Spanish artists: Joan Miró

Miro museum

This is me at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona, admiring Miró’s whimsical works of art.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have found it fascinating when people’s last names have something to do with their chosen profession. Sometimes the names are directly linked—a Baker will open a cupcake shop–and sometimes it’s a little farther-fetched, but all the more intriguing, like William Penn becoming an author. Is it serendipity? Does that person really come from a line of ancestors who liked to cook? Or does having to write their last name from the time they are little somehow stimulate their subconscious mind to seek out that line of work?

On my last visit to Chicago I was pleasantly surprised to see an exhibition at the Art Institute by one of my favorite contemporary Spanish artists, Joan Miró. His last name, it seems to me, fits this paradigm of choosing work related to one’s name. In Spanish, “miró” means “he looked”, and first and foremost, all artists I’ve ever known are keen observers of our world. How Joan Miró saw our world, and how he chose to portray it in his works of art, is an interesting study and I’m sure there have been many art history dissertations written on it, so I will only brush the surface, if you will.

Miró’s works are often in bright, primary colors which are punctuated with black or white lines and spaces. I’ve seen his whimsical statues and captivating mobiles, and I could look at them all day. And his paintings, well, I’m not big on modern, abstract art, but these are really very good. His style is so fun that I think that if Dr. Seuss had ever decided to outsource the artwork for his wonderful children’s books, Miró would have been the ideal illustrator.

Like Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali, Joan Miró was also born in Catalonia, in 1893. (It’s amazing how many gifted artists have come from Spain.)  Miró knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist. He studied in Spain, and then after a trip to Paris in his early twenties, became a surrealist painter.  He lived to be ninety years old, passing away just three years before I got to Spain, and created a wealth of works. He was one of those artists so entirely devoted to his work that he never stopped, continuing to create masterpieces in his 80’s.

When I had a chance to go to Barcelona as a graduate student, I went to his museum, the Fundació Joan Miró, and was intrigued at how his sculptures seemed to be 3-D representations of his paintings, as if they had gotten tired of the canvas and jumped out so they could stretch into their full forms. It was stunning!

If you enjoyed this blog post about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Bueno: a journey

Bueno w Stanford bikes2

Bueno is going places!!

Over the last few months I’ve learned that there are many steps in the path I’ll call “getting my book out there.” Before I could even begin, there were the hurdles of actually publishing it: completing the manuscript, getting the cover design right, proofing, submitting it in the format required (especially tricky for the Kindle edition) getting the library of congress and ISBN numbers— and all of these things took much longer and required far more energy than I had expected. The second step involved  building my “writer’s platform” and this blog has been an important and entertaining part of that process. I’ve also had to create an “author fan page” on FaceBook, a twitter account, and a Pinterest account (which, sorry to say, I don’t pay much attention to).  Now I am approaching book stores, arranging book signings, imploring everyone who reads my book to write a review (not much luck there, so far—only 5 kind souls have responded) and I’m entering contests.

Each contest I enter is like going through a job interview: my book is competing for recognition, jostling with heartfelt works that others have produced, hoping that the interviewer (or judge) is in a good mood when s/he reads it, and then waiting on pins and needles for the clock to tick by and the results to be announced. Yesterday I got the first result from a contest that I entered, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and…I made it to Round 2!! You should have seen me jumping up and down, even though it’s really only a small step and there are another 4 rounds to go. But still, the fact that Bueno survived when 4/5 of the entries (1600 novels) in its category were eliminated, is exciting.

As with each job interview, every contest focuses on different aspects of the author’s handiwork before the final decision is made. For this first round in the ABNA contest, the judges looked only at my “pitch”, which had to be no more than 300 words. That’s it. Just 300 words to either survive to the next round or be washed away with the masses. In preparation for this contest I wrote 12 different pitches, then  narrowed them down to the three best, then worked on these till the final one emerged. Once I knew where I was going with the pitch, I re-wrote it another 4 or 5 times, and it’s this pitch which I’d like to share with you today:

Shhh. Harvey has to think. When he left the kindergarten classroom most of the children had stopped crying. But pig’s blood still stained the grass and he knew that the students would have nightmares about what they had witnessed at recess. The farmer had sworn that he had sent a letter to the school informing of the planned slaughter.  And then, when he returned to his office, Harvey had noticed that his in-box was inexplicably neat and tidy. With a sinking heart he reached for the pile of letters and found the one that had not been there earlier.

Harvey had expected his interim position to be challenging. After all, he was a foreigner:  a tall, red-headed Texan whose high school Spanish was barely passable. And he was relatively inexperienced, having never been a headmaster before, but he had trusted that his graduate degree, hard work and determination would suffice.

Closing his eyes, Harvey thought of Carmen, who had brightened his life tremendously. But now with this crisis, the worst since he had begun working in this hornet’s nest of a school, would he be able to remain in Spain, the country his late brother had loved and where he could be with Carmen?

He scanned the letter again. It was obvious that he had been framed. Why was it that nothing he did seemed to work out? How should he handle this situation?

Teeming with sympathetic, believable characters and masterfully interweaving humorous and poignant moments, Bueno is a truth-telling, engaging novel which explores shared human experiences that cross national and cultural boundaries.

What do you think? Have I enticed you into a) reading my novel; b) writing a review on Amazon for me (this will be super important if I make it to later rounds in the ABNA contest); and c) recommending my book(s) to your friends and family?

I sure hope so! If you would like to order my book, please click on Bueno to be directed to the Amazon links. Thank you for your help!

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The Enchanting University Tunas

 

Cuenca University Tuna

Aren’t they a handsome group? This is the Cuenca Campus University Tuna. Use of this photo is with permission from the generous folks at CuencaOn, a communications service of the University of Cuenca. You can follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cuencaon

One of my favorite grad student memories is of the first time I ever heard the university tuna. It was a magical and wonderful moment that I shall never forget. (Spoiler alert—this is not about chicken of the sea!) A group of us was sitting at an outdoor café in El Barrio Húmedo of León as the sun was setting when suddenly we heard male voices singing in wonderful harmony, accompanied by music from guitars, lutes, mandolins, tambourines, an accordion, and a double bass. Their voices were strong and echoed off the thick stone walls of the buildings around us that were many hundreds of years old, and these voices were clearly drawing nearer. My friends all began exclaiming that the university tuna was arriving, and of course, I began looking around, not quite sure what to expect. Then I saw them: about a dozen, or maybe 15 men, clearly students, dressed in Shakespearean-style clothing. They had on black leather shoes, black stockings and either knickerbockers or puffy shorts made of black velvet with vertical satin folds of yellow or purple (the colors of the University of León ). They also wore black button-down and fitted jackets with pointy white collars protruding, and a leather belt around their waist secured with a square, silver buckle.  The sleeves of their coats were tight fitting from the wrist to just above the elbow, at which point they suddenly became puffy, like the trousers, with bright satin folds. A brightly colored sash, folded in the shape of a “V”, was draped over their chests. Most of them also wore majestic black velvet capes, the thick ones, lined with satin, which reached almost all the way to the ground. Pinned to their capes were many different colored roses made from satin ribbons, and attached to the roses were long stretches of ribbon, like streamers, hanging the length of the cape so that as the person walked, all of the streamers flew out behind, like adoring fans waving to them.  It was an amazing sight.

Once the tuna had gathered around our table, (because, of course, my friends immediately alerted them that the Americana, the only one in the city, was there) they began singing a song that I had never heard before, and which became one of my favorites: Clavelitos. It’s about a guy asking his sweetheart to share her flower of a mouth, the honey of her lips, with him, and promising that he will always bring her clavelitos, little carnations. It ends with him reminding her that if there ever comes a day when he doesn’t bring her these flowers, she mustn’t think that anything is wrong, but just know that he was unable to get them that day.

tuna tools

A wooden fork and spoon became the international symbol of the University Tuna groups

It turns out that different colleges within each university across the country have their own tunas, which are like singing fraternities. According to the Tuna Universitaria de Salamanca website,  (The tuna of the University of Salamanca) when this, the oldest and most famous of Spanish universities, opened in the early 1200’s, there were some groups of students called sopones (which I will translate as “soupers”) who were so poor that they would serenade the neighboring convents and plazas in exchange for their daily meal of a bowl of soup and a few coins with which they could use to pay for their studies. They usually carried around their own wooden spoon and fork, hoping for a meal, and these utensils eventually became the symbol of all of the university Tunas.  Later, in the 1300’s, there were groups of students “who didn’t crack a book or go to any classes; indeed, their  guitars never left their fingers, they were very entertaining and sung many a sonnet, and always seemed to have a new melody” as described by Guzmán de Alfarache.  Two hundred years later, in the 1500’s, it was the world famous Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes, who in his book “Tia Fingida” describes a particular Tuna group which has, along with their string instruments, about a dozen cow bells. Cervantes surmises that it must have been their intention, and he felt sure that they would achieve it, to wake up the entire neighborhood and make them come out to their balconies to be serenaded.

But my words don’t do tunas justice. In these next few paragraphs I have embedded links to YouTube videos of tuna groups performing, and you can access them by clicking on the colored words. This first one is the Tuna from the College of Law from the University of Albacete singing “Don Quijote”, in homage to Miguel de Cervantes, for the reason I mentioned above. You can really hear the power of their voices. The introduction takes the first minute of the video, so you might want to fast forward over that part if you don’t understand Spanish, and get to the music. I really liked it.

This second link is the Tuna from the College of Medicine at the University of Salamanca. They are playing in a hall in the university and you can see both their typical costumes as well as the wonderful university setting, with the colorful tiles on the walls and the different shields. It’s an ideal backdrop for their music.

This third video is the Tuna from the Law School of the University of Huelva, singing a song called “Maria, la Portuguesa” which is about a Portuguese woman named Maria who has left and broken their heart. They are performing on a stage, which I find strange as I always saw tunas walking around campus or the city, but it turns out that every year there are tons of competitions of tunas from different universities—I would love to go to one of these someday.

Nowadays there are also tunas outside of the university setting, many of which will play at weddings, and I found several YouTube videos of tunas playing for the couple emerging as newlyweds, or to the bride the night before the wedding.  The concept of tunas has even been exported to Europe and Latin America. So the next time you go to Spain, no matter which city you visit, look up the local tunas and go watch them perform–I’m sure you’ll love it!

If you enjoyed this blog post about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

 

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Carnaval, carnaval te quiero

Daniel Carnavales

My son in his school Carnaval costume, being silly in the cute way 3 year-olds are.

Everyone has heard of Carnaval in Brazil, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but did you know that this same holiday celebration is a HUGE deal in Spain too? I didn’t and I have to say it’s like nothing I’d ever seen before! It’s like Halloween on steroids with parades that rival Macy’s famous one—IN EVERY CITY across the entire country! It’s spectacular, creative, bright, funny, dazzling, musical, entertaining and wonderful.  And it’s coming up in less than two weeks!

It’s such a big deal, as a matter of fact, that schools and most businesses close for a 4 day break—well, two days are always Saturday and Sunday, but many people also get Monday and Tuesday off. In the bigger cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Tenerife, Gran Canarias, and Cádiz, people begin celebrating as early as the Thursday before, which this year means February 27th–six fun-filled days. And of course, people plan their costumes months, if not years, in advance.

How long have these celebrations been going on? According to my friends at Wikipedia,  the first Carnavales date back 5,000 years, to the times of the Egyptians and the Sumerians. They were festivals in homage to a god.  The Carnavales de Cádiz, some of the most famous in the country, were first documented in the late 1500’s, at which point they were already spoke about large Carnaval celebrations in which the religious folk did not participate.

What makes these celebrations so different, you may be wondering? For one thing, the costumes are surreal. The vast majority are NOT store-bought, but rather hand-made. And a more talented country of tailors and seamstresses I have never seen. It turns out that nearly everyone knows how to sew well.  For another, people (most often groups of friends or entire families) all dress in the same theme—so you might see a herd of punk, psychedelic dinosaurs, or a family of gorillas in pinafores, or rows of children dressed as colorful spools of thread–these last are shown in the link to El Toboso which I also mention below. I marveled at the costumes every single one of the dozen years I spent in Spain— I always astounded by both the creativity of the designs and the skill in crafting them.

lab carnavales

Here I am with my some of my fellow grad students, all dressed up for Carnavales.

Another reason Carnaval is so much fun is that everyone is dressed up—from tiny tots to the much older and wiser denizens, and everyone in between. It’s a huge national party, with tons of music, always including the song “Carnaval, carnaval te quiero”—“I love Carnaval”. And the parades, as I mentioned earlier, are exquisite! Look, for example, at this tiny village, El Toboso, which is close to Toledo, near Madrid. It’s only got 2,219 inhabitants and it seems that every single one of them is dancing in the street!  So, as you can imagine, in a big city, the parades are not to be missed!

Carnaval, carnaval!

Carnaval, te quiero.

La, la, la, la, la, la la

Bailaremos sin parar

En el mundo entero…

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Caramelos de San Blas

cup of tea

February is the perfect time for a nice soothing cup of marshmallow leaf tea.

All over the northern hemisphere, February is a cold and dark month. Spring seems forever away, and the light and gaiety of the holiday season is far behind. It’s not surprising that it’s a month when colds run rampant, and old remedies for the common sore throat once again assert themselves. When I lived in Bilbao, my favorite thing about having a sore throat in February was the chance to have caramelos de San Blas to ease the discomfort. These lozenges, made from the root of the Althaea officinalis plant, which are typically only sold at this time of the year, are also known as caramelos de Malvavisco.  Right at the end of January, you suddenly see them for sale.  And any older person will inform you that right after purchasing a bag full of the little hard candies, it is recommended that they be taken to the local church, on the day of San Blas, (which is February 3rd) to have them blessed.  This is because San Blas is the patron saint of sore throats.  (It’s incredible how much I didn’t know when I went to Spain!)

Getting your lozenges blessed on the day of San Blas in Bilbao is a pretty big deal. Hundreds of people go to the Iglesia de San Nicolas, the Church of St. Nicholas, for the occasion. According to an article in El Correo.com, dated February 3, 2014, the turnout was as large as usual this past Monday, in spite of the rainy, cold weather.

Okay, I will admit that in the eleven years that I lived in Spain, I never once managed to take my caramelos de San Blas to go get them blessed on the appointed saint’s day. My bad. But, fortunately, my mother-in-law always took care of that and she’d bring over a white paper bag with a few dozen consecrated candies, individually wrapped in folded white paper with lots of writing on it. Oh, they were good! If I happened not to have a sore throat at the time, I would save them, tucked away behind the cereal boxes, but at the first twinge, I’d break them out, just in case.

So, is there any truth in the supposed “curative” properties of the plant from which these lozenges are made? I consulted the University of Maryland Medical Center website  and found that, indeed, there is. In English, Althea officinalis is called the marshmallow plant–not to be confused with those puffy white things we use for s’mores, although according to Wikipedia, our sugary marshmallows were originally made with Althea extract, though they no longer are. It turns out that Althea, which means “healing” in Greek, is in the mallow family, and has been used for over 2000 years for its medicinal properties. It grows in salty marshes (hence, marsh mallow) and its root contains mucilage, a compound which soothes inflamed mucous membranes, such as those in the throat. According to the same Maryland Medical Center website, people also make tea from marshmallow, and this helps soothe all upper respiratory conditions, and even some bowel conditions. No wonder my mother-in-law swore by it!

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on some of these candies, you could also make cookies with them. I’ve never had these, but I found a recipe on a blog called “biscayenne” and they look amazing.

The other thing to do, they’ll tell you in Bilbao, is to buy some little braided thread necklaces (cordoncillos) and wear them for nine days, tied protectively around your throat beginning on the day of San Blas. (It’s of note that the University of Maryland Medical site did not confirm any curative properties in this custom, but everyone in Bilbao will assure you that the tradition is there for a reason.) So, you wear these little string necklaces, and then on the 12th of February, you remove them and burn them. This seals the immunity they provide. My mom-in-law also brought us these cordoncillos de San Blas, which she took to be blessed at the same time as the lozenges, and I can assure you that it was oddly cathartic to cut these colorful necklaces off after wearing them for the stipulated nine days and burn them with a lighter. (For a picture of the colorful cordoncillos, see the El Correo article mentioned above.)

So, I hope you stay healthy in February, and if you’re in northern Spain, enjoy some caramelos de San Blas!

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

 

 

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Bueno will be released on February 5th, 2014

20140105_111532_Calle_del_Martillo

Thanks to my friend, Jose M. de Pereda, for sending me this picture he took in Santander.

 


Bueno
is the first book in the Cantabria American School series.   Have you ever been in a work environment where your colleagues put stumbling blocks in front of you at every turn? Welcome to Harvey Jones’s world. Harvey goes to Spain to work as an interim headmaster at a small private school. They have only hired him for one year since he doesn’t have much experience. He expects to work hard to prove himself. He is also looking forward to getting to know the country that his brother loved, before he passed away. What Harvey does not expect is to be thwarted and sabotaged at every turn by teachers who are against him before they ever meet him. In spite of his escalating challenges at work, though, Harvey is really enjoying living in Spain. He begins dating Carmen, and soon they find that they have a tragic connection to ETA, the Basque separatist group.  As the end of the school year draws near and Harvey’s love blossoms, he decides to try to convince the board to extend his contract, an increasingly difficult task as the board president that hired him has been ousted, replaced by a new president who makes it clear that she does not like Harvey. Set in the lovely city of Santander, on the Bay of Biscay, Bueno is an engaging novel with sympathetic and genuine characters that leave the reader wanting to find out what happens after the narrative has ended.

Below is an excerpt. I struggled to find one that would be representative of the novel. In the end, since the Bueno will be released the week before Valentine’s Day, I decided to go with a love scene, even though this only occurs in the second half of the book.

 

Yo a ti te conozco,” she said sweetly as she came near his desk.

He looked up as she was handing him back his graded homework assignment. His teacher smiled and winked and then went on handing out the rest of the papers.

Harvey watched her walking up and down and among the aisles of his fellow students, other adults like himself, who were taking evening Spanish classes. He noticed, perhaps for the first time, that she wore her hair loose around her shoulders, and smiled involuntarily as the thought of kissing her neck crossed his mind.

He thought of what she had just said to him. What did she mean, “I know you”? How did she know him? He was just one more foreigner in this bustling city, just one more person captivated by this fascinating country and trying to learn how to communicate better.

Now, in his second semester at the CAS, Harvey was gaining more confidence when he had to converse with board members and parents who spoke little if any English, and it helped that most were very patient with his language handicap, although there were often little jokes and subtle innuendos that he missed because he just hadn’t yet developed enough of an ear for the language.

Harvey had been taking Spanish classes for several months, and was quite enjoying the opportunity to be learning and meeting new people on an entirely social level. In late December he had passed the quarterly exams and had been moved up to a new class which met every Tuesday and Thursday evenings. His new teacher, Carmen Mendoza Moreno, was frankly very beautiful, Harvey had to admit. She seemed to be in her late 30’s, close to his age, and her short dark brown hair was always immaculately styled. Like most Spanish women, she wore elegant, flattering clothing and generally seemed poised and confident. Although he had only been in her class for a short period, it was still early January, he had found out right away through the rumor mill that she was a single mom and that her husband had passed away three years earlier. As one of many students in her class, he had not really entertained the idea of her taking any special notice of him. It wasn’t that Harvey didn’t want to be in a relationship, he often thought, it’s just that with his job taking up so much of his time and energy, there never seemed to be enough left to go out and meet someone. When he had first arrived in Spain, well-meaning parents had tried to set him up with several nice women, but their romantic attempts had led to naught. He was unperturbed, however, and enjoyed his life as it was.

But what exactly did she mean, “I know you”? The words, “Yo a ti te conozco,” rolled around in his mind making it difficult for him to concentrate on the lesson. He waited impatiently for the class to let out so he could have an opportunity to speak with her. He felt like each of the forty five minutes stopped to have a cup of coffee and linger over the newspaper before bothering to tip the hands of the clock the tiniest bit. Now, finally, that was the bell! She gave them an assignment and walked back toward her desk.

Harvey gathered his writing utensils and closed his notebook, which normally would have been completely scrawled over with new words, phrases and grammatical constructs to practice, but which today had precious few notes. Having packed away his things in his satchel and risen from his seat, he began heading toward Carmen, still not sure what he would say to her. When he was about half way up the aisle he was cornered by Gary O’Brien.

“Are ye up for a beer, tonight, lad? Ya look like ye could use one.” Gary was an Irish businessman who had been living in Spain for fifteen years, but was just now getting around to improving his Spanish. He and Harvey had a cordial relationship, having met after class when Harvey first started at the Camara de Comercios and Harvey had joined him once or twice, but often he had declined Gary’s offers in order to get back to his apartment to have some time to read or catch up on some American football games via the internet.

“Sorry, buddy, can’t tonight.”

“C’mon ol’ mate, it’ll be a barmy good time,” Gary cajoled in his Irish brogue. Harvey did not want to be rude so he turned back toward his friend and grasped the extended hand and shook it, but again insisted that he could not go out tonight.

“Oh, all right, please yourself, then,” said Gary amiably, putting on his coat.

Don’t mind if I do, thought Harvey and turned back toward Carmen, only to see that she had vanished. That was quick! A tiny part of him was disappointed that she hadn’t made an effort to follow up with her remark to him. Why say it and then disappear as soon as class had ended? She didn’t even give a body a chance to ask her anything. Well, he wouldn’t just let it stand at that, would he?

 

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Spanish Artists: Dalí

Dali museum 1

My 4 year old son is showing us how strong he is, in front of the Dali museum.

Spain has produced quite a few world-renown artists, and one of them is Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dalí I Doménech, or just Salvador Dalí, (pronounced Dah-LEE) who lived from 1904 to 1989. He was a colorful character, eccentric and proud of it, from Catalonia, on the east side of Spain, close to France. (Barcelona, a gorgeous city many visitors to Spain have seen, is the largest city in the province of Catalonia.)  Dalí was a painter, sculptor and even a writer, and he is mostly known for his surrealist interpretations. The first time I ever saw his artwork was at the MOMA (or was it the Met?) in New York City, where I was fascinated with his painting of clocks melting and dripping over a barren landscape. This is still one of my favorite paintings, and it is called “The Persistence of Memory.”

When my son was about 4 years old, I had the great fortune of visiting the Teatro-Museo Dalí museum in small town called Figueres, which is where Dalí was born. The town is situated northeast of Barcelona, close to the Mediterranean coast, and it was there that I really got a chance to expand my appreciation for this genius of a man.  The museum is filled with his works, and it’s definitely worth the drive up from Barcelona to go see it. As a matter of fact, it seems that tourists increasingly agree with me: according to ABC.es, a large Spanish newspaper, the Dalí museum in Figueres, along with other Dalí museums in Barcelona, had a record number of visitors in 2013, almost 10% more than in 2012.

Dali museum2

An inside garden of the museum. Can you see me sitting down, holding my now tired little “superman”?

Not surprisingly, Salvador Dalí’s artistic contributions continue to fetch very high prices. According to a different article in ABC.es, one of Dalí’s sculptures, the fourth in a series of eight, will be auctioned in London by the Bonhams. (The auction will be held February 4th, 2014, according to the Bonhams website.  ) This  metallic sculpture, which is over 3 meters high (more than 10 feet) of an elephant with impossibly long, thin legs, being ridden by a golden angel with a horse tail and playing a trumpet, is valued at between 250,000 and 350,000 Euros. ($340,000 to $476,000.) Apparently, Dalí had a thing for elephants with string bean legs—according to Wikipedia, he first began painting them in 1944 and after that, they continued appearing in his works for the next 40 years.

If you are interested in seeing more of Dalí’s work, and traveling to Spain isn’t in your plans, there is a Salvador Dalí museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Many of his pieces are also on exhibit right now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art  until March 2nd, 2014. You can also see his work on-line by visiting the Dalí Web of Tampa, Florida, a site which has scans in high resolution of 159 of his paintings.  Or you can go to a Salvador Dalí website to see more.

 

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Happy New Year!

doce uvas

My twelve lucky grapes for a wonderful New Year 2014.

¡Feliz Año! ¿Que tal las uvas? This is an expression that will be said thousands of times today in Spain. “Happy (New) Year! How were the grapes?” No, it’s not that everyone owns vineyards, and grapes are not code for anything else—they really do mean, “How were your grapes?”

To understand the question, allow me to paint a picture of how a typical Spanish New Year’s Eve goes: you get together at a relative’s house (or welcome all your relatives to yours) and begin with appetizers around 10:00 PM. It’s a bit early for dinner by Spanish standards, but it’s a long night so you have to get an early start. By 11 PM the main meal has been served, and at about 11:50 PM the table is quickly cleared and the grapes are brought out—either one big bowl or, more often, individual servings, depending on the customs of each house.  A this point everyone turns their attention to the TV,  which is tuned to the channel where they are filming live from the Puerta del Sol, a plaza in downtown Madrid (kind of like our Times Square in New York City) which is packed with people waiting to count down to the New Year. When the clock begins striking, everyone back at home picks up their little bowl with grapes and quickly pops one grape in their mouth with each strike of the clock.

Of course, after about the fifth or sixth grape it’s really difficult to keep adding them to your mouth and still try to chew–especially since the grapes are sometimes fairly large and always have seeds. It’s a fun and silly tradition and there are always hilarious stories about how many you could actually fit into your mouth and if you kept up with the chimes of the clock and if seeing your aunt or four-year-old niece stuffing her face full made you laugh so hard you ended up spitting yours out, and whether someone actually cheated by removing the seeds from their grapes in advance. I remember a person who would not only remove the pips, but also peel each grape so she could just swallow them quickly and get them all down before the clock struck twelve!

After the clock strikes midnight, there are the customary two kisses, one on each cheek, to everyone present, and then you return to the table for cava (Spanish champagne) and dessert, eventually followed by coffee. At around 1:30 or 2:00 AM everyone puts on coats and goes out for a stroll.  The streets are packed with people, and you see lots of them making the gesture with their hands, palm upwards, and bringing their finger tips together with their thumbs as they marvel at how many people are out and about. Perhaps the really old folks will go back in around 3:30 or 4:00 AM, but most everyone else will be out till about 7:00 AM, at which time they’ll purchase chocolate con churros from the street vendors, and then finally head back home to go to bed.  From about 9:00 AM until well after 3:00 PM the streets are absolutely deserted—the street cleaners have the whole place to themselves while the throngs that were out at 5:00 AM, are, of course, all sleeping away the first day of the New Year. I know. I’m not one to sleep late, even if I didn’t go to bed until after dawn, and I could not believe how desolate the streets were on that first day of the New Year.

But I digress. The unique custom of eating twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve began in Spain and was first documented in the late 1800’s according to Wikipedia.  In 1894 it was already considered an “age-old” custom to gather in the Puerta del Sol and eat a grape for each of the twelve chimes. However, Euroresidentes states that it wasn’t until the first decade of the 1900’s when grape growers in southern Spain found that they had an unusually large harvest that they needed to market, that these producers made a concerted effort to have this custom of eating “twelve lucky grapes for a great new year” spread widely across Spain. Nowadays eating New Year’s Eve grapes as the clock tolls has been adopted in quite a few Latin American countries as well.

Another fun tidbit: until 1962, people listened to the twelve chimes as they were broadcast from Madrid over the radio, but after that, the event began to be featured on TV.  Now, of course, it’s the big TV personalities who are often at the center of festivities ushering in the New Year and announcing the grape eating ritual.

So I hope your grapes went down well—or go well next year, if that’s the first time you try to eat them as the clock strikes. And most of all I hope you have a fantastic New Year 2014!

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Turrón

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The white turron on the right-hand side is the typical one that has been around for centuries. The chocolate turron on the left is a very yummy modern turron.

One of my favorite Spanish holiday treats is turrón, and if you’ve never had it, you are missing out! It’s a typical sweet eaten around this time of the year, along with marzipan, and it’s similar to peanut brittle, except much less sugary.  In the picture you can see that the proportion of nuts to nougat is much higher than it is in brittle.

Almonds, the main ingredient in turrón, are, not surprisingly, a huge crop in Spain. As a matter of fact, according to Sabor Mediterráneo, a digital magazine about Mediterranean cuisine, Spain is the second largest producer of almonds in the world (the U.S. is first.) One of my favorite things to do in Spain in early spring is to walk along the rows upon rows of almond trees clad in their delicate and fragrant white blossoms.  Many villages have lined the roads leading in and out with almond trees, and you haven’t lived until you’ve gathered fresh almonds in the fall and spent an afternoon shelling and devouring them. It’s a taste you just don’t get in store-bought nuts.

Honey, sugar and whipped egg white are the only other ingredients traditional turrón.

Turrón is such an emblematic part of the holiday season in Spain, that to miss out on it because of economic hard times is a really sad thing. According to Europa Press, Jose Manuel Sirvent, the CEO of Almendra y Miel, a big turrón making plant in Alicante, said that it’s important to show solidarity with less privileged groups, especially in these hard economic times.  Over the years this company has been committed to social responsibility and this year they will be donating turrón to 1000 families who are in need. “Turron, just like toys, is something we all look forward to, it’s tradition and it brings families together.” Bravo!  (This company makes the brands “1880” and  “El Lobo.”)

But, just like toys, you may be wondering? I dare say, turrón is even more emblematic of the season than toys are and that’s partly because it’s been around for a long time. According to my favorite resource, Wikipedia, almonds and honey were already used to manufacture sweets when the southern portion of Spain, Alicante, was still under Arabic control between the years 711 and 1492. As early as the 11th century, an Arabic doctor wrote a treatise about medicines in which he mentions “turun.”  Fast-forward to 1582, and there’s a document in the Alicante municipality stating that every year, since time immemorial, the city of Alicante pays salaries at Christmas time partly in money, and partly in a gift of turrón.

Nowadays there are several different varieties besides the traditional hard and soft ones: there’s one with chocolate as its nougat instead of honey, there’s one with egg yolk in the nougat, some with jellied fruits and even with one with coconut. I’ve been able to purchase all the different flavors in the U.S.

If you want to try to make some turrón for yourself at home, here’s a YouTube video. It’s in Spanish, but there are only a few ingredients, and I think you’ll get the gist by watching how it’s done.

This is my last post for this year. Wishing you the best holiday season, full of love and joy, and a wonderful start to the New Year!    ¡Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo!

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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Villancicos: Spanish Christmas Carols

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Another beautiful nativity arrangement featured on the Decofilia.com website, used with their permission.

(Several quick notes before you begin reading this blog post: unless you are from Spain and already know what I’m talking about, this post is best read with access to the internet—and perhaps headphones—so you can listen to the songs as I discuss them. Also, for most of them, you might want to minimize the screen or shut off the image as most of the videos are very lame. Finally, the recordings are of the full length song, but usually after listening for about  a minute, possibly less, you’ll get the gist of what I’m trying to say, at which point, unless you have lots of spare time or just adore that music, feel free to click off the site and continue reading.)

I grew up adoring Christmas carols—I like them so much, as a matter of fact, that even though my son was born in July, I sang him carols pretty much non-stop as I held him through the summer.  But, my first year in Spain, by the time Christmas rolled around, I was feeling a bit homesick and ready to hear the familiar “jingle-bells,” “silent night,” and “sleigh ride” songs. I had learned many of these in Spanish, along with “Feliz Navidad—I wanna wish you a merry Christmas” in high school Spanish classes, and I figured I was prepared.  So imagine my astonishment when I heard this one about bells, appropriately named “Campana sobre campana” but not sounding a bit like sleigh bells, silver bells, or any other bell song I’d ever heard:   Besides being a completely different melody, I was surprised to learn that, like the majority of the Spanish carols, it was sung by groups of children. In the US, other than the chipmunk song, the vast majority of carols you hear on the radio are sung by adults.

Although many of the villancicos, as Spanish carols are called, end up speaking of the birth, or refer to the Belen,  some of them do it in a very roundabout way. This one, for example, is called “Los peces en el rio” which means, the fish in the river, and the chorus is all about the way the fish in the river are “drinking and drinking and drinking some more” as they contemplate the birth. It also talks of the Virgin Mary combing her hair, made of gold, with a comb made of silver. It’s a catchy tune, and one of my favorites, though I had a hard time finding a version that I liked for today’s blog. I settled on this one, even though the pace is a little slow, but you’ll see what I mean:  In any case, once again, both the melody and the words are completely different from carols we have in English.

The word, “villancicos”, it turns out, has its roots in “villas”—villages. According to Wikipedia,  villancicos were originally non-religious songs, popular tunes, which the church decided to bring into its Christmas liturgy beginning in the 15th century. My guess is that villagers would have resisted having the church completely alter some of their favorite songs, like the one about the fishes in the river, so large swaths were left intact and then some Christmas lines were added.

Some of my favorite villancicos have words that are tongue twisters and to this day, I have trouble singing them as quickly as the song demands. For instance, the one called Una Burra Rin-Rin has a slow part and very fast part–great practice for conjugating verbs. Another fun one is called, “Ay del chiquirritin” It’s really great if you need practice rolling your “r’s”.  And then there’s another beautiful one called “A la nanita nana” which is sung by  Sofia Rimoldi in this clip. This was one of the few videos I found sung by an adult, and she does a lovely job. I don’t think she’s a famous artist—just someone who made a video of herself. Doesn’t she have a wonderful voice? This is one of the few versions that I enjoyed listening to the whole way through, and watching her sing and play the guitar. I can really hear the Arabic roots in this melody as well. And, no surprise, it’s more of a lullaby than a carol.

One of the songs which seems to definitely have a tropical slant to it, and may have been imported from Latin America is one about a donkey, called “Mi burrito sabanero”  Do you agree? And are you beginning to pick up on the pattern of having some lines sung by one person, while the chorus is sung by a group? According to Wikipedia,this is typical of the folk songs that were popular during the renaissance period in Spain and Portugal. So I could be completely wrong about the tropical roots of this song.

And there are more favorites, which I loved to use as I taught Spanish. Ones like “Fum, fum, fum”  which repeat the date, and say fun nonsense words in middle, pronounced foom, foom, foom, surrounded by short rhyming verses. Or this one with a really fun, upbeat rhythm and lots of repeating choruses. “Ande, ande, ande la Marimorena

Another of my favorites is “Dime niño de quien eres”, Tell me child, whose son are you? I found another rare clip with an adult singing it, and thus preferred this video by singer Rosa Lopez, who has a very nice voice. You’ll also see that the dancers in the background are doing an adaptation of the traditional flamenco dance, dressed in red and white holiday fare.

And there are so many more, all with music completely unlike any of the carols you can find playing on your radio stations here, (even the ones playing non-stop Christmas songs between Thanksgiving and Christmas!) I’ll leave you with just a few more. “Ya vienen los Reyes Magos” is about the three kings coming,   Tutaina is about the shepherds coming to see the baby, and is interesting because the entire chorus is nonsense. “Tutaina tuturuma, tutaina, tuturrumaina, tutaina, tuturruma turruma, tutaina, tuturrumaina.” Makes me wonder if it’s ancient words from a forgotten language. El niño Dios ha nacido is sung by a school choir in Madrid.

The last link, is a composite of about 6 carols in a row. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this blog post, and if you’re polishing your Spanish, I recommend you try learning some villancicos—music helps both in pronunciation and rhythm of another language. You can find the words to any of these songs by Googling their title as I’ve written them, followed by the word “letras.”

If you enjoyed this blog about Spain, you might also like my book, Bueno, which takes place in Santander, Spain.

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