The Monastery of El Escorial

The Monastery of El Escorial

The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is by far the largest monastery in the country. Indeed it is one of the grandest buildings period. The whole structure of El Escorial is so grandiose that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it (which is also called El Escorial). Though ensconced in this village, the monastery sits isolated and alone, cordoned off by official buildings that separate it neatly from rest of the town. It is a world unto itself.

El Escorial is perched up in the Madrid Sierra—the same mountain range as Rascafría and Cotos—surrounded by the beautiful forest of La Herrería. It can be easily visited in a day-trip from the center of Madrid, either by bus (line 661 or 664 from Moncloa) or by train.

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As one approaches the entrance of the monument, the mountains comes into view, looming beyond, with clouds hovering menacingly over their peaks. The building’s massive form and commanding position high up in the mountains, overlooking the surrounding plains, reveals its origin and function. Though a monastery, the primary purpose of El Escorial has from the first been as a Royal Residence. It was built during the reign of Philip II, one of the most powerful rulers in Spain’s history and indeed the history of the world. For this was the apex of Spain’s might, both on the European continent and worldwide as a colonial superpower.

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Nevertheless, such a wild, gloomy, and isolated place (for there was no village here when construction began) is not an obvious spot for a palace. El Escorial seems to exemplify Philip II’s reputation as a dour, dedicated, and antisocial ruler, the personification of the Counter-Reformation. Yet for my part I can see why such a busy and harried man—he ruled over a considerable slice of the world, after all—would want a peaceful place to which he could retreat and focus.

Construction of El Escorial began in 1563. The monastery owes its design to Juan Bautista de Toledo, whose death prevented him from seeing through its completion. That was left to his more famous pupil, Juan de Herrera, whose style has since become synonymous with the Spanish Golden Age, and which has since been imitated in many modern Spanish buildings. The gargantuan heap of stone was completed in 1583, having taken less than 21 years to complete.

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Visitors of El Escorial follow a prescribed route through the old hulk. Exploring the monastery for the first time can feel like getting lost in a labyrinth, so many twists and turns does the path take. The visit can also be rather overwhelming, since there are so many things to see: famous works of art, royal apartments, an emormous basilica, the royal mausoleum, and more.

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The first stop on the itinerary was a chamber dedicated to a single painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting is kept in a darkened room, surrounded by information about its history and the costly restoration  needed to rehabilitate the time-worn work. As one would expect from a Van Der Weyden crucifixion scene, the painting is a masterpiece. It fully exemplifies the painter’s talent for creating solid, voluminous forms. The work does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness.

Near this room is the stairwell that leads into the Bourbon apartments. For me this is the least interesting part of the monument, looking for the most part like generic palace rooms. But there are some excellent tapestries on display, some of whose designs were drawn by Goya.

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Philip II

The next stop is the palace of Philip II himself. Though ornate, these rooms are more tasteful and bare than the Bourbon palace. Some items deserve special mention. There is a clock in the study with a little torch attached to the front of it, so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit watch. Yet perhaps the most scientifically significant item on display is Philip II’s wheelchair. The king had a bad case of gout, you see, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. The chair has both arm- and leg-rests to elevate his sore limbs, but would require attendants to move it. History aside, the chair is a rather pathetic reminder that nobody, not even kings, are immune from sickness.

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A drawing of the king’s wheelchair

There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall: some depict members of the Hapsburg dynasty (each equipped with their distinctive chins); some are religious paintings; several are maps; and some are paintings of palaces in Spain, including El Escorial itself. In two of the rooms there is a sun dial, a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, with a little hole in the ceiling above. I think one would have to close all the windows to use it.

But the most beautiful objects in those apartments, for me, are the wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer has inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using lighter and darker pieces of wood. Every square inch of the doorways is meticulously detailed. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.

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By Quenoteam; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Near the apartments, up a flight of stairs, is the Sala de Batallas, or the Room of Battles. It is a hallway with an arched ceiling, almost two hundred feet long. It takes its names from the gigantic and elaborate frescos depicting notable Spanish battles. Here we see charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes, guns, and swords; cities are besieged, ships attacked and sunk. The frescos, which are more figurative than realistic, are the handiwork of Niccolò Granello, an Italian painter who worked in Spain.

The room is a brilliant piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. One scene depicts the Battle of La Higueruela, fought in 1431 between the forces of Juan II of Castile and the Muslim Nasrid dynasty. We also see the naval battle of Ponta Delgada, fought off the coast of the Azores islands between Spanish and French troops, in 1582. There are also numerous scenes from the Italian War of 1551, fought between Holy Roman Emperor (and Spanish king) Charles V and the French king Henry II. All of these battles were, of course, won by Spanish forces.

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After leaving this room, one enters a dark hallway that leads down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. At the bottom the visitor finds one of the most remarkable rooms in the whole country.

This is the Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. Here is buried nearly every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain), Philip II’s father. (The two exceptions to this are Philip V, who is buried in the palace at La Granja, and his son Ferdinand VI, who is buried in the Church of the Monastery of the Salesas Reales, in Madrid.)

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The mausoleum is so extravagantly ornate that it is almost oppressive. Gold is everywhere, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the window-panes, the columns, the angelic candle-holders, and the sarcophagi. These sarcophagi line the eight walls of the octagonal room from the floor to the ceiling, even above the door. They are made of dark Toledo marble and each has a gold plate on the front with the name inscribed.

For most of her history, Spain has followed the French tradition of only allowing male monarchs. The only exception to this is Isabel II (who reigned 1833 – 1868), whose accession to the throne caused a war, partly because of her sex. Thus, the women buried in this chamber are, for the most part, Queen consorts—the wives and mothers of kings. Another notable exception is Juan, Count of Barcelona, and his wife Maria de las Mercedes, whose remains will occupy the remaining two sarcophagi above the door. Though son of Alfonso XIII, Juan himself was prevented from ever becoming king by the Spanish Civil War, though his son did. What will be done with the remains of the Juan Carlos I (who is living, but has abdicated) and his wife Sofia, or current and future kings of Spain, has yet to be decided. It seems that Philip II did not anticipate the kingdom lasting this long.

Looking at the marble sarcophagi I wondered why all the monarchs of Spain were so short, since the tombs measure scarcely five feet. The answer to this puzzle is that the bodies are allowed to fully decompose before they are placed in the royal receptacle. This decaying is done is a special chamber called the pudridero, which lay somewhere deep in El Escorial. Only monks can visit these chambers, though presumably they do so infrequently, considering that it takes fifty years for bodies to fully decompose. This is where Juan, Count of Barcelona, and Maria de las Mercedes are now.

Few places in Spain, if any, contain such an overwhelming sense of history as this mausoleum. Some of the most powerful men and women in history lie here, dust and ashes. Rulers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century lay side by side, one atop the other.

Right next to this mausoleum is the Panteón de Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of monarchs who did not themselves become monarchs. There are six or seven different chambers, with sixty available spaces, of which thirty-seven are occupied. The most recent burial was in 1992, of Juan Carlos I brother Alfonso, who was shot in 1956 (he had been decomposing in the meantime; the Infantes have their own pudridero).

The most notable and impressive tomb in this mausoleum is that of John of Austria. He was the “natural” (read “illegitimate”) son of one of Carlos V. This Infante was one of the commanders of the Christian forces (composed of Spanish and Venetian galleys) against the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. (Miguel de Cervantes also served in this battle, in which he permanently lost the use of his left hand.) The commander’s tomb is excellent: John is laying down in death, his head resting on an exquisitely sculpted pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustachioed face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword.

The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who had died before puberty. The tomb is a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. This richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, is a monument to the advance of medical technology. For every Spanish parent nowadays is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.

Next I ascended another staircase and found myself in a large hallway with an arched ceiling, covered in ornamental painting. This is El Escorial’s art museum. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. Every one of these paintings has a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more. The famously pious Philip II was responsible for most of this collection.

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The highlight of the museum is likely El Greco’s Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, which Philip II apparently disliked since the painter relegated the scene of the actual martyrdom to the background.

The museum leads into the richly decorated cloister, with its walls decorated with brightly colored frescos of the life of Jesus. From here you can see the principle stairwell, whose ceiling is covered in a magnificent fresco of a heavenly scene.

Nearby is a room called the “old church,” though I admit I am not sure why. In any case, it is a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. The most notable of these is by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Titian’s considerably grimmer version was first made at the behest of the Church of the Jesuits, in Venice. When he saw it Philip II liked it so much he asked the painter to make a copy, which still stands in the Escorial.

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Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo in Spanish) is obviously an important saint for El Escorial, he being its namesake. According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. This is untrue, apparently, though the floorplan is notably grid-like.

After seeing all this—which does not even constitute the half of the massive building—I still had not even broached the largest and grandest space in El Escorial: its central basilica.

It is as large as many cathedrals. The stone ceiling towers high overhead, covered in frescos that are difficult to clearly observe in the dim light from so far away. Paintings hang in little niches all throughout the space: including ones by Titian, Ribera, El Greco, and Zubarán. The main altar is an elegant piece that stands over 90 feet tall. False columns divided it into a dozen niches, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, this one by Pellegrino Tibaldi. (The Titian painting was originally destined for this space, but it was too dark in the dim light of the basilica).

The most distinctive aspect of the basilica’s decoration are the statues flanking the main alter. These are shimmering golden sculptures of two royal families, knelt in prayer. To the left of the altar (as the viewer faces towards it) is Carlos V, his wife, and children; to the right is Philip II, two of his wives (not simultaneous), and a son. These sculptures are marvelously rich, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia.

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Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons (Author not shown)

And yet the most notable artistic work to be found in the cathedral is in a little chapel to the left of the door (again, facing towards the altar). Here you can find a life-sized, white marble crucifix sculpted by the famous Renaissance artist Benvenuti Cellini. It is here because it was given as a gift to Philip II by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The finely made crucifix is one of the few in the world that depicts Christ as fully nude; as such, it is displayed with a white clothe hanging around its waist.

After exiting the Basilica the visitor enters the Patio de los Reyes, or the Courtyard of the Kings, where one can see the basilica’s façade. The courtyard takes its name from the monumental statues of the Kings of Jerusalem, wielding scepters and wearing crowns of gold, who stand above the entrance. From here there is only one more stop on the itinerary: the Royal Library.

This was one of the greatest libraries of the Renaissance, whose presence here contradicts the dour and anti-intellectual reputation of Philip II’s Spain. Yet the choice to put the library here in the mountains, far from any established university, was not without its controversy. Whatever the library lacks in convenience to would-be scholars, however, it makes up with its beauty.

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Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Like the Sala de las Batallas, the main room of the library is rectangular, with a vaulted ceiling, stretching to well over 150 feet in length. The decorated barrel vault is undoubtedly the main attraction: for here we have a allegorical representation of the liberal arts: the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic), and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astrology), not to mention Philosophy and Theology. I particularly like the representation of Philosophy, since it shows the Muse convening with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca. Also to be found are Virgil, Livy, Cicero, Demosthenes, Euclid, and many other intellectual heroes of antiquity.

But it is a library, so there are also books to be found. There are no labels or explanatory plaques, so it is difficult for me to give an account of them. A fire destroyed some of the collection in 1671, and Napoleon’s troops carried off some more after they conquered Spain. (This, by the way, is why the National Gallery in London has a famous painting of Philip IV by Velazquez. It originally hung in this library, but Joseph Bonaparte snatched it, and the painting eventually made its way to England.) Paintings of Carlos V and Philip II still hang here; and the library still boasts an important collection of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and early Castilian manuscripts. Some of these volumes are opened, revealing the beautiful illustrations that accompany these hand-made books. In the center of the room runs a corridor, in which are displayed scientific and astronomical instruments. It is a veritable temple of learning.

From all this, I hope you can see why El Escorial is arguably the most extraordinary building in a country full of extraordinary buildings. It has the royal mausoleum, a historical library, a palace (actually two), a painting gallery, including several famous works, a massive basilica, and a monastery—and all of this contained within a single magnificent building. If you are like me, when you are finished you will have that museum-goers headache that one gets from trying to absorb too much information.

But once you exit the monastery there is still more to see. For the town of El Escorial itself is attractive. If you visit during Christmas you can see the town’s famous Belén (nativity) display in the main square. Every Christmas, the people erect life-sized plaster sculptures of the Virgin and Child, the three kings, as well as a whole scene with villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe. These sculptures are not incredible works of art, you understand, but they are a comical reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on.

The town itself is built of the same stern granite as the monastery itself; and its twisting, steeply inclined streets are home to many fine restaurants. From the Parque Felipe II, near the bus stop, on a clear day you can see the foothills of the mountains spread out before you, with Madrid in the distance. There are also two excellent parks, the Park of the Casita del Principe and of the Casita del Infante, the latter of which offers a great view of the monastery. Every time I visit El Escorial I discover something new to appreciate. It is one of the jewels of Spain.

 

 

Climbing in Cotos

Climbing in Cotos

Round One

“I think that was the train,” I said to GF as the train accelerated away from the station and into the distance.

“Oh.”

“Maybe we should have ran for it.”

“Oh well,” she said. “I bet there’ll be another one soon.”

“Yeah.”

The two of us were standing on a platform in the Chamartín train station in Madrid, trying to get to Cercedilla. A friend of ours, a local, had told us that we could see mountains there. But unfortunately for us—and all too typically—we hadn’t checked any sort of schedule before attempting the journey.

“I guess we just gotta wait,” I said, and pulled out my Kindle to read.

We sat on a bench and I began distractedly reading, glancing up at the sign board every few minutes. Ten minutes passed; then twenty. Finally, the name “Cercedilla” appeared on the glowing sign board: the next train wouldn’t come for another hour.

“We really should have ran for it,” I said, and began to sulk. We gave up and went home.


One week later: Round Two.

This time we looked up the schedule beforehand, and had gotten to the station with half-an-hour to spare. Nothing could stop us now.

The ride to Cercedilla lasts a little more than an hour. This was two years ago, shortly after arriving in Spain, and so it was one of my first times seeing the countryside around Madrid. Most striking, for me, was how parched is the environment. The soil is tan and sandy; the trees are short and shrubby; and rolling brown fields stretch out towards the horizon, with a sierra beyond. To a New Yorker accustomed to towering trees and even taller skyscrapers, the easy visibility across so many miles is startling.

Stop after stop swept by, until eventually we reached our destination: Cercedilla. I have since gone back to Cercedilla a few times. It is an attractive town, popular as a cool getaway during the hot summer months; it sits up in the Madrid Sierra, not far from El Escorial and Rascafría. There are some very pretty hiking trails immediately outside the city.

But I didn’t have much time to look around, for soon I felt GF tugging on my arm.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to small train nearby.

“Dunno.”

“The sign says Los Cotos,” she said. “I think those are the trains to the mountains.”

“But I thought that was the train to the mountains,” I said, pointing to the train we just got off.

“I’m pretty sure this is right,” she said.

Three minutes later we were sitting on a quaint old wooden train, much smaller than the one that took us here, with plush red seats which faced each other.

The train creaked into motion. Immediately we were heading steeply uphill; and we remained slanted this way the whole trip, as the train crept up the mountainside. We went by the backyards of houses, passing pools and patios, and kept climbing until we left all signs of the town behind. We were in a pine forest now, a uniform sea of green thorns and pine cones and grey bark.

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I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a movie, the trip was so dreamy and picturesque. As the train wound its way up, making wide, concentric circles—each successive circle decreasing in radius—we were given a more expansive view of the mountains nearby, their sides covered in the same uniform sea of pine trees that surrounded us.

The train to Cotos makes only one stop on the way there, at Navacerrada, which is a small town that mainly serves as a base for hikers and campers. Along with Cercedilla, it is also one of the stops along the Camino de Santiago from Madrid.

Finally the train reached Cotos. Neither of us had any idea what to expect when we got out. There was an old, derelict station building, and a road leading away from the station and up a hill. But whatever curiosity I had for my surroundings evaporated when I walked out of the train and into the cold.

“Man!” I said. “It’s freezing here!”

“You didn’t bring a jacket or something?”

“No.”

“You only brought your t-shirt?”

“Yeah…”

“What were you thinking?!”

“But it was warm in Madrid!”

We wandered around, noticing that we had wandered into a national park. But the cold was overwhelming. I tried to warm myself by rubbing my arms and bouncing around, but it was al in vain.

“We really have to go,” I finally said to GF. “Sorry.”

“Are you kidding? We got up early and spent two hours in the train, on a Sunday, and we’ve gotta go back?”

“I can’t stay here. I’m so cold.”

“Ugh!”

And so, thanks to a small but very stupid choice on my part, we made the long trip down the mountain, back to Cercedilla, and then back to Madrid. We had been defeated a second time.


Two months later: Round Three

We’d figured out the public transportation; I’d bought sneakers, a winter jacket, a scarf, and a hat. In short, we were ready for our third attempt to scale the mountain.

Once again, we took the train from Chamartín; once more, we went through the countryside to Cercedilla; again I was treated to the beautiful sights of the nearby mountains and pine forest as the train wound its way up, climbing to Cotos. And I breathed a sigh of relief in the cold air when, looking out towards the mountain, I saw another cloud gnawing on the same mountain. We were back; and this time I wasn’t shivering.

But before we began to hike, we decided to eat in the café near the station. We both ordered tortillas—which, in Spain, is not the flour-based wrap of Mexican cuisine. A Spanish tortilla is an omelet with potatoes, cooked in the shape of a thick cake and cut into slices. They are gooey, hearty, and delicious—easily one of my favorite Spanish dishes. But I found it so absurd, and so typically Spanish, when our generous slices of tortilla were served on top of generous portions of bread. Potatoes on bread, carbs on carbs. I really have no idea how the Spanish stay so thin. (Nowadays I eat tortilla with bread every day, and I haven’t gained a pound.)

This done, we began. We followed a dirt path up into the forest, towards what I gathered was the top of the mountain. But almost immediately I felt winded, as if somebody had hit me in the stomach.

“I can’t breathe,” I said, loosening my scarf around my neck. “The air here—it’s so thin!”

“Really? I feel fine,” GF said.

“What?” I said between gasps. “How?”

“Just relax.”

I felt strangely winded, perhaps from the altitude, but more probably it was all in my head. Yet I’m a stubborn person, and occasionally my stubbornness is a virtue—like when I’m trying to force my weak, flabby body up a mountain. So we pressed on. The path zigzagged its way up, from left to right, from right to left, gently leading us up and up.

We were on Peñalara, the tallest mountain of the Guadarrama range, otherwise known as the Madrid Sierra. These are the mountains that bound Madrid’s northern edge, separating the province from Segovia, and which provide some of the best hiking and most picturesque sights in the country. Peñalara itself rises about 3,600 feet (1,100 m) from its surroundings, and at its peak is 8,000 feet (2,500 m) above sea-level. Coincidentally, 8,000 feet is also the altitude at which people begin to be susceptible to acute mountain sickness (AMS). But I knew exactly none of this at the time.

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It wasn’t long before I noticed the trees getting smaller and stumpier. We were nearing the tree-line. By now the restaurant below looked like a toy house, and I was getting used to the air; soon I was comfortable enough to start walking at a good pace. Every foot we advanced made the view that much more stunning. I’d never seen anything like it. The mountainous horizon seemed to roll, like an undulating sea; and the head of every mountain was buried in a cloud, which sat like fluffy top-hats over the peaks.

Soon the trees had all but disappeared. The only vegetation left was dry tufts of grass, forcing its way up through the rocky soil, and a few shrubs here and there. The rocks had interesting patches of neon-green on them, which I took to be lichen. Now we were ourselves just a few hundred feet away from a cloud.

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We took a break on a big rock to eat some snacks, and noticed a strange little round hut in the distance with a blue door. This is the Refugio Zabala, an open refuge that was built in 1927 by the members of the Guadarrama Society. The door is always open and unmonitored, though two people could hardly fit in the available space (the rest of the building is taken up by material storage and weather-monitoring equipment).

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We pressed on. I was tired now, too tired for conversation, too tired even for my usual complaining. But as my mind wandered, I found myself thinking of my copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which has a picture of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog on it, an iconic painting of the Romantic period. A brilliant idea struck me.

“Hey hold on,” I said to GF. “I want to take a picture.”

“Okay.”

“Take my phone. I’m gonna go stand on that rock over there.”

So I clambered over a pile of jagged rocks off the path, and carefully positioned myself to recreate, as best I could, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, one leg raised, one hand on my hip, looking out towards the mountains. I felt somehow both extremely cool and unbelievably lame as I did this. But it came out pretty good.

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We kept going. There wasn’t much distance now between the clouds and us. The view was so grand it was almost painful to look at. I didn’t feel tired any more, not cold, not winded. All of my senses felt supernaturally acute; the sun seemed nearer, the air clearer, the light more vivid. There was hardly any sound except my own breathing, the crunching of rocky soil beneath my feet, and the breeze going by my ears.

Finally we were there. The view disappeared behind a veil of gray clouds; we were standing in the sky. I could see my breath now. Some patches of snow were laying here and there on the bare ground. A couple of hikers passed us, going the other direction, obviously much better prepared than we were, with poles and those futuristic-looking synthetic jackets. Meanwhile, I was wearing a cheap coat and a hat with a little fluffy bun on the top. But it didn’t matter: we made it.

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The peak of Peñalara

We walked around a bit, though there wasn’t much to see. In fact, there wasn’t anything to see; we were completely surrounded by fog, which was so thick that the sun was dim enough to look at directly. We walked perhaps three hundred feet before deciding to turn around.

But as we began to head back, a strange feeling started to take hold of me. I looked in the direction which, I was sure, we had come from; but it looked completely unfamiliar. Suddenly I felt lost; I began to feel dizzy. What was going on? Why didn’t I recognize the path? Was I suffering altitude sickness or something? Was I disoriented? Was it safe for me to try to navigate back?

My thoughts jumped to a scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, when Bryson himself was climbing a mountain. Being the nervous man that he is, he’d read up about altitude sickness beforehand, learning about how the lack of oxygen had made some climbers hallucinate and act erratically, sometimes making stupid decisions that got themselves killed. So when Bryson got up in a mountain himself, he began doubting his own mental state, suspecting that he may have come unwound without noticing.

Was something like this happening to me? It’s an interesting paradox, trying to determine your own sanity. If I was losing my judgment, how could I judge whether I had lost my judgment?

Terrible scenarios began to pop in and out of my consciousness, wherein we get ourselves totally, hopelessly lost and are eventually eaten by a bear—if there are bears around here—or simply starve or freeze in the vast national park. Nobody knew we were here; nobody would notice if we got lost.

“Want a carrot?” GF asked. She’d brought a plastic bag full of carrots in her backpack, and was holding out an orange stick for me to take.

“Oh, thanks.”

I took a bite of the carrot; and the crunch, crunch, crunching in my skull snapped me out of it. I took a deep breath; I was completely fine. The path began to be recognizable, and in just five minutes we were stumbling and slipping down the mountain.

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When I visited another day, I improbably found horses grazing near the peak

We had a train to catch. So, exhausted and hungry, we both made our way past the rocks with the bright lichen, past the dry grass and the stumpy shrubs, until we were again surrounded by tall pines. It took us three tries, but we had conquered the mountain.

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)

She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.


Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?

Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?

R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?

H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)

R. How did you learn English so well?

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H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics. 

R: And have you ever lived abroad?

H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.

R: So what brought you to teaching?

H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?

H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.

And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.

R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?

H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.

R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.

H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.

R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?

H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.

R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?

H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.

I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”

R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?

H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.

R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.

H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”

R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?

H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.

R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.

H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.

R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?

H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.

Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.

R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.

H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***

The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.

(By the way, I changed my name into Helena with and H before going to University because my parents had registered me as Mª Isabel when I was born and then baptised me as Mª Isabel Elena, but they would call me Elena. I found out about my official name when I was …eightish?? and told my mum that I wasn’t happy about being called Elena. I though that other names were cool, not mine. Then she told me that I should sign official documents as Mª Isabel but in my daily life I was Elena. I decided to fix such a mess and had to apply for the change in front of a judge and show evidence of my name. I decided to include the H because at the time I was interested in philology, this etymological spelling was quite unusual then. I added my own stuff to my identity, it was cool.)

 


*Madrid’s public schools participate in a program called Global Classrooms, which is essentially mock-UN. In a future post I will interview the assistant who was responsible for the program this year.
**Aside from Castilian Spanish, Spain has three other official languages: Gallego, Catalan, and Basque. And there are many other regional languages and dialects to be found in the country.
***There is a lot of controversy over the use of Catalan vs. Castilian in public schools in Catalonia. 

Hanging Out in Cuenca

Hanging Out in Cuenca

“Is this the right spot?” GF said.

“Must be,” I said.

We were standing by a bike rack outside a metro station, waiting for our Blablacar driver to pick us up. He was late.

We were going to Cuenca for a day trip. Cuenca is a small city east of Madrid, about halfway on the road to Valencia. The Spanish word cuenca literally means “basin,” a fitting name for a town known for its gorges. Several of my students had recommended it, so on a weekend when we didn’t have anything else to do we impulsively booked a Blablacar to go there, without even bothering to look for a way back. The drive takes between 1.5 to 2 hours. For those looking to travel with greater comfort and speed, there is a high-speed train that runs to Cuenca several times daily.

Incidentally, there is a vulgar Spanish expression connected to this city: To “ponerle a alguien mirando a Cuenca” (literally to “put somebody looking at Cuenca”). It means to bend somebody over. But clearly the expression makes no sense for those in Cuenca. What do the cuencanos say? To put somebody looking at Aranjuez.

Soon the driver arrived with his girlfriend in tow, and we started off towards Cuenca. They were studying tourism and spoke English very well. GF and I did our best to keep the conversation in Spanish, but in general a group will always take the path of least resistance and speak the language easiest for everybody. (This was two years ago, when my Spanish was still quite basic.)

As we neared Cuenca, the driver said:

“Before going to the city we’re going to see the torcas. Want to come?”

“What are torcas?” I asked.

“They’re like big holes in the ground. You’ll see.”

We passed fields and farms and then headed up into some hills into a pine forest. We kept going until we reached a parking lot and then got out. A path led into the forest and further up the hill.

The first torca came into view. The driver was correct: they are big holes in the ground. They were formed by ancient lakes, I believe, but are now completely dry. The biggest ones are over 500 meters, or 1,600 feet, in diameter. These torcas are just one of the natural points of interest in the vicinity of Cuenca. The most famous is the Ciudad Encantada, a geological park filled with weird rocks formed by the limestone deposits of an ancient sea. It is a thirty-minute drive from the city itself and the pictures look marvelous. But there is an entry fee (5€), which made my driver not wish to visit.

cuenca_torca

We got back in the car and started driving to the Ventano del Diablo, a popular lookout point about 20 minutes outside the city. By now I was getting kind of sick of sitting in the car. We had spent about 2 hours driving so far and I have long legs and achy knees so sitting in cars is very uncomfortable for me. But the view was well worth it.

The lookout point is inside a hollowed out cliff. Standing there, buffeted by the wind, one sees the tan-colored precipices on all sides and the Júcar river whose greenish water flows down below. This is the same river that runs through the city of Cuenca itself, and is responsible for wearing away the deep gorges for which the city is famous. It was also this river which, in 1982, flooded and overran the Tous Dam, damaging several towns and killing 30 people. The flood was so bad that it was even given its own name, the Pantanada de Tous, or the “Marshing of Tous.”

cuenca_river

We enjoyed the view until the wind forced us to retreat. In fifteen minutes we’d arrived, parked, and split up. Our driver had kindly agreed to give us a ride back to Madrid, since we hadn’t arranged anything else.

On our walk up to the city we passed over the Huécar, a much smaller river that bounds the southern edge of Cuenca’s old city. The old city center of is even higher than the rest of the town, perched up on a rocky hill 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level. This is why Cuenca can get chilly.

We were quite hungry by now and were looking forward to lunch. But we got distracted almost immediately by the view. From almost every side of the town there is an excellent vista of the surrounding area. And because the town is squished onto a hill, with very uneven ground, the streets are charmingly narrow and twisting; and several times we had to climb staircases in the street.

The streets were indeed so twisty that we got confused and ended up overshooting the restaurants and going to the other end of town, where we found a lovely iron bridge. Built in 1902, this is the Bridge of Saint Paul, which replaced an older bridge that was built in the 16th century. The bridge gets its name from the Convent of Saint Paul, built on a hill across a gorge opposite the town itself.

From this bridge we could see the famous Casas Colgadas, or the Hanging Houses of Cuenca. These are buildings that are situated right on the edge of the cliff and which have balconies that hang off, giving them their name. It seems dangerous to me, but I suppose you have to use all the real estate you have when you’re confined to the top of a hill.

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The Bridge of Saint Paul, with the Convent in the background

We took some pictures, fended off a scam artist, and then went up to Plaza Mayor to find a restaurant. I really wanted to eat inside because I was uncomfortably cold, but the best deals were for restaurants that had seats outside, so I decided to suck it up and sit down in the plaza.

The benefit of eating in the Plaza Mayor was that I got a chance to take a good look at the cathedral’s façade, which is particularly pretty. This façade was actually rebuilt after it was destroyed in 1902 by a lightning strike—the same year, coincidentally, as the Bridge of Saint Paul—so the surface that greets visitors today is neo-gothic, though no less attractive for that. The cathedral itself is, along with the Ávila Cathedral, the oldest gothic building in Spain, though succeeding years have wrought their changes.

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Photo by Der pepe; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

We paid the bill at the restaurant and then went inside the cathedral. In one chapel there was a colorful statue of a monk standing over a demon; and in the dim light the demon’s eyes deemed to follow me as I walked past. The experience gave me the willies. I can see how such realistic sculptures, combined with dim and flickering light, could have terrified people of a less skeptical disposition.

After that I walked outside to the courtyard and there discovered that there was a kind of patio with a wonderful view of the countryside beyond. There was an air of ruin about the place, filled with cracked stone and damaged statues. But by now the cold was becoming unbearable. I had spent over an hour eating outside and this cathedral wasn’t any warmer. I wanted to go somewhere with heat.

So I convinced GF to visit the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art. This museum is in one of the Hanging Houses and is one of the most notable attractions in Cuenca, but I was mainly interested in the heat.

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The Museum of Spanish Abstract Art

This museum was founded in 1966 by the Spanish Filipino artist Fernando Zóbel, displaying works that the artist had previously collected. The museum is free to enter and, most importantly, nice and warm inside. Unfortunately, I derived very little pleasure from the artwork on display. At the time I was fairly ignorant of modern art and normally disliked it. If I visited again I would, perhaps, have different opinion.

After wandering around the museum and staring blankly at blank canvases, we left to explore the city some more. The sun was setting now and it was getting dark quickly. We walked up past the Church of St. Peter towards the Barrio del Castillo, so-called because a castle once occupied this hill. Indeed, ruins of a castle wall can be found there still. One can climb up to the top of one of the old turrets for an excellent view of the city and the surrounding countryside.

From here we could see the whole city center below us, the bridge, the valley, and the landscape beyond. In the distance the sun had just set behind the horizon, turning the skyline a bright red. The lights of the town were coming on, and in just a few minutes everything was twilight and the town was aglow with artificial light. On a large hill nearby, the Cerro de Socorro, there is a large statue of Jesus atop a tall pedestal; and now spotlights had been turned out and it glowed bright yellow against the darkness of the surrounding hill.

Cuenca_Sunset

It was completely dark now and nothing would be open. So GF and I finally gave up and decided that we could go sit in a café until 9:00, when we would meet up with the driver. Eventually the driver and his girlfriend wandered in and sat down with us. Talk turned to politics and, predictably, they asked us about Donald Trump, with that air of horrified bafflement that all Europeans (and many Americans) contemplate the man.

We got back to Madrid at 11:30—over 14 hours after we left. It was a long day. We all said goodbye, and really I was sad to do so. I have had many excellent experiences with Blablacar, but this stands out as by far the best.

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is an ordeal. It is very long and very depressing. Charting the Third Reich from the birth of Hitler to the collapse of Germany, Shirer tells the whole story with the sweep of a novelist and the detail of an accountant. He wrote the book after having access to huge stores of documents captured by the Allies after the war. Diaries, schedules, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, the minutes of meetings, and much more were the raw material marshalled to create this tome.

As is often noted, Shirer was a journalist, not a historian, a fact that helps to explain much about this book. He lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent from 1933 to the end of 1940, reporting on the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of the war, until the threat of the Gestapo forced him to return home. This firsthand experience lent color to his narrative, but also focused his attention on readily observable events. Rather than talk of larger trends—social shifts, economic pressures, cultural developments—Shirer focuses almost exclusively on the doings of individuals in power, such as he had been reporting on.

This focus makes the narrative vivid and pleasingly concrete, but also results in a superficial analysis. A historian would naturally spend more time on the rampant inflation of the times, the institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, the wider political trends in Europe, the mechanics of a totalitarian state, and so on. Further, Shirer’s explanation of why Germany embarked on such a destructive enterprise boils down to: because it is peopled by Germans. That is, he locates a kind of cultural essence in the German people, an essence stemming from the Reformation and especially Martin Luther, added to by Hegel and then by Nietzsche, which came to full fruition in National Socialism. But this sort of cultural essentialism is, for me, just intellectual laziness. It can be used to explain anything or everything, since these posited cultural qualities are vague and unobservable.

In any case wider historical analysis plays a very small part in this book, which is mainly a record of the decisions and actions of the leading men of the Nazi regime. That is to say that this book is a political and not a military history. The Second World War is discussed, of course, but only insofar as its developments affected or were caused by the Nazi leaders. Shirer is mainly concerned with charting the rise to power of these ruthless men: how they outsmarted the Weimar Republic leaders, fooled the international community, bullied and threatened their way to conquests, and finally instigated a war that resulted in their own ruin.

The balance of the book is tilted heavily towards the rise of the Third Reich. This can make for some dreary reading. In retrospect it is stupefying to witness how blind, inept, and spineless were Hitler’s opponents, first within Germany and then beyond its borders, until the final crisis spurred the world into action against him. Though Shirer’s sturdy prose is normally quite plain and unadorned, he has a steady instinct for the dramatic and writes several unforgettable scenes. Nevertheless the scale of detail Shirer saw fit to include sometimes weighs down the narrative into benumbing dullness. The endless, petty diplomatic maneuvers that preceded the beginning of the War—negotiations, ambassadors, threats, ultimatums, calculations, second thoughts, and so on—made it a relief when the soldiers finally started shooting.

These political dealings of the Nazis constitute the vast bulk of this book. It is a masterclass in how far a little cunning, shameless lying, and absolute ruthlessness can get you. It is also a lesson in the need to cooperate to take decisive action against common threats. In the years since Vietnam, many have concluded that the main lesson to be drawn from America’s foreign policy is the folly of interventionist wars. After the First World War, the Western powers were understantly ever more chary of violence. And yet, at least in Shirer’s telling of the history, a timely show of force could have nipped Hitler’s rise in the bud. If England and France had upheld their treaties and defended their territories and their allies, Hitler could not have amassed so much power at a time when the German military was still small. (Though it must be said that Shirer’s intellectual weakness appears here, too, since he attributes this inaction to pure cowardice.)

In any case, this does bring out an interesting dilemma in foreign policy concerning the benefits and risks of violent intervention. In the case of Hitler, timely action could have prevented a disastrous conflict. And yet in many other historical cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, the threat of non-intervention was vastly overestimated, while the cost of intervention vastly underestimated. The word “estimate” is key here, since these decisions must necessarily be based on guesses of future threats and costs—guesses which may easily be wrong. Since it is impossible to know with certainty the scale of a threat that a situation may pose if left unchecked, there is no surefire way out of this dilemma. This, of course, is just a part of a wider dilemma in life, since so many of our everyday decisions must necessarily be made based on guesses of what the future holds.

You can see that this book, though a popular account, is not lightweight in its details or its implications. Yet it does show its age. Published in 1960, it was written before many valuable sources of information became available, such as the French archives. It also shows its age in its occasional references to homosexuality, which Shirer treats as a perverted vice. This is, of course, morbidly ironic, considering the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (something that Shirer fails to mention). But all in all The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains a gripping popular overview of this nightmarish time.

(Cover attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16196; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

Difficult Day Trips: Rascafría

(Continued from my post on Consuegra.)

The most famous monastery in the community of Madrid is, undoubtedly and deservedly, El Escorial—the grandest monastery in the country. Though impressive, El Escorial is, however, no longer a working monastery. (I have since found out that this is not true, and there are still monks there.) Indeed, its primary function was never to be a home for monks, but a seat of power. To see a proper monastery without leaving the bounds of Madrid, one can go to Las Descalzas or La Encarnación, two historic and lovely monasteries in the center.

Yet more impressive than either is El Paular, which is located near a small village, Rascafría, in the Madrid mountains. Getting there on public transportation is not easy, especially on the weekend. Bus 194 leaves the Plaza de Castilla every Sunday at 8 am. The trip lasts well over two hours, mostly because the indirect route travels over local roads, making frequent stops. And since the only viable return bus leaves Rascafría at 6:30 pm, going there is an all-day commitment. (Admittedly there is a return bus at 3:00 pm, but if you visit the monastery and take the tour you won’t make it.)

Let me pause here for another linguistic lesson. When we wish to make a compound word out of a noun and a verb in English, we normally put the noun first and add “-er” to the verb. Thus we get “skyscraper.” Spanish follows the opposite procedure, with the verb first and the noun second, which is plural. The word for “skyscraper” in Spanish is rascacielos (lit. “scrape skies”). Learning this principle was invaluable to me, since it makes trips to hardware stores infinitely easier. Can-opener is abrelatas and pencil-sharpener is sacapuntas. At first glance the toponym Rascafría follows this principle, rasca being from “scrape” (although “fría” as a noun isn’t known to me). This appearance is entirely illusory, it seems, since the name derives from rocas frías, or cold rocks.

The bus deposited me in this cold and rocky place at around 10:30 in the morning, on a chilly November day. The walk to the monastery took about twenty minutes. I arrived in time to be there when the gates opened at 11:00. Before going inside, I retreated a little from the entrance so as to see the monastery amid its surroundings. The best place to see El Paular is from the Puente del Perdón, a picturesque stone bridge (built in the 1700s) that runs over the river Lozoya. From here you can see the monastery’s tall spire presiding over a square building, adjoining a series of domes and semi-domes on the right. With the looming mountains serving as a backdrop, the monastery is quite a quaint sight.

elpaular

El Paular was founded around the year 1390 as a Carthusian monastery, a purpose which it served until, in 1835, like so many monasteries in Spain, it was confiscated by the state. Bereft of purpose, the monastery suffered the effects of time and neglect. In the twentieth century there was an ineffectual attempt to incorporate it into the national park of the Guadarrama Mountains. Later on, the monastery was converted into a sort of artist residence for landscape painters—a task for which, due to its surroundings, the monastery was admirably well-suited. Finally, in 1954, the monastery became, once again, a monastery, this time for the Benedictine order; and it remains so to this day.

I paid the entrance and went inside. They were having mass in the church when I entered, so I proceeded directly to the cloister. Here I discovered an unexpected delight. Lining the walls of the cloister is a series of 52 oil paintings by Vicente Carducho, a contemporary of Diego Velazquez. These paintings tell the story of the Carthusian Order from its founding to the present day. Thus the series begins with the Carthusian founder, St. Bruno, and ends with the closure of the monasteries during the English Reformation. Individually, these paintings are masterful works of Golden Age realism, telling stories of miracles, martyrs, and myths with a dynamic flair worthy of Carducho’s friend, Lope de Vega. (Indeed, the two of them can be seen in one of the paintings.) But together they have a cumulative effect that goes far beyond their technical merits.

Paular_Carducho
Lope de Vega is the grey, bearded man on the left; Carducho himself is immediately to the right of the writer.

And we must count ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to see the series all together, since after the monastery’s 1835 confiscation the paintings were acquired by the Prado, and for many years were loaned out to various museums around the country. During this time two of the paintings were lost (there were originally 54) in the confusion of the Spanish Civil War. It was only in 2006 that they were restored and finally reunited in their original home.

paular_cloister

Once I finished appreciating the paintings—which took the better part of an hour—I wandered over the entrance of the church for the scheduled tour. Mass soon finished; and about a dozen people, mostly elderly, shuffled out of the elaborately decorated church door. A short, rotund man wearing a monk’s habit—a plain dark robe in this case—appeared and shepherded us inside. The church itself is a plain, clean, white space, mostly devoid of elaborate decoration. The exception to this is the magnificent main altar, which contains 17 Biblical scenes in finely detailed alabaster.

Paular_Retablo.jpg

In a jovial and bouncing voice, the monk explained all about the monastery and its history. Then we moved further into the monastery, passing through the vestry and the chapter house, while the monk rapidly rattled off the dates, styles, and provenance of the art work to be seen. Finally we reached the Capilla del Sagrario, or the Chapel of the Sanctuary.

This chapel is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of Baroque art to be found in Spain. The colors are regal and soothing: silver, pink, and sky blue. Every surface is covered with extremely intimate ornament, in a style the monk called “Churrigueresque,” a Baroque manner of decoration native to Spain. Floral designs squirmed up the walls; silver curled and bloomed; columns twisted and angels burst from walls. The chapel comprises several separate nooks, each one dedicated to a different saint. In the central chamber a hexagonal tabernacle rises up several meters off the ground, constructed of colored marble taken from all over Spain. It is an extraordinary work. Even the floor is impressive, made from interlocking triplets of diamonds that, together, form the image of a cube.

Sagrio_collage

The monk then led us to the refectory, where the monks eat their meals in silence, while somebody reads scripture aloud. Finally we reached the church and concluded the tour.

I now had about three hours to kill before my bus left back to Madrid. Thankfully, aside from the monastery, Rascafría is itself a lovely place. Madrid’s northern mountains provide some of the best hiking in the country. Rascafría is no exception to this. Even on this chilly winter day the place was full of men, women, and children in windbreakers carrying pointed walking sticks. I joined them, crossing the Puende del Perdón and turning to walk alongside the river Lozoya. Unknowingly I had entered the Bosque finlandes, or the Finnish Forest, a pretty natural park formed by importing trees and vegetation from that Scandinavian country. Though at the time I did not know this, I did notice that the trees were strikingly tall and straight.

Rascafria_Finnishforest

I walked on, passing by ruined farms, masticating cows, and once again over the shallow river. Eventually I came upon a sign about the local trails. There was a short caption about an old legend pertinent to the area, which told of a beautiful Moorish girl who fell in love with a young man, and every day washed her face in the river while waiting his return (from where, it didn’t say). It is said that she waits still in a cave somewhere. Well, I certainly did not find any beautiful enchanted lasses, Moorish or otherwise, on my walk; but I did take some nice pictures of the scenery. Eventually I wandered onto the route of the Cascada del Purgatorio (everything seems to have a religious name in Spain), named after a nearby waterfall that the hiker can visit.

As the hour of my departure neared, I went back to the town to eat something. Though small, Rascafría is itself a charming sight, with the Artiñuelo Stream passing its center. There are also many attractive restaurants, though they are strangely expensive, due to the many visitors of the trails and the monastery, I suppose. I ate a delicious chocolate cake with raspberry dressing and then got on the bus, to doze during the long ride back to Madrid.

rascafria_reflection

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

Review: The Aeronautic Adventure

La aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la CiervaLa aventura aeronáutica: Emilio Herrera, Juan de la Cierva by Carlos Lazaro Avila

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has the very modest distinction of being the only book I’ve read whose author I have interviewed. Carlos Lázaro is a history teacher at the school in which I work; and when he is not scolding students or grading reports, he is researching Spanish military aviation history. This is one of the numerous books he has published on this topic.

La aventura aeonáutica is a dual biography of two of the most important innovators in Spanish aviation history: Emilio Herrera and Juan de la Cierva. Herrera was of the same generation as the Wright Brothers. His specialty was lighter-than-air crafts—dirigibles, zeppelins, and so on—to which he made great practical and theoretical contributions. Among his many accomplishments was his participation in the first intercontinental flight of the Graf Zeppelin, which earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City. He also designed what is considered the first spacesuit, for a planned but never realized ascension to the stratosphere. Later in life he was also important for his loyalty to the Spanish Republic in exile, even becoming its (mostly ceremonial) president.

Juan de la Cierva is mainly remembered for his invention of the autogiro, or autogyro. This was a sort of early-generation helicopter, designed to fly at speeds impossibly slow for fixed-wing aircraft. The principle of the autogyro is, however, quite different from that of a helicopter. Most notably, the rotor on top is completely unpowered. Forward thrust is provided by a small frontal propeller. This motion pushes air up into the rotor, causing it to spin—though notably, unlike in a helicopter, the air flows through the rotor upwards, not downwards. The rotor’s blades are angled so that the rotation provides lift. You may think of an autogyro as a plane whose wings rotate rather than stay fixed. For this reason autogyros cannot take off and land vertically, nor can they hover, unless there is a countervailing breeze. In any case, I hope you can see from this description that this was an ingenious and original contribution to aeronautic technology.

Like Herrera, De la Cierva was politically active; unlike Herrera, De la Cierva was a committed member of the Right, and threw his support behind Franco. His life was cut short in a plane crash—ironically a passenger plane, not any experimental flight—while trying to organize international support for the coup.

I found the lives of these two men fascinating, since I had not even known their names beforehand, much less any of their accomplishments. The book is admirably informative and concise, full of attractive photos and nifty little side-panels. Hopefully I will visit the Museo del Aire in Madrid soon, to see some of these historical craft for myself.

[Cover photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons; author unknown.]

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Review: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Review: Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Two Gentlemen of VeronaThe Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is usually grouped with A Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew as one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. I am inclined to see it as the earliest, if only because it is by far the least compelling. Whereas Shakespeare is rightly known for the depth of his psychological insight and the realism of his characters, the personages of this play are shallow and implausible creatures.

The two titular gentlemen are anything but. Proteus is a cad, a lout, and finally a monster, while his friend Valentine is a nincompoop. The women who capture their hearts are rather more compelling—especially Silvia, who sees right through Proteus—and yet their attraction to these unscrupulous airheads dims their stature as well. The final scene is the culmination of everything wrong with this play: after banishing his friend and lying through his teeth, Proteus tries to rape Silvia, and is then immediately forgiven by Valentine (note: not Silvia), in an ambiguous line that, at first glance, seems to mean that Valentine is gifting him his paramour Silvia. The scene could almost be funny if it were played as a farce, but the straight version I saw was sickening

The real heroes of this play are Proteus’s servant Launce and Launce’s dog Crab—a mutt who, despite having no lines, is better-realized than any of the protagonists. Now with Launce we have the real Shakespearean magic: a living, breathing, fully human character, immediately relatable and deeply compelling. His hilarious monologues are the jewels of this play, which does not deserve him. Other than this pair, the play is only interesting for prefiguring many of the themes Shakespeare would later explore with greater clarity and depth.

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Difficult Day Trips: Consuegra

Difficult Day Trips: Consuegra

The most spectacular day trips from Madrid are also, fortunately, some of the easiest. Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial can all be reached in under an hour from the center, and Ávila isn’t much further away. But once these more convenient options are exhausted there is still much to see.

Granted, with Spain’s high-speed trains even faraway cities like Seville and Barcelona can be visited in a day (though they deserve far more time). And with a car you will have no trouble getting around. But if, like me, you are looking to travel cheaply, on public transportation, then some destinations are difficult.

One of these difficult day trips is Consuegra. This is a little town, of about 10,000 inhabitants, in the region of Castilla La-Mancha, further south from Toledo. Getting there from Madrid takes time. The only option for public transportation is a bus. It departs from Madrid’s Estación del Sur, near the Mendez Álvaro metro station. The journey lasts 2.5 hours each way, which means a day trips involves 5 hours on the bus.

I had planned to get some good reading in but, as often happens, the lack of sleep (I left Madrid early) and the shifting and rocking of the bus soon lulled me into a deep doze. My kindle rested in my lap, while my head rested against the window. The drive was thus passed in the uneasy limbo between unconsciousness, vivid dreams, and semi-wakefulness. Eventually I stirred, groggy yet refreshed, in Consuegra before lunch time.

Allow me to pause here for a linguistic lesson. The word consuegra itself means the mother-in-law of your son or daughter. In other words, she is the mother of whoever your child marries. In English we have no word for this, of course. We just lazily affix “in-law” to our names for blood-relations. But in Spanish there is a distinct name for parent-in-law (suegro/a), daughter-in-law (nuera), son-in-law (yerno), and brother/sister-in-law (cuñado/a), in addition to the parent-in-law of your child (consuegro/a). Curiously, these terms are nowadays applied to the family of boyfriends and girlfriends who are not yet married. Indeed the term for boyfriend/girlfriend (novio/a) was originally adapted from the Spanish word for groom/bride. It seems that, when dating became widely practiced and accepted, lacking the vocabulary for non-marital relationships, the words for married couples were simply transferred to this new situation.

The town of Consuegra itself, though charming, is not especially remarkable. It is a destination because of the hill that rises above the center. On this modest eminence, the Cerro Calderico, the visitor will see why Consuegra is a site of pilgrimage for Quixote followers. For this hill in La Mancha is crowned with twelve windmills, perhaps the very same that the Knight of the Sad Countenance thought were an army of giants.

Consuegra_Windmills

Though the wind still blows, the mills no longer grind grain. (Indeed, the wind in this area stills blows so hard that, the first of March, they sustained heavy damage from hurricane-force gales, nearly destroying many of them. Repairs are underway.) Many of the windmills house specialized stores for local products, like wines and cheese—and Castilla-La Mancha makes the best cheese in all of Spain. But they are worth visiting just for the tremendous view of these slumbering giants.

consuegra_wildflower

A craggy stone wall, a dilapidated pile now, still crosses over the hill. Weeds and wildflowers spring up from the dry soil. Though the hill is not especially tall, it provides a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Castilla-La Mancha is one of the only non-mountainous parts of Spain. Instead of peaks, empty fields spread out before the visitor, spotted with roads and farmland. Consuegra and its environs have maintained their agricultural character, you see. Not nearly enough tourists pause here to have transformed the economy.

The Cerro Calderico does not only provide a platform for windmills, but is also the site of one of Castilla-La Mancha’s greatest castles: El Castillo de la Muela (which literally means the “castle of the molar”). The hill is a logical place for a fortress, with its steep sides and commanding view; and indeed it has been used for this purpose since Roman times. More recently, the castle was the squabbled over during the confusion of the Middle Ages, when Spain was populated by various small kingdoms, Christian and Muslim.

Consuegra_castle

From the outside the castle presents itself as little more than a vertical heap of stones. To enter one had to pay a small fee. I considered it, even though in my experience the insides of castles are fairly uninteresting. But then I heard screaming, shouting, and riotous laughing coming from within. I assumed that a gaggle of drunkards were wandering around inside, and decided to skip the experience. I later learned, however, that the castle gives guided tours with historical reenactments, which doubtless was the source of the shouting I heard.

After taking my fill of the terrific view I descended back into town for lunch. For this I went into the first attractive bar I found, ordering some beer and tapas. Here I had one of those experiences that make me love this country. Unlike in the United States, whole families are welcomed into bars. A young couple with a newborn in a cradle were standing at the bar, eating and chatting. Next to them a group of senior citizens did the same, and at a table another married couple sat with their two children. Everybody was huddled close and talking loud. The bartenders joked with the customers, all of whom (except me) seemed to be regulars. There was an incredible feeling of effortless bustle, as drinks and food were served with speed but no stress, as Spaniards spoke in loud tones and made sweeping gesticulations, and easy laughter sounded all around.

More and more people packed into the bar, which only improved the atmosphere. Spaniards are far less shy than Americans when it comes to close physical contact; and unlike in American bars, there was no loud music to drown out conversation. The result is a lively but easygoing mood of all-embracing social life. Though alone, I instantly felt as if I were part of the community.

I left the bar in high spirits, intending to go straight for the bus station. But soon my attention was caught by a large tent that had been set up in one of the central squares. Investigation revealed that a wine festival was taking place. I paid three euros to enter, which came with three tickets, each of which I could trade for a glass of wine. Local vintners had set up stalls all around tent. In the center was a giant table, already littered with paper plates and plastic cups. The place was packed. I had to elbow my way to each glass of wine.

I quickly became curious about the strange cardboard boxes, filled with small holes, that so many people were carrying around. In the back of the tent I discovered the reason for this. In an open cage, dozens of little chicks were waddling. For a small price the customer could scoop up one of these chicks to take home. This was a big hit with the children, you may imagine. Yet I doubt that any of these chicks will be allowed to grow up and become useful, for eggs or meat. And using baby chickens as for the amusement of children does not strike me as kosher.

The wine drunk, I tipsily made my way back to the bus to return to Madrid. It had been a truly excellent day. And, best of all, I had 2.5 hours to sleep off the wine on the way home.

Consuegra_windmillcastle

Don Bigote: Chapter 3

Don Bigote: Chapter 3

(Continued from Chapter 2.)

Don and Dan go to Spain

August 3, 2017

“When Christopher Columbus made his epochal voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, vastly expanding the reach of Western civilization, he kept a diary of his voyage, like so many other great explorers have. And now that we, Dan, are retracing the same voyage, I think it is incumbent upon us to emulate that great man.”

“My teacher said Columbus was a genocidal maniac.”

“Oh, Chopin,” Bigote said. “How many times must I tell you? Everything you learned in school was a lie, meant to bolster the great conspiracy.”

“Ah, right.”

So here I am, sitting on a boat a few dozen miles off the coast of Florida, writing this ship’s diary thingy. The boat we’re on is a cargo frigate. Since flying to Spain didn’t pan out, Bigote decided to hitch a ride in a transport ship.

“Why didn’t I think of it before?” he said. “How could I be so dull? Of course the conspiracy would impede us from flying! And though flight is one of our great Western inventions, the sea is far more integral to our history. Thus, as the preserver of our great European heritage and culture, it behooves me to experience this primordial experience firsthand.”

And so on. There’s definitely a downside to this plan, though. Going by boat meant we didn’t have to leave behind Bigote’s shitty old pickup truck, but could take it with us on the ship. It is sitting in a container on deck. That piece of crap will follow us to the ends of the earth.

So what should I report? The sea is… blue. There are waves. The wind blows a little. My room is small and uncomfortable. The sailors live down the hall. They aren’t exactly the typical image of hard-boiled sailors. Some of them are pudgy and bald. Others are nearly as skinny as Bigote. There are even a few women sailors—though not pretty ones.

Bigote is in the cabin next to mine. But he’s spent almost the whole time so far on deck, looking out into the ocean, and saying profound things like “The infinite vast expanse of primordial deep” or “The mother element from which we sprang” and similar things. He also told me to “keep an eye for the varieties of marine life as manifested in this voyage, for they have inspired both great works of literature and profound works of scientific analysis.”

Well, I’ve seen some seagulls and pelicans. That’s all for now.

 

August 5

Yeah, so I haven’t been writing in this the last couple days, since nothing is happening. I am bored out of my fucking mind on this boat. In the movies it’s so romantic and adventurous, but in reality it’s just water—on and on and on, and then some more water. With some clouds thrown in. The boat is so big that it doesn’t even feel like you’re at sea. Sometimes I even forget I’m on a boat, until I reach the end of it and realize that, yes, I’m trapped here.

It just sucks. There are no girls—none worth speaking of, anyways. I thought that the sailors would know how to throw a party, but when I sat down at their table after dinner they were all just quietly playing cards. There were hardly even drinking. So I just grabbed some beers and went off to my room, hoping to at least get a mild buzz before bed. But about three beers in I realized that it was all non-alcoholic. What kind of a boat is this?

Yesterday I was so bored that I tried to see how many times I could jack off in one day. The answer is four and a half. And even that got boring after a little while. I’m so bored I even considered having a conversation with Bigote. I bet he has a little bourbon snuck away in his bags. But that old streetlamp has been holed up in his room the last few days. Whenever I peek in he’s pouring over maps or lost in a book, with papers sprawled all over the floor.

“I am planning our routes of travel and exploration once we get to the continent,” he told me. “For we must employ our time industriously. There are many things we must research in the brief interval between our arrival and the impending catastrophe. Education, technology, philosophy, science—the scope of our precious Western culture, so perilously threatened, is vast and deep!”

I shut the door and went back to my room.

Anyways today finally something happened. The captain invited us to his private cabin for dinner. He’s sort of a swarthy fellow with a well-trimmed white beard. He wears this stupid-looking blue cap and a white suit. Very spiffy.

“So what brings you two to Europe, in any case?” he asked, as he was cutting his lamb chop.

“I’m afraid our task, such as it is, is shrouded in secrecy,” Bigote said, gravely.

“Secrecy, eh?” the captain said. “You guys working for the CIA or something?”

“The CIA? Absurd!” Bigote spouted. “They are the last people I would be working for!”

The captain scrunched up his eyes a bit.

“So, are you like a terrorist or something?” he said, grinning slightly.

“If ‘terrorist’ is a name for somebody violently opposed to the current order of things, then, yes, I am a terrorist.”

The captain sat up straighter and eyed Bigote narrowly. Then, deciding that such a silly-looking person could hardly be any danger, slapped him on the back.

“Or something like that, in any case,” he said.

“Oh,” Bigote said, evidently pleased. “I forgot, I brought a gift for the table.” And like some kind of magician he pulled a bottle of wine out of his sleeve.

“It’s an excellent vintage, I assure you,” Bigote said, laying it on the table.

“Oh no, oh no, I’m afraid I don’t drink,” the captain said. “But thanks for the thought. You two are welcome, of course.”

Bigote seemed surprised. He leaned back in his chair and stared hard at the captain, who was engaged with a potato. Meanwhile I grabbed the bottle, yanked it open, and poured myself a big glassful.

“This is really good!” I said.

“It is, indeed,” Bigote said, gravely. “Is the captain certain he wouldn’t like some?”

“Oh yeah, I don’t drink wine or something, in any case,” the captain said.

“How strange…” Bigote murmured to himself.

I could tell that Bigote would muck things up if I allowed him to go on, so I decided to cut in.

“So, cap, what you got on this ship?”

“Oh, it changes every trip, in any case. But usually we have at least a few shipments of cars, some electronics like smart phones and computers, something like that, and some other consumer products like shampoos and soaps and makeup, something along those lines, and also we have been taking across lots of beer and spirits, lately, in any case.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, lighting up.

“Yes, we got about 15,000 containers or something on the main deck.”

“And who takes care of all that stuff?”

“You mean, like guard or or something like that?” the captain said. “Well, nobody really. It’s not like there’s anywhere to go, in any case.”

He laughed to himself while Bigote continued in his weird, gloomy silence. I don’t know what Bigote is up to, but I had an idea. It is 11:15 pm at the moment, and when I’m finished writing this I am going to get my hands on some of that beer the ship is carrying over.

 

August 6

What a fucking night. I have a hangover so bad it could kill a purebred stallion. It’s past noon and I just woke up. So here’s what happened.

The captain was right. Nobody guards or watches the containers on deck. It’s totally empty out there. The containers are just sitting in giant stacks, with narrow passageways between them. It’s like walking through a labyrinth with giant walls. Pretty claustrophobic. Obviously I could only reach the containers on deck level. They were closed, of course, but opening them wasn’t tricky. There’s a big bolt you need to pull out and the door swings open. I tried to do it as quietly as possible but the old rusty things makes a clanky, creaky sound no matter what you do.

As soon as I figured I was safely far away, I opened one at random. It had a few cars in it—boring ones, hybrid sedans. The next one had piles of laptops. My laptop is kinda old so I made a note of this one. I went on like this, opening and closing the containers, until I began to give up hope of ever finding what I sought. Finally after about half an hour I unbolted one door and slowly pushed it open. I shined my phone inside and—behold!—beer! Stacks of it!

But the next thing I knew I was flat on my back with a sharp something pressed against my throat. Someone had tackled me and was pressing me to the ground. A sweaty hand was covering my mouth, preventing me from screaming. I looked up to see the face of one of the sailors—a mild, doughy man with a bald head. His eyes were wide with fear and he was holding a screwdriver to my neck.

“Who the fuck are you?” he hissed in the darkness.

“Mmmm, hmmm, hmmm,” I said through his hand.

“What?” he said.

“Mmmm nnnnn mmmm,” I said.

“Oh right, my hand,” he said. “I’m gonna move it, but don’t you fucking scream or I’ll shove this into your neck.” He moved his hand from my mouth.

“I’m sorry, I was lost,” I said.

“Bullshit.”

“Well what are you doing here?”

“Uh, nothing,” he said.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Bullshit.”

“Alright,” I said. “I was looking for beer.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Seriously, the crap that serve in the cafeteria has no alcohol.”

He paused.

“Who are you?” he said, relaxing his grip a little.

“I’m one of the passengers.”

“You with that tall guy with the crazy mustache?”

“Yeah he’s my boss.”

“So you’re not searching for thieves?”

“I am a thief myself.”

“Well, fuck man,” he said, finally getting off me. “You scared me shitless.”

“Me too,” I said, and got up. “Were you actually going to murder somebody? I mean, how could you have gotten away with it? We’re on a ship, dude.”

“I guess I didn’t think it through,” he said. “It’s just, my momma always taught me not to trust strangers who come round at night. Well, you want a drink?”

“I need one now.”

I walked into the cargo container. There was some space near the entrance where I could sit down on some of the beer boxes. On the floor were six or seven empty cans.

“Here,” he said and handed me one. “My name is Francis, by the way. My momma named me after her pa.”

“Dan,” I said.

“You can drink here—but don’t tell anyone.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Yeah.”

I cracked the beer open and began to drink. It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t good but it was alcoholic. He grabbed one, too, and started gulping it down. We drank in silence for a while, both of us chugging. I was pretty jolted up from the whole attack thing and I didn’t want to risk provoking this crazy guy again. A big part of me wanted to go, but beer is beer, and here was beer.

About five beers deep I noticed Francis was making some funny noises. It sounded like gargled words. Oh boy, I thought, this guy is really nuttier than Bigote. But then I listened and I realized that he was sobbing. Jesus Christ what a night. I tried to ignore it but it was kinda messing with my head, hearing some guy crying while I was trying to relax and drink. Finally I couldn’t take it.

“You alright, dude?” I said.

“I’m fine,” he choked.

“Sounds like you’re crying.”

“Yeah I’m crying.”

“So is this something you do when you’re fine?”

“Not usually,” he said.

“Ah.”

“It’s… it’s just… it’s about a girl.”

Oh boy.

“What girl?”

“Her name’s Leslie. She’s on this ship.”

I mentally went over the female sailors on this ship. There were two, possibly three candidates. I shuddered.

“What about her?”

“She’s just, so, so beautiful. She reminds me so much of how my momma looked when I was a kid.”

“I bet she does… So what’s the problem?”

“I’ve been working with her for months now, and she hardly noticed me.”

“Maybe she’s married?”

“Nah.”

“Lesbian?”

“No, she had a fling with one of the other guys.”

“So what’s your problem?”

“I try to talk to her, you know at meals and in the halls and stuff, but she just blows me off when a few words. Barely even looks in my direction. Oh, my momma always told me that I’d never find a girl like her! And now I did, but she doesn’t like me!”

“Just go for someone else, bro. Like, probably there are some nicer looking girls on shore.”

“Maybe to you. But to me she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Those arms… those legs… her anchor tattoo. It drives me wild.”

I gagged a little. But a bro is a bro and you’ve got to do what you can to help.

“Alright, Francis. Here’s my advice.”

“Pfft, what do you know? You’re just some kid.”

“I don’t know Leslie but I do know a thing or two about getting laid.”

“Ah, even if you do, it’s no use. My momma always told me that I wasn’t ever gonna find a girl to marry me. Said I cry too much.”

“Shut up and listen. You need to spike her drink.”

“What?!” he said. “I’m not a rapist, man. My momma taught me to respect women.”

“No, no, no,” I said. “You tell her you’re going to do it.”

“Huh?”

“The captain doesn’t give you guys alcohol, right? So take a bottle or two of liquor from one of these crates, tell her you snuck it on board, offer to pour a little in her drink in the mess hall, but only if she agrees not to tell anybody. That way you two have a little secret.”

“And then?”

“Then you give her a compliment. But, like, a low key one. Like you don’t want to come off desperate, you feel me?”

“Tell her she has nice eyes?”

“No, man, that’s so cliché. Tell her she has really good teeth.”

“I think some of them are fake.”

“Perfect then. Give her the booze, tell her that, and she’ll be like putty in your palm.”

“It sounds skeevy, man. My momma always said alcohol is the sweat of the devil’s back, and that ain’t no good ever came of it. My pop died of it, you know, drank up all his money and then finally kicked the bucket, and my momma always told me I should never drink on any account or the same thing would happen to me, no doubt about it. But I get so sad and lonely when I’m out here on this ocean. Damn stupid boat. The only reasons I became a sailor is because my momma said it would toughen me up.”

“You really like to whine, Francis.”

“Oh, that’s what old ma always says.”

“Well, why don’t you try my plan and see what happens? You don’t have much to lose.”

“Screw it,” he said, sitting up a little straighter. “I guess it’s worth a shot. Mamma always said you couldn’t get nowhere in life without a little risk.”

“And listen, Francis, when you talk to Leslie, try not to mention your mom.”

We went on drinking for a while after that, but I don’t really remember too well what we talked about. Anyways, tonight at dinner he’s supposed to try out my plan. I guess we’ll see what happens.  

 

August 7

As I predicted, the plan went off a hitch. Not many people can resist the combination of free alcohol and smooth compliments. That Leslie woman couldn’t, at least. I watched Francis at work from across the room. Bigote and I have our own table in the mess hall, on the other side of the room from the sailors. But yesterday Bigote didn’t come to dinner for some reason, so it was just me, eating like some sad pathetic loser, all alone on my side. Well, at least I had some liquor that I took from one of the containers—so I felt pretty cozy pretty fast.

Francis is not a handsome sight in any lighting or at any hour of the day—and neither his his lady for that matter—and the way he acts is dopier than a suicidally depressed poodle. Trying to watch him sweet-talk this woman, as he stuttered and mumbled and shifted uncomfortably, was sometimes too much to take. But it was also kind of morbidly fascinating, like watching those nature documentaries about snakes and eels mating. Also, I have to admit that it’s nice to see my pickup tricks even work in this challenging situation.

I finished eating and left, since I didn’t wait to see any more beastiality. I figured I better check on Bigote before bed. But when I went down to his cabin and knocked on the door, there wasn’t any answer. Finally I just opened the door; but the room was empty, except for the usual books and papers and crap all over the place. I checked the bathroom to see if he got food poisoning or something, but no Bigote there either. I considered just going to sleep. But that guy really can’t be trusted on his own. So I decided to walk around a bit to see if I could find him.

Five minutes later I ran into Bigote standing on deck, leaning on the railing, looking out at the ocean. Strange thing, even for him. It was already dark so there was basically nothing to see, not that there was much during the day. Plus, it was cold and sort of rainy.

“Yo,” I said.

“Is that you, Chopin?”

“Yeah. Watcha doing?”

“I am contemplating the infinite expanse of the sea.”

“But you can’t see it.”

“The pressure of the wind and waves conveys to me a sense of endlessness that I find quite soothing. It is one of man’s most ancient sensations. Inklings of divinity came to us from the deep waters.”

“Seems like it’d still be better during the day.”

“Imagine what it would be like, Chopin, to be an explorer on this ocean. Night and day would come and go, the wind and the rain and the sun would alternate in the heavens above, and the vast blue would reveal no clue of what lay beyond. It is one of the Western mind’s greatest attributes: that yearning towards infinity, the urge to go beyond the bounds of knowledge.”

“Seems kinda boring to me. You sit on a boat for a few months and finally you find land that isn’t any better than the one you left. Probably it’s worse since you don’t know anyone there.”

“Enough of this babbling, Chopin. I must confide something to you.”

“Uh, okay.”

“Is there anyone around?”

I looked left, right, behind.

“Nope.”

“Good. Well, Chopin, I am beginning to suspect that we are, even now, in the clutches of the conspiracy.”

“No way.”

“Yes, it is a grim possibility. But some actions of the captain have excited my suspicion, which has only grown upon subsequent observation.”

“Oh that captain guy? Yeah he’s sort of lame.”

“I did not notice any physical deformities, if that is what you are referring to, Chopin. But I am almost entirely convinced that our captain is, indeed, a Muslim.”

“What?”

“It is a frightening possibility. But I have reason to think it is true.”

“Because he has a beard?”

“No, Chopin, many good and honest men are bearded. But the fact that he refused my wine was my first clue. He does not partake of alcohol.”

“That’s why I don’t like him.”

“Not only that, Chopin, but we ate lamb in his cabin. And we have not once been served any pork aboard this ship.”

“There’s bacon in the morning,” I offered.

“A diversion,” Bigote said. “Most importantly, Chopin, when I tried to subtly follow the captain’s routine, tracing his daily movements, I lost track of him several times during the day as he retreated to his quarters. These times corresponded exactly to the customary times of prayer in Islam.”

“So what if he’s, like, a very busy former alcoholic who doesn’t like pork chops?”

“Just listen to yourself! What are the chances of that? No, no, by far the most obvious conclusion is that he is a member of that powerful sect. If so, this would mean that the global conspiracy might already be aware of our movements. Think about it, Chopin. We might be headed right into a trap!”

“Wow this is some heavy stuff, dude. But try to calm down a little. I mean, we don’t know anything for sure, right?”

“That is correct. We must, however, take action quickly if we are to head off this disaster. I will soon make a decisive test to see if he is or is not part of this nefarious conspiracy. And if he is, we must strike without mercy, or suffer disaster.”

“A test?”

“It’s something I found on the internet after years of research. A foolproof test to determine whether somebody is a Muslim-Mexican-feminist in disguise. You see, members of the conspiracy have microscopic magnets implanted into their bodies, which they use in their global tracking device to coordinate their actions. Now, this magnetic attraction is much too faint to be picked up by ordinary compases. But a specially prepared strip of aluminum foil, floating in a cup of water, will inevitably turn towards these dastardly conspirators.”

“Listen, Bigote, with all due respect, I think this is a big mistake.”

“A mistake?”

“I mean, how can this work? The little piece of metal might turn in any direction!”

“Skepticism is a healthy habit of mind, Chopin, and I commend you for it. Yet this technology is tested and true. There is no doubting the results.”

“But you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, man.”

“You are no doubt correct. But the principal involved in this device goes back all the way to Archimedes, who used a similar contraption to identify disguised Persians.”

I opened my mouth but thought better of it. There is simply no talking sense into a guy like this. The best I could hope for was to stall him until we got to Spain, which would be in just three days.

“Alright,” I said finally. “I trust you. Just make sure to let me know before you do anything. I want to be by your side in your fight against the, uh, conspiracy.”

“You have my word,” Bigote said. “And now it seems we should both retire to our rest.”

 

August 8

Later last night, after Bigote went to bed, I snuck off to the beer container again. Francis was there already.

“Dan!” he said, already feeling it a bit. “You’re a genius! I got Leslie’s number!”

“Dude, you guys work on the same ship.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s true. But also she said she wants to drink with me again tonight. Oh, my momma would be so proud! I can’t wait till I can see the look on her face when I tell her that her boy Francis finally found a woman!”

“I’m happy for you, bro. Let’s have a toast.”

We clinked our cans together, downed the contents, and crumpled the cans.

“I really owe you,” he said, his voice cracking a little. “This is the best thing that ever happened to me. Better even than when my mom hired a clown for my seventh birthday party. I can’t never repay you.”

“Actually,” I said, “I do have a little problem you can help me with.”

“Anything, Dan.”

“Well, you know that guy who I work for?”

“You mean the big old man with the big old mustache?

“Yeah, him. So he’s a little crazy.”

“What, like, he hears voices or something?”

“No, no, it’s not that. Much worse than that. He thinks the captain is a Muslim.”

“Captain Wellington? Why?”

“Because he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t let anyone else drink.”

“Well, the captain has the same affliction that took off my old man. He’s a drinker. Almost crashed a ship a few years ago, was so far gone. But your friend thinks he’s a Muslim? Does he have a problem with Muslims? I mean, my momma doesn’t like Muslims, neither, but she also says you gotta let other people live their own lives, since meddling never gets you nowhere.”

“Like I said, he’s crazy. Also a little racist. Also a little islamophobic. Point is we need to stop him from doing anything bad.”

“What’s he gonna do?”

“He has a gun.”

“Holy cow, man,” Francis said. “What can we do about that?”

“Here’s my idea. Tomorrow, after breakfast, I’m going to try to distract him. Keep him busy in the mess hall. Meanwhile, you sneak down to his room, look for his gun, and take it someplace safe.”

“Alright, sounds good to me. Do you know where he keeps it?”

“Just look everywhere.”

I drank a couple more beers and went to bed. Didn’t want to be too hungover in the morning.

§

I got up at the usual time, around eight, and made my way over to the mess hall. I already knew how I was going to keep Bigote distracted long enough for Francis to take the gun. Just take a map of Europe and ask him about his plans once we arrived. The only risk was that Bigote hadn’t left his gun in the room, but was carrying it with him. But I thought that was unlikely since we usually had breakfast in our pyjamas.

Normally the mess hall was already full when I arrived. But today it was completely empty. The lights were on and some of the chairs were pulled out, and there was food in the kitchen. But no cooks and no sailors. And no Bigote. Oh shit.

Suddenly one of the doors was pushed open.

“Dan!” It was Francis. “Jesus, man, you have to come with me!”

“What is it?”

He was already running down the hallway, and I followed. We climbed some stairs and then some more. Finally we reached the cockpit.

“Your boss,” he said. “He’s in there with the captain. He’s holding him hostage.”

“Oh shit, oh shit,” I said. “This can’t keep happening!”

I pushed the door open and went inside.

“Chopin!” Bigote said. “Thank heavens you’re here!”

Bigote was standing in the middle of the cockpit. He was clutching his revolver and pointing it at the captain, who was standing at the wheel. A group of sailors were crowded on the other side of the room, watching anxiously.

“I used the detecting device, Chopin. It pointed straight at him! My suspicions were correct!”

“Wow, that’s serious,” I said, playing along. “So what’s the plan?”

“I am afraid we are in somewhat dire straits, if you will pardon the nautical pun. As you can see I have this diabolical wretch here at my mercy, and I have instructed him to take us to Cádiz, an ancient Christian port. Doubtless it was his plan to deposit us in a Muslim country, Morocco probably.”

“This guy is crazy or something like that!” the poor captain yelped.

“Quiet, you!” Bigote barked.

“As usual, you’re acuteness astounds me,” I said. “But may I make one suggestion?”

“Of course, my faithful assistant.”

“Having all these sailors in the room is dangerous. I think we should get them out of here.”

“Capital idea, Chopin!”

“You heard the man!” I shouted. “Everyone out or he’s going to blow this infidel captain’s brains out!”

I walked towards the sailors, with my back turned to Bigote, and gave a conspicuous wink while waving them out of the room.

“Wait here, sir,” I said to Bigote. “I’m going to make sure they keep their distance.”

“I would truly be lost without you, Chopin!”

Out in the hallway I rushed them out of earshot of the cockpit.

“This guy is out of his mind!” one of them  said.

“What do we do?” another hissed.

“Uh, lemme think, lemme think… do you guys, like, a stun gun or any weapon?”

“This is a cargo ship, man.”

“Hmm. But aren’t there usually, like, flare guns on ships? I usually see them in movies.”

“In the lifeboats there are some flare guns.”

“And what would happen if you shot someone with one?”

“I mean, if you were close enough it could knock someone over. But what are we gonna do?—have a shootout? I mean, that guy has a real, actual gun.”

“But maybe if we caught him by surprise,” I said. “Could that work?”

“How would we do that?”

“I’m thinking, at night, when it’s dark and he’s tired.”

“There are lights, though.”

“Can you turn them off?”

“Yeah, we could!” one said. “With the main circuit board.”

“Then I think we have our plan.”

 

August 9

Here’s what happened.

After making the plan I went back to the cockpit with Bigote, who raved on and on about the evil conspiracy while the poor captain stood shaking at the wheel. The day seemed to drag on endlessly with Bigote waving his gun and his mustache around in all directions. Finally the sun began to sink. At around seven it was properly dark. At 7:30, as planned, the lights shut off.

“What, what’s this?” Bigote said in the darkness. and turned to the captain. “What’s going on?”

“I have no idea or anything like that.” the captain said. “Maybe a circuit broke or something.”

“You feminist scum!” Bigote screamed. “This is some kind of trick, isn’t it?”

“I swear I don’t know, in any case.” the captain said, shrinking as Bigote stuck the gun at his face. “Please, point that thing somewhere else or something.”

“I’ll point it where I damn where please, which is usually at global-warming hoaxers like you!”

“Hey, why don’t I go see what’s going on?” I said.

“I have grave misgivings about this,” Bigote said. “I fear the crew may be planning an attack.”

“Well, if they do anything funny, just shoot the captain,” I suggested.

“Of course, my dear Chopin.”

The captain gave an audible whimper.

“I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“May the spirits of our illustrious ancestors guide you.”

Out in the hall one of the sailors was there waiting, ready with the flare gun. He was chosen because he said he took shooting lessons as a kid. A couple other guys were there, too, ready to rush Bigote.

“He’s standing in the same spot,” I told him. “Next to the wheel, to the left.”

“Alright.”

After waiting some time I went back to the door and opened it.

“I’m back, sir. They said it was a circuit and they’re working on it.”

“Ah, what a relief to hear your voice,” Bigote said.

Standing right behind me, invisible in the darkness, was the armed sailor. I felt him aim the gun towards Bigote’s voice, and quickly got out of his way.

“So tell me again about the plan?” I said.

“Well first, my dear Chopin—”

Suddenly the cabin erupted in a bright red light. The flare fizzed across the room towards Bigote. But—it missed!—just grazing his right shoulder.

“What the devil!” he said, jumping away. But the flare had ignited the shoulder pad of his smoking jacket, which was now aflame.

“Help! help!” he yelped, running around the cockpit. “Chopin, get this jacket off of me!”

“Yes, sir!” I said, running up to him. The orange flames of his jacket were the only light in the cabin. I ripped off the sleeve that was not on fire but I couldn’t get the jacket off his right side, since he was firmly holding onto his gun.

“Drop the pistol, man!”

“I can’t, Chopin!”

The flames were quickly spreading down his arm towards his hand.

“Drop the damn gun, you fool!”

“This is my eternal right and duty!”

Finally I pulled on his jacket so hard that I jerked the gun onto the floor. As soon as the captain saw he started shouting.

“The gun, the gun, he dropped the gun! Get him or something!”

With this the sailors rushed into the room. Bigoted dashed for the pistol but, thank god, the sailors got to him first and pinned him to the ground.

“No, no, no! We’re doomed! I’m so sorry!”

As instructed, Francis came in too and pretended to tackle me, so Bigote wouldn’t know I was in on it (I gotta cover both sides of my ass).

“They got us, sir! They got us!” I yelled.

“Throw him in the brig or something!” the captain barked. “Throw that madman in the brig, in any case!”

 

April 10

“What a day, eh?” I said to Francis that night. We were back in the container, drinking beer.

“Yeah, man. How did you meet that guy?”

“He was my neighbor.”

“Go figures.”

“Say, what’s gonna happen to him?”

“Oh, you know, same thing that happened to my Uncle Bob. They’ll throw him in jail for attempted murder. He tried to kill his ex-wife, you know, but he botched it up by forgetting to load the gun.”

“Ah,” I said. “About that. I kinda need my boss to, like, not be in prison.”

“Well it ain’t gonna happen now,” Francis said. “That man is jailbound. I think the Spanish coast guard will come and pick him up.”

“I mean, he totally deserves that, but… he’s my boss and there is no way he’s going to pay me from prison.”

“What do you expect, Dan? My momma always says that not enough people are put in jail, and half the world would be in there if they got what was coming to them.”

“Oh, of course this is what I expect. But that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out another option.”

“What does that mean?”

“I mean we need to break him out, man.”

“Are you out of your mind?!” he said, spitting out his beer melodramatically.

“You owe me.”

“But why on earth would you want to set a man like that free? He could have killed all of us.”

“Listen, I got him under control. Don’t I?”

“I can’t do this, man, it’s just not right. If I got put in jail my mom would die right to death, that’s what she tells me.”

“Oh, is this it?” I said, acting hurt. “Is this how you’re gonna treat your friend, the one who helped you get your dream girl?”

“Don’t do that, man, don’t say that.”

“Is this the repayment I get for my kindness?”

“But we’re on a boat, man, where are you gonna go?”

“Put me on one of those lifeboats.”

“It’s just not right, man.”

“Look. When are we arriving in Spain?”

“I think the captain said tomorrow morning.”

“And I guess the cops are coming as soon as you guys get there?”

“I guess so.”

“So that means we’ve got to go tonight.”

“If they catch me helping you they’ll throw me in jail! And my momma told me never, ever, ever to break no law, since I’m not bright enough to get away with it.”

“Well, didn’t she tell you to stand by your friends?”

“Yeah.”

“So let’s go.”

“Okay, wait, just hold on and let me think.”

“Well?”

“It’s, what, around two now?”

“Yeah.”

“At four is when hardly anyone will be awake. That’s when you should go, if you want the best chance of getting away. Here are my keys. If anyone ever catches you, say you found them on the ground. I would go with you but… Oh, Dan I have a bad, bad feeling about doing this.”

“Don’t worry, man, I’m no snitch. How will we get to land?”

“All the lifeboats have a compass, maps, and some food—you know, survival stuff. There’s a switch thingy that lets you lower it into the water from inside the boat. You should be all set.”

“Thanks, Francis. Now I owe you one.”

“Just don’t get me in trouble, and we’re even.”

It is now three in the morning and I’m sitting in my room—waiting. I’ve already packed my and Bigote’s things into one of the boats. The weather is not too bad. According to Francis we should get to the shore by around noon tomorrow, if we go the right way and don’t capsize. To be honest I’m not very excited about this plan. The only time I rowed a boat was in summer camp in the eighth grade. But there is one good thing about this plan: At least we’ll leave behind that damn pickup truck. So much for this ship’s diary thing. Wish us luck.