Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Santiago--a tribute

          As I mentioned in my last post, my son was born on July 24th. It was late afternoon when I finally “gave to light” as they say in Spanish, which is really quite a beautiful, metaphorical way to put it, but because of how late it was, and how tired I was,  the first real meal I had in the hospital was on the morning of July 25th—and what a meal it was! It was a meal fit for a king: several types of sweet breads, thick Spanish hot chocolate, fruit, cheese, ham…it was more like a feast than anything I would have imagined eating in a hospital. When I saw the bounteous tray laid before me, I looked over at the friendly woman in the other bed in my room, who had given birth to preemies a few weeks earlier and was recovering from her C-section, and she said, “Now don’t get used to it. It’s not like this every day.”
          I must have shaken my head in question, even though I had already been living in Spain for five years and should have known what she was talking about. But I was (understandably) still groggy, still overwhelmed and awed by the tiny creature sleeping in a little drawer by my bedside, and she was kind and patient and knew that I was a foreigner, so she elaborated, “It’s Spain’s birthday! It’s Santiago, the patron saint of Spain.” And then it clicked! July 25th is one of the largest holidays of the year, outside of Christmas and Easter. It’s a day of festivities, with lots of dancing and parades.  Of all days to be in a hospital, when the rest of the country was celebrating!
         A very long time ago, some time in the ninth century CE, the remains of Santiago, (St. James, in English,) are said to have been brought from France, following the starry path of the Milky Way, which is also known as the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, to be buried in the city of Santiago de Compostela. This city is now the capital of the province of Galicia, in the northwestern corner of the country, just above Portugal, and the gorgeous old part downtown is actually a UNESCO world heritage site.
        I first went to this mystical city in 1987 and can still clearly remember its impressive cathedral, with its steps, nearly 1000 years old, worn in grooves where pilgrims had flocked over them, often on their hands and knees, paying homage. Inside the cavernous walls of this holy place, a myriad of statues and carvings, many of them seemingly not very religious and certainly quirky and remarkable, grace the walls and impossibly tall columns. The rest of the city was also fascinating and humbling to roam: so much history, so much stone, so much passion, devotion and love.
        All year long, but especially in the summer, people of all ages, ranging from devout to aficionados, and coming from all over the world, make the trek westward across northern Spain, following the Camino de Santiago to end up in Santiago de Compostela. And as you probably can guess by now, July 25th, is especially important here, where there is a HUGE celebration, drawing in thousands of people.
        It was on the eve of this major national holiday, and just outside this enchanting city that is so emblematic, that tragedy struck last week.  I’ve refrained from looking at the graphic and gruesome images that are circulating after the terrible train crash, preferring instead to cast my mind back to the times I’ve visited and admired Santiago.  My deepest sympathy, most heart-felt thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims of last week’s unfortunate accident.
I took this picture of my husband, in front of the entrance to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It was on our honeymoon, ten years ago.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A good life

     “Isn’t life better here than anywhere else in the world?”
        I was frequently asked this question when I first moved to Spain in the mid 1980’s, often by older folks, parents of my fellow graduate students. Having been raised in the U.S., proudly saying the pledge of allegiance to my flag every day, and so thankful to have been born in the best country in the world, it was jarring to hear this rhetorical question about a different land.
        Wait a minute, I wanted to say, we’re in Spain. America is the best place in the world. Doesn’t everyone know that? But I would hold my peace and nod insincerely; sure, it’s a great place, yeah. The haughty American in me knew better—these poor people just didn’t understand how unfortunate they were not to have been born and raised in the US of A.
        Then I got some good scholarships , decided to stay in Spain indefinitely and a strange thing happened: I was immersed in their culture, their food, their heritage, their language, their landscapes…and something in me began to shift. I began to question the foundation of what I’d been taught from infancy, and found that, hey, people who had never set foot in America led happy, comfortable, meaningful and fulfilling lives. They lacked nothing from having never been Americans. It was astounding to me.  
          And slowly I too became Spanishified. It helped that I had black hair, (I was frequently asked if I was sure that I was American—weren’t they all blond?) and although I was darker complected than most Spaniards, I had learned to speak Spanish as a child and my accent was good. I had to work on acquiring the Castilian intonation, but being the only foreigner in the small city of León, I had an endless supply of eager teachers. I thought in Spanish, dreamt in Spanish,  became passionate about Spanish issues, and wrote and defended my dissertation in Spanish. Over the years the questions people asked about my home country changed from, “Where in Latin America were you raised?” to “What part of Spain do you call home?”
        Just as the main character in my novel, Harvey Jones, falls in love with northern Spain, so did I. I married a Spaniard from Bilbao and had a little boy, born in a Spanish hospital, twenty two years ago today. And then my world changed again: as a parent I did not want to deprive my son of being American, but neither did I want him to miss the opportunity of being Spanish. We decided to raise him bilingually, a true challenge when you are fluent in the host country language but are resolved to teach him your home country language. We lived in Spain until he turned 8 years old, and there were many times when it would have been so much easier to speak to him in Spanish, to avoid standing out as foreigners, and to not separate ourselves from family members who spoke no English, but I knew it was a slippery slope and that the only way to make sure my son would speak perfect American English was to speak it to him 100% of the time.
        Fast forward twenty two years and I now have a perfectly bilingual adult son who is proud of both of his heritages, and is comfortable on both sides of the ocean. And I can’t help but wonder if the world wouldn’t be a better place if everyone had the chance to become immersed in another culture and grow to realize how imperative it is for us all to see each other as fellow citizens of this small planet. The really huge issues like poverty, the global climate crisis, and pandemics will only be solved when we can all look each other in the eye and say, “Isn’t this the best world to live in?”

 Image: my son, sixteen years ago, by an old castle in Spain.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Spain is Different

           In the 1960’s, a young politician named Manuel Fraga, who would serve both during the dictatorship and later when the country became a democracy, only retiring in 2011, coined the phrase “Spain is Different.” It’s a phrase that was quoted to me over and over during the years I lived in Spain, whenever I would remark on the myriad of differences between our countries. To this day, when I stop to think of the differences, I still shake my head in wonder.
          Differences in money (the fact that the bills were all different colors and sizes), foods (another blog post will be about the first time I inadvertently ate octopus and bull testicles, good and ick, respectively), names (like one of the characters in my book, Pilar, which comes from “pillar” because it is said that a virgin once appeared on a pillar, or the name, Mar which means “sea” for another virginal appearance,) and clothing styles were not difficult to anticipate.
          But there are a ton of other more subtle differences that amused and surprised me: little things like the fact that when there is only one light switch in a room, the “down” position is “on”, or the fact that most bathrooms have the light outside the room, not inside. The Spanish strongly believe that if you lie down for nap after a meal, even if it very hot in the room, you MUST cover your belly with a blanket, and people of all ages, up into their 80's, love walking every day. Since everyone else is also walking, there are plenty of people to greet with the customary two kisses every time they meet. (I remember thinking I'd never kissed so many people in my life!) I also love to walk, and was baffled as I tried to make my way around town and couldn't find street signs. Then I learned that I should not look for them on metal poles on street corners, but rather up on the walls of the buildings, usually between the first floor and the second, which they call the ground floor and the first, and there I'd find the street name, often on a ceramic plaque.  Trees are kept cut very short, and while walking, I often looked down at the sidewalks, which are not boring cement, but rather tiled in different patterns in every city. And I always found it amusing to see shop keepers mopping the sidewalk outside their stores, though now I understand the logic.
          Other differences are that egg yolks are a very different shade of yellow, there is only one salad dressing (no one ever asks if you want dressing or which kind), milk is rarely ever bought fresh but rather in Tetra-Brik cartons that last for months unopened, however, bread MUST be bought daily, (it’s just a fact of life) and oranges are commonly peeled and eaten with a fork and knife—i.e. without ever touching them with your hands. Napkins are often little tissue paper squares, cereal is not a common breakfast food, and sandwiches made with crusty Spanish bread and chunks of chocolate are a typical snack for kids. Pumpkin pie is unheard of (a cute chapter in my book tells of the characters on a quest to find orange pumpkins!) though everyone who tasted it when I made it, loved it. Peanut butter, however, is looked on rather as we see marmite—as one of those exotic and not so pleasant foods that some foreigners eat. Oh, and ALL Spaniards, young and old, hate the taste of Dr. Pepper, which they say tastes like bitter almonds. How is it that everyone knows what bitter almonds taste like?
           Language expressions are a huge source of entertainment to me (yes, an author, amused by words, no stretch there). For instance, if you would say in English “It’s a good thing that…” in Spanish the phrase is “It’s a less bad thing that…” And I was surprised by the number of expressions using the word “milk”: for instance, a friend might say of someone who is in a bad mood, “What bad milk he has!” and a mother might scold a child, “If you do that again, I’ll give you a milk!”  (meaning a slap, not a treat!) Noses aren’t picked, but rather touched, and were you to walk into a room, say, a kitchen, and hear a Spaniard saying to someone, “Oh, the milk! Don’t touch my eggs!” you would know that he is very angry and it’s better not to mess with him.
          Church vocabulary is also commonly used in expressions, so if you’ve just finished the final version of a report, you might say, “This one goes to mass,” and rather than losing your train of thought, you say, “My saint went to heaven.” When you do a favor for a stranger, they always say “God will repay you for this.” And the most common forms of swearing involve things from mass, such as the host, as in “Host! I forgot I had to…” And of course the chalice is also employed in all sorts of creative ways.
           Another common swear phrase involves, well, taking a dump on things as in, “I poop on the ocean”, or, not surprisingly, “I poop on the milk” is a pretty strong one.
          But for all the differences in language, foods and customs, you can’t help but fall in love with Spain when you go there. I know I did! And so did the characters in my book, which I’m sure you will enjoy reading. As a matter of fact, as you read about the life there and enjoy the narrative, I bet you’ll soon be scheduling your trip to go see for yourself how “Spain is different!”

Picture credit:

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Una cerveza, por favor

     So, you’ve decided that it’s finally time to make the trek across the Atlantic, and Spain is part of your destination. Yay! You’re in for a real treat—you’re finally going to get to use your high school Spanish! Perhaps it’s a bit rusty, but you’ve polished a few choice phrases, and one that you are looking forward to saying with gusto is “Una cerveza, por favor.” You’ll walk into a bar, look the waiter in the eye, and order your beer, feeling quite proud. There is a reason why you suffered through those long, boring worksheets filled with endless verb conjugations. And all those flashcards with strange words like “biblioteca”, well, they are all going to be worth something now.
     Perhaps you’ve even done a bit more studying and realized that the Spanish  people in Spain (as opposed to the Latin American Spanish speakers) only use the liquid “s” sound for words that actually contain  an “s” like “” and “Señor”, and that words that have a soft “c” or “z”, like “cerveza” are pronounced with a “th” sound. Perhaps it doesn’t immediately roll off your tongue, but you practice “Una thervetha, por favor” until you are no longer spitting as you pronounce it.
       The magical day arrives, jet lag is still slowing you down, but you are excited to use your phrase. You leave your bags in the hotel and begin to wander the streets of, say, Madrid, Barcelona, or maybe Santander, (which you read about in a wonderful novel that’s just been published!) You are a bit surprised and intrigued that there are so many bars around, seemingly on every corner, but you are pleased, nonetheless, that you will have ample opportunities to practice. It’s a nice, warm day, and a cool beer is just what you want. You enter the closest bar, find the waiter behind the counter, and your request rolls quite naturally off your tongue.
     The guy drapes the white towel he’s been using to wipe the counter over his left shoulder, gives a nod and asks, “¿Corto ó caña?”
      Damn! That wasn’t in the lesson! But, let’s see here, let’s not panic, “corto” means…oh yeah, it means “short”. And “caña”, well, that’s more of a stretch, but you were looking at quite a bit of vocabulary and from somewhere in the depths of your subconscious you manage to remember that it means “cane.” Okay, short or cane. Short or cane? Cane what? Cane sugar? Cane liquor? The Brazilians have cane liquor in their caipirinhas, don’t they? (Where the heck did that come from?) Well, better not take a chance with the cane. Short whatever would be safer.
     “Corto,” you say, after too long of a pause.
     “Vale,” he answers, which by now, after dealing with all the other Spaniards you’ve met since you landed, you know means “okay.”
     He gets out a small, juice-sized glass and fills it about two thirds full of beer. You’re a bit disappointed, but before you can protest, he follows up with another question, “¿Alguna tapa?”
     Ah! That’s easy. Everyone knows “tapas” are the little appetizers they serve. A nice little something would go well with your two sips of beer. You now begin to suspect that “caña” didn’t mean “cane” after all, but rather had something to do with the size of the beer, especially since the dude next to you walked in and, skipping the una cerveza por favor part entirely, jumped right to “una caña, por favor” and he got a glass of beer easily twice the size of yours.  That’s also when you look back and see that the patient waiter is still looking at you, eyebrows raised in expectation.
     You sheepishly nod. At least it’s not India, where, your colleague at work told you, an up and down nod means “no.” How difficult would that be, always inadvertently nodding no when you meant yes?
     “Pues, tenemos boquerones, croquetas, patatas bravas, pulpo a la gallega…”
     Greek, you think, this man isn’t speaking Spanish, he must be speaking Greek! You remember looking at the chapter with all the names of Spanish foods before you got on the plane. Arroz. Pan. Leche. Cerveza. Jamon. Paella. Manzana.  The words he’s spouting were most definitely not in any of your books! You get a bit frazzled and then notice that, bless his heart, the kind man is actually pointing to nice little plates of tapas arranged neatly behind a glass cover. You point to a yellow shaped wedge—kind of like a piece of pie, but you know that it’s not a slice of pie. He nods again, takes it from the counter and heats it for a few seconds in the microwave, then places a tiny fork in the middle of the wedge, leaving it standing like a flagpole in the middle of the yellow triangle, and adds a thick slice of crusty Spanish bread next to it.
     You take a small bite, hoping for the best, and are pleasantly surprised—an omelet, made with potatoes. It’s really quite nice. You arm yourself with courage and ask, “¿Qué es?” hoping the waiter will figure out what you mean.
     “Tortilla española,” he says, smiling. What a nice guy. You polish it off, swallow the second (and last) gulp of beer in your tiny cup, pay the waiter and leave. Then you walk into the bar across the street, still thirsty but now armed with new knowledge.
     “Una caña y una tapa de tortilla española,” you say confidently, and smile a little too broadly as the waiter hands you a large glass of beer and a delicious, steaming hot, appetizer. Now you’re happy! Isn’t Spain is a great place?!

Photo used with permission from, a very cool Spanish blog about beer: You can also find them on FaceBook at Cervecearte.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Fiestas in Spain

         It’s July, and the summer months in Spain are a time of celebration. As the American characters in my book soon discover, Spain is a great place for fiestas, large city-wide parties, lasting from a few days to an entire week, held on or around the patron saint day of that particular city or pueblo (small town) across the country. If you happen to be travelling in Spain this summer, check out when the local fiestas are, and go watch the pueblo light up with music, dancing, special foods, bright decorations, parades and, often, bulls.
           One of questions I’m asked most frequently about the many years I lived in Spain is whether I ever made it to see a bull fight. No, I did not, and neither have most of my Spanish friends, however, every morning from July 1st to the 7th, the TV had to be on to watch the bulls running through the streets of Pamplona, in preparation for the week’s festivities. It’s an amazing site which takes place just after dawn, with large numbers of men, young and old, running through the streets, closely followed by the horned bovine mob. Yes, there are ambulances on the side streets, waiting to whisk anyone who is pierced in the leg (or, ouch, elsewhere) to a hospital. And, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that most of the people hurt every year are: a) drunk and b) foreigners. The secret to not getting hurt, a friend explained to me many years ago, is to not try to run for very long in front of the bulls; the Spaniards know that they should only run for just a few seconds, and then dodge out of the way, while the foreigners, predominantly British, Germans and Americans who have been up partying all night, try to run the entire track through the city in front of the cows, and thus, unfortunately, every year there are those who have more than just good memories to show for their fun times in Spain.
           But back to Pamplona: there is a song which every Spaniard learns as a small child, which I taught my students in Spanish class, and which is the theme song for one of Spain’s most famous fiestas: San Fermin . It’s a great way to learn the first seven months of the year and their corresponding numbers, and it commemorates the fact that the fiestas of Pamplona, are the first seven days of July. It goes:

Uno de enero, dos de febrero,
                                                   tres de marzo, cuatro de abril.
                                                                  cinco de mayo, seis de junio,
                                                                      siete de julio, San Fermin.

Bilbao, a larger city which some of my characters explore, lies hugging the coast, just east of Santander. Since most of its residents are on vacation in August, the city pretty much empties out, and it’s a wonderful time to be there, sipping a glass of Rioja wine at an outdoor terrace. But in mid-August the fiestas begin, and you can hear the drums beating, smell the lovely foods cooking and see the bright flags all over the city. I especially love to watch the regional Basque dancing which is centuries old and not at all related to the flamenco dancing that we usually attribute to Spain. The men, wearing white pants and a white shirt, a red sash across their waist, and a red scarf around their necks, perform complicated jumps while knocking long sticks together to the beat of the music. The women wear black, longish skirts and white shirts, and they often dance forming large circles which spin in one direction for a few steps, and then turn the other way, while the dancers hold their arms aloft and perform complicated patterns with their feet.
           So off you go, have fun at the fiestas and if you have too much to drink, please don’t try to run in front of the bulls!!
Link to You tube San Fermin song song:

Links to typical Basque dancing. First some women:  Then some men with small sticks  Followed by some nice dancing with arches