jueves, 26 de julio de 2007

Bullfight & Flamenco

Sunday, July 15. In the afternoon, we took a tour of the bullfight ring in Madrid, which included a walk down the camino del miedo--the hallway through which the bullfighters enter the ring, knowing there is no turning back--and even out into the arena itself. We took turns taking one another’s photos wearing the capes. None of this knowledge quite prepared me for the bullfight that night.

We had tickets in the “sol y sombra” section, which turned out to be about three rows from ground, and not exactly a row of seats, but the edge of the concrete walkway on the lowest level. So, people passed behind us (but only between fights, as no one can enter after a fight has begun.) We watched the bullfight at eye level, although most of the action took place across the ring, in front of the section decorated with fancy embroidered capes.

Before the first bull entered the ring, the men all came out in procession, officials and those who would fight that night. The crowd cheered, and we admired their beautiful garments, the traje de los luces, suit of lights. We would get a close look at them, as they waited in the corredor right in front of us, much to the delight of some young women on the bottom row. They were like rock stars, aware of the crowd behind them, turning to smile for a photo or to take a note from some young woman. They did not seem tense, but I think they were not the matadors, who were somewhere backstage and would only enter at the dramatic moment before/for the kill.

As the players enter the arena, there would be a flare of trumpets and drums, the familiar music we associate with the bullfight. But throughout the fight itself, the only noise is that of the crowd and whatever sounds arise, unamplified, from within the arena. The bull might snort or bellow; you might hear the men talking to one another as they maneuver him.

The first bull to enter the ring was black, jet black, and bounded about with strength and spirit, as if he had been waiting to perform for us, to gather our awe. A green ribbon, a marker for the cross between his shoulders, tossed as he ran toward one fuschia cape, the capote de brega, teased by a torredor, to another. Their job is to tire him, it seems, with one run at the sweeping capes after another.

Next came the picadors on horseback, the horses blindfolded and caparisoned in gold. The torredors drew the bull over to the mounted picador, who then plunged his lance, the pica, down between the bull’s shoulders. It was the first act of violence against the bull, and more shocking than I can describe. After this, everything seemed quite unreal, almost dreamlike.

The bull charged the horse and seemed to have gored it, as blood stained the caparison. But, we were told on the tour that the horses are armored under the fancy drape and rarely are they hurt badly. The blood, I presume, belonged to the bull, and not the horse, who seemed to remain relatively calm, as the torredors maneuvered the bull again.

After the picadors came the banderilleros, with short spears or long darts decorated with brightly colored ruffled paper. They danced about like big birds of prey, holding the darts high like mocking horns, and when the bull came near, they drove the darts down into his shoulders, so that the bright paper shafts dangled from his back as he ran in fury and pain. Only after he had been embellished with the banderillas, stabbed with the picas, and teased to fatigue by the torredors did the matador enter the ring.

And set his hat down in the sand, and bow to the box where royalty or those overseeing the bullfight sat. Then began the dance with the muleta, the short red cape with a thin silver sword hidden beneath, the matador drawing the bull close and sweeping the red cape across the animal’s back, his horns, near the matador’s own body. Sometimes the matador would turn his back and walk a short distance as if unconcerned. He would sidle up to the bull, moving his feet like a girl edging toward a favor. All of his moves were careful and elegant and precise—poised. Finally, at some point that only he must know, he drew the sword and plunged it into the bull’s back, at the point marked by the cross. It would be a second sword that would kill the bull. He would crumple to the ground, turn on his side, his legs stiff out, his horn in the dirt. A team of horses came out to drag his body out of the ring.

Only at the first bullfight did the crowd wave white handkerchiefs. This must have been the most exciting, the most dangerous, the most impressive show of courage, but the subtle differences that distinguished one ritual death from another were lost on me. There were five more bullfights—six bulls killed in all. (We were told that the meat goes to local restaurants and nothing is wasted--though there seemed to be some doubt among the American spectators who had heard different stories.) My friend Tawny left after the first one, disturbed by the violence, but Brenda and I stayed. I can’t explain why I stayed, except for a peculiar fascination that seemed to overtake me, that kept me watching and photographing the ritual before me, each time, like a dance, like a mass, like something metaphysical, not real. They say the bullfight is sex and death and life and religion, all of it. It is just so bewitching and that is part of what makes it disturbing. I don’t think I would go to see another, but I have witnessed it.

Richard Wright, in Pagan Spain, has a clear, journalistic description of a bullfight in which he also notes the spell of the drama. The bullfight he saw in 1957 must have been ordered differently than the ones we watched, as he has the picadors come in before the torredors, but otherwise the description matched what I witnessed 50 years later. The book itself seems flawed by the author’s relative lack of familiarity with the language and culture of Spain; that is, it is a traveler’s account, but Wright hardly acknowledges that perspective. Perhaps that, too, is a difference in times. In a postcolonial age, in a time when global travel is a part of many people’s life experiences, the difference between deep inner knowledge of a culture and the observations and experiences of the visitor are more striking to us. My poem on the bullfight is “To Dance in a Culture of Death, o una Americana mirando la corrida del torros del Sol y Sombra en Madrid.”

On Wednesday evening, Peter Thompson escorted us to Casa Patas, to see live flamenco, an authentic performance. The table he had reserved touched the right edge of the stage, so the feet of the musicians and dancers were at our eye level and near enough that we could have touched their hems. Before the performance began, the musicians rehearsed in a corner among the tables while we chatted over wine and sangria. As the lights lowered to near dark, they entered the stage and sat in straight-back wooden chairs, the two singers in the v, flanked by guitarists and, beside us, the player of the cajon, a percussion instrument like a wooden box played with the hands. The men’s voices have a texture like instruments played with a bow, raspy and resonant. The music is percussive and loud, strummed guitars, tapped on the body, the rattle and beat of the cajon. The sound is familiar from the popular Gypsy Kings or Strom and Farrar, but the live music has a different, earthy quality to it, something you can taste.

The first dancer to enter was a young man dressed all in black, with hair curling to his shoulders. At first his heels tapped slowly, in a move like the bullfighter’s. As he warmed to the dance, though, his feet and lower legs moved so quickly and with such agility that they were at times a blur, the movement imperceptible to the eye, but captured clear on the wing in the ear. At the peak of the performance, glistening drops of sweat flew like a silver halo around his head.

Two different male dancers performed, each dancer solo with the musicians (and sometimes the musicians without the dancers.) It was the female dancer, though, who captivated the audience. She wore a dress of peacock blue, its ruffled hem sweeping the floor, the bodice and waist fitted like a second skin. Her hands curled with an elegant quietude above the rhythm her feet tapped. Not tapped, but not pounded, either. I don’t know if there is a verb for that movement and sound and emotion. The bullfight has the horror of death to it, but flamenco, equally captivating, seems pure life. This, I would return to.

sábado, 14 de julio de 2007

Food, Customs, Art, and Architecture: Madrid, Segovia, Toledo

In all the world’s great cities, you can find any kind of food you want. Madrid, of course, is no exception. To explore the culture of Madrid is, in part, to explore Madrid’s cosmopolitan cuisine—delicious sushi, pizza, pasta, a cold lemon Fanta. Beneath and beyond the international, though, is the comida of the country, the smells and flavors of its cultures. What have I tasted so far? Paella de mariscos, paella arroz negro, tapas, sangria, Spanish wines (at prices like beer in Mexico), gazpacho, and, thanks to the nudging of seasoned Madrid residents, Peter Thompson and Dale Fuchs, a rather surprising Roquefort sandwich (for .70) and an “exotica” treat--mango/passion fruit/pineapple filled with vanilla ice cream on a stick. And: I visited the Museo del Jamon (the "ham museum.")

Although, I don’t eat ham, I have to say the experience of hams hanging everywhere around the room in this Spanish deli is as transcendentally medieval as the meat markets of Latin America, but more, well, European. Okay, a cross between a New York City deli and a south Mexican carnicería, only, this is a specialty shop—ham, ham, and more ham. I did enjoy a sandwich vegetal (tomato, lettuce, hardboiled egg—an interesting Spanish vegetable—on a croissant) with a copa de vino blanco and a saucer of olives (you know, I never was an olive eater before I came to Spain. These olives are to write home about.) And then there was Segovia’s fascination with suckling pig, where I had the freshest, coolest gazpacho. Now, the paella is fascinating, and especially the arroz negro—rice black with the ink of the cuttlefish.

What excites, though, are the fruit and vegetables. Okay, the golden plums from the tree of the nuns is an exceptional story. The fruit trees around the university area, as well, are a discovery (apricots, tiny red and yellow plums coming into season.) It’s the fruit and vegetables in the market in Segovia, though, that enlightened me as to why so many artists focus their still lifes (bodegones) on food. Oranges, cherries, nectarines, eggplants, apples, onions, braids of garlic—the smells, textures, and colors in the midday light in the market: sublime.

So, too, the art of Madrid’s Prado. This week I made two trips to the Prado, one on Sunday to see the incredible Bosch paintings, another on Friday afternoon, after the “treasure hunt” in Puerto del Sol (where I discovered the cheap sandwich at Café de Fuerpas), to see not only the work of Ribera, but the paintings by Dürer, el Greco, Velasquez, Ruben, Pantini, and many others, including the incomparable Goya.

If you look at a portrait by Goya of a the lady in black lace, you will see that she holds a fan. What could be more quintessentially Spanish woman? There are fan shops everywhere in Madrid; they are sold on the street corner, on park benches and in high-end department stores. No, they are not just for tourists. At mass on Sunday, ladies pulled out their fans and pushed perfumed air across the church. In the Prado, a young girl had her fan tucked in the back of her belt, like a workman’s tool. Handpainted fans—from children’s cartoons and tourist icons to elegant florals and landscapes—belong to the feminine culture of Spain.

A little over an hour from Madrid, Spanish culture resonates throughout Segovia, one of Spain’s deep pockets of history. Here is not only a standing Roman aqueduct, old and beautiful Romanesque churches, a stunning cathedral, but also a castle like an illustration in a book of fairy tales. And a half hour from Madrid by high-speed train, the medieval city of Toledo presents Spain’s Moorish, Christian and Jewish architecture and, everywhere you look it seems, another masterpiece by El Greco. It’s hot in Toledo, by the way. When we arrived at the train station for our return journey, about 5:30p, the thermometer read 42* C. (Do the math.)

Culture tip: Don’t wait for the subway train doors to open (from the inside or the outside.) Push the green button, and mira! You are in or out. If you want to use your U.S. credit card, know your pin number, or, apparently, carry American Express (at least at the train station.) If you do have your credit card, don’t stand in line in the first ticket vending room waiting for your little paper number to come up—down by the platforms there are automated vending machines where you can purchase and print your tickets. You know this, but just a reminder: Don’t try to shop between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. There is lunch, behind closed doors (no one needs to know what you choose to eat) and siesta. Dinner won’t come again until 9 or after, so do make sure you stop and enjoy the leisurely lunch. Oh, and ASK for your check. Probably, you should ask a half an hour before you want it. The word is tipping, as in the US and elsewhere, is not a custom here. Apparently, the waiters are not anxious to bring the bill, either.

El diario

Sunday, July 8, 2007 El Prado
Finally, a day to sleep in for a little while, nine at least. The plan for the day was to go to the Prado for a first glimpse, and specifically to find the gallery with the extraordinary paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and other 15th century Flemish painters. The triptych “Garden of Delight” dominates one wall in this room, with El Bosco’s round table painting of the Seven Deadly Sins in the middle and the “Hay Wain” opposite the “Garden.” It’s a stunning experience to see the original of a painting you know very well from a reproductions in books, postcards, album covers, but especially stunning to see these paintings, so weird and effusive in the medieval tradition of the grotesque and the allegorical. Bosch’s figures are the visual equivalent of Dante’s contra passo, highly symbolic, human behaviors and their interior correspondences matched and externalized, like a visualized aura.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I am in a poetry workshop in the morning and a “Form and Idea” seminar in the afternoon, and each evening there is an event. On Monday, we watched Luis Bunuel’s 1961 film, Viridiana “a parable for the Spanish Civil War,” which was banned in Spain until 1977 for its criticism of the Franco regime and of the Catholic Church (criticism that seemed very subtle to me.) On Tuesday and Wednesday, different members of the program read from their work. These days are very full, with little time unscheduled, so a moment like the one when we discovered the golden plums on the nuns’ tree—which our friend climbed up on the fence to pilfer for us (an Augustine moment for which she later went and apologized) is priceless. I am still struggling with the Madrid schedule and find myself up very late at night, trying to write and read and even stay connected to home. As much as I am enjoying myself, I do miss my family and friends and garden, and I wish I had more time to write.

Thursday Segovia
I rose early, early on Thursday morning to get across town to climb on the charter bus that would take us to Segovia, a charming city. Here it was I finally felt like I was in Spain, much more so than in Madrid. The aqueduct, of course, stuns. The patterns on the walls, which our guide said were different for each family, enchant. Here is a magnificent cathedral and several smaller Romanesque churches, including a tiny 13th c. church on the outskirts that reportedly was used by the Knights Templar.

Friday lecture on Spanish civil war, treasure hunt and Prado

Friday began with Professor Peter Thompson’s lecture on the Spanish Civil War and its roots in class conflict. I am accustomed to think of Spanish history in terms of its medieval religious and “racial” encounters and exchanges, its relationship to the Americas, and its emerging nationalism at a time when most of the nations of Europe were beginning to consolidate a sense of nation. I was far less familiar with the class divisions—church, landowners, and army in conflict with the poor, from the time of the feudal serf and peasant through the 19th century and on into the 20th century. I had read Raymond Carr’s A History of Spain, which is a good survey, but each chapter is discrete, focused on a period. Peter’s talk made connections as he traced this trajectory to a time in Spanish history that looms in the near past, so near it is almost the present, and is distinct in some ways from the modern history of the rest of Europe or of the western world.

After the lecture, Anny, Brenda and I sat off on the treasure hunt that Dale Fuchs and Peter Thompson had devised for us. Mostly in the Puerto del Sol, it took us into the Casa de Libros (where I bought a slender volume of Gloria Fuertes’s poems to read and translate), to find a bullfightt poster, ogle at the hams, eat the nondescript sandwich that turned out to be delicious and the exotic ice cream bar, to find the autograph of the Nestlé girl, to discover who is in the box at a church on the plaza that is closed (although a blind man sells lottery tickets in a box-booth just outside the church.) We finished that fun with a second trip to the Prado, where we spent several hours, beyond Ribera’s haunting San Sebastian and St. Paul the hermit and the Flemish still lifes on our quest. I, particularly, spent my time in the Goya galleries, especially visiting with the black paintings. They cut cold to the soul, especially in contrast to the court paintings, the religious work that came before. The connection is there, the style, something in the faces or the dress—but the spirit, mood and tone. . .the vision. . .has changed.

The special Panini exhibit was also fascinating, again a reminder that the art of the modernists and surrealists did not spring full grown from the painters’ mind. This connections, the continuity were especially driven home for me by the exhibit I saw in March at the Guggenheim, “El Greco to Picasso..” Here were paintings arranged not by chronology or artist, but by theme or topic—a weeping woman, a grotesque, a child, a still life. Now, I am seeing many of these same paintings again, here in Spain, but back into their usual museum context, and I feel my experience of them has been changed and complicated—enlightened. The book I recently read, From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain 1561-1828, refocused on each of the major artists, as does seeing the work, especially that of El Greco, in a variety of contexts in Spain, but now I am also seeing a transcendent art history, that cuts across the time line diachronically.

Saturday Toledo
In Toledo on Saturday, we certainly saw many paintings by El Greco, whose colors and shapes are unmistakable. Beyond the art and even the arroz negro paella, Toledo is a city to experience architecture, particularly in the blend and juxtaposition of Spain’s three religion-centered cultures. The streets are narrow and winding; the castle sits away from the center of the town—Toledo, even in the scorching heat—seems shaded by the medieval past and modern history, layered and concentric.

domingo, 8 de julio de 2007


My first image of Spain (July 2) was through the airplane window as we began our descent, a hundred or more miles out of Madrid. The patchwork landscape seemed every shade of brown—café con leche and terracotta and arena—dotted with olive green trees arranged in regular patterns, suggesting orchards, and occasional pools of a shade of aqua more blue than green. The landscape recalled a favorite book from childhood, Ferdinand, about a gentle bull who only wanted to sit and smell the flowers. I must have passed over his field, the one with the big cork tree and the yellow flowers and the bee who stung his nose and made the men think he was fierce. I also thought of wine—the land looked like wine and olives. Not lush, not tropical nor mountainous desert like Mexico and Central America, but serene and tempered, cultivated, aged.

On the taxi ride from the airport in Madrid, I gazed at the big ugly buildings—so many of them looked like cardboard boxes with windows—modern. And then there were reminders of “home”: a bright multi-storied billboard on the side of a grey building advertising The Simpsons movie. Some aspects all big cities (or cities of any size) have in common, it seems. I expected to pass a Wal-Mart, a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, more and more ugly U.S. imports, but as we began to get closer to the center, Madrid seemed to emerge. Sidewalk cafes, plazas, monumental buildings that look like museums (and are museums or maybe banks and other buildings of commerce.) We passed in front of the Plaza de Colón, with its huge Spanish flag and tall thin statue—as if Christopher Columbus were performing a circus act on his mast. Here we turned and arrived at my home for the month, Los Recoletos.

Something seems vaguely ironic about staying so near the plaza dedicated to Christopher Columbus. I’m thinking of the replica Niña moored in Corpus Christi bay, and the ambivalence with which many Americans (in various parts of the Americas) feel about Christopher Columbus and his so-called “discovery.” Of course, the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent waves of colonization, migration and immigration changed the course of world history, and especially the history of the Americas. What would have happened if the lands where I live had been left to the indigenous people? And what do I call this relationship I, as an American, have with Spain? My ancestors are from the British Isles, not the Iberian peninsula. Yet, I have lived almost all my life in Louisiana and (mostly) Texas, where the histories of colonization are not English, but Spanish, and where Mexico is more than a neighbor. I am American and when my land looks back to Europe, it looks to Spain. So, here I am standing in the Plaza de Colón and looking out from this Spanish perspective: I have discovered Spain!

A few culture tips: it does no good to wait for the door to the elevator to open. If you can see light through the glass, open the door and step in. The elevator awaits you, and its interior metal doors will close when you push the button for your floor. When you go to the grocery store, especially if it is a small neighborhood grocery store near the universities, don’t pick up the produce with your bare hands, even if you intend to buy it, take it home, wash it and eat it. Put on the plastic gloves by the plastic bags and then hand the plastic bag to the produce man, who may not smile at you, but at least he will not chastise you in an eloquent outburst of Spanish for handling the tomatoes and plums with your germy hands. He will weigh your fruit for you, tie the plastic bag and hand it back to you to take to the checker. By the way, you can buy delicious gazpacho in the grocery store by the jar, the way we buy spaghetti sauce. The cheese and wine are outstanding and cheap. You buy your metro pass for the month and also stamps in the tobacco shops. The crosswalks chirp to aid the vision impaired, who I learned have a very strong lobby, but there are so many stairs in metro stations and other public spaces, mobility impaired people are at a definite disadvantage. What else? Well, I am not sure what the hot and cold water handles on the wall of the bathroom are for. . .there are controls for the bidet, the sink, the shower. . . but these at the height of the towel rack in the middle of the wall? A hidden sprinkler system? The hot water heater? (No, I have not tried them.)

Today, Saturday (070707) is the first day I have been able to get out and explore the old city a little, as everyday from morning to night has been filled with classes and readings and jetlag. The jetlag lingers, unfortunately, because, well, every day has been filled. . . . But this morning we had a guided walking tour with an exceptionally good guide, a Spanish professor from Suffolk University-Madrid. (Get out your guide book now. )

We met at the top of the Opera stop on the Metro and walked to Plaza de Oriente, which is on the west side of Madrid, but the east side of the looming Palacio Real. In a big patch of shade, our guide gave us a concise history of Madrid, up through the reign of Philip V and then the not-too-happy reign of Joseph Bonaparte. We walked to the Palacio, where we heard more of Spain’s rich history, bringing us up through Franco and then the current royal family, an emblematic monarchy. Our walk took us to the cathedral adjoining the Palacio, but, finished in the late 1990s, it is apparently not a landmark of any interest. That the current prince married a television anchor woman, though, suggests a new era, however, perhaps one in which one of their two daughters will inherit the throne one day, or perhaps there will be no throne one day and, as in the U.S., sports stars and entertainers will be pop royalty.

Not too far from the cathedral, we came upon a small square fronted by a statue dedicated to those killed by a bomb thrown by an anarchist missing his target, the king and queen. In this small plaza, we saw a rare example of medieval architecture in Madrid, a stone and brick tower with arched windows and Muslim characteristics. We learned that those who knew how to build in medieval Spain were Muslims, and so even the Christian churches suggested Muslim architecture.

Turning into the narrow winding street beside the tower, we came to a wooden door, which we learned was the entrance to a convent of cloistered nuns. During certain hours of the day, the convent allows visitors to enter and purchase sweets made by the nuns, only the nuns are not visible to their customers. Through a window in a wall you communicate your order and leave your money on a turning wooden carousel, and the nun returns your order with your change. So, I can tell you because, later, after the tour, my new friend Brenda (from Brownsville) and her daughter Meghan and I returned and bought some delicious almond flavored cookies from a nun with a sweet voice, hidden behind the wooden window.

But, that is later, continuing on our tour—we rounded the corner to another small square where we heard the story of Lope de Vega, his daughter who became a nun, and Calderón de la Barca.

We soon passed into the Plaza Mayor, where we imagined the bullfights on horses, the Spaniards leaning from the balconies all around the plaza, and the sun going behind a cloud. And so we passed on through another street and then into the Plaza Santa Ana, with its statues of Calderon de la Baca and Lorca on either end. Here we learned of the Calle de los Huertos, a street inscribed with quotes from Spain’s famous writers. And so we discovered, after plates of paella de mariscos and a pitcher of sangria. In the early afternoon, siesta time, the street was relatively quiet, and so we enjoyed a leisurely stroll from one end to the other, stopping to read the plaques on the wall and the words on the street. What a discovery for a poet sojourning in Madrid.
Here on a wall in the middle of the street was the poet, nun, illegitimate daughter of Lope de Vega. Was she the only woman on the entire literary street? What did she write? No words of hers were emblazoned in brass letters on the pavement.

So few remnants of Spain’s medieval culture in Madrid, so little evidence of women’s presence in public spaces.

It was from here we went to the Monasterio de Corpus Christi de las madres Jerónimas, knocked and waited and gained entry and communicated through a window of wood and exchanged some money for almond cookies, wrapped and packed in a white box. Jerónimas? St. Jerome? Not exactly a lover of women, in my book, at least. This must be why Spain is a great place to transcend.

So, we gathered our blessed cookies, our cameras and backpacks and headed for the Metro, to travel to the last stop, Campo de Campesino, the extensive royal hunting grounds just beyond the Palacio Real that became a park in the 1930s. It was a long ride. We climbed the steps out into the late afternoon sun to discover a park of sandy paths through the short green brush, punctuated by clumps of lavender in bloom and green rosemary, the tips thick and tough with fragrant oil. After a look about, we retired back to the subway station and boarded Tres Olivos to journey back to our stop, Colón.