a wandering woman writes

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wandering Woman's Laws of Life as a Blogging Expat

Well, this woman's been wandering more than writing, hasn't she?

The hardest part about writing up one's wanderings, I've decided, is stopping the wandering (or the unavoidable income-earning activities) to do the writing.

Look for a notebook full of "ooh! for the blog!" bits to start showing up here at the blog, one by one. First, in the way of an apology, I am pleased to share:

Wandering Woman's Irrefutable Laws of Life as an Expat

The Wanderer's First Law

When your self-employed gig involves drumming up publicity for clients in Spain, all of your hard work will come to nothing.

Until you take a working vacation, that is, at which time every website, newspaper and television contact you have ever talked with will suddenly require an immediate response.

Unavoidable Corollary to The Wanderer's First Law: If you've left a beloved blog untended during your working vacaction, the number of urgent work-related responses required during and immediately following your travels will double. Twice.

Life lesson to be gathered from The Wanderer's First Law: If your self employed gig involves drumming up publicity, take lots of working vacations. If you leave, they will call.

Wandering Woman's Second Law

When you move to Spain to live your life in Spanish, the language you've fallen head over heels in love with, your Spanish friends will decide it's time to perfect their English.

Corollary: You will desperately enjoy practicing with them, even as the irony amuses you. Especially if they draw cute blonde caricatures of you sporting an outfit you actually own.

Wandering-woman portrait above by the multi-talented Nomadita.

Omsbudsman's Note: Those of you who have met me in person will note that I am not, in fact, anywhere near that blonde. Shhhhhhh. My Spanish friends don't know that.... and I'm perfectly comfortable answering to "Rubia".


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Desperately seeking Isabel

"Do you know what's happening at Santa María?", she shouts. She sprints toward me, fast as a woman who looks to be well in her 70s can. She's breathless. Panicked. "They rang the bell. But they rang the small bell! And I don't know what that means!"

I make my usual mistake, explaining I don't know what the small bell means either, before I finally get to the punchline: I've been in Madrigal all of 10 minutes.

-You're not from here! Well, how are you going to know!

I'm not, I shrug. She tells me there's a large tour group I might want to join up at Saint Nicolas, and we wish each other a good day.

I've finally figured out why I love to visit pueblos in Spain. Pueblos, the smaller the better. Yes, they're often lovely. And historic. Yes, I often eat well in pueblos.

But I've finally named it, after Saturday's visit to Madrigal de las Altas Torres, population 1,920.

It's the welcome. I never feel like a stranger in a Spanish pueblo. Odd, isn't it? Where am I more of a stranger? Yet, speaking the language, looking like a woman, not necessarily an extranjera, I find myself fantasizing I live in every pueblo I visit.

It's the welcome: the nods, the Buenos Días and Buenas Tardes. The "Ponte más arriba si esperas el Auto-Res; para allí. ¡Hasta lo!". Not a person I passed in Madrigal let me by without a spoken hello. I spun round, stunned, when a teenager on a passing bicycle offered a hearty "Hasta Luego". Thirty seconds late, I called back, hoping he'd at least catch an echoed "uego" bouncing up the stone lined street behind him.

I went to Madrigal in search of Isabel la Católica, and found the font where she was baptised. I missed her birthplace, a royal residence turned monastery that keeps admirable Spanish hours - a 12:30-4 pm closure for lunch. I found Vasco de Quiroga, a native son who founded a Utopian society amongst the indigenous people of Michoacan. And his nephew, Gaspar, a cardinal, the general inquisitor who threw out the heresy charges against Salamanca's lyric poet, Fray Luis de León.

I found El Tostado, the theologian for whom Salamanca's own Calle Tostado was christened. And I found Fray Luis himself, who died in the Augustinian monastery that now lies crumbling in a field outside the city's 11th century walls.

The grand entrance to the city lies south, along the highway to Madrid. A noble puerta, and one of the more than 80 towers in the originally Arab-built walls that surrounded the city. The town boasts two churches: San Nicolas (the slate-topped tower you see in the first photo, Avila's tallest mudéjar tower) and the 12th century Santa Maria del Castillo.

I'll be back in Madrigal. Next time, I'll call ahead. I'll leave time for the palace where Isabel was born, see if I can't arrange a look inside Santa María (hmmm...perhaps ask about that mysterious small bell?) and track down the museum of Vasco de Quiroga, housed in the 15th century Real Hospital de la Purísma Concepción. The tourism office, a table in the city library, is also housed in the Real Hospital. Saturday the tourism office consisted of a busy librarian and a stack of town maps. I'll take my new history consultant's advice, I think, and "get someone to show me around".

As for eating well, I did - solomillo equal to that of the superwedding, although I immediately caught my own ordering mistake. On the plains of Castilla, it's cochinillo (roasted suckling pig), or at the very least, lamb.


A bus across Castilla

¿El cuatro?

He calls out the number with the confidence of a theatre usher. Boldly. Loudly. As if he's been waiting for me.

My gaze drops from the row of seat numbers overhead to meet dark, smiling eyes. He's an older man, elegantly dressed. An impeccable black leather briefcase rests on his feet. I glance at my ticket. Oddly enough, he's right.

Mmmmm, yes! Yes, four, that's me.

He shifts his case, his cane and his shiny black shoes and I climb into the window seat next to him.

We chat. A few paragraphs later he looks straight into my eyes again, head tilted aside like a curious puppy.

Are you Spanish?
I grin and offer my standard answer: I live in Salamanca but no, I'm not Spanish.

"¿América?", he asks? I sense the America he's guessed isn't North America. "Not México", he continues. "Ecuador...no...where?"

Blame the age of his ears or the roar of the engine; the man has made my day.

"América, sí. Estados Unidos", I answer.

He looks suprised. I watch him note my frustration with the soft Spanish r that continues to give me away.

You speak castellano, no doubt about that, but there is something...

(They call it an accent, I think to myself. And it tortures me. Still, I make a mental note to pick up something nice for my Spanish teacher. At least my accent has moved South, to the land of native speakers....)

We introduce ourselves and discover we are headed to the same pueblo: Madrigal de las Altas Torres, birthplace of Isabel I of Spain. Columbus' Isabel.

As the bus crosses Castilla, I travel the world from seat 4. I am rapt. Seventeenth century México, Madrigal at the time of Isabel's birth, Fray Luis de León in Salamanca, Spain's California missions.... Spain's history swirls around me. My companion is a history professor, retired from Salamanca's Universidad Pontífica. An expert on the history of the church, he is travelling to Madrigal to talk with local families about one of the town's famous sons: Vasco de Quiroga, a 17th century Spanish bishop revered in Mexico as a defender of the indigenous people of Michoacan. My travelling companion has written a book on Vasco de Quiroga, which he proudly pulls from the impeccable briefcase.

We talk about my one-woman company, my solo move to Spain and the US elections. He asks if Chicago is nothing but smokestacks and I assure him it is not. We talk about architecture and the Great Chicago fire.

By the time the bus pulls off the road along Madrigal's city walls, he's declared me courageous for marching off alone to a strange land. Never mind this wandering pueblos alone on weekends.

"But you could see the pueblos with travel groups," he tells me. He laughs as I recite the advantages of travelling solo, with spontaneity at the top of the list. His voice slows while he quietly reminisces about his own solo travels across Spain as a young professor. "I'd stop wherever I wanted, pull off the road at a wall, or a castle or pueblo. "I guess you love to go your own way, too...."

Hmmm, yes. And if I didn't travel alone, I think to myself, I wouldn't have met you, would I?

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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Three men and a tree

They told me disease gutted this tree over a hundred years ago. Well, before they were born, anyway, which they assured me placed the event a long time ago.

The tree is hollow, exquisitely textured on the inside, and yes, you are looking right through it. Still it grows, living from the outer layer that survived.

They asked me how far the photo would travel. All three seemed a bit disappointed by the prospect of only making it to Salamanca.

Here, then. They've made it a lot further.

Three men and a tree, on the hill behind Santa María del Castillo, in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, birthplace of Isabel I.

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The most beautiful day

Photo: Iglesia de Santa María del Castillo, Madrigal de las Altas Torres

Found posted in the entrance to Saint Nicolas de Bari Church, in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Ávila:

The most beautiful day: today
The greatest obstacle: fear
The easiest thing: to be wrong
The root of all evil: egoism
The most beautiful distraction: work
The worst defeat: discouragement
The first necessity: to communicate
What makes me the happiest: being useful to the rest of mankind
The most gratifying sensation: inner peace
The best cure: optimism
The strongest force in the world: faith
The most necessary people: parents
The most beautiful thing in the world: love

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Poetry Thursday II: A little girl walks San Pablo with her parents

I call it "Three seconds of eternity"

I don’t know what her parents have planned for her. What school they’ll send her to, what career they’ll point her toward. I don’t know what her goals will be, how she’ll plan out her career. Whether she’ll marry well. Gift her mother with grandchildren. I don’t know how they’ll plan for old age, whether she’ll be ready to take care of her parents and later, herself. If they plan to bring her a brother or sister to play and grow old with.

I only know her as she is now. This moment. Face pressed against the window glass, two plump hands plastered to the pane above her. A lost sprite wandered in from the forest, jubilant at the sight of people. Singing HOLA! HOLA! HOLA! Loud as she can, louder with every motherly tug on her sleeve. Blue eyes dancing, dark silken curls leaping round her head. HOLA! HOLA! HOLA!

I only know her ecstasy.


San Esteban, Salamanca

I like to make this my Sunday morning view, over an open El País. This plaza, Plaza of the Council of Trent, is one of Salamanca's loveliest. I did my best to capture it on my way back from Las Dueñas this morning.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What a difference a day makes

Yes, in fact I DO feel good today!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jo Berry: Building Bridges

Last Saturday El País published an inspiring interview with Jo Berry and Pat McGee, two of the participants in a recent conference sponsored by a Basque organization dedicated to promoting nonviolence and dialog as a solution to conflict.

Jo Berry is the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, a member of the British parliament killed by an IRA bomb at the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984.

Pat McGee set that bomb.

They now call each other friend, and speak together about the journey they've both been on since meeting each other, at Jo's suggestion, in 2000.

You can read an inspiring English language interview with both of them at a wonderful site, The Forgiveness Project. I promise their story will get you thinking - about division, and "forgiveness". And dignity.

After her father's death, Jo Berry went to Northern Ireland to hear the "other side's" stories. She found the "other side" far more interested in her story than people back in England. She listened and she talked, and eventually she worked her way into a meeting with the man who had killed her father, through mutual contacts.

A few excerpts from Jo Berry's telling of her story:

Perhaps more than anything I’ve realised that no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each others lives, we could all have done what the other did.

My commitment is to see the humanity in everyone.

The website of the organization Jo Berry founded, Building Bridges for Peace, links to all kinds of good things, including Action Transport Theatre, British theatre group currently (I think) presenting an original work based in the story of Jo Berry and Pat McGee.


Things I read in Spain

El País ran an opinion column titled "Liberales Contra Bush" the other day. The column was signed by a long list of liberal American academics.

The essay, which I found here in English, is a response to an essay in the London Review of Books, in which Tony Judt claims that American liberals have "acquiesced in President Bush's catastrophic foreign policy."

The following passages brought applause in my apartment(where, yes, in fact, I was alone):

Reason is indispensable to democratic self-government. This self-evident truth was a fundamental commitment of our Founding Fathers, who believed it was entirely compatible with every American's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. When debating policy in the public square, our government should base its laws on grounds that can be accepted by people regardless of their religious beliefs.

We insist that America be defended vigorously against its real enemies --the radical Islamists who organize to attack us. But security does not require torture or the rejection of basic guarantees of due process. To the contrary, this administration's lawless conduct and its violations of the Geneva Conventions only damage our moral standing and our ability to combat the appeals of violent ideologues. By defending torture, the Bush administration engages in precisely the kind of ethical relativism that it purports to condemn.

We love this country. But true patriotism does not consist of bravado or calumny. It resides in faithfulness to our great constitutional ideals. We are a republic, not a monarchy. We believe in the rule of law, not secret prisons. We insist on justice for all, not privilege for the few. In repudiating these American ideals, the Bush administration disgraces America and damages our claim to democratic leadership in the larger world.

OK, I am done now. As my corporate boss use to say every time I asked for more than 2 consecutive days off, "You'll do what you think is right." However you vote, please, please - just vote, paisanos!


Monday, November 06, 2006

A wedding in Salamanca

Sometimes I worry I go on too much.

You know, about Spain. I don't mean to paint Spain as a paradise. I see things I'd change if I could. If only they mattered to me! My life here is simple. I am able to toss aside the frustrations that do come up because I am happy here. It's that easy.

I moved to Salamanca to climb into a life that in many ways couldn't feel further from my reserved Irish American upbringing and my frantic corporate life.

And never have I felt that......I'll laugh as I type this but it's true... reckless, wild abandon to just have a hell of a good time, as much as I have at the 2 weddings in which I have participated (I told you, "attended" won't do) in Spain.

I suspect what the Spanish are teaching me is that wild abandon isn't actually reckless at all. The risk of wild abandon would be...? Sore feet?

I'm sure there are Americans who grow up knowing all that I am learning here, as I am sure there are more cultures that revel in life and family and friends.

But me, I'm staying right where I am. And trying to figure out where to meet engaged people. A wedding a month would do, I think.

Scenes from a fabulous wedding:

The ceremony, in Salamanca's Old Cathedral. The Old Cathedral is a hauntingly old, evocative space. Invite the choir in which the bride and groom met and you send chills along the American guest's spine. And prove once and for all that the Spanish either have uniquely musical genes or incredible musical education. I watched people I've known for two years as ordinary work colleagues sing like trained, incredibly talented professionals.

Hadyn's Hallelujah chorus as the choir's closing number.
Should I ever marry, I'd love to close with this. For my mother. Whose sentiments at that long awaited moment would be perfectly expressed.

Four hours of nonstop dancing
(in the very pointy shoe above, ouch...) including the obligatory Grease reenactment (my Greased Lightening is coming back, I'm pleased to say), rousing renditions of "It's Raining Men" and "YMCA", more conga lines than I can count and the sevillanas I really do want to learn before the next wedding. Who knows where I can find a copy of El Puente:

"Será maravilloso, viajar hasta Mallorca, sin necesidad de coger el barco o el avión, sólo caminando, en bicicleta o autostop..."

Catchiest tune I've heard in a long time. It's a sixties tunes, so I'm told, English speakers, about how marvelous it would be to travel to the island of Mallorca via a bridge from Valencia, walking, on a bicycle or hitchhiking. At least amongst the wedding crowd, it is best danced by acting out each transport action.....while bopping to a 60s girls group beat.

In closing, may the bride and groom be as happy as they made me that brilliant October day. And may I soon be invited to another Spanish wedding.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bruno Morandi, Photographer and Traveller

Visit this photography site - Bruno Morandi's site.
Just go.

In the interview with Bruno published on his site, he talks about looking for movement in his photos:
"What interests me in photography is the ephemeral."
He captures it. Each photo is a poem, a frozen moment.

I was compelled to take this quote with me, as I left his site:

The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure....The right art is purposeless, aimless.....letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.

Eugen Herrigel

Replace "shot" with high note, solo, poem, paragraph, wheeled pot (chuckle, yes I can relate), whatever, huh?

I found Bruno through woman wandering over in Belgium, who was tipped off by Manic.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Rain in Spain

I'm packed for another hiking excursion tomorrow: rain poncho, umbrella, change of dry clothes. Sierra de Francia this time, where despite last weekend's brilliant summer sunshine it's reputedly been raining cats and dogs since Thursday.

My hearty hiking companion votes we ignore weather forecasts and climb on the bus at 9 am, no matter what.

Good thing I love the smell of wet leaves.

The rain in Spain falls mainly.....where I decide to hike.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Llevar huevos a las clarisas

I attended a super-wedding last Saturday. Attended? Attended is far too passive a word; I danced my second Spanish super-wedding to smithereens on Saturday,and my feet along with it. I'll hope to post a bit about it tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I'll share my latest lesson in Spanish traditions.

Saturday was a glorious day, summer-like...with skies that blue only Spain can produce. Good thing, too. The reception was held in a enormous garden, with a tent for dinner and dancing after a long afternoon of outdoor drinks, appetizers and lawns throroughly aerated by the heels of the female guests.

As I chatted, I kept hearing strange comments I didn't quite understand --"Ah, she (the bride) brought eggs to the Clarisas, didn't she?" "The Clarisas liked their eggs!" Finally the comment hit me straight on, in a conversation in which I was involved, and I got my explanation.

The Clarisas are the nuns of the order of Saint Clare - Poor Clares, we call them back in New England - and apparently, Spanish brides have been bringing them eggs to assure good weather on wedding days for centuries. Seems the nuns need the eggs for their sweets-making or to distribute to the poor. In return for a dozen or two or three, they generously pray for (and usually receive, so I hear) good weather from their founder, Saint Clare.

Feeding my curiousity on this newly discovered egg-nun-weather connection, I ran across this fairly scholarly study of the whole matter (in Spanish).

Apparently a rainy wedding day was considered a curse a few centuries ago. Doomed to cry the rest of her disgraced life if she married on a rainy day, the bride took matters in her own hands and offered a dozen eggs to the local order of Saint Clara. For a clear day, (tiempo claro) the bride brought eggs with their claras (or whites) to the nuns of Saint Clara. Logical enough, eh?

The article reports the results of a survey carried out in 1993 in which Spain's 60 convents dedicated to Santa Clara were asked to respond to a series of questions - questions about eggs and rain and brides. All but 3 of the convents that responded to the survey reported a busy egg for sun business The nuns reported that they did not in fact have a special eggs for weather prayer, but that they appreciated the eggs, and merely asked Saint Clare to consider the happiness and loyalty of the marrying couple.

Most of the convents reported not likely the recent extension of the egg offering tradition to more modern "wants", like exam results, job offers, vacation weather and even a passing grade on the driver's license practical exam.

I was intrigued at the wedding, in any case. The bride assures me she did not in fact give eggs to the local nuns of Saint Clara.

But I'm betting someone did. While Carmen was explaining the mystery of the egg comments to me, a unidentified woman approached and assured us, with an air of absolute confidence, that the local Poor Clares do not, in fact, want any more eggs.

"They won't take eggs!, she said. "Now they only want money."

In person or online.


Cloister of the Convent of Las Dueñas, Salamanca

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Poetry Thursday - Favorite Lines

Poetry Thursday's prompt this week was favorite lines - a favorite line of poetry.

My favorite lines are the lines that have inexplicably stuck with me, lines that float up, seemingly uninvited, when I least expect them.

Some of my lines float up in English, some in Spanish. I linked to a poem with 2 of those always present English lines for me - its first and last - in a previous Poetry Thursday post: Robert Frost's Directive. The first line rolls off my tongue like almost no other: "Back out of all this now to much for us." Might be that I used to live my life deep in the "too much for us". Whatever it is, when I find myself there again, that line is all I need to mentally take the walk Frost takes in the poem, and slow down.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver, holds another of my very favorite lines:
"You only have to let the soft animal of your body loves what it loves. "

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work