and then on to the Rhine and Mosel valleys. For the last leg, we'll drive down through the Black Forest, across Switzerland, and back to Milan. We'll catch a plane to Madrid and take the train back to Córdoba, where we'll probably need to sleep for a week.

Actually, it shouldn't be so bad. We're spreading this across five weeks, so we don't really have any unbearably long drives. We’re crossing through lots of countries, but keep in mind that the countries are a lot smaller here. In terms of actual kilometers driven, our road trip will be about equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to Portland and back. A long drive, but really not bad over five weeks. And we'll have many relaxing days at our various stops. As we tell all of our friends here, we'll be poor when we return to the USA, so we have to take advantage of our travel opportunities now.

I've been being quiet about this on the blog, because I didn't want to start spreading news like this until we knew that it was going to happen. We'll continue documenting our experiences.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Portugal

It would have been a shame to spend nearly a year so close to Portugal without ever visiting. Last weekend, we continued our “no fear” policy by renting a car and driving across Portugal. Now, to see the cultural sites in Portugal, you need to go up to Lisboa (Lisbon), the capital. However, we decided that what we really needed was a beach weekend. It was about four hours’ drive to our hotel in Lagos, and another half hour beyond that to Cabo Sâo Vicente. This is at the far southwestern extreme of Portugal, where Europe dips a cautious toe into the Atlantic. For many centuries, it was the end of the known lands; beyond it was nothing until the edge of the world. Take a look at our pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Portugal#

I had always thought of Portugal as almost a province of Spain, but it is definitely a distinct country with its own language and culture. It is true that Portugal’s history has been largely determined by its relations with it more powerful neighbor to the east. When Fernando married Ysabel to create the modern kingdom of Spain, Portugal was independent. They were a colonial power during most of the 1400’s and 1500’s, and it could be argued that they actually made more geographical discoveries than Spain. However, during a crisis of succession in the late 1500’s, Spain annexed Portugal and held the country until it won its independence back in 1640. Unfortunately, Portugal never seemed to completely recover from that traumatic event. Further blows included a catostrophic earthquake which leveled Lisboa in 1755, and the Napoleonic occupation from 1807 to 1812. During most of the 1900’s, Portugal was a dreary military dictatorship, and finally moved to a democratic government in the 1970’s.

Crossing the border from Spain to Portugal, I at least expected some kind of passport check. We didn’t even have to slow down. There was nothing, not even a kiosk with a guard. It’s more trouble to cross from Oregon into California; here, they don’t even bother with an agricultural inspection station. One of the first towns across the border is Tavira, recommended as a scenic stop. It was charming, but not worth much more than a short stroll. Lagos is a lovely beachside community, which seems to mostly cater to British tourists. We enjoyed the views of the coast, but the water was really too cold and the surf was too rough to do any swimming. I’m told that it’s the difference between an Atlantic and a Mediterranean beach.

Some comments on driving in Spain and Portugal:

- There seems to be a standard EU license plate, with the circle of yellow stars on a dark blue field. Below is a letter: E for Spain (España), P for Portugal, F for France. The license plate number is on a white field with black numbers. Our rental car plate had the letters GBR, so naturally we named it Goober for the weekend.

- In Spain and Portugal, it seems more feasible to navigate by highway numbers than in France. Of course, that may just be because we largely stuck to major highways this time.

- Traffic circles (called roundabouts by English speakers here, and glorietas by Spanish speakers) are very popular. Under medium-to-heavy traffic conditions, they do keep things moving better. In very heavy traffic, of course, everything stops. The main downside with traffic circles is that you can lose your sense of direction really quickly.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Los Alayos del Dílar

We’ve had several very nice trips over the last few months, but they’ve prevented me from taking the last couple of hikes with Llega Como Puedas. Not that I’m objecting…Italy and Greece were quite wonderful…but I do enjoy my mountain hiking. This last weekend’s hike was my first one in Granada, and the first one which took me to a Spanish national park: el Parque Nacional de la Sierra Nevada. This is the real Sierra Nevada, after which the California range was named. You can see the pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/AlayosDelDilar#

Based on the weather during the last week, and the forecast for the weekend, I’d fully expected to be hiking in the pouring rain. However, the weather gods smiled on us. We had beautiful skies with puffy white clouds all day (almost). Right at the end of the hike, we had the proverbial “cuatro gotas” (four drops) of rain, but it never turned into the downpour that was happening back in Córdoba.

It was a long drive to Granada; the bus left at 7:00am from Córdoba and picked up two people along the way, and then of course we had to stop for breakfast. The Spanish do know how to enjoy a hiking expedition. By the time all was said and done, it was 10:30 before we were on the trail.

The Llega Como Puedas hikes always have at least two leaders (ruteros), one of whom usually leads, and the other who usually brings up the rear. Whenever we get to a decision point, we follow the very Spanish custom of a general discussion about the proper route. Sometimes the ruteros disagree, and split up. This can be a bit disconcerting; you have to make a decision about which one to follow. So far, they’ve always connected back up at some point.

Los Alayos del Dílar are in the Sierra Nevada (literally, “snowy mountain range”) just south of Granada. Happily, we didn’t get up into the snow, although we could see the white-covered peaks. In the course of the day, we crossed the shallow Río Dílar twice. Both times, I took off my shoes and waded barefoot, so that I wouldn’t have wet feet all day. It was a steep, rocky hike to el Castillejo, the peak. For me, the descent of these steep slopes is more difficult than the ascent. I made good use of my walking poles, which I suspect saved me from more than one nasty spill. From the top, there was a magnificent view of the Granada area. One of the compañeros told me that we could see the Alhambra, although it was so far away that I couldn’t see it clearly.

The hikes that I’ve done in Spain have involved a lot more cross-country trekking than I’ve done in Oregon or California. It was a lovely day from beginning to end.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Semana Santa

It is Semana Santa and all of Spain is celebrating…

The Virgin Mary’s of Spain are perfectly happy to spend 51 weeks a year meditating in their chapels... but one week each year, the ladies like to really do the town, so they go out escorted through the town on the shoulders of forty lusty men! This is truly a site to see…nothing you could ever imagine seeing in America. Semana Santa is born of a nation steeped in Catholicism for over 500 years, or in the case of Córdoba, over 700 years. The Spanish proclaim to the world… Let there be no doubt that something miraculous occurred 2000 years ago!

You can see the pictures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/SemanaSanta#

The celebrations began late last week. We took an evening stroll, as is the custom in Spain, down to see San Lorenzo church. The church has been closed for restoration and just recently reopened. When we arrived at the church, we were surprised to find a large crowd of people waiting… then from out of the church, the procession began. First church elders and then incense and banner bearers solemnly emerged. Then an enormous, larger than life, crucifixion born on the shoulders of about thirty men descended from the church amid cheering and applause. We followed as the procession proceeded through the narrow streets. Later as we walked toward home we passed other processions. One was particularly sweet, consisting of young children bearing candles, some taller than they were. This was our first taste of the festivities, and it assured us that Semana Santa was going to be seriously cool. Sevilla, Málaga and Cádiz are generally regarded to have the most spectacular celebrations. However, the Córdoba Semana Santa is said to be one of the most “preciosa”, and hordes of tourists flood into the city to view the processions.

Last Sunday was the official start of the celebrations with six processions wandering their way along different paths through Córdoba. Every night since, there have been five or six different processions each night, each one a little different, each one following a different route through the city. The processions are quite elaborate, consisting of hundreds of people dressed in KKK-like outfits, some white, others black, purple, green, red... my first thought when I saw them was UGGHHH! Some processions are joyful, others are solemn. Generally, there is a life size depiction of El Señor, in one of the Stations of the Cross, illustrating Jesus´ final days. And so the story is told: Jesus enters Bethlehem on a donkey, He shares the Last Supper with the disciples, He prays in Gethsemane, He is betrayed and arrested, He is condemned by Pontius Pilate, He makes His final walk to Calvary, He dies on the cross, as well as others scenes from His final days…

These are powerful scenes displayed on huge float-like platforms, rocking from side to side as they go, carried by as many forty men. Lifting the platform is a production:

video

Scott did the math after a discussion with a priest. The largest platforms weigh over 2,600 pounds, well over a ton! It is huge honor to be selected to carry El Señor or La Virgen. José, a friend from Montilla, was selected to carry El Señor on Friday, and La Virgen on Sunday through his pueblo, Aguilar de la Frontera. He was bursting with pride as he told me; in España, this is a very big deal. After experiencing some of these processions, I understand. They are awe inspiring.

El Señor is followed by a band and various Catholic banners, crowns of thorns, and other relics. Then La Virgen makes her appearance, again carried on the backs of forty men, followed by her own band and honor guard. All of this paraded through the tiny streets and crushes of people. Children run up to the marchers to catch the wax dripping from the candles on balls of aluminum foil, creating the proverbial ball of wax as a keepsake. From the American perspective, when I describe Semana Santa, it doesn´t sound like such a big deal. But the experience is nothing short of amazing.

During these processions, we’ve been having to put certain heavy-crowd techniques into practice. When you get a large number of people into a constricted space, they get rude. You have to guard your personal space, but not in a way that you’re overtly rude, regardless of what other people do. You make yourself large; plant your feet far apart, stick your elbows out, and don’t give way if people push at you. If you give up space, you will not get it back. Some of those little old Spanish ladies get quite aggressive; they push themselves into a space that’s not large enough for one person, and then invite their friends in to join them.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Castillo Almodóvar

We’re into Semana Santa (Holy Week), so Scott has the week off work (although Tonya’s working a lot at the glass studio in Montilla). In addition to all of the Semana Santa processions, this creates opportunities to see some of the things we’ve never visited around Córdoba. Our good friend Lola offered to drive us out to Castillo Almodóvar, a very well-preserved castle out west of Córdoba along the old road to Sevilla. You can see the pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/CastilloAlmodovar#

The Castillo Almodóvar is on a hill overlooking the picturesque pueblo of Almodóvar del Río, and offers a commanding view of this part of the Guadalquivir valley. The name comes from the Arabic al-Mudawwar, which means “the round”, referring to the round shape of the hill. There have been fortresses on this hill since Iberian (pre-Roman) times. It went through many reconstructions, by the Romans, then the Arabs, and later the Spaniards following the Reconquista. The castle was considered unconquerable, and was never taken by siege; as a matter of fact it held out for three years following the reconquista of Córdoba around AD 1240, and was finally ceded to the Spaniards as a part of the peace treaty.

When we use the term “well-preserved” for a medieval structure, it means that it’s been restored. The fact is that buildings don’t stand for hundreds of years without some sort of maintenance. After Fernando and Ysabel took Granada and unified Spain, the castillo lost its strategic importance as a strongpoint against the Muslims. In the 1600’s, it was sold to the Corral family. The conde de Torralva, one of the heirs of the family, undertook the restoration of the castillo in the early 1900’s. The reconstruction was performed with great attention to maintaining the appearance of the medieval castillo, and the result is one of the best-preserved fortresses in Europe.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Roma

The original idea of the tour of Italy was to hit the high points, then come back for more leisurely visits. So far, the strategy has been working well. When we were in Roma the first time, we were dashing all about, and didn't have time to look around as much as we'd have liked. So we headed out for a long weekend. Ah, Roma! The weather gods smiled on us again, and despite forecasts of rain, we enjoyed three gloriously clear and temperate days. Enjoy lots more pictures at

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Roma#

We've certainly become adventurous with our travels. When we first came to Europe, we were in the habit of just taking a taxi to our hotel when we arrived at the train station or the airport. It costs more, but it's certainly safer. This time, we took the express train from the airport to the Termini station (arriving around midnight), and then set out with our luggage on our backs to find the hotel. No problems at all. Now, others are still more adventurous. We were talking to a Welsh lady and her daughter on the train. They had boarded without knowing where the train went, and without buying tickets! The lady said, "Oh, it will get us closer to the center of town, and then we'll take a cab." Wow. I don't know if I ever want to get quite that casual.

On the first visit, we'd seen the Vatican and the Colisseum and the Pantheon, which I'd normally consider to be the biggest tourist draws. This time, we began by strolling about the Palatine Hill (which has some ruins, but frankly wasn't that interesting). The Forum more than made up for it. It was interesting to look about and think that this was the center of Western civilization for many hundreds of years. The next stop was the Museo Borghese (in the old Borghese Villa), with its wonderful artwork. Sadly, we couldn't take pictures there. The most notable item was the statue of Apollo chasing Daphne, showing the moment when she was turning into a laurel tree (see the picture at http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/edafne.htm). Next was the statue of David. This is not Michelangelo's David, which we saw in Florence...this is another statue showing David putting the stone into the sling, and looking as if he's about to explode into furious motion (see the picture at http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/edavid.htm).

We visited the small Etruscan museum not far from the Museo Borghese. It’s easy to forget that the Romans were not the only culture on the Italian peninsula; it took them centuries of hard fighting to take control of Italy, let alone the full empire. Etruscans, Samnites, Sabines….many tribes were forcibly incorporated into the Roman Republic. What’s interesting is that they had their own artistic styles, recognizably not Roman or Greek or Egyptian, though showing some of their influences.

The Welsh lady we'd met on the train was one of a small army of Welsh rugby fans who were coming to Rome for the big game with Italy. When we were looking for a restaurant to eat dinner, we saw a parade of red-shirted fans walking down toward Piazza del Populo. (This made me a bit worried that we'd have trouble getting into a restaurant, but we didn't have any troubles.) They gleefully told us that their team had won. Go Wales!

The next day, we took Metro and bus down south of town to the Via Appia Antica (the Appian Way). This is one of the oldest, and probably the most famous, of the celebrated Roman roads. As a historical note, this was also where the followers of Spartacus were crucified after they'd been defeated....all 6,600 of them, on crosses lining the Appian Way from Roma to Brindisi. Brr. We strolled down the road, seeing various sites including an excavated bathhouse, the tomb of the Metellus family (they were another powerful family in the latter days of the Roman Republic, although they were overshadowed by those darned Caesars), and the Circus of Maxentius (in the old days, Roman politicians would buy the love of the population by putting on big entertainment extravaganzas...for some of these, they created permanent structures that lasted for hundreds of years).

The most interesting thing along the Appian Way was the Catacombs of San Callisto. In the early days of Christianity in the Roman Empire, they had to keep kind of a low profile. The catacombs started as a hidden burial area. As the centuries went by, they kept digging further and further down. The result is a tangled web of corridors, some barely wide enough to walk through, with niches for the burials along the walls. Depending on the wealth of the family of the defunct, some "niches" were more elaborate than others. Some of the early Popes were buried here, when they were just known as the Bishops of Rome, and didn't presume to be the leaders of all Christendom.

One of the special joys of Roma is the churches. Every church you enter is likely to have some unexpected treat. The ones which particularly stick in my mind are the Basilica of San Giovanni and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. In any other town, these would have been the main attraction, with people coming from miles around to see them. In Roma, they're just another church.

We had bought Roma Passes, which include free entry to the first two attractions, reduced price on many others, as well as Metro and bus transportation. The passes had paid for themselves by the end of the first day. Highly recommended if you plan to visit Rome!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Greece

The latest adventure was a five-day trip to Greece. I’m afraid that we went a bit crazy with the camera again, so there are lots of pictures! You can see them at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Greece_Mycenae_Delphi#

and

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Greece_Meteora_Athens#

Greece has a lot of history, but its recent history seems to have shaped the modern country more than its ancient history. In broad terms, it was something like this:

- Pre-Classical Greece: before about 800 B.C.

- Classical Greece (including the time of Alexander the Great’s empire): 800 B.C. to 150 B.C.

- Roman Greece: 150 B.C. to A.D. 500

- Byzantine Empire: 500 to 1450

- Turkish occupation: 1450 to 1825

- Modern Greece: after 1825

We’re rapidly losing all fear of driving in foreign countries. Last year we drove all around the French countryside without incident, but in Greece, they don’t even use the same alphabet! How do you react to a sign which says AθHNA? Or worse yet, Kóρινθος? (The first is Athens, and the second is Corinth. ) Given a few minutes, you can puzzle it out. Unfortunately, if you’re barreling down the highway at 120 km/hr, you don’t have that few minutes. Luckily, most of the signs along the highway have English lettering as well as Greek. If there’s a road sign which only has Greek lettering, an American tourist probably has no business going there. Even that isn’t a complete solution; Athens is written as Athina, and Corinth is Korinthos. The worst part was driving in the city of Athens. Once we got off the freeway, all of the signs seemed to have only Greek lettering. It’s difficult driving in any large city, but this adds to the difficulties. With me navigating and Tonya driving, we were finally able to find our hotel.

When we think of Greece, we think of warm Mediterranean weather. But not at this time of year! We brought along our heavy jackets, and we’re glad we did. There was lots of snow on the mountains around Delphi, which had us worried about going further north to Meteora, but we didn’t have any trouble. The first days were the coldest; it was under 40⁰F at Mycenae, with a merciless wind.

Mycenae is one of the oldest sites in Greece. The city had its heyday around 1,700 B.C. , and the foundations date back to 3,000 B.C. Most of the heroes of the Greek legends (Perseus, Theseus, Agamemnon, Achilles, etc.) were Mycenaean. This civilization pre-dated classical Greece (that is, the Greece of Socrates and Plato and Pericles) by about 1,000 years; it was eventually destroyed and replaced by the invading Dorians. It gives you a different perspective on time! The Mycenaeans spoke a very early form of the Greek language, but they used a writing style called Linear B which looks nothing like the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, delta,…).

The drive to Delphi was lovely, describing a long oval around the Gulf of Corinth. I imagine that the beaches are packed with people in the summer, but in February, they were pretty deserted. Delphi is hanging from a mountainside overlooking a valley heading down to the gulf. It had landscapes somehow reminiscent of Yosemite, even though it didn’t look at all the same. With Delphi, as with Athens later, we were looking at a site which had been continuously occupied for a very long time. It was originally built around the famous Oracle of Delphi, located in the Temple of Apollo. There were early classical Greek ruins, sometimes overlaid by the later Roman additions. The Romans were great admirers of Greek culture, but that didn’t prevent them from despoiling Greek cities and building their own over the ruins.

Meteora is the site of a number of monasteries built on top of steep rock spires. The first one was begun in the 1300’s. According to legend, the monk who founded the first monastery had achieved such a state of spiritual perfection that he flew to the top of the rock spire. I don’t know what they did during the 400 years of Turkish (Muslim) occupation, but the displays there indicated that the monasteries were thriving in the mid-1500’s. Still, the Greek Orthodox church seems to have missed out on the Renaissance. The interiors of the church were decorated with gleefully grisly depictions of the deaths of the martyrs…and with the Turkish occupation, many of the Greek martyrs were a lot more recent than the Roman Catholic martyrs! There were also good paintings of the scales of judgement, showing damned souls being cast down into the mouth of the Beast.

Despite being such a large city, Athens was a wonderful place to visit. Our hotel was about two blocks from the Acropolis, and the very efficient Metro system allowed us to wander all over the city. Many of the Metro stations have very interesting archaeological displays. Since you can’t dig anywhere in Athens without finding the ruins of something, they incorporated the finds into the displays. Fascinating! The National Archaeological Museum has statuary from pre-classical times all the way to Roman Greece.

Recommendations for Greek travel:

- We rented our car from Swift Car Rentals. They delivered our car to us at the airport (no waiting in line at a rental car counter), and later picked up the car from our hotel in Athens. Very convenient!

- In Meteora, we stayed at the Pension Arsenis, enjoying the warm hospitality of the Arsenis family. Good food, nice views, comfortable room, reasonable prices.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carnevale in Venezia

Our weekend to the Venezia Carnevale began on the wrong foot. First, amid the confusion of exiting the train in Madrid, I walked off without my jacket and pashima. February in Venice without a jacket is not a good idea. Temperatures were expected to be in the low forties with the possibility of snow and rain. We have already experienced Venice in freezing weather, so heading off without a jacket seemed imprudent. Luckily, there was an El Corte Ingles (Spain’s answer to the department store) near the metro stop and I was able to buy an adequate replacement, so we were off to the airport. We arrived at the airport 1 ½ hours before our flight, which is where we met our next obstacle. Iberia Airlines informed us that they had oversold the flight, and that even though we had purchased our tickets months prior, we did not have seats. GRRRRR! This should be illegal! But we held our cool, and waited patiently (and not so patiently) as the Venice flight was delayed and then delayed again. Fortunately, we were at the front of the line, and Scott was able to sweet talk us seats on the plane and we were off to Venezia! See our pictures at: http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Venezia_Carnival#

In Venice, the clerk at the Alilaguna counter informed us that the next boat to Venezia left in 5 minutes and that there was absolutely no way we could possibly make the boat as it was a long, cold walk from the airport. She suggested that we wait inside and catch the next boat, an hour later. “Alilaguna boats…” she proclaimed “are never late. This is not possible.” Scott and I looked at each other, it was very late. We decided to go for it. Sure enough, as the dock came into view, the boat pulled away. “Missed it by that much...” But the clerk at the dock told us another boat would be leaving in 20 minutes.

We arrived on the island of Venezia, just after midnight, fully expecting to find the island in full celebration, as we tried to muscle our suitcases across the island to our hotel. After all, this was Friday night in the middle of Carnevale. We exited the boat at the Rialto Bridge, and were met by dark, oddly quiet streets. Here and there, we saw confetti strewn on the ground, evidence of an earlier revel, but with the exception of a scant few people, the streets were deserted. We were puzzled. Most tour guide books suggest that the best way to navigate Venezia is to find the nearest landmark to your destination and follow the directional signs posted on the buildings toward that landmark. Our hotel was near Piazza San Marco, so we found the nearest directional sign for San Marco and began our trek across the island. For the most part following the directional signs work. The signs will get you to your destination… eventually, but the signs may not take the most direct route. In our case, in the wee hours of the morning, I am certain that we must have walked around in circles, several times. The signs pointed us down dark, sinister looking streets that I would not even consider walking down in Portland, let alone L.A. Some of the deserted streets and narrow alleys of Venice are just a tad unsettling in the middle of the night, while others are romantically beautiful. Eventually, we found our hotel, the Antico Panada. Actually, we walked past it while still looking for the Piazza. We checked in, and walked over to the Piazza. It just seemed wrong not to go to the Piazza, and besides, we were wondering where the legendary Carnevale celebrations were. But Piazza San Marco was largely empty, the stores locked up tight. (We will probably never see the Piazza this empty again.)

The next morning we decided (okay – I decided) that we should go to Murano. On one hand, I hated to leave Venezia, because we had come to experience the Carnevale, but none of the festivities were scheduled until later in the afternoon. Murano, for me, was a dream, so off we went. The Murano atmosphere simply breathes glass art. Glass has been its life blood since well before the 9th century. It is said that the early artisans were actually forbidden to leave the island to protect the Murano glass secrets from the outside world. Now that’s one way to protect your intellectual property! We stopped for a couple of glass blowing demos, which were mostly show, but will fascinate anyone who has not seen a true master at work. Nothing is cooler than hot glass! I had hoped to see some of the factories, but it was Saturday and they were closed. Still, Murano was beyond fabulous, and the artist in me drank in the flavor.

From Murano, we hopped a vaporetto to Burano. Burano is a sleepy little island filled with colorfully painted houses and a history for making lace that dates back to the 15th century. We turned off the main street and found an unhurried world, devoid of the crowds, where people appeared to go about their day, in much the same way as their grandparents and great-grandparents centuries before. We had a delightful time wandering through the mostly uncrowded streets. We stopped to watch a couple of craftswomen making lace. And stared out toward the lagoon, watching a fisherman untie and hang his nets to dry. It was a thoroughly lovely afternoon and respite, before returning to Venezia and the enthusiastic party in the streets that is Carnevale.

Ahhh, how does one describe Carnevale in Venezia? If you truly wish to discover Venezia, in all its medieval charm, Carnevale is the time to visit. The air of frivolity is infectious as all of Venezia takes to the street in costumes and masks for a grand celebration of an era gone by. The party was in full swing when we arrived in Piazza San Marco. Entertainments had been scheduled on the grand stage, which included a costume parade, improvisations and performances, clown bands and dancers, The Heliosphere - a trapeze artist suspended from a hot air balloon, who performed a ballet overhead, The Teatro Pavana - a group of actors on stilts, portraying giraffes, circulated through the crowd. This was a feast for people watching. Some of the revelers donned masks, while others were in full 16th or 17th century dress. Still others were costumed as fairytale or movie characters… Little Red Riding Hood, Alice (from Wonderland), Goldilocks, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader and Storm Troopers marched a very regal Princess Leah about the Piazza, acting out their roles. The Ghost Busters made their own debut, spraying the crowd with confetti as they raced about after phantom ghosts. Spontaneous Congo lines and human chains formed and wove their way among the revelers. One of the most entertaining bands was called Companía Teatro Calzo, which they translated for me as the Band “Without Shoes”. The Barefoot Band dressed in brightly colored uniforms and head pieces and played rowdy music as they led their followers on a wild dash through the crowd. When the festivities on the stage were over, the party continued on for only a short time. Venice has been a tourist destination for well over 400 years, and has developed closing the city down to a fine art form. It was amazing to watch just how quickly the shops and restaurants around the Piazza and around the city could close up shop. It explained why the streets had been so empty the night before.

Sunday was time for a museum, so we took the vaporetto down the Grand Canal to the Cá Rezzonico. The museum itself is really nothing special. It was interesting to see the inside of an 18th century palazzo. Two pieces in the museum were worth the admission price. The Dama Velata (Puritas) by Antonio Corradini is simply an amazing sculpture. (Sorry not photos were allowed inside the museum, but you can see a picture of it here: http://www.museiciviciveneziani.it/frame.asp?id=2720&musid=7. Yes, that is all sculpture; there is not a veil over the statue.) The museum also had a fine collection of Murano glass, including a magnificent 17th century Murano Chandelier which consists of a garden of multicolored flowers and lights. One of the few remaining intact pieces from this era.

Next we joined to the mob at Piazza San Marco and the cathedral. I like to think that all cathedrals are built as monuments to God. I realize, of course, that most cathedrals were built by Bishops who wanted to demonstrate their power and authority. However, there is no way that one can visit San Marcos Cathedral and not believe that it was built to be anything other than a demonstration to the world of Venetian wealth and power. History attests to this… In about 900 A.D., the Doges of Venezia decided that they needed a relic, so they stole the bones of Saint Mark from Egypt and brought them home to Venezia. With the bones, the winged lion became the symbol of Venezia. A cathedral was built to house the bones, but it was burned by an angry mob in the late 900 A.D. The current structure was finished about 1093 A.D. and houses the booty pillaged from wars in Turkey and Constantinople. The interior glitters with golden mosaics and intricately carved marble pillars. The original 4 horses are believed to be originally from the 1st or 2nd century A. D., but no one is sure where exactly they were made. Copies of these horses now adorn the cathedral façade. The originals are on display in the Cathedral Museum and are well worth the line and admission price. Plus, the admission price to the museum allows you to access the terrazzo which overlooks Piazza San Marcos. The view of the Piazza from the terrazzo was mesmerizing. It was fascinating to watch the eddies and flows of the crowd from above. It was not unlike watching a tide, and we marveled at how packed the piazza had become, even when compared with the night before.

We decided that mingling with the crowd did not appeal to us, so we set off to explore the rest of Venezia. We chose the Jewish Ghetto as our destination. Scott, navigator extraordinaire, consulted the map and determined the best route. And then we discovered Venetian crowd control. Carnevale had taken over the island and the police were out in force to move the crowd. The officers decided which way they were going to route the crowd and it did not matter if that was your destination or not… Everyone goes that way. It is a stampede of cattle philosophy, best avoided whenever possible because once you have been herded into one of these controlled mobs, it is difficult to get out, and the mob never moves fast. Scott, the grand negotiator that he is, managed to talk our way around several of these controlled mobs and we traversed the island in short order.

In the early 16th century, Venezia segregated its Jewish population and formed one of the first Jewish Ghettos. The name “ghetto” comes from the Italian word for copper, this part of the island was known for its copper foundries. It is an interesting contrast between the lavish palazzos of uptown Venezia and the densely populated world of the ghetto, whose buildings lack much of the embellishment found throughout the rest of Venice. Venezia still has a thriving Jewish community with three active Synagogues. We would have loved to see the inside of them, but tours are only given through the museum, which was closed. (I suppose we must leave something for the next trip.)

And so we wandered back through the party toward our hotel. Along the way we met up with the Barefoot Band and stopped to join in the fun. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend.

On a side note… We stopped by lost and found at the Renfe office in Madrid on our way home and found my forgotten jacket. Alas, the pashima from Pisa was not with it. Still, more luck than we had any right to expect… Tomorrow, we leave for Greece, and the cradle of civilization… and Greece is forecasting SNOW!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Romería

In Spain, there is a long tradition of romerías. "Romería" refers to the processions which carry sacred images from one pueblo to another (yes, you've seen them in the movies). There are romerías all over Spain, with lots of history, although nowadays they seem mostly to be an excuse to have a picnic out in the country. The word derives from Roma, referring to pilgrims walking to Rome. However, the word is also close to "romero", which means rosemary. Therefore, it's common to see people with sprigs of wild rosemary in their buttonholes.
On Sunday, we joined a group of friends at the Romería of Pozoblanco. You can see the pictures at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/tohjnya1/Romeria#

and in the Diario Córdoba:

http://www.diariocordoba.com/noticias/noticia.asp?pkid=463763

In this semi-annual romería, the image of La Virgen de Luna is carried from the pueblo of Villanueva de Córdoba to the pueblo of Pozoblanco, a distance of about twenty miles. We heard various stories about how the image came to be shared between the two villages; I don’t know if any of them are true, but they’re good stories. A shepherd found the image in the 1300’s, and the Santuario was built to house it. (The image may date from Visigothic times. One theory is that it was hidden from the invading Moors, and the shepherd found it after the Reconquista. When you look at the pictures, you might be skeptical that the image dates from before A.D. 800. With good reason. During the Middle Ages, creation of religious figures with associated legends was a big business. Pilgrimage sites brought in lots of visitors and the associated trade.) The pueblo of Pozoblanco didn’t yet exist at that time. The image was carried to Villanueva de Córdoba for the big festivals for many years, during which Pozoblanco came to be. One year, due to excessive rains and flooding, the people of Villanueva de Córdoba weren’t able to make it to the Santuario to get the image. According to the people of Pozoblanco, this meant they’d lost their right to the image, and so they brought it back to their own pueblo. There were some skirmishes fought over it (hence the symbolic weapons carried during the romería). Finally the pueblos reached an agreement to share the image, resulting in the opportunity to go out to the country for a picnic twice a year.

It was about an hour's drive to get there from Córdoba. Pedro, one of our group, is a proud son of Pozoblanco, and insisted on giving us a tour of the pueblo before we continued out into the countryside. We saw the original Pozo Blanco (white well) from which the pueblo takes its name. In the old days, roosters would...roost?...on the well, which was therefore covered with excrement, giving it the characteristic white color. My mind reels with "chickenshit" jokes, but I'll resist the temptation.

We drove out of town into the countryside, which is a landscape known as "dehesa." In ancient times, it was oak forest with heavy underbrush. Several millennia of human occupation have left the forest thinned considerably, but not clear-cut. This leaves clearance for individual trees to grow much larger, with grassland ideal for grazing pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. One of the guys in the group explained to us (with no small pride) that this was an early example of sustainable land use.

We saw more and more people walking along the road, some on horseback, as we approached El Santuario de la Virgen de Luna, the church at the halfway point between the two pueblos. All around the church were hundreds of families with their picnic lunches. We got ourselves situated and munched a bit before walking over to the church. La Virgen had been walked from Villanueva de Córdoba in the morning, and would arrive in Pozoblanco in the evening; she spent the siesta in El Santuario. We guaranteed our good luck for the year by ringing the church bell.
La Virgen was carried out of the church around 3:30, escorted by black-uniformed men of the Cofradía (a sort of lay brotherhood). They were armed with (fake) halberds and shotguns (loaded with blanks). All of this happened to the sound of the church bell ringing and the guns firing randomly and the crowd cheering. It was quite a sight.

We all enjoyed a drink at one of the outside stands before going back to our picnic site. Eventually, everything got packed up; nothing happens in a rush in Spain. We all drove back into Pozoblanco to buy some "hornazos", traditional sweets made for the romería. It was a very nice end to a very nice day. We participated in a very Spanish tradition, something that we’d never get to see in a normal vacation.