Thursday, May 21, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Friday, March 13, 2009
My mentors have long assured me that I would reach this point, this level where I feel like I am just about to break through, just about to crest the ridge, just about to finish the final lap of the 1650, just about to….understand Catalan.
What they never told me, is that I would pass this point.
Threshold! Alas! You cannot hold me!!
That’s right, folks, I can finally understand Catalan. The breakthrough happened late Wednesday night, when I found myself able to understand 90% of my professor’s lecture in Nationalism, Federalism, and Territorial Structures (the other 10% was a result of me zoning out). Considering that the first lecture consisted of me mainly guessing at the subject that he was addressing based on nearly-universal cognates like “federalism” (federalisme), “modern states” (estats moderns), and “Juan Carlos I” (Joan Carles I), I applaud myself at my speedy absorption of the language.
Granted, I cannot yet produce the language, but passive fluency is definitely one of the stepping-stones to the natural acquisition of language. Of course, my passive fluency is still selective, as my ability to understand Professor Miquel Caminal is no doubt partially due to the fact that I have become accustomed to his voice, speech habits, and lecturing style. And besides, the highly-specialized vocabulary (see above) of the subject matter means that I really haven’t needed to expand my knowledge of Catalan words beyond a few prepositions and auxiliary verbs. However, given the new confidence acquired Wednesday night, I have found myself able to respond to questions posed by Catalan speakers without first having to confusedly ask “¿Cómo?” and then have them switch to Castellano.
Likewise, my confidence and proficiency in Spanish has increased dramatically. With the exception of my friend from Andalucia, I am able to understand virtually any Spanish speaker. This of course creates comical situations in the classroom, where the students to whom I teach conversational American English believe I do not understand Spanish. I was unable to contain my laughter when three thirteen-year-old girls proceeded to bicker among themselves as to whether or not they should ask if I am gay.
“Pues, no tiene novia...”
“Y lleva una camisa mojada…”
“¿Quizás sea gay?”
Instead, they proceeded to ask me if I lived in a house or an apartment building.
As of right now, I have only optimism for my future acquisition of Catalan and perfection of Castellano. A most excellent opportunity has afforded itself this coming Sunday, when I plan to attend a calçotada, some form of Catalan barbeque involving the countryside, onions, and bibs. Although attending involves my waking up at some 7:00am on a Sunday (I have to catch the 8:40 Renfe out of Sans Estació, itself a 30-minute metro-ride away), I could not turn down the generosity of Ángels, the director of the English department at the high school where I volunteer. Besides, when else will I have the opportunity to attend such a distinct cultural phenomenon?
Thursday, March 12, 2009
1. Coat hooks.
I have a seemingly unusual penchant for choosing to wear a coat and attempting to use public restrooms. Because coat hooks—one of the superior inventions of Western Civilization—do not exist in Spanish bathrooms, I am required either to drape my coat across my knees, or to contrive some mechanism for storing it on the door handle, stall-wall, or handicap railing. This inconvenience can be avoided by placing hooks of pre-determined sizes on the insides of stall-doors.
Invented by early American industrialists and the poor, over-worked immigrants that they employed, the science of speed-walking (not to be confused with the pseudo-sport Power-walking) was perfected by the Germans in the 1930’s. How this technology never made its way south of the Alps is beyond me. Its introduction to Spain will greatly smooth the running of business, government, and daily transportation. It also means that I will no longer have to deal with confused middle-aged women who believe that they are taking their Sunday after-church stroll down Calle Sardenya, when in fact, they are obstructing my rush through the stuffy, unnaturally-lit metro tunnels at 9:45 on a Tuesday morning. If I miss the L3 out of Plaza Catalunya by 1.5 seconds one more time…
Spaniards, and Europeans in general, seem to have confused the cheese-smeared, baked cotton t-shirts they eat with pizza. Pizza, by nature, should be crusty, saucy, doughy, cheesy, greasy, and full of flavor. What Spaniards call pizza is crusty, floury, and completely bereft of what anyone would call flavor, sauce or toppings. “La Pizza mas Fina” is the slogan of one pizzeria, and the picture that accompanies it shows a chef ironing dough to make it just that much thinner. Pizza, like power-walking (but unlike hotdogs and hamburgers, which, I am told, were not invented by Americans or the residents of Frankfurt and Hamburg, but by Frenchmen living in Switzerland--or possibly Swissmen who happened to speak French) is a truly All-American invention. However, unlike speed-walking, the original model was indeed the best, and no further improvements or detractions need be made. Keep pizza American!
4. Motion-detectors on elevators.
These—ostensibly—already exist on Spanish elevators. However, they make the mistake of placing the motion-detectors inside the doors. This critical error entails two further failings: one, that it is possible to be entirely within the elevator, and yet still obstruct the doors from closing by stepping in front of the still-exposed detector; and two, that if you happen to be on the other side of the door, that is, coming into the elevator, the motion detector does nothing to help you, as the door will hit you (and refuse to stop closing as it hits you) before you ever reach the motion-detector. Motion detectors should be place synchronously within the closing doors, and, if possible, accompanied by a pressure-detector to prevent me getting crushed another time.
We’ve already been over this. But just to re-cap: please make it taste better.
Or, in a more general sense, clocks. While it is refreshing to show up fifteen-minutes late (because of that lady in the metro station) and find that the person with whom you had a meeting is still occupied and thus did not notice that you were late, it is equally as exacerbating when you arrive on time, and are required to wait twenty-minutes for your appointment to arrive. Even worse is rushing to get to a class on time, and sitting around with nothing to do for half an hour while you and half the class wait for the professor to show up (the other half of the class is enjoying wine and cigarettes at the bar down the street, and probably won’t bother showing up until the last ten minutes of class).
These, like motion-detectors, already theoretically exist in Spain. However, they are seldom employed in their most perfect form—that is, as vehicles for nap-taking. While the Spanish have shown amazing resilience towards the industrialization of modern lifestyles by maintaining the mid-day siesta, this two-hour break does little good if one must commute 45-minutes each way to reach home, sofa and bed. Stragetically placing couches in University libraries would circumvent this inconvenience, and allow for heavily-fatigued students (of which there will be many more once the controversial Bolonya reforms are enforced) to pass out on surfaces at least marginally more comfortable than book-ridden desks.
Monday, February 23, 2009
This evening, I had the extraordinary pleasure of patronizing the Palau de Música Catalana, a gorgeous music hall designed by Lluís Doménech i Montaner, a contemporary (rival?) of Gaudí, and a Catalan himself. Keeping with the traditions of both my home country and my adoptive one, I arrived just before the 8:30 curtain call, stormed up the steps, and yelled “¡rápido, rápido!” to the bartender as he took his dandy old time pouring the milk into my pre-show espresso. I rushed into the dark Sala de Conciertos, and after confusing some poor German high-school girls with my Spanish, found a seat on the end of the row. It was only after the music started that I remembered how to say, “seat number twenty-two”—zweiundzwanzig—in German.
The first performance by the Salzburg Chamber Orchestra was a selection of Haydn, a very mind-altering experience, which was my first professional classical concert as an adult. As Haydn gave way to Mozart—and naturally, being the classical aficionado that I am, I was able to identify each composer without first consulting the program booklet—I found the café slipping away, and ended up dozing peacefully in and out of consciousness throughout the performance. Of course, I found the strength to remain fully awake only at the end of the last movement, after which we had an intermission.
I was briefly confused by the intermission, as there was no sign that it was not simply the end of the concert. Indeed, I would not be surprised if the lady seated next to me was just as confused, as she did not return to her seat for the last performance. But I, being quite astute, checked the program, and found, much to my own surprise, that there was a full symphony of Beethoven that had yet to be performed. So I slipped back into the bar, and after waiting for several minutes and watching one of the German kids get yelled at for touching the 2-euro pastries, I finally managed to order another café cortado just as the bells started ringing for the end of intermission.
So again, I gulped down the café, only this time burning my tongue (I told the barmaid to hold the milk, thinking that it would save time; it apparently also cools down the coffee to make it more drinkable), and dashed back into the Sala for the last performance.
I found the Beethoven piece fascinating and relaxing, yet also stimulating. As the classical sounds floated in and through my ears, I took some time to look around the enclosure and marvel at the architecture, the sculptures, and the elaborate mosaics of the Palau. Soon enough, this gave way to a philosophical introspection, and my mind wandered from subject to subject: thinking first that, perhaps I shouldn’t have quit the trumpet in fifth grade; then moving on to Napoleon’s egotism; then to the nature of psychology; onwards to the self-fulfillment of the wanderer; wondering next why Americans are so fascinated by multilingualism and code-switching, while the rest of the world thinks nothing of it; at last to arrive at a veritable epiphany.
The epiphany had really occurred to me earlier in the day, but it hadn’t fully clicked. Just before my excursion to the Palau, I went to a Comparative Politics class for the first time (we are now in the third or fourth week of class, but my schedule is still quite a snafu). While trying to decipher the professor’s slurred words, and in a desperate attempt to make conversation with a Spaniard (and a girl), I turned to my neighbor to ask a question for clarification. After a few more exchanges, she asked where I was from, and after deciding not to lie and say “Canada”, I fessed up to being from “los Estados Unidos.” The expected response followed: a shrug, a grimace, and then she turned rather brusquely back to her notes.
However, I was not to be dissuaded, and after our break (yes, most of my classes here have a ten-minute cigarette/coffee break), I pursued my new friendship with her. I asked if she was from Barcelona, and after her answer in the positive, asked if she was Catalana. She smiled (smiled!) and said yes. It would seem that I had discovered the way into the natives’ heart. Alas, in my very idiosyncratic manner, after scoring points with my very apt question, I had no response and no further questions, and turned awkwardly back to my own notes. But a few seconds later, she asked where I was from, and with a hint of that Midwestern pride, I replied “Detroit.”
Now, I expected the blank look on her face. Several times before, I had told Spaniards and Catalans I was from Detroit and received a similar look of desperation. Every time, I patiently explained where it is located, and then proceeded to tell them about the automotive industry, which usually makes a connection for them.
I never expected anybody to know where Detroit was, or even to recognize the name. But what surprised me—and still surprises me—is that my landmarks never seemed to work out as well as I had expected. I had originally decided that the best way to pinpoint Detroit’s location without a map was to say that it is mid-way between Toronto and Chicago.
Apparently this is a mistake.
Nobody in Europe seems to have heard of either Toronto or Chicago, unless they’ve seen the movie with Catherine Zeta Jones and Renée Zellweger, which still leaves out Toronto.
Even the first time, this struck me as odd, but I never fully realized why. The several Spaniards that I have spoken to knew where New York and Los Angeles are, but not much else. My friend Adrian didn’t even know where Washington, D.C. was; he thought it was on the West Coast, somewhere near Seattle! And it would seem that the same goes for Canada; that only Quebec City and Ottawa make it onto the map, if that. The other industrial and commercial centers—Miami, St. Louis, New Orleans, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Boston—these don’t even seem to be relevant.
Americans are berated for being the most geographically ignorant citizens of the world, yet it would seem that everybody else is just as oblivious. I can name at least two or three major cities in two-thirds of the countries in Europe, even though I might not be able to pinpoint them on a blank map. This may not be very impressive, but consider this: Europeans and the rest of the world have a strange fascination with the United States. It may be a disgusted fascination or a horrified one, but it is a fascination nonetheless. Yet despite the surprisingly central role that the US plays in international political discussions, the place that it has in the university classrooms, or the way it dominates television and cinema, it would seem that the rest of the world still has only a very basic understanding of the geography—physical as well as human—of the United States. Despite the verifiable cultural, political and economic hegemony that America exerts over the world, it is still perceived as a blank-faced mass with only two major population centers.
Whether or not people like us, if they have an opinion about us, it would be worth their while to know a little more about us. They should at least know the location of more than just two of our largest cities.
Now then, if only I could find Teheran on a map….
Saturday, February 21, 2009
The Barcelona planning board has done an excellent job of hiding parking, of making it invisible: on the inner courtyards of residential blocks, in middle-sized parking garages hidden behind the façade of some early-20th century Modernist building, tucked away underground, under the plazas and parks of Fort Pienc, Parque de la Ciutadella and Grácia. The only visible parking in Barcelona is the street parking; both sides of every one-way street lined with neatly-spaced Euro-sized vehicles, interspersed with Vespas and motorcycles.
That’s why I was astonished—appalled—to discover an actual parking lot in Barcelona. Maybe it was just an “inner courtyard” type of parking lot, and I somehow managed to wander through the gates, but either way, the sight destroyed the verisimilitude of Barcelona. Heretofore, it had been a city where cars were secondary, where pedestrians, cyclists and metro-riders ruled. But the brutal reality must come out: automobiles are everywhere, and their ravenous need for space still dictates the structure of our cities and our society.
The sight recalled my bus rides to and from the Seville and Barcelona airports. People often talk of Europe as a land of “city” and “country,” and a huge distinction between the two. As if there is a line that one crosses, and is suddenly in the pasture lands. As if there is no suburbia, no urban sprawl, no vast industrial landscapes. But on the bus ride out of the city center, the old beauty of the ancient cities dissipates into that which is least expected: residential slums, ragged apartment buildings, huge manufacturing districts, and that landmark of the modern age: the parking lot.
Yes! Rare as they are in the city, they predominate outside the municipal jurisdiction. It is a marvel to see such meticulous conservation of space within the city, and such flagrant disregard for such conservation outside. Parking lots abound, along with one- and two-story warehouses and manufacturing plants. To think what it would cost to build such a building in L’Eixample, to use up all that lateral space, and not expand it vertically to a six-story building! And between these buildings and the parking lots: empty space! Some of these abandoned fields, littered with scrap metal as they are, nearly resembled those one sees outside Detroit, or tucked within the cloverleaf of some Interstate exit ramp. Space that is no longer valuable, that has no use for construction or extraction.
That’s when it hit me: this is my people’s legacy. Not just my people the Americans, but even closer: my people the Detroiters, the exporters of cars and steel and coal and the relentless ethic of American industry.
That this sight recalled my home, a city falling into industrial decadence, here, in one of the cultural capitals of the world. That it should be my homeland that exported the technology and the lifestyle that would absorb every other nation in the Western world, and impose it on the rest of the world. That there should be no place untouched by the sooty hand of industry. That the green places, the country-side, the sea, the red sunset over the hills, should all be poisoned by the emissions of automobiles, the scraps of factories, the uranium and coal waste of power plants; by that black heat-mirror, that little square of desert, flat and sterile, upon which we park our cars.
But it is a process that we cannot end. We are forced to embrace it as well as we can, as our predecessors did. Perhaps by embracing it, we can change it. Perhaps. But it is no longer in our hands. The model invented and propagated by the British, Americans and Germans has been adopted and improved upon by the Indians, the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, and others. It will be these nations who decide the future of industry, and hence, of the physical spaces of humanity. It is they who will take up the chain, so that the inexorable gears of progress might turn within that marvel of clockwork that we call Civilization, on its indefatigable march towards the Future.
Will there be nothing left? These civilizations, as the Western civilizations, have adopted the mantra that “nothing is sacred.” Anything material is fair game. Humankind’s land, air, body: all of this can be acted on and used for the expansion of industry. It is omnipresent: in Mumbai, Shanghai, Rio, London, Detroit, Barcelona.
Where now can I turn?
Patagonia? Tibet? Sub-Saharan Africa?
But in these places, I will be flagged as an outsider. By my dress, by my skin, my mode of conduct and speech. The very places that I would seek for sanctuary, by their very nature as sanctuaries, would turn me away.
There is a chance that I will be welcomed. But then, only as a forerunner—or harbinger—of the arrival of the Grand Western Civilization.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Like a breath of fresh air for a drowning man! Ah, Sevilla, city after my own heart! Indeed, arriving in Seville, I immediately felt a little more at home than in Barcelona: it just has a little more grit to it, a little less of the hustle, even less of the pomp. Don’t get me wrong, I love Barcelona, and intellectually speaking, it’s where I need to be—modernism, utopian socialism, art and architecture—but it just isn’t quite as friendly as Seville.
And oh, the Español! Yes! They speak Spanish here! What a refreshing experience, to walk around town at 1 a.m. on a Thursday night and ask directions from three different thirty-year-old couples and get a polite response in Castellano!!! Immediately, I knew I was going to like this town. Of course, the Catalan presence provides much of the impetus for me to live in Barcelona, as well as well-grounded fodder for my prospective thesis, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy visiting a place where I speak the language. Although, given their accent, saying that Sevillanos and I speak the same language is kind of a stretch….
Regardless, a time away was just what I needed before I hesitatingly go back into the high-speed, bump-ridden flow that is Barcelona. A break from not only classes and L’Eixample, but also from the other CASB students, a time to clear my head and connect with kindred spirits in Seville. I did much of the sight-seeing alone: the Catedral, the Alcanzares Reales, Plaza de España, the Archives, the Roman ruins of Italica; but I did meet up with the Barça crowd, visit with Emma and Krystina (so good to see them both!), and make a new Latvian friend.
Miks added an interesting twist to the weekend, and was probably the only thing that kept me from burning down my hostel (Two dormitories on each floor, one bathroom on each floor: sounds reasonable. No. You need to walk through my bedroom to get to the bathroom, which reeks of human refuse. And of course the guys in the other dormitory find it necessary to take showers at 4:50 a.m. and leave the lights on and the door open after they leave. Add that to the mattress that served as a sink-hole for my back, and Olé Backpacker Hostel asked for the brutal review that will be shortly published on Hostelworld.com). Miks, the Latvian Theatre Groupie, was my roommate in the hostel throughout the weekend. We connected on the first night, after I told him that part of my ancestry was Lithuanian. He replied “We are all like brothers, our three little countries,” and promptly invited me to a theatrical performance, which itself was the purpose of his visit to Seville. I took him up on it, and he got me a free front-row ticket to the show “Long Life,” which has been touring Europe for a while now. A fantastic cultural experience, not lessened by the fact that there was absolutely no Latvian—nor Russian nor English nor Spanish—spoken throughout the entirety of the performance.
A relaxing and edifying experience: A few hours by the riverside, several exercises in photographic creativity, a couple scribbles in my notebook, 100 pages of Foucault, and a thousand deep breaths later (there would have been a thousand more had my allergies not started acting up Saturday night), I just might be ready to go back to that barely-avoided heart-attack called “daily life” here in Barcelona.
Maybe I can go back tomorrow.