October 31, 2011

Local Vocab: "El Afilador"

There are those city sounds, street noises, that become a kind of urban soundtrack and a distinct background to whichever city or neighborhood you live in. One periodic noise that you might hear in the streets of most Spanish cities is the flute call of the "afilador" (knife grinder). When I first heard it, I thought it was some new kind of street parade that I didn't yet know about. It sounded to me like a magical summoning straight out of a fairytale.

Click to hear my audio recording of the afilador passing by my house

The afilador in Goya's time
When my wife told me what it was, a traveling street vendor who sharpens people's kitchen knives, I was even more floored. That there was still a profession who made their living as a traveling trader or vendor just seemed, well, medieval. And the afilador does have old roots, seen here in this painting by Goya. It seems like one of those professions which should have gone extinct a long time ago, an obsolete occupation. But it's still going here in Spain, and if you hear it, you can run downstairs with your knives and he will most certainly sharpen them.

Nowadays, they often move around the city by bicycle, and in general I hear them pass by my house about once a month. It adds a little charm to city living here.

The afilador today

October 28, 2011

Cocido: A foundation of Spanish cuisine

Typical plate of cocido meat and vegetables.
If you're new to Spain and regularly do grocery shopping at a supermarket, you might have wondered about those packaged trays ("bandejas") of assorted vegetables or the "pelota [para] caldo" ("meatball [for] stock") in the meat section. Well, mystery solved! They are ingredients for cooking "cocido," which is a foundation of Spanish cuisine. Cocido is a stew of meats and vegetables in a large boiling pot, which is then broken down into a variety of traditional dishes.

Bandejas of vegetables and meat specially prepared for cocido,
purchased at the local Mercadona supermarket.
And fall has arrived so it's cocido season! Cocido is a seasonal dish in the sense that people only really make it in the fall and winter, in part because it's used to generate hot soups and stews or heavy meats, and in part because you have to boil it for 1-3 hours which nobody here would want to do on a hot summer day. When fall started on September 23rd this year, cocido was one of the things people listed among the things that they were looking forward to on the national news report about the changing of the season. (In our house, we were also eagerly looking forward to it!)

Sopa de fideos, a nice warm soup to cure you of the cold.
Probably the most famous cocido, the one you're most likely to encounter in restaurants, is the "cocido madrileño," which is served in stages: a "sopa de fideos" (a soup from stock with a small thin pasta added), the boiled vegetables, and finally the boiled meats. But cocido has many names in different places. In my hometown, Valencia, it is known as "puchero." In Catalunya there is "l'escudella," in Burgos the "olla podrida," in Cadiz and Jeréz, "la berza gitana," and in Galicia a local cocido, "pote gallego, is a variation on the (in)famous "caldo gallego" (complete with pig's ear). For that matter, you can probably find similar dishes all throughout Europe, since the basic principal of cocido—boil together all the food you have available to make stews, soups, porridges, etc.—is quite economical and tasty. The Romanian dish, rasol, is pretty similar to the Spanish cocido, and one should not forget the French pot-au-feu, which French chefs acclaim as the "quintessence of French family cuisine."

Before one starts slipping into classic foodie wars about who invented what, it should be noted that cocido is traced to a well documented earlier dish, "olla podrida" (namesake for the Burgos dish), made famous by Cervantes in one of the short stories from Don Quijote (circa 1610s). In the scene the faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, mistaken for a nobleman, is frustrated by a doctor who is declaring all the delicious plates before him at a banquet to be unhealthy for his noble blood. Sancho, upon seeing the olla podrida declares:
"Aquel platonazo que está más adelante vahando me parece que es olla podrida, que, por la diversidad de cosas que en las tales ollas podridas hay, no podré dejar de topar con alguna que me sea de gusto y de provecho." [Translation: "That giant plate passing by me appears to be olla podrida, which, by the diversity of ingredients to be found in this dish, surely I will manage to find some that I that would be to my taste and to my benefit."]
Sancho Panza prevented from eating by a meddling
doctor, painting by Charles Robert Leslie.
Unfortunately for him, the doctor disagreed, declaring olla podrida to be the worst possible thing for a nobleman (more suitable to priests, school masters, and peasant weddings). 

The earlier roots of this dish, however, are disputed. But several food historians claim that it originated from a traditional Jewish dish, what is today called "adafina," which was made by placing ingredients in a pot and setting it to a low-flame bowl, providing them food "without the aid of human hand" during the Sabbath. Legend has it that Spanish Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition (after they were officially purged in 1492), were encouraged to add pork to this dish so as to prove their entrance into Christendom. Again, I'm inclined to put all these different precedents and culinary cousins together under the broader category, to use Penelope Casas's words, of "meals-in-a-pot" for which there must have been numerous independent and overlapping origins all throughout Europe.

Here is a recipe which my wife uses to make puchero (serves 4 people):

• 1-2 pelotas of ground meat
• a cut of chorizo (I prefer the "picante" or spicy ones)
• [Optional: You can really add most other kinds of stewing meats, such as stewing cuts of beef, or chicken, or morcilla, but we tend to make it lighter on the meats for our personal taste.]
• 2 bandejas of vegetables for cocido. Each package contains approx.:
    – 4-6 "zanahorias" (carrots),
    – 2 "nabos" (turnips),
    – 2 "chirivías" (parsnips),
    – 1 "napicol" (a local Valencian tubor, possibly a Kohlrabi or German turnip),
    – 1 "puerro" (leek),
    – 1 stock of "apio" (celery)
• 1 (big) potato
• [Optional: 1-2 handfulls ("puñados") of "bachoquetas" or in Spanish "judías verdes [planas]" (a thick flat green bean local to Valencia)]
• [Optional: a handfull of dry garbanzos (a.k.a. chickpeas)]

Typical cocido vegetables found in a store-bought bandeja (left to right):
napicol, zanahorias, chirivías, puerro, apio, and nabos.

Fill a large boiling pot about halfway with water, and turn on the stove to high heat. Put the meat (except the morcilla) in the water while it's still cold. (Remember to remove the skin from the chorizo.) Clean the vegetables (wash and remove skin) and place in the water as it starts to heat up, going in order of hardest (roots) to softest (celery and leeks) vegetable. At the end you can add the potato, the chickpeas (preferably placed in a porous sachet, so that you don't have to scoop them out individually afterwards), and a spoonful of salt.

Let everything boil for half an hour at medium to full heat uncovered. Then skim off the foam that has formed on the top of the pot, and lower to low heat. Let it boil, this time with the pot covered, for another hour at low heat.

Out of this you get 2 batches of stock ("caldo") for use in making sopa de fideos or arroz al horno, and a bunch of boiled vegetables, beans, and meats, which you can either eat as such for a main course, or blend into a tasty "crema" (cream soup) to use as a starter in a meal, or put to use in a variety of other ways. (For a number of recipes on dishes you can make out of these products of puchero, check out this Spanish culinary blog.)

Setting aside the caldo or broth for a future soup or rice dish.

Again, this is an incredibly economical meal. One cocido, which may only cost you around a total of five euros in ingredients, can provide you the foundation for 2-3 meals for two people. Maybe this is why for many in Spain cocido is synonymous with "la comida casera" (a homecooked meal).

October 26, 2011

The Hemingway Paradigm Is… Dark eyes, dark hair, thick lisp

There is an opening scene taking place in Sevilla in Mission Impossible 2 (2000) that is hilarious for its many inaccuracies about Spain, Sevilla, and its local festivals. For example, for some reason the Semana Santa procession has falleras and fire, festival traditions of Valencia's non-religious Fallas not Sevilla's very-Catholic Semana Santa. The flamenco scene that follows in the movie is perhaps a bit better (flamenco _is_ actually from the Sevilla region), but it reproduces a common myth about Spain that is, though more subtle, much more pervasive and intractable… that all Spaniards have dark eyes and dark (thick and straight) hair.

Italian silent film star Rudolph Valentino as bullfighter
in Blood and Sand (1922), the original "Latin lover" and
embodiment of the stereotype for dark eyes, dark hair
The image of Spaniards as dark eyes, dark hair, and speaking with a thick lisp is quite old. As early as 1846 the English writer Richard Ford was encouraging others to find "a more worthy subject [in Spain] than the old story of dangers of bull-fights, bandits, and black eyes [my emphasis added]." And it must be tied to Andalucía's predominance in images of Spain abroad. In Hemingway's time, the embodiment of this stereotype was Rudolph Valentino, perhaps the original Latin lover, who though Italian by birth was casted in a whole assortment of nationalities in Hollywood films in the 1920s, among them as the bullfighter Juan Gallardo in Blood and Sand (1922). A tacky tourist industry for very staged, Valentino-style flamenco shows sprouted up in Andalucía in the twenties leading Hemingway to spurn the region and to prefer the more "authentic" bullfighting experiences of Madrid, Navarra, and the Basque Country. Even today, I think Spanish actresses who physically fit this mold are more likely to be "exported" to film industries abroad (take Penelope Cruz or Paz Vega, for example).

Hollywood's present-day Latin lover, Spanish
(Andalusian no less) actor Antonio Banderas

And while I can say _much more_ about it than I will here, Americans _greatly_ exaggerate a lisp in Castilian Spanish. The hard "th" sound (called the "ceceo") used to pronounce the "c" and "z" is officially _never_ used to pronounce "s". Andalucía is the only region in Spain where some people do so, no doubt further evidence of the region's central place in the imagination of Americans. (Though there are also areas in Andalucía where Spanish pronunciation more closely resembles Latin American Spanish, and the "c" and "z" all become an indistinguishable "s" sound.)

But returning to physical stereotypes, the reality in Spain is quite different. There are _vast_ regional differences and variations in hair type and eye color. Fair skin, blue and green eyes, light brown, blond, and even red hair is common in many regions. For example, in Alicante many people have distinctively green eyes and in the northern regions, such as the Basque Country and Asturias, it is common to find Spaniards who would be hard to distinguish from our common stereotypes of northern Europeans. This is not to mention the light brown and wavy hair that is characteristic throughout the Mediterranean regions.

Andalusian actress Paz Vega, who probably best represents
the classic dark eyes, dark straight hair Andalusian look

Madrid-born Pilar López de la Ayala, representing a similar dark eye,
dark hair Castilian look when playing Juana la Loca (2001).

The new look of Spain? Spanish actress Elsa Pataky,
of part Romanian heritage and with bleach-blond hair.
And what nature hasn't diversified, international fashions and migration have. Were I to reedit that scene in Mission Impossible 2, I would be sure to bleach blonde most everyone's hair. The popularity of bleaching or dying one's hair in Spain is such that you might think everyone in the country was blonde or burgundy. Moreover, Spain has _a lot_ of immigration, almost even with U.S. in terms of per capita, and much of that immigration, from Romania and certain countries in South America and Africa, hardly fits the Castilian or Andalusian dark eyes, dark hair stereotype.

So chalk this one up to yet another Romantic misconception about Spain we seem unable to shake.

October 24, 2011

Note to Americans: Is Spain _Really_ Catholic?

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!" But even fewer foreigners seem to expect a secular Spain. When my wife and I were living in the United States, it was annoying, even kind of painful, the number of times people would ask her if she or her family was Catholic, or would just assume it. (They are not.) Perhaps one of the biggest (false) cultural stereotypes about Spain is that people here are _deeply_ religious and _very_ Catholic. The real story is a bit more complicated.

El Greco's Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 1580s
First some facts and figures. With the recent (August 2011) visit of the Pope to Madrid for the Catholic World Youth Day (a.k.a. "Jornada Mundial de la Juventud" (JMJ)), statistics about Spain's declining Catholicism are readily at hand. Only 10% of Spain's youth (between the ages of 15 and 29) consider themselves "practicing Catholics," which doesn't necessarily mean going to church regularly. 50% are non-practicing Catholics, which from my personal experience means they rarely if ever go to church, maybe for Christmas or Easter mass, every now and then. I have a lot of friends whose Catholicism seems to be completely limited to baby baptisms and church weddings, a more social faith than religious one. And that leaves 3 out of 10 young Spaniards, or almost a third, who consider themselves "non-believers" or atheists. So among the young, Catholicism is a pretty marginal experience in Spain.

This is not to say that Spain is not a "Catholic country." For starters, there are cathedrals and basilicas _everywhere_, and they form a central part of the iconic imagery of Spanish tourism (not to mention the Hemingway paradigm). Much of the cultural heritage of the country is religious in nature, from famous paintings by El Greco or Velázquez to the Sagrada Familia Cathedral by one very religious Gaudí. When Hemingway visited here in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps he had cause for believing it to be a _very_ Catholic culture. Having recently seen photos of early 20th-century Spain, in all the photos of different Spanish towns and cities, the only ancient buildings that were well-maintained were cathedrals. So I can see why Hemingway would characterize the country as devoutly Catholic… then.

Gaudí's La Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona
This is not true today. Local governments have taken to restoring historic castles, bridges, and other heritage sites, such that now historic centers don't emit a particular religious feel. And cathedrals in town centers are as likely to have tourists in them as practitioners. Today, culturally and politically, contemporary Spain is not so particularly Catholic. Constitutionally, the government is committed to a separation of church and state, though in practice Catholicism has had some history of favored status. Catholic politics seep to the surface regularly here, such as arguments over abortion (which is legal here) or over gay marriage (which is also legal here).

In this respect, asking if Spain is Catholic is like asking if the U.S. is Christian. Saying yes doesn't do justice to the very significant non-Christian part of its society, but saying no ignores the clearly Christian component to its history and politics. Much of what to outsiders would seem like deeply rooted Catholic tendencies to locals is probably better understood as unconscious vestiges or lingering habits of an earlier Catholic culture. Like the widespread (almost ubiquitous) use of biblical names like "María" and "José," or unconscious routine language like "adiós" (meaning "goodbye," but literally "to God") and saying "Jesús" when someone sneezes (just like we say "bless you").

The bottom line is that you should not assume the next Spaniard you meet is Catholic. Chances are that, especially if they're young, they are not.

A famous recurring sketch from the British TV comedy series Monty Python.

October 21, 2011

Menorca… more than just beaches

Cala Macarella, south shore of Menorca
Sigh. Menorca is… lovely. I've travelled around a lot of Spain, and I have to say that this island really has it all, and certainly much more than just beaches. The Spanish journalist Josep Pla once said:
"cuanto más pequeño es un país, más largas son sus distancias." [The smaller a country is, the longer are its distances.]
Menorca is a fairly small island. It is easy to get from one point on the island to another in under 45 minutes by car. Despite this, it is chock full of things to do and easily yields itself to each visitor's specific itineraries or traveling tastes. Good food, wonderful scenery, historical sites, quaint towns, and a quiet, relaxed feel to it that makes it a great place to get away from it all. And, yes, it also has amazing beaches.

Of the four Balearic Islands, Menorca is distinctive for being the quietest (i.e. less clubs, less development, and less beach party tourism) and the most remote. In 1993 the island was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and perhaps for this reason has more to offer nature lovers than the other three islands. Beaches are its principal natural resource. The most iconic beach is Cala Macarella, the one most likely to appear in photos of the island (because there is a cliff nearby from which you can photograph it). It is located on the southern coast on the western side of the island. If snorkeling is not great in Macarella (due to algae blooms or waves), then you can always walk 5 minutes further along the cliff shore over to Cala Macarelleta, where snorkeling will be good since the two calas are at cross currents to each other. For those looking for it, Cala Macarelleta also has the attraction of being a nudist beach. Not far from Macarella (about a 30-minute hike) is Cala Galdana, a very large, clear beach that is much more accessible and has plenty of hotels, places to stay, and dining options. Another good beach in the vicinity is Cala en Turqueta. On the north coast the beaches are very distinctive and breathtaking due to the reddish hue rocks and sand. Among those I would recommend is Cala Cavallería, which is slightly more complicated to get to, but for the same reason not so crowded as the other beaches. And there are many, many more. Amazingly enough, Menorca has more "calas" (beach coves) than any of the other Balearic Islands, even more than Mallorca which is five times larger in size.

The nudist beach Cala Macarelleta, a 5-minute walk from Macarella

Cala Galdana, a good beach to book a hotel at

Cala Cavallería, on the northern coast where the rocks and soil often have a reddish tinge

A "Camí de Cavalls" post marking
the many nature trails around
the island
The other distinctive natural resource of Menorca are its "camí de cavalls," 186 km. of horseback riding trails which run along the coasts of the island and make for great nature hiking. There is a strong horse tradition here. There is one horse for every 30 inhabitants, the island has its own local "Pura Raza Menorquina" breed, and there are regular horse festivals in the island's towns. (Here you can find a great Spanish blog post on Minorcan horse culture.) For this reason I highly recommend you try horseback riding here. Many stables will offer tours which run either through the interior (through the agrarian pastureland and with hillside views of the island) or down to beaches (sometimes even entering the water).

As if beaches and horseback riding weren't enough, Menorca also has a large number of ruins and archaeological sites. The Torre d'en Galmés site is the largest and is really quite impressive. You are able to walk through the ruins, into the remains of the houses. And it is located on a hilltop so that you have views of the sea and can even make out the mountains of the nearby island Mallorca. We arrived to the ruins around sunset, which added an extra level of enchantment to the visit.

A house in the Talayotic (i.e. Bronze Age megalithic) site, Torre d'en Galmés

Menorca only has 90,000 regular inhabitants, and about one third of them live in the capital Mahón, another third in Ciutadella, and the rest in smaller towns. Mahón is the main entry point for the island by boat and airport, and its main tourist attraction is its large, picturesque port, which lies at the base of a cliff upon which is seated the town. Besides this, it is a good place to go shopping since it has a lot of venues and markets. I will confess that I found Ciutadella, which is located on the opposite side of the island, to be a much more enjoyable town to walk around in, though both are quaint and reasonably more lively than the rest of the island, providing more dining and shopping options than elsewhere. Two other cute towns to visit are Alaior, located in the interior, considered the birthplace of the island's famous cheese, and which has a really excellent non-tourist small-town vibe, and Binibequer, which is famous for its all white buildings and iconic seaside, Mediterranean look. And for what has to be one of the most incredible clubbing experiences on earth I highly recommend a visit to the Cova d'en Xoroi, located in Cala en Porter. The club is built inside a cliffside cave, raised several hundred meters above sea level, with views out onto the sea. Visiting this club is like stepping into one of those fantasy clubs that appear in movies, but it's actually for real.

Sunset view of Ciutadella's quaint port

The picturesque town of Binibequer, on the southeastern corner of Menorca.

 Enjoy breathtaking views of the sea while sipping your mojito at the Cova d'en Xoroi cliff-side cave club.

You'll see a lot of people carrying these
boxes back with them on the plane.
Despite the island's modest population, there are several local artisanal traditions which make for great gifts. The _classic_ gift, which you will see many Spaniards bringing back with them in the airport, are "ensaimadas," a sweet pastry originally from the larger neighboring island Mallorca, and which is package in an iconic octagonal box. Menorca is specifically known for its "menorquinas" sandals, footwear that was traditionally worn by field workers but are now quite popular throughout Spain for lounging or the beach. Among local food traditions, Menorca is famous for its local cheese, "queso Mahón," and also the soft sausage spread "sobrasada," the latter also originally from Mallorca, both worth sampling. (Might I recommend a "bocadillo de sobrasada y queso," sobrasada and cheese sandwhich, as a great meal for budget travelers.) And one can also try the classic Minorcan dish caldereta, a local version of fisherman's stew.

Minorcan horses performing "el blot" a traditional dance
staged at the island's many horse festivals
By the end of my visit there all I could think was, how can I find a way to settle here and never have to leave? However, upon talking to the locals, I quickly discovered that Menorca is, perhaps, not the perfect place to live, and better left for visits. It is an island of migration. Many of its few steady residents are originally from elsewhere and came to live there to work in the huge tourism industry. Most residents desperately seek to leave the island for several months throughout the year in search of "culture" and population. As one tourism guide put it:
"¡es difícil vivir en una isla tan pequeña y limitada!"
This partly owes to the fact that the end of the beach tourism season is marked by a sudden, dramatic drop in island population and activity. Everything becomes a ghost town, many venues simply close. I visited in September and a recurring comment by local inhabitants and tourism staff was about how the island becomes _very_ quiet starting October. (They called October the start of "winter season"!)… And that people needed to escape this oppressive quiet by finding life on the continent or abroad.

Still, Menorca is a magical place, and a wonderful destination for those in pursuit of relaxation, meditation, or a place to recharge and reboot.

The quiet, pastoral interior of Menorca with its characteristic stone fences.

October 19, 2011

Local Vocab: Spanish Queue Culture

At first blush, to an outsider, it may seem that Spain is hardly a country with strong norms about lining up ("hacer cola"). One rarely encounters here the orderly, single-file lines in Anglosaxon countries, the distinctive "queue culture" for which the British are famously fastidious. But don't be fooled. In fact, Spain has a deeply ingrained _virtual_ queue culture, and it is likely, visitors, that you (perhaps unwittingly) have already experienced it.

If you have ever entered an "horno" (bakery) or approached the counter ("mostrador") for "fiambres" (coldcuts) or at marketplace stand, were waiting to be served, and wondered what that person who approached it had just asked you, chances are it was one of the following:

     "¿Quién es el último [en la cola]?" (Who is the last person [in line]?)
     "¿Hay que coger número/turno?" (Does one need to grab a number/turn?)

These represent the two ways in which Spaniards form their virtual queues, and are why they thus feel no compunction about physically lining up, and indeed are more likely to clump together in social groups in what appears a completely disorganized manner. The first approach depends on each person remembering who is in front of them. When you enter, you ask and remember who is the last person, and when the next person comes in they ask and you answer. From that point on, you need have no care in the world about the line until the person directly in front of you is attended to, at which point you prepare to make your order. In the meantime, as the virtual queue ticks down, you can, for example, peruse the counter completely out of line order and decide what you want to buy, or perhaps walk a little ways over (but still in sight of the line) and chat with that neighbor of yours and catch up on each other's lives ("ponerse al corriente") or share gossip ("cotilleo").

The classic turn dispenser in a supermarket.
The second approach, usually employed only during rush hours at food counters or routinely in more official bureaucratic institutions, is to find this characteristically red number dispenser, grab a number or "turno" (turn) and then wait for it to appear on the digital display. The longer I live here, the more I become convinced that this red device is the most important tool for social organization in the country. It is certainly ever-present in daily life in Spain. (I wish I could find a visual of a recent commercial campaign here, for an online service, which parodied the device to make a point about no longer having to wait in queues to be served.)

And once you have your number, look for this digital display to wait for your turn.

And anyone who upsets this neat system of lining up is as likely to irritate and leave locals indignant as one would upset a Brit or American if they cut in line. (Ah, the everyday morality dramas of "first come, first served" commercial ethics.) So, yes, Spaniards do know how to queue, they just do so virtually.

And everything is relative. Apparently one Galician blogger believes that the Chinese
are even more chaotic than the Spanish at forming a line

But there are exceptions and lapses in this system. The worst case is at airports, where the gate line for a flight can often turn into a mass of people all glutted around the ticket check, no real line whatsoever. I've begun to suspect, however, that this is more because of the presence of guiris than Spaniards. In their time on holiday in Spain, I think foreigners get the wrong impression that it is laissez faire at the queue, and so many a time I have noticed it is the Brits or Germans who are rushing past the line to the front of the gate, which only spurs on the Spaniards to reciprocate… leading to the clueless queue-less chaos. An example of international normlessness, not informal Spanish custom. Now if only they could introduce that little red device here.

"In a rush," to the left. "In no rush," stand to the right. The Valencia Metro's
effort to inculcate in its citizenry a common English protocol.

October 17, 2011

Film: La Comunidad (2000)

If you were to use the Oscars as a guide, you'd think all Spanish cinema was either Pedro Almodóvar or movies about the Spanish Civil War. (This year Spain decided that the Civil War trumps Almodóvar, electing Pa negre (2010) instead of La piel que habito (2011) as its candidate for the 2012 Academy Awards category of Best Foreign Language Film.) In the spirit of broadening Americans' horizons, I'm therefore going to put a moratorium on movies that have to do with either.

Which brings us to what is easily my favorite Spanish film of all time, La Comunidad (2000) by the genius Spanish movie director, Álex de la Iglesia. The story centers around a middle-aged real estate agent, Julia, who decides to stay the night in one of the apartments that she is selling, to escape from her bad luck and troubles with her negative and mediocre husband. The previous owner of the apartment was a recluse who died there of old age, and Julia quickly realizes the apartment holds a secret. Unfortunately for her, the neighbors seem to know it, and are intent on either preventing her from discovering it or escaping from the building alive with it.

Álex de la Iglesia, director
and President of the Spanish
Academy of Cinema, 2009-2011
The movie holds together so well because of the wide assortment of well-known Spanish actors, including Carmen Maura (a regular lead in Almodóvar films), Sancho Gracia, Kiti Manver, Terele Pávez, and especially Enrique Villén (regular collaborator with de la Iglesia), who has capitalized on his characteristically odd look by converting it into a Spanish cult classic. Each of them imbues their character with a special idiosyncratic obsession or "manía," resulting in comedic ensemble scenes without compare. Black humor turns to suspense and then to complete pandemonium as Julia faces off against the entire community of neighbors as she tries to finally turn her luck around.

Spanish actor and writer Enrique Villén
What makes La comunidad priceless is how it plays on one of the more fundamental social institutions in Spain: "la comunidad," which literally translates to "community" but is better understood as the "neighborhood association" for apartment buildings. Bear in mind that the vast majority of Spaniards live in apartments or flats, not in stand alone houses. At least once a year all the neighbors hold a "reunión de los vecinos" (neighbors' meeting) with the hired building manager to go over the shared building expenses, any pending or needed renovation projects, or other matters which require collective agreement. Being a homeowner myself, and having attended these meetings, they are a bastion of classic Spanish idiosyncrasies… chatty neighbors, retired people with nothing better to do than chat away and make sure the meeting drags on and on; people speaking over each other, often simply to repeat what the previous person just said; and so on. And this at what was a fairly cordial meeting. Heated disputes and confrontations (or more commonly subtle but poignant slights and insinuations) among members of la comunidad are the stuff of legends and ripe material for a comedy.

Illustration of a classic meeting of the neighbors in the entryway next to the mailboxes. In times of crisis,
la comunidad de vecinos shares the woe, and this blog gives tips on how associations can cut communal costs.

In this sense, La comunidad is a satire on Spanish apartment associations much as The Stepford Wives (2004) spoofs American suburban neighborhood associations. Álex de la Iglesia does a wonderful job of transforming the nosy neighbor, an archetype we've all experienced, into something much more sinister, and that's where all the fun begins.

In the U.S. the American Dream is set in suburbia and its protagonist the housewife. In Spain
the typical "casa" (home) is a flat or apartment and its homemaker most likely a working woman.

October 14, 2011

Note to Americans: Tipping Really Is Not Necessary Optional

"It's not tipping I believe in. It's overtipping."
— Vincent 'Vinnie' Antonelli in My Blue Heaven (1990)

So there is a major difference in philosophies between the U.S. and Spain in questions of socially correct consumption. To quote José Ángel Oliván, the president of Spain's Union of Consumers:
"En España los precios son finales." [Translation: In Spain prices are final.]
This means that unlike in the U.S., sales tax ("el IVA") is included in the display price for a product (no having to do complicated percentage calculations on your purchases), and at restaurants or bars you're not expected to add a tip ("la propina") to help recompense someone for their services. Whereas in the U.S. waiters can be paid less than minimum wages on the assumption that you, the customer, will tip them, in Spain labor laws ensure that waiters make adequate income without relying on the generosity of their customers.

To put it succinctly, in Spain you do not ever _need_ to tip. And you certainly never would leave 15%.

I am beginning to suspect that this difference in practice also reflects a distinct vision of consumerism and labor rights. While Americans often see tipping as a kind of solidarity with the worker and evidence of kindness, I'm not sure that here in Spain a large tip is always received that way. Don't get me wrong, if you leave a big tip, the waiter most certainly will not complain. I just don't think he or she will necessarily see you as a kind, generous customer. Tipping here is really viewed as bourgeois culture, and thus evokes a kind class snobbery or excessiveness. Big tips are big reminders of economic disparities or antiquated ideas about classism and the superiority of the client.

That said, it is quite common for people to round up the bill rather than leave exact change. And certainly if the service is excellent, the restaurant quite fancy, and/or you are a large (or difficult) group, then it might be a good idea to leave a tip larger than a couple of euros.

A reader left a pretty good set of guidelines to follow on a forum of a (great) blog about life in Valencia:
"Some rules:
1) If you're a turist [sic] please tip generously. Enjoy being a guiri 
2) If you're an expat, still tip, but carefully
3) If you don't like the service, don't tip at all.
4) In bars, round up
5) In restaurants depends the amount of the bill. Round up 5% aprox [sic] is OK for bills up to 50-80€. But a tip more that 5€ is only justified if your party is a lot of people or the service is great
6) Taxis 1€ (or round up if it's a short ride)
7) Hair cut 1€"
It's not just Americans who are unsure about what is the "correct" approach to tipping. It was the subject of a recent morning talk show (audio feed below) on Spain's national radio, and there was some divergence of opinion. (Though bear in mind that many listeners who said they did leave a tip were talking about amounts such as 50 cents or 1€. And I noticed that it was mostly the foreigners and immigrants  interviewed who were advocating it.)

But really, nobody is going to mind if you don't leave a tip. In Spain they really, truly are optional.

October 12, 2011

Two Spains, Many Spains: 1492 and "La Hispanidad"

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

John Vanderlyn's Landing of Columbus, 1847

Today is "La Fiesta Nacional de España," what was formerly "El Día de la Hispanidad" in Spain, and as such offers another opportunity to return to the theme of "las dos Españas" (see "Las dos Españas" entry). The narrative of "Two Spains" is very attractive for its explanatory power. Consider the deep significance of the year of 1492 in Spanish history. It was:

1) the year that the Catholic Monarchs ("los reyes católicos"), Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II, defeated the last outposts of Moorish occupation in Andalucía thereby unifying Spain,

2) the year when Christopher Columbus ("Cristobal Colón" in Spanish) "sailed the ocean blue," initiating Spain's imperial conquest of the New World, and

3) the year when all the Jews in Spain were either expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism, starting the Spanish Inquisition.

Don Quijote, one of many classics
from "El siglo de oro"
1492 thus marked the beginning of a high point in Spanish political power, and in particular Castilian and central Spain. It was not only the year that marked the completion of "la reconquista" of Spain by los reyes católicos, but the initiation of "la conquista" of the New World and the importation of all its wealth and territorial power. Isabella was the monarch from Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon. Their seat of power, though initially split between the two regions, would eventually be located in Toledo, near the center of the Iberian peninsula. (In 1561 the capital was moved to Madrid, also in the center, which has been Spain's capital ever since.) Thus would begin what would come to be called "El siglo de oro" (the Spanish Golden Age), running from roughly 1492 to the middle of the 1600s and marked by its wealth of cultural classics Cervante's Don Quijote, Lope de Vega's many plays, and Baltasar Gracián's philosophical treatises, among others, would all pass through the Castilian courts forging the basis for a nationalist national culture, a.k.a. "la Hispanidad."

"Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando" (as much as the one is worth, so much is the other), the motto of the Catholic Monarchs symbolizing their sharing of power between Aragon and Castile. Here it is shown with the escudo of the reyes católicos, showing the castle and lion of Castile and the eagle and "senyera," or four red stripes on a golden background, emblems of Aragon's rule over the países catalanes. This is the first official seal of a unified Spain.

The 12th of October in 1492 was the day Columbus first spotted land in the Americas, so to celebrate it today as El Día de la Hispanidad is in part to celebrate the expansion of Spanish (read Castilian) culture across the globe. What's more, initially this holiday was known as "El Día de la Raza" (Day of the Race) to mark the meeting of the peoples of the New World and the Old. In the 1920s, a Spanish priest living in Argentina suggested substituting "la Hispanidad" for the more racially loaded term "la raza," reasoning that much as "Cristianidad" demarcated all the christian people, hispanidad would mark all the Spanish peoples ("pueblos hispánicos"). In some respect, the switch could be interpreted as focusing on the shared cultural heritage of Spanish-speaking people, rather than on the direct racial lineage. Yet, to give you a sense of the strong interlinking of centrist, Castilian culture, language, and religion, it was common to hear one say "habla en cristiano," speak in Christian, to mean speak Castilian Spanish, "castellano." (This use of "cristiano" interchangeably with "castellano" would continue in Spain up through the Franco dictatorship, the 1940s to 1960s.)

In 1958, the holiday's name was changed from "de la Raza" to "de la Hispanidad" in Spain (though, amazingly enough, not in most Latin American countries). "La Hispanidad," for better and worse, was still marked by the legacy of the earlier centrist and imperial period. Which is perhaps why in 1981 the newly formed democratic Spanish Congress renamed the holiday "Fiesta Nacional de España y Día de la Hispanidad," and then in 1987 dropped entirely the "Día de la Hispanidad" bringing us to the present name. Yet in much of the country today, October 12th is celebrated and known more informally as el día de la Virgen del Pilar, who incidentally is the patron saint of La Hispanidad and the Spanish Guardia Civil. Madrid marks the day with a parade of the country's military forces. So while in name it is no longer El Día de la Hispanidad, the holiday continues to be infused with that spirit.

There were Spanish critics of la conquista even during the Spanish Golden Age. This sketch showing the cruelty of conquistadores was included in Bartolomé de las Casas's accounts of the "destruction of the Indies" written in 1542.

Which brings us back to the Two Spains and a counter-interpretation of the modern-day significance of 1492. Many Spanish intellectuals in Hemingway's day, and really ever since, have sought to make sense of Spain's descent from political power in the 20th-century by reinterpreting 1492 and the Spanish Golden Age. Spain was a victim of its own success, so they reason. The readily available "cheap" wealth, gold and other treasures, from the New World kept the Castilian regimes from investing in the newer and (in hindsight) more enduring capitalist wealth brought with industrialization. Thus, scholars such as José Ortega y Gasset, so influential to the Generation of '27, reasoned, Spain was slow to modernize. Employing the racialized explanations common in early 20th century, they even saw the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 as an economic deterrent to Spain's modernization, since Jews were associated with financial innovations and modern intellectual traditions which had taken place in other European countries.

Photo of a group of authors, including Lorca (second to the left), later dubbed the "Generación del '27"

So 1492, once celebrated as a moment when Spain consolidated and purified its national identity, is also seen as a moment when the country got trapped in the past and turned away from many of the liberal European currents driving the Enlightenment and industrialization. And Americans will surely not be surprised to learn that there are contested politics today surrounding the significance of Columbus and the conquering of the New World. Spaniards traveling in Latin America, and particularly Mexico, might hear a local speak quite sarcastically of "la Madre Patria," referring to Spain and its alleged pretension of being the motherland for all Spanish-speakers. Such resentment is a lesson to anyone foolish enough to believe that shared language equals shared culture or understanding, though this is a sentiment which, at its core, is the ideal expressed in the celebration of El Día de la Hispanidad.

The flag of "la Hispanidad," with the three crosses representing
Columbus's three ships and the purple color from the Crown of Castile,
the region which gave birth to the Spanish language

Needless to say, even the counter narrative to 1492's significance suffers from both over-simplicity and a Whiggish view of the past. For one, despite the strong Castilian political dominance, throughout its modern history, Spain retained much of its regional cultural heterogeneity. Centralist authority was always contested, and rulers varied in how much cultural and political autonomy they deferred to the kingdom's different regions. (To anyone reading this in Mexico, please take it into consideration not to presume that Spaniards are uniform in their embrace of "la Hispanidad" and "la Madre Patria". Catalan and Basque people, and perhaps most Spaniards in general, identify less with the centrist tradition than with their own particular (and much less imperial) regional identities.) Moreover, the last thirty years have been marked more by Spain's Europeanification through the EU, or by the influx of immigrants coming from countries in Africa or eastern Europe that have little to do with this reconquista story. For these reasons and more, I continue to stress that there are not just Two Spains, but many Spains.

While there is still talk in Spain about "la Hispanidad" and Spain's special historical connection to Latin America, such talk today is better understood in the context of a global capitalism than a vestige of old imperial aspirations. The embrace of shared language and shared history is opportunistic and strategic, seen to be ways that Spaniards and Latin Americans can build transatlantic alliances to mutual benefit in a global economy usually dominated by Anglosaxon countries and the English-language.

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