Monday, October 24, 2005

The Cathedrals

It’s the beginning of my last school week in Salamanca. I was not really looking forward to classes this morning, but they passed quickly enough. It’s still exasperating having teachers contradict one another on identical points in adjacent classes, and there is always plenty of evidence “from the streets” that one or the other gives an unnecessarily academic rendering of word meanings. We’re usually encouraged to use el diccionario to augment our homework, but most of the time I get blank to hostile stares when using the one and only Spanish word offered as translation for an English word. Apparently “a sport practised on tracks in a stadium” can only be athletics (el atletismo) and not sprinting, because – amongst other problemos – sprinting means that you’re running very fast… ¿Que el f***?

It being my last week here I’m now playing catch-up with some of the local sight-seeing that I was going to stretch out over another 5 weeks. First stop is “the cathedrals”. The interior of the “old” – XII-XV centuries - cathedral is very similar in layout to that in Segovia, but not nearly as richly appointed. However, you do get the opportunity to visit the upper reaches of the building-including the adjoining “new” – XVI-XVIII centuries - cathedral, and venture out onto an open terrace. Some of the exhibits are over 900 years old, including a cloth emblem worn by El Cid.

I learn that these buildings were affected by the great earthquake which levelled Lisbon in 1755. Tuesday week (Nov 1) is the 250th anniversary of that event. Is it commemorated somewhere: a fatalistic Mardi Plat‡?
Late in the afternoon, I sit with Bondi in the Plaza Mayor. It’s a glorious day, and the changing light across the golden stones is a warm accompaniment to the final pages of my book. Now is a good time to watch people, as siesta time yields to the “real” afternoon. There is no hum of traffic to overwhelm the falter of human activity, a smaller version of the dance of the heavenly spheres, enacted in this square not forty-eight hours earlier†. Back down to my table, (and casting aside purple prose), it’s again the sound of parents promenading with their niños (my computer handwriting recognizer thinks “winos”), students connecting after class, tourists collapsing into red wine & beer, others wandering the square for eye contact, while yet others sit quietly and invisibly, with only the memory of eye contact. Bondi yawns, crosses one paw over the other and looks up … expectant? content?

‡ yes, the original event was on a Saturday, give me a break….would you prefer “Flatterday”? No, I thought not. Hush. And no, I’m not interested in your Portuguese puns – get your own blog.

† I think Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the nature documentary Anima Mundi would have been a preferable audio accompaniment to this ballet.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Segovia, Avila and a Salamanca Spectacle

Wonderful day.

After forgoing last week’s Saturday excursion to the countryside, I had tried to book a place on today’s outing to Segovia and Avila. Thwarted in my attempts to make a booking, the bus was already full before I found someone. So I elected to drive, and take Bondi along for the day.

Leaving just after 10, with a near 2 hour drive ahead of us, and cafes yet to open, I spied a drive-thru MacDonalds on the way out of Salamanca… and, it’s been thoroughly iberianised – not open, no breakfast menu, no coffee, nada.
Castillian countryside
Back on the road again, there’s not much to see until I reach the province of Segovia, some hour or so later. There, the landscape rolls gently under the long low clouds, as if powdery skeletal fingers were tracing out their own journey over a gigantic map. As we got closer to the city itself, the adjacent mountains were more densely covered in clouds, following the earthly contours in a shroud that might hide more nebulous appendages.
segovia cathedral
Then, the city itself is visible, the details of its profile rounded by centuries of Moorish influence. Not 15 minutes later, I’ve parked and we’ve made our way up to the plaza mayor, and the gates of the 500yr-old cathedral. Inside, it’s the familiar vaulted ceilings of England and France, but cleaner, airier and brightened considerably by the wealth of silver and gold brought from the New World. The inside perimeter of the nave(? I’ve forgotten my cathedral anatomy) is a ring of small chapels, individually decorated with gilt sculptures, tapestries and portraiture (no photos sorry). In one I spy what I think may be the earlier known speech-balloon in medieval religious art, two words spoken from saint to angel, an invocation in unencapsulated but reversed text. The central cloisters (photos allowed) lead off to rooms filled with more treasures and idols (no photos again).

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In a nearby tower gallery, I visit an exhibition of works by cubist/surrealist painter & sculptor Eugenio Granell (1912-2001). Stopping for lunch, I find a table of students from my college analysing the Spanish way of life. I find that my own experiences to date are not unique, and others are a little frustrated by Salamanca. I’m called on to tell the story of how my dog got to accompany me, and thence how the car accompanied me from Australia*, and so also, my road travels on the “short” route from London-Salamanca via Calais, Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Lucerne, Genoa and Nice. All, I explain (quite straight-faced), because I couldn’t understand the French words for “take the next right” at Calais.

[* In my first week at school, I had told one of the Dutch students that I had my dog and car with me. Mishearing this, he had passed on the strange news that the Aussie guy was travelling with his dog and cat. I took the opportunity to tell him that travelling with the aquarium and ant-farm was an even greater challenge.]

Mike and Bondi SegoviaDSC03104Next we make our way down to the great Martian aqueduct, straddling the city, and built by the interplanetary visitors in 3000000 BC*. There we meet more students from the college in Salamanca (who tell me there were available seats on the bus due to failed appearances). Bondi is happy to disappear, off-leash, into the crowd of touring students, as we climb the stairs by the aqueduct – provoking many ¿WTF? looks from passers-by – and then headed back past the cathedral to the great fort sitting atop a tor next to the city plateau.

(* editorial note from 2012: no one has ever commented on this.sigh )

This gran casa afford spectacular views back to the city and cathedral – particularly from the tower, 152 narrow spiralling steps skyward – and also houses many riches, extraordinarily ornate ceilings, and fine museum displays. Outside the temporary Alaskan monument happily poses for snaps with hordes of travellers.
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It’s started to rain, but we drive on to Avila, 60km Salamanca-wards. The other students said there wasn’t a great deal to see there – relative to Salamanca and Segovia - and they were pretty correct. Unlike the yellow stones of these other cities, Avila is mainly grey, with some buildings looking more like they’re of cinder-block construction. World Heritage-listed cinder-block nonetheless. Today it appears there’s a Festival of Annoying Children, and while it would have been satisfying to stay around for the mass-drowning or whatever caps it off, we seek refuge in an Italian café. I’m hankering for a nice spag bog, but they’re out of spaghetti (is this the third pasta joint I’ve been to recently that’s out of their primary ingredient?) so I have to settle for a Pesto Ravioli. While green, it offers only a distant reminder of the taste of basil, so I seek solace in my hot white chocolate, and my book. Like Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, Foer’s Everything was Illuminated provides laugh-out loud writing mixed with intensely moving situations. There’s also much to reflect upon:
Her life was an urgent, desperate struggle to justify her life. She learned impossibly difficult songs on her violin, songs outside of what she thought she could know…She spent evenings with the art books...and each morning sulked over breakfast, They were good and fine, but not beautiful. No, not if I’m being honest with myself. They are only the best of what exists.
I’m reminded often of one of my very favourite authors, Mark Helprin, whose writing has a similar energy, in both his short stories and long novels like Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War.

Bondi, meanwhile, is flaked out on the floor beside me. A child drops a biscuit to the floor, and Bondi dies the death of a thousand unattainable crumbs as it is crushed beneath a succession of boots marching for the door.
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On the outskirts of Avila, I finally get my photo moments, looking back to the city walls.
Bondi at Avila
Segovia & AvilaThe drive back to Salamanca is accompanied by constant heavy rain, but it’s comforting in that rainy-day way when you have the right music. This time it’s Martin Desrée’s Psaumes, a Latin and French setting of religious texts, with violins, oud, winds and synths (CD bought on a chance in Segovia), and Nino Rota’s suites for the films La Strada and The Leopard.

A “spectacle” has been announced for 10pm in the Salamanca Plaza Mayor, as part of the cultural festival to celebrate its 250 years. A crowd has gathered, although far from what could be accommodated, probably because of the rain, and I’ve taken my place with a mind to a good view of the clock-tower and hot-air balloons positioned around the square. The rain-gods are hungry, and their umbrella-wielding priests and priestesses are out to collect some sacrificial eyeballs from the throng. At 5 minutes to ten, the gentle drizzle has come to a halt: a good omen. A voice (the mayor?) announces the program: I detect that its theme is a baroque fantasy, and the performers are an Italian group, who have designed this as a unique event.

At 10pm, the top windows of the “main” face of the Plaza Mayor encircling building – to the north, below the clock - have lit up, with human figures in courtly dress posed one to a window. The music – a pseudo-baroque quasi-operatic confection of Cirque du Soleil electrified lute tossed with Rondo Veneziano and Handel – begins. The figures in the windows begin to strike a series of poses, like a gigantic mechanical clock. I think a little of the Salzburg clock, that my father and I used to visit at Sydney’s old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, before it became the Powerhouse.

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After 10 minutes of Venetian voguing, aerial performers appear on high-wires strung diagonally across the square. Dressed in flowing dancing gowns, the women tumble and turn, drawn across the square by tow-wires held by men on the ground. Then from the largest entrance to the square, two large translucent balls roll in amongst the crowd. Lit from within, a single tumbler somersaults and capers behind the onion-skin. Next up, two water jets spray a fan of droplets upwards, onto which is back-projected a series of famous Spanish postcards, with the water occasionally turned off so that the picture is left to slowly dissipate with the mist of air-borne water droplets.


Finally, the big set-piece begins. Several hot air balloons bearing more aerialists light up from inside and take to the air, guided by more men on the ground. Both wired and airborne aerialists process above and around the square, with accompanying lights. Despite the kitschy music, it really is a spectacle: the performers are moving not too far over my head at times, and when the balloons pass close to each other, it does seem as if the planets partaking in a masque ball, following Ptolemy’s rules of the dance.

45 minutes later, I’m taking my last pictures and video sequences as the final balloon returns to earth and the camera is full. I am sated.

Today I’ve had some of the best that exists.

They made for themselves a sanctuary…a habitat completely unlike the rest of the world. No hateful words were ever spoken, and no hands raised. But more than that, no unloving words were ever spoken, and everything was held up as another small piece of proof that it can be this way, it doesn’t have to be that way; if there is no love in the world, we will make a new world, and we will give it heavy walls, and we will furnish it with soft red interiors, from the inside out, and give it a knocker that resonates like a diamond falling to a jeweler’s felt so that we should never hear it. [JS Foer, Everything was Illuminated]

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Balloons in the plaza

Finally made it to the past preterito tense in class today. I think there´s only about 11 more tenses to go, so your average verb has 14 tenses x 3 persons (1st, 2nd, 3rd) x 2 (singular vs plural). No wonder the Roman Empire spent so long declining: every time someone thought up something new to do, another 84 verb forms arise... However, I gathered from my hosts that many are so awkward to use that in normal speech and writing, you tend to use other ways of expressing such thoughts. After all, there some things up, with which one will not put.
Lunch time conversations with my hosts continue to produce much hilarity. It´s amazing what silliness can be conveyed with broken Spanish and miming across an age range of 15-70.
Bondi was nearly smothered by a group of a dozen British teenaged boys lookin´for somefink to do. ¨Them gels won´t have nuffink to do wif us, so we might as well play wif the dog.¨ Exit stage left. Enter from stage right: a group of teenaged girls attempting to ask me questions in Spanish. I tell them that I´m Australian, provoking squeal from the nearest girl:¨I´m Australian too!¨

¨What´s your dog´s name?¨

Meanwhile, in the nearby Plaza Mayor, some rehearsals are beginning for some Cirque du Soleil-ish musical acrobatic spectacle that I gather is on tomorrow night. Two hot air balloons, decorated with imagery of sun and moon as large human figures, support female trapeze artists. They are drawn around the square, with some hints of the light-show, and sans music.

Friday, October 21, 2005

...and onwards

I have a vague recollection of today being the anniversary of the Sydney Opera House being opened in 1973. My great grandmother had just died and we made the (then long) journey to Sydney for the funeral. So it was that from a grassy knoll under the northern side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge that I got to hear the Queen officially open the building.

Back at school today, into the welcome arms of the Complementary Indirecto and the Imperativo Afirmativo, undoubtedly inquisitorial friends of Torquemada who for our sins, got honorary mentions in Spanish grammar ever after.

I have requested that the school allow me to finish up in Salamanca earlier so that I could continue studies in San Sebastian. This is so that (1) I can get some better veterinary treatment for Bondi; (2) I can get a more comfortable bed; and (3) so I don´t go out of my head from boredom in Salamanca. While the town oozes history, there isn´t a lot going on here for someone who´s not a local (or at least more fluent in Spanish than I) or isn´t part of the 18-22yr old set of students cruising the streets every night.

So, I´ll finish up here in the next week, and Jokin has graciously allowed to me to bide in Pamplona temporarily while alternate school/apartment arrangements can be made in San Sebastian.

Just began Jonathan Safran Foer´s Everything is Illuminated: great fun!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

In the grip of la gripe

Had flu since Monday and in bed mostly. Thanks for all the "have you died because there's been no update" emails!
*fixed el gripe -> la gripe, it's one of those irregulars, much like my eating and sleeping habits over the last few days.
* posted some pictures from my meanderings on Monday, before la dreaded lurgie bit.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The sky is not falling in

Bondi’s leg not in great shape: injectable glucosamine is not available in Spain, and even oral forms are prohibitively expensive. Quite a change from Oz or Britain, where it’s on sale at every pharmacy, supermarket and health-food store. Still, his mood his good, and he got a lot of attention from city officials and journalists (periodistas) when I left him outside a bookstore to hunt down text-books. Every few minutes someone with official decoration trooped into the store to ask ¿De qué raza es? i.e ¨What breed (race) is it?” I kept hoping someone was going to offer help locating English-language texts for learning Spanish. When I looked up once, he was encircled by policia and TV camera-men exclaiming: ¡Precioso! ¡Muy bonito! ¡Guapo!

Although Salamanca is the place for learning Spanish (Castilian), none of the bookstores have cottoned on to the fact that students are looking for suitable texts and dictionaries. So there’s plenty of Spanish-only books, or texts in Spanish for those learning English, and a handful of slim tourist phrase books, but nothing much else. FWIW a dictionary that says Español-Inglés / Inglés-Español is not the same as an English-Spanish /Spanish-English dictionary. Basically the language on the cover reflects the mother-tongue of the intended reader…and this means that in the former text, you won’t get Spanish irregular verbs or pronouns etc, as it assumes you know those, whereas it will have the corresponding English terms. Examples, and further explication of terms are also given in Spanish throughout. Special tables of terminology are also provided for the benefit of the estudiante de inglés and not for the student of Spanish. As it happened, after 9 bookstores’ worth of shrugs or lectures delivered at the rate of a horse-race caller, #10 finally delivered unto me an assistant with some English, who went rummaging in a back-room and brought back C & T Kendris’ wonderful 501 Spanish Verbs and (by different authors) a Basic Grammar of the Spanish Language.

Later this morning I saw a copy of the new Asterix book: Asterix and the Falling Sky (English) or ¡El Cielo Se Nos Cae Encima!(Spanish: I think this reads as The Sky is Falling On Us!, or word-for-word The Sky it Us Falls On!).
Those familiar with the series will remember that Chief Vitalstatistix is only afraid of the sky falling on his head … surely a theme which is ripe for political satire in our age of terrorist paranoia and political hysteria, even if the author only played with it through the prism of cold war mantras like “duck and cover”. However I have Jefe Abraracúrcix (I haven’t figured out the pun yet), and a flick through the text shows a Superman-like figure, some cockroach-like aliens (do they do the cucucaracha?) and some Smurfy-looking creature. Now I’ve gone back to the beginning to read it, and am making annotations on a spare endpaper where I can’t figure out terms from context.

The other “translation-zone” is TV/movies. I sometimes hear these in my hosts’ lounge. In Spain, you don’t get subtitles, voices are always dubbed, sometimes more successfully than others… For instance, the main character voices from The Simpsons approximate the originals, but others are just plain weird. Also, it’s possible for the dubbing to be simply done over the original (volume-reduced) soundtrack, so fragments of English may still be picked up in the interstices. Generally though I dislike dubbing because (1) it doesn’t synchronize with lips (or even the right mouth sometimes); (2) the voices may not be dubbed at volumes that respect positioning of characters, or that allow incidental noises to be heard; (3) inappropriate voices or bad voice-acting.

I don’t mind dubbing so much with animated films although (3) can still be a problem. In any case, you will rarely see VO (Version Originale) films in Spain, where the local language is subtitled. I found this to be quite common in France, although when I saw LOTR: The Two Towers and The Pianist in Paris in 2002, I had to deal with respectively, Elvish and German, being subtitled in French, so I had little idea of what was said in those scenes.

With DVDs the issue is inverted with respect to Spanish and French movies. The Spanish seem to add English and other subtitles, whereas the French (if they can even be bothered releasing their films domestically or internationally on DVD) will never add English subtitles. In a number of cases I have found French films released on DVD in English or Spanish-speaking markets, but without a domestic release.

Dropped into the local Carrefour hypermarket this afternoon to search for a few items. It’s not as big as the one I encountered in Nice last month, but it’s certainly more comprehensive than the neighbourhood supermercados. The breakfast cereal and biscuit aisles were much smaller than I’d expect in a store this size, but this was balanced by a separate aisle for sweet-breads and similar items. As in France, not many sliced bread loaf options, but plenty of jamon (ham) action in the meat section. I think English-language pop/rock was all I heard, although the CD section was balanced between Hispanic and International (read: English-language) artists. I had a few laughs when looking through the DVD racks: Neverending Story is ------- Interminable, and part of the Highlander plot is given away by the new title Los Inmortals. It reminds me of a Brian Aldiss novel that got retitled for US release many years ago, with a new title that completely gave away the final chapter plot-twist.

Stepped out after 9 to view the city from the old Roman Bridge (as opposed to the new one that they never got around to…) on the southern periphery. I’d caught my first glimpse of this, preferred view of the city while following a circuitous traffic diversion this afternoon: the assembled leaders had begun to disperse in broken chains of limos and police escorts.

As I write, I’m listening to Horowitz’s disc of Scarlatti, one of my desert island discs. Scarlatti, another of Spain’s celebrated Italians*, was born in the same year as Bach and Handel. In the service of the King of Spain he composed 550 keyboard sonatas, drawing extensively on the dances and rhythms of his adopted country. Horowitz’s disc is a string of 18 flawless pearls.

* Columbus being the premier example. Curiously though, I have yet to see a single Scarlatti disc in a Salamanca music store. His music has also been frequently transcribed for guitar, and it sits very comfortably there. If you take a disc of these to your desert island, I may come to visit.