To Be in Bavaria: Munich

To Be in Bavaria: Munich

Bavaria is a special place. Though this southern German state is full of traditions that are not shared with the rest of Germany, the image of Bavaria has, ironically enough, come to symbolize all of German culture. Giant goblets of beer, yodelling and schuhplattler dancing, jaunty brass bands and lederhosen—all this is mainly found in Bavaria. This phenomenon mirrors the situation in Spain, which is known for flamenco and bullfighting, two traditions mainly found within its distinctive southern province, Andalusia, and largely absent from its north. Many of America’s stereotypes come from the south, too, such as our fried food and cowboy culture. I suppose a country is doomed to be identified by its most outlandish customs.

Though the image of Bavaria is often ridiculed—somewhat unfairly, since its silliest aspects are now mainly for the tourists—it has proven very seductive. Millions flock to Munich ever year for its annual Oktoberfest, to be served liters of beer by blonde waitresses in tight-fitting Dirndl dresses. And many millions more celebrate this extravaganza of beer and sausage in replicated festivals all across the world. Beer culture more generally owes much to Bavaria, as microbrewers set up Biergarten style establishments and serve artisanal baked potatoes. So the Bavarians have at least done some things right.

I myself am drawn to this idyllic image of jolly inebriation, which has led me to visit the region twice: First to Munich, and then to Nuremberg and Bamberg.


Munich

I was here, finally here, in the Englischer Garten of Munich.

One of my favorite stories is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which opens with the novelist Gustave von Aschenbach, strained and fatigued from his writing, taking a stroll in the English Gardens to revive his spirits. And here I was, standing in the same place where that imaginary man strode, melancholy and weary from his struggle to create beauty. More than likely, Thomas Mann himself stood here, too, as he lived in Munich for forty years.

Yet I was as far as it was possible to be from those literary heroes, imaginary or real. I was carrying a bright orange backpack, dressed in a grey hoodie, feeling sleep-deprived, achy, and lightheaded from hunger. Reality often falls short of fiction—and even fact. I had some time to kill before I could check into my Airbnb, and so decided to walk here, in the gardens of my fantasy.

Munich_Englishgarden

The English Gardens take their name from the style of landscape architecture common in eighteenth-century England, wherein whole landscapes were reshaped to create pleasing compositions. The Munich park was designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson, one of those remarkable Eighteenth century Renaissance men; he was a physicist, inventor, and an official in the Bavarian military, in addition to a prolific designer of everything from parks to battleships. You know you have led an eventful life when designing a world-famous park is only a minor episode.

As I walked through the park, feeling heavy and sweaty, I passed by a man in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, who obviously stuck out among the tourists clad in shorts, sandals, and sunglasses. I did not know what to make of this. Then, five minutes later, an American asked me if I knew where the surfers are. Surfers in a park? It turns out that, yes, there is surfing in the Englischer Garten, at a point in the artificial river where it narrows, creating a perpetual wave, known as the Eisbach Wave.

Extreme sport aside, the most popular activities in the English Gardens are strolling and sunbathing. To my surprise, it is even legal to sunbathe nude in the Englischer Garten, specifically in the Schönfeldwiese (lit. “beautiful field meadow”), as I saw for myself while walking past. This was the second time in my life that I had come upon naked sunbathers, the first being in the Tiergarten in Berlin; and both times I was equally shocked. Public nudity in the center of a municipal park is something unheard of in the United States and in Spain. The Germans seem far more accepting of the human body—in all its hairy, flabby, and sunburned varieties—which I suppose is a good thing, though it does spoil the view a little.

Munich_englishgarden2

Unsolicited flesh notwithstanding, the English Gardens are a delightful place to walk around. As much as I love Madrid, its dry climate makes even its parks seem sandy and bare. A boy from New York cannot help missing dark loamy soil, lush verdure, deep greens, and thick foliage, which Munich has in abundance—at least in summer. Walking paths wind under towering linden trees, which open up to reveal beautiful views, such as the distant Munich skyline or the glasslike surface of the Kleinhesseloher Lake. A massive Biergarten, the second-largest in the city, sits at the center of the park; and as I walked by I admired the giant pieces of roast pork being greedily devoured by the clients. Now here is some flesh I can appreciate.

Feeling hungry myself, I saw down to eat the lunch I had brought with me from Madrid: a salami sandwich. Life is less romantic when you’re on a budget.

§

Munich is both the capital and the largest city of Bavaria. And with a population of about 1.5 million, it is only behind Berlin and Hamburg within Germany for size. Though now one of the quintessentially Germany cities, many of Munich’s most prosperous years occured when the city was not a part of Germany. The region’s Catholic majority has always put it somewhat at odds with the Protestant north of Germany, making it a stronghold for the Counter-Reformation rather than Luther’s Reformation. After suffering Swedish and Habsburg domination, Bavaria emerged once again as an independent kingdom in 1805, with Munich as its capital. And even after Bismark unified the German states, in 1871, Bavaria retained its kingdom and special privileges. It was only the defeat of Germany in World War I that put an end to the rule of the Wittelsbach dynasty.

In the aftermath of the Great War, during the unstable Weimar Republic, Munich became the base of the rising Nazi movement. It was in this city where Hitler attempted his infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—so-called because it began with the storming the Bürgerbräukeller, a beer cellar—in which the Nazis attempted to take control of Bavaria by force. The putsch was a fiasco, poorly planned and quickly put down, and it resulted in Hitler being sent to jail—though he was given an extremely light sentence by sympathetic judges. The experience taught Hitler to seek power through official channels rather than by a coup, which he did successfully ten years later. Once in power, Hitler turned the ridiculous putsch into a national myth, treating the fallen Nazi roughnecks as martyrs. History is invented by the victors. Munich played another infamous role during the leadup to World War II, being the place where Neville Chamberlain, in 1938, officially agreed to cede parts of Czechoslovakia (without consulting the Czechoslovaks) to Nazi Germany, in an attempt to appease Germany.

One of my regrets from my Munich visit was not visiting the Documentation Center, which presents this ugly history to the public. The center opened quite recently, on April 30th of 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the city’s capture by the Allies; and it looks excellent.

§

After wandering around the English Gardens for a few hours, it was time to check into my Airbnb. I was staying with a German family in the suburbs of the city. They were nothing but kind and helpful, and I had an excellent stay. But I was amused at how many rules there were in the house—when to take a shower, where to leave your shoes, what do you can on the Wifi (I had to sign a contract for the internet). The bathroom was like a museum, covered in little laminated signs that gave directions from everything from the shower to the toilet. It all struck me as very “German.” But I did not have time to be indulging in stereotypes. I had a city to explore.

Perhaps the most iconic spot in Munich is neither a palace nor a church, neither a museum nor a monument, but a brewery and beer hall: the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus. This was my first stop. As its name indicates (“Public Court Brewery”), the beer hall is state-owned and traces its origin to Bavarian nobility—specifically, to Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, all the way back in 1589. Owning your own brewery is convenient, since you can brew to your taste and use legislation to create a profitable monopoly, which is exactly what the Dukes of Bavaria did. Even before the Hofbräuhaus was opened the Bavarians instituted their famous purity laws, restricting the ingredients that could be used in beer to three: water, barley, and hops. They did not know about yeast back then, so they didn’t include it; but obviously without yeast beer wouldn’t have any alcohol.

Munich_Hofbrauhaus

The brewery is enormous and still very successful, despite losing its lordly masters. From the outside it doesn’t look like much; but walking through the door, one finds an enormous series of rooms, filled with wooden benches and tables, with waiters running right and left and families and friends lifting enormous mugs to their mouths. In English these are mistakenly called “steins,” which properly only refers to stone mugs, and that only in English. (“Stein” means “stone” in German and doesn’t refer to mugs.) In German it is called a Maßkrug, or simply a Maß. It contains a full liter of beer, as your wrist and then stomach and then bladder will testify to.

Although I felt uncomfortable since I was traveling alone, I decided to walk in and try the famous Germanic liquid. As I made my way to the back room to find a seat, I passed the house band, an ensemble of brass instruments playing jaunty Bavarian music with polka rhythms. It suites the atmosphere. I found a seat at a bench with an older couple—it’s common to share tables. Service was surprisingly prompt, and soon I was faced with my own liter of beer. Gingerly, I sipped it, and then had a gulp: it was good but not exceptional. Feeling somewhat awkward and out of place, I did the responsible thing and downed the beer as quickly as possible in order to leave. Fortified and dizzy, I was ready to explore Munich.

The city center of Munich, like nearly all major German cities, was largely blown to smithereens during the Second World War by British and American bombs. Its reconstruction, however, was both carefully complete and faithful to the destroyed city, following the old medieval city streets. As a result Munich maintains the look and feel of a pristinely historic city. This is especially true of the Marienplatz, Munich’s central square, which is easily one of the most attractive plazas I have seen in Europe. It takes its name from the Virgin Mary, who stands on a column in the center of the square, as a shimmering golden statue. Presiding over this square is the Neues Rathaus, or New Town Hall, built in the 1870s because the old one was too small. Constructed in a glorious neo-gothic style, it is easily among the finest town-halls I have seen in Europe, only rivalled by the ones in Brussels and Vienna—which, not coincidentally, served as its inspiration.

Munich_townhall

It is a short walk from this square to the Asamkirche, the most beautiful church in the city. It takes its name from the brothers who built it as their private chapel: Egid Quirin Asam, a sculptor, and Cosmas Damian Asam, a painter. The church is wedged between their apartments; indeed Egid could look through his window at the altar. Built by themselves for their own pleasure and salvation, and with their own resources, the two brother artists had considerable creative freedom. The result was a masterpiece of design. The church is gorgeous—sumptuously decorated, harmoniously composed. Pictures do not do justice to the feeling of sitting inside the church, getting deeply absorbed in the Baroque decoration, enjoying the play of color and form that covers every surface.

Munich_asamkirche

The oldest church in the city is the Peterskirche, or St. Peter’s Church. Its fairly unassuming exterior gives way to a harmonious interior, with whitewashed walls and gilded statues, pleasingly pure and sweet. After being rebuffed from the church once—they were having mass—I returned to find that there was a free organ concert going on. This was the first trip in which I kept a diary, so I will include an excerpt of what I wrote as I sat there and listened to the performance:

The organ is overpowering when at full blast. Is this what it would have been like to listen to Bach? … I think I heard a tritone. Blasphemy! The organ has such a wide variety of timbres. Subdued, muted, to ringing, reedy, piercing, to clear, flutelike, to rumbling, to screeching.

The piece was the “Salve Regina” by Olivier Latry, a fairly unknown work that, nevertheless, I found to be powerfully enchanting and even otherworldly.

Munich_peterskirche

Munich’s Catholic cathedral is the Frauenkirche, and its two towers, topped with distinctive domes, are visible from far and wide because of the city’s regulation restricting height limits. Like the Peterskirche, the cathedral has whitewashed walls and is even more plainly decorated. The most striking object on display is the marvelous cenotaph of Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor from 1328 to 1347, which is defended by statues of soldiers and knights. Many other members of the Wittelsbach dynasty are buried here, too—including Ludwig III, the last king of Bavaria—though their graves are not as eye-catching.

Munich_tombemperor

Germany, in general, is not terribly expensive. Indeed it is only slightly pricier, on average, than easygoing Spain. But Munich is an exception to this; it is a wealthy city, with a high standard of life, and so visitors must pay their tribute to the Bavarian gods. One testament to the city’s affluence are the cars on the street. Now, I am not particularly fond of cars; I don’t even like driving; so you know that the roads must have been striking for me to take notice. There were high-quality cars—mostly of German make, though not exclusively—everywhere I turned. Stranger still, 90% of these cars were either white, grey, or black—very few were an actual color. When I first noticed this, I waved it away as mere coincidence; but the more I looked, the more I became convinced that Münchners have a marked preference for grayscale locomotion.

It does make sense that Munich would have an eye-catching automobile population, considering that it is the home of one of Germany’s iconic car brands, BMW. There is even a BMW museum in Munich, near the glass tower that houses the company’s headquarters. Again, not being particularly interested in cars, I didn’t go. But you are welcome to.

Munich in general struck me—according to my diary—as a very “European city,” at times reminding me of Pisa, at times of Toulouse, at times of Avila. Old city centers all come to resemble one another after a while. But that does not mean they become any less attractive; and Munich is quite lovely to stroll around, with its medieval layout providing enough variation, and its rows of buildings tall and tasteful, with old and new styles coexisting peacefully. I saw quite a few bachelor and bachelorette parties on the streets—wearing matching hats and shirts, with the bride- or groom-to-be in a silly costume—whose presence inevitably means that you are in a major tourist center. Yet the city has a life of its own, not succumbing completely to tourist bric a brac, but maintaining a strong identity in spite of its cosmopolitan orientation.

Munich_fountain1

One spot stands out for special mention as a walking area, and that is the Königplatz. It is an open green space surrounded by fine neoclassical buildings, very convincing imitations of Greco-Roman structures. Originally built by Ludwig I to house his Greco-Roman statues, this attractive group of classical structures in a big open space proved ideally suited to Hitler’s purposes, which is why he used the Königplatz to hold mass rallies, and even added two more neoclassical buildings to house the remains of the Beer Hall Putsch “martyrs.” The American army tastefully blew these up in 1947. Nearby is the Lenbachhaus, Munich’s most famous art gallery, which has an excellent collection of Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), Munich’s influential expressionist group of artists formed in 1911.

Munich’s role as the capital of the kingdom of Bavaria explains why the city has three palaces (of which I visited two, missing the Schleissheim). The Schloss Nymphenburg is situated somewhat outside the city, but can be gotten to easily with the tram. It was used as a summer residence by the Bavarian royals; and, indeed, the current head of House Wittelsbach, Franz, sometimes lives in this castle—though nowadays he has no power, ceremonial or otherwise. Currently 84 years old, he survived imprisonment in two Nazi concentration camps (the Wittelsbachs were anti-Nazi), and is technically a claimant to the throne of the United Kingdom, though he prefers not to talk about that.

From the outside the palace is ample though not imposing, sweeping across a wide area though not rising to any considerable height. Since I am normally not fond of palaces—all showiness and no substance—I skipped the interior and went straight to the gardens, which are vast and charming. The garden was first of Italian design, then French, and finally English. The Italian style emphasizes symmetry and order; the French style is similarly orderly, but expanded to a monumental scale and filled with ornate fountains. The English style, by contrast, is Romantic: striving to keep some of the ruggedness of nature. This last modification was planned by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell, who also did much of the work on Munich’s English Gardens. The man was clearly brilliant, since the Nymphenburg gardens are just as enjoyable to walk around, with its long central canal flanked by forest, through which paths wend their way. It is a successful combination of planned and spontaneous design.

Munich_Nymphenburg

A significantly larger palace can be found right in the center of Munich itself: the Munich Residence. Like nearly everything in this city, the palace was badly damaged during World War II, but has been reconstructed—for the most part faithfully, though at times in simplified form. This might account for the strange sterility I sensed when I visited, feeling that the place seemed unused. Added to this, the audioguide was mainly descriptive—explaining a room’s form and function—without providing any historical context. So I toured the palace without knowing who used it, or when. But in its heyday, under the Wittelsbachs, the palace certainly was used, as even the reconstructed version proves.

Munich_residencefountain

Right upon entry I came upon a marvelous fountain made of shells, wonderfully bizarre and ornate. Also memorable was the hall of ancestors, with rococo decorations surroundings portraits of all the Wittelsbach heads, tracing the family back all the way back to Charlemagne himself. (Claiming to be descended from important people is an easy way to seem special.) Even grander is the Renaissance Antiquarium, whose ceiling is decorated with allegories of the seven virtues, surrounded by grotesque decorations inspired by the discoveries at Pompeii. This room was created for the very important purpose of storing and displaying classical busts, and it performs that function marvelously. I also remember a beautiful little chapel, with a blue gilded roof, and a floor and walls of the finest marble. There is also a famous theater, apparently, which I somehow missed. As for the rest, I will let my diary speak:

The royal apartments themselves, with the antechambers, dressing rooms, throne room, bed room, and so on, were exquisite, and yet produced the now-familiar feeling of disgust with so much wealth.

This is not to say that the palace is not worth visiting. To the contrary, I enjoyed the visit far more than I expected. You even get to see some of the royal jewels and treasury, and some of the ceramics produced for the royal family. The seashell fountain alone is worth the price of admission.

Munich_residencecollage

Although I didn’t visit it, I would be negligent if I did not mention the Neuschwanstein Castle. An almost painfully picturesque palace, sitting atop a hill and looking straight out of a children’s book, the Neuschwanstein Castle is about two hours by car from Munich and a very popular day trip.

The story of the castle’s creation is wonderful. Rather than serving any military or governmental function, the castle was the pet project of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who was overly fond of Wagner’s operas, and so sought to create a building that embodied the mythical world of Wagner’s heroes and vikings. Unfortunately for him, he did not have the money to see his project to completion, and so used the very convenient recourse of getting heavily into debt. This naturally upset his ministers—who also would have preferred to see him govern rather than indulge in architectural fantasies—who ultimately had the king declared insane and unfit to govern, and then arrested. Shortly after being apprehended, the deposed king took a walk with his psychologist; minutes later the two of them were found dead, floating in shallow water. It is still unclear what happened. He is buried in Munich, in St. Michael’s Church. When it is not horrifying, German history can be quite whimsical.

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

The auxiliares de conversaciones program is a massive initiative by the Spanish state to get native English speakers into the classroom. In Madrid alone there are well over one thousand of us—seven alone in my high school.

Becca is one of these seven. She was the first coworker I met in my current high school. We came in on the first day, disoriented and a little overwhelmed, to explore the plain yellow building that was to become the center of our working lives. This was last year, when we were both simple language assistants. But this year Becca took on the additional responsibility of Global Classrooms (see below), which switched her from an assisting to a leading role. She rose to the challenge—becoming notably less diffident, more assertive, both in and out of the classroom—and meanwhile became the unofficial leader of our group of friends, organizing and planning all our outings. She recently sat down to talk with me about her experience in Spain:


ROY: Is this your first interview?

BECCA: I guess it’s my first, other than a job interview…

R: Hopefully not your last interview, then.

B: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll see how this first one goes.

Becca2

R: Tell me about your background—your family, your hometown, what you studied in university.

B: I’m one of four siblings, I have three older brothers. My dad was born in Germany but raised in Arizona, my mom is from El Salvador, they met in Mexico but that’s a different story. We moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Connecticut, but I lived near Boston, then two hours from Chicago, and ended up in Plano, Texas, and we’ve lived there ever since. So it’s easier to say I’m from Plano, even though I don’t really feel like I’m from a place. I went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I majored in Creative Writing and I double minored in psychology and film (they have a famous film school, so I figured I should).

R: Why did you decide to come to Spain?

B: After graduation I had moved back with my parents, and had gotten a part-time job as a tutor, at a company that specializes mostly in SAT tutoring, but they also do school tutoring. And I worked there for about two and a half years. I loved working with the kids, but after so long I felt like I didn’t want to move up in the company.

So I decided to apply for a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing. I applied to five schools, but I’m the kind of person who always needs to have a backup plan. I had come to Spain about seven months before, and I really loved Spain, and I felt like I could live here. So when I saw the language assistant program, I decided to apply for that, since it was teaching English to high school kids, and I knew I liked kids and I knew I liked Spain. This was just a backup plan. Then I heard back from the grad schools, and I had gotten into one, Indiana University. It’s a great school, but I did not want to live in Indiana, just too much corn for me. So I guess the dreamer in me said, “Wow, I can live in Europe.” It made the choice easier for me.

R: What were some of the biggest challenges of moving here?

B: The language is definitely the hardest one. I had some experience of Spanish, and I had known since April that I was going to come, so I was on the app Duolingo and speaking Spanish with my mom. But when you get here it’s a whole different game. Being away from my family was also a challenge because we’re a very close family, and to suddenly be an ocean away is difficult. Thankfully, there’s technology, and also my brother was already living in Germany. And finding an apartment, that was tough. It’s crazy in August, since everybody is trying to find an apartment, and you’re also trying to figure out your Spanish.

Becca1

And it was incredible to realize how language made simple acts so much more difficult. My first few months in Madrid, I remember I would go grocery shopping and it would take me so long to shop for food. The supermarkets here were organized a bit differently than in the United States, so I didn’t know where to find all the food on my list. Asking for help from one of the workers at the supermarket would have made everything easy, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t know how to ask my question in Spanish, or, worse, I wouldn’t understand the worker’s response. So instead of asking for help, I would just wander around the supermarket, hoping to eventually find the food that I needed. I felt like such a lost child.

R: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways from living abroad?

B: The first thing I thought of when you showed me this question is that you really come to appreciate people who are patient with you when you’re trying to speak another language. Because some people are annoyed that you’re not particularly fluent, and some people laugh at your accent, and even if they aren’t being mean it’s discouraging. So I came to appreciate the people, whose job it wasn’t to deal with my Spanish, to take the time to listen to me, even if it takes me 10 minutes to say something.

R: What did you do doing your first year here as an language assistant?

B: My first year I worked here at Antares. As a language assistant, our job is exactly that. We are there to assist. A lot of people think we’re teachers but we’re teacher assistants. We work four days a week, sixteen hours a week, and typically you have different classes you work with. So I was assigned to 1st of ESO (American 7th grade), and 2nd of ESO (American 8th grade), and I taught English, Geography & History, Biology, Art, and Music.

Each teacher was different. Some would give me something to do in the book, and I would lead the class the day that I was in there. Sometimes I would take groups of kids outside the class and play games, in groups of four, to give the students more practice speaking. In history I would give presentations about whatever we were learning or do games for review. More or less the same for Art and Biology, and Music…

R: What are some of the challenges of being a language assistant?

B: The biggest challenge is discipline. We’re in this weird limbo where we’re the teacher, but we’re also not the teacher. The kids are really fascinated when an assistant comes in. We tend to be younger, too, so that makes the students like us really quickly. They like us because we’re different. And I’m the kind of person who really likes to relate to my kids one-on-one. Like I’ll talk about Marvel Movies or Star Wars with them, because I’m a little bit of a kid myself, I like the same things that they like.

But then it would create this problem where they felt like I was their friend, but I was also trying to be their teacher. Also, it’s not clearly defined if we can discipline the kids, or how we can. Can we give them negative marks? Can we write up a parte (incident report)? And sometimes, even though I don’t like yelling, I did have to raise my voice. Thankfully, we’re not allowed to be alone with the kids, the teacher has to be there. But sometimes I don’t like that I have to rely on the teacher so much for discipline. I want to figure it out on my own. So I don’t know how to relate to them and to maintain discipline, a weird limbo.

R: Can you explain what the Global Classrooms (GC) program is and what was your role in the program?

B: The Global Classrooms program has been going on for about ten years, and it’s a program that the Comunidad de Madrid does with Fulbright and also the British Council. It’s basically Model United Nations. Only bilingual schools get to participate. Typically, a Fulbright assistant (language assistants who won a Fulbright award) will work with third year (American ninth grade) at a bilingual school. And they teach GC to the entire third year. For some people, that’s 40 kids. For me, this year, it was 145 kids.

For the first part of the year, from October to December, I was teaching them skills they need for Model UN: how to debate, how to write a research paper—and a lot of these kids have never done that in Spanish, much less English—how to find sources, cite sources, how to build an argument, how to write a speech and deliver it, and really, more importantly, just how to engage with the world and think critically.

In GC you get a specific topic for the year, and this year ours was income inequality. So I was trying to teach these kids about this problem in Spain, but also in a lot of different countries around the world. Again, typically this is what the Fulbright assistants do, but now GC has grown so much that they don’t get enough Fulbrights for it. I’m not Fulbright, but I volunteered for it, because I wanted the challenge. So that was October to December.

After that, there are two conferences, a preliminary conference and a final conference. Every school that participates in GC goes to the preliminary conference. Obviously, we can’t send 145 students, unfortunately, so the teachers and I picked a group of 10, which was really difficult. These formed five teams of two. Each of these teams was assigned a country for the preliminary conference. Of all the bilingual schools at the preliminary conference, 28 are chosen to participate in the final conference. After this conference there are interviews.

Of the students who participate in this final conference, each school is allowed to send a single student to be interviewed. That means 28 kids are interviewed in all, and of those, 10 are chosen to participate in a final, final conference that happens in New York, along with teams from all over the world—Mexico, Germany, the United States.

Becca3

R: And this year one of your students won, right?

B: Yes, this year it was great. The past two years we had always made it to the final conference but our students weren’t picked at the interviews. But this year, our student María Romero was picked to go to New York, which was really exciting. I had her last year and she really deserves it, she’s brilliant, confident, and works hard. She’s right now in the process of working with her partner, who goes to a different school, and she’s writing her research paper. And in three weeks, she’s going to New York City for the first time.

R: What are your plans when you finish your school year?

B: Again, last fall, I applied for grad schools, MFA programs. And I got into Vanderbilt University. So when I finish this school year I’ll be moving back to the United States, to Nashville Tennessee, to complete a two-year Masters of Fine Arts in the Creative Writing program. Which I’m really, really stoked for.

R: What originally drew you to writing?

B: That’s a good question, but I’ve always loved writing, so it’s hard to know what drew me to it. I think it was just reading. My mom really instilled in me this love of reading. I remember when I was learning how to read I was so scared that I’d have problems. Do you remember Hooked on Phonics?

R: Yeah!

B: So I remember watching those commercials, and I remember they were for the kids who were struggling with reading. And I had so much anxiety as a five-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to learn to read. I thought I would need Hooked on Phonics and would tell my mom, you need to call that number in the commercial and order it. But I didn’t end up needing it. From the minute I started learning how to read, I loved it. And I think what originally drew me to writing was reading stories—I would read these stories and put the book down, and the stories would live on in my mind, and I would wonder what I would do in this situation, or come up with my own characters in my mind and play them out in my head. So it was like an extension of make-believe, which I always loved doing with my friends.

I remember one time I put on a show for my family, God bless them, with my Beanie Babies. I think it was like a Zorro story, because I really liked Zorro at the time, I was in love with Antonio Banderas. And they watched, and told me “That was really good, Becca,” even though it was probably terrible.

R: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?

B: Well, I hope that in ten years I’ve published something. A novel, a short story collection, or even just a short story. It would be nice to have published something, to still be finding the time to write the stories I want to write. But I also hope I’ll be teaching, because the two years in Spain have really taught me that I love teaching. I knew I liked kids from my tutoring job, but I wasn’t sure I would like teaching in a classroom, but the Auxiliar program taught me that I really love that.

I hope I’ll find myself back in Europe, maybe not forever, but to live again. Hopefully in Spain, since it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to Spain. Hopefully, I guess, married, with kids, we’ll see… Have a dog, a German shepherd.

Becca4

R: And how you think you will look back on this experience?

B: I think I will look back on this experience as extremely formative, not just career-wise, but just as a person. I’ve made friendships here that I hope will be long-term. It’s always a little scary when you move to another country, and think “I don’t know how I’m gonna cope,” but I learned that, yeah, I can be independent. If I can take care of myself in another country, where I struggle with the language, it gives me confidence to do other things. I think living here has taught me to be more empathetic, to other cultures, to other people. It’s certainly helped my writing, just with all the new experiences.

When I approached it, I thought “Oh, this will be a fun year or two in Spain.” But looking back I realize that it wasn’t just a break from life, it was actually a really big stepping stone. It was necessary to get me to where I needed to go. It wasn’t a pause, it wasn’t a breather, it was an important part of my life.

Review: Emile

Review: Emile

EmileEmile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If all the philosophers in the world should prove that I am wrong, and you feel that I am right, that is all I ask.

My reaction to Rousseau is very similar to my reaction to Thoreau, whose back-to-nature ethic owed much to Rousseau’s philosophy. Though constantly impressed with the breadth of their vision and the force of their rhetoric, I find the personalities of these two men—at least as manifested in their books—to be grating and unpleasant. When I am not underlining brilliant passages, I read Rousseau through gritted teeth and with frequent interruptions to roll my eyes.

I see much in common between these two Romantic devotees of nature. While Thoreau’s dour and stern demeanor is not comparable to Rousseau’s sentimental imagination, the two of them are self-involved, prickly, and vain. Both praise wild isolation at the expense of society because neither seemed to fit into the latter. Though the two of them were brilliant in the extreme, neither of them seemed to have reached the level of intellectual maturity that allows feelings to be submitted to reasons and other perspectives to be considered. Both of them fire off opinions with wild abandon, saying what feels good, without taking the trouble to thoroughly argue their points, to consider competing ideas, or even to make their own thoughts consistent.

To pick just one example of this last tendency in Rousseau, at one point he says: “Amid the uncertainty of human life, let us shun that false prudence which seeks to sacrifice the present to the future; what is, is too often sacrificed to what will never be. Let us make man happy at every age lest in spite of our care he should die without knowing the meaning of happiness.” And yet, almost immediately after this pronouncement, he insists that his titular pupil, after having fallen in love and proposed marriage, postpone the delight of union for two years—leaving his beloved to go travel—in order to learn to master his feelings. The book is rife with such inconsistency. And not only that but, as in Thoreau’s case, Rousseau’s manner of life was notoriously inconsistent with the principles he espoused, adding hypocrisy into the bargain. That a man who sent his own children to an orphanage should write a manifesto of education is rich indeed.

But Rousseau must be read and praised, this book above all, since he—as well as his American disciple—contributed a great deal to our common stock of ideas and the expansion of our cultural faculties. Under the guise of a treatise on education, Rousseau has written a universal reflection on human life, comparable to Plato’s Republic or The Brothers Karamazov for its omnidirectional scope. The novelistic device of describing himself as a tutor educating a child allows Rousseau to illustrate his philosophy of society, ethics, government, love, history, travel, religion, literature, and much else along the way, besides to his groundbreaking views on education.

Rousseau begins with his famous dictum that nature makes everything good, and it is human society corrupts our natural goodness into evil. His stated purpose is to illustrate how natural goodness can be preserved in a growing boy destined for life in society—that is, without Thoreau’s recourse of reverting to a state of nature. With this principle in mind, Rousseau blasts mothers for hiring wet nurses to breastfeed their children rather than doing it themselves. And though Rousseau’s reasons are fallacious, this advice probably did the world much good, since, in addition to the emotional bonding, breastfeeding allows important antibodies to be transferred from the mother to the infant.

After infancy gives way to childhood, Rousseau’s real educational work begins. Here he made another important contribution to child-rearing, by insisting that children’s minds are not suited to adult ideas and methods. A child is a different creature altogether and education must be suited to a child’s capacities and predilections. Lectures, sermons, and catechisms must be avoided; and using punishment and reward only corrupt the child. Instead the tutor must find ways to motivate the child to learn without ever seeming to do so. Rousseau the tutor is constantly devising tricks and schemes to get his imaginary pupil, Emile, to learn valuable lessons in a “natural” way—that is, relying on the child’s intrinsic motivation and using no explicit instruction. Everything in Rousseau’s model must simulate life and the child must work on his own conclusions following his own curiosity. The tutor is much more a guide—and, behind the scenes, an impresario—than a real teacher.

Following this procedure, lessons on magnetism and morality are woven into a magician’s act. Geography is taught by getting lost in the forest. Geometry is taught by attempting to draw and map. Botany and agriculture are taught through gardening. And so on, covering sciences, arts, and moral lessons. This way, Emile grows up into a competent, strong, and thoroughly honest boy with no social pretensions and no vanity whatsoever. At least, Rousseau assures us that this would be the result. By the time Rousseau takes Emile into Paris, as a young man, the student is disgusted at the foppery of the men, the arrogance of the philosophes, and the affected manners of the women.

More contentiously, Rousseau would not teach his pupil anything about God or religion until the age of eighteen, considering such subjects too abstruse and profound for a child to understand. He would not even teach Emile to read until shortly before that. And this is not all that occasioned scandal. Rousseau famously interrupts the story of Emile’s education to include the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, the most well-known, influential, and controversial section of the book. Though couched in the language of philosophy, the Profession is essentially an argument against both organized religion and atheism in favor of deism, based on feeling alone. Voltaire, a deist himself, considered this the book’s only worthwhile section, only lamenting that it has been written by “such a rascal.” It was largely this trenchant criticism of organized religion that led to the book getting banned and burned in Paris and Geneva. And yet, ironically enough, the idea that inner conviction is a surer basis for faith than logic was to become a pillar of religious thought in the coming centuries.

The last section of the book consists in finding a mate for Emile. This is by far the most unpleasant part of the book. Rousseau’s view on women and their upbringing is reactionary and sexist to the utmost, not to mention unpleasantly marred by Rousseau’s own sentimental (and sexual) fantasies regarding women. Rousseau’s ideal companion for his pupil is named Sophie, and her education differs markedly from Emile’s. Sophie is to be a kind of passive doll, a creature not fit for reason or art, whose job is to caress Emile and to make his life easier. Rousseau describes their courtship with the drama of a novelist and the passion of an onanist. Both the principles and the writing are revolting.

Finally, after enduring a forced separation for his beloved—a very unnatural thing for Rousseau to recommend!—Emile settles down happily in blissful union with Sophie, and prepared to educate his own children along Rousseau’s lines.

This summary does not exactly do justice to Emile, since it omits all of the manifold digressions that Rousseau yields to in the book’s wandering course. Some of these are among the best sections of the work; others are pointless rambling. Even when he is not off in the bushes, Rousseau can be very repetitive, giving us five sentences where one would do, spending three paragraphs harping on a minor point. The final result is a book much longer than it has to be. This is Rousseau’s most conspicuous stylistic flaw, which he excuses in typical Rousseau fashion: “If this book is to be well written, I must enjoy writing it.” Unfortunately the author’s pleasure is often gotten at the expense of the reader’s. Yet the book’s best moments are masterful, rising to heights of power and lyricism that cannot be forgotten. Immanuel Kant famously had to read the book twice, the first time just for the style, the second for the content.

The flaws in Rousseau’s ideas are many and grave. Most obviously, Rousseau’s educational program is impractical in the extreme, relying on a perfectly wise tutor to devote twenty years of his life to a perfectly malleable pupil. This may be excused, however, by treating the arrangement as an explanatory device and not a real proposal to be emulated. More seriously, Rousseau’s conviction that nature is intrinsically good is, I think, incorrect and even incoherent. Natural disasters, such as the Lisbon Earthquake in Rousseau’s own lifetime, demonstrate that nature can be cruel and merciless; and in any case, how can you know what nature is, or where nature ends and human culture begins? Besides, doesn’t Rousseau advocate many “unnatural” things? The level of control exercised by his tutor over his pupil’s reality is far greater than any real parent or teacher.

Yet even when strictly viewed as an educational treatise, there is much to be praised in the book. Rousseau’s emphasis on experiential rather than theoretical learning was quite valuable. And his conviction that education must take into account the child’s development and maturity was a revolution. I also share his suspicion towards using external rewards and punishments to motivate children, since the bad is avoided and the good is sought for artificial, rather than instrinctic, reasons.

Of course the book’s merits extend much further than education. Taken together, Rousseau’s philosophy touched on every aspect of society, from philosophy to fashion, from labor to love. For all his naïveté, Rousseau seemed to have correctly sensed that his society was artificial and could not last. Thirty years before the revolution, he says: “The crisis is approaching, and we are on the edge of a revolution.” And he then goes on in a footnote: “In my opinion, it is impossible that the great kingdoms of Europe should last much longer. Each of them has had its period of splendor, after which it must inevitably decline.” Like Thoreau, Rousseau was a prophet and a true original, embittered by being misunderstood, isolated, and ostracized, whose all-too-obvious faults concealed the revolutionary reach of his vision.

View all my reviews

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

The train from Vigo left the station, traveled around the bay’s edge, and then turned south on its voyage to Oporto. I was vainly trying to read Hegel. Through the window I could see the Galician landscape, green and woody; then the tracks took us along the ocean shore, showing us the waves lapping the sand. It was not a high speed train and so the relatively short voyage took three hours.

The border between Portugal and Spain is almost imperceptible. In the north it follows the path of the River Miño, a relatively small waterway that could never have been a serious impediment to travel. In the south, there isn’t even a river. It makes me wonder how such a notable contrast in culture and language arose in the first place.

Immediately across the border is the Portuguese town of Valença, which is known for its baroque fortress overlooking the river, bulwarked by polygonal walls and trenches. Further on we passed by the town of Barcelos, which has a well-preserved medieval center and bridge. Finally the train creaked to a halt in its final destination:


Oporto

With around 300,000 inhabitants, Oporto is the second-largest city in Portugal and the urban center of the country’s northern half. Its real name in Portuguese is Porto. “O” is the Portuguese word for “the,” and “porto” means “port,” so that the name “Oporto” is just “the port” mistakenly transcribed. In any case, the name is appropriate, considering that the city’s maritime orientation. Situated along the banks of the River Douro, the fishing and shipping industry have been important to the city since Roman times.

oporto_bridge

The most beautiful views of the city are to be found along this river, as the banks slope steeply down to the water, and the city follows like tumbling dice. Across this divide the two halves of the city are connected with a series of towering bridges. Among the newer bridges is the Arrábida Bridge, which had the biggest concrete arch in the world when it opened in 1963 (I don’t know what has surpassed it); and there is the sleekly modern São João railroad bridge, which eschews the arch for a wavy line suspended on two pillars.

But the most beautiful bridge in Oporto is the Ponte Dom Luis I. This bridge is sometimes confused with the nearby Maria Pia Bridge—a railroad bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel—and for good reason, since the two look very similar. This is not accidental, of course, since the Ponte Dom Luis I was designed by the engineer Théophile Seyrig, one of Eiffel’s disciples. The main difference between Seyrig’s bridge and Eiffel’s is the former’s lower deck; and this feature is extremely convenient, since it means that pedestrians and drivers near the river don’t have to ascend the banks to use the bridge. This was the second innovative bridge I have seen by one of Eiffel’s disciples, the first being the Vizcaya Bridge near Bilbao. Both of these, as well as Eiffel’s own bridge, are models of elegant design, combining function and style.

Oporto_pontedomluis

At the time the bridge was completed, it was the largest of its type in the world; and still today it is an impressive structure, standing 85 meters (279 feet) tall. Nowadays cars (and people) can cross the Ponte Dom Luis I on the lower deck, while the upper deck is reserved for pedestrians and the tram. The top of the bridge offers, without a doubt, the best view of the city, showing the antique city center crowded along the riverbanks, their orange roofs glowing in the sunlight, while ships cruise by in the sparkling water below. On one side of the river, a medieval wall still clings to hillside; and beyond one can see the tower of Oporto’s cathedral, and the still more impressive Clérigos Tower in the distance. The courtyard of Serra do Pilar monastery presides over the bridge’s other end, creating a satisfying symmetry.

oporto_bridgeview1

Torre_de_los_Clérigos,_Oporto,_Portugal,_2012-05-09,_DD_01
Photo by Diego Delso; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Oporto has much to offer in the way of churches. The city’s cathedral is a sparse but elegant Romanesque structure, with a narrow nave supported by a barrel vault. Not far from here is the Church of Santo Ildefonso, with a façade of the blue tiles that are such a pleasing aspect of Portuguese architecture. The aforementioned Clérigos Church sits on a narrow block; and though its ornate Baroque decoration is impressive, it is hard to pay attention to anything but its massive bell tower on its back end, so tall as to be visible from many points of the city. But any list of churches is bound to come up short; every time I walked to a new part of town, I was surprised to find stately and grand church buildings.

One church does stick out in my memory, however, and that is the Church of São Francisco. From the outside it does not look like much: a sliver of gothic windows can be seen on the other side, from the Infante Dom Henrique Garden, while the entrances of the building complex are all crowded around a little square. Nevertheless, this modest structure is the best-preserved gothic building in the city, which is one of the reasons it was designated as UNESCO World Heritage.

The church’s somewhat unassuming exterior gives way to a detonation of art once the pilgrim passes through the door. Here Baroque is triumphant, covering every surface with intricate designs and elaborate sculptures, flowering forth like spring trees. Every altar showcases a cacophony of forms, overwhelming the viewer with fine details; my favorite is the magnificent altar showing the Tree of Jesse, the family tree extending from the father of King David down to the Virgin. I can understand why some may be put off by the richness of the decoration; but I am always impressed by such excess. The eye struggles in vain to take it all in; and finally I turn away, defeated.

Oporto_Chapel

Another unforgettable section of the church are its crypts. Wealthy patrons of the Franciscan Order (to whom this church belonged) chose to be buried here, in catacombs accessible through an adjacent building. It is an eerie space, shadowy and cold, illuminated by fiery yellow lights. Most hair-raising are the piles of human bones visible through openings in the floor. These are the common graves of the Franciscan brothers, I believe, accumulated over hundreds of years.

The Church of São Francisco was originally part of a convent, complete with an adjoining cloisters; but during Portugal’s Liberal Wars (1828-34), a fire destroyed most of the convent. This unfortunate destruction at least allowed space for the city’s Commercial Association to build their lovely Palácio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, in its place.

The neoclassical building that now stands is a veritable church of finance. To visit one must join a guided tour, which is no bad thing; my guide did an excellent job explaining the history and art of the structure. We began in the Patio das Nações, or the Courtyard of Nations, so-called because of the paintings of the coats-of-arms of various countries with which Portugal does business. On one wall I even spotted the eagle of the United States. As in a real palace, every room, even the stairwell, is lavishly decorated; yet unlike a palace, the iconography is calculated to glorify commercial exploits. Here we can see, manifested in stucco and stone, the wealthy bourgeois usurping royalty as the dominant force in the country.

I particularly remember the Sala das Assembleias, the merchant equivalent of the throne room, all of it decorated in fake lacquered wood (actually the “wood” is painted on) and filled with elegant furniture. Yet the most marvelous room in the building is without doubt the Arab Room, an enormous space whose walls are decorated in a Neo-Mudéjar style, imitating the stucco patterns of the Alhambra, yet adding ostentatious colors to the mix. If the Commercial Association wanted to impress visitors with their splendor, they did an excellent job.

Arab Room
Photo by Josep Renalias; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

If you have even a passing taste for wine, it is criminal to visit Oporto without going to at least one winery. The city is, of course, the home and namesake of Port wine; and there are several well-known wineries located across the river. In case you are not familiar with Port, this is a dark, red, and sweet fortified wine—about 20% alcohol by volume—that is normally drunk with dessert.

This wine has historically been very popular in England, largely thanks to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which lowered import tariffs on Portuguese products while war with France made French vintages an impossibility across the channel. For this reason, too, some of the most prominent Port companies are owned by British families, such as the one I visited, Taylor’s. The visit consisted of a self-guided tour, with a tasting at the end. What most sticks out in my memory were the photographs of the terraced banks of the River Douro, the mighty river whose misty climate provides the home for the grapes.

oporto_bodega

The most famous dish of Oporto is the francesihna, which must be seen to be believed. Though its name means “little Frenchie” in Portuguese, it is neither little nor French. It is a double-decker sandwich, whose bread struggles to contain ham, sausages, and roast pork. Smothered with melted cheese, and perhaps a fried egg for good measure, the sandwich is then bathed in a tomato-beer sauce and placed in a bed of French fries, where it awaits its fate. By happenstance I stumbled upon a small restaurant called Bufeta Fase, which has great reviews and correspondingly great francesihnas. When I went the place was full of Portuguese people, which is a good sign.

francesihna

My belly full of port and francesihna, I felt that I had better take a long walk. I decided that I would try to go all the way from the city center to the ocean port, following the course of the river. This course led me through the most attractive neighborhood in the city, the Ribeira, full of colorful houses arranged in a jumble along the river. On the other side of the river you can see some of the old boats that were used to transport the wine in the days before technology made our lives easier and less romantic. Nowadays the main cargo transported on the River Douro are tourists on ferries.

The walk to the port is long and passes through some nondescript areas, until gradually the city simmers down into town, and the ocean begins to take shape before you. Eventually I was walking past small houses and docks full of personal fishing boats. The other side of the port is dominated by an attractive sandy bay, now a natural park. I arrived at the Carneiro beach just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, lighting up the ocean a fiery red. I walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a boardwalk that extends like a concrete arm into the water, and then turned wearily back home. Now I had to do it all in reverse.

Oporto_sunset

This concluded my time in Oporto. As an afterthought, I would also like to include a note on the Portuguese language. Etymologically and grammatically, it is the closest Romance language to Spanish. For this reason any Spaniard can read basic Portuguese with little trouble. But spoken Portuguese—at least in Portugal—could hardly be more distinct. Indeed, to an untrained ear it hardly sounds like a Romance language at all, but rather Slavic, not only in its consonants and vowels, but even its spoken rhythm.

Apparently one reason for this perceived difference is because the Portuguese spoken in Portugal (as opposed to that spoken in Brazil) is stress-timed, which means that unstressed syllables are deemphasized so preserve a fairly constant gap between stressed syllables; whereas Spanish is a syllable-timed language, so every syllable, stressed or unstressed, takes up roughly the same amount of time. English is a stress-timed language, too, which perhaps helps to explain why Portuguese people are notably better than the Spanish at speaking English. I have had no trouble getting by in Portugal using English; even in small shops outside the city center people have spoken remarkably well. I have also been told that, unlike the Spanish, who often dub movies and shows, the Portuguese watch everything with the original audio—which would help explain the performance gap.

I also must note that, as soon as the you get out of the tourist center, you can still see signs of Portugal’s economic crisis. Buildings are in poor repair or entirely in ruins, and the streets are seldom buzzing with life. The recovery has been slow indeed. And when you see that, behind the numbers and charts, there are ordinary people who have suffered from the downturn, you can get a sense of the anger and despair that the institutional status quo can engender.


Aveiro

Having some extra time in Oporto I decided that I would venture out and explore a smaller town. This led me to Oporto’s central train station, São Bento, which is itself worth visiting for the tile-work in the main lobby depicting scenes from Portuguese history. My destination was Aveiro, recommended to me by a Spanish teacher.

Aveiro

The city of Aveiro is largely famous for its canals, which is why it has been nicknamed the “Venice of Portugal.” These waterways are a pretty sight, with colorful gondolas cruising by, each of them filled with tourists covered in baseball caps and sunglasses, snapping photo after photo. Even without the canals, the town would be attractive for its many colorful tiled building—a style called “azulejo,” which combined form and function, since the tiles decorate while helping to keep the building cool.

Aveiro_azulejo
The Aveiro train station, an example of azulejo decoration

With a busy and beautiful port, and a thriving tourist industry, Aveiro is one of the most affluent areas in the country. The economy is quite diversified, as many locals work in salt extraction plants; and the city also contains one of Portugal’s more important universities. In many ways the city is an oasis.

Nevertheless I managed to get into a sour mood shortly after I arrived. Though I love to travel, the sight of shops selling tourist knickknacks, the sound of American families bickering as they walk by, the overpriced and inauthentic restaurants with gaudy décor, the attractions that entertain but do not instruct—in short, travel conceived of alternately as a resort or as an amusement park—makes me feel bitter and out of place. Unless I am learning something, then it is hard for me to justify going to another country; if I want fun, I might as well stay at home and have a beer.

I cannot say that this sour mood is either fair or rational; nor is it pleasant. To escape from the crowds and clear my head, I walked out towards the port. This has been divided with a series of narrow land-bridges, making the area into a kind of marsh, with pockets of water divided like fields of wheat. Frankly I don’t know the purpose of this arrangement; but the result is fascinating and beautiful.

I kept walking and walking, until I lost myself in the labyrinths of land and water. There were little buildings out in these marshes, and a few old boats floating in the water; yet nobody seemed to be around. Soon I was so far out that I could forget about Aveiro. A peaceful silence hung in the atmosphere. The air was clear, except for swarms of tiny, harmless gnats that buzzed in circles to no apparent purpose. As I rounded a bend I was surprised to find a flock of flamingos lounging in the water. They were no less surprised to find me, and soon took off, flapping their enormous wings with impressive alacrity, disappearing from sight in a matter of seconds. They are magnificent beasts.

aveiro_flamencos

The further out I went, the more elated I felt, savoring the joy of being alone with nature. Yet my joy turned to anxiety as I began to worry that I couldn’t find my way back. A few wrong turns led me to dead ends, where the land bridges terminated in water, forcing me to retrace my steps through the tall grass. A couple times I missed my footing and almost slipped into the water. I imagined what the news would say if I drowned in the marshes of Aveiro: “Dumb American Tourist Gets Lost in Portuguese Bay.”

After three or four moments of fear, despair, and self-reproach, I successfully retraced my own steps and found my way back to solid land. Refreshed, rejuvenated, and greatly relieved, I walked back to the train station to get back to Oporto. Do not let my sour mood dissuade you. Aveiro is a beautiful place, both the town itself and the surrounding area.

This was my final day of Holy Week vacation. The next day I flew back to Madrid, and to work, feeling more at peace than I have ever felt before or since.

Nothing to Lose in Toulouse

Nothing to Lose in Toulouse

I went to Toulouse because the flight was cheap. I had a long weekend in mid-May—thanks to the local fiesta—and nothing planned; so I checked Skyscanner for the cheapest flights available. Toulouse was the clear winner. Off to France I went.

One reason the flight was cheap is because Toulouse is so close to Spain, about two hours by car from the Pyrenees. Perhaps another reason is that the city is the center of Europe’s aerospace industry. Why this should be, I cannot say, but Toulouse hosts the headquarters of several prominent companies and is at the center of the so-called Aerospace Valley in southern France. The fourth-largest city in the country, Toulouse is also an administrative center, being the capital of Occitanie. This region of France has historically been quite linguistically diverse, incorporating French speakers, Catalan speakers, and also Occitan speakers (sometimes called langue d’oc). It is a city with a past and a future.

A metro helpfully connects the airport to the city center, making the journey into town painless and even pleasant. Getting to and from the airport can sometimes be a headache—either expensive, convoluted, or both—so it is a relief when the authorities remove this obstacle. From there I still had quite a walk, however, since in the interest of cheapness—my guiding angel—I booked an Airbnb far outside of the center. Admittedly, I could have taken a bus; but the weather was nice and I felt like seeing the town.

The walk led me up an attractive avenue, under a triumphal arch, and into a little park, where there is a charming fountain featuring the dashing Pèire Godolin, an Occitan poet from the sixteenth century. From here I still had a long ways to go, passing through the city center, over the lovely Garonne River, and then over a little canal. Proceeding on this way, I could see why Toulouse is called “The Pink City” by the French, since so many buildings use distinctive, pinkish bricks.

toulouse_statue

Upon arrival, I discovered that my host did not speak a word of English. As my French is similarly nonexistent, I expected conversation to be pretty stale. But with the aid of Google translate he invited me to have dinner with him and his sister. I accepted, and spent the meal eating, drinking, and smiling, while the two of them talked. It was surprisingly enjoyable. He even invited me for dinner the next day, which proceeded in a similar fashion. My initial discomfort from being unable to communicate turned into real delight in the food and company, and shame for not being able to properly express my thanks for such generosity.

When I woke up the next day, my host was in the living room watching TV. Emmanuel Macron was taking part in the inauguration ceremonies. To the world’s relief, he had just beaten Marine Le Pen and her National Front party, stemming the tide of right-wing populism. Though ignorant of his politics, I was happy to see the young man stepping up to France’s highest office. My host seemed ambivalent; he did not like Le Pen, but he wasn’t too keen on Macron either.

Toulouse_Basilica

Toulouse_basilicainside

I first visited the city’s most iconic monument, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. This is a massive hulk of a building; indeed it is the biggest Romanesque building in the world. For many reasons, Romanesque architectural methods are not as conducive to tall buildings as Gothic techniques. The barrel vault and the rounded arch do not distribute weight as efficiently as their Gothic counterparts; and no flying buttresses help to support the weight of the walls. Nevertheless, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin rivals any gothic cathedral in its dimensions. The bell-tower is especially impressive, standing 64 meters (over 200 feet) above the ground, on five levels of arches. Perhaps the church was built on such a large scale is because of the many pilgrims who stopped here on the Camino de Santiago, of which Toulouse was an important stop; indeed its historic connection with that pilgrimage is why the basilica was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Toulouse_church

Toulouse’s cathedral is a far less majestic structure. Formed from the unification of two incomplete churches, everything about the structure is irregular. The floorplan does not follow the usual cruciform since the two axes are out of alignment. Styles juxtapose, sometimes discordantly, both inside and outside the cathedral; and the visitor is left a little puzzled. Much more pleasing is the Church of the Jacobites. Its influential design uses brick walls and central columns, which branch out like palm trees into the ribbed vaulting, to support the tall roof. Its gaping stained-glass windows provide the space with an ethereal glow. For a price the visitor can visit the peaceful cloisters next door. Though I did not know it at the time, the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, the famous theologian, are located here.

One thing I soon noticed—and then cursed—is that food in France is notably more expensive than it is in Spain. This is true in Toulouse, even though it is so close to the border, and even though many of the ingredients in the supermarkets come from Spain. I suppose taxes must be the explanation. Indeed, it was not very far from here, at Le Boulou, where angry French vinters (perhaps inspired after having read A Tale of Two Cities) stopped trucks transporting Spanish wine and spilled it onto the highway. Spain has very low taxes on wine, and fewer restrictions regarding the production of it, which is why it is so much cheaper. The Gallic wine makers considered the competition unfair, and did what all oppressed French people do: make the streets run red. In any case, for those looking for an affordable but elegant French meal, the Restaurant Le May is the best choice that I found in Toulouse.

If you have not eaten too much, you can pass the time by walking through the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s attractive central park. Another pleasant walk is along the city’s Canal de Brienne, attractively shaded with rows of trees.

Toulouse_bridgewater

Perhaps the nicest walking area along the Garonne River, observing the pretty brick buildings and their watery reflections. I spent some time sitting on the park by the water, trying to get through Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History; and I am happy to report that the pleasant surroundings helped to offset the boredom induced by the book’s dry tone. From the riverside you can also observe the city’s attractive Pont Neuf, or “new bridge”—which is not very new, considering it was built 500 years ago. One thing from the riverside that particularly sticks out in my memory is a public toilet that completely washed itself after every use. Once the door was shut, it would lock, and swishing and spraying sounds could be heard on the other side. After about three minutes it would unlock, and the visitor could step into a sterilized and slightly wet bathroom. The future is here.

The benefits of visiting a city that is not a major tourist destination is that you see more snatches of daily life. Walking along one day, I stumbled upon a kind of public exercises routine, with a woman on stage guiding a crowd of people through calisthenics. Such things remind me of those silly eighties dancercise videos—either that, or the scene in 1984 when Wilson has to do coordinated exercises with the telescreen. Later that day, as I walked in a park along the river, I noticed that someone had set up loudspeakers and couples were engaged in ballroom dance. Without a partner, I did not join in. At dinner with my host, as he was in the kitchen preparing lasagna, one of his friends started on a passionate declaration of her love of electronic music, and promptly turned on her music to full volume. This was fine with me, since I could barely understand what anyone said anyway.

Though I had plenty of time in Toulouse, I did not exhaust everything there is to see. My major regret is not going to the Hôtel d’Assézat, a beautiful Renaissance palace that houses the Bemberg Foundation. This is an art gallery formed from the private collection of Georges Bemberg, a wealthy so-and-so who had a fine eye in addition to a deep purse. Among the works on display are some by Titian, Tintoretto, Picasso, Braque, and Signac. If I am ever in the neighborhood again I will be sure to visit.

But I did visit one museum that far exceeded my expectations: the Musée des Augustins. Its name comes from the building’s history as an Augustine monastery. The secularizing turmoils of the French Revolution put an end to that; and shortly thereafter, in 1801, it became a museum, displaying a collection that mostly came from confiscated monasteries. While this was undoubtedly unfortunate for the monks, it has benefitted the tourist, since now there is a large museum in a historical building in the heart of the city.

The museum itself is attractive for its gothic architecture and its cloisters wrapping around green gardens. Its extensive collection consists of both sculpture and painting. Personally I found the former to be more impressive, especially the Romanesque works on display. Indeed, I would rank the Musée des Augustins along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, in Barcelona, for the quality and quantity of Romanesque sculpture. The Occitan and Catalan region is particularly rich in this style, it seems.

Toulouse_dogs

My favorite room in the museum is the one exhibiting Romanesque capitals. Each one stands on a pillar, at eye level; and over each a glass light hangs down. I spent about twenty minutes in the room, examining each one, savoring the powerful simplicity of the sculptures. Western art most closely approached Mesopotamian during this time, with stylized figures and symbolic poses, each one a blend of decoration, poetry, and architecture. There are intricate patterns made from vegetable and animal motifs; there are religious figures, like the apostles and the Virgin; and there are scenes from life—people eating, playing instruments, rowing a boat. On these capitals an entire way of life and worldview seems to be inscribed.

Toulouse_capital

There are some fine gothic sculptures on display as well. My favorite is the long row of gargoyle dogs, standing along a hallway, who seem to be howling into infinity. In another room is a collection of surprisingly lifelike figures, who are dressed in typical Medieval European clothes, even though they are supposed to represent Biblical personages. In a wide room, which I believe used to hold a church, there are dozens of works on display—tombs, busts, and bronze casts. Here the Virgin sits with Christ, there St. Michael is smiting Satan, and over here Mercury is delivering a message.

Toulouse_gothicstatues

After such an embarrassment of riches, I hardly expected to find such an enormous painting gallery. As in the Louvre, the paintings cover the walls up the ceilings, meaning that many are far above eye-level. This makes for an impressive first-glance, but detracts from the experience of the art. Though the collection is extensive, and includes works from Dutch, Italian, and Spanish painters, what most sticks out in my memory are the many neoclassical French paintings to be found. Typically I find these paintings charming but forgettable; though some rise beyond this, such as Jean-André Rixens’s Death of Cleopatra.

800px-Death_of_Cleopatra_by_Rixens

This wraps up my visit to Toulouse. The next day I woke up very early, walked through town—over the canal, through the park, down the lane—back to the metro stop to take me back to the airport. As I watched the French countryside recede from the plane window, feeling happy and satisfied, I decided that Toulouse would still be worth visiting even if the flights weren’t quite so cheap.