September 30, 2011

Two Spains, Many Spains: "Las dos Españas"

"Here lies half of Spain. It died of the other half."
—  Mariano José de Larra, 19th-century Spanish satirist

Stereotypes and simplifications are sometimes a good starting point, but never a good end point. One of the more enduring narratives about Spain is that of "las dos Españas." The phrase comes from an Antonio Machado poem:

Ya hay un español que quiere             There is a Spaniard today, who wants

vivir y a vivir empieza,                         to live and is starting to live,

entre una España que muere               between one Spain dying

y otra España que bosteza.                 and another Spain yawning.

Españolito que vienes                         Little Spaniard just now coming

al mundo, te guarde Dios.                   into the world, may God keep you.

Una de las dos Españas                      One of those two Spains

ha de helarte el corazón.                     will freeze your heart.

— Machado, untitled poem, "LIII," in Proverbios y Cantares, ca. 1910s

For Machado and his left-leaning intellectual peers, dubbed the Generation of '98, one Spain was heavily Catholic, reactionary, and centrist, the other a secular (anti-clerical), progressive, modern and in this sense more post-Enlightenment European Spain.

A 1998 stamp showing the "Generación del 98," a group of novelists,
poets, essayists, and philosophers, among them Antonio Machado

Keep in mind that they were called the Generation of '98 because in 1898 they witnessed Spain's defeat in the Spanish-American War over Cuba. This loss quickly became the symbolic turning point in what would be the end of the Spanish Empire. As Spain entered the 20th century, the deep intellectual question was how it could recapture its political and cultural importance in a modern, industrialized Europe, having previously built its Empire around pre-modern institutions of religious conquest and New World gold.

This was the Spain Hemingway arrived to in the 1920s, a country that hadn't, as he saw it, completely fallen prey to industrialization and modernization. It still had that vitality and pre-modern spirit that Hemingway believed had been suffocated by industrialization and suburbanization in his home country. Machado, on the other hand, believed one Spain was holding the other new Spain back. One can quickly see how all kinds of cultural tensions can get folded into this modernization and anti-modernization story: centrist, imperial Spain (Madrid) versus capitalist, regional Spain (Bilbao, Barcelona); nationalist Spain versus European Spain; Catholic Spain versus secular, Enlightenment Spain… and so on.

Goya's Duelo a garrotazos (Fight with cudgels), painted sometime 1820-23 and likely a
critique of the volatile politics of the court of Fernando VII. The image is evoked by
some today to illustrate the long historical divisions of the Two Spains

My personal philosophy is that, rather than get caught up in local debates about whether one or the other Spain is the "real" Spain, it's useful to see this dualism as a core dynamism in Spanish culture, for better and for worse. Though as I will discuss in a periodic series of blog entries which I'll call, "Two Spains, Many Spains," even the notion of two Spains doesn't adequately capture the rich pluralism of Spain's many cultures and peoples today.

September 28, 2011

Penedés: Wine Country

Spain's wines are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, and for good reason. Spain produces some excellent wines, and unlike France and Italy, whose international reputations and image marketing have led to sticker shock and high pricing of its bottles abroad, Spain exports wines at comparatively low prices that make drinking them not only gustatorily satisfactory but also quite financially appealing. Indeed, in Spain wine is consumed as an ordinary accompaniment to one's meal, not a luxury item, and is thus priced very inexpensively.

(Evidence by way of personal anecdote: when I once tried to buy my in-laws a "nice and expensive" bottle of wine, my mother-in-law fussed about not being excessive in purchasing a 10€ bottle, and insisted that splurging on a 5€ bottle was more than fancy enough. For routine drinking, one need not spend more than 3€ here in Spain for a good wine.)

While there are wine regions all throughout Spain, the two most reputed wine regions are La Rioja and Penedés. Between the two, La Rioja is the region with the longest tradition and greatest fame, but the two regions have equal status here in part because of their specialization in product. La Rioja produces mostly "tinto," red wines, while Penedés is reknowned for its "vino blanco" (white wine) and "cava," Spain's version of sparkling wine (or what in France is called champagne).

Spain's many wine producing regions, though La Rioja and Penedés are among its most prestigious

There is too much to say about wine culture in Spain, about production, variation, and its mark on the culture and landscape of the country (the so-called "cava wars," "denominación de origen" labeling rules, whether it is an alcoholic drink or really an accompaniment to one's meal). I promise to return to these topics in future blog entries. Here I just want to focus on Penedés, having recently spent a weekend there touring the vineyards. Penedés is a comarca, a county, of Cataluña located along the coast to the southwest of Barcelona. It is an ancient viticulture region, with vines found in the area dating back to before the 4th Century BC brought there by the Greeks, though the region's importance in wine markets really got going in the 6th Century AD and onward.

Question: What are the three grape varietals used in cava?
Answer: Parellada, Macabeu, and Xarel•lo.

Starting in the late 19th Century, producers in the region started specializing in "cava." The shift was partly a response to the phylloxera plague, a pest which ruined grape vines all across Europe and nearly caused Europe's wine production to collapse. What is cava? I have for a long time said that cava is more or less exactly the same as champagne, except that the French won't let anyone else call it that. However, I was mistaken. Cava is made from three white grape varieties common to the Penedés region: Parellada, Macabeu, and Xarel•lo. These are not the same as the grapes used in champagne (which for those of you curious are generally the white Chardonay and the the red wine grapes of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). (See here for a more in depth blog entry on grape cultivation in Spain. Interesting fact: 94% of grapes cultivated in Spain are destined for wine production, only 6% for table consumption.) So my new take on this is that cava is _better_ than champagne, and in the U.S. you can usually find bottles of it for cheaper. Unlike wine, cava has two fermentation steps, the first fermentation is done with all wines to convert the sugars into alcohol via yeast, but then a second partial fermentation is done, after more sugar liqueur is added, which results in the bubbly final product. What is most interesting about this is that the bottle sold is the same bottle in which this second fermentation takes place!

"Vendimia" season in Penedés. Trucks line up at the Segura Viudas Cava Bodega
in mid September to deliver grapes from nearby vineyards.

September is when the "vendimia" (grape harvesting) takes place, and was thus a very fun time to visit the region and do some enotourism. You could see trucks bringing grapes from the fields to the "bodegas," wine cellars, where producers bottle next year's wine or cava. The two wine producing capitals of the region are Vilafranca and Sant Sadurní d'Anoia. Vilafranca del Penedés is renowned for its culinary excellence (and also its Castellers, or the local association dedicated to staging human towers, surely the subject of a later entry). While there, I highly recommend dining at Cal Ton, widely considered to be the finest or one of the finest restaurants in the city. The town also has a "ruta modernista" (Modernist route) with some interesting buildings; interesting, though not quite the same level as you'd find in Barcelona. More impressive for vino-philes is the "Vinseum," the Penedés Wine Museum. It has an innovative museum format, with interactive displays and poses questions rather than answers, though you will certainly leave it knowing much more about the region's wine, culture and history than when you entered. Very importantly, the museum gives you a wine tasting with your entrance fee.

The more interactive display style of the Vinseum in Vilafranca del Penedés

Recognize this bottle?
That's because Freixenet produces
90 million bottles a year, exporting
a large percent to the United States
Sant Sadurní d'Anoia also has wines, but its name is more synonymous with cava. Most of the famous cavas are located here. The two biggest producers Cordoníu and Freixenet, which Americans might recognize since they export large amounts to the States, offer great tours. Freixenet's tour focuses more on the production and its massive bodegas, whereas Cordoníu's tour highlights its modernist buildings and beautiful layout. Again, both tours end with a cava tasting. I recommend you combine a tour of at least one of these large producers with a visit to one of the many smaller wine or cava producers in the area, since they will give you a better tour of the actual fields and vineyards to compliment the big producers' focus on fermentation and bottling. One (of many) options is Segura Viudas, one of my personal cava favorites and which offers a more intimate tour. While a member of the "Freixenet group," it produces its own distinct wines and cavas and is located about 10 minutes outside of Sant Sadurní d'Anoia along a road that winds through breathtaking views of vineyards and a very distinctive Penedés landscape.

The Segura Viudas bodega and the rolling hills and vineyards of Penedés, wine country

September 26, 2011

Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 2

If in the last entry I outlined the kinds of images of Madrid that commonly circulate, here I want to say a bit about the city's cultural significance to Spaniards, a significance which the Hemingway paradigm misses entirely.

Very eighties movie poster for Almodóvar's classic
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
For many Spaniards, Madrid's cultural moment was "la Movida Madrileña," a countercultural movement which took place in the 1980s in the wake of "la transición," i.e. the political transition following Franco's death in 1975 and the beginning of Spain's present-day democracy. Often characterized as a hedonistic cultural wave unleashed by the loosening of the earlier rigid and prudish Franco Regime moral codes, la Movida was a period when Madrid was alive with artistic transgressions of earlier taboos, the widespread use of recreational drugs, and a fusion of Madrid's street culture, including the slang or jargon of working class areas like Lavapiés referred to as "cheli," and youth culture associated with the hip bohemian neighborhood of Malasaña (jokingly referred to at the time as "la República Independiente de Malasaña"). To get a feeling for the period, Almodóvar's movie Mujeres al borde de un ataque nervioso (1988) is to la Movida and 1980s Madrid as Mike Nichols's Working Girl (1988) is to Manhattan and 1980s corporate culture. (Or for a more "lived experience" of Madrid in the eighties, I recommend reading Diario de un aburrido's nostalgic account of it.)

In part, la Movida was an extension of Madrid's long history as a cultural center for the arts and creative cultural movements. Madrid, for example, has an old theatre tradition, and has long been a mecca for actors and theatre artists. Gran Vía is Spain's Broadway and, if your Spanish is up for it, I highly recommend you try and see a show there while in town. Seeing a production on the Gran Vía is a 'must do' much like seeing a Broadway show is in NYC. Even if you skip a theater production, a stroll down the avenue, which turned one hundred years old in 2010, is worth it just to take in the Modernist architecture and detailed building facades. An article marking the anniversary very eloquently noted a distinct schism caused by globalization, which divides the street-level shops, all globally recognizable brands and logos, from the yesteryear grandeur of the building rooftops:
"En realidad hay dos granvías, la que ve quien contempla los edificios y la que consume quien va de escaparates. Hagan la prueba, miren la calle con un dedo bajo los ojos. Por arriba, todo belleza y eclecticismo; por debajo, el look globalizado... muchos colorines, pero poco chicha. Trampas para turistas abigarradas de souvenirs y oficinas de cambio a comisión. Y lo peor, las cadenas—de ropa, de maquillaje, de comida rápida, ¡de calcetines!—homogeneizándolo todo. Los mismos neones, el mismo chunda-chunda, las mismas ofertas, la misma tarjeta Visa..."
The Gran Vía during the day. For a video capture of a day in the life of the bustling avenue, click here.

Chocolate con churros
La Movida also foregrounded Madrid's incredible nightlife. Night club culture in Madrid is without equal. You will see the streets in the hipper neighborhoods in the city center fill up with club-hoppers starting around midnight. Most will hit the bars until 1 or 2AM, and _then_ go to the club where they will dance and drink until the sun comes up the next morning. Indeed, the clubbing tradition in Madrid is to finish the night out with your friends at a "chocolatería" eating "chocolate con churros," a fried pastry dough that you dip in a fresh, thick and delicious chocolate drink. One of the most reputed chocolaterías is Chocolatería San Ginés, just blocks away from Plaza Mayor, where, according to a madrileño friend of mine, it is an old family tradition for many to take their kids there around Christmas time.

La Chocolatería de San Ginés, one of the best places to have chocolate con churros

Street life was so central to the movement because Madrid is a walking city. Skip the taxi and forget the metro (though it is pretty good). Wandering the streets of the city's distinctive neighborhoods is sure to make any visit there magical. One fun neighborhood to stroll through at night is Chueca, Madrid's gay pride neighborhood, which has a vibrant nightlife and also plenty of vegetarian haunts for those of you burned out on the meat-heavy Castilian fare. Two other great neighborhoods to walk around at night or go club-hoping in are La Latina and Lavapiés, colorful immigrant neighborhoods with a high concentration of quality restaurants, including lots of foreign food options.

La Movida also marked the economic revival of Spain as the country integrated into what would soon be the Europe Union and further opened up to the Western consumer culture that had swept neighboring countries. In this vein, the new image of Madrid's corporate culture are the skyscrapers that have sprouted up in the Paseo de la Castellana (north of the Paseo del Prado), specifically the Cuatro Torres Business Area and the Puerta de Europa. These towers have become iconic of Madrid and Spain's new global corporate look, just as nearby Calle de Serrano, Madrid's 'Golden Mile' and analog to NYC's Fifth Avenue, registers one of the country's favorite pastimes, shopping for brand name or creative design products at the street's many hip shops and boutiques.

Cuatro Torres Business Area and, to the left, the Puerta de Europa

And, finally, a word on food. While Madrid is certainly the place to eat pig, since pork and other meats are important to central Spain's regional cuisine, I recommend sampling the many kinds of "tortillas", or Spanish omelets, which are also a Madrid staple. The most well-known is "tortilla de patatas," potato omelet or what gets translated as "Spanish omelet." But there are dozens of variations with mushrooms, asparagus, Spanish ham or other ingredients in place of potato. It is also commonly said that the best fish in Spain can be found in Madrid. Indeed, Mercamadrid, "la Capital de los Mercados" with over a thousand years of history, is a massive fish, meat and produce market located south of the city center and is reputed to be the second largest fish market in the world in terms of quantity of merchandise sold. (The first, not surprisingly, is located in Japan.)

Slightly out of the way from the center, but definitely worth a visit, is Casa Mingo, which can be found on the Avenida de Valladolid near the Príncipe Pío station. It serves excellent Asturian cider and perhaps the best roasted chicken I have ever eaten. I make a point of going there on every visit to Madrid.

Casa Mingo has been open since 1888 and a favorite, inexpensive dining place of locals

September 23, 2011

Not Hemingway's Madrid, part 1

The "escudo," official seal, for Madrid
Madrid was really one of Hemingway's favorite cities. He called it "the most Spanish of all cities." And, indeed, for disciples of Hemingway there is no better place to catch a bullfight, follow heated Spanish politics, sip sherry, or sample "cochinillo" (roast pork). That's Hemingway's Madrid. If you wish to relive it, this website provides an excellent guide for doing so. But here I'm going to focus on the Madrid that Hemingway didn't know or write about, and which I believe is closer to what Spaniards envision today when they talk about the nation's capital.

Getting oriented: It is helpful to follow most guide books in dividing the central tourist area of Madrid into two zones: "El Madrid de los Austrias" and "El Madrid de los Borbones". "El Madrid de los Austrias" is the old center of the city (comprising the east side of most tourist maps) and is home to the Plaza Mayor, the Royal Palace, and other landmarks associated with the Hapsburg ruling family in Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. "El Madrid de los Borbones" is the "newer" Madrid, i.e. dating to the more recent House of Bourbon rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. It comprises the right half of your tourist map where most of the must-see museums can be found along the Paseo del Prado.

The Templo de Debod at dusk, located in the Parque del Oeste
on a hill not far from the Royal Palace.
I'm going to skip past all the usual travel guide stops… the museum trinity of El Prado, Thyssen, and Reina Sofia (the last home to Picasso's Guernica)… the Royal Palace, Retiro Park, or the Plaza Mayor. These are all certainly worth a visit. But instead I want to offer some of my off-the-beaten-path discoveries.

Nearby the standard museum route, in "El Madrid de los Borbones," is the CaixaForum Madrid Museum. It has an impressive grass garden wall outside, the museum visit is free, and its gift shop is one of the better of those I've perused. On the other side of town, in "El Madrid de los Austrias," I recommend a stroll around the Plaza de Oriente and Plaza de Ópera, especially around early evening to people watch, or walk over to Plaza de España with its impressive monument to Cervantes and which is regularly the site of special expositions and markets. Not too far away you can find the "Templo de Debod," an Egyptian temple gifted to Spain and sitting right in the heart of the city, but in a quiet park with a splendid hillside view of the park areas and fields to the east of the city.

Bronze statues of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza below the stone sculpture of Cervantes.
Behind is the Edificio España, built in 1953 and at the time the tallest building in Madrid.

Apparently, getting a picture with "Fat Spiderman" is fast becoming a tradition at
the Plaza Mayor. An example of how touristy (and zany) the square has become.
The "kilómetro cero" marker you can find
on the ground at Puerta del Sol.
If you are looking for some more people watching, of real locals, skip the Plaza Mayor, whose name has misled many foreigners into thinking this is the city's most important square, and which has become a kind of guiri festival of the strange. (Okay, don't skip it, since it is impressive to see and has historical significance, but don't mistake its only moderate cultural importance to locals today.) Puerta del Sol, marked as the "kilómetro cero" of Spain's roads, is the symbolic center of Spain. It is most commonly known by Spaniards for being the country's equivalent of Time Square for New Years, where the ball drops at midnight, and also for being _the_ place to converge a political protest. (Indeed, this year Puerta del Sol was highjacked by protestors, "los indignados," for almost an entire month, generating much news commentary and social and political soul-searching. (It's a subject that I'll write about later, but on which you can read here.)

The statute of the oso (bear) and the madroño (strawberry tree) at Puerta del Sol.
At Puerta del Sol you will find the "el Oso y el Madroño" statue, the image of the city's "escudo" or official seal, and one of several iconic images for the Madrid Community. Two other important plazas are the Plaza de Cibeles and the Puerta de Alcalá. Cibeles is where Madrid soccer fans converge after a Real Madrid or Spanish national team victory, though it is also common for images of the Banco de España to be used in reports on economic news much the way Wall Street is used in the U.S. to report on the stocks or financial events. The Puerta de Alcalá often appears in news reports on cultural events in the capital, and especially during Christmas because of its impressive light display.

The fountain of Cybele, Roman goddess of nature, which gives Plaza de Cibeles its name.
In the background is Madrid's Ayuntamiento or town hall.

The Puerta de Alcalá lit up with Christmas lights.

These are the common images of Madrid that circulate in Spain today. In the next entry I'll go into more discussion about the city's changing cultural significance…

September 21, 2011

Note to Americans: Nobody really takes a siesta anymore

So every time I have guests visit or I talk with an American exchange student settling into Spanish life, they always go on about how "cute" it is (or annoying) that shops close midday for "siesta," the famous after lunch nap that Spaniards are renowned for. Well, note to all Americans, few Spaniards actually take the afternoon siesta anymore. The shops are closed for lunch, not for naps.

This myth of a ubiquitous siesta culture is long out of date, and probably has legs for how it fits with the stereotypes of warm weather people as lazy or Spaniards as indulgently laid back. One Spanish blogger includes it among a long list of urban legends which circulate about Spaniards abroad. Personally, so far as I can tell, with the possible exception of my father-in-law the only Spaniards I know who take a siesta ("tomar la siesta") only do so when they are on vacation, or on the weekends, or if they are retired. But otherwise, hardworking Spaniards don't have time for afternoon naps, and they don't take them.

van Gogh's Siesta, 1890
Of course, maybe they should. I can't figure out how Spaniards get enough sleep. They wake up at 7AM, on average, but don't go to bed until midnight or 1AM or even later during the work week. Indeed, studies here in Spain increasingly suggest that the average Spaniard is underslept, even averaging an hour less than most Europeans. Meanwhile more and more sleep studies abroad are showing that a brief afternoon siesta is exactly what us modern sleep-deprived people need to improve alertness, be smarter, and gain all kinds of other positive health benefits.

Alas, even if Spaniards ought to take a siesta, like most other members of modern, workaholic societies they do not.

September 19, 2011

Local Vocab: "Los Funcionarios"

A simple answer to what is a "funcionario" would to be say that he or she is a state public employee. I think Americans often mistakenly interpret this to mean a functionary or bureaucrat, since these are usually the funcionarios that tourists and exchange students interact with. However teachers in public schools, doctors in the public healthcare system, not to mention nurses, policemen, firefighters, and garbagemen, are all also funcionarios. Indeed, as of 2010 one in six working Spaniards was a funcionario in the sense that their salary was paid by a local, regional, or national government administration. Much more of Spain's economy is run by public institutions, so many more people in Spain are state employees.

Yet this alone still doesn't help you to fully understand the reasons for the heated public debates in Spain over whether funcionarios are, according to some, the scourge of the Earth, people with overly cushy jobs and little incentive to innovate or care about providing good service, or according to others, respectable workers who provide normalcy and consistency in service, and who, given their large numbers, are likely to be someone you know personally.

Perhaps the biggest difference in government employees here in Spain and in the U.S. is that funcionarios can get a permanent position, a job for life, something like tenure in the U.S. academic system. So even while salaries are often lower than private jobs (though perhaps not so comparatively low as they would be in the States), this job security makes these positions a highly coveted and desirable career path. What's more, many of them have special perks, such as only working half days (many government offices are closed after lunch) or having longer holidays (i.e. teachers).

In all fairness, though, to get one of these positions involves jumping through hoops, complicated and highly competitive selection tests ("oposiciones") for very few openings. And many problems with the system are unintended consequences: it is hard for young people to move into positions filled by more experienced though aging staff, and rules intended to ensure fairness and objectivity in selection result in little flexibility to adapt to changing markets and social needs. In short, if you are not inside the funcionario system, if you run a family business, work for a corporation, or are an "autónomo" (self-employed), then you might be envious frustrated by the widespread presence of this power-wielding, overly protected class of employees.

It can result sometimes in a kind of culture wars, pro-funcionarios versus anti-funcionarios. I have seen friends strongly divided over the question of whether the public employee system needs to be heavily reformed, or thrown out entirely, or whether 'since it ain't broke, don't fix it.' One problem is that the image that Spaniards often first think of when they talk about funcionarios is also probably the local bureaucrat, maybe the town hall (ayuntamiento) administrative worker who pushes paper for a living and is in charge of said citizen's success processing their taxes or resolving some social security problem… such as your unemployment checks.

(For an excellent and humorous critique of life under this system, check out this Spanish short film, with English subtitles!)

In the heat of the economic crisis last year, when the government was exploring one route to balancing the national budget by cutting salaries and benefits for funcionarios, El País (one of the main newspapers here), did an excellent "radiography of public employees" in Spain. The article burst some common stereotypes about funcionarios. For one, most funcionarios, in terms of numbers, can be found in the public healthcare or education system. So cutting money or benefits for funcionarios means penalizing that doctor that treats you (think Spain's aging population) or that teacher who educates your kid, too. Moreover, only 40% of funcionarios had that mythical permanent position, so the majority of funcionarios were on part-time or temporary contracts and also experiencing some kind of job insecurity like everyone else.

A regional breakdown of population, public employees, and the ratio of inhabitants to public employees in 2010

But as an American, what is amazing about the El País radiograph are the sheer numbers, there is a funcionario for every 17-18 people inhabiting Spain. As of last year, 2.7 million of them in a country with a population of just 46.7 million. Another interesting thing is the wide variation across regions in reliance on and presence of the state. Almost 1 in 10 people are a funcionario in Extremadura, whereas only 4 of every 100 people in Catalonia are, Catalonia having a much stronger private economy than other regions in Spain. This means that any public initiative to reduce funcionario wages or benefits could be devastating for some regions, while barely affecting others. (Though despite all the loud ranting here about funcionarios, Spain is squarely in the middle range when its statistics are compared with other European countries.)

So keep an ear out for discussions about funcionarios. Whether this crisis erodes their social importance or reinforces it, funcionarios make up a central institution in the everyday lives of Spaniards, and chance are you'll hear people talking about it.

September 16, 2011

Costa Blanca: The British Invasion

A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend at a friend's beach apartment near Torreviejas, in Alicante. Or to put this in British speak, I was "on holiday" in "Costa Blanca." (See entry on the "costas" of Spain.) It is a surreal experience visiting this part of Spain. The costal regions of Alicante have basically become British and/or German colonies. My friends and I call it "Guirilandia" (see entry on "los guiris"), because you are more likely to hear English or German spoken here than Spanish.

Hemingway would have been scandalized by it. These beachfront areas have an odd seasonal cycle, alive and vibrant during the summer, and nearly ghost towns during the winter. They fill up with low-cost tourism from Britain and Germany during the summers, mostly beach tourism for families, but also the kind of drunken, crazed youth tourism which generates periodic discussions here about whether this kind of public drinking should be more strictly controlled, or whether beach clubs should close earlier. (Indeed, not shown in pictures here are the vomit stains one finds all over the sidewalks in this area.) One could say they are England's Acapulco or Cozumel; instead of "Girls Gone Wild," think "Brits Behaving Badly."

The urbanicación of La Zenia, apartment complexes and commercial centers crammed
along the coasts of Alicante, a.k.a. "Costa Blanca."

A typical "neighborhood" in these tourist trap beach zones.
While locals, the few there are that live here, are understandably frustrated by it, the reality is that many of these towns have been literally rebuilt and reborn by this kind of tourism. These beachfront zones, many of which aren't even actual pueblos, but only "urbanizaciones," all have a cookie-cutter organization, with tons of two-story residence townhouses or apartments within walking distance to the beach, organized around commercial shopping centers with at least one Irish pub, a supermarket, tourism shops, and at least one "bazaar chino" (Chinese bazaar), the Spanish equivalent to a dollar-store. (The explosion of construction of these beach apartments over the last decade is partly to blame for Spain's current housing crisis.)

But what is so striking about Costa Blanca is the number of retired people from Britain and Germany who've turned these enclaves into home. In fact, it is not uncommon for some urban zones to have become largely German or British beach towns, while others cater more specifically to the domestic beach tourism industry (which means madrileños from Madrid). These retirement immigrants form a significant, but frequently overlooked part of foreign immigration to Spain.

A British & Irish Convenience Store where expats can find supplies from home
For those American expats who have had more than enough Spanish culture and therefore might enjoy a break from it, visiting here (for a short time) can even be kind of fun. Surely, the best German food, or Indian restaurants and Kebab shops in Spain can be found here. On my visit, I had some amazingly good German food at Bassus in one such urbanización, La Zenia, south of Torreviejas. One can also find nearly every kind of supply a Brit might be missing from home in specialty shops catering to these expat communities.

And let's face it, the reason all these guiris are here is because the beaches are really quite lovely. A nice discovery on this visit was the walkway along the beachfront, passing between the different calas and hugging the cliffs and rocky coasts, between the cala of the Hotel La Zenia and the Cala Capitán. A very romantic nighttime stroll!

The beach next to the Hotel La Zenia in Alicante, with clear waters and excellent for sunbathing.

September 14, 2011

Note to Americans: PIGS is a four-letter word

Spain has been in the U.S. News _a lot_ this last year. And when it's not the usual buzz about tourism, it has been news about Spain's failing economy, the next domino in what could be the so-called collapse of the European economy. I don't think American newspapers bat around the acronym "PIGS" or "PIIGS" as much as British ones do, but I want to take this moment to say that this peculiar acronym says a whole lot more about those who use it than those it describes.

A "ninot" (papier-mâché figurine) from the 2002 Na Jordana Falla
in Valencia, depicting the International Monetary Fund as a fat pig
PIGS, which stands for Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain (sometimes also Ireland) is a term that is used when talking about these countries and their systemic problems with political corruption, chronic high levels of unemployment, and all around economic backwardness. But, please, enough with it! I ask you, what does it say about economists that they can lump together countries and cultures (not to mention economies) as different as Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece's (and Ireland!?!) under one simple moniker. Oh, and is it meant to be cute that they call them "pigs"?

Next time you see it, remember, there is an ugly undercurrent of north-south stereotypes in Europe. Hemingway fell for it, too, in his day, though he loved Spain for it… a society still not modernized, prone to lawlessness and spontaneous bouts of anarchism or self-destruction. I imagine economists thinking, "Oh those southern Europeans, they can be so intense and passionate" (read emotional and irrational). I don't buy it. PIGS, after all, is a four-letter word.

September 12, 2011

Film: ¡Bienvenido, Mister Marshall! (1953)

Movie poster by Jano, an important Spanish poster designer
I highly recommend this movie to all Americans coming to Spain, if for no other reason than for its very well-known main song:
"¡Os recibimos, americanos con alegría!"
[Translation: Americans, we receive you with joy! (You can find the full Spanish lyrics here.)]
This 1953 Spanish film masterpiece was directed by Luis García Berlanga, who was an expert at outwitting the Franco dictatorship censors through the adroit use of situational irony and subtle satire.

The basic premise of the story (based loosely on real historical events) is that a small town, Villar del Río, learns of an American diplomatic visit that might possibly pass through it. (The broad backdrop to the movie is the end of the isolationist period of the Franco dictatorship around 1953.) Hoping to impress the Americans so that they will benefit from the lucrative Marshall Plan, the townspeople prepare to mount a spectacle for the Americans which will demonstrate "typical Spanish culture and peoples." Needless to say, the preparations are hilarious for their ambition, things don't turn out quite as planned, and the humorous turn for the worse provides an amazing filmic critique of 1950s Spain (this despite the continued political repressions during this period in Spain's history).

Video clip where the townspeople practice their
welcome parade and sing the main song.

What makes this movie a joy to watch is the way Berlanga captures, almost like a time-capsule, the small-town dynamics of Spain under the dictatorship.
"Bienvenido Mr. Davos" in this 2002 falla is a
reference to the World Economic Forum
annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland
Moreover, Americans will love the scene when the school-teacher, tasked with educating the townspeople about the American visitors, provides a lesson in American geography and history which will leave you howling for its simplicity (imagine efforts to draw comparisons between Spain and the U.S. by people who have never left their own village). This play on the 'culture of the other' makes the film timelessly entertaining.

And if you pay attention, you will continue to see references to the movie in political critiques today, usually in the form of "Bienvenido Mister ____."

Another of Berlanga's films, which I have yet to see but which people here tell me is also excellent, is El Verdugo (1963), about an executioner approaching retirement age. Needless to say, Berlanga's movies make for an excellent introduction into Spain's more recent history and social and political culture, while still being quite good entertainment for its own sake!

Luis García Berlanga (1921–2010), Spanish film director

September 9, 2011

Sol y playa: Beach tourism and the "Costas" of Spain

A little over ten years ago, when I first visited Spain, I arrived on an overnight ferry from England. The Portsmouth to Santander boat. Being new to Europe, I knew nothing about Spain's usual tourist denizens. I was en route to Madrid and then Andalucía, following the common American pilgrimage of Lorca and gypsy Spain. So when one of the Brits onboard asked me, "Where are you going, cost-a del sol or cost-a brava?", I didn't know how to answer. I imagine it surprised them when I told them I wasn't visiting a beach. (It was August after all.) But I will confess that I didn't even know where Costa del Sol or Costa Brava were.

I'm pretty sure Hemingway was not much of a beach goer, and when he wrote about sand in Spain he was surely writing about bullfighting rings rather than beaches. But let's face it, the number one motivation for most tourists coming to Spain is probably its beaches. Perhaps Blasco Ibañez's work Sangre y Arena (blood and sand) would today be rewritten and titled "Sangría y Arena." I'm using this entry as an excuse to educate myself and readers about Spain's typical beach regions, the famous "Costas" that Brits flock to in hoards, each with their slightly different regional flavors and beach experiences.

Putting aside for the moment Ibiza (and the other Balearic islands) and the Canary Islands, the principal "sol y playa" destinations in Spain are probably Costa del Sol (Málaga), Costa Brava (around Barcelona), and Costa Blanca (south of Valencia around Alicante).

Costa del Sol (Sun Coast) runs along the south of Spain, Andalucía's Mediterranean coast, is most heavily populated by British tourists who frequently fly directly into Malaga. Its most (in)famous beach towns are probably Torremolinos and Marbella. This beach zone is popular because tourists can take breaks from the sun with daytrips to famous Andalusian sites like Ronda or Granada, and enjoy the local British Spanish tradition of sherry jeréz. To give you a sense of the high caliber of tourism it can attract, it is periodically referred to in British news as the "Costa de Crime" and exposé-ed as a place where British criminals like to hangout and lay low. One hilariously honest explanation for this: "Spain is an attractive place to go and hide because of the weather and the lifestyle." Hey, even criminals need vacation!

No longer a fishing village. Mass beach tourism at Lloret de Mar,
a town one guide not long ago described as having the highest
concentration of hotels of any point along the coast.
Costa Blanca and Costa Brava are similarly infested with low-cost beach tourism, though they have a higher proportion of German and French presence, respectively. Costa Blanca (White Coast), the southeastern coastline of Alicante, is distinguished by its large community of German and British expats, retirees who have settled in this area making it a near permanent expat colony. The airport of the capital Alicante, followed by Valencia, are the most common entry points for this British invasion tourism; Benidorm, Torrevieja, Jávea, and Denia are several of its more prominent beach destinations. Costa Brava ("Rough Sea" Coast), is the northeastern coastline north of Barcelona running up to the French border. Many of its more famous beachtowns, Tossa de Mar and Lloret de Mar, for example, were once fishing villages that have been highjacked by beach resort development and transformed into seaside resorts. The tourists here are more heavily French, and more often families, too, since they can do a road trip south. Though there is also the Barcelona effect on tourism, since visitors from other countries (particularly Italy and Britain) can fly into to the Catalonia capital (or into Girona on lowcost carriers) and combine a tour of Barcelona with a weekend at the beach.

And what of the other Costas? Frankly, if it is not along the Mediterranean coast, then chances are that Brits and other foreigners haven't heard of it. The Costa Verde (Green Coast) of Asturias and Costa Vasca (Basque Coast) of the Basque Country have beautiful beaches, but the weather is substantially less sunny and the North Atlantic Ocean water notably colder. So not quite as alluring for laying out in the sun and getting that perfect tan. That said, these areas have become popular alternatives for Spaniards seeking to avoid the mass tourism of the other Costas, and the hiking trails, picturesque fishing villages, and amazing local food make them attractive tourist destinations in their own right.

The rugged, green and tranquil coastlines of the Basque Country.

September 7, 2011

Local Vocab: "Los Guiris"

A comedy club that caters to the large guiri
communities in Madrid and Barcelona.
It is helpful to learn some of the slang used by Spaniards, and probably the best word to start with is "guiri." If you are reading this, chances are that you are one. Guiri is the word that Spaniards use to refer to foreigners on vacation in Spain (including all you exchange students). It used to specifically be for Brits, northern Europeans, or the French, which is to say for the kinds of foreign tourists that flood Spain each summer. Americans were (and still are occasionally) referred to as "yanquis" and the French as "franchuten." But today guiri has become the catchall term that Spaniards use for everyone on vacation in Spain who is from North America or Europe. The adjective functions much the way "gringo" does for how Mexicans refer to Americans.

Typical cartoon humor about "Fooling the guiris."
(Note: Guiri is _never_ used to describe Africans, South Americans, or Asians, and it is never used to describe visiting businessmen.)

While it's true that people here probably only ever use the word to refer to you when you are doing something annoying or slightly out of place, you shouldn't take it too personally. In general, it is a whimsical way to refer to foreigners. They know that you're just having fun and don't know your way around. So it is not an insult. Just a way that they let off some steam when they have to deal with non-locals clogging up their day-to-day routine.

September 5, 2011

A typical Spanish day

Spaniards have a very distinctive schedule in terms of mealtimes and work schedules. The fastest way to get pegged as a foreigner here is to be found eating lunch "early," at noon or 1PM and dinner at 7PM. Spaniards eat _much_ later than in other countries, and to date I have yet to find any other country like it.

Americans who come here always complain that it is too hard to wait until the local lunch or dinner time, but this is because many of them haven't yet figured out that locals actually have _five_ mealtimes, rather than just three. (There is ongoing debate among dieticians over whether five meals a day is healthier than three.) Let me briefly describe the typical Spanish day for those who want to blend in with the locals. If you can learn to adjust to this schedule, you will find that it enormously improves your chances of mixing with locals and experiencing their day-to-day life.

The work schedule and mealtime is schematically as follows:

 ~8AM                                  "El desayuno" (Breakfast)
                   "El almuerzo" (mid-morning snack)
                     "La comida" (Lunch)
                        "La merienda" (optional mid-afternoon snack)
                   "La cena" (Dinner)

This routine varies from job to job, and company to company. Some jobs start at 8AM, and end the day earlier, and most retail shops don't open until 10AM and close around 8 to 9PM. If one ignores the half-hour break for almuerzo, you can see how this schedule adds up to an eight-hour workday, which just ends later than the typical 9-to-5 schedule in the U.S.

Contrary to popular imagination, the two-hour long lunch is not a result of the siesta. Working Spaniards who take a two-hour lunch usually do so because they eat it at home, and either therefore need the extra time to prepare a homemade lunch or have to commute to and from the office to their homes. However, it is becoming increasingly common for many workers to only take a one-hour lunch, and simply eat in or near the office.

Don't be fooled. At noon Spaniards aren't
eating lunch. They're having an almuerzo.
A breakfast is usually pretty light fare in Spain, so the "almuerzo" is a pretty important snack to carry people over until a 2-2:30PM lunchtime. (Note: in Madrid, and possibly other regions in Spain, lunch is called almuerzo, and the mid-morning snack is referred to as "picoteo" or snack.) The almuerzo is also really important office social time. It is quite common for co-workers ("compañeros") to leave the office together and go to a nearby bar to eat tapas or a "bocadillo" (sandwich). Needless to say, this is a time for building office comaraderie and networking.

The "merienda," on the other hand is really more for kids. If you walk by an "horno" (bakery) around 5–6PM, it is common to see parents or grandparents stopping by with their kids on the way home from school, to buy the kid a baked sweet (referred to as "bollería"). Though in the summer many adult Spaniards might also be spotted buying an ice cream snack. More commonly, around 6-7PM you will see many Spaniards out to "tomar una caña" (drink a beer) with some nuts or a small tapa with friends or colleagues after work.

Kids leaving school around 5PM, parents with snacks
in hand or grandparents ready to take them to the horno.

A quick drink, or caña, after work.
These snacktimes are why Spaniards have what seems to foreigners to be an amazing stamina for very late lunches and dinners. When I say that Spaniards have dinner at 9PM or later, I mean that 9PM is the earliest they would eat. Dinner at 10PM is pretty common, especially if one is dining out, and some eat even later. This is why primetime TV doesn't usually start until after the 9-10PM national news, and why Spaniards go to bed pretty late, around midnight on average, even on work nights.

And this schedule runs even later on weekends, with lunch usually at 3-3:30PM, and dinner no earlier than 10PM. Lunches are usually the heavier meal, and dinners, what with being so late, a lighter meal.

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