a wandering woman writes

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Don't mind me, I'm playing with a new lens

They're getting better, aren't they?
I captured this gorgeous fading beauty in the Huerto de Melixto y Calibea.

My huerto's been a bit too popular for my taste lately. A week of warm, blue-skied days has converted my usually deserted garden into a hotspot abuzz with corner téte a tétes, prone students barely glancing at their open textbooks, an aspiring painter, and roving bands of Spanish tourists.

Still, it remains my favorite outdoor spot in Salamanca. I'm not above sharing: please don't miss the Huerto if you find yourself in Salamanca.


Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, 1999

Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.

Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist (1999)

Serendipitously stumbled across October 31, 2006 in a wild google for a Feynman link.


The Meaning of it all -- and my bookshelf

Some people say, "How can you live without knowing?" I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.

Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist), The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist

A last minute day trip to El Corte Ingles in Madrid last week didn't yield the perfect outfit for the super-wedding I attended Saturday. Even so, it did prove that Madrid is an easy daytrip by train. And I returned to Salamanca with a good supply of all those things one's mother usually gives at Christmas and 3 new tenants for my overcrowded bookshelves.

I love the small independent bookstores in Salamanca, especially Victor Jara and Cervantes. But oh! there is nothing like a rainy afternoon spent browsing the bargain tables in El Corte Ingles or the Casa del Libro in Madrid.

This trip I picked up:

El Placer de Descubrir: a translated collection of Richard Feynman essays and interviews. Feynman is a lost long love from my scientist days: a bongo-playing, ant-watching (Nobel-winning) theoretical physicist who wrote and spoke from the cuff about anything and everything.

An 800 page guide to "select" Spanish pueblos. 800 pages!! Yippee, I say, although far I've only frustrated myself trying to figure out how to catch a bus to Madrigal de la Altas Torres, birthplace of Isabel I. This book will either deliver great blog posts or torture me about my lack of a car.

A mere 400 page history of Spanish monarchs from the Middles Ages to the present. I'm tired of missing monarch references and scratching my head to remember who's who. I'm hoping it will be a good companion as I wander the castles and convents of the 800 pages of pueblos.

Other than the guide to pueblos, these new acquisitions will squeeze their way onto shelves and wait their turns behind a Freya Stark (A Winter in Arabia) I picked up in Hay-on-Wye, Paul Hyland's Backwards out of the Big World, the history of jazz in Spain my coworkers gave me as a going away gift, Ian Gibson's biography of Antonio Machado and Ghosts of Spain, recommended by Alex.

Whatever you do, favorite bloggers, please don't recommend books for a while...


Friday, October 27, 2006

Is this about politics? Or values?

A little followup, perhaps, to my previous post:

As a soldier and as a citizen, I worry about our values - liberty, justice, human rights in whatever circumstance - because they are not things to throw overboard in the middle of a storm, nor are they obligations that we can break when things get ugly. They are the basis of our strength. Those are the moments when we need them most. If this is a conflict of ideas and convictions, our values are part of our arsenal. If we abandon them, we disarm ourselves for the battle we have to fight long term.

Brian M. Jenkins, one of RAND Corporation's principal security analysts, in a compelling interview with El País in September.

Has Brian Jenkins been invited to express his views in American media? I read him in Spain, in Spanish.

Torture? Secret prisons? Capital trials in which key evidence is kept from the accused? That’s the stuff of Kafka, not Madison and Jefferson.

Bob Herbert, New York Times, September 18.



One of my very favorite humans posed an interesting question a few days ago.

This favorite reads my blog, but like most of the readers who knew me long before I moved to Spain, he chooses to comment in private e-mails.

After reading this post, he wrote:
-Wow! Getting a tad defensive living in Europe, aren't we?

Stunned, I asked him to elaborate. Here's his reply:

- I read your blog -- the belief on the part of the Europeans that most Americans were in disagreement over W's policies -- and the need to vote
to change direction. You seemed embarrassed / defensive over the
foreign policy of the USA. I guess I hadn't seen or heard you being so passionate about politics before -- and was surprised.

He got me to thinking.

Am I passionate about politics?
I hate politics. I am passionate about my values, values I acquired in the USA. Values I was raised to believe were the cornerstone of our legal system, our lives and, yes, our foreign policy.

Am I defensive?
I don't think so. Deflated, yes, and disappointed. Sad.

Am I embarrassed?
No, try ashamed. Alarmed. Appalled. Horrified, some days.

My country has decided it's okay to torture prisoners and send them off to secret prisons outside of our borders. Just this week, we've decided it's okay to deny people we label as enemy combatants the right to see key evidence against them in a capital trial.

We have 14,000 people in our war prisons. A handful have been charged.

We've decided it's okay to deny secret prisons and flights secretly refueled in our allies' sovereign territory - to deny them even to the government, citizens and press of those allies- until we are caught red-handed. In at least two countries - Italy and Canada - an internal scandal has erupted over collaboration with our secret service in the illegal kidnappings that sent suspected terrorists to our secret prisons. In Italy, agents and, as I recall, the former director of the secret service have been charged with crimes, for simply collaborating with this part of our war on terrorism. Ireland had a similar storm brewing when I was there in June.

Foreign policy? Did we really tell Musharraf we'd bomb Pakistan "back to the stone age" if he didn't cooperate? Do you know what I am passionate about? The anger I feel when I realize it really wouldn't surprise me if we had.

We have created a world in which Hugo Chavez can rally a growing "axis" held together by one common obsession: fierce hatred of the USA. His alliance of the "unallied" has one openly stated purpose: oppose the USA. His best propoganda is our own track record over the last 6 years. Simple news stories.

I believe that torture, kangaroo courts and secret prisons are wrong when dictators and terrorists use them, and they are wrong when we do, too.

I am passionate about my belief that our enemies do not define us. That we best defend our values by living to them. That the worst way to secure liberty, justice and human rights is to make exceptions to them.

I am ashamed of our indifference and the lack of respect we show our allies. I am ashamed to see that we have replaced our values with arrogance.

I told another American friend a few months ago that something had fundamentally changed about our relationship with the world. I watched the world wait for us to do something to stop the senseless deaths of innocent Israeli and Lebanese civilians in a war in which it's now said both sides committed war crimes. We responded with stalls and spin - bad spin, at that. We announced that we didn't want a merely "temporary" peace - you know, the kind where nobody dies for a few days. We singlehandedly blocked a rapid end to civilian bloodshed. And I tell you, something changed.

But more than all of that, I am frustrated because I can see that none of this will work. I don't know how long it will take to regain our credibility, our image (and yes, it DOES matter), our relationships with other peoples and their respect and trust. How long will it take us just to reclaim our fundamental values?

When the (torture) bill Bush just signed was presented to Congress, Colin Powell warned that the world was coming to "doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." He was being polite. I'd be hard pressed to tell you which part of the world sees any moral basis. I don't, do you?

I am ashamed to say I know no better recruitment poster for terrorists than a photo of an American solder or George Bush. Or perhaps a news story about Iraq, or Lebanon, or Abu Ghraib, or the changes we've made to our own laws in the last 6 years.

I was sincere when I said I am asked about Bush, often. Jimmy Carter said his recent travels abroad revealed "consternation, disappointment, sometimes animosity and embarrassment" toward the United States.

I am not defensive about those questions, that consternation or that disappointment because I share them. In a way I find my neighbors' disbelief comforting. Their questions remind me that there was another USA, once, as they reassure me that I didn't pull my values out of thin air.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A flower

Nobody sees a flower - really - it is so small it takes time - we haven't time - and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
Georgia O'Keefe


And the Angels Sing

We don't sing anymore.

I feel like a long married woman looking across the table at the wrinkled face that's greeted her every morning for decades.

But no, it's just me, talking to my paisanos back in the States.

Why don't we sing more?

You'll all accept my apologies in advance if I land in Boston November 15 only to discover hordes of Americans blissfully harmonizing their way through Logan airport.

I have long wanted to write a post about how freely and gosh darnit - whether it's genes or education - how well the Spanish sing. I've yet to hear a Spaniard sing timidly. Or off key. I get this vision of my father, the musician, shaking his head as he tells me, "See? See what music in the schools can do?"

Is it music is the schools, Spaniards?

I had the title of the singing post on my to-blog list for months: And the angels sing. Warmly dedicated to the group of young men who worked outside my office during the 2 years I spent working inside a Salamanca company, including a star soloist named Ángel. My coworkers sang from 9 to 5, gladly took requests, and many a day made my day with a rousing rendition of "These Boots are Made for Walking" (I couldn't make this up, I swear). You haven't truly lived until you've been serenaded by 10 young españoles joining Nancy and Frank Sinatra on "Something Silly Like I Love You". Friday afternoons they brought out a children's song pasted on some website or another and belted out "Sí Toco La Trompeta" in perfect unison, trumpet noises and all.

I miss my serenades.

So I was less than shocked when I confessed my curiosity about the musical courage of the average Spaniard to a friend....only to see her leap from her chair, grab me by the arm and confess a long held worry about her American husband.

He doesn't break into song, it seems. Asked why, our stoic American dares to speak the words his wife assures me have never crossed Spanish lips: I
don't sing.

He accompanies this statement with a shrug, apparently. It's the shrug that really worried her.

She's spent years convinced he's survived some horrible trauma he is still unable to share with her. It was my pleasure to set her mind at ease.

He's fine, I told her: Just American.

So, really, my fellow self-conscious Americans, why don't we sing more?


Wheylona in the Painted Forest

Wheylona's posted about her trip to Ibarrola's Bosque Pintado, the painted forest I mentioned here.

She's posted gorgeous photos of several of her recent wanders through Basque Country, in fact. I'd hit the main page and plan to scroll awhile.


A Taste for Adventure

This is, in fact, a post blatantly stolen from that upstart wanderer in Belgium.

But she found this book, and then she posted this quote.....and oh! oh! if she hasn't stumbled onto the wandering woman manifesto. I found the book on Amazon UK and eagerly await its arrival. Here's Anik See, from A Taste of Adventure - I'll never look at a plane flying overhead the same way:

Right now I'm sitting on a dock on the Rideau Canal in eastern Canada. I'm looking up, and in the sky there is the shiny glint of a jet airplane caught in the sun's grasp, pushing silently east; I'm thinking, there are four hundred people going somewhere else.

I'm hoping most of them realise the freedom of being 38,000 feet up and headed somewhere new. I want everyone on that plane to be on their way to a place they have always wanted to go - maps already perused and worn in the folds from curious fingers following streets, emergency cab fare handy in a coat pocket - but intending to walk everywhere, to soak everything in.

I want everyone to have already envisioned the park bench or alleyway or restaurant where they will sit or walk or close their eyes and taste something they have never tasted before and realize that they are finally here, that they have been waiting for so long and they are finally here.

The prospect of others experiencing a culture new to them, no matter how shiny or raw, makes me dreamy. Wouldn't that be something? A planeload of people going somewhere they've always wanted to go, doing something they've always wanted to do.


Anik See
A Taste For Adventure

Thank you, w-w!!!


Sunday, October 22, 2006

L a Sierra de Gata Ahogada

I've just spent half an hour catching up on the flooding, building damage and erosion suffered in the west of Spain due to today's torrential downpours.

Funny how the news neglected to mention the 40 some-odd fools who swam their way down the secondary roads from Rebollar to Robledillo in the Sierra de Gata, southwest of Salamanca. 14 kilometres, according to the very generous citizens of Robledillo, who found themselves inundated by half-drowned hikers by late afternoon. A hike through the Sierra de Gata organized by Salamanca's Ecologistas en Acción quickly turned into a mad dash along the carretera in a desperate attempt to find our bus and driver when the harmless rain we'd decided to risk turned into a merciless deluge.

In the photo above, I've done my best to capture two señoras of Robledillo de Gata stomping home from a highly successful chestnut hunt. When I oohed and ahhed at their overflowing buckets, they invited me to a handful. I had to turn then down for lack of an oven, though I did ask for a photo. In keeping with the day's luck, the dog walked away, one of the señoras was distracted and my camera battery died immediately after snapping this first photo. Still, don't these two know how to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon?

Among the day's highlights:

The pre-hike stop for coffee and churros in Ciudad Rodrigo. This stop convinced me once and for all that the Spanish know how to live confortably. Who among us could possibly have had time for coffee before catching an 830 bus? And who could be expected to hike without it?

The startling ferocity of the rain, which most of the day left us nothing to do but laugh.

The ten minutes we spent honking the bus horn waiting for someone to notice his parked car was blocking the hallway-width main street through his pueblo.

And the true highlight: the sound of our own Nomadita, repeating the words "Spongebob Squarepants" as she endeavored to perfectly reproduce my English pronunciation. Note to self: learn not to make cultural references which may mean new English vocabulary for Nomadita, at least until she passes her English exam. By end of the day, she had added a rousing chorus of "My big fat Greek wedding" to every recitation of Spongebob, thanks to her English teacher, who screened the movie in class last week.

And so I traversed the Sierra de Gata...serenaded by the wind through the pines, the roar of cascading water and "Spongebob Squarepants....My big fat Greek wedding....Spongebob Squarepants... My big fat Greek wedding."

All in all, now that I am home, warm and dry, I have to toast a fabulous, if wet, day with spectacular company.

And lovely Robledillo de Gata looks well worth a return visit.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sweet Home...

I was doing so well, too.

There I was, sitting in La Platea, enjoying my mosto while spilling all I could about my beloved Chicago. The eager ears across the table belonged to a young Salmantina who's just been awarded a stipend to work as an intern at the Spanish tourism office on Michigan Avenue.

She'd already checked out the websites I'd recommended and read a tourist guide cover to cover.

The museums look spectacular!, she cooed.
-And there's so much culture! Festivals and blues and jazz and theatre! A symphony! And opera!

The novio brought up architecture and weekend destinations and trips they might take together when he visits. We talked universities, and art and shopping, ethnic food and 7 nights of live music.

I thought she'd faint at the prospect of skating outdoors in Millenium Park.

We did the practical, too, which, so you know, my fellow Americans, centered around health insurance, US health care costs and how she'll handle them for a year.

And then I did it.
I assured her the food would be wonderful. Contrary to Spanish popular opinion, I told her, Americans do not live on hamburgers alone.

Of course not, she laughed. Or hot dogs.

OK, well, hot dogs.
That's another topic all together.

The woman's been duly trained in the selection and eating of a classic Chicago Hot Dog. Should she wander by Demon Dogs or Plush Pup or Weiner's Circle, this Salmantina's prepared.

And I am more than ready to bite into my next Chicago char polish.

Sigh. In January.

Image from Vienna Beef, where you can read all about Chicago dogs.


I think I'm turning española, I think I'm turning española, I really think so....

What makes me say that, you ask?

Reason One. I have a wedding next weekend and I am determined to match. Exquisitely.

Shoes, dress, bracelet, earrings, purse, necklace, scarf, shawl... All must be simply made for each other and together they must create a truly self expressive me. No matter how I feel wearing all of this next Saturday, the quest for incredibly complementary elegance has been its own entertainment. Not to mention the bride's periodic SMS check-ins to see if I have a "modelo" yet.

Reason Two. Despite Reason One, I have yet to head out to the stores a single day this week. It's been rainy. And windy, and cold.

What happened to the Chicagoan who walked anywhere in rain, sleet, snow and 10 below Fahrenheit cold?

You want me to go out in the rain? I live in Spain. It will be sunny some day soon. And that's the day I'll go shopping.

Reason Three.
I'm not sure I can eat without bread.

I caught on to the bread addiction while staying at Oxford in August. I noticed that everyone round the table was eating quite properly, knife and fork in hand, buttered bread patiently waiting on its own little plate. Everyone, that is, except an Italian woman and me. We both had a fork in one hand and a chunk of butterless bread in the other, as we scooped and pushed and spread and soaked our way to satiated bliss.

Two years in Spain have made bread my third utensil. How, exactly, does one pick up food without bread?

I gave up bread a month ago as part of a firm commitment to lose the weight I gained sitting around with a sprained ankle last spring.

And the benefits doubled immediately. Not only do I not eat bread, I'm not eating most of my meals, either.

How can I, without my third utensil?


Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's an idea....

I don't talk politics much.

Still, every now and then, people ask me.

Every now and then some unassuming Salmantino just can't help himself and, finding me open, positive and friendly, feels compelled to go there.

You know, there. Bush.

The day I negotiated my rent with my landlady, we lingered a while over coffee. Pilar, who has never asked me about Bush, could control her curiosity no longer. "But what I don't understand, Erin, is the Americans, the people. They voted for him? Twice?"

Back before we had "voted for him, twice", I flew to Spain over the Thanksgiving holiday to interview for the job that brought me to Salamanca. I arranged a lunch with a friend who's a successful business executive in Madrid for the day before the interview. I'd hoped he'd prepare me well for my first interview in another language and culture. Instead I spent half an hour solemnly swearing on my lamb kebab that I would always vote in the US presidential elections - even if I moved to Spain.

Not long ago I had a Bush conversation that still intrigues me.

A good friend brought up Bush. She asked if he really had 2 years left to his term and I confirmed that he did. When I commented, as I often do, that we do not have a system for calling early elections in the US or the possibility of a no-confidence vote (not that Bush would lose one, frightening as that is to me) she showed me again how much better the Spanish know our history than your average American knows theirs.

"There's no way for us to make that change until his term is up", I assured her.

"Sure there's a way. Nixon resigned, didn't he?"

"Well, yeh", I started, "but that was...."

"So there's a way. All you have to do is make him so miserable he resigns."

"But tut ttt nngng..."

She interrupted my stutter with a firm wave of her finger.

"Don't tell me there's no way to bring a change. A President has resigned. Get him to quit."

Anybody got any ideas?



Check out Mondomix if you're in the mood to discover some new World music. The site's chock full of interviews, reviews, artist profiles and an MP3 store, Mondomix Music where you can download all kinds of good music.

I found them through a backward link from this review of Buika's CD, Mi Niña Lola, in which Daniel Brown quotes my comments on her concert in Salamanca. I don't think I'd yet appreciated what a still-too-rare treat I'd had hearing her live.

By the way, Buika is playing November 28 at the Palau de Música (wow! what a venue!) in Barcelona as part of the Barcelona International Jazz Festival. I'll be heading back from the States then, but if you're in Barcelona, I can't imagine a better treat than hearing Buika in the Palau de Música.

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How I know it's autumn in Salamanca

1. The pool is covered for winter. I have no idea how they managed to sneak out that bright blue sign of summer's end without my noticing, but there it was this morning.

2. On cooler days, my fellow Salmantinos walk the streets prepared for a ski outing: scarf, winter jackets zipped all the way up, even gloves and hats.

3. "¡Qué frío!" and "¿Se fue el verano, eh?" have replaced "!Qué calor!" in Salamanca small talk.

4. The man at the frutería has replaced my yellow peaches with chestnuts. And membrillo (quince).

5. The woman in front me at El Arbol yesterday was buying turrón.


The smell of strong coffee, the roar of the crowd

Something hit me this morning.

Spain is not a quiet place.

I took my El País-accompanying coffee in the Plaza Mayor this morning, rare for me. And I enjoyed the concert.

There's a buzz to the Plaza Mayor - at any hour, as Anni commented in her article about her recent visit. I had the pleasure of meeting Anni while she was here and enjoyed seeing her photos and reading the details of her visit.

I'd argue passionately with her about the quantity of pedestrian-only acres in Salamanca (and I'm sure she'd let me!) Other than during early morning delivery hours, (early by Spanish standards - 830 to 10 am) a huge swath of central Salamanca - the Plaza Mayor and 4 of the 5 or 6 lanes leading into it, plus La Rua, Calle Zamora, Calle Toro, Calle Compañia, Calle Meléndez and the whole area around Plaza Anaya to Patio Chico and Plaza John XXIII - is pedestrian only, except for the odd funeral, police car, lost tourist, etc. Salamanca has several large all-pedestrian parks, although they are located out of the center in the residential neighborhoods.

The entire path most of us follow through the historic center of Salamanca during the early evening paseo is pedestrian-only. Hard to figure how you'd ever get a car down those Salmatino-swollen streets at 8 in the evening.

Yet none of those pedestrian paths is quiet.

As Anni discovered, Salamanca is full of surprisingly quiet little corners, like the odd corner in the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, the Cave of Salamanca, the inside of any of the city's Romanesque churches, or the Plaza de la Libertad, where Anni herself finally found refuge.

This morning, listening to the symphony of a Sunday morning build around me as the Plaza clock bounced toward noon, I had to agree that Salamanca's Plaza Mayor is not a quiet place. As I perused my Sunday paper, I was serenaded by the low whir of the generator powering the Technology exhibit currently in the middle of the Plaza - and the rhythmic cackling of the 30 or 40 Salmantinos waiting for it to open. I closed my eyes and finally identified what I was hearing -- a low buzz, or a low roar I suppose, depending on how you feel about it, a sound I've grown accustomed to -- the sound of a public area in Spain. Erudite conversations, humming children, wild cackling laughs. The whir of scooter wheels and the singing of my waiter. "¡Buenos dias!". "¡Hombre!" Dog-claiming whistles of every tone and cadence. Salamanca paraded by while I read my paper. And she didn't do it quietly.

And it hit me, again - one of the things I love most about Spain is this - this pulsing, talking, singing, clamoring life in the streets. I have a quiet apartment by the river, which is also a quiet place to escape, as is the old Romanesque church next door. Yet when I open a window or walk out to the patio, I am in Spain again. In the morning, an open window means bird's songs and the quiet whir of the Tormes River. In the afternoon it means clanging pans and clinking dishes, perhaps a singing neighbor, the sing song "Hola" of the little girl upstairs, or the unexpected roar of a shouted argument as only the Spanish can shout it.

Walk down Calle Toro at 8 any evening.

If you long for silence and stillness, you may hear noise. You may resent the jostling, the soccer balls bouncing at you, the children and old folks causing people-jams as they stop suddenly in their tracks.

I promise you, it won't be quiet. In fact, you may hear noise.

I'll hear the life of my lovely city.
And I'll be smiling.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Gardens of the Alcázar, Córdoba


Frida Kahlo at Casa Lis

I spent this morning at Casa Lis. As part of the Castilla-Leon International Photography Festival, Casa Lis is hosting an exhibition of 53 photographic portraits of Frida Kahlo.

It's a powerful, "stop in your tracks and just look" exhibition. Frida the person intrigues me. And to spend some time looking at a self-created work - her greatest work, herself the person - as captured by intimates, all of them artists in their own right who seem, in some moments, to get behind the mask......well, it made a good morning.

I don't know my photographers well, but the exhibition flyer describes the exhibit as (coincidentally) "an authentic catalog of 20th century photography". Photos by Edward Weston, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gisele Freund, Bernard Silberstein, Imagen Cunningham, Fritz Henle, Nicolás Muray and others join photos by Kahlo's father (a professional photographer, as was her grandfather, I believe) and Diego Rivera.

You can see many of the photographs here.

The exhibition seems to have been on the road awhile, having already hit the National Portrait Gallery in London and Casa de America in Madrid. It's worth the visit, says me, should it show up near you.


While I am in an old writing class folder, here's an old scribble.

I am going to Rhode Island in just about a month, for my mother's 70th birthday and all I can eat of her Thanksgiving classics. I will have the rare chance, as well, to spend lots of time with a friend I've had almost all my life.

She was on my mind when I played with this, back in the same class: (I can't get this to space right in blogger and just want to move on to other things, so I'll apologize for the spacing; normally it has the back and forth of a Twister mat....)

A Game of Twister

Spin. Left foot blue.

I'll stretch. If you lean
left I'll weave my left
leg through this tunnel and…

Spin. Right hand red.

When we laid the mat
one June night 30 Junes
back, Did you know?

Spin. Left hand green.

Did you know we'd be at this for life?

Matted circles spread
out in my pool room. Red,
yellow, green,
blue. Spinner flicked into a dizzying

Spin. Right foot yellow.

I hear the mat crinkle even when I can't see you.
I lean back and feel you bend,
a crazy straw of twisted limbs.
Hearts, breath, bodies. Lives.

Spin. Left hand blue.

30 Junes passed
the braid is a knot, fixed.
Boyfriends, husbands, baby boys,
Births. Storms. Death. Tears.




Sunday, October 08, 2006

Autumn along the Tormes

I have long wanted to see Agustín Ibarrola's Painted Forest in the Basque Country. (Here's a link to a stunning photo set at Flickr.)

I likely got the hankering to see the living version from the "dry" painted forest we here in Salamanca, El Bosque de Olmos, in which Ibarrola and Salamanca art students worked with dead elms moved from around the city, stones, etc.

But I'm feeling no urgency about the trip to Ibarrola's forest today. I took a midafternoon walk along the river and noticed that the trees were doing a fine job on their own. Here's a short walk by the Tormes:


Vote, yes - but with your feet?


Attention American expats!

There's an election coming up in November, and why yes, in fact, your vote DOES count. Majorities in the House and Senate make a difference, and however you decide to vote, 2 1/2 years away from the mother ship have shown me just how important a responsibility voting is.

I once heard my college roommate's father, a solid self-made Hoosier, call the act of not voting "unconscionable". That adjective's stuck with me a long time.

Jimmy Carter's been out encouraging expats to vote, and both the Democrats and Republicans have organizations and websites aimed at Americans living abroad. My Chicago absentee ballot arrived last week.

I've had change on my mind lately, and responsibility, and action. I made the mistake of growing up under a sign that read: "Somebody asked me why I didn't do something, til I realized I am somebody". These days, I find myself pondering my own role. Where is the line between being "the change I'd like to see" and trading the often troubling big picture for my own peaceful serenity?

So I was intrigued by a recent Expatica article, titled "End of American Dream? Why Americans are leaving their country".

Says the article's author, Paul Stiles:
Now here is an interesting fact: the United States Government does not keep track of its expatriates.

There are statistics on immigration, but not emigration.

Since the US government does not monitor the flow of emigrants, it has no idea how many people are leaving, or why.

Good point, says the Marketing me.

He goes on to compare countries to consumer markets, with reasonably well-off citizens easily able to change brands, or countries, when a product (country) disappoints them. An interesting idea. And very true. He talks about the current flow of people, from less developed nations to the US, UK and Ireland, for example, and from the UK and Germany and other Northern European countries to Spain.

Certainly some Americans have left out of frustration and dissatisfaction with the way things are going at home.

But Stiles throws in a surprising call to action.
After inviting American expats to respond to a survey about why they chose to move to Spain, he closes with this:

We will publish the results in a future article.
Until then, just remember: the most powerful vote is with your feet.

Say what?

I didn't move for political reasons. I moved because I wanted to see the world from another viewpoint, because I wanted to see myself in another culture and language, and because this was the life I wanted to live, right now.

And thankfully, any of us can leave any old day. For any old reason.

But should we consider that move a vote?

If the US government has no idea who emigrates and why, which Stiles himself tells us, are you really voting -or even stating an opinion - when you hit the road? Will anyone pick up your message?

Now, I suppose you can hope your move dramatically affects the economy - that you're sorely missed enough to make your statement just by your move. And there's no reason to believe Stiles doesn't mean to encourage leaving AND continuing to vote from afar.

Still, I have an idea. This year, let's move our feet wherever we'd like.

But let's VOTE with our pens.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Poets in Salamanca ..... and a wise mother

A wise mother

My mother announced today that the only gift she ever wants from my brother and me is the best financial contribution we can make to the church trip she hopes to take to Rome. The parish priest will take 26 Catholics to Rome on a journey he's titled "A Pilgrimage to Rome".

I've always considered myself the orator in our family. But my wise and sincere mother, who hasn't always been thrilled with my impulsive domestic and international leaps, made a pitch I couldn't possibly ignore.

She has to go to Rome, she told me. "Something is just telling me to go."

Little voices?

Poets in Salamanca

or How to Spend a Saturday Afternoon:

Begin with a presentation of the IX Encuentro de Poetas Iberoamericanos, this year paying homage to Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco.

Listen to Jorge Luis Arcos (Cuba), Noni Benegas (Argentina, and wow, do I need to buy some Noni Benegas), Francisco Fortuny (Spain, also on the buy list) and Miguel Marcotrogiano (Venezuela, currently in the doctoral program here in Salamanca) read their work in the Sala de Palabras in the Liceo.

Smile while you and your friends notice you're getting every word -- spoken by a Cuban poet! Try to remember back when a Cuban accent was an unconquerable enemy. Fail.

Stroll out, lifted, smiling and head directly for a favorite bar. In the plaza, pause to watch the jota-dancing charros
help a young couple celebrate their wedding.

At the bar, breathe deeply and bite. Perfect morcilla picante, fresh off the grill.


Serendipitous Soup

I have just finished a pot of the most succulent, most flavorful, richest chicken broth I have ever tasted.

I made the announcement today by transatlantic call:
I have finally beaten my mother's chicken soup.

Does this mean I should keep buying the whole (and I do mean whole) chickens?


A potter is born

Ladies and gentlemen, señoras y señores, damas and caballeros, there you have it.

My first coiled pot.
I've been holding out on a part of my August vacations in the UK. I spent 2 days and 3 nights in the cottage in the photo in the Fens, in West Norfolk.

Learning to pot.

I found Howard and Kate on the internet. I was determined to try potting while in England. Obsessed, in fact. For months I'd suffered with an intense craving to run clay through my fingers, a craving I found odd, considering I'd never touched the stuff. I looked for a potting course in Salamanca. Nothing. I was digging my way through all the week-long courses in England and Ireland when I came across Kate's studio, Bodgers Farm Pottery.

With Howard retired from his own business in London and their children grown, Howard and Kate bought Bodger's Farm a couple of years ago. They put together a pottery studio and fixed up the comfiest B&B rooms you're likely to find.

Kate sells her work at galleries and fairs, and offers studio rental. Lucky for me, she also offers tuition by the day, with her undivided attention.

When Howard picked me up at Downham Market station on Sunday evening, he firmly announced that he and and Kate had decided I simply couldn't eat alone for three days.

And so it was that the bed and full board I'd arranged for lack of a car (Bodger's Farm is well beyond walking distance) turned into three luxurous meals a day. Three homecooked meals with Kate, Howard and a mysteriously self-refilling wine glass accompanied by a warm and sincere invitation to make myself at home, and what I hope will be the undying love of a feisty, energetic collie named Effie.

My second evening at the farm, I snuck away for a walk. Effie enthusiastically volunteered to guide me, and we headed to the canal created to drain the Fens (a natural wetland) a few centuries ago. We turned left along the canal, watching a tiny floater plane land and take off a few times. Two long lefts later we were back at Bodger's Farm. A couple of delicious hours of flat, and quiet.

In two days I coiled the monster above, built 3 or 4 pinch and slab pots, and slipped into ectasy at the wheel. Because I only had 2 days of tuition, Kate fired and glazed my handbuilt pots and a handful of wheel pieces. I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival by post.

Wednesday morning Howard packed me back into the car for the short ride to Downham Market Station. Before we pulled out of the driveway, Kate paired a warm hug with the final quality-control question.

-So are you addicted?

My name is Erin C. And I strongly suspect a Welsh woman living in the Fens has handed me a lifelong addiction to clay.


Friday, October 06, 2006


Well, the mystery is solved.

For two days this week, mysterious helicopters hovered above central Salamanca, first circling Puerta Zamora and later sweeping a wide circle round the river and the Roman Bridge, the day I headed up the hill to pay the landlady.

We don't get a lot of helicopters in Salamanca. At the time, I was just hoping they were ours, in the aerial attack sense.

The whole event had an interesting effect on my fellow Salmantinos. The noise caught my attention first, obviously, but much more amusing, once I'd accustomed myself to the whir of the engines, was the view of Salamanca straight on as I walked up Zamora through the Plaza to La Rua. Cranked necks, twisted bodies, a moving mass of strangely malformed sky watchers -- a rapt population staring overhead. Stopped in their tracks, twisting and turning while double-wide eyes followed the seemingly friendly invaders out of sight.

Helicopters in Salamanca?

According to today's La Gaceta and the weekly DGratis, the noise was a small price to play for fame and glory - in Hollywood. The mysterious choppers were filming aerial footage for a Hollywood movie, Vantage Point, starring Sigourney Weaver, Eduardo Noriega (excuse me, but: yummy), Forrest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid and William Hurt. To keep costs down after that tiny expenditure on the cast (!), the film crew built an impressive replica of Salamanca's Plaza Mayor in Mexico City. (Eerily close, except for the high rise hotel rising behind it in the photos posted on Chronicas Charras.) Most of the movie was filmed in Mexico and in the studio. The director wanted just enough aerial authentic Salamanca to set the stage for the film's action.

The movie's premise?

An American president is assasinated while attending a World Terrorism Summit in Salamanca.

I just hope they didn't pull those aerial shots in too close. Or the stage will be set in a strange land of gawking pedestrians who could all use a good chiropractor.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Chestnut Hunters, Part II

Update to the chestnut harvest taking place on the hill by my apartment building:

The hill was deserted when I started for the grocery store, about 11:15. By 12, when I stumbled down the hill balancing two heavy bags, a full chestnut hunting crew was on duty.

Four older men: Two were engaged in careful inspection of the night's harvest - chestnuts that had fallen on their own. A third man watched, shaking his head as the empty plastic blag he'd hoped to fill with chestuts sagged in his hand.

-No hay nada hoy.
-There's nothing today.

The fourth man was taking action. Armed with a long switch, he whipped at the tree's upper branches, then ducked as clusters of green rained down all around him.

At the bottom of the hill stood two city greens workers, laughing at the chestnut hunt even as they clucked their tongues. There'd be a mess to rake up on that hill later. Their private conversation seemed to end in frustration.

"¡Hombre!", one of them called out to the old man beating the tree with a switch.

-Se cae sólo.
-Se cae sólo, hombre.

-They fall on their own, buddy. They fall on their own.


Voodoo, anyone? Perils of a Spanish grocery store


First let me make clear I've lived in Spain for 2 1/2 years. But this is new.

I don't mean to be a wimpy American. I have a degree in Animal Science from Purdue, I swear. I've trimmed beaks and eye teeth, sheared wool and castrated more young animals than I care to talk about.

Still, I let out a squeal.

I've been living the soft life for a long time now, so it surprised me....

...when I opened up the prewrapped "pollo entero" (whole chicken) I'd picked up at El Arbol today, not feeling up to the line at the butcher's stand.

And it had a head.

A lovely little chicken's head, which I promptly removed, along with a few stray feathers.

I have a chicken's head in the house. Feels like I should do something with it.

Voodoo anyone?


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

As we were saying yesterday....

My houseguest Leslie took such a fabulous photo of the statue of Fray Luis de Leon in the Patio de las Escuelas, facing the ever evasive frog on the Plateresque facade of the University of Salamanca, that I feel compelled to post about him.

One of the anecdotes I've heard about Fray Luis Leon has become one of my favorites stories about Salamanca and Salmantinos. Fray Luis, a celebrated lyric poet and a respected theologian at the University of Salamanca, was thrown into prison for translating the Song of Songs into castellano, among other sins. Salamanca was a hotbed of controversy during the Counter Reformation, and Fray Luis was often in the thick of it. I've read some intriguing stories about envious and competing colleagues contributing, enthusiastically, to his temporary demise, but the reason I read most often is the forbidden translation, and a preference for reading the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Four years later, the charges against Fray Luis were dropped. He returned to Salamanca, to his familiar aula (classroom) in the University, and he greeted his students from the podium he'd left 4 years earlier with this:

"As we were saying yesterday......."


Walking back from Puerta Zamora

Someone recently asked me what I recommend tourists see in Salamanca.

Now that I think about it, there are plenty of things for tourists to see in Salamanca: the cathedrals, the university, the Plaza Mayor, the galleries and exhibitions, the Ieronimus tour through the upper towers of the cathedral where my houseguest and I took the pictures accompanying this post.

Still, the question made me think of an acquaintance I'd studied with at a Spanish school. She invited herself to visit me during my first summer in Salamanca, then sat in my living room, pouting. I quote: "We have old churches in France. Why would I want to see another old building?" If the stories behind all those old buldings and the people who lived them don't interest you, you may want to skip Salamanca and head straight to the closest amusement park. Somehow that's what the word "tourist" brought to mind.

What hit me today, walking back from a trip to Puerta Zamora to pay the rent and bill the clients, was how very much there is for a traveller to see in Salamanca.

My most recent houseguest was the perfect Salamanca traveller. She took her time, she asked to stop to "tomar algo" (get a drink) in every irrestible corner we met, she spotted people, guessed at their stories and took her time wandering through my favorite tortured-soul-harboring cloisters. She sat happily in Plaza Mayor for what seemed like hours, watching a group of children play while their parents enjoyed a cold drink. She asked questions and always listened to the whole story, thirstily taking in the history of this small town so unlike either her adopted home (Chicago) or her hometown (Rugby, North Dakota, population 2939).

You have to pay attention to truly see Salamanca. Slow down, soak in every stone, and pay attention.

I paid attention today as I walked home from my errands. I watched my neighbors come and go while I waited for my landlady in Puerta Zamora. Neighbors of every possible shape, size and age; dozens of besos; a good handful of healthy masculine slaps on the back. As I walked toward home, I told the gypsies I wouldn't be contributing with a shake of the head. I read the posters pasted along walls to see what concerts, courses and controversies were planned for the week.

Then I wound my way home past older Salmantinos out for a paseo through the Plaza, most accompanied by a cane, a cap and two or three cronies, many strolling with their pareja, elegantly dressed, arm in arm. I dodged out of tourists' photos and listened to first year students lament their course schedules as they walked behind me. I tossed a few coins to the sittar player who's been hanging out by the New Cathedral.

As I made my way down the hill toward my house, I passed 3 sweater-vested old men hunting chestnuts under the trees that line the hillside. The approved method appears to be the following: whack at the lower limbs with your cane. When the chestnuts have fallen and broken out of their thick green shells, kick the best specimens aside with your cane, so you can later scoop up the whole harvest in just one stoop. If I had an oven, I'd hunt for a batch myself.

Two of the men I like to call the "Exercisers" passed by during the hunt, and seemed to make mental notes to head back later with a bag for carry their harvest home.

I live close to a popular running and walking trail along the river, and so daily I see the Exercisers - almost always in single sex groups - a line of 50 something women in shiny white running shoes gently gossiping their way to better health, or the three older gents in brightly colored (and I mean brightly colored) nylon running suits, enthusiastically enjoying each other's company on what I can only guess to be a doctor or wife-ordered walk. I have a 70 year old mother who lives alone in Rhode Island, and I find myself wishing her similar paseos and river walk companions.

One of the chestnut hunters claims this year's free harvest is first rate. ("¡Son gorditas!") It takes time to hunt chestnuts. Takes time to sort them out, comment on their size and scoop the best of them into your bag. Takes time to rest and chat between tree shakes.

Just like it takes time to travel, even in your own town.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Paisaje, Córdoba


The art of travel - Javier Reverte

Today's El País Sunday magazine(EPS) includes a terrific article by Spanish writer Javier Reverte, titled Un Adicto a Los Viajes.

His last two paragraphs, quickly translated below, resonated with me this morning, 2 days back from a wonderful, mind-stretching journey with a companion traveling outside North America for the first time in her 37 years:

The art of travel, in any case, supposes an act of permanent humility, because you discover that you are wrong more than you could have thought. Your prejudices disappear one by one and your principles become fewer, although they become stronger in quality. A good journey is the one that changes something inside you, and that teaches you, through the eyes of others, something about yourself.

And more than anything, travel requires a good dose of humor. You have to learn to laugh, particularly at yourself. Because if you learn the value of making fun of yourself, you'll have something to laugh at for the rest of your life.


Of course, if the wall becomes self expression...

John responded to my wall post with this fabulous link to photos of the street art showing up on the Israeli wall in the West Bank. Scroll through the 5 or 6 photos to the right.

Ahhh, creativity can make anything beautiful. My day is restored, thanks to John. My favorite is here....hmmm or is it here?

If they build this bleeping wall across the Mexican border, I have an idea. Who wants to go paint a piece of it? Laura, you in? John?


I let Frost have his say

There are lines that just stay with you, you know? I seldom hear the word "wall", or see a wall, without "something there is that doesn't love a wall" tumbling out of my New England born mouth.

To cheer myself up after the day's news, here's the source of the title of the previous post: a lovely, wise poem from a favorite fellow New Englander:

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Robert Frost


Something there is that doesn't love a wall...

A word for the US Senate and House, now that I've read the day's news.

I spend a lot of time these days wandering around walled places. All the rage, this wall idea.

Nine or ten centuries ago.

Thing is, once I get inside the wall the Town Hall's guided tour inevitably details all the uninvited guests who made it by the wall. I've yet to see a wall that worked.

Do we really think the best solution to our illegal immigration problem is straight out of the 10th century (or the modern Middle East, always a good example to follow), only more expensive?

A 1200 kilometre wall, with a 1,200 million dollar price tag.

Yes, in fact, that is a million dollars per half mile, more or less.

Sound like a good move to anybody else?