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!

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