a wandering woman writes

Thursday, March 30, 2006

On the punctuality of cherry blossoms

Well, our trip to el Valle del Jerte to see the cherry blossoms turned into a wonderful trip to see cherry buds. Is this a case of late blossoms? Early Salmantinas? I can't say, but the pueblos of the valley celebrated the annual cherry blossom festival a few days before our excursion, sans blossoms.

The valley is breathtaking, long and deep with tier after tier of terrazas built into the hillsides, each hosting a line of cherry trees. Only at the bottom of the valley, close to Cabezuela del Jerte, have the cerezos begun to bloom, and even there, few trees are in full bloom. Still, it was a perfect, warm day, gorgeous enough to convince me that spring is here, despite the shy cerezos and the snow-covered Sierra de Bejar looming in the distance.

We stopped in a pueblicito (the name of which escapes me at the moment: Nomadita, please report to the comment box. Puerta?????) when my chauffer recognized the town name. And thus began the highlight of the trip for me! A dozen questions, 6 or 7 three point turns and 3 elderly locals later, we rang the bell on the house where the mother of one of Nomadita's childhood friends still lives. She insisted on making us coffee and giving me the motherly attention (Have another cookie, sweetheart! Girls, have another cookie!) I craved after a frustrating morning at work. (I'm quite fond of my mother, really I am. Still, every once in a while I do enjoy a good dose of Spanish mothering - the kind where she won't let you do a thing in the kitchen, and can imagine no greater happiness than watching you eat cookies!) I left the pueblo-to-be-named-later convinced that you can find anyone in a Spanish village, as long as you carry a couple of clues - one of the family's last names, a child's name, the father's profession.....

Back on the road, we drove through the valley to Cabezuela del Valle, where I was captivated by this simple 17th century church, built around the remains of the synagogue, at the entrance to Cabezuela's old Jewish quarter. The church is even more lovely inside, with unpretentious walls made of local stones, and the obligatory gold laden 17th century retablo.

I'm afraid our timing wasn't right for a food report, Alex, although we did see lots of signs (in shops that had yet to open for the afternoon, unfortunately) for vino de pitarra , the local homemade wine. I'd like to try it next trip.

Best of all, I quizzed myself on trees for hours. Chopo. Encina. Roble... Funny the things they don't teach you in language classes!


Madam, there's a tree on your roof

Ah, the universality of humor.

I remember telling Nomadita about my Dad months ago. I don't remember why, maybe we passed a car with a bike on it. Or a piece of furniture.

My father had a habit. Passing a car with a Christmas tree tied to the roof, or a bike on a roof rack, or skis, or with a huge board sticking out the window, he'd inevitably tell my brother and me:

Roll down your window, will you? And tell that lady she has a tree on her roof. Poor thing. Big tree, too.

Hey lady, there's a Christmas tree on your roof!! A TREE!! On your ROOF!

Yeh, I know, we'll hope it's not genetic.
I never knew whether to be mortified or amused. Mostly I just laughed as hard as I am this morning, alone in Salamanca with my cafe con leche.

So, back to universality.
What happened to Nomadita and me in tiny Cabezuela del Valle in Extremadura the other day, during our excursion to see the cherry blossoms?

Well, as we slowly and carefully pulled the car out of the last driveable street before Cabezuela turns into her narrow judería, an older man began to gesture at us. Vigorously. He said something we couldn't hear, then said it again, while continuing to gesture. I rolled down the window, he spoke, and Nomadita fell into a gleeful fit of Spanish laughter.

Took the americana a few minutes to get it. I was sure he was using some colloquial expression I didn't know. What did he want to tell us? What was wrong?

Picture a lovely white haired old man in a cap, smiling ear to ear, a sparkle in his eye:

¡Las ruedas! ¡Van dando vueltas! ¡Chicas, las ruedas van dando vueltas!

Rough translation:

Your wheels, girls!!!! They're turning!!!

Hey lady, your wheels are turning. In circles.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tall Week

If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
TS Eliot

End of a tall week.

But I'm off tomorrow, yes! I said OFF TOMORROW.
because now that I am ever so close to controlling all of my own days...I get to do that!

Everybody pray the rain stops before morning. Maybe I'll make to Las Dueñas for pictures for me and Casa Lis for pictures for John.

Happy Thursday from a cold rainy Salamanca.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Meanwhile, on Pillage Street

This is Calle Expolio.

Pillage Street.

You could also call it "the Salamanca street until recently known as Gibraltar".

Before you smile at the irony, I should tell you that the name change isn't Salamanca's way of protesting that Gibraltar is still in British hands, as it has been since the beginning of the 18th century.

I won't tell you much about the reason for the name change. I'm convinced it's one of those Spanish controversies I just don't know enough about Spanish history, or the Spanish constitution, or anything, to comment on. I've heard both sides, watched friends bang fists and raise voices about it, and finally come to the conclusion that nobody's really talking about Calle El Expolio when they talk about Calle El Expolio.

El Expolio, a lovely, thin little street, runs by the (national) Archive of the Spanish Civil War, housed in a elegantly restored building here in Salamanca, and then by Casa Lis, a turn of the century Modernist home now serving as a museum of Art Deco and Art Nouveau. Past Casa Lis, El Expolio leaves you no choice but to climb up toward the Old Cathedral and the city center through Patio Chico, a large, treelined patio where Salmantino celebrate events as different as the summer jazz festival and the Holy Week descent from the cross. Back at its beginnings, where you'll find the tile in my photo, El Expolio offers you a steep descent down to the Roman Bridge, and my door, or an equally steep ascent up to Plaza John XXIII and the New Cathedral. In short, El Expolio is a street with character.

To summarize months (or more?) of legal battles, Catalunya, one of Spain's automonous regions, fought to take the Civil War papers that originated in Catalunya and were taken after the War to Salamanca's Archive back to Catalunya, and won. Here's where I'll ask you not to worry about the context for the purposes of this post - a constitutional battle is waging in Spain, and Catalunya is central to it. So a political party, and much of the region where I live, particularly Salamanca's mayor, resisted the removal of the papers. Dramatically. Passionately. Fiercely.

As I understand it, trucks pulled up early one morning - or maybe it was late one night - and legally carried the disputed papers away.

With the battle lost and the papers gone, Salamanca's mayor made an executive decision. He changed the name on the street plaque posted on the wall of the Archive from Gibraltar to El Expolio. The Pillage. Pillage of historical papers, in his opinion, I gather.

Now on to the point of this post! Because I loved Calle Gibraltar, I was less than happy the day I dropped down from the Cathedrals toward home, only to meet El Expolio instead of Gibraltar. Struck me as an ugly name. Pillage.

A few weeks later, I've learned to always approach home via El Expolio.

Because now that the editorials have been written and the marches held, now that the newspaper photographers have all gone home, the once quiet corner of El Expolio and Tentenecio is a lively, first rate people-watching spot.

Confused foreign tourists wander aimlessly, turning their maps one way, then another, trying desperately to find Calle El Expolio. I have always met a lot of people close to this corner - as they asked me for directions - but now I'm cornered, daily. I climb down the hill every afternoon, bread in hand, clearly a local.

Still, it's the Spanish tourists I enjoy most. Those who arrive in small groups wait for the lost foreigners to clear out of the way, then snap two pictures: one of the entrance to the Archivo de la Guerra Civil, and the other of the street tile you see above. I love how the man of the family almost always catches my eye, just to see if I understand his interest, and when he finds that I do, I love how he grins ear to ear. Some shrug shoulders, in that Spanish "y eso, qué?" way. Others comment aloud to the Salmantina with the bread - "Es el famoso, ¿no? El famoso."

The busfuls of Spanish tourists who hike up Tentenecio behind their tour guides now fill the narrow stone canyon with laughter and voices and controversy. "Pillage of whom, by whom?!?" commented one man in a group I stepped aside for the other day. He was immediately taken to task by a tall man in a leather coat, and I listened to them battle their way up toward the Cathedral. Another woman tried to wave me by, courteously, but I waited, delighted, while her husband took his two photos. "I already have my photo," I told him, as he struggled to capture the new street tile. They both grinned.

I do have to add a travel comment: Both Casa Lis and the Archive are well worth a visit, should you find yourself in Salamanca. I haven't seen many of the photo snapping Spanish tourists actually enter the Archive, but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. The permanent exhibit is riveting, and easy to follow, and when I visited, they were offering a spectacular temporary exhibit of Robert Capa photos and articles.


Monday, March 20, 2006


I lost my favorite uncle today.

I always called him my favorite uncle. Married to one of my father's sisters, a child of Portuguese immigrants. My dad told me he'd had a tough time of it when he first starting dating my Irish American aunt. Back then you lived on a block where every neighbor had a last name just like yours, til you grew up and married one of them. His siblings built houses on his parents' land when they married, not an uncommon occurrence in my home state. My uncle moved 5 towns away with my aunt.

My uncle was handsome. Dark and swarthy, where my other uncles were red-faced and blue eyed. He didn't do the Irish jig at parties or tell jokes. He painted delicate landscapes on empty madeira wine bottles, the short stocky ones. He did odd jobs, painted and landscaped. Best cook in the family. Linguica and peppers, mostly, and the best meat sauce for hot weiners (spicy little hot dogs) you ever tasted.

I was a fixture at his kitchen table for a couple of years in high school. I can't hear Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight without thinking of the drive home from his house the night before I left for college, drumming the steering wheel, singing at the top of my lungs. As if saying goodbye at that house settled it: I was going.

Somewhere along the line we picked each other out. Maybe we both felt a little like outsiders, who knows. Maybe there was a wandering soul hidden in my uncle. I'd fly home for a holiday, seek him out at the family gathering and recap all my latest adventures. I sent a few letters and postcards after I moved to Spain, and my aunt always wrote back. He was ill, she'd say, but I'd made his day.

Not 10 days ago, my Salmantina travelling companions chuckled watching me leap for joy as we chose Lisbon for our next destination. What might I find to send to my Uncle Tony, I wondered? Wouldn't he love to picture me in Lisbon?

So I'm left thinking about an email I read a few weeks ago: an email from a blog reader who longs to live abroad. I grinned reading his passionate description of everything driving him to explore the world outside the States. Yet something compelled me to respond directly to one of his comments: He told me he felt a call to just put his "old life in a ziplock bag" and take off.

Careful, I told him. Explore! Oh, explore. But I'm not so sure how successfully you'll keep your old life wrapped up. Crispy. Airtight.

I love living in Spain. I love my life here, and I work hard, if not always hard enough, to nurture ties with the people I love.

But today, I feel the sharp downside of a life lived far from "home." Because I hadn't seen my uncle in 3 years, and I won't be at his funeral.

And no, home won't be waiting in a ziplock bag.

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Like minded travellers

A nomad I was even when I was very small, and would stare at the spellbinding white road headed straight for the unknown, and I shall stay a nomad all my life, in love with changing horizons and unexplored far away places, for any voyage, even to the most crowded and well travelled places, or the most familiar, is an exploration.

Isabelle Eberhardt
The Nomad

It's been a good week for finding like minded travellers..........

George from e-margaux.com posted my poem (gulp) and womanwandering's brilliant blog title in the Meandering Margaux blog (speaking of great titles), and declared us both "e-margonauts"! His comment also brought me a great find: e-marginalia, a travel e-zine that in its own words

"is fast becoming the proverbial campfire where adventurous, curious travelers collect to share the artifacts of their voyages."

Thank you, George, you made my day! I suspect you'll be running into me round that campfire. Lots of good reading to catch up on.

My walk through e-marginalia led me to Nana Chen, the personal site of one of e-marginalia's editors. I haven't made it through her writing, yet, or her paintings, but, oh! her photograpy: hypnotic stills and travel photos of Cambodia, India, Taiwan and Argentina.

And I stumbled across viatgeaddictes while wondering where to wander in Lisbon. (My Thoor Ballylee compañeras and I are headed to Lisbon for a long weekend in April. Tips? My first visit...) The site's only available in catalan and castellano now, unfortunately, ingleses.

At viatgeaddictes, I stumbled across the Isabelle Eberhardt quote above, which lead me to buy an e-book copy of the diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, which will lead me to......

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

A poem for two wandering women

That's me

nose pressed hard against the window glass
breath mist on the window as the train whirs by you

That's me

our heads turn, our eyes meet and I follow you out of sight

That's me

clutching a tattered phrasebook
stashing consonants in unexpected places
a strange new colloquy in words and hands

That's me

harbouring all the places I've walked,
every story I've met pressed flat against my heart


I'm not sure I haven't met a kindred spirit today! Another wandering woman, A Wandering Woman Writes about Her World, a Kiwi in Antwerp. Check out her first post, written last July.

It's the title of her blog that blew me away:

"People become stories and stories become understanding."

I can't know how you read your title, fellow w-w, but it gave me the courage to post the poem above, a poem about my first wanderings, the solo trips that made a wanderer out of me. I am eager to read more of your blog!

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Gives me fever

Oh you really can't be expecting me to post today? Can you?

Today, the fifth..yes, yes, the fifth consecutive and glorious spring day in Salamanca this week? Blue blue skies, bright Spanish sunshine, all of us outfitted in jean jackets, short sleeves, t-shirts??? Salamanca's streets overflowing with people, paseando?

It gives me fever, is what it does! Fever! I know it might not last. I know it's early. I know, I know, but OOOOOOooooh! the winter lover in me just never knows much she longs for Spring til it's all around her! Even if it's destined to be a temporary visit.

Delicate green fingers are peeking up where I buried bulbs a while ago, and I can hardly work for watching the storks fly by my window, lugging home the branches and twigs baby-safe nests are made of.

And our lovely Nomadita has signed up to chauffer carless, feverish me to Cáceres soon, to watch the cherry blossoms bloom!

May these Spain-blue skies last me through St. Pat's day, and may I get some "Springtime in Cáceres" shots to share with all of you....


Sunday, March 12, 2006

A proud Salmantina responds

Don Valcárcel, a "Spaniard, a proud Castilian" read an old post of mine today, about my discomfort returning late books to my local library. I'd like to post his comment.

And respond. His comment:

Good Afternoon:

Although you wrote this a while ago, I have some issues. First, I should state that I am a Spaniard, a proud Castilian, and though not from Salamanca but rather from Madrid, I know Salamanca very well...as I do all of Spain, my great country.

I don't know where you get this idea that "Salmantinos are not punctual." I deal with many North American foreigners (especially students), and I have only had problems with punctuality from them (and this is not to mention, since it is not very relevant here), their highly disrespectful behaviour in the city centre.

I also find it interesting that you find yourself in Salamanca (I do not know this moment but when you wrote this blog), and yet, you do not write in Spanish. Is it fair to think that you have not learned one meaningful sentence in Castilian Spanish? Why did you come to Spain then? Are you like 90% of all the other foreigners who just come here to "soak in" what you like and not learn the real culture?

Again, I know this comment is "overdue"...and I will end with this:

If you had a problem returning the books due to time issues, then you should be more responsible and write down the hours when they are supposed to be returned to the person in charge (la encargada)...because this way you wouldn't need to complain about the way hours work.

Good Afternoon

By Don Valcárcel

First, I do want to thank you for your comment, Don Valcárcel. I'd hate for you to have thought all that and not told me!

I hope you will come back and read a bit more. If you do, you'll find that I love your "great country", spend my life in castellano, and spend much of my time and virtually all of this blog exploring and celebrating the delicious daily differences I find between my own culture, and the "real" Salamanca culture I have very deliberately chosen to immerse myself in.

What I try not to do, in this blog and in my life in Spain, is make assumptions. Draw on stereotypes. Judge people by who I think they are, by what I expect them to do, and not by what they do. How they live.

Let me respond to your concerns.

Punctuality? Well, I speak from my own experience. Friends arrive 5 minutes late, meetings start at least 20 minutes late, coworkers arrive 10 minutes late, concerts start late, and my boss runs several hours late, every day.

And I, for one, love every less than punctual minute of it.

Funny thing is, Don Valcárcel, I am not an impressively punctual person, myself. I arrived late to meet a friend during my first few months here, breathless, stiff with stress, frustrated, and sputtering out apologies. Only to be greeted by warm Spanish patience, and 5 of the sweetest words I've ever heard: It's OK. You're in Spain.

That never happened to me in Chicago.

(Your North American students likely arrive very late. That doesn't necessarily tell us Spaniards, or Germans, or Swedes arrive on time, does it? )

I have never run into the legendary Spanish "mañana". I'd argue my Spanish friends put nothing off, even things I wish they'd put off. But I have had clients refuse to see me when I arrived 5 minutes late for a sales meeting in the States, and a successful young Spanish CEO counsel me never to arrive right on time.

One woman's blog. One woman's experience. And not one ounce of complaint.

Language? Castilian. I work for a Spanish company. In Spanish. I run meetings in Spanish. Give seminars in Spanish. Eat my lunch in Spanish. Answer my phone. In Spanish. Send all my e-mails in Spanish.

I live my life in Spanish.

Although I will admit I have little choice in Salamanca, I have exactly, well, NO extranjero friends in Spain. I do work with a nice British chap, Rob, although we don't socialize often. And we speak Spanish.

I am one of those extranjeros who lives in Spain to live in Spain, Don Valcárcel. Maybe that's rare. Or maybe you've met too many temporary visitors, and not enough proud residents. Salamanca is hardly the top choice of the Costa del Sol set.

So, with all that castellano, you ask, why the blog in English? Well, if you read a bit more, you'll discover that I originally started this blog to connect to family and friends back home. Who don't speak Castilian. OK, and I write a lot better in English. A lot.

Still, something spectacular happened after I started this blog in English. Spaniards came to read it. And they came back. And commented. I soon found myself following their blogs, where I read and comment in Spanish. Meanwhile, they follow mine, reading and commenting in English.

I have watched, delighted, while this blog has become a very tiny part of something I am desperate to see -- a bridge, a gradual, grass roots conversation that gets my countrymen to see the world outside their borders, and my beloved Spanish hosts to see extranjeros - particularly North Americans - from the inside.

And sometimes I just make them all laugh.

I do have a secret wish to start a second blog in Spanish, strangely enough. My Spanish writing teacher sells me the idea every week. What I don't have is time. Or stellar, quick writing skills. Yet.

I guess what I want to tell you, Don Valcárcel, is that I am not "90% of the foreigners who come to Spain". I am one person. One person intensely in love with your culture, with a life lived in your native language and with everything both of those experiences are teaching me. One person who is, as far as I know, not responsible for the admittedly obnoxious behavior of other people's children, whether they are 19 year old Dutch hordes in the streets of Salamanca or packs of 23 year old Americans in Madrid.

Please read on, Don Valcárcel. Read Overdue again. Imagine if you can, an extranjera who chooses to live her life in Spanish, who chooses to live in Spain to open and expand her mind, to see the world through another lens, to explore how much we all really have in common, obnoxious college kids and all.

Read my reaction to a Spanish blogger who travelled through my country and wrote about his experiences. From his Spanish point of view. A lot of what he found didn't please me, but I don't doubt that those were his experiences. Nor do I doubt there's truth in how other people see me --- or my native country.

Read on. Because before you know it, you may meet me. As so many of your paisanos do every day. Don't worry, you won't recognize me. You'll never guess I am North American. No one ever does. Truth is I probably won't tell you unless you ask.

But here's the rub: I am.

I am also a proud resident of Spain. And a damn proud Salmantina.

I hope you'll read more, and I hope you'll keep an eye out for foreigners who surprise you.

I'd be happy to correspond in Spanish, by the way. E-mail's on the profile page.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

You know you work in Spain...

So how did I know I was working in Spain today?

My first clue:

A colleague called me at 1:00 pm to ask me if I minded (te importa?) doing our 1 o'clock meeting at 1 o'clock.

Permission to be punctual was granted.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

True Story

Oh God, she's musing with the pen again.....

There was a time I barely remembered that space.

That meditative, out of myself space where wordless images and impulses and waves of emotion flow freely. Brain switched off, notes floating around me like a charmed snake summoned out of her basket….rising, swaying, levitating round the room. Sometimes I suspect that charmed snake is actually me, a part of me I’ve only just gotten to know. Could be.

I’d seen my pianist father enter that space. And my piano teacher, Mr. Fransosi, once told me he’d never tire of watching me “leave him” as I started into a piece I loved.

But he worried about my tongue.

It seems that whenever I dove headfirst into a piece I loved and felt and knew, my tongue emerged, peeking tip first out of the left corner of my mouth. And it stayed there.

I suppose my socially questionable creative habit really shouldn’t have surprised us. Creativity had always been a solitary activity for me and my piano playing was no exception. I’d pound out my pieces for at least an hour a day, always alone, my brother barricaded in the basement with the doors shut fast, struggling to follow Captain Kirk’s dialogue while he prayed for a sister who’d be filled with a passion for knitting. Or reading quietly. My father, who ran a music contracting business, would still be at his office, and my mother out on errands.

One day, with high school looming in my immediate future, Mr. Fransosi decided I might someday want to play in public, and he gently coaxed me to break the habit. In high school it got even easier to keep the tongue in line. I played in ensembles and orchestras. I learned to stay conscious enough to anticipate the singer’s next move, and catch the musical softballs tossed by my fellow musicians. Playing became less about my own cathartic physical release - less about that instant dissipation of tension and isolation as I touched the first key—and more about the sound I made.

And of course, academia called. I’d find myself worrying about algebra in the middle of a sonata. Daydreaming about how Tess of the Dubervilles might end as my friends and I recreated Billy Joel. I earned good grades and signed up to study science in college. Creative tasks gave way to analytical thinking, to a brief career in chemistry and a gradual move into corporate sales and marketing. Before long I was always aware of what I was doing and exactly how I looked. And I seldom played the piano.

In Spain, I have finally relaunched my daily piano outings. It’s been a slow, hard climb. I am certainly not the pianist I was at 18, nor have I yet been able to leave my sheet music behind. I see little sign of the fierce musical talent that drove my father’s life and career.

But, oh! I do know how to find that space he loved.

The other day I glanced away from a Piazzola tango just long enough to catch a glimpse of myself in the woodframed mirror on my living room wall. And there she was, tucked into a dimple at the left side of my mouth, a bold pink flag, announcing absolute and joyous surrender.

My tongue.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Had a hankering for tortured souls....

Mad goat at Palacio La Salina

Had this hankering for tortured souls, new camera, and build-it-yourself frustration and all. Las Dueñas was closed, so I wandered into La Salina, on Calle San Pablo, a Renaissance gem that's almost always open for free wandering...and caught these beauties. I lose myself in the stone details every time I walk into a place like this.

I can see I'll need the new lens to capture them well, but here's a taste.

I used to wonder what nightmares could have inspired all these tortured stone carvings....but I've figured it out.

Renaissance build-it-yourself cathedral kits.

OK, I'll stop now.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Maybe you can, but IKEA'nt...

Take this down, please.

I, the wandering woman previously known as Erin, do hereby swear on all the morcilla in Salamanca, that I will never NEVER again buy a piece of furniture that I have to put together myself.


If I have to take another corporate job to be able to afford furniture that's already built, as all furniture should be, in my humble opinion...so be it.

I am serious.

OK, almost.

Tour tickets are now available at the Salamanca Office of Tourism for a guided viewing of the Salamanca bookcase that bears a striking resemblance to a certain tower in Pisa. And yet manages to still hold books. Stunning.

And now a special treat: your Spanish phrase of the day. Ready?

Here it is: Nunca jamás
Translation: Never, ever, ever again.

Nunca jamás.