Review: The New Spaniards

Review: The New Spaniards

The New SpaniardsThe New Spaniards by John Hooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The New Spaniards is an updated and revised edition of The Spaniards, which was originally published in 1986. The revisions were extensive, and thus this text does not feel at all outdated. For subject matter, Hooper casts as wide a net as he can in the span of 400 pages, tackling subject after subject in a succession of pleasantly short but informative chapters. One learns here of Spain’s government, history, economy, culture, music, cinema, monarchy, military, sexual mores, as well as some of the ‘centrifugal forces’ (as Hooper calls them) in modern Spain, the separatist movements in the Basque country and Catalonia.

It is useful to compare this book (as David does) with Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain. The books are, at first glance, quite similar: they are both about modern Spain, both were published in 2006, both are by British journalists who have spent much time living here, and, most importantly, both have yellow covers. But the approaches taken by the two authors differ considerably. Tremlett is personal and immediate; he is married to a Spaniard, has children in Spanish schools, and thus has a lot invested in the future of Spain. His book is thus more anecdotal; he frequently writes in the first person, telling us of his travels throughout the country, the people he meets, the food he tastes, trying to convey some sense of what it’s like to actually live here.

Hooper, by contrast, although he spent many years here, is now living elsewhere. Perhaps as a consequence of this, his tone is much more detached and (as much as possible in a book of this sort) objective. His writing gets straight to the point; he keeps the reader’s interest, not through storytelling or flashy prose, but simply by presenting insightful information clearly and succinctly. Thus, although somewhat dry, I often found the book hard to put down, as it is a veritable feast of facts, figures, particulars, and generalities. So I am heartily grateful, both to Hooper and to Tremlett, for now I feel fairly knowledgeable about my new home.

And what a fascinating place to call home. I’m somewhat ashamed that I had so little interest in Spain before I came here, for it is a country well worth knowing. As many Spaniards like to point out, Spain is “different.” Just the other day, someone remarked to me that “Europe begins at the Pyrenees,” which is a saying here. There is, apparently, a widespread notion among Spaniards that Spain is quite unlike other European countries. Perhaps this is because Spain didn’t fight in either World War I or World War II, and lingered under a repressive regime until the mid 1970s, more or less isolated from the anxieties of the Cold War.

But Spain is changing quickly. Arguably, the theme of both Hooper’s book and Tremlett’s is “change.” Justifiably so, when you consider that Spain went from a Catholic society where divorce was nigh impossible to one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage. And perhaps because many Spaniards think that their country lags behind, they have fully and enthusiastically embraced modernity. According to Hooper, moderno has unambiguously positive connotations here (something which I haven’t had enough time to verify yet). But one only has to skim the history of modern Spain to be convinced that, in the last forty years, Spaniards have thrown themselves into the future. Indeed, Hooper begins this book with the results of an international survey which found that, in Spain, there exists the biggest difference in basic values between the young and the old.

Though, of course, some things change and some remain the same. The Spanish attitude to work is, as far as I can tell, still quite different from both the United States and the northern European countries. After witnessing how much people work in New York, a Spanish friend of mine, with a worried look on his face, told me “Work is good, but there are other things in life.” Simply by walking around Madrid, which I’ve heard is one of the most hardworking parts of Spain, I notice a big difference. In New York, at rush hour, the streets are filled with legions of men and women dressed for work, cramming into the subway, all with vaguely worried looks on their faces. Yet here, rush hour is not very noticeable; in fact, it took a few weeks for me to notice it at all. True, at certain times of the day, the metro is likely to be more full of nicely dressed people; but never is it packed, and nobody runs for the train or tramples you on their way out the door.

The cultural attitude that has been programmed into me since birth is that work is a duty, and the more and the better work you do, the more worthy you are. The money earned is a marker of personal value; and the more accumulated, the better. Indeed, I know people who are tremendously successful and who make a great deal of money, but who are loathe to spend even chump change. The attitude here is quite the opposite. Spaniards seem to regard work as a necessary evil. This is not to say that they can’t or don’t work hard—during the recession, many worked themselves to the bone, and still do—but the idea that one’s productivity is a measure of one’s dignity, and the sort of perverse pride some people in the States take in staying long hours at the office, eating at their desks, and hardly sleeping or spending time with friends—this seems to be largely absent here. And while most people I know in the States think of enjoying oneself as a privilege to be earned through work, in Spain enjoyment is regarded as a right. Thus, while the rush hour here is easy to overlook, the crush of women wearing high heels and make up, and men with gelled up hair and collared shirts, is noticeable every night of the week.

Doubtless, what I’ve just written is a stereotype, lacking in depth or nuance. But if you want something more insightful, you’ll just have to read this book. It is a sweeping and penetrating look at modern Spain, written with authority and rigor. Indeed, it is a bit hard for me to believe that Hooper is a journalist, for this book lacks that characteristic myopia of most journalism, which concentrates exclusively on the present moment. Hooper, by contrast, is scholarly and maintains a historical perspective throughout. In short, I recommend this book heartily; and I hope that it inspires you as much as it has me to ponder modern Spain.

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2015 on Goodreads

2015 on Goodreads2015 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I set out to review my year on Goodreads, I find myself thinking about what a wonderful place this site is. Really, compared to so much of the internet—which so often seems to be the digitized version of a very dim teenager’s brain—Goodreads is almost miraculous. How else can you have intelligent discussion with people all over the world about subjects ranging from quantum physics to Medieval love poetry, from political philosophy to Babylonian astronomy? Every time you find yourself thinking about how technology is ruining our culture and impoverishing thought, remind yourself of Goodreads. So to all of the people who read my reviews or who write great reviews for me to read, I’d like to say, Thanks!

This year I had resolved to read bigger books. In 2014 I managed to make it through 172 books, but the majority of those were rather short. So this year, I decided that I would read a smaller number of heftier tomes. I don’t think I’ll even make it to my goal of 120 books this year, but that’s just as well. In fairness, probably I would have reached this goal had I not moved to Spain, which upset my carefully worked-out reading schedule I had developed in New York—not that I’m complaining.

One of the most persistent feelings of my past few years has been the nagging sense that I am hopelessly ignorant. This led me to read mostly science and history, as I attempted to banish this self-doubt. But unfortunately this venture feels an awful lot like trying to fill the Grand Canyon one pebble at a time. There’s just too much I don’t know; and every new fact or new theory just makes me more acutely aware of how much further I have to go. But I suppose I should be thankful for this. Learning, after all, is one of the most wonderful feelings there is; and life would be intolerably dull if there wasn’t more out there to wrap my mind around, or at least to try.

In this spirit, I managed to slog my way through three textbooks this year: Fundamentals of Physics by R. Shankar, Economics by Paul A. Samuelson, and General Chemistry by Linus Pauling. I didn’t put in enough effort to master any of the books, though I think some knowledge nonetheless managed to sink in. One can only hope. The best of the lot was easily Samuelson’s book, which I read in the original 1948 edition.

With more hope than success, I also tried to teach myself something about the mathematics behind quantum mechanics and relativity. This led me to read Leonard Susskind’s Theoretical Minimum book on quantum mechanics, and Peter Collier’s A Most Incomprehensible Thing, a self-published book about general relativity. Both books were designed to teach neophytes like me something about the mathematics behind the ideas. Susskind’s was certainly the better book, since he has a much deeper understanding of the subject matter. Whether some of his understanding rubbed off on me is an open question.

But the real hero of my science reading this year has been Richard Feynman. I made my way through six of his books, all of them excellent. First were his Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, excerpts from his landmark Lectures in Physics. The latter was especially good, giving a fantastic account of special relativity. I followed this up with The Character of Physical Law, another slim book where we see Feynman at his most philosophical. But the real gem of the lot was QED, the best work of popular physics I’ve ever read; it’s a masterpiece.

And this is not to mention the two volumes of Feynman’s quasi-autobiography I read, Surely You’re Joking and Why Do You Care What Other People Think? Though the second was good, I loved the first. Feynman had a personality of Dickensian proportions; and even now I often hear his voice in my head, among the chorus of authors who occasionally give me advice. (Doesn’t this happen to you?) I made my girlfriend and my brother read it, and I’d make you read it if I could.

The second star of my year in reading has been Will Durant, from whose pen I consumed six books. I feel much more ambivalent about Durant than about Feynman. As a thinker and a writer, he has many faults; and of his six books, I gave bad reviews to three of them. But his Story of Civilization series is simply splendid. I’m rather addicted, in truth. This year I read his books on Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages, and I just started his book on the Renaissance. I plan on continuing through the entire series; and considering that each volume is at least 700 pages long, this is no small compliment to pay to an author.

To supplement my reading in science and my reading in history, I tackled a few books about the history of science. I began early on with Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a book part botany, part geology, and part adventure story; don’t miss it. Galileo came next, whose Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems combines sharp thinking with sharp prose. After I was done pondering the earth’s orbit, Newton showed me some of his experiments and theories on light in his Opticks. And Otto Neugebauer, a frightening mix of intelligence and erudition, then lectured me on Babylonian astronomy and Egyptian mathematics in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, a great little book which Manny recommended to me. In this category I might also mention Richard Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Everything, a book which managed to compress both a history and an explanation of the Standard Model of physics into 300 pages.

A mini-project I engaged in was to read more drama. I began with Molière, who quickly became one of my favorite authors. His plays are laughter on paper; few experiences are so effortlessly joyful. Ibsen was next, a much darker sort of master; and then came Shaw, who is not worth describing if you haven’t already read him. Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and William Congreve also made brief but memorable appearances, and I hope the future brings us together again. A second mini-project was to read more poetry. To this effect, I read John Donne, William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But for all this, I remain an uncultured buffoon.

One more project was to educate myself about the political and intellectual history of the United States. This first led me to Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws effectively laid out the basic plan of the U.S. constitution; then I was led naturally to The Federalist Papers, and finally to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I found the first two, if informative and interesting, a bit of a slog to get through. But Tocqueville’s was perhaps the best book I read all year. Read and be amazed; it’s magnificent. In the literary realm of Americana, I read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Adams. The first is an extraordinary writer, but not much of a thinker; and the second is not much of either.

My readings in philosophy have been a bit light. I began with George Santayana, whose Life of Reason ushered me into 2015. I loved the book, though I’m still unsure whether it was great philosophy or just great writing. Heidegger made another appearance into my reading life this year, after Being and Time defeated me in 2014, though this time I think I understood him better; and then came Plotinus, who was equally as mystical. Oh, and I shouldn’t neglect to mention Ayer, Kripke, and Russell. The philosophic highlight of the year, however, was definitely St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. I read both of their major works, though in abridged versions, and I found both to be richly rewarding.

In the realm of literature, I also managed to cross some big names off my list. I read and fell in love with David Copperfield; and then I did the same with Tom Jones. Both Dickens and Fielding are filled with such exuberance and good will that I smiled constantly through their books. Lawrence Sterne and Rabelais then exploded into my reading life, in the form of Tristram Shandy and Gargantua and Pantagruel, leaving the inside of my skull dripping with ink and littered with allusions and puns. I recommend each of them with all my heart.

The book which has most affected my life outside of Goodreads has been David Burns’s Feeling Good, a self-help book which, indeed, helped me help myself. I was feeling rather depressed and anxious for a while, and Burns helped me get out of it. The change in my mood was almost immediate; and I’ve been feeling good ever since. Also in this category might be placed the books I’ve read on the history and culture of Spain, which helped me to get accommodated in my new environment. The New Spaniards was the best of this lot, though Ghosts of Spain was close.

This “review” has already grown monstrously long and dreadfully dull; and still I have passed over most of the wonderful books who were my companions through the passing days and months of another year. Yes, another year has gone, and hopefully I have grown that much more knowledgeable and perhaps just an iota more wise. What is beyond doubt is that I have grown happier, partly thanks to these books, and also thanks to you, who serve as a constant reminder to me that, despite all the ugliness and stupidity we so often meet with, the world is full of thoughtful, intelligent, and kind people. If 2016 is as good as this year has been, I will count myself enormously lucky.

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A Day in Segovia

A Day in Segovia


A few weeks before moving to Madrid, I was sitting at the dining-room table while my brother showed me pictures from his high school trip to Spain.

The old digital camera made a beep every time he scrolled to the next photo—a tired and rather unenthusiastic beep. The screen, moreover, was exceedingly tiny, even compared to the one on my smart-phone. It is amazing to think that there was a time, not too long ago, when digital cameras like this one were cutting-edge; and now they seem like artifacts from another epoch.

“This was cool,” my brother said, pointing to a microscopic image.

I leaned in and squinted my eyes. With a suppressed gasp, I recognized a towering Roman Aqueduct.

“Wow, where’s that?” I asked.



Several weeks, a plane ride, and a train ride later, my girlfriend and I were standing on a line for the bus to Segovia. We’d just taken the train from Madrid; and, owing to our full bladders, we had missed the first bus from the train station by going immediately to the bathroom upon our arrival; so we had to wait on line for another one to arrive.

“When’s the next bus coming?” I asked, petulantly.

“According to the schedule, not for another thirty minutes.”

“What? So what are we going to do?”

“I dunno.”

I looked around at the landscape beyond. I’d heard that Segovia is a bit like The Lord of the Rings (El Señor de Los Anillos); and indeed it was. Fields of dry grass stretched out in all directions, leading to the gently sloping peaks of the sierra on the horizon. Armies of orcs and elves marched through the countryside of my imagination as I waited, bored and sullen, for the bus to arrive.

“Let’s just walk,” I said, after five minutes.


“C’mon,” I said. “It’s only about an hour. I’m tired of waiting here.”

“We’re not walking.”

I began to mope again.

A group of five American girls was standing in front of us, each of them wearing a floral dress and a black leather jacket; did they coordinate? I looked back at the station building, then at an advertisement on a billboard, then at the line in front of me, and then out at the scenery.

“C’mon!” I said again. “I wanna walk. This sucks.”

“There is no chance I’m walking,” my girlfriend said. “Just wait.”

“This is a waste of time!” I whined. “We might as well just go back to Madrid.”

The sun beat down upon my back, the wind occasionally whipped up in a gust, and still the bus didn’t come. The man in front of me shifted his weight from one leg to another, the couple behind us had a subdued conversation, and still the bus didn’t come. No, the bus didn’t come when I looked to the left or the right, nor when I frowned or pouted.

And then it did. A blue blip appeared on the road far away, and was gradually magnified into a full-sized city bus. The bus pulled up to the line, and then the driver promptly got out of the vehicle and popped inside the station building. He was taking a break.

This is actually one of the most jarring differences between Spain and New York. The bus drivers in NYC are more or less chained to their seats. The very suggestion that they would get out of their vehicle is preposterous. Here, the buses are driven by people, and sometimes they take breaks. It’s hard to get used to.

In five minutes, however, we were standing on the bus, speeding towards Segovia. I’m glad we didn’t walk.


We were delivered right into the center of Segovia. I looked up and blinked into the cloudless sunny sky. Towering over me was a Roman aqueduct.

It was magnificent. Right before my very eyes were two rows, one atop the other, of the famous Roman arches. After all these years, the thing still conveyed a sense of the awe and splendor of the imperial power. What must the local inhabitants of Segovia have thought when these invaders erected this massive structure? What could have prepared them for this feat of engineering, a pathway on stilts to carry water from miles away to the heart of their city?

Even to this denizen of the twenty-first century, the aqueduct is breathtaking. It is so narrow compared to its height that it looks like a strong gust of wind could knock it down. But of course, the wind has puffing away at it for a few centuries now, all to no effect. It has been built with such tremendous skill that it has outlived even the immortal empire that erected it.

When I imagine a gang of ancient Romans, without calculators, without spreadsheet software, without cranes, steel support beams, retractable tape-measures, reflective vests, or hard-hats, pulling up stone after stone with pulleys and hand-twisted rope, writing down their designs on papyrus scrolls (or whatever they used), mixing their Roman cement by hand in giant vats, strong-arming these heavy stones into place, I am simply beyond astonishment at what they accomplished. Really, I haven’t the slightest idea how they did what they did; I have trouble even assembling the furniture from IKEA.

Faced with something like this, there’s not much a tourist can do. You take a photo from one angle, take a photo from another angle; then stop, gape, and stare. You climb some stairs to take another photo; you take a photo with the town in the background, with the sky in the background, with yourself in the foreground; then stop, gape, stare, repeat. It is terribly frustrating, really, because you know that no amount of photos could possibly do justice to the thing sitting before your eyes. Not even your eyes can do justice to it.

But we couldn’t spend all day just staring at it; we had only a few hours, and more sites to see. Our next stop was the Segovia Cathedral.

Compared to other cathedrals I’ve seen, the Segovia Cathedral struck me as more feminine. I hope this adjective does not ring of sexism, for it is not only me who uses it; among the Spaniards, the cathedral is known as la Dama de las Catedrales (“the Lady of the Cathedrals”), partly because of its small size, and partly because of its elegant and curved exterior. Compared with, say, the Toledo Cathedral, the cathedral of Segovia seems rather subdued; the bright tan color is more welcoming than the harsh gray of Toledo; and absent are the statues which seem to burst from every corner of its more southerly cousin.

There was no line, and not even an entrance fee, so we walked right in. The interior was just as welcoming as its exterior. The whole space was wonderfully bright, owing to the many windows on each level of the cathedral. Indeed, there was nothing “gothic” about this gothic cathedral; the design seemed rather joyful and playful. But pleasant as the place was, it did not powerfully capture my attention like other cathedrals have; and thus in thirty minutes, we were walking outside, heading to our next location.

This was the Alcázar of Segovia. As I’ve mentioned in another post, the word “alcazar” comes from the Arabic word for “castle”; thus the word is now used in Spain for castles or forts left behind by the Moors. The three most famous of these, I believe, are in Córdoba, Sevilla, and Segovia. Having visited all three, I can tell you that each one is a stunning work of architecture.

The Alcázar of Segovia is the most dramatic of the group. Built on a large rock overlooking the surrounding area, the castle can only be approached from one direction—that is, unless one is prepared to climb straight up a few hundred feet of rock. In short, it is a perfect spot for a defensive structure, which is why the site has been used for fortifications since Roman times.

A solid wall of stone greets the visitor (or would-be conqueror) as the structure is approached, a towering tan bulwark which seems to beat its chest at you, daring you to attack. Separating the castle from the approaching walkway is a deep moat, which, interestingly enough, was carved into the rock by fitting logs into grooves in the stone and pouring water onto the logs, causing them to swell and break the rock. Thus, with the drawbridge pulled up, the place would be nearly impregnable. Or at least, short of simply blasting it to smithereens, I have no idea how one would go about invading the thing. And indeed, according to the audioguide the place was never successfully taken (though I’m not sure how many attempts were made to do so).

The inside were perhaps less impressive than the outside. A fire had badly damaged the interior of the castle in the 19th century, and it has since been only partially restored. Nonetheless, it was an agreeable experience to walk around the place. Empty suits of armor (which looked like replicas), greeted us as we walked in, and old pieces of fancy furniture—thrones and chairs and beds—were available for our viewing pleasure. Ornate tapestries hung from the ceilings; stained-glass windows adorned the outside walls; and royal portraits and religious paintings decorated every room. More interesting, perhaps, was the Hall of Kings, a room wherein a band of miniature sculptures of every Spanish monarch—stretching back to Pelagius, the 8th century Visigothic king—wrapped around the top of the room, each of them sitting on a golden throne, all seeming to be part of some otherworldly general council.

But the highlight of the tour was the tower. To get up to the top, one had to climb perhaps one-hundred stairs up a twisting spiral staircase, occasionally pressing oneself against the wall to allow people to pass by on their way down. It’s an exhausting, claustrophobic, and slightly harrowing experience, as it would be so easy to slip and tumble down all one-hundred steep stone steps and break your neck. But we paid extra to see the tower, and by Joe we were going to see it.

If you are like me, you will be panting, sweaty, and have aching knees by the time you reach the top; but the view is worth it. Or, at least, this is what I told myself as I leaned against the wall, panting, snapping a few photos of the town and countryside beyond. But I’m afraid my peace of mind was disturbed by the knowledge that I would soon have to descend those same steps that led me up here, which did not put me in the mood to wax poetic about the distant hills, the rolling plains, the rivers and trees far below, the bright sunny sky above, and the town of Segovia stretched out before me. No, I was not feeling terribly appreciative at that moment; in fact, I was feeling somewhat peckish. But it was a bit like The Lord of the Rings.


Before our trip, a kind Spanish teacher from Segovia gave us some tips. She mentioned all the usual sites, which didn’t seem to excite her a whole lot; but she very much perked up when she began recommending food.

We thus arrived in Segovia with a list of foods to eat and restaurants to eat them in. And it wasn’t long after leaving the Alcázar that we had been seated in one of these restaurants, and were going through our list.

The first dish was judiones. This is a bean stew made with giant beans (judiones de La Granja, or “beans from La Granja”), chorizo, bacon, pork, onions, and of course plenty of salt. It’s a rich and hearty appetizer, perfect for cold weather. But what I was really excited for was the cochinillo asado, or Spanish roast suckling pig. This is the most well-known dish of Segovia, and deservedly so. It is exceedingly simple, but exceedingly delicious. The skin is crispy and buttery, while the inside is rich, tender, and succulent. To finish, for desert we had ponche Segoviano, which is a sort of simple cake with a creamy sauce; it was milky, sweet, and scrumptious.

In fact, I think that the meal was the best I’ve had in all of Spain so far—and that’s saying something. We emerged from the restaurant too full to walk; we could only waddle our way back to the bus, taking sundry wrong turns along the way. We had a train to catch, and not enough confidence in our own ability to figure out the buses to wait any longer. This turned out to be a good thing, as we spent about five minutes waiting at the wrong stop. Really, there’s nothing like foreign travel to make you feel absolutely clueless and lost.

But we were not lost; soon we were riding the bus to the train, and then the train to Madrid. This was, by the way, the first high-speed train I’d even ridden on, and I must say that it’s extremely impressive how the train is able to reach such tremendous speeds without passengers feeling so much as a bump. We seemed, rather, to hover through the landscape; or perhaps the landscape hovered past us, whizzing by in a great green blur.

I was luckily sitting on the westward facing side of the train, and thus could see the sun setting on the horizon. It was terrific; the distance was lit up in vivid shades of red and orange, while the sky above turned a purplish blue. It reminded me of the sunset I had seen on the plane ride over; the ground was so flat that it could have been a sea of clouds or a rolling ocean.

I wanted to show my girlfriend, but she was fast asleep. So I pressed my cheek against the cold glass, and watched the sun slowly dip below the horizon, the color draining out of the sky until the world was shrouded in the deep blue of night.

Review: Homage to Catalonia

Review: <i>Homage to Catalonia</i>

Homage to CataloniaHomage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself.

Autobiographies and memoirs are, I think, the best books to read on vacation. Not only are they light, easy, and entertaining, but they’re usually not hard to put down. This is important because, if you’re like me, you may end up spending your whole vacation with your head buried in a book. Most valuable, however, is simply seeing how an excellent writer transforms their experiences into stories. The vague emotions of daily life, the interesting characters we encounter, the sights and sounds and smells of new places—good autobiographies direct our attention to these little details.

In this spirit I picked up Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia to read during my trip to Seville. It was an excellent choice. It’s been a while since I’ve read Orwell, and I’d nearly forgotten what a fine writer he is. In fact, perhaps the most conspicuous quality of this book is the caliber of the prose. It is written with such grace, clarity, and ease, that I couldn’t help being constantly impressed and, I admit, extremely envious at times. The writing is direct but never blunt; the tone is personal and natural, but not chummy. The book may have been a bit too readable, actually, since I had a hard time prying myself away to go explore Seville (and a book has to be very good indeed to compete with Seville).

There seems to be a bit of confusion about this book. Specifically, some people seem to come to it expecting to learn about the Spanish Civil War. This is a mistake; Orwell only experienced a sliver of the war, and his understanding of the political situation was limited to the infighting between various leftist groups. The events and conflicts that led up to the war, and the progress of the war itself, are for the most part unexplained. This book is, rather, a deeply personal record of his time in the Spanish militia. We learn more about Orwell’s military routine than about any battles between fascist and government forces. More light is shed on Orwell’s own political opinions than the political situation in Spain.

If you come to the book with this in mind, it will not disappoint. His time in Spain made a deep impression on Orwell; he writes of it in a wistful and nostalgic tone, as if everything that happened occurred in a dreamy, timeless, mist-filled landscape, disconnected from the rest of his life. Characters come and go, soldiers are introduced, arrested, or killed in action; but we do not get acquainted with anyone save Orwell himself. The mood is introspective and pensive, as if it all took place in another life. Even when he is describing his friends’ imprisonment, or his experience getting shot in the neck and hospitalized, he manages to sound dispassionate and serene.

Two chapters, however, do not fit into this characterization. These are Orwell’s analyses of the political situation in Barcelona during this time. In some books, they are published as appendices—which I think is a good choice, actually, since they interrupt the flow of the book quite a bit. Despite the abrupt change in tone and subject-matter, however, they make for valuable reading. The machinations and petty political squabbles that went on during this time are astounding. One would think that having a common enemy in Franco would be enough to unite the various factions on the Left, at least for the duration of the war. Instead, the anti-revolutionary communist party ended up declaring the pro-revolutionary communist party (of which Orwell was a member, entirely by chance) to be a fascist conspiracy, resulting in hundreds of people—people who had spent months fighting at the front—being thrown in secret prisons. Orwell himself narrowly escaped.

Nevertheless, I think that Orwell’s analyses of the general situation in Spain should be taken with copious salt. He understands nearly everything through a quasi-Marxist lens of class-warfare, which I think fails to do justice to the complex political and cultural history of the conflict. Added to this, one gets the impression that Orwell’s command of Spanish was fairly rudimentary, which I think greatly limited his ability to understand the war. To his credit, though, Orwell does warn us about his limitations:

In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.

But these are minor complaints of a book which I found to be supremely well-written and absolutely fascinating. His accounts of life at the front were possibly the best descriptions of war that I’ve ever read, with the exception of those in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is not because Orwell saw very much fighting; quite the opposite. Rather, he conveys a sense of the crushing boredom and the sense of futility that many soldiers must feel during a long, draw-out war. Also superb was his portrayal of political oppression, the climate of fear and backstabbing that arose during the party conflicts in Barcelona.

Perhaps most impressive, though, is that, despite all of the hardships Orwell endured, and despite the obvious injustices inflicted on both himself and his friends, he does not come across as bitter or resentful. I leave you with his words:

When you have had a glimpse of such a disaster as this—and however it ends the Spanish war will turn out to have been an appalling disaster, quite apart from the slaughter and physical suffering—the result is not necessarily disillusionment and cynicism. Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.


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A Trip to Toledo

A Trip to Toledo


“Where’s the damned gate?” I asked my friend, as we stood in the train station, bewildered, worried, looking at every sign, nervously checking the time as the appointed hour of our departure neared.

I thought it must be upstairs, since that’s where the arrow seemed to point; but my friend, more perceptive than myself, noticed that the sign said bajo on it.

“That means it’s on the ground floor,” she said.

She pointed this out while we were already on the escalator up; so after we lamely rode all the way up, and then the adjacent one all the way down, we began again to scour the ground floor for our gate.

“Maybe it’s this way?” my friend offered, pointing in the direction that most people were walking.

We joined the crowd, and found ourselves headed towards the door outside.

“No, no,” I said. “This is to exit the building.”

We returned to where we started, once more examining the sign with the ambiguous arrow. Time was running out. We’d given ourselves a good 45 minutes to get lost, and we’d used nearly all of them. Luckily, we soon noticed the (very obvious) gate entrance, where people were lining up to pass through security.

After walking through the metal detector, we walked frantically down the platform, passing car after car of the train, looking in the windows for open seats. Finally, we got to a car that was mostly empty; we hopped on, found the two nearest seats, and sat down—happy that the stress of the morning was over.

Our peace was disturbed when, just two minutes later, two very nice Spanish women politely informed us that we were sitting in their seats.

Perdone,” I said, as we got up, again confused and embarrassed, and walked away.

“I told you we shouldn’t have sat there,” I said as we recommenced our desperate search for seats. (I’d said no such thing, by the way.) “That must’ve been the reserved section!”


We went through one, then two, then three cars—all of them completely full—until finally, in an otherwise full car, there were two empty seats.

We sat down again, hoping that finally we could relax.

As I sat there, letting my breathing slow, still a bit disoriented from the activity and lack of sleep, I noticed that an elderly British couple was sitting in front of us. This would not be worth mentioning if, a moment later, a Spanish man hadn’t came up and told them that they were sitting in his seat.

“What?” said the Englishman.

“Yes, look,” the Spaniard said in English, holding up his ticket. With his finger, he pointed to two numbers on the top of the slip of paper.

“E6 and E7, car 3,” he said.

I looked up and found, to my surprise, that the seats had numbers and letters. We had assigned seats!

“Oh, terribly sorry,” the Englishman said, as he and his wife relocated to their proper seats—which, as it turned out, were right behind us.

“Quick,” I said to my friend, “the tickets!”

She pulled out the tickets from her bag, and we hastily examined them. E8 and E9, car 3. I looked up: we were sitting in our exact seats.

One thing to remember when traveling in foreign lands: even simple things can be a challenge, since here your conventional wisdom is unconventional, and your common sense far from common. This can make you come across as a fool, and feel like one, too. But you know you’re not a fool—you’re an American. And although there’s a large degree of overlap in the two categories, they aren’t exactly equal.


I had been urged, repeatedly and sometimes urgently, by friends and family who had been to Madrid that, once there, I shouldn’t miss a chance to visit Toledo.

Toledo is a small city, situated about 75 kilometers south of Madrid. It can be gotten to cheaply and quickly, by train in 30 minutes and by bus in an hour, making it the ideal place for day-trippers. It is a city of long history and rich culture, of fine architecture and splendid sights.

But of course I didn’t know any of this when, after much cursing and petty frustration, I booked two round-trip tickets (ida y vuelta) on the train for a Sunday trip. Really, I didn’t know anything about the place at all, other than that its cathedral was reputed to be one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.

As a result, I had nothing definite in mind when I stepped off the train in Toledo, blinking in the bright sun, looking around in a befuddled daze. My ignorance didn’t bother me, however, as going places without knowing anything about them is something I tend to do. After all, I’d moved to Spain without knowing Spanish—or really anything about Spain at all except that there was bullfighting, flamenco, and an inquisition a long time ago—so why not try the same approach with Toledo?

My friend was less keen on this, though, so she went about procuring a map from the nearby tourist office—even as I insisted that it was unnecessary, since we have phones.

Yet we needed neither a map nor a phone to tell us that we’d arrived somewhere special; even the train station was lovely. In fact, it hardly seemed like a train station at all—more like a renovated relic. I know now, since I’ve looked it up, that the building was constructed in the early 20th century, and so was far from ancient. Nevertheless, the amount of effort exerted on a purely functional edifice—elaborately ornamented on the inside and outside, with finely carved wooden railings and stained-glass windows—was enough to convince me that Toledo was not an ordinary city.

Since we were traveling on the cheap, we decided not to take a cab or a bus into town, but to walk. This was, it turned out, an excellent choice, not only because of the agreeable weather, but because the approach from the station to the town took us across a bridge, spanning across a sparkling blue river, and allowed us to see the whole antique city, nestled up on a hilltop, almost as a traveler would have seen it a few hundred years ago.

I admit I indulged in a bit of romanticizing in the last paragraph; for it is impossible to forget that, however old Toledo might be, it is now the twenty-first century. Indeed, the juxtaposition between old and new was a constant refrain during our trip there. City buses crawled up twisting roads, alongside fortified walls; modern cars squeezed their way through crooked, narrow streets, forcing pedestrians to press themselves up against the sides of buildings, as if in a police line-up, to avoid getting clipped by passing side-mirrors.

To an American, at least, and I suspect to most other people, the past has a strange and eerie power, which lingers in the present like a faint, musty odor. The whole city felt old. We went through a stone gate, passing churches and abbeys, climbing up a road that had possibly been laid down before my country was a country—perhaps before my country was even a colony.

In these moments, when in the presence of something truly antique, there is a certain type of pensiveness that comes upon us, a certain reverie which, we hope, is akin to wisdom. Being in the presence of an object so much older than ourselves puts our own lives into a historic perspective. We feel ourselves, all too briefly, to be but a small and passing phenomenon in the pageant of works and deeds that came before us and will continue after us. Our problems, struggles, and triumphs are made ridiculous in the face of these accomplishments, and we are humbled.

If there is something edifying or character-building about visiting historic sites, I suspect that the above is it. The problem, however, is that these contemplative moments—when the passing years yawn open in your mind like a chasm, swallowing you up until nothing remains but mute astonishment—are cut short by all the other people there, trying to do the exact same thing.

It is one of the paradoxes of travel that, because it’s supposed to be good for you, everyone does it; and because everyone does it, it ceases to be good for you. Nothing quite ruins the romance of gazing at an old statue like two people in front of it, taking a selfie. And not only does this ruin the romance, but it makes it hard to even get a good selfie yourself.


The first thing I wanted to do was to visit the cathedral—since that was the only thing I knew about, anyway. I typed “Toledo Cathedral” into my phone, and was helpfully shown the way with a blue path extending from the tips of my toes to one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe. Still, we managed to take a few wrong turns (I’m not sure mapping software was built for the crooked, tightly packed, criss-crossing roads of old towns like Toledo), and, as usual, I managed to leave my friend behind a few times as I ruthlessly powerwalked in whatever direction I thought was correct.

But gothic cathedrals are notoriously hard to miss; so in just twenty-minutes time, we found ourselves gaping upward at the magnificent Catedral Primada María de Toledo. It was even more marvelous than I’d expected. It was, in fact, probably the most beautiful structure that I’d ever seen. Most conspicuous was the tremendous spire, ornamented with spikes, reaching upward like a hand grasping towards heaven.

Hypnotized, we made our way towards it (though we took a short detour to examine the metal swords on sale in a gift shop), trying to find the entrance. Our search took us past the three great doors. In typical gothic style, these were surrounded by concentric archways, which had the effect of making them seem like portals to another world.

Every corner of the façade was stuffed with bas-reliefs of religious figures; the whole building, in fact, was covered in little statues, who prayed and chanted and sang endlessly to the heavens and to the earth. The entire Judeo-Christian tradition was there, the prophets, the apostles, angels and psalmists and kings and priests and even God.

It was a very strange feeling, standing there in front of those doors; it was as if the entire cathedral was looking down at us, judging our little lives. Perhaps because there were so many human figures carved into the walls, or perhaps because the whole building, both in its large-scale design and its fine details, was redolent with symbols and tradition—for whatever reason, the cathedral did not seem in that moment to be a mere hunk of stone, but strangely alive.

But of course, I couldn’t let this feeling linger long, for I had to take pictures. This done, we kept moving, slowly circling the entire edifice, until we ended up at the tourist entrance. Strange: there was no line; only a couple employees standing in front of the open door.

“Ask him if this is for the cathedral,” I told my friend.

“¿Por el catedral?” she asked.

Sí, pero se abre a las dos,” he responded.

“It opens at two,” my friend told me.


Somewhat despondently, we pulled out the tourist map (the damn thing was useful, after all) and began looking for other things to do until then. The nearest attraction was the El Greco museum, so we decided on that.


Like most everything I encountered here, I knew almost nothing about El Greco before coming to Spain. I’d seen a few of his paintings in an art history textbook, and remembered liking them—but that’s about it. So I was understandably not very excited for the museum.

But I perked up a bit when the lady at the front desk told us it was free.

“Sweet!” I said, and in a few minutes we found ourselves standing in an old house, refurnished to give it the appearance it would’ve had during El Greco’s life.

“Imagine, El Greco, the famous painter, lived here!” I said to myself, looking around the quaint old place.

Unfortunately, I soon found out from reading a sign on the wall that he’d never lived here; in fact, his old house no longer exists. This museum was bought and built by some eccentric nobleman (if memory serves) under false pretenses, and the true state of affairs was discovered later.

Somehow, learning this made the experience considerably less cool. I’m not exactly sure why this is, mind you. Really, when you think it over, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the tourist’s search for the authentic is a bit silly.

The simple truth is that “authenticity” is not a property of objects, but of our perception of objects. Take these two scenarios: First, what if the sign told me that this was the real house, when it really wasn’t? And second, what if the sign told me that this wasn’t the real house, when it really was?

In the first scenario, I’d be thrilled; and in the second scenario, I’d be disappointed—even though the physical house would be, in both cases, identical. The simple fact is that I have no direct way of telling whether this or that particular house was the previous home to a famous Spanish Renaissance painter. My feelings of awe or anticlimax are thus pure exercises of my imagination; they are only tenuously related with the physical object. If told the house was real, I could imagine the painter himself (not that I know what he looked like) walking through these very halls; while if told the house was only a replica, these pleasant images wouldn’t spring so easily to mind. But of course, I can imagine El Greco wherever and whenever I want. And if I was a master of self-deception, maybe I could even convince myself that he’d lived in my own apartment?

To return to the museum, I wasn’t very impressed with it. Seeing old-fashioned furniture and old-fangled kitchens does not play strongly upon my passions. So I walked from room to room, my eyes passing over every surface, my mind somewhere else, until I found myself in a room filled with El Greco’s works.

My interest was piqued. Most of the paintings were individualized portraits of saints. One detail I remember in particular, which I learned from reading a caption, is that it’s a tradition in Catholic art to portray martyred saints holding the instrument with which they were killed. Thus, there were a few portraits of saints with crucifixes leaned upon them, staring straight into the viewer’s eyes, as if challenging us to equal their conviction.

But the most arresting painting of the lot was the portrait of St. Peter, teary-eyed, his hands clasped in prayer in front of his chest, beseeching heaven for forgiveness. He had just denied Christ (as in, denied he knew Christ) three times, just as Jesus prophesied, and was repenting for his cowardice.

It’s difficult to capture the feeling of standing before a great painting—especially for someone such as myself, who knows so little about art. But what I remember most are St. Peter’s eyes, sad and soft, seeming to twinkle as you looked at the portrait.

This was near the end of our walk through the museum; and soon we found ourselves, once again, standing on the streets, wondering what to do. Thankfully, it was almost two o’clock; so after eating a brief lunch—and a very early lunch, for Spaniards—we were on our way, once again, to visit one of the finest gothic cathedrals in Europe.


The line was short, the wait was brief, the price of admission came with an audioguide; and in just a few minutes, we found ourselves standing under the vaulted ceiling of Toledo Cathedral.

The first thing I noticed upon entering was the smell. It was a scent I had experienced at least once before, at a concert in a church in New York. Perhaps this is a scent associated with all catholic places of worship—I don’t know. What I do know is that, whatever the smell is, I love it. I find it intoxicating and irresistible. I know this sounds funny, but I wish my whole life smelled like this, for there is something unearthly and calming about it, as if this faint fragrance is above all of the petty concerns and vain ambitions, all of the weaknesses and frailties that beset human life. It is a smell that puts the whole cosmos in perspective. I’d buy it if I knew where to find it.

The next feeling is a vertiginous sense of height. The ceiling, made entirely of heavy stone, hovers high up above you, suspended in mid-air. Light pours in through stained-glass windows, dozens of feet up, making the top of the cathedral brighter than the bottom; it is as if heaven itself is illuminating the space. At ground level, meanwhile, the place is dusky and dim—a twilight of religious mystery. The building is just as impressive on the ears as on the eyes. Footsteps, snatches of conversation, coughs, sneezes, and whispers are all quickly picked up by the towering room, carried up to the top of the building, bounced off the walls, and returned to you as indistinct murmuring. Even your own breath seems far away.

I put on the audioguide and began the virtual tour. I’ve quickly developed a strong liking for audioguides. They are private—preserving the individual experience, and giving you the freedom to go where you please—but they also connect you intimately with your surroundings. Left to my own devices, a particular religious work of art, for example, might be wholly unintelligible; but with an expert in my ear, guiding my eye, feeding me information, a meaningless image becomes an icon, laden with symbolism. This way, I was led by my ears all through the cathedral, then into its museum, then outside into the cloister, and then back in again, learning about kings, cardinals, saints, and artists.

Perhaps this is only a modern prejudice, but I am normally tempted to say that art is a form of self-expression. Yet this definition is wholly inadequate when faced with something like the Toledo Cathedral. So many hands contributed to this building, across so many years, in so many different styles, that it’s obvious that the building is not the expression of any individual. Rather, the building seems to be the expression of an age, of a religion, of a whole people. It is a blend of sensibilities across centuries.

I can’t hope to recount all the different tombs and temples contained in that church; and besides, such a straightforward list would be dull. I will try, however, to articulate why I found my time in the cathedral so profoundly moving, even though I am not at all religious.

But what does it mean to be religious? Does it mean to believe certain dogmas and to endorse a particular mythology? A single glance at the cathedral would give you this impression. Every spare surface has been ornamented with an image from the Judeo-Christian saga. During the Middle Ages, I can imagine these pictures and sculptures being a visual Bible for the unlettered farmers who prayed here, inculcating the faith through the sight rather than words.

“Faith” and “belief” are words we often hear associated with religion. Although some church fathers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, attempted to persuade others with reason, in the church’s history tremendous clashes of power and violence were waged over doctrinal differences. Arianism, the belief that Jesus was distinct and subordinate to God the Father, came very close to being made the orthodox belief, until it was slowly beaten back by its opponents; and a war had to be waged during the Middle Ages, the Albigensian Crusade, to wipe out a puritanical sect of Christians who had adopted a dualist view of the cosmos (i.e. holding that there was both an evil and a good force in the universe). I give these two examples only to show that, in the history of religion, or at least of Catholicism, a lot of ink and blood has been spilled to establish one belief over another.

Insofar as religion consists in holding beliefs in the supernatural, I can’t abide by it. It seems to me a violence to human reason to enforce beliefs based neither on evidence nor logic. But once the pretentions to reality of Catholic dogma are pared away, once we discredit and ignore the occult elements, what are we left with?

What remains is a complex medley of stories and rituals, myths and legends, customs and ceremonies. Without the core of belief, this remnant can perhaps be called the “shell” of the religion. For Catholicism, this shell is partly physical, partly immaterial. The intangible portion of the remainder consists of the wonderful stories—Adam and Eve, David and Samuel, Jesus and the apostles—full of drama and wit and wisdom. The material remainder consists of things like the Book of Kells, the Hagia Sophia, and of course the Toledo Cathedral.

Taken together, I’d argue that the remaining shell of the religion can be seen, not simply as an anthropological curiosity, but a tremendous work of art. The Catholic religion is like a beautiful, multi-colored tapestry, spread over the whole of human life. Or perhaps it can be better described as an aesthetic system, through which the mundane events of daily life are dramatized. The beauty often hidden in our humdrum affairs is accentuated and given meaning within this tradition. Like a painter, the myths and rituals of religion begin with something ordinary—a shopkeeper, a sunny evening in the park, a few objects sitting on a table—and transforms them into something beautiful and significant.

Of course, I can’t claim any originality for this thought; many have said this before. The Spanish American philosopher, George Santayana, is my most direct influence in seeing religion this way. Here is a quote from his book, The Life of Reason: “Mythical thinking has its roots in reality, but, like a plant, touches the ground only at one end. It stands unmoved and flowers wantonly into the air, transmuting into unexpected and richer forms the substances it sucks from the soil.”

This is an image which has stuck with me: a flower taking nutrients from the unremarkable and ugly dirt, and turning them into a blossom of color. And is not something similar happening when, as in Catholicism, every day of the calendar year commemorates the life of a saint, whose heroic deeds are recounted in dramatic stories? Is not something similar happening when every stage of life and death is marked by a sacrament and a ritual?

These meditations filled my head as I wandered through Toledo Cathedral, gasping up at the ceiling, staring in continuous awe at the many paintings and statues and frescoes contained therein. It was an experience which, I predict, I’ll remember all my life.


The rest of my time in Toledo was, of course, something of an anticlimax compared to this. We visited a synagogue, used by the Sephardic Jews before they were expelled in 1492 by the Catholic monarchs. But the main impression left on me by that museum was that I would do well to read The Ornament of the World, by María Rosa Menocal, which tells the story of the brief period of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain.

We also visited a temporary exhibition on torture devices, which consisted of replicas of torture devices, alongside gory descriptions of how they were used on their poor victims. The information was framed in the context of the Spanish Inquisition, when torture was used to extract confessions from accused heretics. However, I now suspect that the information presented was untrustworthy, or at least greatly exaggerated. For example, the exhibition had an iron maiden, but according to the Wikipedia article—which I trust!—there is no reliable evidence of the existence of iron maidens before 1793; and although several iron maidens are on display around the world, its unlikely that any of them were ever used. It seems to be an invention of our morbid modern imagination, rather than a condemnation of medieval times.

After this, we tried to visit the Hospital de Tavera, a medical center constructed during the Renaissance. But, unfortunately for us, the place was closed by the time we got there. Oh well.

We were out of time. The train was leaving in 25 minutes, and the station was 20 minutes away. So we powerwalked and jogged the kilometer between the town and the train station, quickly passing through the beautiful station building, presented our tickets, and boarded the train—this time, making sure to sit down in our proper seats. My friend fell asleep shortly after sitting down, and I almost did the same; in thirty minutes, we were exiting the gate which had so eluded us that morning.

“Whew, that was fun,” said my friend. “What’s next?”