Thursday, June 26, 2008

Day 136. Chrissy and Anna arrive

I am excited. My dear travel companion, Chrissy, is coming to join me for 3 days in Paris. I have the added bonus that Anna is also coming, as the first of the many trips she plans to take during her year off school. I went to Paris early to buy tickets for the Louvre, and then wandered along the Seine and through the streets waiting for their arrival at noon. Feeling that I was the advance reconnaissance I went to Montmartre and discovered the beautiful church of Sacre Cour, atop a small hill that offers a beautiful look of Paris.

So here they are, the perfect European tourists, ready to plunge into the world of the Louvre. Ah, the Louvre! What can I tell you that you don’t already know? It is a magnificent collection of art, and a half day is barely enough to scratch the surface. They have a large collection of statuary art from antiquity, which I believe should be returned to its places of origin (my soap box about the right of countries to host their own antiquities). Still, I confess that I stared in awe at the Nike of Samotrace, and at this puzzling statuette, where the artist managed to create in marble a transparent veil over the face of this woman. Wow, I never realized anyone could do this.

The collection of paintings is breathtaking, and in this instance I believe the museum is the best place for pieces that would otherwise be in personal collections. But there is only so many paintings you can take in one go, so I decided to concentrate on interesting faces, wondering what “spirit” was being represented by each of them. I found that children and old people have the most interesting expressions, and that the pretty women of the XV to XVIII centuries all look alike. The good news is that the Louvre allows photos without flash (not that anyone but me respects the no-flash rule); the bad news is that the light is poor for the highly varnished surface of most paintings, so the examples shown here are all slightly distorted because I had to take them at an angle to avoid reflections.

We took a brief break in between all this culture (very civilized of the French to have a small café in one of the terraces of the museum), but Chrissy kept us at it until 6 pm, at which point Anna was ready to revolt. After leaving the museum we went for a walk in Isle-de-la-Cite, stared in awe at Notre Dame, passed into Isle St. Louis, one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Paris, and finally dragged ourselves back to Villemomble with the metro and regional train.

Samir had to work until late, so he was not at home, but he had left all sorts of food for us to prepare, which we did while listening to the match between Germany and Turkey, which Germany won in the last minute by 3 to 2. Cool, we get to see Germany play in the final when I am in Frankfurt next Sunday.

Day 135. From Madrid to Paris

Today I went twice to the airport. The first time, at mid-morning, was to wait for Juan Armando, who was arriving from New York. It was going to be my one chance to talk a little bit with him, because in the early afternoon it would be my turn to take the flight to Paris-Orly.

Juan Armando is a really nice young man. He is an excellent student, and has a full scholarship to complete a Master in Fine Arts at Columbia University. I was very glad to see him, but it was nothing compared with the happiness of his grandparents, who think he is the best kid in the world. Here is a photo of the happy group.

After a delicious lunch it became time to say goodbye to Estrella, Armando, and Juan Armando, and it was full of good memories that I undertook my last walk through Madrid. Baroom . . . once again I was teleported to another world: Paris!

I started by being scandalized by the price of the metro to downtown: 10 euros, what in Madrid had cost me 1.70 euros! Then again, I soon realized that the price included a warm welcome by all the people in Paris, who packed themselves in the metro to give me the “bienvenue”. It was almost 8 pm by the time I arrived to the station in Villemomble, where Samir was waiting for me, and in another five minutes we were in his house. His wife and one-and-a-half year old son are in vacation in Algeria, so I won’t get to know them, but Samir had organized a welcoming barbecue with his brother in law and his wife (Billel and Mehdya), and with neighbor Michelle. Here is a photo, from left to right of Mehdya, Billel, Michelle, and Samir.

Samir was born in Algeria, from Berber parents (never to be confused with Arabs!), and works as a psychoanalyst. He moved to France when he was 22 years old (20 years ago), and alternatively dreams with going back to live in Algeria, or moving to Barcelona. His lovely wife and handsome kid are the most important people in his life. Michelle is French, and has a contagious laughter, but she tells me that she has gone through hard emotional times since her husband died two years ago. She has adopted Samir and his family as her own, and they in turn have adopted her, so in reality she is more like a dear aunt than a neighbor. Billel came to France from Algeria just a couple of years ago (he is the brother of Samir’s wife), so he is still struggling with the language. He works at the airport driving one of those cool trollies used for moving the luggage from the plane to the terminal. His wife Mehdya is a very beautiful and pleasant French-Algerian. She was born in France, works in a bank, and is gently working on improving Billel’s command of the language. So, now you know part of the Paris family :)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Day 134. Complutum

I had a very good day. First, I went to look for some memories, for the sake of Faby and Dana, who will recognize this view of their home in Madrid, 13 years ago.

I then met Agustín, a friend of Juan I had met a couple of days before. He works at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and is a veritable treasure of knowledge about the university (he has a high administrative position there). An incredibly nice man, he asked me if I minded stopping to say hello to a doctoral student from Senegal. Of course I didn’t, so I had the pleasure of meeting Melamin, who surprised me by speaking perfect Spanish (with a strong Madrid accent). He is a professor of Spanish literature in Senegal, where apparently a lot of students are interested on learning Spanish as a second language (French being the official language).

From there we went to the School of Geology, where I had a very interesting talk with the Assistant Dean. It seems that this year they have started a Master in Science program in applied geology, with specialties in engineering geology, hydrogeology, environmental geology, and economic geology. The program is just starting, so I need to get in touch with the faculty at the end of the summer to inquire about their progress. Who knows, maybe I can find connections between our two universities.

For lunch, Agustín surprised me by arranging an interview with a doctoral student of his, Africa, who is doing her thesis on the role of the social worker before, during, and after large scale disasters (war, earthquakes, floods, etc.). He knew I worked with seismic risk in California, and thought this would be useful for her to know. Africa is a charming Spanish young woman, who after defending her thesis will take an academic position in the University of Arica, in northern Chile. We had a very good time chatting over lunch, and I wish her the best of lucks in finishing her thesis.

It occurred to me to ask why the university had the word “Complutense” in its name, and that led to an in promptu visit to the city of Alcalá de Henáres, which is about half an hour from Madrid. This city used to be an important crossroads of the Roman empire, under the name Complutum, and into the 15th century was the most important city between Toledo and Zaragoza. In 1499, the most influential Spanish cardinal ever, the Franciscan friar Antonio de Cisneros, obtained papal permission to establish a university in Alcalá, which received the name of Universidad Complutense and soon became the most important center for the study of theology. One distinction is that the university was declared a city within the city, with its own laws, which in turn gave rise to the concept of the autonomous university and the “ciudad universitaria”. When in the mid 1800’s colleges lost their charter as religious institutions the Universidad Complutense was moved to Madrid, thus becoming the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. But in 1977, with the second republic, the people of Alcalá decided to open their university once again, under the name Universidad Complutense de Alcalá, and this caused endless confusion. Finally, after long negotiations, Madrid retained the name, and the new university adopted its current name of Universidad de Alcalá.

Alcalá is a charming town, impregnated with the spirit of culture. It is here that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born (here I am outside his birthplace), and through its university paraded the great figures of the golden age of Spanish literature, like Lope de Vega and Quevedo. In memory of this great tradition, it is here, in the Paraselsium (the examinations room) of the university that the royal crown of Spain honors great Spanish and Latinamerican writers with the Premio Cervantes, the Nobel Prize of Spanish literature. Incidentally, presenting your exam in the Paraselsium must have been a grueling experience, as the candidate was grilled mercilessly by the plenary of the faculty.

A final call to fame for Complutium, is that it is here that the martyr children, Justo and Prospero, were decapitated for confessing the Christian faith, somewhere around 100 AD.

All in all a magnificent day, not only because of the cultural fest, but also because of the superb friendship of Agustín, Malamín, and Africa. This is what I love about traveling!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Day 133 (Sunday, June 22). Spain versus Italy!

The big event today will be the evening football match between Spain and Italy. If Spain wins, then they will go to the quarter finals. Needless to say the nation is in high spirits, hoping that tonight their

football team will crown itself with glory. Then again, there are the pessimists, which remind us that for the last 88 years Spain has always lost whenever they play Italy (an impressive statistic that has stopped me from placing 10 euros on Spain).

In the meantime, and since the game is not until evening, we have had a lazy Sunday. We started with mass, and then Juan and I took the bus to downtown to visit the museum of modern art. The collection was . . . well . . . modern. Half of the stuff was puzzling, to say the least, and we wondered how much of it will end in El Prado in say 100 years. The sketches of Pablo Picasso were of course fascinating, and his “Guernica” was rightfully admired. Guernica is a small town

that was viciously bombed during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s, and Picasso chose her as the theme of one of his most famous murals. The mural was originally painted for the Spain pavilion of a world fair in France, and it conveys the suffering experienced by the people of Guernica during the civil war.

From the museum we walked down to El Rastro, the enormous flea market that takes over the streets and plazas of Madrid every Sunday. This is the one day when people park anywhere they can, in happy oblivion of parking laws, and walk through streets and streets of vendors, in search of a cheap pair of glasses or an undiscovered treasure. Quite fun, but most of what I saw would fall in the category of cheap imports.

Back at home we found Maria Eugenia in full culinary swing. It was a hot midday, and I thank her ten-fold for the wonderful Sunday lunch she prepared: Mussels in a tomato broth, brochettes of baby octopus, and a crab salad with sherry that was to die for. For the latter she bought a large stone crab, cooked it with bay laurel and salt, separated all the meat from the inside, mixed the meat with sherry, hard boiled egg, and green onions, and then used the clean shell as a bowl for the salad. Maria Eugenia is a very good cook always, but this Sunday lunch was really very special.

OLÉÉÉ . . . OLÉ, OLÉ, OLÉ. Spain has won in his game against Italy, and the city is in an aptheosis. I get to see Spain against Germany when I get to Frankfurt!

Day 132. Shopping day!

Saturday is the big shopping day in Madrid, because shops are closed on Sunday, so I fulfilled one of my European stereotypes by dragging the wheeled shopping basket from store to store, close on the heels of Maria Eugenia. First we went to the supermarket, to buy dry goods, seafood, and meat. The place was packed with marujas, which is the nickname given here to the older ladies who do the shopping for the family. They have the reputation of being tough as nails, and indeed one of them gave a lot of grief to the butcher for giving her the wrong type of meat for the cocido, and for attempting to give her meat with a lot of fat. I was fascinated by the variety of exotic foods on display, so I had a great time.

After the supermarket we came back, unloaded, and went out again to the vegetable store, to buy fresh vegetables and fruit. Maria Eugenia lives in fear of running out of food, so we bought enough to survive until the end of the summer. This time we took with us the little princess, Aida, whom I first met 12 years ago as a puppy and who is now an older lady but very much the owner of the house. For those of you who knew Figaro, you should know that he got his operatic name to continue the tradition started by Juan, whose Dachshunds were named Radames and Aida.

Once again we went back to the house to unload, and then Juan and I had to go out one third time to buy milk (about 15 liters) and drinks. Wow!

In the afternoon we attended an end-of-the-season lunch with Juan’s service club. They met in a small town south of the city, in a hostería that is famous for its vast cave system (most of it abandoned and in disrepair). The company was genial, everyone was super friendly, and we had a good time. I, of course, had to try the specialty of the house, and ended with a quart of a suckling pig on my plate, fried to a crisp on the outside and juicy and tender in the inside.

After dinner we went to have coffee at the house of one of the friends (who lives clear on the other side of Madrid, so it took forever to get there). The house is beautiful and has a big garden, so we sat, and drank, and chatted there for a couple of hours before coming home. Yawn . . . bed sounds like the best place to be right now.

Day 131. A walk through Madrid

Today is Friday, and Maria Eugenia and Juan work only half day, so I went to meet them at the clinic at 2 pm, so we could go to lunch together. We went to a small taberna that they like, to enjoy some traditional Spanish cuisine. I had a salpicón de mariscos (seafood salad) and an asadillo de cordero (lamb liver in a tomato sauce), accompanied by very cold cider.

Afterward we went for a walk, meandering through the streets and plazas of this city of palaces. Juan is an excellent tour guide, and since he knows a lot about the history and legends of Madrid he kept an easy flow of facts and fiction about the places we visited. In brief, Madrid was little more than an Arab alcazar (garrison) during the Middle Age, and a small unimportant village during the Renaissance, so it doesn’t really have any really old buildings or Roman ruins. It was not until the mid 1700’s that Felipe II brought her into the limelight by deciding to make it the capital of Spain. From those humble beginnings it sky-rocketed into life and, particularly under the reign of Carlos V, experienced a veritable frenzy of construction. Most of the buildings are thus less than 200 years old, and very handsome indeed. The tourist has to remember to look up, however, to enjoy the full impact if its architecture.

Maria Eugenia took the chance to disappear into El Corte Inglés (a chain of very nice department stores) while we were looking at the few remnants of the three walls that encircled the city when it was an alcazar, a village, and finally a young capital. We walked along what used to be the moat of the village, looking at the old hostels that were there to attend to the needs of the traveling merchants, and finally came to the museum of the city, where the well of San Isidro is located. Legend tells us that his son had fallen into a deep and narrow well, and that the saint asked God to help the little boy; miraculously the water inside the well started rising, carrying with it the floating boy all the way to the top. San Isidro is since then the patron saint of the farmers, who ask for his intercession whenever they are faced with droughts or floods.

We finally came back to El Corte Inglés, where Maria Eugenia and I decided to go to the movie theater to see the latest Indiana Jones movie. Juan had to attend a meeting, so he said goodbye. We came to the theater and, rats, the movie had started 15 minutes earlier. So we bought tickets for the next show, and killed two hours window shopping, and visiting shoe shops and bookstores.

Later that evening we enjoyed Indy’s adventures very much. We are both fans of the character and, though the story line seemed a bit in the outfield, we got our fill of the close escapes that are the trademark of the famous archaeologist. Granted, the previous movies were better, but let’s remember that The Three Musketeers is not the same as Thirty Years After (the first Indiana Jones movie must have come out in 1980, so the comparison is quite a propos).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Day 130. The World Expo in Zaragoza

This year the city of Zaragoza is hosting the World Expo, and I was intent on going and taking a look at it, not only because it is the World Expo, but also because this expo’s theme was water. So I woke up at an ungodly hour, took the metro to the bus terminal, and after 4 long hours of travel landed in Zaragoza. I remember being here 12 years ago, and being relatively unimpressed, so I was very favorably impressed by the modern infrastructure built for the expo.

It was great fun going from one pavilion to the next, in a condensed way doing again the tour of the world, but there was simply too much and I couldn’t see it all. The expo is really a tour de force in audiovisual presentation, and the problem is that some of the pavilions were relying on cool films or animatronics, which of necessity have to be presented to small groups of 10 to 30 people. The result is that in some of the very cool ones you could stand for an hour or two in line. Bad planning on the part of these countries if you ask me, because many people (me included) did not want to stand in line for so long (it was a very warm day, to add insult to injury). The Mexico pavilion had a prominent position right on front, but was not particularly memorable, and the Spain pavilion way in the back was so crowded that I had to skip it.

My favorite type of pavilion had a good flow of people, with cool displays where you could stop as long as you wanted, or simply browse through. Many of the “autonomías” or states of Spain had this type of pavilions, so I looked at many of them.

I am ambivalent about the content, and about what the expo might or might not accomplish. To start with, I am happy that everybody understands the value of water; the world seems to have just found out that water is the blood of development and healthy ecosystems and societies. On the other hand, we are still divided about what is the best way to manage water resources, and how to accomplish the millennium goal of making sure that all people in the world has access to an ample supply of good quality water. To murky things up, the word “sustainable” (which the Spaniards alternatively butcher into “sostenibilidad” or “sustentabilidad”) crops out in every other sentence, an evil marketing term that everyone uses for his or her own purposes (like “fat free” or “organic”). For some, well represented in the pavilions of countries with excess water, the term means going back to the 19th century, to an idyllic world without dams or agriculture, where “water is mine and I won’t share it with anyone else”. For others, well represented by countries with arid and semi-arid climates, the term means building storage dams, transferring water via canals over long distances, building water delivery infrastructure, and expanding irrigated agriculture under the motto “water belongs to all and needs to be shared”.

Europe, in general and not unlike the United States, would like to force all developing countries into avoiding the evils of development and staying in the 19th century, relishing their rural lifestyle and subsistence existence. Why dream on tractors or hydroelectric plants, when you are surrounded by the beauty of swamps or deserts, with their myriad of insects and birds? Spain, in particular, has taken the stand of the new-rich, who looks down his national nose at developing countries in total oblivion of the fact that not 50 years ago they were in the same group. What made the difference? Massive investment in development infrastructure by the European Union!

And it is going to take a lot of money to further development water resources throughout the world, but, alas, not a word is said throughout the expo on how all these development-conservation projects are to be accomplished. The European Union is producing new laws and regulations faster than the rate of desertification, in the belief that “regulation is the mother of invention”, and the Arab nations are building five-star oasis in the middle of the desert using oil money, but until water can be made to generate its own funds—through agriculture or power generation—there is no place for the truly needy to turn to. International aid is woefully insufficient, and is always dispensed with conditions: “I will give you this much with the condition that . . . you change your style of government . . . you adopt my religion . . . you don’t use DDT to manage your malaria problem . . . you don’t engage on nuclear energy generation . . . you don’t increase your use of oil. Also, international aid is not being complemented by in-country capacity building or fair trade practices, so we get back to the old quandary that if you give a man a fish he will eat today, but if you teach him how to fish he will eat for the rest of his life.

OK, I am down from my soap box. To finish here is a hypercool sculpture of a splash of water. It is huge, and hangs inside a large building called La Torre del Agua.

Day 129. A sizzling game of domino

Today was a full day. I started with a visit to the Naval Museum, which, together with zoological gardens, is a favorite tourist occupation of mine. The one of Madrid is a particularly fine one, with many paintings of heroic battles (in many of them, alas, Spain lost against England), models of ships and old nautical instruments, and some very impressive documents. Among them Spain’s copy of the treaty of Tordecillas, which in the late 1490’s divided the new discoveries of the world between Spain and Portugal along the 45 degrees west meridian.

They also have a nice collection of nautical charts and old maps, among them the 1500 map of Juan de la Cosa, in which for the first time America is being represented (on the left, in green). One can recognize the shape of the Gulf of Mexico, and of Cuba and Hispaniola (or Santo Domingo), but the Florida and Yucatán peninsulas are missing. My Oceanography students might remember that there is another chart, the Pizzigano map, whose date is in discussion but which might be as old as 1480 (that is before the arrival of Colón in America in 1492), in which Puerto Rico and Florida might already been represented; the Pizzigano map has been used by Menzies to support his idea that Chinese navigators had reached the Americas in 1421. Going back to the Cosa chart, note the vertical green line, which is the demarcation line established by the treaty of Tordecillas.

After leaving the naval museum I went for a long walk through the Barrio de las Letras, which is where some of the great literary figures of the Golden Age of Spain used to live (e.g., Lope de Vega or Quevedo). It is a charming portion of the city, with lots of narrow but luminous streets, and shops of unique character.

I got home in time for dinner, which in Spain is sometime between 1 and 3 pm, because I wanted to spend some time with Estrella and Armando. Indeed, after a good repast, throughout which I was encouraged to “eat some more” until I was almost at bursting point, Armando and I sat to play domino, a favorite pastime of him from his many years in Cuba. The set he has he inherited from Estrellas father, and is more than 100 years old; unlike modern sets, this one is cut in a rich, dark wood, polished like ebony by the hands of hundreds of players, and has up to 9 suits. I could tell right away that I was in front of a master, who was kindly toying with me, now and then making a gentle joke. We played for a couple of hours while Estrella took a siesta, and after she woke up she sat down to play with us. All of a sudden the spirit of the game changed. As I have already told you Estrella likes to chat, so she kept an uninterrupted flow of domino comments as she stepped up the pace of the game. She is a good player, so Armando became all of a sudden quiet and intent; his posture changed, and the chips started flying into position as the two of them became more invested in the game. Mind you, Armando is as sharp as a tack, and was quick to notice the small “trampas” that Estrella tried to pass by him. After another couple of hours it didn’t look like we were reaching an ending point, so I suggested a final tournament of five games. OK, here we go: Armando 1, Armando 2, Estrella 1, Horacio 1, and . . . with a huge grin he tossed in the winning chip and scored Armando 3! What fun :)

Day 128. El Prado

Today I went to the world famous museum of El Prado, and I am in awe. It is truly one of the great art museums of the world, and their collection of paintings from the great masters is second to none. The building itself is a huge palace with over 100 rooms, and my only peeve is that it is a real labyrinth of rooms and corridors, so it is not easy to feel that you move from one end to the other. I felt I was moving on a random fashion from one room to the other, and cannot be sure that I visited every room. On the other hand, they have done a great job at displaying a lot of paintings without being overwhelming.

To start with the special expositions, they have reshuffled some of their paintings by Goya to present some of his older work, which was obsessively concerned with the horrors of war. In his famous “Fusilamientos” and related works he related the horrors of the war of 1808-1809, when

Spain shook the yoke of the French occupation, but I think the trigger for this period of his artistic work was the civil war of 1809-1814, where brother fought against brother, like in his famous painting where two giants are seen fighting bitterly with staffs over the Spanish countryside. The exposition includes many of his sketches, and I have to say it has impressed me profoundly. Other paintings of note are “El Gigante”, where the profile of a giant moves away from a field where people are running in abject panic, and “El Perro”, where in a very “modern” type of composition the head of a dog seems to emerge from the sand into a brownish world.
A second special exhibition, called “Portraits from the Renaissance”, is another interesting reshuffling of some of the collection to contrast the different styles of portraits. You have all seen such portraits, where a person stands posing with a hound by his side, or with a handmaid by her side. They were the photographs of the time, and I for one barely give them a second glance. But in the renaissance the emphasis was not only on capturing the likeness of the person, but also on representing his or her character, either through the carefully chosen pose or expression, or through the symbolism of the things or people that surrounded them. Seeing on that light, and no doubt by judicious selection of the portraits presented, you actually can see in the portraits a living image of the society in which these people lived. I liked in particular the portraits (or in the case of the photo the sculpture) of couples of friends, which in many instances had the candor of a snapshot.

Finally comes the permanent collection, which is enormous and defies description. You simply have to be there and let yourself be permeated by the work of so many artists. My all time favorites was El Greco. El Greco painted mostly sacred themes, with his “Trinidad” and “La Adoración de los Pastores” being particularly powerful, and in a style that is surprisingly modern. His most famous non-sacred work, “El Soplón”, is a very small painting but it haunts you with the expressions of the monkey, the blower, and the man huddled around the glowing ember.

Other paintings in front of which I stood for a long time include “La Anunciación” of Fra Angelico; “Cristo Muerto” of Antonello de Messina (this powerful picture shows the upper torso of the dead Christ resting on the arms of a very young angel, whose face is wrought in anguish);
“El Jardín de las Delicias” of El Bosco (a late 16th century triptic, which could have been painted by Salvador Dali, shows a garden of joyful sin that eventually leads to a nightmare hell);
and “Las Hilanderas” of Velázquez (a fabulous painting within a painting, based on the challenge that Aracne made to Athena, and which ended with the sad retaliation of the goddess that condemned Aracne to spin forever in the form of a spider).

I got back home exhausted but deeply impressed by my marathon visit to El Prado!