Sunday, March 25, 2012

El Lechazo / The Suckling Lamb (or Eating Young Animals Continued)

Today, ladies and gentlemen - and the rest of you maladroits - I was invited to a small town in the province of Palencia for a barbacoa. That's Espanish for "barbecue". Actually, our word comes from their word. But really - we know that our word is better.

Unfortunately however, I forgot to bring my camera, but what we ate was something divine and I hope my words are enough to convince you more than any multi-megapixeled image. We ate something out of this world. Actually, we ate something that had only recently BECOME PART of this world, and that particular thing was el lechazo, or a very, very young suckling lamb. Roasted whole. For hours.

It's appropriate that the province of Palencia is well-known throughout Spain for having the world's third-largest Jesus statue (which I think I have commented on in a previous post), because this recently-deceased lamb had a taste of divine proportions. And, gente, I'm happy to report to you that like a true adventurer, I ate the little bastard's brain. Yes, that's right: all the knowledge possessed by this little lamb (which, contrary to popular refrain, never belonged to anyone named Mary) has been assumed into my own body of understanding. That is, of course, how things like this work.

Have any of you ever eaten brains?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Segovia - Roman Arches, Jewish Graveyards, Muslim Fortresses, and One Little Pig

            It was Sunday and I was sick as hell of lying in bed.

Here in Valladolid, and in Spain as a whole, Sunday is dead. You’ve surely heard of the Spanish custom of “siesta” – napping (or at least not working) between about 2:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon. Well, Sunday is the weekly equivalent of a 2:00-5:00 PM siesta, only it lasts the whole day. Nearly no businesses are open, save a smattering of restaurants and cafés, and the city itself seems comatose. It reminds me of an old Western frontier town when the black-hatted villain rides in: the streets are cleared and only the bravest of souls have the cojones to venture out into the eerie calm.

Well I was sick of the Valladolid Sunday routine and I knew I had to get out of dodge or risk being suffocated by a Spanish tumbleweed of boredom.
People have kept telling me to go to Segovia, an ancient city about halfway between Valladolid and Madrid. The town is in and of itself a historical landmark, a crossroads of many ancient cultures. Its most notable attraction is a aqueduct built by Roman engineers in the 1st century A.D. (yes, when that Jesus dude was around). There is also a Muslim-Iberian castle called el Alcázar, which was supposedly the main inspiration for this dude named Walt Disney when he designed the castle logo for some company he founded. No big deal.  
It’s curious, that we folk in the United States miss out on, living in a place with so much documented history. Maybe if more of Native American culture had survived, or rather, had been allowed to survive, we would know a lot more about what our land used to be like and have a greater appreciation for history. For us, something “old” or “historic” is often “only” one or two hundred years old. Here in Spain, and in Europe in general, one or two hundred-year-old buildings aren’t considered landmarks. You need at least three centuries to considered meritorious of the label “historic”. Shoot, they still use buildings from a thousand years ago. I have a friend in Seville whose apartment building was built in 900. No, not 1900, but 900.
It’s funny though, that in order to appreciate the richness of the past, at least in the historical places that I have visited so far, you often have to ignore the ever-encroaching influence of the present. It’s difficult to appreciate the magic of a 1,500-year-old cathedral when someone has spraypainted “I love you Sofía!” in eye-assaulting neon blue on the side. It’s very hard to transport yourself to a world of 2nd-century Ibero-Roman legionnaires when you have to drive through monotonous miles of stucco-colored, 1960s-era apartment blocks in order to see the surviving evidence of the old world. It’s a jarring contrast if you’re not ready for it.

It’s a tough realization for us tourist-types in Europe (even those of us who live here) that when we go visit these incredible sites of history, especially if we’ve traveled long distances to see them, that in the past countless centuries since their construction, life has gone on in a big way. Especially in the past couple hundred years, modern society has changed so drastically and so rapidly that it makes sense when you have a superhighway next to Stonehenge, a parking lot next to the ancient Portuguese castle or a public housing project next to the 9th-century Muslim-Iberian fortress.
It’s on us, then, to use our creative minds to extract ourselves from the grind and concrete of the present era and try to transport ourselves to another era. We have to do something as adults that we don’t normally do much anymore “as mature people”: use our imagination.

There was hardly anyone on the bus itself – just myself and a few other wayward souls. However, while I was eavesdropping on conversations, I overheard a girl speaking on her cell phone in a sweet and mellifluous language, replete with nasally “ims” and “ãos”.
I sketchily moved to a closer seat, and once she got off the phone I asked her if she was from Brazil. She was! Who says we don’t know geography?
We talked for the rest of the bus ride in a strange mixture of bad Spanish (her), worse Portuguese (me), and universally understood hand signals. Once we got to town, she told me that she lived in Segovia and that she would show me the aqueduct. Now, this is the type of kindness from strangers that really makes your day brighter. That’s something I’ve been missing a lot over here in Spain. But I’ll complain about that later.
 So my Brazilian friend, whose name I cannot now remember, walked me to the aqueduct. I totally could have found it on my own but I was perfectly glad to listen to her fantastic accent and her adorable confusion of Spanish and Portuguese for a little while longer.

Segovia’s aqueduct is really something incredible. It’s about 60 feet high at certain points and it must be over a mile long, snaking its way through much of the ancient part of the city. The importance of its historical attraction was evidenced by the multi-multi-multilingual signage sprinkled throughout the whole plaza. Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, English, German, French, and all of them were there taking pictures on their SLR cameras. 

I’m not a huge architecture buff or anything, but one fact about the aqueduct’s composition left me surprised and impressed: in all of its height, length and dimension, the builders used absolutely zero concrete. The thing is held together purely by the virtue of its own ingenious structural integrity. Pretty amazing. Even after 2,000-some years, it’s still standing.
I had had enough aqueduct-gazing, so I ventured down some appealing-looking side street with absolutely no idea of where I was going, but the general idea that I was going the “right” way. I suppose there was no real “right” way at the time, but on this type of spur-of-the-moment trip, one moves through his itinerary at the behest of an oblique network of semi-palpable, metaphysical forces. You see a cool looking building in the distance, and boom – you’re going to walk to it, no matter how long it takes. In this case, I saw a cool looking street and I knew that I was going to walk down it, and I had a pretty good hunch that beyond its cobblestoned-intrigue lay further captivating sights. 

My random amblings indeed led me to the Plaza Mayor of Segovia. For all who ain’t in the know, in Spain and many other Latin-descended countries, the Plaza Mayor (which translates to a mixture of “Major Plaza”, “Oldest Plaza”, or “Most Important Plaza”) is the nucleus of any city’s lifesblood. The city’s most important buildings are its major cathedral (and in Spain there is always major cathedral) is either in, next to, or very near to the Plaza itself. 

It was a gorgeous day so I continued my ambling, ambling around the Plaza itself and also ambling into various buildings of civic, religious, and historic importance, but that I will spare you the details of now.


This is mainly because I don’t want to write about it anymore. When traveling in Spain, and perhaps in other Southern European Catholic countries as well, there is a phenomenon I like to call “Severe Cathedral Overload Disorder” (SCOD). This illness is caused when, as a heathen American or Northern European, you have visited at least five large cathedrals, ranging from “epic” to “tremendous” to “grandiose and self indulgent” to “shouldn’t they be worshipping God instead of building cathedrals?” Symptoms of this disorder include: not really caring how goddamn high these flying buttresses are; getting sick of seeing wooden, scarred depictions of worse-for-wear Jesus being tortured by equally wooden Roman soldiers; feeling jaded about the amount of gold-plating and gold-leafing the Catholic church does with its parishioners’ donations; and finally, not giving a fuck about seeing anymore goddamn cathedrals. 

At a certain point, ladies and gentlemen, each big-ass stone building with tons of peace-sign giving icons of saints and crosses and stained glass blends into the next. Now, I’m not religious, but I consider myself a believer in a higher power, and if you want to call that “God”, I’m fine with that. I also personally believe that Jesus is a wonderful teaching figure and while he’s maybe not the one-and-only son of God sent to save us sinners from ourselves, that he was a great man and he certainly had some good things to say. I don’t like putting a label on my spiritual beliefs, but I would call myself a “Christian” in that I believe many things Jesus advocated were good. In that same sense, I’m a “Buddhist” and a “Muslim” too, but that’s for another discussion another day.
 My point is, despite my firm belief in many of the teachings of Jesus, I’m not sorry when I admit honestly that I think building legions of ornate cathedrals and carving countless, expensive and surely time-consuming physical representations of Jesus is a pretty big waste of time, money, and effort. I would go as far to say that it’s almost blasphemous in the sense that all of that money and effort could have been used in much better ways, like actually helping people in need or advocating for the rights of the poor, hungry, and tired. It doesn’t help that many of these cathedrals are contemporaneous with the vile Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion of all Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. The Jesus I know (and I’ve read a good portion of the Bible) would not have done any of that. Sometimes, I think that the priorities of organized religion lie more with advancing human interests and not with the pursuit of goodness and justice.
Wait, did I say “sometimes”? 


Interestingly, I saw on the tourist map of Segovia that there was a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. Knowing that most traces of Muslim and Jewish culture had been assimilated and/or eliminated after the Inquisition, I knew I had to check out this relative rarity. I walked through the “judería” or Old Jewish quarter, which has by and large been turned into a residential district, I noticed that on the map what was marked “Old Synagogue” had been changed into a Catholic chapel. 

This kind of assimilation (“conquest” might be a better word) is very common in Spain, and a majority of Muslim and Jewish-related landmarks have been turned into Christian places of worship, or at times, completely extirpated. Some ignorant elements of Spanish society like pretending that these two brilliant cultures did not contribute anything to modern Spain, despite the fact that the Spanish language is filled with Arabic-derived words, and that it doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious connection between Muslim and Spanish architecture. Also, the impressive and beautiful rainbow of skin tones, eye colors, and physical characteristics of modern Iberians did not come from centuries of isolation (like the Vikings of Northern Europe) but from an absolutely dazzling mixture of peoples from all corners of Europe, Africa, and Asia. But I’m not going to start another rant.

The Jewish cemetery was not so much a cemetery with orderly headstones and respectful markers but what you might call a “necropolis”, or a massive burial site. It was located outside the ancient walls of Segovia on a hillside, marked by a few signs and an array of almost-hidden Stars of David, cast in iron and cemented into various boulders. This was all that remained of the Jewish community of Segovia. A few stars, a couple Menorah inscriptions, and one or two informative plaques. It was sad, but at least they got any recognition.
Next, in continuing my tour of Segovia’s almost-forgotten side, I went to the Alcázar, which is a beautiful Muslim-built, “Christian”-repurposed castle from the last millennium. This is one that that guy who drew the mouse really liked and decided to make a model of. Walt something.

 I didn’t get to go inside because the joint was about to close, but it certainly is a beautiful architectural specimen, position picturesquely on the side of a cliff and offering some amazing views of the countryside below. 

However, I haven’t even told you the most important part of my trip yet, and it’s a perfect segue from talking about Jewish and Muslim culture.
 In Spain, they really like eating meat, and they really like eating meat, and more specifically, they really like eating pork. Even better if it comes from a very young pig.
They really like eating pigs here.
I had long heard rumors of a Southern Castillian dish called cochinillo, which means “piglet”, which consists of, quite literally, a piglet that has been roasted for hours and hours until it tastes like the manna of God. With many Euros in pocket, I set out to locate this mysterious piglet dish and confirm or disconfirm its purported bomb-tastingness. I found a suitably-priced, classically-Spanish-looking “mesón” restaurant and initiated my culinary conquista.
Holy Mary Mother of God. Y’know, the same one all those cathedrals are for.
First, they brought me Castillian bean-and-meat soup, and I was pretty full after that. Bean-and-meat is an ever-popular combo around these parts. 

But then, ladies and gentlemen, came the piglet. Golden-brown, young and tender, smelling like what the odor of God’s smokehouse must be like, the cochinillo was one of the best things, if not THE BEST thing I have ever eaten in my entire life. I’m going to spare you a detailed, “foodie” description of the taste and the aroma, but let me just tell you that if this were a dish I had consistent access to, I would have already died of congestive heart failure. 

Alas, I could not continue eating the cochinillo forever, and it was getting to be time for me to head back to the bus. Full of young pig parts, I slowly ambled back to the bus station, and was surprised to find my friend Natalia there, also waiting for the bus. Natalia is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, and because I think I somehow know a lot about Mexico from having lived there for three months, we began to talk about her home country. And just like that, the bus ride was over and we were back in Valladolid, her sick of hearing me attempt to talk about Mexico, and me thinking I’m so worldly and cosmopolitan for talking to her about Mexico.
But on my walk home from the bus station, there was only one thing on my mind: piglets, and how goddamn tasty they are. And I can taste it now.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hey dude! / ¡Oye, tío!

            I consider it a grand success that a lot of the students in my school now say the word “dude” a lot in English with me. It is fantastic to see that a new generation of international academics is learning the real way to speak English.

Excuse me, American.

Spain has several convenient muletillas ("little crutch", meaning crutch word) that function in a similar fashion, such as tío ("uncle"), macho ("male"), and the omnipresent hombre (d'uh). And it's not uncommon to string all three of them together in a single burst of convivial meaninglessness. 

Thus we have the perennial classic:

¡Oye, tío! ¡Hombre, macho!

And you've said so much without saying anything at all!

Monday, March 5, 2012

El perpetuo trabalenguas - The Perpetual Tonguetwister

            I’m not going to lie to you. At times, living in a country where another language is dominant makes you feel like your brain is pretty useless.
Now, I have studied Spanish for several years now. I have a degree in it from the University of Oregon – a pretty nice khaki piece of paper that says I have an advanced knowledge of the language, and I think it might even say I graduated “with honors”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But sometimes, going into a bar and ordering a café con leche makes me feel like I have the IQ of a two year old who has been repeatedly hit in the head with a tire iron. This is especially true if I try to add any kind of flair to the sentence and really “make it my own”. I’m not sure how much I try to make English “my own” language; I normally say “Dude,” and then an semi-intelligible string of nouns, superfluous adjectives and even less necessary adverbs comes out, and what results is something most American English speakers can understand, but perhaps many others, especially older members of my own family, might have trouble understanding.

Dude, like, what type of tip is this dude on, right now, man?

Suffice it to say, then, when I try to make Castillian Spanish “my own”, an even less comprehensible concoction comes out of my lopsided mouth, and many native speakers here in Vieja Castilla are left bleating out a resounding “¿Qué?” in the face of this pale-skinned foreigner, the not-so-affectionate term for which is actually “guiri” (geer-ee). It’s sort of like the Iberian Spanish version of “gringo”, of which I’m sure everyone is familiar.
But there’s the interesting thing going on: here, what we call “Spanish” is not even really the native language in a majority of the Iberian peninsula. Of course, you’ve got Portugal where they speak Portuguese. Bien, that’s all fine, but even in Spain itself, “Spanish” is actually a misnomer that offends many people. Here, what we normally call “Spanish” is normally referred to as castellano, which means “Castillian”. This is the language that a vast majority of people in the country speak, and it’s the same language that all those big-ass countries in Latin America speak – Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, El Salvador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Panama, Honduras, Cuba, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and of course Puerto Rico (which ain’t a country, dude).
However, here in Spain, there are actually three – count ‘em – three other languages that are considered co-official with Castilian Spanish. In reality, there are many other minority languages in Spain, but only three have sufficient quantities of speakers to merit the consideration of "co-officiality" in their respective provinces. 

Here's a little breakdown:

The three main languages are (with their colors corresponding to the map):

 Galician gallego in Castilian Spanish and galego in the language itself, this is a language very closely related to Portuguese, and it’s spoken in the northwestern corner of the country, appropriately right above Portugal.

 Basque vasco or euskara in Castilian Spanish and euskera to the Basques, this is the language spoken by a minority in the Basque Country, and it’s one of the most insane-looking languages on Earth. It has absolutely no linguistic relatives in the entire world, and it’s what some people call an “indigenous language” of Europe. 

 Catalan catalán to the castellanos and catalá to themselves, they speak this language in Catalonia, on the northeast coast of Spain where Barcelona is. Of all the minority languages, this one has the most native speakers (around 7 million).

Many of Spain’s minority languages are learned in schools, and especially with Basque and Galician, they are considered official languages more as a formality and method of asserting the peoples’ autonomy than as a matter of linguistic necessity. Many, many people in Galicia and the Basque Country do not even speak their respective “native” languages – only Castilian Spanish. However, in Catalonia, while many people are either bilingual Spanish/Catalan speakers or monolingual castellanos, many people, as I will soon recount to you, are so proud of their catalá that they would rather speak English to tourists than castellano, and this is due in no small part to the long periods of linguistic imperialism that the Spanish empire (both Francoist and otherwise) has embarked upon throughout its history.
And speaking of the fight for independence in different regions of Spain, I will segue into telling you a little bit about my time in Catalunya and Euskadi, or for the castellanos among us, el País Vasco.